Chapter 1: Resumption
The first sensation she felt was the soft cold ground beneath her, the type of cold that dirt only gets after not seeing the rays of the sun for an untold number of years, or decades as was the case with the ground that was now lying beneath her. Next came the smell. It was the faint scent of hay, although how she knew what hay smelled like was beyond her. Slowly opening her eyes, after realizing that she actually had eyes, the woman got her first glimpse of the building she had landed in, or teleported, or was hallucinating. It being a hallucination was the most likely scenario, all things considered, yet she still took the time to look at her surroundings.
She was in what looked like a stable, although the black decaying hay and bone dry wood that made up what was left of the walls and ceiling told of years of neglect. Towards her immediate front was an open doorway from which bright sunlight flooded the first few meters near the entrance of the dilapidated building. Her eyes not use to real sunlight struggled to cut through the rigid stonewall of brightness. The woman looked down at her body for the first time. She was wearing faded blue jeans, a cotton army green shirt, and simple tan boots on her feet that looked as if they had seen several years of use.
Certainly not clothes that I would have picked for myself, not that I ever needed clothes she thought. Bracing herself on her hands the woman attempted to stand. The trembling legs managed to lift her body halfway before they collapsed beneath her, the woman letting out a sharp cry of pain as a result. Definitely not a rampant hallucination, at least with those I could not feel real pain, and I could actually walk.
This time reaching for the handholds on the wall the woman managed to lift herself up. Letting out a small grunt of triumph she began to work her way towards the entrance, making sure to keep both hands firmly on the wall and going no faster than a shuffles pace. When she reached the exit the woman took a deep breath, suddenly realizing how dry the air actually was, and took her first step out into the sunlight. She almost immediately regretted this decision as her unnaturally pale skin which had never felt the penetrating rays of the sun immediately began to glow red with painful sunburn. The sheer oppressiveness of the desert sun made it feel as if sharp daggers were entering into her newly acquired skin and before her mind was able to register what was happening, her body had already flung her back inside to the cool embrace of the darkness.
A thin, warm trickle of blood drifted down her forward. Wiping it off she looked forward to see what she had hit her head on. In front of her stood a door, free standing, its hinges attached to empty air. The door was ashen grey with familiar symbols scrawled across its impassive face, and upon reaching her hand out to touch it seemed to alternate between radiating a soft warmth to bitter cold.
"Well now this certainly is a surprise," a male voice said from somewhere behind her. The woman quickly moved into a sitting position and instinctively crawled back a few feet. Before her was a man clad in a dark robe, the hood of which covered the top half of his face in solid darkness. There was a smile on his lips But not in his eyes she thought, although she could not actually see his eyes.
"I suppose I have to congratulate you, although I'm sure that you being here is not of your own doing. Still it's not often I'm caught off guard," the man in the dark robe said, his smile growing even wider "Cortana." He finished.
Cortana attempted to say something, anything, but found that she couldn't, little more than a soft moan coming from her unpracticed vocal cords. "Oh but where are my manners?" The man said before waving his left hand in an almost dismissive gesture, the hand itself looking like wax, as if someone had tried to create a human body but failed on some fundamental level. "There now you may speak, you can even stand too if you want." The man in the dark robe said, his smile turning back to a mere grin.
Cortana thought for a moment about standing as he suggested, but decided against it. For some reason she felt safer sitting on the ground (staying close to the door) with her back up against the stable wall. Instead she spoke, and this time words managed to come out "How do you know my name?"
"The same way I know everything else." He said simply.
That damn grin she thought. The man in black took a few steps forward and Cortana had to resist the urge to flinch. He stretched his arm out towards the ash colored door, his hand not quite making contact.
"This shouldn't still be here." He muttered under his breath.
"Who are you? Where is this place?" She asked.
The grin on the man's face finally disappeared, replaced by a look that almost resembled disappointment. "The father asked me those same questions. Given your reputation I had hoped that you would come up with something more, original to ask me." Cortana said nothing and after a few moments the man in the dark robe sighed, "Very well. As to who I am, I could give you a name but it would be a lie. Truth is I've quite forgotten what my real name is, but for the sake of convenience you may call me Walter. As for your second question, you are in the desert."
"I figured that much out for myself Walt." Cortana spat, feeling her old defiance creep back into her. The man in black chuckled at this.
"Now there is the quick wit I've heard so much about. Fine, you are at the way station, the stop between your world and the next, and before you ask me your next question," the man said stopping Cortana as she was about to open her mouth "yes you did die, or at the very least the closest thing a little computer such as yourself can come to dying. Ah but even HAL 9000 in that old Kubrick film feared death did he not?"
She bristled at his answer and glared up at him, folding her still reddened arms across her chest. "I'm not a little computer." She said.
"No, not anymore," he whispered. "You can call this your afterlife, although that is not what this place really is. Oh but look at you, even with all your intelligence you have already gone far passed your ability to comprehend. I'm afraid you're going to have to figure the rest out for yourself." He leaned slightly forward, "And do you know what the good news is?"
"I've decided not to kill you. The doorway is still here which means ka still has a purpose for you. I am interested to see what it is, and" he turned his head to face the entrance of the stable and Cortana followed his gaze. It took her a moment to see what he was looking at but finally she saw it. Just outside the entrance the light seemed to bend ever so slightly, slipping around the nearly invisible figure before finally finding purchase again and continuing its descent towards the floor "you and your friend may yet prove useful to me." The large toothy smile the he had first greeted her with returned fully.
The Spartan opened his eyes and immediately took in a face full of sun. He covered his face with his hand for a few moments until his polarized visor was able to block most of the glare. He got to his feet and checked his equipment, his armor being first. To his surprise it was still fully intact. He rechecked the systems in his suit to make sure, and frowned slightly when they all came back green again. There should at least be some damage he thought. There were only two options as to why this was the case, and the Master Chief didn't like either of them. The first was that this was some type of dream, the mind's last desperate gasp before death. He had been dead before, at least technically speaking, and had experienced those hallucinations first hand before being resuscitated by either a fellow Spartan or a combat medic. But this feels too real to be one of those. That left the second option that he was teleported here by some Forerunner system or construct just prior to the impact of the plasma mortar, and based on his personal experience that never meant anything good.
The Master Chief checked his weapons as he attempted to raise fire team Majestic, then Spartan Sara Palmer, and then Captain Lasky, but received no reply. He had two fragmentation grenades, 230 rounds for his assault rifle, 82 for his pistol, a full load of 120 rounds for the light rifle he had relieved from a dead Promethean, and a fully charged Energy Sword. Scanning the horizon the Spartan saw a small group of worn down buildings in the direction that his HUD identified as west, with the large sun that had blinded him only minutes before just beginning to make its descent towards what appeared to be mountains in the far off distance. The sun didn't look right to the Master Chief. It wasn't Requiem's sun, it was too…
I could give you 40,000 different reasons why that sunset isn't real…but I'll never know if it feels real.
He shook his head slightly, chasing the thought away. Thinking about the past, thinking about her would just get him killed, and he needed to find a way to get back to his unit. Walking towards the small cluster of buildings the Master Chief picked up what appeared to be two people talking with his augmented hearing. He was still too far away to make out what they were saying, but one voice was that of a young woman perhaps in her mid twenties, the other was a man but he couldn't estimate what age that individual might be. Not wanting to take chances the Spartan activated his camouflage unit which rendered him nearly invisible and sprinted towards the nearest building, his heavy boots hardly making any noise on the hard pan desert floor.
Reaching the side of the ramshackle stable that the voices seemed to be coming from the Spartan put the side of his helmet up against the dry cracked wood and listened, "Oh but look at you, even with all your intelligence you have already gone far pass your ability to comprehend. I'm afraid you're going to have to figure the rest out for yourself, and do you know what the good news is?" That was the male's voice, a second later he heard the woman's voice respond.
"What?" The voice sounded familiar. It sounds like…he cut that thought off before it even started and moved towards the entrance of the stable, exchanging his assault rifle for his pistol.
"I've decided not to kill you." The Master Chief quickened his pace at this statement and soon reached the entrance, scanning the interior with his pistol drawn. In the middle of the room was a man dressed in a black robe, his face hidden. A few feet from him sat a young woman with black shoulder length hair. In between them stood the door. The Spartan didn't dare look at her again, knowing who she reminded him of, and instead focused his targeting reticule on the man, center mass. He hadn't established himself as a threat yet, but the Master Chief wanted to be ready all the same. The man in black turned his head and despite the Spartan's active camouflage seemed to look at him directly in the eye. "You and your friend may yet prove useful to me, isn't that right John?" The dark man smiled at him.
"Chief" Cortana said. Before John could even register his movements, a feat he had not thought possible by any non augmented human, the dark man had crossed the distance between himself and Cortana, bringing the open palm of his right down on the back of her head knocking her out cold and resulting in a sickening slap. The Master Chief adjusted his aim and fired off a single round, but missed, the bullet impacting one of the support beams and causing the dry wood to disintegrate into dust. The roof of the stable sagged slightly but managed to keep from collapsing.
"Only misfires against me John." The dark man said chuckling to himself. John adjusted the grip on his pistol and brought the sights up to the man's head.
"On your knees, or I won't miss this time." The Chief said.
"But you will, and it seems you have a choice to make. You can either chase after me through the desert or go through the doorway with her." He gestured down to the limp form of Cortana as he began to move back into the shadows. "I'm sure you could survive long enough to make it to the mountains, but I doubt she will. There are many paths to the Tower but you may choose only one." After he finished talking the man in black melted into the darkness. There was a sharp birdlike cry and a crow flew out of the space where he had stood only moments before, swiftly passing just a few inches by John's helmeted head. With practiced precision the Spartan twirled around and fired his pistol at the bird, but missed yet again.
The Chief turned back into the stable and knelt by Cortana's unconscious and inexplicably human form. After scanning the room for additional threats John looked at the face of his friend, the person whom he had supposedly lost over seven months ago. After several moments the Spartan seemed to make a decision. He picked her up and made two short strides towards the door. Grabbing onto the brass door knob, the Master Chief almost thought he heard the sound of bells ringing. After taking a deep breath, and deciding that maybe this was a dying hallucination after all, he turned the handle and opened the door. Instead of seeing the far wall of the stable, John saw a dense green forest, not unlike the ones he grew up with on Reach. The bells seemed to grow louder as the Spartan walked through, the door closing by itself behind him before slowly fading away.