As always, thanks for the continued interest! This part of the chapter might be a little confusing, but stick with me. The next part should provide some clarity if you're too lost. (Let's just go with the Butterfly Theory effect for now.)
Also, to answer a question that I received...yes, this story is completely plotted out and is finished. (Almost. I'm doing little tweaks as I post each chapter.) And I'm not going to give away any plotlines. That would be spoiling the fun! :)
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Random memories from times that he remembered differently assailed him as John was pulled back through the tendrils of time.
The drive through the Autumn is rougher than John expected. The Warthog bounces as he is going as fast as he can through the damaged ship. Around him, Grunts and Elites are shooting at him and the Flood that has taken over the Autumn. He dodges the bullets and bursts of plasma as best as he is able, but his shields are still taking a beating.
As the Warthog sails over another small gap, he glances at the time on the countdown. Less than four minutes are remaining.
He pushes the pedal harder.
"Cortana to Echo 419, request extraction now, on the double!" Cortana's voice is tense.
They are running out of time.
"Affirmative, Cortana. Foe Hammer inbound."
John continues to weave through the firefight. The Warthog bounces as the uneven ground of the ship rolls underneath them. He steers the transport to an open ledge.
"Wait, stop! This is where Foe Hammer is coming to pick us up. Hold position. Wait. Cortana to Echo 419, I'm detecting a couple of Covenant Banshees on your six. Evade. Say again, evade!"
John scans the horizon for the aircrafts, but can't see anything yet. He waits in the Warthog, ready to plow through any Flood that are foolish enough to come to the open landing.
Rawley's voice is calm when she responds. "We've got it, Cortana. Lieutenant, get on those ASMs and show those Covenant who they're messing with."
Less than a minute later, smoke plumes from the sky.
"Do you think..." Cortana's voice trails off.
John is silent for a moment, listening for any sounds of aircraft flying towards them. "I don't-"
"Echo 419 to Cortana, are you and the Chief ready to get off this ring or what?" John sees the Pelican coming towards them. It's the first good thing he has seen all day.
He hops out of the Warthog as the Pelican makes its final approach. John barely waits for the ramp to touch the ground before climbing up it. As he steps into the rear corridor, Foe Hammer starts to fly from the surface. He walks to where her and her co-pilot are in the cabin. "Thanks," he says sincerely.
Rawley flashes him a wide grin. "I have you to thank, Chief. If you hadn't made that comment about not having too much firepower right before we left Reach, I might not have been convinced to make the last minute adjustments to add the missile pods." She shakes her head. "I'd hate to think what would happen if I hadn't done that."
John frowns. He doesn't remember saying that to her, but so much of that night is still a blur to him.
"I would suggest powering down as soon as possible," Cortana says. "We're going to need the engines later to figure out some sort of escape plan."
Rawley nods. "You've got it, Cortana."
John walks to the back of the cabin. There are a half-dozen Marines and three ODSTs there, looking as exhausted as he feels. He takes a seat away from all of them.
It doesn't take long for the ship to shudder as debris from the explosion hits the Pelican.
"Halo. It's finished." Cortana sounds relieved.
John shakes his head. "No. I think it's just getting started."
Nothing is right.
Cortana is still trapped on High Charity with the Gravemind. Johnson has been ambushed by Truth's armada and taken captive by the Prophet. Miranda isn't responding on her comm channel.
John is starting to lose faith in Cortana's solution.
He casts a worried glance at the Arbiter knowing that the former Elite can't see the expression behind his visor.
They are making their way to the Ark's control center, not knowing what dangers are awaiting them. He checks his rifle as they step on the gravlift. His gun is ready to take out whatever is waiting for them.
A single gunshot catches his attention as they are riding up the lift.
"Stop her!" John recognizes the voice as Truth.
The Arbiter's grip on his energy sword tightens.
John wills for the lift to move faster. The seconds seem to stretch until finally he can see the top. When the lift stops, John looks down the long corridor. He can see Truth and hear a struggle. A pool of blood is forming on the ground, but John can't see where it is coming from.
"Let me go!" It is Miranda.
Seconds later, the lights down the corridor are lit. The Halo Array is active.
He and the Arbiter move to go where Miranda is, but are stopped by two Tank Forms of the Flood. "Do not shoot, but listen! Let me lead you safely to our foe. Only you can stop what he has set in motion."
Accepting help from the enemy is not something John is accustomed to doing, but until he is able to figure out what is going on, he is willing to work with the Flood. He nods reluctantly.
As John crosses the light bridge with the Arbiter, he can't help but to notice how quiet everything has become. When he steps onto the platform, he sees an infected Brute. Then, he turns away and sees Miranda holding Johnson, who is dead from a single gunshot wound in his chest.
She looks at him guiltily. "He told me-" Her voice catches in her voice. She gently closes Johnson's still-open eyelids. She whispers, "It wasn't supposed to be like this."
She looks at John. When she speaks, her voice is louder, "Stop the rings. Save everyone else."
All John wants to do is to go home.
The plan to eliminate the Flood was simple: Miranda was going to escort Cortana to the control panel so the AI could activate the Index while he stood watch at the door, protecting them from any Flood that tried to get inside the control room.
But Guilty Spark had other plans.
When Guilty Spark had attacked Miranda after realizing that they intended to fire the rings before the Installation was complete, John used the Spartan Laser to destroy the rampant AI.
John glances at the now non-functioning Monitor with a scowl before looking at his fallen friend.
Miranda groans slightly as he moves to her side. Burns cover her torso, blood stains her once-pristine uniform.
She is dying.
"I'm getting you out of here," he vows, wishing he had something to tend her wounds.
She shakes her head. Her eyes are getting glassy. "No, Chief, I'm not going to be able to finish this fight." She reaches out and takes his hand. Cortana's chip is between their palms. "Take care of her, Chief. Don't ever leave her behind." She coughed. "Tell my mother that I love..."
Her eyes roll in the back of her head. Her grip around John's hands slackens. Cortana's chip slips from her hold. John grips the crystal securely.
Miranda is dead.
John stands up slowly, grief washing over him. This wasn't part of the plan. Woodenly, he walks to the control panel and holds out Cortana's chip for her to activate the Index.
She looks up at him, sadness in her eyes. "Chief...I am so sorry."
So is he.
"This wasn't supposed to happen!"
John recognizes Cortana's voice as his mind is lured from the darkness of unconsciousness. He doesn't know where he is; based on the darkness that engulfs the ship, it is safe to say they haven't made it back to earth through their journey through the Portal.
"Where are we?" John asks.
"Unknown. The Portal collapsed before we could get through." There is a bitterness to her voice that catches John off-guard. "Maybe you really can't change your destiny."
John pulls himself in the direction of the cryobay. Being in a cryotube will be the only way for him to survive floating in deep space until the UNSC finds them. He slips Cortana's crystal into the reader and her avatar appears from the holotank. "What destiny?"
She runs her hand through her hand and starts pacing in a tight circle. She casts him a guilty look. "I've been keeping something from you. Since Reach."
A gnawing feeling settles over John. He has always known something happened that night when he had delivered Cortana to the Autumn.
"I shouldn't tell you this." She flashes him a apologetic look. "There is still the issue of polluting the prime timeline, but let's just say that when you wake up, you need to be ready to fight."
"Who told you this?"
She turns away from him, avoiding his question. "You should get in the cryotube."
A haunted look covers her face. "I did. I received a message from a future Cortana."
His brows furrow. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
"The Paradox Initiative was in effect." She lets out a soft sigh. "And I was doing what I could do make sure the the future didn't repeat itself. You didn't see her. The other Cortana. She was dying." Cortana stops her walking and looks John squarely in the eye. "That's not going to happen to me."
Though his mind is having trouble wrapping around the validity of her words, he knows she is telling him the truth. John has never seen Cortana so upset; not even when he rescued her from the Gravemind. He wonders what was on that video.
He has faith that Cortana will be able to achieve what the other Cortana could not. "I know it's not."
"I guess we know what I'll be doing while you're taking a nap." She flashes him an impish grin. It's forced, but it makes John feel a little less awkward. "I won't even have time to miss you."
John takes that as his cue to move towards the cryotube. He is worried about his friend and hopes she doesn't do anything too risky while he is cut off from the world around them. "Wake me...if you need me."
She put her hand on her hip. "I'll be fine, Chief."
Images, sounds, smells, and memories compounded on top of each other. John felt his head roaring, demanding for an end to the overwhelming sensations. A scream was ripped from him as he was dragged through the space-time continuum.
Then, thankfully, there was silence.