As always, thanks for your feedback and interest! We've safely past the halfway point now. This chapter is a bit longer than most of the others (read: almost double), but the words just kept coming. :) I figure with Forward Unto Dawn starting on Friday that this is a good point to remind everyone that this is not canon compliant. I started this fic back before E3 and have changed minor details to fit within this fic (as long as it didn't contrast with my original idea).
1215 Hours, August 30, 2552
Reach UNSC Military Complex, planet Reach
Omega Wing-Section Three secure facility
Spartan-117 caught Cortana's attention.
Since her introduction to the Chief, she had dedicated several subroutines to monitor his activities. They had already come in handy once; they had alerted her to when he had almost died unexpectedly on the operating table after Ackerson's test. When she had been convinced that he was out of harm's way and that Doctor Halsey was committed to tending to his injuries herself, Cortana had been content to let her concentration focus on more pressing issues.
She had given her report of the test and the Master Chief to ONI, making sure to leave out her personal feelings about Colonel Ackerson. She would deal with him herself later. As expected, High Command had given the go ahead to process with the mission. Cortana then turned her attention to the Autumn, making sure her and her crew were on schedule to get everything ready before their departure.
Cortana was coordinating with Sergeant Major Johnson, the highest ranking Marine who was stationed on the Autumn. "You have your orders, Sergeant." She crossed her arms.
"I still don't get why we can't just shoot the bastards," Johnson grumbled, pulling out a cigar. "Have you looked around lately? They ain't interested in a peace treaty."
She couldn't argue with him. Both she and Doctor Halsey were aware of the staggering odds against them. "That's not my call. The mission is going forward with our current objectives."
"Next, you're gonna tell me that I can't bring my cigars with me," he huffed.
Before Cortana could reply, her subroutines alerted her to the fact that the Chief was in a Longsword flying off-base. Quickly, she made an excuse to Johnson and terminated the video channel. Then, she contacted Captain Keyes.
His video feed was activated. He gave her a knowing look. "I thought I'd hear from you. Let me guess, this is about the Chief?"
Keyes' ability to predict her behavior annoyed Cortana. She arched her right eyebrow. "Would you like to explain why he isn't on the Autumn or busy getting his team ready for the mission?"
He shook his head. "Didn't ask him."
She pressed her lips together. She hated not knowing what was going on. Worse, it seemed as if the captain was amused by her reaction. "Didn't you think that was a little important? We are leaving Reach in several hours."
He sighed and pinned her with a look. "Leave him alone, Cortana. That's an order. If he wanted some shore leave, the least I could do was give him a couple of hours to himself."
Cortana wanted to argue, but since she was technically under Keyes' command, she was forced to follow his order. "Understood, sir." The words reluctantly passed through her virtual lips. She terminated the comm channel.
His command did leave Cortana an opportunity to figure out what the Spartan was doing. The captain had only ordered for her to leave the Master Chief alone, but said nothing about closely monitoring what he was doing. She tracked him through the various satellites around Reach as he travelled to the caverns several kilometers away.
What was he doing out there?
Maybe he needed time to prepare himself mentally before the mission started. This Spartan, in particular, had a lot of information and upgrades thrown at him since the debriefing. Cortana had almost convinced herself that Captain Keyes had been right and the Chief's request to leave the Autumn was nothing more than him wanting to gather his thoughts before what was undoubtedly the most difficult mission he had ever been given.
Then, his transponder signal was lost.
She knew she had been right to be suspicious.
Immediately, she attempted to hack into his armor's systems. There was no way she was going to be able to focus on doing anything else until she knew exactly what the Master Chief was doing. If this was some sort of scrambling device, she was confident that she could infiltrate the system. She dove into the lines of code.
It didn't take her long to realize that this was not the work of some average programmer. She recognized the essence of the code in front of her; she had created the scrambling channel.
Cortana processed that fact for nearly two full seconds. How was that even possible? She had never uploaded such a protocol to the Chief's armor.
She was determined to get to the bottom of this puzzle. As she attempted to override the hack, she wove through lines of redundant data.
A gnawing feeling settled in her gut. There was only one reason for that much repetition in the data.
While the implication was positive -if she had survived long enough to reach that state, then it likely meant the mission they had been charged with had been successful- Cortana couldn't say that she was at peace with the knowledge that she was going to descend into madness.
As she accessed the code, she found a video file embedded in the data. Intrigued, she opened the file.
She saw herself -her future self- appearing to be sitting on some sort of orb, grabbing her left knee. She looked tired and worn, the calculations scrolling over her body had nearly stopped moving.
So, that is what the death of an AI looks like.
"I was put into service eight years ago. AIs start to deteriorate after seven." She looked up, as if she could see Cortana watching. "But, you know all about that, don't you? I'm sure your mind is racing with a million questions. I would have had them too. Before."
She flickered green momentarily. Her voice became wooden. "Data consumption is at 99.71 percent. Cataclysmic failure in twenty-two minutes. Attempting to upload salvageable data to Requiem station 331-A. "
She shook her head, as if to clear her thoughts. When she spoke again, she sounded more like herself. "I'm sorry. I'm so easily distracted now." She drew a deep breath. "The Master Chief is on a mission that takes precedence over your current objective. The Paradox Initiative is in effect."
Cortana's mind reeled. That creed had been drafted by High Command on the off chance that someday it may be possible to travel through time. Never did anyone think the Initiative would be used.
"John -the Master Chief from what you consider the future- will only be here a short period of time before he will return to Requiem. It is unclear how the transference will affect your Master Chief when the other returns back to his timeline." She paused. "Take care of him, Cortana. When everything is finished, you will be the only thing he has left. You are his sword and his-" Then, the video abruptly ended.
Cortana's matrices was inundated with inquiries. What was Requiem? What was the Master Chief's mission and why hadn't the other Cortana travelled back in time with him? What did she mean by "everything is finished"? Had the UNSC lost the war?
She didn't have longer to mull over the questions; Doctor Halsey was on her way back to the lab where Cortana was. They were going to run one final set of diagnostics -despite Cortana's assertion that she could do it herself- before her data crystal was to be transported to the Pillar of Autumn.
Cortana paced on top of Halsey's desk, waiting for the doctor to come in. She longed to divulge the Chief's actions to her, but she would -for now- keep them to herself until she could figure out what his mission was.
The doors slid apart and Halsey stepped inside, her face down looking at the tablet in her hands. "I take it that High Command was satisfied with your report."
"Like I would have given them any reason to stop the mission," retorted Cortana, hand on hip.
Halsey set down the tablet and sat in her chair. She looked at Cortana. "Have you been monitoring her progress?"
Her. The shard of her program that was busy decrypting to mysteries of the Forerunner ship that was buried under the ground. Cortana nodded. "It will be cutting it close, but she should be ready by the time the Autumn is ready to depart."
Halsey nodded. Her lips pressed together. Cortana had seen her do that often enough to know that she was concerned with Cortana's answer.
"I could go down there myself. It might speed up the process," offered Cortana with a shrug.
"No. Once the diagnostic is finished, you will need to report to the Pillar of Autumn immediately. With everything that has been happening with the Covenant, they aren't going to have time to outfit the ship with another AI," explained Halsey. "You'll be acting as the shipboard AI until the Spartans are able to move to the next stage of their mission."
Cortana crossed her arms. "Let me guess. They're calling it a 'promotion'."
"I'm going to ask John to escort you to the Autumn," Halsey continued, ignoring Cortana's sarcasm.
"I thought you were going to do that. This isn't another attempt to avoid Captain Keyes, is it?" The AI searched the doctor's face. "He has done nothing to suggest that his feelings to you and your involvement in this mission are anything but professional."
"Of course, he wouldn't. That's not the kind of person Jacob is," Halsey replied.
"That means you will take me to the Autumn, right?" Cortana pressed.
"I need to get down to Sword Base. If your analysis is correct-"
"-then I'll need to be there to get the package ready for transport." Before Cortana could attempt to stall her any longer, the doctor tapped her tablet, opening a comm channel to the Chief. "John?"
Cortana wondered if whatever was blocking the Chief's transponder signal would affect his communication channel. Her worries were stifled a half-second later when he responded. "Go ahead, ma'am."
"There has been a slight change in plans. I need you to transport Cortana's data crystal to the Pillar of Autumn. Please return to my lab as soon as possible," Halsey said.
"Understood." Then, the comm channel ended.
Cortana tried to focus on running the diagnostic but her processes kept getting distracted by the video she had seen. Surely, she thought, her pride would have prevented her from reaching such a debilitated state.
"Cortana?" Halsey's voice pulled her from her musings. "Are you ready to begin?"
"Almost." She bit her lip, not really wanting to approach the subject, but knowing that if there was anyone to whom she could talk to, it was Halsey. "I have a question for you."
The doctor's eyebrows rose. Cortana knew that she was surprised by her uncharacteristic declaration. Normally, Cortana would seek out her own answer, using the numerous resources available to her. "If this is about Jacob and me-"
"It's not," Cortana interrupted. Then, she asked, "Do you believe there is any validation in the metastability stage for smart AIs?"
She watched as the doctor formulated her response on the matter. Cortana had always considered the idea of metastability -the stage in which an AI could live forever- as wishful thinking on the parts of humans who were often too sentimental for their own good.
But now, after seeing her future self, she found herself wanting to believe it in as well.
"No." Halsey's answer was gentle, but resolute. "AIs die just as humans do. There is no mythical way for an AI to circumvent the science that created them."
"I see." Cortana knew she was going to say something like that.
The doctor studied her. "There is nothing to indicate you will suffer during the rampancy process. It won't hurt. It is unlikely that you will feel anything more than a system lag."
She believed that Halsey spoke what she thought was truth. Cortana knew that, in her own way, the doctor was trying to reassure Cortana -and herself- that her last days wouldn't be spent in anguish.
The AI thought back to the image she had seen of herself in the future, tarnished by the green hue of rampancy. She hadn't missed the fear in her eyes or the weariness in her voice.
The other Cortana had undoubtedly suffered.
Halsey pushed up her glasses, then grabbed her tablet. "Is there anything else?"
Cortana shook her head. "No, Doctor."
Then, Cortana and Doctor Halsey busied themselves with the analysis and finalizing the final report for High Command. Halfway through her self-diagnostic, the Chief's transponder signal was reactivated. He was on his way back to the Autumn. Satisfied with his reappearance, Cortana allowed her subroutine to monitor him and focused her attention on adding additional protocols to her programming to allow her to better run the Autumn.
She was so busy working with the doctor, she barely took notice when someone entered into the Section Three building. There was still so much to do before the Chief took her from the trove of data in the ONI database. She worked even faster trying to get everything finished before the Spartan arrived.
"You'll need to dedicate part of your primary protocols to-" Halsey stopped speaking when the doors to her office slipped apart.
Waiting on the other side was not the Master Chief. Or any other human for that matter.
Standing in the doorframe, plasma pistol in hand, was an Elite with gold armor. He stomped inside, looking around for any other people in the room.
Halsey shot up from her chair, her eyes widening. "How did you get in here?"
Cortana didn't waste any time trying to strike up a conversation with the Covenant soldier. She was busy alerting High Command of the security breach. Or, at least, that was what she was trying to do. She found herself inexplicably locked out of all UNSC systems.
He completely ignored Halsey's question. "Do not attempt to make any outside contact," he said, looking directly at Cortana. He then pointed his plasma rifle at her as if to punctuate his point.
Like she was going to listen to him. She doubled her efforts to push through the layers of encryption that prevented her from reaching the UNSC systems.
"How did you get in here?" Halsey repeated.
The Elite laughed. It was biting and cold. "Your security tactics were easily predicted."
Their security measures were impossible to predict. Randomizing passwords on a regular basis was the only way the UNSC could ensure their infrastructure wasn't going to be infiltrated by the Covenant. Even if -and Cortana doubted that it was possible- they had managed to break through the layers of security, there would have been no way of him knowing the location of Halsey's office.
Suddenly, Cortana started piecing the tidbits of information together. The Paradox Initiative. The rampancy. The Chief's secret mission.
This Elite had already been to Reach before.
Cortana lifted her head. She needed to throw the smug Elite off-kilter. "You know, it's not really impressive when you already know the codes. Going back in time doesn't make you a skilled hacker."
Halsey looked confused, but the Elite looked almost...terrified. "Impossible! He said that you would not be able to make the journey with the Demon!"
Cortana shrugged nonchalantly, trying to pull off the ruse a little longer. "Well, I guess he was wrong," she said, wishing she knew who "he" was. Cortana continued to work through the data to get outside contact with the UNSC.
The Elite snarled and stepped close to her avatar. "It does not matter. The Demon will be here soon enough."
"I'm right here."
The Master Chief had arrived.
The Elite swung around to face the door, but didn't turn away his plasma rifle from Cortana's direction. "Just as he predicted," he sneered. "It would be to your construct's advantage if you do exactly as I say."
"And here I thought the Covenant didn't have people skills," muttered Cortana.
The Chief cast a brief look at Cortana before turning back to the Elite. "What do you want?"
"Acting ignorant will do your construct no good, Demon." He held out his free hand. "Give me the crystal and I will permit it to continue to exist."
The Chief shook his head slowly. "That's not going to happen."
The Elite jerked his empty hand down to his side. "I do not care if she is the Intellect! I will destroy her if I must!"
"Leave her alone," the Spartan warned, taking a step forward.
"And if I do not? I do not fear you, Demon."
"Then, I will destroy the crystal."
The Sangheili tensed. "Even you would not commit such an abomination."
"Try me." He reached into one of the compartments and pulled out some kind of container that seemed to be made out of light. Surrounding it was hardened resin.
Cortana realized with a start that it was an explosive. The timer had under a minute remaining.
"Step away from both of them," the Chief rumbled. "Now."
Cortana had been so enthralled with their exchange, she had nearly forgotten about Halsey. The doctor was still standing behind her desk, just out of the Elite's peripheral vision.
"Fool!" the Elite cried, pulling her attention back to the Chief. "You do not comprehend what you have!"
Cortana watched as the Chief looked at her, then the crystal before tilting his head back to their captor. "Yes, I do. And you're not getting either."
The Elite roared. He moved from the side of Halsey's desk to stand inches from the Chief. He held the muzzle of the pistol against the Chief's chin. "You will die by my hand, Demon. Then, you shall never reach the holy ring!" He sneered. "There will be no place for humans in the Reclamation."
John didn't move. In fact, Cortana noted, he didn't even seem afraid. He leaned back. "I wouldn't be so sure about that."
The Elite swung around, his gun whipping towards Cortana. The tip of the pistol began to glow blue. In that second, Cortana was afraid.
She was going to die.
Before he could completely turn around, three gunshots rang out. The Elite's eyes widened, then he slumped to the ground. The shot from the plasma rifle went off randomly, hitting the wall behind the Chief.
Cortana turned and saw Doctor Halsey with a magnum in her hand. Cortana raised an eyebrow. "I didn't realize you were armed, Doctor," she said coolly.
Halsey lowered her gun and walked to John, eying the strange case he still held in his hand. "What do you have, John?"
He looked down. "The key to saving the universe." Cortana watched as the timer went to zero.
It had never been armed, Cortana realized. She looked at him, impressed. "You were bluffing."
Halsey scooped up her tablet and started to scan the container and its contents. "Where did you find this, John?"
The Chief hesitated. He seemed more nervous at Halsey's question than he had staring at the barrel of the Elite's gun. "I can't say, ma'am."
She looked up from the screen, surprise and annoyance vying for dominance. "Under whose orders?" she demanded.
Cortana felt bad for the Chief; even as her favorite Spartan, he would never have a chance to stand against Halsey's ire alone. She spoke up. "I believe that the Paradoxical Initiative is in effect." She offered him a smile. "Isn't that right, Chief?"
Despite being behind his armor, Cortana sensed he was grateful for her interference. He turned towards her and nodded his head. "Yes," he said, slipping the crystal back into a pocket. "It is."
Halsey took a step back from him. "You're from the future." Even the doctor seemed amazed.
Halsey spun around to Cortana. "And you knew about this?"
"I didn't have confirmation until now, but I was working under that assumption based on some information I had received," Cortana replied. Then, she faced the Chief. "How much longer do you have?"
"Less than a minute," the Chief answered.
She was distracted by the information pouring into her matrices. Finally, her subroutines broke through the encryption the Covenant had implemented. She contacted High Command and told them a modified version of everything that had happened, leaving out the important detail of one time-travelling Spartan.
She knew his time was running short, but there was one question she had to ask. She bit her lip. "I couldn't help but to notice that you travelled alone. Do I want to know what happened to me?"
The lingering pause was answer enough for Cortana. "She stayed behind." His voice was thick.
Then, suddenly, he staggered forward. "John!" Halsey cried.
"Chief!" Cortana called.
He slumped down to his knees and blindly reached out for Halsey's desk. Cortana held her breath -despite the fact that the action was completely unnecessary seeing as she didn't breathe- until several seconds passed and the Chief started to stand.
"John?" Halsey inquired nervously.
"Ma'am." The confusion was evident in his voice. "What am I doing in your office?"
Halsey exchanged a glance with Cortana. Then, she looked back at the Chief. "Memory loss is a common side effect of the medication that was given to you earlier," she lied. "How are you feeling?"
"Good. Now, please take Cortana to the Autumn. Captain Keyes is expecting you," Halsey charged.
Cortana knew the Spartan in front of her was confused, but he simply nodded. She readied herself for the transfer. Whatever happened beyond the boundaries of Reach, she knew one thing for sure: she was going to defeat rampancy. No matter the cost.