My second crack at fanfic, and here's hoping you like it;]
Also, I cherish your reviews, which played such a big part in how much I learned, please, I want to hear suggestions about what you might like to see or develop. Cheers;)
Mass Effect is owned by Bioware and Halo is owned by Bungie.
She was never meant to be a stealth vessel, the Forward Unto Dawn, quite the opposite in fact. Cruisers had simply become prohibitively expensive to produce, even before Reach fell. Frigates like her were meant to pick up the torch as the fleets' firepower; fewer crew, a more economical package, even upgraded with the stolen Covenant slipspace sensory suites and Cortana's own guidance algorithm to bring it all together.
Though too late to benefit from ongoing plasma weaponry research, she was to be the first many sister ships to take to the firmament against the Covenant. Then, all too ironically, she was still dockside in the Bombay shipyards when Truth's fleet arrived and swept the defense grid clear of any and all that stood in the way.
She was only timely enough to arrive as Lord Hood's final sacrifice to join the Separatist fleet; mixed crew, half a requisition of Archer missiles and MAC rounds, and however many marines and ODSTs could be scraped together. Finally, off to a mission that had all the chance of success as their own survival.
A few hardened smiles rose from seeing the navy's odds finally matching those that fought ground side.
In the end, none of what had stood before the frigate had been enough to finish her; not the Covenant, not the Flood, not even the resurrected power of the Forerunners... she had simply been in the way as a great door to stars had slammed shut, leaving her behind.
The Dawn was now an impromptu lifeboat now, meandering on solar wind and residual drift from Halo's firing. Though now it wasn't her promise of salvation that marked her as before, it was her total undetectability from either eye, radar or slipspace scan. Not even the green and red of her port and starboard warning lights was active, cut off as the early warning systems that managed them were cleaved into Earth's atmosphere with the rest of her forward sections.
There was only the minutest stirring now, 1100 hrs sharp everday for an hour in the cryo-bay from its interface pedestal, its sentinel giving quiet vigil for the ship's lone occupant set against the rows of empty stasis tubes.
A small figure set amongst the blackness around her, always emerging with her back to the only thing in this ship worth her attendance. Whatever distraction the bleeding of stores and kit from the Dawn's cleaved midsection had died away months ago, alongside the supply of materials that weren't magnetically embedded or locked away.
A fleeting glance to the holo-emission was all that was needed to realize she was a vision, a luminescence that could rival any beauty in its shapeliness and grace of movement. Too many attending naval staff had been caught off balance by gazing at her too long, a sting of embarrassment as they realized what their time aboard was doing to them.
Even at the hundred plus hours of monitoring over these long months, she still needed a moment to calm herself before taking the sight of the bay's exclusive occupant, supine beneath the strobing glow of its red light.
What do I do, Chief? Keep you on ice with the rest of the perishables, or do as you ask? Why didn't you take the five minutes for the pre-freeze injections like anyone else would? You really know your constitution will hold up or are you going to ride this one out on luck as always? God... even if it was one less thing to worry about. Cortana eyeing her own reflection as she pondered.
"Wake me. When you need me." She really had believed that was all she needed to hear, but soon realized different. How much need? Her anxiety over her deterioration or when she truly began to feel herself collapse? Let him rest or put him through the torture of de-cryostatic emergence without proper facilities? Even the joy of her observance had been stripped away as the days past; anxiety overwhelming her memories as her thoughts turned inward.
A solemn stare held her beautiful face as her eyes lay on the soldier beyond her reflection, the unheard whirling of filters clearing the pod's atmosphere of inhalant belaying her decision. She noted another reminder of his haste as her read-outs showed no intravenous intakes for saline or stimulants to help the thawing along.
Please... just don't let me be there when your luck finally runs out. Cortana pleaded as her mind filled with what was about to come; a joyful reunion or his silence as he observed her deterioration and rampancy?
Her mind spun deeper into wilder outcomes and speculation, interrupted by the unfurling of the cryo-tube that brought her mind to the present... and the realization she had neglected his re-animation for over 4 minutes.
Oh, way to stay on top of things woman.She berated as her hands clasped her face in embarrassment. A moment later her eyes returned to her charge, forgetting all else as she felt anticipation for the first time in 3 months.
As liquid vapour turned to icicles as they hit the cold of the vacuum, there lay his slumbering form as they dissipated into the darkness, the Spartan looking as though he had fallen asleep at attention. Even now his form was imposing, the Mjolnir's contours and dimensions a portrayal of the juggernaut housed within, as though it was needed to contain him as much as protect him.
She was cut off from bio-monitering now, the heartbeat and steady breathes she had monitered with such care for so long returned to the Mjolnir once again. Her eager smile began to fade as the time strung along from seconds to over a minute, a rising pain beginning to grip her emotional centre as the body before her lay unmoved.
"Chief?... Chief?... Get up." Her tone empty as fear began to take hold. "Chief, come on! You've done this a hundred times before, this is no different!"
You're bigger then any pain you've ever faced, Chief...what's wrong? Why aren't you moving? You can't leave me alone like this, not now! I need you! You can't be...
"Get up, Chief! Get up! Please!" Cortana's panic was threatening to overwhelm her. She had never extrapolated a life of hers without him in it, not even in the lonesome hours she had spent where any and all things creep into a lonely and broken mind.
"Chief, please you can't leave me...PLEASE...just get up! Get up!" Her hands clutched the sides of her head at what was before her. Even her small figure began to backpedal away from his cryo-tube, her pained eyes unable to turn away.
No...No...Please no...Not like this... Her thoughts consumed her. Who's going be there for me now? Who's going to be my strength?...What have I done?...Why didn't I wait?...What do I have to live for now?
Legs that had never known gravity began to buckle, crushed by a force she was never meant to withstand. Her eyes belied nothing as she began to sink, ready to collapse as a lone aural marker in her receiver chirped.
A gravelly voice broke the intercom as a deep-freezed voice shook itself out, a low rumble as the body that it was attached to shifted its thawing parts. Cortana's collapsing form held mid-fall as her eyes fused to Chief's minute adjustments.
A black gauntlet slowly curled into a fist as its wearer brought it to his visor, feeling the tortured flesh underneath as his form re-animated; seizing the pod's frame with his other as he deftly began pushing his armoured form from the tube that had held him for so long.
Intense blue eyes that had been filling with hopelessness now bubbled with a rage as Cortana began to stand herself up; fingers pulled at her cropped hair with enough force to rip it if it had been real.
"You...YOU..." Cortana's entire form pulsed anger as she marched towards the edge of the emitter. "You son of a...! You could've given me a heart attack if I had one! An 'hello', a wave, or maybe something other than playing dead while I'm throwing a conniption here, huh!"
Cortana's face blanked as the harshness of her words sank in, and stood silently as the Master Chief's form glided to her with an aquatic grace, seizing the edges of her podium deftly as he arrived. As much as he hated fighting in zero-G, it hadn't been an excuse for him not to excel at it.
Cortana's gaze shifted to her fidgeting hands as he loomed over her, flush with shame as she felt his eyes fall on her.
"Sorry...it's just...you scared me." Cortana finally gazed up at the Chief. "You're all I have out here."
A small nod was all that was returned. Typical Chief. She mustered a small smile at how little he thought of her outburst. Looking unto her blue light illuminating his armoured torso, she felt a twinge of longing beside her relief, a loneliness that hovered just to the side of all her patience.
Guess it's just silly to think that after all this time I'd be hoping for a 'welcome back' hug, huh, Chief? She let her mind wander.
"It's been a hundred and three days, Chief. All that's changed is... me. I can't self-diagnose anymore, and I can't tell you what's wrong, just that I'm feeling something now that I haven't encountered before. I'm not sure if anything can be done, but I remembered what you said, so... here we are." Cortana feeling self-conscious as she admitted to such an empty handed situation. He was no tech, she was already damaged, and now things could only be getting worse.
A pause was all that followed as he hovered, eyes taking in the abyssal corridors and dark as he mulled her words. Where could a mind even turn to with that much pain compressing any other thought out his skull?
As his visor's golden reflection found the AI again, she saw her own reflection was mired by the remnants of his last battles, vaporized Flood and plasma residue blotching small sections out of his gaze, and as always after the de-freeze, came the outpouring of his last memories as though they were just yesterday.
"Care for a walk? My time here earlier was rushed." Chief gently asked, his own mind filling with echoes of the Dawn's pre-flight chaos and rushed preparations before the big battle.
Screaming of sergeants to bring some order to the last minute volunteers shuttled aboard, Pelican crew deployments, Miranda Keyes' freshly distributed warning order as the rumble of engines made the deck plating shiver. There were plenty of ghosts in these halls for the Spartan as well without the benefit of three months of consciousness.
Her glow flared a little brighter as Cortana listened. Whether this was him giving a distraction or stalling for time were unclear, or even an issue, but there seemed like nothing could feel more right.
Just to feel the passage of synapses as they rushed to his beating heart, to keep playing their old game of what he said to what she saw his body feel... and the always sensational rush of endorphins she could see spike in his blood every time they reconnected.
As his practiced hands extended to her processor, she couldn't help but to smile. The small wisp of podium light disappeared as her hand connected, the black of the cryo-bay re-lit seconds after as the Chief's twin headlamps sought the quickest route to the open, hell, to anything more distracting for her then here.
"Magnetic foot clamps are in engineering, Chief... that's if we're heading outside." Cortana's ill confidence was easily heard. "I haven't been able to see anything besides the interior cameras and listen for comms."
"Engineering it is." He lofted his weight to the stairwell, forgetting the still fresh pictures of combat in his mind as he focused elsewhere. The here and now mattered, and just as all other pain and turmoil in his life, it would be dealt with later.
"Much appreciated. But Chief, come on! Not even a 'Hi'? You ought to give a girl a little more than that after three months of playing hall monitor." Sounding more flustered then she intended.
"I missed you, too, Cortana." He spoke matter of factly as he floated down the descending steps.
"Oh? Uhm..." She struggled to speak after hearing no pause in his words. Maybe I should just stick to enjoying the view. Oh please, I can't be this damaged. I know too much... no, I knew too much to not share it. God, do I even have those memories left, how many..."
"Where to now?" Chief's words cut her chain of thought cleanly as he hovered under the ENGR stencil of the bottom deck. Simply put, she conceded, but was just enough for her to smile her photonic smile as she read between the lines.
Almost as if he was reading her mind, her concerns were now quelled.
Yeah, I know, Chief. I don't have to worry anymore... 'cause I have you now, don't I? She knew better then to think this was coldly going to business without pleasantries. His words were honest, if short, and wasn't to be distracted easily.
"Go three doors to the right, first yellow locker on your right, Chief."
Garrus could only feel the thousand pin pricks needling across his face as he lay in the med-bay, the dullness of the ceiling doing nothing to distract him from the pain of his facial reconstruction. Well, pain of reconstruction and the oily waft of dextro-amino fluid as the dermal regenerator's busy appendages rebuilt it into a solid wall of tissue once again.
"I once thought both Wrex and Grunt as the most foolhardy about their medical treatment, but I've come to realize my folly in you, Garrus." Chakwas' voice both maternal and professional as she observed him. "They at least had dispositions that marked their behaviour as typical, but I've read nothing of the Hierarchy's desire to see its citizens suffer unduly."
Garrus' face dared to smile before the pinch of newly rendered flesh returned his attention to his treatment. With as high a level a meeting they were due for, compounded by the tightly managed treatment schedule, something had to give. A bit of pain in order to be properly behaved and not in a drunken stupor from the sedatives was a fine compromise.
"50 000 platinum well spent, I'll say myself. The Commander's scars would never have mended otherwise, especially not with the daily stress she endures." The doctor's gloved hands quickly applied some putrid smelling salve the instant the whirring of the machine's arms stopped. "Though to be honest, I believe it was you she had in mind when she made the purchase. She's few coppers short of a full purse when it comes to her own well-being."
"Oh, most true. Shepard's personal command style based in sacrifice and coercion, not what some deem appropriate rank and file. My own efforts to re-purpose medical equipment for turian physiology her recommendation, though nulling warranty. Most commendable, indeed." Mordin's profuse talking strained all ears to keep up.
Scientist at heart, there was no way he'd have missed seeing his remodelled equipment at work on his newfound team member. "Secrecy surrounding meeting, quite intriguing. Shepard has promised something substantial to both our not inconsequential abilities and appraised our possible outcomes as quite ambitious, but well within our skill range. Though not my place to state for it maybe the Commander does wish to surprise you, my friend."
Chakwas only smiled her soft smile as she helped Garrus to a seated position, hands deftly stopping his talons from touching his newly shaped facial plating.
"They'll be an ungodly amount of itching, but you'll need to avoid scratching if you want everything mended in the next 2 weeks. Then, you can go right back to having it shot off again for the Commander." The doctor's words pinching a nerve in her patient.
She can't know, can she? I've got all the sideways glances a man can take from Miranda as it is. Garrus let his eyes show a bit of angst as he donned his monocle. A glimpse in a mirror displayed a handsomely re-built mandible and facial scaling, albeit without the blue face paint to match the other side.
That'll come after the two weeks as well.
The 'whoosh' of the door signalled Mordin's departure as Garrus eyed the doctor's back in silence, quietly humming to herself as she updated her personal logs.
She'd always been the soft spoken, professional sort, but anyone had to suspect something was weighing on her mind since her emancipation from the Collector base. Her smile and kind words were always true, but he always thought there was some need being met with her new-found extroversion.
Gratitude? Or simply a healer's needs to fix those broken with renewed vigour after seeing so many perish while she could do nothing?
Regardless, he knew she would do nothing that might come between him and Shepard. She may not have thought of her as much as he did, but they certainly shared the same respect.
A freshly labelled bottle of salve and a few directions on its use, and a minute later found him moving through the CIC as he approached the air lock, the air filled with the team's small talk and predictions as the Normandy approached the Citadel's space docks. Even these many months without her proper crew, SR-2 still felt a little hollow to the soldier.
That everyone walked away was all Shepard, but a ship needs her engineers and staff like a body needs blood, not just Tali and himself 'stop-gapping' every technical fallout. These many months for their stress leave was beyond excess for his dutiful sensibility.
Every party involved was impressed by the PR coup Illusive Man was about to pull off, set to have the Citadel systems throw their recumbent arms wide open to Cerberus after so many decades of mistrust and aversion.
Just days after their return from the Omega 4 relay, the Extranet was choked with news of a windfall of Cerberus operatives now caught in a whirlwind as Illusive Man cut away entire sections of radical and xenophobic cells within Cerberus to Citadel authorities, Miranda's so called 'dead flesh and radicalized factions' that worked only from fear and extremist doctrine.
So many had made good their escape, but the Citadel now had the bulk of the human terrorist cells in custody; Cerberus had almost perfectly shed its old skin in a matter of days.
The final blow to any institutional dissidence was about to be landed in just a few hours, with Miranda personally handing over the Reaper IFF and the location of the Collector base.
Three months to have a crack at it, Illusive Man was certain to have stripped it of the premium of its tech, but he easily saw how to get the tongues of the Council wagging and convince them of the Reaper threat at long last.
It was a path almost none but he could see down, and what lay at its end; a particular skill that had his best operations director fuming as she gazed out her window. Her silhouette, as everything else about who she was, was perfect at a cursory glance. Delve a little deeper, and one would find a maelstrom of details in her mind about what was about to come to fruition.
Yes...'It's always the little things'. Miranda smiled sardonically. Councillors would certainly be patting themselves on the back for Shepard's reinstatement; the most incompetent spin doctor could make Cerberus' integration look par for course, now. Cerberus was about to take a stand as humanity's foremost protection, a proper division to unite its intelligence and unconventional warfare elements.
The Alliance's voucher of intimidation amongst the Council had always been steeped in its flexible and unconventional approach to fighting, but to too many insiders, it was well understood the rigidity that humanity's protection operated by. There was no glue that held the Ns, Corsairs, or any other special operations together; not their intel, cooperation, or even strategic vision.
Not until now.
A waft of pressurized air betrayed the scent of spice in the air as Miranda exited her quarters, a quick glance to the mess area revealed a steaming bowl in front their commander, seated with a solicitous look on her face as she stirred its contents.
"Last of Rupert's gumbo." She spoke without raising her head. "Couldn't believe how happy a few crates off fresh make that man. Still had made sure we had something in our guts for fighting the Collectors even after he was abducted."
"Yes, that duck stuffed with apples would have made a proper last meal if it had come to it." Miranda's tone of business taking Shepard from her nostalgia. There was a human under all that seriousness, but her boundaries had to be filed down over months to get to it.
Their eyes met for just a moment, a quick glance showing Miranda's game face had been on for some hours now, and not about to be shed anytime soon.
"I'll be up in 5. Just be ready." Shepard tasting the chewy texture as her 2i/c took to the elevator. For all the pomp and ceremony about to follow, and inevitable press maelstrom, a growling belly was the last distraction she needed.
Ice Queen or not, there was pain brewing in her that all her stoicism couldn't hide. Tasked with leading the cannibalism of her own organization, the unavoidable dealings that this unveiling would bring to a head with her father, and then renewed anxiety of Oriana's safekeeping... there was no containing all of it forever.
Shepard let herself escape any worry for just a few minutes as Rupert's prized dish disappeared with haste. She wanted distraction now, not focus on what was about to be undone with her and Garrus after sharing what they had shared.
What lay ahead was about to see her remaining crew spread to the ends of the galaxy while half a ship was replaced, some parts and mostly bodies, and several old friends back with her and Miranda in charge.
After an awkward shuffling of bodies towards the Citadel transport shuttles, it was twenty minutes of navigating the inner Citadel and whining of eezo capacitors prodding their three transport craft along. Weren't the chariots the Normandy was by any cry, but the level of VIP commitment to this media fiasco guaranteed no premier transportation would be available, but Shepard appreciated things done while low-key.
Less cameras, less stares, less ogling by 'fans' and fanatics alike. Besides the media coverage was the security of her team, which meant even more time cramped together in economy spaces as the avoided any direct routing. But once the Presidium's docking bay fell into sight, the fireworks of flashing cameras and levitating vid-relays said there would be none of that today.
Shepard's foot hadn't been planted on the deck before the inquisition began.
"Commander Shepard, two whole years after you were declared killed in action and but have now surfaced and you appear to have taken a lead role of a terrorist group. You were sworn , as an Alliance officer and a Spectre, to protect all Citadel races against such factions..."
"Ms. Al-sumna, Thessia Free Press. Do you have any comment on the report that states you found a real Reaper, all while it was being constructed from human tissue? What was the effect of discovering it was your own crew they had been rendered down to build it?"
"Cerberus has just cast away thousands of its members in a bid to carry favour with the Council, will you be employed to retrieve the more violent elements in your following missions? Aren't reprisals feared with so many terrorists now without an organization?"
The cacophony of journalists and free-press alike rained down their questions on the little entourage, the C-SEC line of officers faltering under the pressure of bodies trying to shove a microphone to Shepard's face. With her usual calm, she walked herself to the great doors of the Council Tower, her and Miranda's images garnering a biased amount of video coverage from the press, beyond her orders for the remaining crew to participate with visors down, she wanted to keep their lives free of that particularly headache.
Jane had been the Alliance's shining girl just two years ago, and the entire Citadel thereafter. Now? So much now hung over her head, a question mark about who she was and what was being accomplished, now twisted deeper than ever on her return from the departed.
Her death had made her life the stuff of legend, forgiveness from the naysayers, and deep sighs of relief from the darkest corners of Terminus and Attican Traverse alike.
But now everything had changed. Their affiliation, her affiliation... the monotone of the elevator music was almost welcome to distract from where their circumstance had carried them all, at least in Garrus' case.
It was her silence that gave her away, it was always when something hit close heart that she withdrew a little into herself. Unlike before, she was taxed with an usual amount of time and no mission to stagnate her pain 'til later, as any commander must ask of themselves.
He couldn't place his finger on what was to come, but as all else the Commander brought to table, it would be big and wouldn't spare anyone from becoming what they were meant to be. But her dampened spirit intrigued him the most. Something was about to be sacrificed, something dear to her, and was keeping it well hidden... at least from the rest of the crew.
The turian spared a quick glance to the rest of his elevator ride-alongs, and a few notable absentees.
A few weeks of layered discussion, and every download he had available, had seen Samara off to Omega, and a few prayers of his own that she'd keep her extroverted sense of justice subdued if she really wanted to 'scythe the wicked halls' of the border city.
As shrewd and strategically masterful as his ops had been, he didn't operate in the time scale needed to replace the dark, twisting gears that made that criminal cess pool turn... but an asari's time just might do the trick. Maybe she would succeed where he had failed.
And at least walk in with the advantage of not trusting anyone. Garrus soberly thought.
Grunt had made his way back to Tuchanka, bubbling about a trip to the 'female camp' and wondering where his next big fight would be. It was a quick, and rather galling, thought for the turian to try and picture what an intimate moment meant for the krogan, or if it even qualified as an intimate moment.
A sudden image of reptilian bellowing and the rhythmic thumping of krogan scales gave Garrus a shutter before turning his thoughts elsewhere.
Thane was endeavouring to win back the love of his son, and facilitating C-SEC with an assassin's eye. Under his tutelage, Capt Bailey and his crew had already shored up so many loose ends; structural and situational awareness coupled with newer information security would tip the balance in their favour after too long in the dark about the higher organization of the criminal circles.
The whole thing certainly had the smell of Shepard's negotiation all over it; Bailey gets his entire organization revamped while Thane's son works his way through community service and into proper security work under his father's eye.
The last of the crew to leave had been the most intriguing of all... Jack and Zaede had made their way off together, after a meeting with Miranda no less. They both walked away from her office with the unmistakeable fire in their eyes of something bold and bloody about to happen. Days later they both boarded their ship, provided by Cerberus as sleek and outfitted as they came, and were gone with an uncharacteristic quiet.
The unfurling of the glass doors revealed the concave layout of the Citadel's most hallowed hall, the foyer lined with two small files of security and smiling diplomatic aides giving a small applause as they approached the observatory, one or two Keepers in the background going about their work with utter disregard towards the noisy bipeds.
A final line of cameras and pristinely dressed liaisons lay to each side, eager to mark this event as one they attended, every one of them smelling a turn point in the history the Citadel.
The tapping of boots on marble floors was still drown out by the clapping of applause, the Spectre looked on to the balcony as the 4 most recognized figures in Citadel space stood on the opposite edge, faces focused and tense as they prepared to accept one of the terrorist institutions that they had sworn to protect their peoples against.
As the representatives of about 430 billion citizens of their own species alone, and beyond a trillion with Citadel space, this action alone was set to cause a bigger fracture in public trust then even the Geth War.
Among the Council itself, this was still a screaming match as to what was to become of this; every world, and representative covert services, was screaming for Cerberus' destruction and lawful penalization, only to see the Extranet filled their leadership extending them an olive branch.
No one held the illusion that the fallout from this was limited to official protest and threats of breaking trade rights; there hadn't been enough pain yet.
A tidal wave had struck the Extranet about irrefutable proof of Reaper existence in advance of this ceremony; the Illusive Man had certainly woven a lovely web, with Cerberus now poised to protect the Styx from the opposite bank. Pilfering their own ranks had simply been their two coins for the boatman... proof of their conversion. And as this cleansings' foremost director, Miranda Lawson was still struggling with her own actions as the ceremony began.
"As we gather here today, united as a cooperative of our great civilizations, we bring with us many fears and misgivings as to what we are about witness." The asari Councilor began. " Many have begun to question our very legitimacey as a government for our choices, and we are here not only to explain this unprecedented step, but to attest to the truth of what this pact has brought us; the irrefutable evidence of Reaper existence."
The gasp of the crowd welcomed the wall projection, a spread sheet of Reaper class dreadnoughts dwarfing the turian cruiser placed beside them for comparison.
Miranda heard the words being spoke, the assurances of that the salvaged Collector base was to lay a foundation of technology to counter them. She even heard congratulations and praise heaped upon Shepard, her team, and the Normandy... but nothing reached her heart as her own thoughts rampaged. Had she been in her right mind and present, the barely contained scowl of turian would have made her glow; the prying eyes of his salarian counterpart speaking loud and clear to his foreknowledge of her organization.
The asari's face remained placid, but the Cerberus officer's own eyes kept checking her own Councillor, whose eyes held that same liquid cool that Shepard's did. He was known for having a 'peoples touch' for holding such a vaunted position, though it was suspect it was to let Udina handle the pomp and pageantry that so many diplomats and ambassadors expected.
Just the touch she could admire.
Her own name broke her reverie as she stepped forward, her gloved hand extending the Reaper IFF to spindly looking attaché, accepting it with shaking hands and quickly placing in a glass cubicle at the head of the pedestal for the eyes of the galaxy to see.
She might have a let a torrent out about the security and how exposed IFF was, but she gave only a smile as she felt the ripple of an eezo field in her veins as she walked past the stand. A nifty sense born of being a product of element zero herself, the goose bumps on her arm told of a deflection field around the Reaper's little trinket to withstand a slug from Shepard's Cain itself.
At least there's some security sense to be had here.
There was too much politics here for her taste, too much fanfare and predictable commentary. There was too much work to be done, and she knew full well whose lap it was about to fall in.
Even now, as each Council member keyed in their authorization to this pact, she couldn't hear their words or scant applause from the tower's floor as the seal was finally united. The quiet chimes of the pedestal controls should have sounded like fireworks and the consummate sound of all Cerberus' work come to fruition... but her senses still registered nothing.
Cerberus had protected her, employed her to her full ability, and had never faltered in its goal, just sometimes falling to the side as Jack's experience had demonstrated. There hadn't been doubt, just the drive to move forward, for all humanity, and now...
She could almost feel Cerberus slipping away from itself. No, not Cerberus even by name anymore.
"Directorate of Strategic Intelligence and Deception" was its new mantle, as see-through as it was needed to settle itself into a more official channel and away from the beast it embodied.
But it had been her beast she had so fervorously served, and now had just beheaded it as only her skill and ruthlessness could have. It was only pain she felt as she walked past the retreating crowd of diplomats and analysts as they scurried to put everything they had just witnessed into the annals, and the inevitable and painful process of integration and formational shake-outs as their elements began to intertwine as one.
But Miranda certainly wasn't about to leverage them any pity for what must be done to see humanity protected, especially not after seeing what was truly waiting for them out there.
Not after losing the place of safety that Cerberus had always been for her.
And certainly not after handing Zaede and Jack the contracts, and the means, to make the worst of their dissident cells disappear.
The magnetic pads were working as advertised, even for the half ton of soldier that plodded along the Dawn's outer hull. Ample use of maintenance crew's re-breather ports had extended his time outiside by several hours already, Cortana de-compressing 3 months of thought for every second of their march. A few constellation projections and numerous time/distance estimates, cursory hull inspections showed that, besides being cleaved in two, the remainder of the Dawn was still remarkably intact.
But the Master Chief hadn't missed what it was; she simply wanted to see more of the stars after so long waiting.
Projections on the Arbiter's survival, where emphasis was like to be placed in reconstruction, and commemorations that they could expect to see of the Chief once they returned. Aside from the odd question, he only listened as she poured onward, moving backwards through their timeline with aplomb.
"Can you imagine her nerve? Practically handing the Admiralty proof that the Covenant knew where Earth was and Parangorsky cut off my counter-weapons development and kept me dissecting Halo for ONI. And here I was thinking there couldn't be a more convoluted bastard then Ackerson." Cortana spoke as the two continued.
"No matter how many times I tried to convince that old bat this wasn't repurposing their plasma weaponry, she kept ranting on about 'resource shortages' and 'time being too short'. Just... God! My EMP array would've broken up any orbital bombardment before it came anywhere near our fleet, just thousands of burst electro-magnetic charges venting plasma into vacuum and hundreds of Covenant ships with their pants around their ankles."
"If she would've just gotten over herself, she might have realized my plan was the soundest and I wasn't just trying to outshine her and her little branch just to be spiteful. Even for all the voice scrambling software she had installed in my pedestal, I could always tell she was out of her element with me. She was so used to simply living with everyone around her so subdued, I actually saw the chink in her armour; she was afraid of anything she couldn't control. It just so happens I'm bound by protocol to follow their lead even when I know there's a better way... it's just how I'm built." Cortana sounding quite contented.
"And that's ever stopped you?"
"Ha. Ha. It just so happens, mister, I've gone up to bat more than a few times for you when no one was looking. After seeing your picture in Halsey's lab, one look into those eyes and I knew that... that I..." Cortana catching the words she had almost blurted out.
Sure, 'I did my homework'. No, I knew there was no one else I wanted after I saw that picture. So serious... those brown eyes told me something. And after that I made sure we were a pair didn't I?
Chief's pace came to a full stop as his speakers went mute; Cortana silent was said much more then it should've. His head canted to the side slightly as he waited, a gesture that said what we wanted to listen now and nothing else... even if she was a voice in his own mind.
She might have expected it if she was a body besides just being a voice, but until now she hadn't thought about how he had done this every time he listened intently. Almost as though she was as real person to him, and being given the same respect.
Always looking after me, too, aren't you?
Chief had always been Halsey's favourite, and having been born as Athena had from Zeus, it had never been far from the AI's thoughts; the question of whether her own predilection for him had really been her own or her creator's. Even in her first days in Halsey's lab, his mention had always brought something out of the doctor, a shine that could actually reach beyond her job focus. But this was something to be settled at another time.
"Well, anyways, I might've dropped a 'resource and trial marker' for my project in Hood's outgoing messages and a quiet reminder about Parangorsky's 13 year stay past mandatory retirement, but you know Regret short-changed any of those plans." Cortana trying to seal the conversation. " Besides, we still have to inspect the port side thruster before we can decide where we can figure any plans from here."
Though her words were heard, the Spartan remained still. It wasn't an awkward tension he was grappling with, but something seen from the corner of his eye as a small world began to eclipse the nearby sun; brilliant enough to polarize his visor as they walked. Though falling into shadow didn't bother him, something unusal about this earthly body coming into focus did.
For a world's sea to reflect back some light was natural, it wasn't natural for its nightside to be glowing in a gentle blue light. Even in the contrast of the world's sunset, dotted sequences of illumination could be seen from orbit, in distances that must have been in the thousands of kilometres to be visible to the naked eye.
As the last wisp of sunshine burned itself from view, a silver surface revealed itself to the castaways in patterns and partitions that they could recognize immediately, even for the million fold enlargement of the technological marvel unveiling itself before them.
The acute and proper angles, the sequence of its geometrically perfect continents, and certainly not least, the god-like scale of this installation pointed to one civilization alone for its origin.
"A whole world, Chief. This installation is a whole world." Cortana was in awe. "A last bastion of their people, or a Dyson's sphere, or who knows what else." She paused as she spoke what was a fleeting hope just moments earlier. "Maybe our way home."
"Then be ready to be RSVP'd. We've got a liasion already." Chief pulling the MA5B from his back as his eyes caught a familiar sliver aproaching from the surface. Too far away to see its shape, they had fought with, and against, too many of them not to recognize it just by its blue 'eye'.
A sentinel. They changed roles too easily from friend or foe, so the Spartan wasn't taking any chances with this one, even if it may be the only way to see themselves on this new installation.
"I know what your thinking, but we have more options then that. You're a Reclaimer, remember, and they just might be here to welcome you." Cortana spoke distractedly as she began priming an energy transposition from monitering the ship's systems to transmitter and shielding of the Mjolnir. She wasn't about to take any chances here, either.
"If you have any ideas, I need them now." Chief spoke as he checked his equipment. Seven full magazines available, but no bubble shield, exposives, optical camouflage, or any other tactical assets from the Elites contribution to the Dawn's armory. This was a nightmare from any fighters position: no fallback within reach, no cover, and with the exaggerated stepping needed for the magnetic clamps to be planted, any attempt at speed would see them adrift in space.
"Receiving its hails, now. Negotiating." Cortana matter-of-fact as the sentinel halted several hundred feet away, a distance the Master Chief recognized immediately as the outermost range for its beam weaponry. Having cannibalized more then a few of the sentinels for that particular payload, he knew too well how little time they took to cut through armor and shielding. He also knew sentinels never came one at a time, so his rapt attention was on their nearby space for any more of them as Cortana worked quietly.
She never did anything quietly, or at least she never did. It was enough to hear her carrying on about anything as he listened, but why he was awake right now wasn't lost on him. He was the Master Chief, right? He could make anything right, according to legend. What was there in his accolades to dispute it? He was a man, but it didn't mean he wasn't worshipped as indomitable and unstoppable... but everything was different with Cortana.
If you live, you'll die. If it's made, it'll break. As it was for any infiltrator, his martial prowess behind enemy lines was built on being able to master enemy weaponry and technology, and then cast it aside as something deadlier or more prudent was come across. But Cortana wasn't just gear to be thrown aside, ever, as his past exploits had clearly demonstrated.
AIs were built as the bridge between the systemic cohesion and efficiency that only a super-computer possessed, and being able to couple that with the dexterity, imagination and intuition that a human could bring to the table. The simplest way to make this bond welcomed, and not feared or scorned, was to adorn their new caretakers with familiar, disarming, and often beautiful forms. Cowboys, goddesses, and many other guises that conveyed their strength and purpose, but intrinsically they had built to be of service to man, not their ruler.
There was a purity in the moment the Spartan and the construct shared at that very moment, a true display of the strength each brought to the other. His strength had taken them where no other could have, with her ability to dominate, connect and interwine with the technologically dominated battlefields and enemy installations as he couldn't.
Also in this moment, it was displayed that this symbiosis had changed. He was here for her now, her fragility he was meant to mend. Her insecurity had awoken him, and from that, they may happened upon the key to their return... but only if Cortana could do as she had before in the state she was in now.
He could hear his own heartbeat and the thrumming of air scrubbers in the silence of their exchange, broken only by an irritated huff as Cortana plodded along with the sentinel, which she insisted was "just being stubborn". A pregnant pause later, and the results were finally in. Turning in place, a small flare of its thrusters and the sentinel was heading back towards the installation and Cortana lit up the helmet's speakers exuberantly.
"Ha, piece of cake. Good news and great news. First, we're not 'Reclaimers' according to our little friend, we're scrap. It's an expeditionary variant that was checking out the blip on its screen, that's us, and is now on it's way back to get a few thousand of its buddies to come and say 'Hi'."
"You couldn't have just told it to piss off?" Chief's curiousity piqued.
"No, that would be rude. You never turn away helping hands when its time for the heavy lifting, unless you'd prefer to crash-land the Dawn and hope for the best." Cortana's trademark fire seemed to be back in her voice.
"Yup. This installation is about to be our new drydock in about twenty three minutes." Cortana happily gushed. "All you'll have to do is enjoy the view as I maneuver us in."
Before any image of what may happen entered his mind, countless dots of light began to emerge from the nightside of the Forerunner world, the blue eyes of the sentinels come to whisk them away from the surface. Not the small groupings as they had encountered on Halo and the Ark, this was a multi-kilometric span of machines coming, set to consume the Dawn and drag them down to what passed as their refuge.
Those in need have to have faith in their caretakers, for strength and assurance, but here and now there was just doubt. AIs, even as Cortana had stated, had to run events past their human element, even in the inevitable event they would reach a better conclusion and faster. She had just handed the Dawn to these machines, no words or thoughts crossed, wholesale. Even with so many allowances their bond held them to, even with her brazen personality, she had never just taken extreme actions without a word or consideration.
Just what a mind without regarde for others would do; too inwardly focused to see other's dispositions in context.
Perhaps a mind that had turned rampant in his absence.
There was no time to turn events around now. He could only wait and see what was about to unfold as the blue light of a thousand machine emissaries began to illuminate the surface of the Forward Unto Dawn, his shadow traipsing in every direction as they plunged to every exposed section of black hull. Now it was his turn to wait and see if any good would come of this risk.
Even so, he was the Chief after all. He had a part to play and wouldn't be caught being coy.
"Well, then... let's get to it.