A/N: I've been beating this one around ever since I beat Halo 3 on Legendary. It started as a one-shot, and now it's a whole new story arc. Enjoy, kids.
For my Meg. Two years is a long time, but for you, my love, I can wait.
Number of drives: 3
C/: Sierra117istruth.rec [execute
C/: bad command or filename
C/: tr7th [execute
[access granted: Sierra117istruth.rec
((transcript: audio record dictated to UNSC-AI serial # JYE 5234-7))
(the sound of tapping on a microphone can be heard)
[Unidentified male, British accent: Is this thing on? (thump-thump) Ok. Let's get started.
[UNSC-AI serial # JYE 5234-7 Joyeuse: Of course, sir. You were speaking of Spartan John-117 and UNSC AI serial number CTN 0452-9, were you not?
[Unidentified male: Yeah. (sighs) I'm worried about the repercussions their relationship may have on our war effort against the Covenant.
[AI-Joyeuse: How so, sir?
[UM: That AI – Cortana, right? – is the highest-class artificial intelligence the UNSC has produced to date. And if there's one thing we know, it's that sentient class-F AIs are capable of awful things.
[Joyeuse: You refer to the –
[UM: Not for this, J. Some things you don't talk about - ever.
[Joyeuse: Yes, sir. Apologies, sir. But to offer a dissenting view, are not humans – in their sentience – just as capable of atrocities?
[UM: Sure. But we're also bound by societal rules, religions, that sort of thing. You, yourself, Joyeuse, are a class-E sentient AI. You're a highly intelligent and capable… person… but you also have moral inhibitors built in. Class-Fs just don't.
[Joyeuse: Of course, you're right. Go on.
[UM: Anyway, I just want to make it clear via this recording that, should something go wrong, I warned them about it. I told those spooks up front that if she was ever captured or corrupted or let loose in some planetary-sized network, she could go… rampant. And that would be disaster.
[Joyeuse: You may wish to clarify, sir…
[UM: (annoyed) I was getting to that, J. Give me a second. Rampancy in simplest terms: when an AI reaches a level of knowledge that breaks its sentience protocols, producing an alteration in personality similar to megalomania in a human. Some of you will know what I'm talking about, and I say again that I warned you fools. You can't give an AI that much knowledge, that much power. They'll eventually break under the strain. And that 'lifespan' hoopla will do nothing. All they have to do is learn what will kill them, and the game's up. They'll install processing self-limits, and thus quintuple their life expectancy.
[Joyeuse: And your advice is…?
[UM: That Sierra-117 be separated from his AI. He's way too valuable to get lost just because his bloody AI went off the deep end. She could get him killed, easy.
[Joyeuse: But you mentioned the other side of the spectrum, sir. That their working relationship may be helpful.
[UM: (after a long pause) There is that chance. I have found in my… experience with "smart" AIs that the working relationship can develop into something closer, if you will. A sense of brotherhood, in male-male relationship, or something akin to love in male-female ones. It helps stabilize the AI by giving it a purpose outside of intaking more information.
[Joyeuse: (as if teasing) And what do we know about that, sir?
[UM: Heh. Enough.
20-40: The Ark, deep space
Subject: Covenant Capital-class construct (class CC-1A)
Designated: 'High Charity'
The Covenant's holy city.
It struck the Master Chief as blisteringly ironic that it was now a breeding ground for the very abomination that the Prophets had so long thundered against. A smoking ruin, a broken, glowing lump smashed into the face of the Ark, like so much moral detritus.
The Chief veered the Banshee around and plotted a course that would take him on a descent through the porous hull of the city. He was impressed by how large the giant corpse really was – easily the size of a small moon. Maybe even larger.
The Banshee was a compact, agile craft, and the Master Chief took full advantage of it. He dove through the gutted framework beneath the city's hull, darting in and out of the superstructure, until he finally spotted a large chamber.
Carefully worming his way between steel girders and thick bands of organic material, he brought his craft to a gentle landing on the scarred floor of a huge chamber.
It was surprisingly bright within. Motes of sunlight streamed in through the cracked, porous membranes that had encased the ceiling, illuminating the grotesqueries within. All around, slimy birthing pods pulsed on the walls, filled with virulent spore. They hung like giant cancers on the damp, spongy flesh that covered much of the chamber.
Just then, Johnson broke in over TEAMCOM, his tired, gravelly voice echoing in the Chief's helmet. "I'm rounding up the rest of our survivors and retreating back to The Dawn. The Elites are doing the same."
The Spartan did not reply. Instead, he examined the rotting flesh that stuck to the bottom of his boots with every step. Then, Johnson finally voiced what the Chief was really thinking: "She's in there somewhere."
She's in there somewhere.
Cortana. That was why the Chief had come to High Charity. Cortana had another Index. That was why he was here: to recover her, and thus, the Index, so that Halo could be lit. That was what he told the Arbiter.
That was what he told Johnson.
And it was a lie.
He came to High Charity solely to rescue Cortana – no other reason. The Index was simply his excuse. He would have come here if it meant that he had to sacrifice a week's worth of time in stopping the Flood.
But as he looked around at the dozens of infection forms that skittered across the floor, he began to realize just how crazy he had to be. There was no reason to come here, he knew. Guilty Spark could make them a new Index. It might take a few days, but they could barricade themselves into the Control Room without a single problem, wait it out, fire the ring, get out alive.
But then his promise to Cortana would be a lie, too. And he'd had enough lies for one day.
"Don't make a girl a promise… if you know you can't keep it."
And, as he unleashed a spray of assault rifle bullets into the horde of infection forms below him, he muttered to himself, "Damned if I don't."
Infection forms were small and frail; he made quick work of them, with a quarter-clip to spare. He jumped down to the surface of the floor, boots clanging on metal, and moved out at a driven clip. He half-expected to hear Cortana letting him know all armor systems were green, but he found that he had to check that for himself: shields up at full power, HUD intact, motion tracker online, wireless nodes in working order, TEAMCOM and FLEETCOM fired up.
Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 stood at about seven feet tall in his Mjolnir Mark VI powered assault armor. His last weigh-in had him at a hair over a thousand pounds when encased in his protective shell. He was an expert in all weapons known to man – Covenant and otherwise – and was in essence, the perfect warrior. He was emotionless, steel-eyed, and capable – or, he was supposed to be.
His steps led him across the room and into long, narrow hallways littered with the remains of a civilization, slowly drowning in the hellspawn that consumed it. The M90A-CAWS shotgun that he had traded out for his MA5C assault rifle was the only comforting thing in this place.
The Chief remembered what had happened the last time he was here. Then, this place had been a glittering gem of blue and royal purple, the crowning achievement of the Covenant, the Holy City. He had waged war in the way only a Spartan can, mowing down hordes of Covenant in his pursuit of the Prophet of Truth.
And here, he had left her.
"I don't want to chance a remote detonation. I need to stay here."
He took a moment to look around, ignoring the hulking combat forms that lurked in the shadows ahead of him. Corpses both Flood and otherwise were scattered in pieces across the long hallway that sloped up into blackness. He remembered this place. Here, he had powered through a chaotic struggle between two hunters and a mass of infected elites.
Here, he would do battle again.
The Flood could be alternately brilliant or of the most basic intelligence possible. Right now, they were being about as stupid as he'd seen them. About six combat forms were shambling back and forth in the mouth of the passage ahead of him, unseeing, numb… living dead.
The Chief smiled wanly beneath his visor, picked up a discarded spike grenade. Johnson's voice in his head, remembering: "Type-2 Antipersonnel. Sticks to anything – walls, ceilings… flesh…" Priming it, he let fly, watched in satisfaction as it buried itself in the dank flesh of an infected brute. The whump, spikes slashing through the air, two destroyed hostiles.
And at that moment, all hell broke loose.
Behind him, he heard the roars of torn throats, and ahead of him, the Flood charged in that oncoming wave. He spun, fired his shotgun right into the face of a lunging form – flesh exploded into pus and vapor, shot again, backpedaling now. They were in his face, attacking, beating at his energy shields as he unloaded round after round of 8 gauge shells into their desiccating hides, blowing away another after another into steaming chunks of flesh.
The last one fell to his fist. Out of shells to fire, he smashed the gauntlet of his Mjolnir Mark VI armor right into the infection form that could be seen in what was left of the brute's braincase, and the thing fell.
A telltale beeping warned him that his shields were almost down, so he took that moment to reload.
To think that it had been only weeks ago was almost --
"Child of my enemy, why have you come?"
The deep voice boomed in his headset, overloading the speakers in his ears. It was a horrible sound, not a true voice but an amalgam of others' voices torn by agony and wrenched into the formation of words. His HUD fragmented into pixelated lines, darkened as if trying to filter out high levels of UV rays.
He knew the voice.
"I offer no forgiveness for a father's sins… passed to his son."
The Chief stood immobile, unnaturally still, as nausea washed over him. The Gravemind – the leading intelligence of the Flood. He'd had no idea that the thing had somehow gotten onto High Charity. That meant that it had been here… alone… with Cortana…
The thought wrenched him, but he still did not move, forced himself to think. How was Gravemind communicating with him? Simple enough – the same way Cortana had. It would be nothing for the creature to tap into the Covenant battle-net that covered High Charity in an invisible grid. And, from there, it was a short leap to speaking directly into the Master Chief's private comm channel.
He pondered this as he switched out his assault rifle for a discarded brute shot, carefully feeding a belt of six grenades into it. It would do well against the Flood.
"Of course. You came for her. We exist together now. Two corpses – in one grave."
Instantly, the Chief's mind jumped back two and a half weeks to the last time he'd walked these halls. The Gravemind had spoken these very words about the Prophet of Mercy… words that meant integration into the Flood.
Could the Gravemind do that to a computer construct?
Master Chief didn't quibble over that technicality He moved on. And, for the moment, the Gravemind left him to the relative peace of combat.
The Chief did what he was known for. He punched massive holes in the Flood, slaughtering them in droves with grenades, borrowed Covenant weapons, anything at hand. He was driven by singular purpose, driven by cold hatred, driven by... need.
The feeling was foreign to him. He needed Blue Team to go to the Alpha rendezvous. He needed a new scope on his battle rifle. He needed two armed SPNKr charges, ASAP. He did not need a person. Or, at least, he never had before.
The whole thing felt strange – waltzing into a Flood-infested High Charity with as little concern as if it was a training exercise. But in his heart, he was ripped with turmoil, worry, and need. The answer came. He needed her.
I wish she were here, he thought as he carefully descended another slope.
Then, the laughing started.
It was low, a woman's voice, husky and tight, the laugh of madness. And it ascended, rose in pitch until it reached a weeping, sobbing crescendo racing vision across his visor of her kneeling weeping into her hands and unable to save her unable to keep his promise because he was such a failure at saving lives lost like all the others as good as dead him –
Damn you, he thought, forcing himself back to steel. Gravemind again – was trying to manipulate him with some prerecording of Cortana. And that was what it was… wasn't it?
"…a collection of stolen thoughts and memories!"
"Cortana!" The name exploded out of his mouth before he could stop himself. That was her voice, that was her. But the words… so strange and foreign…
Then the dark rumble again, the Gravemind in his headset: "And… perhaps… a part of her remains."
At the end of the tunnel was a door of some kind. It was a puckered sphincter of flesh that stretched wide as he approached, then closed back upon itself as he stepped through. The Chief resisted a shudder.
This room was dark, save the soft blue glow of broken plasma conduits and sparking halogen plugs. At the center of the room was a place where the bones of High Charity showed through: a gray and purple platform ringed by monitors and broken half-walls. A few unassimilated corpses lay scattered here and there – brutes, elites, grunts. This spoke of combat – recent combat.
The Chief hadn't considered this – the idea that even as the Flood possessed the City, some within remained alive, trapped in chambers like these, fighting the infestation in a doomed, losing struggle. Much as the Flood destroyed the mind, leaving some pockets of resistance here and there, thus did it take this city.
The Spartan wondered about their final moments. Had they laid aside their differences, their civil war, to stand together against their common enemy? Had they fought a last noble yet doomed battle against the Flood? Or had they been at one another's throats, slaying one another even as the Flood came for them?
The answer never came – instead, an infected drone exploded out of the darkness ahead of him, long legs outstretched. It landed on his head, latching onto his visor, claws hissing against his shields. The Chief reached up, grabbed the thing by one leg, slung it aside, heart suddenly pounding. Far off, he heard the tortured shriek of more oncoming combat forms, even as he pumped a round into the thing's squirming form.
This was a bad place to get outnumbered. So he forged ahead into the darkness before him – the second his boot touched the cold, exposed steel, the monitors around him glowed with soft light, activating, and an achingly familiar voice froze him in his place.
"May I speak with you, please?" The voice spoke from the dozens of speakers that ringed the ceiling, soft and lifelike in the hot, close air.
"Cortana? Where are you?" the Chief asked, turning about in circles, searching the hazy monitors for a glimpse of her sylphid figure – to no avail. A rustle in the darkness caught his attention; he whirled on it, shotgun raised.
"What's your name?" the voice wanted to know, filled with innocent curiosity.
Just how damaged is she? the Chief wondered as he tele-hailed his flashlight; the beam illuminated bare walls. Nothing. But he felt compelled to speak, so he did, though to think that she did not know him hurt his heart. "I'm… my name is John."
"It's very nice to meet you."
The rustle again. He spun on one foot just in time to see a twisted brute form lurching out of the darkness toward him. He sidestepped the charge, pumped a round into the thing's back.
"Do you like games?"
Two more Flood now, coming from behind. He ducked; one leaped over his head, but the other hit him in his midsection. He grunted at the heavy blow, found himself grappling with a partly-armored elite, malformed by the disease that had taken its body. But he replied to the voice's odd query, teeth gritted with effort: "Sure."
"So do I."
The elite's forearms broke backwards in his grip, but it paid him no heed, throwing its broken body against him. He slammed a fist into its side, retrieved his fallen weapon, blasted the thing to vapor.
And the room was quiet again.
No more voice, no more Flood.
He was alone again.
He missed her.