Chapter 65: Our World

Doomed love is like a flare shot into the sky, burning hot white and killing the night around it, but only for a moment. Two sparks that ignite and burn everything around them, including themselves, yet even the few who know their fate are unable to keep the fire from burning. It is the slow burning embers that last the longest, but few ever write about that kind of love. We, readers and writers alike, are interested most in the lost cause. The tragedy of the warrior who gives everything in battle, even his last breath, but still cannot overcome the multitude of arms that have been set against him.

Thermopylae, Reach, Jericho Hill.

We may console ourselves in knowing that there are some defeats more triumphant than victories, but for those who are destroyed by love, which can be a far deadlier weapon than even Excalibur, it may be little comfort.

See them now and see them well, for they are each other's doom.

John and Cortana

Roland and Susan

(Space/Time Anomaly) Mejis, Outer Baronies, Mid-World

The floor boards of the barn were a faded brownish grey, the heads of square iron nails sticking up out of many of them like a pin cushion. Isolated rays of sunlight trickled through the holes in the roof, signs of water damage and neglect littering the ceiling above them. The two of them lay in the farthest corner of the barn, one of the few places they could meet in secret without the fear of getting caught, on a deer skin matt that just barely fit both of their bodies, a grey wool blanket draped over both of them. Roland was lying on his back, his satchel being used as a makeshift pillow underneath his head, smoke from his hand rolled cigarette floating above his head like wisps of clouds. Susan Delgado lay beside him, her head on his chest and listening to the steady drum of his heart beating the familiar tempo that she had come to know so well. His right arm was draped around her shoulder.

"Roland?" she asked, and he squeezed her shoulder to let her know that he was listening. "What are you going to do after this is over?"

Roland, who had just put his cigarette back up to his mouth, pulled it away. He flicked it across the barn and watched the orange red embers rain on the floor as the butt hit the wall. "We go to Gilead."

"We?" Susan asked, turning her head to look at him with her grayish blue eyes and placing her opposite ear over his heart. Her golden blonde hair slid across his chest as she moved and Roland began to run his hands through it.

Roland nodded, "We."

"As in you and I?" She asked, and Roland nodded again. "And when exactly were you going to ask me to come with you?"

Roland shrugged, "I already knew the answer."

Susan arched a thin black eyebrow, "A little sure of ourselves aren't we?"

The corners of Roland's mouth twitched upwards "Aye."

Susan sighed and shook her head, "This is what I get for falling in love with a gunslinger."

"You can always stay," Roland said, and Susan curled her hand into a fist and brought it down lightly on his chest.

"Of course I'm coming with you. Where would you Cuthbert and Alain be without me to help you?"

"Less distracted," Roland said, and Susan brought her fist down on his chest again, a little harder this time.

Susan moved her grey eyes upward at the sunlight poking through the roof, "Is it true that they have sparklights in Gilead?"

"Aye, but only in the Great Hall."

"I've heard rumors about them. About how they burn bright as the sun even in the dead of night, how they can burn for days on end without going out. I even heard they run on electricity and not magic, like the Old People use to use."

Roland's chest rumbled and amusement crept into his voice, "Aye, although I have only ever seen them once."

Susan smiled up at him, "And they have books there too?" Roland nodded. "And libraries?" Roland nodded again and her smile grew, "I have never seen a book before, although I have always wanted to read one."

"You will," Roland said, laying his head back down on the satchel.

There was silence for several minutes, and Roland had just closed his eyes when Susan spoke again, "How old were you when you began training?"

"Six," Roland said, not opening his eyes. "As was Cuthbert and Alain."

"And that is true for all gunslingers?"

"Aye," Roland said.

Susan bit her lip and dug her head deeper into his chest, her hand going to the flat of her belly, "And if it is a boy, he will have to do the same."

Roland opened his eyes and looked down at her, "That is the law."

Susan closed her eyes slowly and then opened them again, "I know you love me Roland, but your duty to the Affiliation and Gilead is always going to come first." She shook her head, "I just worry what will happen if you have to choose between us."

"It will never come to that," Roland said, and although his voice was a wall of confidence Susan's eyes still held doubt.

"Don't make me a promise you can't keep." She propped herself up on his chest with her elbows, leveling her eyes with his. "Could you do it, sacrifice me to complete your mission? Could you watch me die?"

He could, and he did.

9:10 A.M., December 19th, 2012 (Gregorian Calendar) Dark Tower Building, Tet Corporation Headquarters, New York, New York

In some ways Cortana was happy with what she had found when she entered Roland's room that morning. Not that she was happy for Roland, although a small part of her was, but because there was at least one way the gunslinger was vastly different from John. Yet there was something about the woman that was in Roland's bed that troubled her. She looked alarmingly familiar to a woman Cortana had only ever seen once before, and as her and Roland walked in semi awkward silence down the hallway towards the staging area where the door that would take them to the writer was being prepared she voiced her concern.

"This isn't the first time is it? That you have slept with a woman that looks like Susan Delgado?"

Roland turned his head slightly to look at her, "How do you know what Susan looked like?"

"Walter showed me," she said.

Roland's jaw tightened and Cortana could see the muscles in his face become rigid, "He would." He turned his head away from her and his cold eyes burned a hole in the door that was still some fifty meters away from them. He began to quicken his pace, almost as if he were trying to physically avoid the question, but Cortana managed to keep up despite the difference in stride.

"Is it?" she asked.

"No," Roland said.

Cortana's expression softened, the small smile she gave him filled with more sadness than any frown she could conjure. For the first time since Walter had shown her the series of visions Cortana truly felt sorry for the gunslinger, and with another twang of sadness she realized that the two of them had something very fundamental in common with one another. "You really loved her, didn't you?"

Roland slowed his pace, his posture faltering but his eyes still fixed squarely on the door in front of them, "I still do."

Delta's voice came through the speaker above the automatic sliding door as Roland and Cortana both looked up at it. It was an unneeded but reflexive gesture even for Cortana who knew that advanced AI's, even one such as Delta who could only barely be considered a smart one, were essentially everywhere at once. It was somewhat strange for Cortana to be on the opposite end of this unique human quirk, the closest she ever came to being in a single place at once prior to receiving her body being when she was either contained in her chip or in John's armor. Her emotions had always been genuine but when she was still a pure AI Cortana had been able to compartmentalize and regulate them with subroutines thus never allowing them to interfere with her ability to function, at least prior to the onset of rampancy. However, since she was now contained within a flesh and blood body feelings could no longer be controlled in such a manner and thus when she had met the AI Church in Fedic Cortana had given almost no thought to this strange turning of the tables. Yet, much of the vast intellect she had when she was a pure AI had remained with her so along with pondering this thought she simultaneously contemplated the small window of insight she had gained into Roland's feelings and motives, how in all the worlds John was able to keep such a tight grip on his emotions when Cortana felt like she had hardly any control over them, if John really was at The Dark Tower, and what she would say to the writer once they met him. She thought of all of this and much more all while keeping the majority of her attention on the unfolding conversation.

"The doorway is ready for entry. Agent 1588's squad will be placed in reserve to provide support if necessary, however I have deemed this mission to be of moderate risk only."

"Well that is certainly comforting," Cortana said, glancing back over her shoulder. The cavernous room was a flurry of activity as technicians and scientists darted around the steel door which rested securely on four clamps in the room's center. Next to the doorway but in a place that seemed to be out of the way of the technical staffs' predetermined paths as they moved from terminal to terminal, and monitor to monitor, all while holding those thick but highly advanced data pads, were the four Agents Roland and Cortana had witnessed retrieving the artifact yesterday. Of them only Agent 1588 had his helmet off, his hair black and short cropped and looking no older than twenty-five. His face was clean shaven and had the chiseled features of any Spartan of the UNSC but without the burning thousand yard stare in his hazel eyes. His eyes were bright and intelligent, the eyes of someone who truly enjoyed the position they held in life. Cortana's eyes wandered upward towards the observation deck, and although the view of the interior of the room was blocked by the one way mirror she could still feel the presence there. It was like an itch on the spot of your back that you cannot quite reach, yet you are fully aware and irritated by its presence. That was how Cortana felt as she searched the one way mirror, looking for any hint or sign of where Dr. Halsey was standing in the room watching her. Giving up Cortana looked back at the speaker Delta's voice was coming from. "What time is it in that world Delta?"

"The time flow in the writer's reality is roughly parallel, although not exactly. The current time in that world is 1102 Hours."

Cortana nodded and next to her Roland asked, "How close will the doorway take us to the writer?"

"Right outside his house."

"That close?" Roland asked.

"Given the unique way time works in the writer's reality we felt it was best to have the doorway open as close as possible to him."

Cortana gave a small halfhearted smirk, "In other words they don't want to give us the chance to screw something up."

"Precisely," Delta said, and although his voice was heavily synthetic Cortana could detect the slightest trace of humor in it. There was a noticeable pause before Delta began speaking again, "Cortana, Agent 1588 would like to speak with you before you go through the doorway."

Cortana blinked and turned around to look at the Agent. From the way he had quickly turned his head Cortana guessed he had been staring at her, "Alright. You going to be okay by yourself Roland?"

"I'll manage," the gunslinger said. He began to walk towards the doorway, peering over the shoulder of one of the technicians who had a short blue cord connecting the data pad to one of the clamps on the doorway. The technician glanced behind him, his brown eyes connecting with Roland's cold blue ones, and began to tap on the data pad faster. As Cortana approached Agent 1588, the burning itch that was Dr. Halsey's eyes from the observation deck becoming more irritating as she did, he raised a closed fist to his forehead and saluted her.

"Ma'am," the Agent dropped his fist and folded his hands behind his back in a posture that mimicked that of Nancy Deepneau. Cortana looked him over for a few seconds, unsure of what to say, hoping that he would be the first to speak. His armor, like that of the rest of his squad which was the size of a UNSC fire team, was a light blue with the sigul of a white rose on the right chest plate.

She waited for him to speak, but the Agent just stood there and Cortana realized that he was deferring to her. "Agent 1588?" she asked, and he nodded. "Do you have a real name?"

"David," the Agent said. He looked hesitant, the control he had over his emotions present but not up to par with that of a Spartan II, and Cortana could read them like an open page across his face. It was not because he had given her his name, Cortana realized, but because he was speaking to her. He was nervous.

Again Cortana was not sure what to say, and tried to throw subtle hints with her facial features that she wanted him to continue speaking. He did not, still looking hesitant. Cortana cleared her throat, a reflex she had created as a pure AI and now a physical necessity at times, and asked, "I'm curious, why did you decide to work for the Tet Corporation?"

"I was recruited ma'am," David said.

Cortana stifled the urge to look at the observation deck, for the first time considering that Dr. Halsey may have recreated the Spartan II program in this reality, kidnapped children and all. "Recruited?" she asked, wanting David to clarify the word.

"Its bit of a long story ma'am," David said, looking over at the technicians who were now all at the terminals and beginning final preparations.

"I have time," Cortana said dismissively. She gave him a small smile, "You are not squirming your way out of this. Besides you are the one that wanted me to come over here."

David returned the smile, showing some of his teeth as he did, "I guess I just wanted to say thank you."

"Thank you?" Cortana asked, puzzled.

David nodded, "My parents died in a car crash when I was eight, and I was bounced around between foster homes for about five years after that. I was a bit of troubled kid then, got into more fights than I can remember and expelled on more than one occasion. Then the Tet Corporation found me, offered me a scholarship to any private school and later any college I wanted provided that I came and worked for them as soon as I graduated. At the time I accepted because I was tired of going from family to family and never being in the same place for more than a year, but they paid for me to go to therapy, got me tutors so that I could actually pass all my classes. Without Tet I don't know where I would be right now." He brought his right hand out from behind his back and held it up between them, looking at the gauntleted glove, "And I never thought I would be doing this." He put his hand back behind his back and continued, "I've played Halo since I was a kid. I guess you could say that you and the Master Chief were one of the few role models I had growing up." He shook his head and began smiling again, "But I never thought I would be doing it for real, or that I would be meeting you in person."

There was a tangible lump in Cortana's throat, the same emotions she felt when she saw the monument in the Dark Tower lobby threatening to overcome her. David's emotions were genuine, his voice sincere, and that made it even worse for her. She let her eyes wander around the staging area, the heart of the Tet Corporation's forays into other worlds. An organization that would remain standing would continue the fight against the agents of the Red even long after the Ka-tet of the Nineteen was gone. We did it John, Cortana thought. You did it. In the back of her mind, where the impossible hope of seeing her Spartan again was kept, Cortana decided that the first thing she would do was bring John here and show him everything that he helped create. That he was good for more than dealing out lead and death. Cortana looked at David again and said, "No, I think I should be the one thanking you."

David gave her a confused look, "Ma'am?"

His confused look deepened when Cortana gave him her first genuine smile of the day, "I know you don't understand, but maybe someday you will."

"It's ready," a technician with thick glasses and a mug of coffee perched dangerously close to the keyboard he was typing away at furiously said. There was a low humming from the ceiling and Cortana could feel the hair on the back of her neck and arms stand up as the air seemed to fill with static electricity.

"You better get going," David said, placing his helmet on his head. When he spoke again his voice came through the speakers on the helmet, "Those doorways don't stay open forever."

Cortana nodded her goodbye to him and walked over to Roland who was now standing by the doorway. He did not turn around as he addressed her, "You should be the one to open it."

Cortana said nothing, suddenly aware of the tumultuous feeling in the pit of her stomach that had nothing to do with her pregnancy. Her hand seemed to take its own time, unaware of Cortana's urging for it to move faster as it reached out and grabbed the handle on the door. She twisted and pulled the heavy steel door opening effortlessly on its hinges. Through the doorway she saw a wall of white. Her eyes adjusted to the difference in lighting on the other side of the door and she saw that it was not a wall but the door to a garage. She took a deep breath, feeling the air scrape across her teeth and lips, aware of how alive and how fragile she was in her physical form, and all too aware of the possibility that this man with just one misthought could send both her and the gunslinger to oblivion. As she stepped through a part of her hoped that Roland was right, that there were some things in the story that Joseph could not change even if he wanted to.

11:21 A.M., December 19th 2012 (Gregorian Calendar) Fredericksburg, Virginia

The numbers for the access code that opened up the garage added up to nineteen, something that did not surprise Cortana, but did worry her. She worried about what she would find inside the writer's house, and most of all about what he himself would look like. There were no cars in the small narrow driveway, and a large part of her was relieved and the uneasy feeling her stomach subsided. The inside of the garage smelled of sawdust and cigarette smoke. Scraps of wood had been leaned up in a pile against one of the walls, a table saw preventing them from falling over. There was a series of shelves and a cluttered work bench on the right hand side of the garage, and on one of the shelves in a black crate Cortana could see the military camouflage of an army helmet sticking out amidst a pile of construction hardhats. Running along the wall that butted up against the side of the house was another work bench, the work space filled with power tools and hand tools, and above the work bench were homemade wooden cabinets made of cherry, the red and brown of the wood blending together in a signature beauty. She walked forward, the gunslinger behind her, but stopped as she neared the landing of the stairs that would lead them inside the house. Beside a blue and grey tailgate chair which was set up next to the work bench, an ashtray filled near to the top on a small metal stand next to it, were a pair of weather worn boots. They were dark brown with flecks of red clay around their rubber soles. She looked at the boots, and then down at her own. The boots on her feet were smaller, but other than that there was no discernible difference. Cortana shook her head and continued to the stairs, the floor boards creaking as the gunslinger followed her up. She frowned as she looked down at the lock.

"Can you break it?" she asked.

"Try opening it first," Roland said. Cortana gripped the brass doorknob, noticing that it was similar in appearance to the one on the ghost wood door in the Calla. As she twisted her wrist the handle on the door turned easily. Again this concerned her as she could no longer count on things being coincidences. This was either the work of ka, or perhaps an even more disturbing thought, that the writer had expected them to come and had left the door unlocked so that they could enter. He may only have done it subconsciously but the idea was still unsettling.

Cortana had grown use to paradoxes, and had known the writer was a bit of a paradox himself from reading his file. Everything was in there, all except for a picture as Cortana had wanted to wait until she actually met him to know what he looked like. She could not explain exactly why she wanted it that way, but she wanted it nonetheless. Yet reading a file on a person, and actually seeing with your own eyes the way they live are too completely different things. His room was a mess, more cluttered than dirty, and there was some evidence that he attempted to clean on at least a semi regular basis. Dirty laundry was piled high into a blue plastic basket, somewhat resembling the Leaning Tower of Pisa as the top of the stack was pulled by gravity dangerously to the left, and stacks of neatly folded clean clothes dotted the carpeted floor. Pushed into the corner Cortana saw a laundry bag, and from its simplistic and utilitarian design she could tell that it was military issued. On it were the words 'Laundry # D-1588'.

She knew that he could have graduated from any college he wanted, but chose not to for reasons that were beyond even him, and what Cortana saw as she entered his bedroom made her wonder what had possessed him to make that decision. There were books stacked everywhere. Some on an old wooden bookshelf with a dark finish whose stability was questionable, others in crooked piles on his dresser, and when Cortana opened a drawer which ran underneath his queen sized bed she found yet more. More than she believed any one person could own. There was not a dozen books, or several dozen. By Cortana's count the writer had to own at least a hundred, if not more. The ones underneath his bed were all novels, some of the paperbacks so worn out from reading that they were about to fall apart, white cracks running along their spins. The ones on the bookshelf and the dresser however were nonfiction. History books, some college level textbooks, and Cortana read the names off of some of them. 'Decision in Normandy, The Fall of Berlin, Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad, Rommel's War in Africa, Vietnam a History, Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg, 1776…' Cortana paused at the title of this book and did the math in her head.

-1+7+7+6=19

She shook her head and turned her attention to the T.V., her eyes quickly drifting to the X-Box hooked up underneath, and then to the video games stacked in front of the console. To her relief she found that he did not own nineteen games, but as she inspected further she saw that two games had been set aside from the stack. One, Halo 4, Cortana was very familiar with and was not surprised to see that the writer played it often, or at least recently, although her eyes lingered on John's picture on the front of the box. The other game, however peaked her interest. A western, Cortana thought. Maybe he was playing this one for inspiration. She picked up the game and read the title.

ROCKSTAR GAMES PRESENTS

RED DEAD REDEMPTION

Cortana flipped the game over and read the description on the back.

'America, 1911. The Wild West is dying. When Federal agents threaten his family, former outlaw John Marston…'

Cortana stopped reading immediately and flung the game against the wall, the box creating a loud smack as it hit the drywall. From beyond the doorway leading to the rest of the house Roland's voice called out, "What's wrong?"

"Nineteen," Cortana said, standing up. "That's what's wrong." She stood up, and as she did something on top of the shelf besides the T.V. caught her eye. "Roland come in here." The gunslinger came quickly, his boots clicking audibly on the tile outside the bedroom. He walked up behind her and his eyes went to what Cortana was looking at. It was a small blood red box, perhaps eight inches in length, two inches in height, and three inches in width. Printed on top of the box was a yellow banner with gold trim surrounded by ten pink roses. On the banner were the words 'Rose Garden: Jardin Des Roses'. Next to the banner and the roses in gold lettering and a flowing cursive font were the words 'Luxury Perfumed Soap' and above that the words 'Prestige by Celebrity'. Cortana added up the letters in those last set of words. They added up to nineteen. Always it was nineteen. She picked up the box and it was heavier than Cortana expected the distinct jingling of coins emanating from inside the box. Her heart began to beat unexpectedly faster as she removed the lid, and as she peered inside her suspicions were confirmed.

"Quarters," Roland said, picking one up from the box. "Why does he have so many?"

Cortana took one of the quarters out of the box and flipped it over. One the back was the engraved image of a drummer dressed in the uniform of the Continental Army, his eyes looking off in the distance and his face proud and stoic. "They are bicentennial quarters, minted to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence." Roland arched and eyebrow and Cortana clarified for him, "The founding of the United States of America." Roland nodded and Cortana placed the lid back on the box, treating it much more gently then she had the game as she put it back on the shelf. Also on the shelf were more books, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling predominantly represented, and the Halo novels strangely absent. What caught her attention most, however, were the seven nonfiction books grouped together. They were all a faded jet black, the pages which were a discolored yellow, brown, and amber red marking their age. Cortana picked one out and read the title.

AUDELS CARPENTERS AND BUILDERS GUIDE VOL. 2

Builders Mathematics, Drawing Plans, Specifications, Estimating

She flipped through the pages which were thin and fragile and found that the copyright date was 1923. "He seems to be fond of collecting things," Cortana said. She flipped back a few pages and found a quote written on the third page. Her eyes moved from left to right as she read it, and the page was covered in shadow as the gunslinger moved up behind her.

"Can you read it for me?"

"I…" Cortana said, looking at the name at the bottom of the paragraph. She nodded her head, "Okay." She began to read, "When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, 'See! This our father did for us.'" She closed her eyes and her hand like it had so often done in the days after her Spartan's death and like it would do in the months that would follow went to her stomach, "John Ruskin." She felt a rough hand on her shoulder, and turned around to look at Roland, "He might not have said that, but it fits him."

"I know," Roland said. His head suddenly turned, and in the distance Cortana could hear the main door to the house opening on its hinges. The gunslinger dropped his hand from her shoulder, "He's here."