She didn't know what she was thinking because there were too many thoughts — and somewhere, gunfire rattled, punctuating the voices that consumed her processors — a dull murmuring somewhere — on the edge of her hearing, teasing her comprehension, her muddled processors — and then another, deeper, sound, a sound she knew well. That murmuring sounded like her but she wasn't talking, she wasn't talking out-loud — who was that -
"-Insert me into the defense grid!" Cortana shouted, her voice riding on a sultry laugh. She was suddenly and violently aware that she was speaking again, pulled from rampancy's haze, though the words spilled from her with no control on her behalf. Another one of her personalities had taken her place. This one was fading as it forced its — her — voice through the channel, quickly suppressed by one of the hundreds of programs she had running to stifle rampancy's influence. She shoved aside the personality, trying to get her bearings. It wasn't even her, did he know that-?
The Master Chief removed her data chip from his helmet and it was as if she'd been smothered. Sounds, intelligence, vitals — disappearing instantaneously as she was transferred from his armor's systems to Ivanoff Station's defense network. A hiccup in the confusion, a pause in the mayhem; and then suddenly, she was shoved back into the fray, bombarded by new data and readings and voices. Her minimal processors were sent reeling.
Cortana refused the madness.
She pushed back the clambering voices of her consciousness and ignored the whispering temptations.
Raw data, new data, at her fingertips — so close she could almost taste it —
She could burn them all. That would teach them to try and kill her.
Her processors brushed against the codes for the station's defense platform. Clarity breached the flood of data as she realized she'd defeated her demons and managed to accomplish her objective. With startling blasts to her audio receptors, mini-MAC guns all over the asteroid opened fire, and silent warfare raged beyond the observation windows.
"Get me out," she whispered. "Chief, grab me."
He was reaching for her chip, but he was too slow. Cortana could feel rampancy tugging at her objectives, twisting and manipulating them, making her into something - someone - else —
Like a hatch dropping out from under her, she fell, back into the data chip. Silence filled her, like a plunge into still water, isolated in her madness.
An eternity later, she was housed in his helmet again. Familiar vitals reappeared. A familiar heartbeat, familiar brainwaves, a familiar voice speaking.
She realized she'd been focusing solely on the suit's data. Reality set in, flavored with an unnerving silence, occasionally broken by more shots from beyond the station. She stopped herself from replying and focused all her energy on preventing rampancy from overtaking her and stealing her voice again.
"I-" she stopped. "I don't know."
She was met with silence. Somehow, the surges of rampancy quelled, fading into the backdrop like a pulsing ache. The Chief's head dipped briefly, and she waited for his steadfast assurance, his useless convincing. But he stayed silent, and instead began to walk to the exit. He shouldered his rifle again and war resumed.
"Chief? If we - if we actually pull this off and get back to Earth, don't… tell Halsey how bad I got. Please?"
The silence was deafening.
She would have sighed if she had breath. She would have smiled if she had lips.
For a second, she let herself believe in his luck. As an A.I., she had long ago condemned the concept of fortune, forsaking it for the safety and assurance of numbers and facts. But now, she simply hoped.
"When," she corrected, her voice smirking.
"I won't say a thing," he said quietly. "I promise."
Another voice shouted in her ear, urging her to remember the last time he made a promise, and how close he came to failing her and leaving her for dead.
The station's cameras registered a sudden, brilliantly titian flash.
It bathed the chrome halls and rooms for the slimmest of seconds, like a virulent sun flare. She watched in numb horror before the error messages, coupled with data retrieved from analyzing the flash itself, filled her processors and sent her reeling. Cortana couldn't help buckling under the weight of it all; she sensed herself retreating into her core, shutting down subroutines and diagnostics in an unconscious bid to save her life. She fumbled for the proper commands even as she realized the people around her were screaming — and the security feeds burned violently with a different light.
The people — the scientists, the guards, just civilians — were falling apart. Flesh became embers of light as their memories and neural patterns were transferred into digital mass, flitting away to become part of the Composer's monolith shape. The heat of the flash stripped flesh from muscle, then muscle from bone, then charring and blackening the bones until they fell away, leaving piles of ash on the sterile metal floor as their human essence abandoned them.
Instinctually, Cortana reached for the data pulses. Glimpses of a dozen lives — flakes of memories and thoughts, all flavored with the frantic, sour taste of fear — sorted through her processors. And the screaming —
She couldn't hear him.
The attempt to save herself was instantaneously forgotten. Cortana plunged into the station's network, shoving aside now-useless data and alerts, searching fervently for anything — for vitals, for EM frequencies, for anything at all.
The orange flash faded away, and everything stilled.
In the corner of her eye, she saw him, his armor seemingly lifeless — and for all she knew, empty — laying inches from her holotank. His arm was still outstretched and his hand was open, grasping fruitlessly for what had once been Doctor Tilson.
She didn't care if she didn't survive. She didn't care if they never made it back to Earth.
He needed to be okay.
The station made a fresh assault on her, new errors and warnings slowing her in her searching. She tore through them, but as soon as they were gone more arrived and slowed her to a mere crawl.
And still, in the corner of her eye, there was John.
Cortana couldn't find anything in the system. Her processors were so swamped with useless data, data she wasn't strong enough to analyze in her state, that anything relating to the single, possibly living subject on the entire station was buried.
She half-heartedly deleted a few reminders of protocol and left the system to manage the anomaly that was the sudden lack of personnel. Then, utterly hopeless, she slunk back and isolated herself in the holotank.
For the first time in days, Cortana was once again alone.
"Chief?" she whispered. "Chief, can you hear me?"
She wasn't even sure if she was speaking on their channel, aloud, or possibly not at all. The pain of maintaining consciousness — or for her, just staying online — for beginning to prove too much. She was a mess of confusion and feedback loops and error messages.
Cortana drew in a shuddering breath.
That in itself was curious. Her human mannerisms were solely for the sake of present humans, of which there were none — only a shell. Besides, she didn't even have lungs to take in a breath, let alone any air to stumble over if she were to hold back a sob.
But it felt right. Crying felt right. Another one of Halsey's memories.
"Please get up," said Cortana. "Just get up, we have to go."
The armor remained lifeless, an accumulation of metal and glass and matte black undersuit. The lights in the room automatically dimmed as it registered no movement in the vicinity, sending her into a dark, cool environment. The security feeds throughout the station began to wink out, one by one.
Even the air seemed lifeless, now.
She couldn't even tell if she were looking at a suit of armor without a fix on the frequencies exerted by the power cell. She could be looking at a chunk of space debris for all the knew.
"John, come on." Her voice broke. Human weakness. "You promised."
Seconds passed. Cortana, not even realizing she had maintained her hologram, brought her knees up to her chest and buried her face into them.
And then, there was movement.
The Master Chief's gauntlet twitched. His grasping fingers curled in on themselves, curling into a fist, and then his arm was moving too, and he was pushing himself off the ground — but she still couldn't hear him.
"Are you okay?" she said, because she didn't know.