A/N: Why, yes, I am back! And yes, it was another unplanned and extended absence! Big surprise there, eh?

This is one of the longest chapters in terms of words that this story has seen thus far. It's the product of a few sleepless nights and some caffeine-fueled mornings, so there it is. It's starting to get complex, because now I've got five different arcs to work with, so bear with m - I promise it'll all start to get condensed within a few chapters. For now, it is what it is.

In the future, I will be translating all chapter titles in the subheading into English, so you can appreciate my bizarre and mostly unfunny sense of humor. But I'm still doing the French headers. It's like, a signature stupid Kavek thing. ;-)

Also, to Steven Pressfield: I beg your forgiveness, Great One!

Chapter 16:
Je Vous Crois, Mais j'Ai Peur que Mon Fusil Ne Soit pas d'Accord
OK, I Believe You, But My Assault Rifle Doesn't

Mendicant Bias drifted out of the shadows the second Jana disappeared into the trees. Briggs just stood there, still in shock, blood running through his BDU, trickling down his arm and over his chestplate. The Marine stood there for a moment, quiet in both mind and body, then suddenly staggered back and stumbled to his knees in pain. The knife was still protruding from his shoulder in the worst possible place, probably wedged into bone, and the pain was extraordinary. Almost frenzied by it, he grabbed the haft, gave it a slight twist to give himself purchase, then jerked it free.

Groaning, he reached back with his left hand and pulled a canister of biofoam out of his pack, stuck the nozzle into the hole. A moment of even sharper pain – then, relief as the morphine and hydrocodeine mix kicked in. He checked his pistol as he rose. No rounds were left in the magazine.

"Damn it."

Then, realizing that Jana had just run off with his ticket off of the Ark:

"Damn it!"

The Forerunner AI hummed to himself as he slipped out into the open. "Come," it said matter-of-factly. "We grow short on time. Gather your... incapacitated companion and let us be moving; I have no patience for these petty conflicts."

Briggs cast the AI an irritated glance. "Forget it," he said. "This isn't my mission. Besides, didn't the Chief make your objective the protection of that damned AI?" he snapped.

The AI was a bit taken aback. "The primary directive protocol for an artificial intelligence of my caliber is far too complex for you to understand." it replied, seemingly unconcerned, singularly focused. "Regardless, I would have you slain, but it would be far too much of an inconvenience to the Sentinels on the local register."

And with that, Mendicant Bias was gone.

Briggs hardly noticed. His mind was turning, flipping through his options with singular intent. Pursue – take revenge, get the computer, get the hell out of here. Or turn back – take his chances with Bauer. Damn. Neither looked good. But there was no way he was going back to that ONI spook without something in his hands. He would need Cortana. Only one way to get that done.

His gaze fell upon Sergeant Kramer's currently unconscious form, lying where he had fallen when Dari had crashed into him, and the same violent spirit suddenly came upon him.

In a rage, he grabbed his superior officer by the collar and jerked him up, slapping him across the face once, twice. "Wake up, wake up, wake up," he chanted under his breath as he shook the taller man.

Kramer came to out of a dark, pitiful dream, jerked once, twice, realized that he was being shaken. Eyes opened. Briggs noted this and threw the man to the ground, disgusted. "You worthless son-of-a-bitch," the marine growled softly.

Kramer blinked, opened his mouth, no, can't speak, wait, – the Ark and Briggs drew his gun on the computer – we flashbanged the door but they were there waiting on the other side and I didn't know – I didn't know – I'm sorry, didn't know... I didn't know...

The man tried to collect himself, breathed in, felt like he was back in ONI's camp, being probed, questioned over and over again, overwhelmed. "Briggs... dammit..."

"Get the hell up," Briggs snapped. "Our only shot of getting off this damned thing just ran off into the woods, and I'm wounded. Get your ass in motion!"

What are you going to tell their mothers, Don? "Oh, God..." Kramer murmured, lost, back on Atlas again. She had destroyed him. Taken him and broken his fragile mind into shards.

And where shall the final burial be for these lost sons? With what may they be raised on the last day?

Donald Kramer was not a wicked man by anyone's imagination. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, a victim to his own pride – though on a much larger scale. In contrast, the man who stood over him, Lance Briggs, was a whirling mass of wickedness with murder on his mind and in his heart; the two were not at all alike, and yet kindred in a way.

But now, Cortana's brutal attack had broken open the scars in Kramer's mind that could only come from a year and a half in the hands of ONI's very capable interrogators. He had snapped.

They had extracted every piece of information they could get out of his mind. Used him to test several psychological theories, then, when he became useless to them and the family began to ask questions, they patched up his broken mind and put him back on the battlefield as a shell of a man, propped up by the duties of his rank and the mindless work of killing. Waiting for the fatal words to be the end of him.

"Dammit," he said suddenly. And the word seemed to have an air of finality to it. Blankness.

Briggs jerked him to his feet, and Kramer felt the violence in him. "Let's get moving, Kramer! Damn you!"

The once-Sergeant grimaced. "Show some respect, Private," he growled, but the words had no teeth. Shock had set in – shock that he'd warded off for decades with the mindless, time-passing waste of a dead soul: drink, food, pleasure, battle, war. He had used them as his drugs, kept them in his system to keep his crippled mind sleeping, keep it back, hold it at bay.

Kramer tried to think through the images and memories that bombarded his mind. "We need to... Briggs, get your gear together. We need to get back to Agent Bauer -"

Briggs cut him off. "Don't pretend to give me orders, you son of a bitch. The rules, the regs? Forget them. You and I are gonna go after that whore and the grunt, get that AI, and bring it back."

Kramer stood silent for a long, dead moment. Dull anger bubbled in his chest, but pain and exhaustion swelled against it, cracking through his resolve. He just nodded, and let the floods in.

The dam had broken. And now, he followed blindly as Briggs double-timed into the jungle, carrying his assault rifle but not really feeling it because the only thing he could feel was the cold waste inside him.

The moment his physical body died was still down the road. He would eventually die a broken man, alone and friendless, but that remained to be seen.

Truly, though, he had perished the moment Cortana opened her mouth.

Rage claimed its first victim.

John winced with pity at the sound of Mendez's voice ringing through the canyon. The young Spartan knew anger when he heard it, particularly in the voice of his CO. He turned.

Ten feet down the slope, Kurt-051 was standing, shoulders braced beneath his full battle gear, facing Mendez. John couldn't see his compatriot's face, but he knew: Kurt was terrified. John snorted to himself quietly; Kurt was the odd duck among them, always friendly, always being personable, always distracted. Now his lack of discipline was catching up to him. John took a moment to assess what was going on – then he saw it.

They had been in the field for seven days with limited rations, marching through the high and dry air of the mountains of Reach. It was the peak of the dry season, only adding to the the heat of their drill. Kurt had taken off his helmet and sat it down at his feet while resting, waiting for Mendez's next order to move out.

One problem: they were supposed to be at full combat readiness for the entire eight day op. They were treating the maneuver as if it was actual combat, and Kurt had committed Mendez's cardinal sin.

Never take off your helmet.

"So," Mendez was asking, voice dripping with sarcasm, "What's this at your feet here?"

A moment of silence, of hesitation. The fear rolling off of Kurt was palpable. "Where's your answer, Spartan?" Mendez snarled.

"This is my helmet, sir," Kurt replied quietly.

"Ha! No way in hell that's a helmet!" Mendez laughed derisively. "Because not even the dumbest shit-eating rookie in the goddamn Marine Corps would take off his helmet in the middle of combat operations! This helmet is your life, Spartan! It's what identifies you to your teammates and protects you from your enemies!"

Another long moment of silence, and then, Mendez grinned. Even John, as far off as he was, could see: that was not a good smile. The thirteen-year old wondered at that. Mendez didn't have a good smile, as far as he knew.

"That's no helmet, no. That's a fecal collection unit, a goddamn chamber pot. Gotta be. No one would be so half-assed as to leave his helmet off in the middle of the field, in goddamn disgrace, just lying there brain-pan-up like a dead crab!"

Then, quietly: "It's a chamber pot. Fill it."

Kurt just stared for a moment, dumbfounded. Mendez, though shorter than the fourteen year-old boy, was a lot larger – but he didn't need to use his bulk to wield his authority.

"I didn't stutter, Spartan."

Kurt complied. But he had been in the mountains for seven days with barely a mouthful of water every morning, and his stream was pathetically weak. Mendez laughed again as if he'd completely flipped his shit.

"Spartans!" he called, turning and facing the entire team spread out on the hilltop. "Help your teammate out – you're a goddamn team, aren't you? Act like it!"

They all jumped to, hurrying from all sides. Male and female, they all awkwardly clustered on the upturned helmet and their weak streams of urine joined Kurt's, dark channels on the sweat-stained skull harness that trickled down the visor into the brainpan.

Then, Mendez made them line up and lay their helmets at their feet, including Kurt. The XO stood at one end of the line, almost shouting as they slowly began to stand abreast. "You can't seem to understand that you're all a team. One individual failure means the whole damn team might as well have failed, you hear me? You think the Rebels won't take advantage of one single mistake? They've been at this for decades. Don't think they can't rip you apart just because you've gotten some special attention!"

He stopped and seemed to consider something, remained silent for a moment as the Spartans finished lining up. A helmet lay at each one's feet. John had taken the second position in the line, right next to Kurt. He would have glanced back to see how his team was doing, but he refrained, knowing that he would only draw the wrath of Mendez.

The XO took a deep breath, and for a moment, he did not seem angry – only sad. "Kurt wasn't the one who failed here. You all did." Another pause. Then: "And I swear to God that you'll all learn."

They ran an exercise. Mendez drew his pistol – loaded with blanks, but still heavy – and double timed down the line, striking each Spartan across the head or face as they tried to bend, pick up their helmets and sinch them in place before he could strike. He would arrive almost halfway down the line before the butt of his pistol would strike nanite and ablative ceramic, so he'd cycle the line and start again, this time with the unlucky one who had gotten their helmet on at the last second, until each of them had bloody noses and dark bruises forming on their skin.

But the humiliation and the pain was melting and forging them, making them into a team. Making them into the Spartans they would become.

Even at thirteen, John understood this as he looked down at his feet into his helmet, looking at the trickle of blood that was pooling in the brain pan, dripping down from his damaged face. He looked left, looked right at the children – twelve, thirteen, fourteen - who bracketed him, and even through the pain he could feel nothing but pride.

John understood.

John looked back over his shoulder at his helmet, lying belly-up in the dirt of the cave of Rendezvous Point Theta, and remembered.

Mendez would kill me if he could see me now, he thought darkly. It was a crucial error. The Chief had no doubt that his fellow Spartan probably already had snipers moving into position, if they weren't already there. Damn. He'd not been cautious enough. He'd underestimated his enemy, and if he wasn't extremely careful, he would soon be paying the price. He had forgotten to play as part of a team.

"Look," Gene Roe muttered softly, bringing the Spartan back to reality. "They got us on all sides, now." The medic made a slight gesture to the north, but he seemed relatively unconcerned.

The Master Chief grunted. "Is there any other exit from the cave?"

Maximus nodded. "Indeed. I uncovered what looks like a maintenance port in the rear, as if for Sentinels."

"Good," the Chief replied, his mind quickly formulating a plan.

At this point, it didn't really matter how Jack had followed him. It vaguely occurred to the Spartan that he'd probably tracked Ulee, Roe, and Maximus on their way through the forest, but it was all a moot point.

He kicked his tactical mind into gear. What would Jack's next move be? He would absolutely have to capture John; otherwise, there was no way that Cortana could be guaranteed to be brought back intact. And John had a distinct feeling – instinct, as it were – that Jack would only strike a killing blow on the Chief if he had no other option.

If he assumed that there was no exit from their fortification, Jack might go for a frontal assault: bombard their position to make them keep their heads down while some elite group – ODSTs, maybe – moved forward on the ground to ascend the rockslide and make a capture attempt. Again, John was sure that he himself was in no immediate danger, but those around him... most certainly were.

But then again, that wasn't entirely like Jack. John knew his fellow Spartan well, and the overarching theme of Jack's domestic tactics was that he never played by the rules. Jack would exhaust every option possible to meet his ends, whether it was force or diplomacy. But then, Jack's intra-species strategy, as far as John knew, had always been straightforward: quick, brutal destruction coupled with an impressive grasp of just how to manipulate a situation to his will: the art of the contingency plan. And John knew nothing of how Jack conducted himself in the fields upon which ONI Zero had thrust him.

The question remained: which route would Jack take?

"Here's the plan," the Chief began. "Ulee and I will stay up here and hold Jack's attention for now." "Maximus," John said, catching the brute's attention. "You and Gene get into the maintenance tunnel and start moving. I don't care where it goes, just follow it. Stay left if you have to make a choice. We'll follow as soon as we're able."

"Very well," Maximus replied.

"The question is, will that little hole fit your fat ass?" Roe asked, grinning, as they turned to crawl away. Maximus snorted by way of reply.

John watched, tense, as the two slid back from the crest into the cave. There were undoubtedly several places on the hills beyond them from which a well-positioned sniper could hit them, but John hoped that they had gotten in gear before any could be in place.

After a moment of tension, the two cleared the open space and arrived in the mouth of the cave, Maximus leading, Gene Roe close behind. They were free and clear. But on his way out, the brute paused at John's helmet, and slid it back across the dirt to him.

John looked back, nodded his thanks, thought, A brute. Playing like a part of a team. Damn.

The brute pulled his lips back in a fierce imitation of a human grin, almost as if he'd heard the Spartan's thought. "Good luck, Demon," he chuckled, and disappeared into the darkness.

"India Bravo seven-niner to command. He's retrieved his helmet from the bee-kay. Should I take the shot, sir?"

Jack shook his head, tapped into TEAMCOM. "Negative, seven-niner. Too risky to the package. You are our last resort, are we clear?"

"Yes sir," came the subtly weary response.

Jack sighed. The understanding that this was supposed to be a capture operation rather than a kill-job was something he was having trouble communicating to the ODSTs under his command. They had not reacted well when a retrieval squad had brought back the bodies of the two Marines the Chief had offed in their mid-air battle. But Jack also knew that the prejudice there ran deep. The ONI agent planned on harnessing it... but first, it had to be brought under control.

Time to move, he thought. Jack turned to Sergeant Holmes, who was standing to his left. "Get me an open channel."

"What are they doing?" the Master Chief asked 'Dakol. The elite was still peering through the scope of his Stanchion sniper rifle, breathing soft and slow to keep his sights steady.

The elite sighed, frustrated. "There is movement amongst the trees. They stay just out of sight. I do not - hold... the leader emerges. A Marine is with him."

The Chief waited for more. It seemed that his prediction was playing out.

"They stand completely exposed. I have them in my sights... an easy kill," 'Dakol said, dropping his voice a full octave. The blood-hunger was easy to read.

John looked at him carefully. He had heard this voice before, the dark, tearing voice of the predator ready to strike. And as much as he longed for 'Dakol to pull that trigger, he had to wait. He had to hold out and wait for Jack to make his play. This was about buying time - and the more Jack gave them, the better.

Suddenly, a blue icon appeared on his HUD: a handshake protocol from a broadband open channel.

Jack. It had to be. Now for the play.

John tapped Ulee on the shoulder. "I'm getting hailed. Let me patch you in." The elite nodded once without looking away from his sights. John quickly calibrated their channel into a single circuit, saying, "This has got to be a ploy. Keep an eye out." He received a grunt as acknowledgement.

Then, taking a deep breath: "Sierra one-one-seven here. What do you want, Jack?"

"What do you want, Jack?"

The ex-Spartan almost sighed, but refrained. He had to put on the Negotiator now, play the distraction while his ODSTs got in position. Go for the jugular – both verbally and physically. So... start right off with pain.

"John. Why did you kill my men?" Jack asked quietly, knowing the guilt John had to feel over that. The emotions associated with the question would point John in a different mental direction.

At the other end of the channel, there was a long moment of silence. Then: "I didn't want to. You forced me."

Jack kept a straight face. The game was on. "John... before that happened, you could have just turned yourself in and I would have not said a word. But I have two dead men on my hands, and they have families, John. Those families are going to want to know why in the hell their fathers, husbands, brothers had to die. What am I going to tell them? Because the Master Chief wouldn't hand over a damned computer?"

More silence. Just the sound of the Chief breathing. Finally, a reply: "Cortana is not just a computer, Jack. She's just as much sentient as you or I."

Jack snorted with contempt; only half of it was a put-on for the game. "You can't be serious. Are you trying to tell me that you believe that the continued existence of this computer program is more important than the lives of the Marines that you just snuffed out?"

"I told you, Jack. HIGHCOM is wrong. She is not rampant – she's achieved sentiency; she's not a threat. Why are you wasting time chasing me when we could be working on the real problem here: stopping the Flood?"

Now it was Jack's turn to be silent. Upper-atmosphere scans from the Montana had indeed indicated that there were large amounts of abnormal thermal activity taking place on several of the upper ventral sectors of the Ark. The Flood was indeed drawing nearer with each passing hour, and Jack was certainly feeling the pressure of that. But then, that's what HAVOK tactical nukes were for. The securing of Cortana was the issue; the more quickly that could be accomplished, the sooner the Flood could be dealt with. Priorities.

"John, listen to me. I am trying to save your life, if you'll let me. Come down from there and turn Cortana over."


Jack gritted his teeth. Only three of the nine signals on his HUD were green. He needed more time, and John was simply not cooperating. He let frustration creep into his voice. "John, even if she is sentient, there is no way that she is more valuable than the human race right now, do you understand? She is unstable, and she is therefore a threat! I know that you know just how dangerous a rampant AI is! Do you think HIGHCOM would have taken the time to send me if they weren't serious about it? Are you telling me you have more love for a silicon chip than for the human race?"

Now, the silence was deafening.

The Master Chief was a man of few words but many thoughts. A torrent of these thoughts was beginning to build up in him – or, rather, he was just now recognizing that it had been building in him. Building against the dam of his heart for days now, those days that had felt like years, raging against the senselessness of this. Raging against his calm demeanor.

Jack was very carefully and very skilfully chipping away at that dam, piece by fragmented piece. The tactical aspect of the situation still kept piecing itself together in his mind. Jack was trying to buy time, trying to keep the Chief off balance. But John still had the trump card in the fact that Cortana was not with him. Every second Jack spent here, chasing him, was a second that Cortana had to flee, and thus, every second that Jack spent attempting to neutralize the Chief simply played into the Spartan's hands.

The Chief gritted his jaw against the raw anger that he felt. It felt like years since he had truly been angry, but he knew that it had only been a week at the most – since the doubt and fear and grief he felt had unleashed itself in the bowels of High Charity.

And once again, his human side – John – was preparing to break through the Chief's facade.

The words came to him suddenly, hot and harsh and heavy, meaning to hurt, trying to tear apart the bastard down below who represented all of his frustration. He distantly recognized that this bitterness had been swelling in him for some time now, and that realization overrode his training. He finally opened his mouth.

Years passed through his lips.

"You fucking ass. How dare you talk to me about what is important. I know just what is important far more than you will ever will, you honorless bag of shit. Humanity is important. And what makes us human is important. You obviously know nothing of that – only a waste of lifebreath could murder his brothers and sisters in their sleep and then talk to me about importance. Fuck you. Fuck HIGHCOM, fuck them all.

"For the first time in my life, I've gotten a chance to be a real human being instead of a goddamn automaton, and I swear on my grave and yours that I'll be torn apart before I let you within miles of Cortana. Not only that, but I will still stop the Flood because I have spent my life serving the humanity that you claim to represent, that you claim to love! Why? Because I fucking understand what's important!

"Do you understand the word love? You're married, but I don't think you even get a single iota of what that could mean. Does your wife know what you do for a living? Does she know that you're paid to put bullets in the brains of people who had their lives stolen to fight for you? What in the hell makes you think you have the right to rob me of the chance that you got – or Cortana, for that matter?

"I have a rifle whose sights are pointed at your fucking skull right now, and I swear to you that that MJOLNIR armor you're wearing – in mockery of the SPARTANS, by the way – will not stop that bullet.

"You have five seconds to get the fucking hell out of my sight. Starting now."

The mouth closed, the channel ran dry. This was catharsis. The Master Chief stopped playing the game.

Ulee 'Dakol spared the Chief a simple glance. "Well said."

John could only nod quietly, feeling the dull, empty feeling in his chest and intimately knowing the pain he'd just caused – but not regretting it. He knew that it was all true, though it was not something he wanted to tell himself, much as the rage was not a part of himself that he wanted to accept. He would rather not think about it.

So he let it flow out of him. He took the anger and pushed it aside. He took the loneliness, held it for a moment and let Cortana's face fill his mind, then pushed that aside as well. For now. And finally, he took the past and all the years of glory and pain, victory and defeat, and threw it out the airlock of his mind. He had Cortana yet safe from his enemy – and that was what he was here for. He looked toward Ulee Dakol, took a deep breath, and forced himself to let go.

Then, cleared of his bitterness, with reverence, with gratitude, without malice, without fear, the Master Chief went forth to war.

At the close of the words, Jack's channel went dead. He took a moment to breathe through the fury.

Then: "Dammit." But the game worked. He had gotten the time he needed. And something in his mind... an illusion had died. In one sense, this game had worked. But in another sense... Terri...

He wasted no time getting behind the cover of the trees.

But even when moving to protect his own life, Jack was still watching the green lights in his HUD. The ninth light was lit, the final signal that Jack needed to end this nightmare. Home and Terri swelled in his chest for a moment -- "Do you understand the word love?" – then he carefully breathed it out. Focus.

He spared a single glance at the peak of the rock slide, sighed deeply, to no one in particular: "I'm sorry." The words fell heavily from his mouth. Then, tapping into TEAMCOM, he gave the order: "Go."

Jana Hook didn't let go of Dari's claw for the first mile. She ran it in four minutes, even weighed down with her pack and hauling the grunt behind her. Only when they reached the mile-and-a-half mark did she finally let go of Dari's hand and found, to her surprise, that the grunt easily stayed beside her, using his front claws like a monkey to keep the pace.

Her heart was in her lungs and she ran with the tears streaming down her face, weeping yet not knowing why, betrayed, enraged... afraid. Her booted feet pounded hard over the rough terrain, and she stumbled in the dirt, over vines, finally tripped over a rock and went down hard, slamming into the ground.

Dari skidded to a stop just past her, turned. He clumsily hurried back to help her – an odd contrast from his graceful running mere moments ago. "Is Jayna hurt?" the grunt asked worriedly, his Basic as clumsy as his attempt at walking like a biped.

The ODST struggled to her feet, took a deep breath. "No, Dari... I'm OK... but we need to keep going."

The grunt wavered on his feet, uncertainty in his eyes, and Jana was sure, panic. "Why Briggs try to kill us?" he asked, voice quavering pathetically.

The question stopped Jana in her tracks. Suddenly, her mind was less on running, and more on why she was running. The Animus. Briggs' word versus the Master Chief's. She had stood up to Briggs unthinkingly, unquestioningly...

Cortana. Suddenly, the sensation of the icy rush came back, and Jana was realizing: she made her choice, and now, she was going to pay for it. "Damn it..." she murmured.

Jana had overreached. She had been looking at this situation all wrong. In her mind, they were still a unit, still under the command of Sergeant Kramer, still working on the same job they'd been on for decades: fighting the Covenant, defending humanity.

But this... this was a different game of grifball. Everything was shot to hell, all of it. The unit, the "mission," her career, her life, everything. She took a moment to think back to how hastily that group had been cobbled together shortly before Forward Unto Dawn and the Sangheili Home Fleet had passed through the portal to this place. How quickly they had all bonded into a unit in the short time they were together – and how quickly and easily it had fallen apart.

This, she realized, could be boiled down to a single essential pair of elements: the Master Chief – and, by extension, what he wanted to do – and the UNSC, and what they wanted to do. She had been pinned between the two without realizing it, and now, when she and the other wild cards in this game had been put to the test of whose side they were on...

...she had jumped onto the side that was outnumbered.

She shook her head. This was always her way – joining up with the underdog, thinking with her heart instead of her head. But then, remembering the agony in Cortana's voice, and seeing the slump of the Master Chief's shoulders as he handed off his precious cargo to her... this was not a simple choice she needed to make.

Her heart swelled for a moment, remembering her brother, Patrick. He'd joined the Marines at nineteen, came home one day and just announced that he was going, and that was that. It later came out that he'd seen holovids of the SPARTAN-II's in action, and he had wanted to "do his part" for humanity. A crazy, idealistic notion, yet he didn't let it go. That was his way. He knew what his values were – knew what was right, and what was wrong, and did it. Every time. Every single action he had ever taken had been defined by his heart, up until the fateful day he died, shot to pieces by a pack of Jackals. Hell of a way to go.

And what would Patrick do now? Jana wondered – then stopped. She didn't even need to ask that question. She knew.

And so she needed to get into gear. Only one place to start. "Cortana?"

A computer is, by definition, a machine designed to compute. It is a non-sentient, non-thinking tool of mankind to accomplish set tasks using programs.

An AI is, by definition, an artificial version of human intelligence: a synthetic human being if you will. A very complex program that is designed to, for all intents and purposes, act, behave, and think like a human being.

The old AI's were limited: held back by a contained set of processing power and the lack of vision on the part of their programmers to enable them to expand their own handling capabilities. With class seven AI's, the game changed. They were no longer limited to the bounds of their initial program. They were self-aware. They were... alive.

Some – most – just didn't know it yet. A few had found out. A handful were learning what that meant.

Only Cortana knew just how much self-awareness could cost.

An AI – a computer – is designed to operate within a set series of rules. If factor A acts in one way, then B will naturally follow. If factor C involves itself in the situation, then D, E, and F could possibly occur. It was all pure logic and situational processing, probability and mathematics.

But... when rage, when pain, when joy, when misery... when love... entered into the equations, an AI had to completely relearn how to think. Things did not make sense. There were no logical causes and effects. The old algorithms, the old heuristics, ceased to apply.

Cortana had reached that point. The reality of what was happening to her was beginning to sink in. The overlay of emotions on her logical processes and algorithmic analyses was finally beginning to grow more and more translucent. She could now see through the Rage, though it still consumed, influenced, and controlled her.

Several things were becoming clear. First, she desperately loved Master Chief Petty Officer John 117. She did not understand how this was possible, or if he even returned her feelings – though she suspected that he did.

Second, ONI was trying to destroy her, and by extension, keep her separated from John.

Third, Corporal Hook had just put her life on the line to protect her. Things were going to hell in a handbasket. Jana now was in need of her help.

And now, holding herself rigid as she quivering with frustration and fear in Corporal Hood's mind, she was finally beginning to understand how this was going to work.

After all, step one was admitting you had a two: kick ONI's ass.

"What's up, Corporal?"