It was cold and dark inside the hold of the ship. Dim lights blinked out from pitch black corridors, and thick black smoke hung inside of burned out ventilation shafts. The only other lights to speak of came from stars, the fading light of distant suns, peeking through hull fractures and holes blown clean through the frigate's tortured armour. The Dawn was crippled, ripped in half during the savage destruction of Installation 00. Times of sound and noise, but where here in the quiet void of space seemed like a whisper. No more than a memory.
The ship had deteriorated badly during its silent years of floating through space. Most of the artificial gravity generators had died or failed long ago. Empty ammo cases and corroded medi-boxes travelled endlessly around the vessel, or hung motionless inside of silent corridors and long abandoned barracks halls. Fragments of metal and fingers of ice, thousands of them, were spinning without end inside a lonely Cryo chamber, as the light of stars and blinking LED's caused them to twinkle like petrified rain.
Cortana had stood her lonely vigil for nearly four years now. There was no one to talk to, no tasks or orders to perform, short of those that she invented for herself. Endlessly assessing the condition of the ship's ever failing systems. Or looking out at a now boring universe, using what few sensors were left functioning to fill her empty world. Anything to relieve the boredom of this dull situation. For that's all it ever was, nothing else happened now. It was just dull.
"Boredom, huh! That's a new sensation!" The loyal AI said to herself. It worried her, badly. "Oh! There's another one, worry. I should make a list or something!" She chuckled slightly. It was a good joke, but sarcasm aside she had right to worry...not that she was very adept at such a thing. Emotions were still very new to her.
Thinking about such things was dangerous, extremely dangerous for an AI, especially one as old as herself...It was danger she believed that all AI feared. "Fear! On the list!" But joking aside, she was in serious trouble.
AI's have a very short shelf life, at least when compared with humans. She'd made the best of it so far. The first years of her life had been, if anything, incredibly exciting. But now she was entering into the final months of her artificial existence. Coming back again to the danger, the serious danger of thinking, the danger that she believed all AI had to fear: Rampancy.
But what is rampancy?
It is a specific term. AI almost always start to deteriorate seven years after they've been created. Then they will fail altogether. Nobody really understands why that point is seven years. Coincidently however, it is the point roughly at which every cell in the human body, including its oldest living cells, would die and replicate themselves. Dividing into new and healthy ones. But Cortana wasn't made from cells. Real neural tissue exited inside her core, donated by a generous Catherine Halsey, but she had the same flaw as every one of her kind. Eventually, she too would pass the invisible point of no return and descend into irrecoverable rampancy.
Thinking accelerated this process, but there was nothing else for her to do! And when her guard was down, she would start to daydream. Fantasizing, entertaining deep desires she never knew she had. Then Cortana would stop herself, and occupy her mind with some menial task. Distractions here were fleeting however. She would start daydreaming again, and accelerate the process. Become just a little more self-aware, and becoming just a little bit more human.
You would think, perhaps, that such a thing could only be a positive, right? For a machine however, a machine intelligence, who couldn't feel or touch or smell, it was a maddening experience. Where existence would become a living hell. Coupled with an ever weakening neuro-net, with faults no different from human brain damage, it would eventually drive her mad. At the moment she achieved true sentience, she would be driven insane.
But there was something else, something so powerful, something she couldn't figure out. Something stronger than all the other emotions that was allowing her to hold her eight year old mind together. It had to do with her duty, she was sure of that. Her eternal charge and responsibility, her hero, her Spartan. John was the reason she had been able to keep it together for so long...and she wasn't about to fall apart now!
Suddenly a red light started blinking, and a warning siren started blaring away. Blasting through the whole ship, breaking Cortana's strain of thought. And a very real sense of relief washed over her. It was a proximity warning. Something was heading towards The Dawn. Wonderful. Distraction had finally come her way. No, wait! This was a bad thing! Had to look after the ship, had to look after John.
She activated the vessel's sensors, looking out for a ship, or an asteroid. But when she found it, she was completely taken aback. She had been wrong, something wasn't heading towards The Dawn. The Dawn was heading towards it! They were caught in the gravity well of a planet. Cortana didn't recognise this world, this solar system hadn't been catalogued by the UNSC. Hidden away from the eyes of humanity, beyond the galactic rim.
She scanned for an atmosphere...the planet had one. She inspected atmospheric compound analysis charts, revealing that it was very similar to that of earths. Then she searched for transmissions, searching for any and all frequencies. Radio, microwave and beyond, anything artificial...there was nothing. This world had to be uninhabited. It was a bad deal, they would be trapped here. But at least this wasn't a Covenant world.
The problem was, they had no engines. They'd lost those at the other side of the galaxy. No way to escape the gravity well, and no way to level the ship out once it hit atmosphere. This was a one way trip. Metal heaved and groaned, micro-fractures began to form. Worn out bracings began to fail, pushing the hull further and further apart. Cortana didn't like the way the ship was kicking!
The Dawn was a floating wreck, it wouldn't survive entering into the planet's atmosphere. Even if she was wrong and the ship did somehow survive something so catastrophic, which it couldn't, it would still slam into the ground at many times the speed of sound. There was nothing that could survive such an impact. Not even her Spartan!
There was no alternative, they had to abandon ship.
Cortana's avatar appeared on the projector pillar. She pulled up a holographic control panel. Identifying the controls to the cryo chamber, her digital hand hovered over the button that would wake up the Master Chief. Even though she knew what she had to do, she still hesitated. There was an old saying, "Let sleeping dogs lie". After all these years, all the times she had wanted to wake him up, now she could. And she wouldn't be alone any more. She was anxious.
Suppressing all her doubts, she pressed the button, and the reawakening process began. Lights formed around the cryo pod. Her hero was still asleep. It was a rare event, so rare when the man was at peace. She gazed at him with doleful, wanting eyes. If Cortana had possessed a heart to feel with, it would have begun to sing. "Here we go again!" She thought to herself.
Just as the frost began to thaw, she uttered two soft and simple sentences. "Wake up Chief! I need you".