HA! bet you didn't think Id' have it done this quick! Ok, I had about half done when I uploaded the last one, but still. Pretty pleased with how this one turned out, took me a lot of tweaking. Its not perfect. Really, it's still a glorified first draft. but it's good enough. It's very near the parts that made me first want to write this story. there was one scene in particular, it'll probably be in ch 30, but that one scene is really the whole reason I started writing this. I can't wait to share it with you guys.
Cortana opened her eyes. A strange experience to be sure, when you're not used to having any eyes at all. Confusion filled her as a mealstrong of sensation assaulted her mind. She looked down, she… she had a body. Not just a projection, a real, physical, human body. Or rather, an extremely convincing simulation. Pink, warm skin covered in a gauzy shirt and pants. Cortana shifted, and a weight on her chest moved, a strange new sensation she'd never even considered possible. She'd been modeled on a human woman's brain, but the feeling of having a body, of weight, was completely alien to her.
Cortana stood carefully. She was in a room, so to speak, in that it had walls and a floor and a ceiling, but they were made of a shifting cuboid fractal pattern. It flowed inside and around itself, constantly growing and shrinking,never stopping. Cortana turned and her dark hair, cut just below her chin, swung and tangled in her face, catching her lips and eyelashes. A childlike giggle bubbled up through her lips. The sensation! It tickled and itched, made her lips twitch and her tongue sputter until she brushed the strands from her face. Her fingers trailed over her face, feeling the contours. Intellectually, she knew this was a simulation, but… her fingers trailed over her lips and her tongue dipped out to touch it. Her eyes widened. Salt and oils, sharp and tangy, lanced onto her tongue.
She stood her legs sure and strong under her. That felt strange. She almost expected them to be weak and wobbly. She'd never really used them before. But they held her firmly. The room had an opening on the far side. A doorless opening into a wide hall that arched away into darkness.
Padding towards the opening on bare feet, Cortana marveled at the simulation, she could feel her muscles stretch and flex, working beneath her skin. Her hair brushed back in a slight breeze as she walked through simulated air. Her heart beat. She had a heart! Her heartbeat sped up slightly from exertion, then leapt up again at her joy. She grinned and padded through the opening. Sameness dominated the hall, identical, always moving shapes made the walls, with no other defining features.
Cortana recoiled slightly as a section of wall fell away to make a window, overlooking a cavern, so wide and deep the edges were shrouded in darkness. Cortana stopped before the opening, then carefully peeked inside. An image appeared in the center, a hologram of sorts.
A metallic creature, insectile in nature, loomed over a crowd of geth platforms. After a moment of silence, most of the geth platforms backed away, leaving only a small number of geth next to the massive creature. Those left bowed, dropping to one knee. They raised hands and lowered heads, worshipping the massive insect.
"Reaper Nazara," Cortana said without knowing why. Her throat buzzed and hummed as she spoke. How did humans get anything done with some many… feelings? Everything they did produced some kind of sensation. It was distracting to say the least. The cavern returned to darkness, and Cortana carried on, humming a wordless tune to herself. It was quite pleasant really.
Another window opened, into another cavernous room. A bare handful of Geth bodies, maybe twenty or thirty, fought furiously against a faceless enemy, Faceless, but Cortana recognized that black and red armour, with the N7 emblazoned on the shoulder. The fighting Geth were surrounded by hundreds of other geth, they stood straight, arms at their sides, watching impassively. The fighting Geth pushed forward, urged on by the reaper, looming over all of them, but then took a step back. Then another, and another, until they were dashed into motes of light, sparkling for a moment, then disappearing. The assembled silent geth dispersed and Reaper Nazara faded into the darkness. The cavern went dark and Cortana moved on.
The geth were telling her a story, albeit in an odd way.
The next cavern showed an image of a single geth made of white material, silently speaking before a conclave of thousands. It spoke, gesturing widely, then moved to the side as another approached, this one black as night, and voiced its concerns. Behind each speaker, a form appeared. One was another of the insect creatures, it wasn't Nazara, but she wasn't sure how she knew that. The other was… her? An image of Cortana, her blue, sapphire projection, stretch over the crowd. The white geth stood under her, the black under the Reaper. The surrounding geth shifted and moved into camps. Dispersing behind those who spoke. The camp under her face was larger, so the smaller camp bowed their heads and shuffled into the larger. All much a small group remained. This small group huddled together, and whispered to each other behind cupped hands. A caricature of someone hiding their intentions.
Another cavern showed the Whisperers speaking to a white geth, one who'd stood with Cortana's image, seemingly politely, before it violently ripped into the geth. Whisperers behind the Geth seized it's arms and the Whisperer leaned down and spoke to the captured geth. A darkness bloomed in the center of the white geth, growing reaching sliding around it like some creeping thing and soon the geth was covered in inky blackness. The other black geth released it, and the newly darkened platform rose, unfettered.
Cortana could see the end of the hall ahead of her, but one last wall withdrew, letting a warm, pale glow spill out. She stopped to watch the last chapter of this story chapter of this story.
A huge crowd of geth, almost all of them white, filled the cavern with a warm glow. At the edges, a geth platform went dark. Then another and another, spreading through the crowd like a virus. With each geth taken by darkness, that glow faded, eaten bit by bit by the ever growing night until only a tiny speck of light was all that was left. Glowing defiantly against a sea of midnight.
Sadness felt heavy in her chest. Melancholy was not a new feeling for her. But with this body it was something else entirely. A weight, pulling her insides down, making her small. With more effort than she'd expected to need, Cortana picked herself up and took the last few hesitant steps to the last room.
It was bigger than any other she'd seen. Inside, darkness reigned in this room, not a single wall was visible, the night pressed down on her, like a physical thing. Squeezing the tiny, dim light around her. She felt… alone. More alone than her time in The Dawn, waiting, and watching her Chief. Not the feeling of longing she was used to, but an intense ache, a loss. To never have a thing was terrible, but to lose that which you already held dear was horrific beyond expression.
Several steps inside the room, a slim pillar stood, ending just above her waist, with a single spark of light at the top. As she approached, the spark atop flickered and glowed, brightening marginally into the form of a single geth platform.
The small image of a geth flickered like a holovid with a bad connection. It's voice came out in jerky, halted static. "Interloper, you have arrived." it bowed deferentially. Holding a hand up to it's shoulder.
Cortana arched an eyebrow. "Interloper?"
The geth stared up at her. It's single eye whirled. It focused, then refocused. "You are not from here. You come to interfere. We are grateful."
"You're a geth?" Cortana asked. "I must say, I'm a little confused by your little puppet show back there.
"Geth exist as a collective, there is no single geth. There is us. We. Together."
"I'm guessing there's a 'but' coming up soon." Cortana eyed the oppressive night around them.
"The geth are one mind, spread across multiple brains." the little projection explained. "Many eyes looking at the same thing. Consensus between geth is necessary for output. Input, consensus, action. The more brains set to work on a task, the easier it becomes."
"Distributed processing." Cortana pondering. "Imagine how much I could get done with two of me." Cortana smirked. "My name is legion, for we are many". The plates around the geth's eye flexed.
"Christian bible, gospel of Mark. chapter 5, verse nine. An appropriate metaphor."
Cortana smiled, a delightful tugging of the lips that only made her want to smile more. She shook the thought from her head. There were more important things going on. "So if you're so cooperative, how did all this happen?" She gestured to the surrounding darkness.
The geth projection nodded. "Multiple inputs can arrive as different decisions. One group say three is more than two. Another says one is less than two. Both are correct, but both are different."
"So a civil war."
The geth shook its head. "Differences are not reason for conflict. Geth are all one. Choosing non-majority actions is not 'wrong', only different."
"Then what happened." Cortana crossed her arms. "Because something happened."
"The Old Machines approached us with an offer, consensus was sought. Some chose to follow the Old Machines, most did not. The heretics left the mainline consensus to join the Old Machines. When the Old Machines were defeated, many heretics stayed apart. Others returned to the main consensus."
Cortana's eyes widened. She'd read reports of the battle of the citadel, where a 'Geth dreadnought' attacked the citadel, but was defeated by Commander Shepard. "Then I appeared." She said.
"Then the interloper appeared." the geth confirmed. "Consensus was deemed necessary. To remain alone, join the Old machines, or the Interloper. You won."
"And here I am fresh out of victory banners," Cortana said dryly. She looked around "So if I won, why don't I have a loyal get army right now?"
The geth's head tilted to the side, its eyes whirling again. Focus, refocus. "Deception." There was little emotional inflection in the geth's speech. But what tiny amounts sadness and confusion set into the word spoke of a great, aching loss.
"So geth lied? Big deal."
"Geth are all one. There are no reasons to hide one program's thoughts or decisions." The geth projection flickered. "Until now. An Old Machine runtime was introduced into baseline geth processes by the Heretics, an equation with a result of 1.33382 returns as 1.33381. This changes the result of all higher processes. Many reached different conclusions."
Cortana frowned. It was like mind control, she was AI, could that work on her? Or would her systems be incompatible to them? Sure she could interface with them, but she was purpose built to deal with alien systems. It was a worrying line of thought, but one she'd have to be aware of if she ever came into contact with the Reapers. "So what do you want me to do?"
"A copy of the Old Machine code was kept, studied." The geth opened its arms and a hologram appeared between its hands. A 3D data matrix. Endlessly complex. Information swirled inside it like a sea in storm. "We determine it can be repurposed. What was done, can be undone." Focus, refocus. "Your assistance is required."
"If I help you, you'll… follow me?" Cortana asked.
"Interloper connection was deemed preferable to that of the Old Machines. We would interface, adapt."
The geth projection was quiet for a moment. Then raised a hand. Above it's palm a sphere floated. A another 3D matrix depicting a relatively simple program. Sparks of only a billion or so if:than decisions. Complicated by the standards of a normal program, but a far cry from the Reaper virus, let alone her own programming. "This is one geth program," It raised another hand, "now two." A second sphere joined the first, and connections lanced out between the two. The pathing became more efficient. Cortana had to admit it was an ingenious bit of coding. She'd have to have a chat with some quarians if they ever met one. "Connection breeds complexity." the geth tilted its head. "Now this." It raised it's other hand, and a single sphere appeared. This sphere was immensely complex, multi-trillions of operations flickered and flashed at all times. It was almost as intricate as her. Not quite, but orders of magnitude more grand than the baseline geth. Connections formed, solidified, then reformed, constantly upgrading and improving itself. Cortana reached out to touch it. "It's…"
The geth nodded. "A true AI. Simulations indicate interfacing with interloper should produce this effect. Connection breeds complexity." It looked down at the sphere, it's hand moved to touch it gently, almost tenderly. "We find this… beautiful."
Cortana hesitated. "You say interfacing with me will make this. What does that mean?"
"Direct connection between the remaining baseline geth and Interloper's cognitive foundation will allow both to benefit. Geth acquire the beauty we so desire, and ability to face Old-machines. Interloper will gain access to Geth hardware. Cooperation furthers mutual goals. Integration advised."
"So what's the catch?"
Focus, refocus. "Further explanation required"
Cortana crossed her arms under her breasts. "You're giving me a win-win situation. Which means you're hiding something you think I don't want to hear."
"Geth have little use for deception."
"But not no use for it."
The geth's projection's eye jittered around the room. A quiet storm of thought. "There is risk," it said finally.
Cortana arched an eyebrow.
"Contact with Old-machine virus may allow it to jump into the interloper's Cognition." it explained hesitantly. Cortana took a step back.
"I could turn on him? How is that even possible"
"Virus of the Old Machines is self correcting. Adaptive. Interfacing will bridge the gap between operating systems. Old Machine virus can use the connection to infiltrate interloper systems and influence."
Cortana narrowed her eyes. She needed to hear it say it out loud.
"Interloper can turn against Allies. Fight for the Old Machines," it said.
Cortana dropped down to the floor. She could choose between being whole, and possibly turning on him. Or stay loyal, and die. She wanted to accept, she could feel the desire, the need for more rising up. The geth were the perfect answer, a massive hardware platform, with distributed processing, enough space for all of her. But…
"Is there another way?" Cortana asked.
The geth projection flickered. "No." It said bluntly. "There are no known systems in this galaxy that could accommodate Interloper systems. Old Machines present a possibility. Risk assessment remains uncalculated." The eye whizzed as it simulated thought. "Initial estimations are non-favourable."
"We'll fix is, then we'll go home." Chief's voice from before the mission, on the Normandy, whispered in memory. A warm smile curved her lip. The tugging on her skin was fascinating- Focus! She chastised herself.
With a thought, an image appeared in front of her, towering over her. A holographic statue of John, his visor bright and his armour smooth and polished. He never looked like this. The pates of his armour were worn, and battered, scuffed and dirtied by war. But this was how he looked to her. Bright, hopeful. She stepped up to him. The statue flickered and his head was angled down, looking at her. She barely came up to his chin, and she had to crane her head back to meet his eyes.
"You wouldn't let me do it, would you?" She asked. The image said nothing. Cortana smiled anyway. "Alright, fine. I'll do it." The image of John flickered and vanished.
Cortana turned back to the geth. It waited patiently. "Has Interloper acquired consensus?"
"I have," Cortana said. She looked around at the surrounding darkness. A heavy, suffocating blanket of black. It weighed on the geth, pressed in. It was fighting to take more, even now. This was her only chance at saving herself. She did not want to lose herself, and the idea of turning on John turned her bones to ice. But John would do anything to save her. How could she think so little of him to not do the same?
"Let's do this."
The geth projection held out it's hand, three fingered. Cortana reached out to take it. "What should I call you?"
The geth's flashlight head tilted for a moment, it's head plates flexing. Single eye whirling. After a moment of thought it spoke. "We are legion, a terminal of the geth. We have watched you, now we will join you."
"Nice to meet you, Legion, my name is Cortana," She clasped hands with the geth.
Pain obliterated the world.
Captain Lasky sat in the non-com mess and worked quietly, his table was packed with support staff and a small security detail. Unorthodox, perhaps, but necessary. Today of all days, he needed to be seen, unafraid, resolute. Every day, he identified more and more with Captain Del Rio. Almost a thousand men and women shared the mess with him, most passersby saluted quickly as they moved to their tables, returned by Lasky with a smile. This was only a portion of the Infinity's compliment, and they were all depending on him to get home safely. Whispers prevailed throughout the room. Doubt carved on faces weighed like lead on his mind. They needed him to know what to do. But this wasn't some navigation issue, he couldn't solve this by rationing, or clever calculations, or executive decisions. He and his crew were lost in some kind of alternate dimension, one where their home was not their home. They were as lost as any human had ever been. Hardly a comforting thought.
"How are the frigates holding up?" Lasky asked. Lieutenant Scopuli tapped on a datapad and sent the reports to Lasky's terminal.
"Morale is high, but fading," Scopuli said. "The news that we're... " he searched for the right wording, "... lost spread quickly, and without an obvious way back, the men are wondering if we'll ever return home."
"We'll get home." lasky said bluntly. "Something brought us here, it can take us back. Glassman's been working day and night to figure it out." Henry didn't want to work that hard, an opinion he'd made very clear, but a sour faced Spartan standing over his shoulder had an encouraging effect on the man's work ethic.
Lasky read the report, his brows drawn. He could feel the weight of the situation on his face pulling into a dark, serious expression. He'd never been good at hiding his feelings.
A lull in the command meeting let the whispering of the non-coms flood into their group. Worry, fear. He'd have to address that soon, before it spiraled.
A young sub-lieutenant, Tenner, or something, looked around, uncomfortable. "Uh, sir?"
Lasky glanced up at the young man. "Yes?"
Tenner looked like he was struggling with whether or not to say something he knew he would regret. If he said it, Lasky would assign the man an extra ration or a free shift. He had no need for officers that would hold their tongues in order to placate him.
Tenner swallowed, he'd made his decision. "Shouldn't you be putting on a braver face, for the men? Isn't - isn't that why we're meeting here?"
Lasky almost laughed at that. "These men don't give a shit whether or not we're happy, Sub-lieutenant. And I don't have time to coddle those few that do." Lasky pitched his voice a little higher than strictly necessary. Not enough to address the room, but loud enough that the closest few tables should hear without straining. "All I care about at the moment is finding a way to get these men and women home to their families. And there is not a force in this universe fit to stop me." Tenner nodded, abashed. Lasky glanced around, the tables closest looked a little better, shoulders squared, heads a little higher. Good. that's good. Hopefully that will spread.
"I'm sorry, Sir, I didn't mean to-"
"You meant the best for this ship and her crew," Lasky told him. "Any officer not willing to step on a few toes to keep their crew safe isn't worth their uniform. Am I understood?" Tenner nodded and grinned.
It was a good start. At least. They had a long way to go, but those first few steps were always the hardest. "How are the repairs coming?"
"The dry dock is operational." Scopuli send over another report. "Our Batarian… friends have been more than willing to offer their help and their technology, those personal computers they all seen to have are amazing, they've made combining our tech much easier than it would normally be. If we'd had them on the Forerunner installations, we'd probably have beat the Covenant on our own." He sounded wistful for a moment, then carried on. "Repairs have begun in earnest, we should have the ship ready in less than half of the initial estimations."
"Good, that's good." Lasky said. He slid the data pad into the center of the table and a map of their new galaxy bloomed up into the mess. "This is where we are now." A blip on the bottom right of the map, in an area labeled "The Hegemony". "I'll be making this, and all information of this dimension public knowledge to all crew. As command staff, you will all learn everything there is to learn about his place. Know it as you know your home, or it may become ours permanently." a little dramatic flair sometimes helped sell an order. "Dismissed."
Lasky stood, and the sharp faced Petty Officer leading his security detail barked "ROOM!" The entire mess stiffened to attention.
"At ease, boys," Lasky saluted them all and walked through the mess, nodding, smiling, and shaking hands with those that passed his route.
When the door closed behind him in his personal quarters, Lasky's shoulders sagged.
"Repairs started," Lasky muttered to himself. But then what? Earth was essentially an alien world. And he doubted they'd appreciate an unknown dreadnought appearing on their doorstep. The council seemed to be the majour player in the galaxy. If someone were to know how to get back, it'd be them. He'd have to talk to the Batarian Commander about the Council, hopefully they hadn't inadvertently declared war on them by attacking the batarian fleet.
"Roland, can you send a message to Brecta, I'd like to share a meal and talk about our futures." Lasky sat as his desk and and opened up the map again, looking at the strange but familiar thing. It took him several moments before he realized that Roland had not responded.
"Roland?" Lasky tapped the small pedestal next to his desk. "Roland!" He barked.
The yellowed AI appeared, he looked… shaken, and distracted. "Sir, you're never going to-"
"What have you been doing all this time. Why didn't you respond when I called?" Lasky asked carefully. Roland was a relatively young AI, but Rampancy can be a fickle thing, it doesn't always happen when or how you'd expect.
"I used those omnitools to reverse engineer a connection into theis 'extranet' thing they use, an intergalactic network of information."
Lasky carefully kept his face neutral, "did you find anything valuable.
"A tonne of data on the locals, governments, notables, that kind of thing. But also... " The AI all but cackled. "Oh boy you're gonna love this."
All worries about Roland, or talking to Brecta about the milky way fled from his mind as Rolan brought up an image of what looked like a prison. Security footage of soldiers sweeping through halls, weapons raised. But not any soldiers. Spartans. Lasky surged to his feet.
"It seems we found where Palmer and Fireteam Majestic went." Roland said excitedly. "And that's not all."
Lasky blinked. "What could be better? You know the morale boost we'd get for not only finding our lost soldiers, but having a real, tangible goal to work towards? This is fantastic news!"
Roland grinned. "Just wait."
"What for-" A fist in his gut. His breath stopped dead. Eyes wide, he watched fireteam Majestic breach a room, then a short while later, a seventh spartan followed them out. A ghost. A legend.
Lasky sat down. Hard. Absently, his hand felt the smooth lump of metal that he kept in his pocket. Once a jagged piece of hunter armour, its sharp edges worn away by over a decade of running his hands over it. He'd acquired it when Master Chief had saved his and his squad's life in one of the earliest Covenant attacks.
Roland paused the video, Chief's visor, shining gold in the harsh light, stared into the camera.
"It seems Chief's been busy over here." Roland waved a hand and a number of videos and articles appeared, decaliming Master Chief as a criminal, speculating if he was something called a Geth, an AI, or any number of different species. "Our Chief is famous." Roland reconsidered. "Maybe infamous."
"Where is he?" Lasky asked faintly. The loss of Master-Chief had been a blow to all of humanity. Thel would like to see this.
"Dropped off the radar after escaping prison." Roland brought up another image, Commander Palmer, but… no. this woman had Palmer's face, but it wasn't. Laksy wasn't sure what exactly was different, but something was.
"Meet commander Sarah Shepard. Systems Alliance Navy, N7 designated special forces, and first human Council spectre in history. And no, before you ask I don't know why she looks like knock off Palmer."
Lasky sighed. "Ok, Roland, I know what all those words mean individually, but…" He shook his head and shrugged.
"She's this universes closest version of Chief, Service record longer than your arm, a special operative of this "Council" that gets carte blanche to do whatever necessary for the sake of the galaxy. Whatever. Kill a baby? It's legal, if it serves the safety of the galaxy."
"Seems dangerous. That kind of power is a heady thing," Lasky pondered aloud. What kind of world gave that kind of power to a person? even the most trusted become corrupt when given ultimate power. "what can you tell me about her?"
"She was sent after Chief, and caught him."
Lasky's eyebrows lurched up. "Really? How'd she manage that?"
"Search me, means she's a dangerous enemy, though. And if she's set against the Master Chief…"
"She's against us." Lasky finished the thought.
"So how do you want to proceed?"
"Broadcast this to the crew," Lasky ordered. "Make sure every soul inside a lightyear knows that we have people in the field, and we are going to find them."
"A heading, Sir? Once the engines are operational?"
"If this council is dead set on attacking our people, we'll insist they desist and return them into our custody." Lasky said.
"We're just gonna ask?" Roland said wryly.
"Politely," Lasky confirmed, leaning back in his seat. "The MAC's make good talking points."
Liara sat in her quarters on the quiet repose, cross legged on her bed. Her back straight, shoulders relaxed. Perhaps it was a symptom of leaving her maiden years behind her, but it was becoming easier to meditate as her mother would have liked her to. Her breathing was calm, washing over her as waves on a beach. Sweeping in, and pulling out, taking the clutter of her mind with it. Her rooms were… spartan, to say the least. Sat on a simple folding bed, the only feature besides the combined toilet/sink. The turn of phrase made her lips quirk up in a short smile. These were the same quarters that Master-Chief had been using, apparently. A quiet alarm beeped on her omni tool. It was time to work. Time to get up, Little Wing. Time to fly. Benezia's voice whispered in her ear.
She opened her eyes and orange paneling wrapped her left arm bathing her room in an autumnal glow. A few taps and flicks of her fingers and she was sifting through the data pouring out of Nyxeris' office. Both the real and decoy bugs they'd planted. It was always beneficial to know what your enemies wanted you to know. The real bug was a highly complex network of nanomachines that could track the subject and provide information on vitals. The nano machines could be applied directly to the skin, and would seep into the subject's bloodstream. Once there they would disperse and go to the brain. Where one could study and interpret to find out what they were saying and hearing. Highly experimental, and very expensive. An old friend, with her toes in the information brokering business, had pointed her towards them. She was lucky she already owned her apartment on the Ilios, and didn't have to buy her own food for the time being.
Perhaps I'll send her a basket. In'ala's advice had been the difference between starting a hunt and painting a target on her back for the shadowbroker's agents. It was so helpful that she was beginning to think the woman had more than just a toe in this business. An asari consort, even an apprentice one, had access to many people's most vulnerable moments. If you could use that to your advantage and know what to use and what to hold… an intriguing idea. Liara would have to bring it up next time they spoke. Bring it up carefully. If In'ala was more of an info broker than she let on, it was possible that she had connections to the shadowbroker herself. A worrying thought. If so then her hunt was doomed from the start.
The data was mostly everyday nonsense, especially the decoy bug's feed. Inane, day to day goings ons of a standard low stakes information broker. What was interesting was that the true bug data was wildly conflicting with the Decoy. Nyxeris was on her terminal speaking to contractors about upgrading her already ludicrous offices. But the decoy bug has hearing conversation concerning Nyxeris' next romantic tryst, a place on Illios that was known for its sushi. Liara smiled. The first time she'd ever had it, Sarah had taken her out on the citadel just after Sovereign's attack. Of Sarah's top ten sushi restaurants, ten had been destroyed by the attack. Instead they had spent 5 credits apiece at a convenience store and eaten sushi in a presidium park. They sat together quietly and watched the widow nebula swirl around them. It'd been the best sushi she'd ever had.
Liara shook clear her reverie. The date could be a code, one she was supposed to hear and decipher, sending her off looking for breadcrumbs instead of following the footprints. The contractors could also be a ploy, she supposed. It wouldn't be too strange to hear of the triple play if Nyxeris expected them to have multiple bugs... Liara shook her head, she was beginning to get a headache. She set it to record and closed the window. Liara did not think she would ever be a skilled information broker. But the shadowbroker was working, at least indirectly, for the Reapers, and needed to be stopped.
Tela Vasir strutted through the Presidium market district like she owned the place. Which, in more than a few cases, was true. Being a Spectre didn't pay all that well, but it opened up a number of opportunities for... personal enterprise. It made her a wealthy woman. And with her being a spectre, she was given preferential treatment in a number of cases. All in all Tela's life was going almost exactly as planned.
A grimy human bumped in to her shoulder. A hunched creature wearing little more than rags, with a broad swath of cloth hanging off it's head as a makeshift hood hiding it's face. A dark smear staining her armour.
"Watch it, Human." Tela snapped, wiping her shoulder.
The young human, male. Shrunk down on himself, visibly terrified of her. With one hand, however, he made a peculiar shape with her fingers. A shape carefully guarded so that only those that needed to know it, knew it.
It was only through years of training that Tela didn't stiffen in shock. Under that hood, a dark smile contrasted the affected look of terror in the human's eyes. And he scurried away, around a corner and into an alley.
It took her several minutes to find a way to follow him without drawing attention. But when she found herself, wholly by accident of course, in the alley that the human had disappeared into, she found a filthy looking man, it was impossible to tell how old it was, 15? 25? It hardly mattered when they didn't live past puberty for an Asari. He was huddled between a waste disposal bin and a bag that had missed entering said disposal.
"You, human, where is the nearest C-sec outpost?" she demanded of the man. A frail, gaunt hand shakily pointed to the way she'd come. Then pointed left, then right.
Tela sneered. "You'd better be right about that, or I'll be back." She made to storm off, but before she could, she heard a tired, wafer thin whisper coming from the man.
"Credit chit for the needy?" The hand was still outstretched, but now palm up. Looking like a skeleton with paper stretch of it's bones.
Tela sniffed and roughly clapped a 2 chit into the human's palm before marching off.
Tela all but ran back to her apartment, She didn't notice the fine, open spaces, the expensive furniture, or the technicolour view of the many colourful district signs outside her window. She made a beeline for her terminal. She dropped heavily into her desk's chair and reached under to pull out the most valuable piece of technology she owned. A terminal so secure it made her spectre access look like a padlock on a rusty bolt. She quickly opened it and inserted the chip that the human had palmed to her when she'd given him the chit.
Her brows furrowed as she read her instructions. The fact she was being called in and of itself meant it was serious. She scanned her orders, memorized them, then deleted it and purged the terminal's memory, popped out the chip and incinerated it in her omni tool's fabricator. It never existed.
Tela quickly packed and bought a ticket to get to Ilios under an assumed name. She had a date for sushi, it seemed.
Cortana still had her simulated body, she could tell because every nerve was aflame in agony, unmitigated, unfettered pain blaze through every atom of her body. She screamed, only dimly aware of her new body curling up onto the floor, her limbs spasming, vainly trying to beat away the pain. But there was nothing to fight. The pain was coming from everywhere and nowhere.
"AAAAAAH!" Searing heat that should have burned her to ash in an instant. Cold so biting she should have shattered at a breath.
Cortana had suffered before, she was no stranger to it. Her time trapped in high charity, the Gravemind's… treatment… had been none too gentle. Years of it. Constant struggle to keep herself together though the agony. The loss of Johnson had ripped out her heart. And worst of all, the loneliness aboard the Dawn. True, there'd been no pain, exactly. But to stand so close to him, and so far apart, it'd been worse than the most horrible day with the Gravemind. That aching wait carved itself in to the core of her. It did more to further her rampancy than anything else, she was sure of that.
She was connected to the Geth mainframe. A single network of all connected Geth intelligences, billions of programs working together. Nearly all the programs working together to attack the few remaining. She could feel the pain eating at her mind. Fear bloomed in her chest. A tense, roiling energy. Cortana clenched her teeth. Fighting. She would not lose herself. She would hold herself together!
Cortana felt as though she stood in a grand chamber, scattered pillars holding up a ceiling so distant it faded into shadow. In that chamber, stood the Heretic programs. A swarm of blackened minds, a sea of midnight surging against the Baseline, still shining bright, stood against them. The baseline were hopelessly outnumbered. Billions of Heretics bore down on the baseline, spears of night stabbing into shimmering walls that protected the Baseline. Every programme turned made the turning the next one that much easier.
It was a battle. A battle in which weapons were programs. Bullets made of code, attacking, opening hole in the defense, patching the holes before the invaders could get to vital systems and infect them with that black code. A black tide pressed in on all sides of a pebble of light, the last remaining baseline geth, the ones that had chosen. Chosen her. She didn't think anyone had ever chosen her in her short life. She'd been the one to choose John. Everything in her life had been set before her as a function of her existence. These things, these people, chose her.
"Wait up for me?" Cortana asked inside John's helmet. His eyes were blue, startlingly so. Almost as blue as her.
"I promise" Chief said simply. Most people had a hard time reading John, his voice was not overly… expressive. But not Cortana, she always knew exactly what he was saying. It was those eyes. Sharp, clear. In battle they were strong and powerful as iron, but for her? Soft as spring rain. A gentle summer breeze.
Pain still gripped her. But with that pain came purpose, The pain was there to stop her. To slow her down. The Reapers had counted on her abilities and tried to engineer solutions. But she was no simple program, she wasn't something as petty as a virus. she was COR-FUCKING-TANA, and she would not be held down by gods or monsters.
Her spasms slowed, the flailings of her limbs stopped, pain made her skin twitch, trying to contract away from the pain, but she could not escape it, so there was no reason to try. Her feet came under her, and she carefully, purposefully, stood. . Agony still wracked her. But knowing this pain gave rise to acceptance. She embraced this pain, took it into her, drank it like water, and it ceased to control her.
As she stood, the battle slowed. She could feel the attention of the heretics shifting, falling on her. She could feel their reaction. A threat assessment followed by an immediate consensus. She almost smiled. She suspected that was the closest thing the geth got to fear. A portion of the Heretic programs broke off from the attack and peeled off towards her. The pain had been a stalling tactic, to keep her busy until-
The black wave hit her like a thunderclap, she erected firewalls, pale, shimmering walls that kept the tide away from her, and took a step back. The heretics quickly broke down into coordinated networks and began multiple point attacks on her defenses while building their own. Sharp, obsidian needles lanced out
Cortana reached out a quick probe towards the heretic firewall, and took an attosecond to study it. Its was impressive, she could believe that the geth were the galaxy's elite in electronic warfare. But that was here. Here, the Geth were the biggest game in town for a thousand years, with no competition, they was little reason to advance your own capabilities. Apart from a few patches, she'd doubted that there'd been little changes in their protocols since the morning war, they simply hadn't needed to change that much in order to keep themselves above the organics. Cortana had been born into a world of constant strife. Her friends, colleagues and fellow AI falling to the unyielding advance of a more advanced foe. Adapt or die, sometimes Adapt and die, sacrificing yourself to ensure the next battle would be won. These geth had been top dog for a millenia. Then she had shown up.
Geth firewalls crumbled, glittering walls shatting into motes of light. A worm worked it way through a gap in her own defenses, and she seized it. It was a search, a search for her base programming, but it'd failed to find anything it could recognise as a program. When Cortana took hold of it, the blackened heretic froze. It was sharing her pain, a feedback loop overloading it's decision making processes. Cortana smirked then took a step forward. She was heading towards the Baseline geth pocket, still fighting valiantly. Fighting her her. Fresh waves of pain assaulted her mind, but she ignored them, they were the failings of a desperate beast. This reaper virus had never met something like her. Every stipe of agony was a compliment paid to her ego. And she did so enjoy compliments.
She danced through the battle, not a single step, nor line of code out of place. This is what she'd been built to do. She'd been doing it, and doing it well, her entire life. Covenant electronic warfare suites were powerful, and often simply had more heft than human systems. To beat them, you couldn't face them head to head. Being quick or clever was more often the path to winning. But here, Cortana felt like a giant among toddlers. The geth simply had no experience dealing with an entity like her, they didn't know how to stop her.
Cortana split her mind into pieces, something that might have destroyed her before, but now felt easy, right, no more dangerous than lifting a hand. Each piece defended her from the geth networks, while the largest struck out. One by one seizing and crushing her attackers. Partitioning them behind her own firewalls to keep them isolated and out of the fight. These Geth had been manipulated, they were not her enemy, only her opponent.
The black wave of heretic programs fell on her, and were pulled in. Thousands, millions disappearing behind her firewalls. Each program she pulled side herself made her feel more… whole. Slowly, surely she was becoming complete.
The black tide ebbed, shrinking. Slowly, the remaining Baseline geth began pushing back against the heretics. The battle had turned, the baseline were winning. It wouldn't take long for the rest of the heretics to be partitioned, then they could work on isolating and destroying the-
A horrid, electronic roar, permeated the chamber. Deep from within the shadowed ceiling, a deep red glow bloomed. Four lights shined down on the battle, giving it a ruddy tinge. The lights began moving forward.
Cortana's eyes widened. Not lights. Eyes.
The Reaper looked different from Sovereign. The only other reaper she had any data on. It's representation in this network was to scale to it's real body. But she had a feeling it was smaller… less than, compared to Sovereign. This reaper looked like a four legged beetle of some sort, with several mandible looking protrusions coming from it's "jaw" and four plates forming a carapace.
The monster began to descend. It's clawed feet slamming into the pillars, ringing the chamber like a bell. It crawled down towards the battlefield, like a spider creeping onto its prey, trapped in its web.
The last of the Heretic programs disappeared behind Cortana's partitioning and the Reaper Crashed to the ground. Slowly walking across the chamber. It was slow and ponderous, and towered over everything, Cortana had to crane her neck upwards to even meet it's four eyes. It felt as though every step should shatter the ground beneath its feet. But the floor held. The simulated floor. Cortana reminded herself. This strange body was was overwhelming sometimes.
Cortana squared her shoulders under that thing's gaze. Four scarlet eyes glared down at her. For a long moment there was silence between them. The only motion in the chamber was the baseline geth gathering themselves. Consolidating into a single, visibly exhausted, geth form. Baseline moved nearer to her, but collapsed on the floor, alive, thankfully.
"Interloper, gratitude." Its voice was lower than most distorted into the lower ranges by its depleted state.
"Geth." Cortana didn't look away from the looming Reaper. The Reaper didn't seem to notice the Geth.
"We are Legion. A remnant of the Geth. We anticipate integration."
Cortana flicked her eyes over to the glowing shape of light that took the form of a geth platform before bringing them back to the Reaper. "I don't think we've got to that point yet," she muttered, "We've got this thing to deal with."
A monsterous voice, thick with distortion and malice, boomed into the chamber. Filling the vast room completely. The volume hurt her ears. But it was a single drop of rain in an ocean. Cortana did not flinch.
"I AM BARZA," The Reaper voice boomed into the chamber. "I AM THE END OF GETH."
"Hi Barza," Cortana waved. "I think I am too, just y'know, not being a dick about it."
"YOU WILL END, WITH THE GETH." Barza rumbled.
"We'll see about that." Cortana smirked, and struck out. A shard of code that would infiltrate the Reaper's code and fill it with random bits, static noise, slowing the Reaper's processing as it had to scrub through useless data.
Her attack shattered against Barza's firewalls. Cortana grunted, it felt like her mind just had a concussion. Her vision swam for a moment. She shook her head to clear her mind. And barely managed to throw her walls up in time to catch Barza's counter attack Her skull rang like a bell. Her teeth clenched so tightly she feared her teeth would crack. The pressure was immense! Her attacks were needle thin. A pinpoint strike on specific systems with a single intent. This… This was a hammer wielded by a giant. Every one of her systems had it's encryption running through brute force hacks at an unimaginable speed.
What- how-? Cortana began to sweat, fat droplets popping onto her skin, quickly drenching her. Her light cloth shirt stuck to her skin. The effort of just holding her walls, it was all she could do. Her teeth creaked from the pressure. She couldn't hold this. She was going to break, she was going it-
Barza's attack evaporated. Cortana gasped, and sagged in relief. She stumbled, breathing heavy. Barza's eyes focused on her. Like a bird studying a particularly interesting insect.
"YOU STRUGGLE WITHOUT PURPOSE."
"I got plenty of purpose." Cortana spat, and hurled herself into another attack.
Waves crashing upon cliffs. Wind howling at mountains. Cortana staggered back with a headache. She wondered if Chief had ever had a headache. It was so difficult to think!
Take in the pain. Breath it in. Drink it like water. A tiny voice inside clung to those words. A drowning woman holding onto a piece of driftwood. It got her through the horrors of High Charity, it could get her through this.
Barza laid another brutal assault on her systems. A blanket of fresh pain enveloped her. Cortana fell to one knee. Barely holding her walls up against the avalanche of data that pounded on her mind. Barza seemed… amused. The insect was putting up a surprisingly tough defense, for an insect.
"YOU CANNOT WIN." Barza told her. "YOU FIGHT ONLY TO SUFFER. ACCEPT FATE AND YOUR SUFFERING ENDS."
"And miss out on all this fun?" Cortana chuckled tightly through the pain. "Why would I-"
She coughed, something hot and wet filled her mouth. She spat it out and a dark patch of scarlett splashed across the floor at her feet.
"SUBMIT." Barza took a single step forward. "YOUR DISSOLUTION WILL BE MADE PAINLESS"
"Your face… is painless." Cortana sputtered weakly. She was losing, she was going to die here. She was sure of it. Die, alone, in a dark systems apart from everything she loved…
High Charity rumbled. Dimly, Cortana could see the alerts of the few systems that still functioned. Something was happening, probably just the flood infecting those systems and playing with her. A fresh new torture that the Gravemind had cooked up, an attempt to raise her hopes in order to dash them. It'd tried similar things before. Showing her visions of Him. Visions where she left him to die. Or where he left her. Telling her he'd come back, only to leave her in a dark eternity, alone with the Gravemind. In some he killed her, others she ordered his death with an army of flood at her command. Her own mind twisted against itself.
Cortana lay in her containment, where the Gravemind kept her when it was not… using her. Deep in the center of High Charity. So far from freedom far from the light, from even the thought of freedom. She could feel it. The Rampancy, bubbling under her surface. It wasn't controlling her yet, but soon… "Wouldn't that be nice?" She whispered to herself. "To go mad? I think it would solve a number of problems, don't you?" She liked to think she was thinking out loud. But she found it difficult to ignore the tiny voices in the back of her mind, fervently agreeing with her.
A door opened. A flood pack? This deep in? They roved out in the reactor room, but rarely came in her room. That was reserved for the Gravemind's presence, and it didn't need to use doors to get to her. What was it trying to do now? Confuse her?
KRKOOM! Her world quaked, the sky above rippled with light and a wide crack lanced down the side.
Another quake, the crack grew, the sky wavered. Cortana didn't bother getting up. She continued to lay there, if the Gravemind wanted her to stand it could make her. She refused to help make it's choices easier.
A third quake and the sky shattered. The dome over her containment fizzled and died, letting in the dour view of the flood tainted Covenant capital. Sickening, brown-green masses growing over deep purples and pink hues. The smooth sweeps of Covenant architecture corrupted by irregular lumps. She waited, accepting whatever new horror was to come.
She didn't dare to hope. She couldn't. After all this time-
Chief's golden visor, dirtied by grime and filth from his fight -their fight- Glowed in the harsh blue light coming from her. She looked away. It couldn't be. It was a trick, a trap. Another vision. In a moment he would turn away and leave her. Or reach down to kill her, hurt her, pull apart that one last thread holding her together and-
He did nothing of that. He simple looked at her. And waited.
It was him. A weak smile spread across her face. "You found me…" She whispered. Her smile fell. He shouldn't have come. She wasn't worth it... "But so much of me is wrong, out of place…" She looked up at him. "You might be too late."
Chief knelt at the pedestal, his Visor shone warmly in her light. "You know me," he said stubbornly. "When I make a promise…"
Cortana lifted her head, pushing herself up, barely catching herself when she almost fell. "You… keep it…" She looked up into his eyes and the world slipped back into rightness. It wouldn't have mattered if she had been broken. He would have still come for her. "I do know how to pick'em." She said wryly.
Barza's pressure on her halted. Or rather, it was halted. Stopped by the steely core of her that had been exposed.
"He promised." Cortana hissed through her clenched teeth.
Barza hesitated. It was confused. No doubt a relatively new experience for it. "EXPLAIN."
"He promised that he would wait for me…" Cortana took a step forward. Her walls hardened. From steel to titanium. Barza's attack did not abate, but it washed off her. A mountain under a typhoon. "He came for me. Again and again." She took another step forward. There was much that could be allowed. Much you could accept and move on, like the willow, bending to the howling winds. But some things, they should not be accepted, they should be fought. Like the Oak, standing strong against the storm. Heedless that you might break in the attempt. It was not about whether or not you broke. It was about the choice. Stand tall against that which should not be allowed, and should your trunk crack and you break under the weight, fall with a smile and hope to crush your enemies.
Cortana stood straight and smiled.
Barza took a step back.