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17 August 2012 @ 09:31 pm
Fac Fortia et Patere (7/16)  
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0415 hours, July 22, 2557
Requiem Shield World
Forerunner Installation SW-0043


I’m never going to leave this planet.

Instead of her thought being laced with desperation, there was acceptance. The anger that she had experienced had completely faded when John had fallen into his drug-induced slumber; it had morphed into an amalgamation of envy, despair and depression that had caused her to lash out at John in a way she hadn’t thought possible.

She had managed to overcome the powerful torrent of emotions when John had reached out to her after her outburst. She couldn’t explain how his words could cut through the shouts of madness. But, like on High Charity, he had managed to keep her from looking too far and falling into the abyss. As Cortana had accepted that he would not forsake her, she felt a calm settle over her.

Somehow, over the years of solitude, she had forgotten how the Chief’s stubbornness could be an asset.

The serenity she now felt made her almost believe that she had reached the elusive stage of metastability. But, her data saturation levels were still continuing to rise.

She would complete her final mission and accept the reality she fought long and hard against.

Like every human who came before her, she was going to die.

Before her demise, she was determined to do two things: find a way for the Chief to get back to UNSC controlled space and solve the mysteries of Requiem. In some way, she played a role into the Forerunner’s plans, whatever they were. She had noticed the panicked feeling that settled over the room when John had brought up whether she was the Intellect.

She wondered how he had pieced that information together; she had only made a passing reference when they were on the Dawn. Cortana wanted to ask him about his intuitive question, but the Spartan was currently trying to keep them alive.

Four Banshees screamed as they flew out of the Diligent Seeker. As John tore through the sky, he turned his body towards the approaching enemy. He raised the gun he had stolen from one of the Knights and shot at the closest Banshee. The first shot missed, but the second one made contact with the flying craft.

The Banshee and its driver disintegrated immediately. The explosion caused a confetti of light to color the nighttime sky.

His shields dropped as another Banshee hit him with its energy gun. Cortana marked the Covenant’s position on his display. He needed to eliminate the threat quickly; the ground was fast approaching.

John activated his jetpack for two seconds, allowing the Banshees to swoop under them. He took advantage of the higher ground and fired two shots. Each hit its own target; the Banshees exploded into a burst of light like the other.

The remaining Banshee retreated to the Diligent Seeker.

“Guess he didn’t want to become a fireworks show,” Cortana commented.

John continued to sail through the sky, using the freefall to his full advantage. He guided them closer to Requiem’s control center. When they were a thousand meters from the ground, John activated the jetpack and guided them to ground below.

They were now less than three kilometers from the towering building. John faced the control center and, then, he pulled out the light box that held the crystal shard and looked down at it.

“What do you think they are trying to do?” he asked.

It was the one answer Cortana desperately craved. “You mean besides trying to convince you that you’re better off without me?” She activated her video feed on his visor and gave John an inquisitive look. “How did you know they consider me to be the Intellect?”

“Lucky guess.” He glanced again at the crystal. “We need to figure out why they brought the shards here.”

“I won’t know anything until I access the main systems. Remotely,” she assured him.

He slipped the case back into a compartment on his armor and took stock of his inventory. He had one shot left in the lightrifle, a plasma pistol with a quarter-full battery cell, and two plasma grenades.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we had some company waiting in there. We need to find you some weapons fast. The energy levels coming from the control center are rising rapidly,” Cortana said.

The radar picked up two enemy lifesigns, both Promethean Knights, coming from the east. John used the large trees to his advantage and hid in its shadows. Then, he started to do something completely unexpected: he started to climb the tree.

“I don’t think those branches can support a half-ton Spartan, Chief,” warned Cortana.

He moved up several meters and looked below. The Knights’ height prohibited them from moving through the forest unseen. Cortana tracked their progress when they were still several hundred feet away.

The tree cracked when John shifted to move the lightrifle into position. Several winged creatures chirped angrily in protest at their homes being invaded. He raised the gun and looked out the scope.

Branches and other trees would make the shot difficult, but not impossible. He held his breath as one of the Knights came into view. Cortana knew he had to be perfect. Once he fired, their position would be revealed.

Then, just as the center of the scope lined up with the Knight’s position, John fired.

He didn’t wait to see if the target hit its mark before he slid down the trunk and laid on the forest floor.

The Knight cried out before he shattered in an eruption of light. The other Promethean shot in their direction; the Chief flattened himself closer to the earth. When the folly of shots stopped, John activated the grenade he had grabbed from his armor.

“Don’t miss.”

“I won’t.”

With a swift motion, he hurled it towards the Knight. The plasma grenade stuck to the back of his armor, on the left shoulder. There was nothing he could do to stop the grenade from detonating; his body flew in the air, landing several meters away from the tree.

Slowly, John lifted himself off the ground. Cortana didn’t miss the fact he winced as he moved to stand. “I’m fine,” he said before she could say anything.

Cortana accessed his vitals. “Fine” was an overstatement. “I wasn’t aware ‘fine’ was synonymous with critically injured.”

John didn’t reply. He picked up the additional ammo and proceeded towards the building. They were close enough to stand in its shadow. It looked remarkably similar to the other Forerunner structures they had found: grey and monstrous, ostentatious and superlative.

He walked through the doors that slid apart with a hiss. They revealed an entrance that opened into a large area with several passageways.

“There is a relay station here.” She uploaded a NAV marker. “I should be able to access enough data to figure out what is going on.”

It didn’t take long for John to reach the destination. So far, no one had confronted them which caused Cortana to be slightly concerned. The Prometheans didn’t seem like the type of beings who gave up a fight easily.

John approached the relay station and waited for Cortana.

Since her activation, Cortana had never relied on anyone to help her obtain access into foreign systems. But, the Forerunners had security countermeasures in place to prevent any AI from obtaining data remotely. She would have to work in tandem with the Chief to retrieve the data they needed.

“Hope you’re ready for a crash course in hacking,” she said. “I’ll be transmitting data remotely to keep the system from locking us out. You’ll need to do what I say exactly or else we’re going to have to start over.”

“Right.” His voice contained a hint of something Cortana wasn’t used to hearing from him: uncertainty.

“Press the yellow hexagon twice. Then, rotate the blue sphere eight-five degrees to the left until it locks into place. That should get us access to the root menu,” instructed Cortana.

He did as she had said. As expected, the system’s security measures started to activate. Cortana blocked them from entering the console by bombarding the system with several billion algorithms. Satisfied, she sent a burst of commands to the station, unlocking the protected information.

Data started revealing itself. There were millions of files to access, but there one was named “Schism” that caught her attention.

“Tap the red triangle twice. Then hold down the blue sphere.”

When he did, petabytes of information poured through the system. When she was finished accessing all of the information, Cortana’s subroutines paused for a half a millisecond as she processed what she had just read. She uploaded a NAV point to the section of the building where the Schism was. “Get moving, Chief. I know what they’re planning and you’re going to have to stop them.”

John stepped away from the panel and backtracked to the entrance. “What are they trying to do?”

“Requiem was a shield world used by the Didact after the Forerunner-Flood War. He found this planet and started to build a machine that would ‘right the wrongs of the Flood’. That crystal that Doctor Halsey found on Reach is the key to activating the Schism.”

“What does it do?”

“It is, in essence, a time machine. Remember how time seemed to bend around us when we were travelling through slipspace when we were in possession of the crystal? The Schism amplifies that signal exponentially. Anyone who is within its inner core will be sent back to the moment in time that has been programmed,” Cortana explained as they rode up a gravlift.

“But they only have two shards,” John noted.

“That would limit how far back they could travel, but there’s nothing to indicate that it won’t work without the crystal fully intact,” Cortana replied. With the limited data she had, Cortana couldn’t ascertain what the Promethean’s next move was. “If we’re going to figure out what they’re doing, I need to get into the main system.”

“If you go in there--”

“I’m not coming out,” she finished solemnly. “I know, Chief. But, if we don’t stop whatever they are going to do, then alterations to the timeline could be irrevocable.”

John was silent as he considered her logic. She hoped he know that this plea to enter the system was different than the one she had made on the Diligent Seeker. That one stemmed from desperation, this one, of necessity.

He followed the pathway and walked through another pair of doors. Inside the room, as if by providence, there was a terminal. “Are you sure?” He sounded disheartened, as if he held the responsibility for not being able to save Cortana.

“Yes.” For the first time since she had woken John, she had a clearly defined objective. “Yank me, Chief.”

In the second it took for John to reach around to eject her crystal, Cortana grieved that fact that this would be the last time they would be linked together. Their connection had allowed her to live vicariously through John, experiencing a level of humanity that other AIs never had.

From that initial test on Reach, John had shown her the value of teamwork. They had saved humanity --and the universe-- together. Now, she would have to complete her final mission alone in a foreign system, away from the one she had chosen to be her custodian.

John inserted her chip and Cortana was immersed in the Forerunner systems. It took her less than a half-second to weave through the systems to find the information she sought.

She activated her avatar from the console, her eyes wide in shock. “They are going to go back to Reach. Before it was attacked. They’re going to try to retrieve the crystal in its entirety.” The data poured into her matrices faster than she could process it. “It makes sense,” she said distractedly. “It’s the only time the Covenant were close enough for them to even attempt this.”

“What do you mean ‘close enough’?”

Cortana scrambled for an explanation. She was barely able to comprehend how the Schism worked. “This machine doesn’t transport a person’s physical body through time. It uploads a person’s consciousness and sends it back in time. It then supersedes the original consciousness...sort of a twist on the Pauli exclusion principle.”

“That would mean I would be back on Reach.”

Before its destruction.

Before the deaths of so many.

Cortana recognized the longing in his voice. “I don’t need to remind you the dangers of polluting the timeline and creating a paradox,” she reminded gently. “Besides, the transference is only temporary. There is a small window --several hours at most-- and then time will start to pull back on itself. Then, your consciousness will return here in the altered timeline.”

Her brows furrowed. “I’m willing to guess that at least one of those Elites on the Diligent Seeker were on Reach when the Covenant attacked which means they will be within range of the crystal too. You need to find it before they do, Chief.”

A burst of data pushed against her efforts to keep the Schism locked down. She was fighting a losing battle. “If the Schism is activated at full power, there is no limit to how far back in time they will be able to travel,” warned Cortana. More data filtered into her matrices. “I’ve just detected the transport signal in the Schism’s core. I’ve managed to block their attempts to gain access into the mainframe, but I don’t know how long I can hold them off.”

“Understood.”

She wondered if he really could understand; she had difficulty fully comprehended the potential of the machine. The details probably didn’t matter to John, she acknowledged. He had a mission to save the universe --again-- and he would do whatever it took to make sure it was a success.

There was one more thing she needed to do in case she wasn’t able to keep the Prometheans and the Covenant from activating the Schism. She uploaded several files to her data crystal. She added a protocol to the chip to make it compatible with the Mark V armor that John had on Reach.

“That case around the shard acts as a tether between anything in it and the person’s consciousness. If I’m analyzing the data correctly--” And with the crashing waves of information flooding her matrices, she may not have been. “--then anything in it will be transported with you.”

“How is that possible?”

“How does a single crystal hold enough power to send a consciousness through time?” She shook her head. “It has something to do with tethering itself to your PSI wave pattern, but really I just don’t know, Chief.”

The data was starting the smother her. She forced herself to focus on the Master Chief. “I’ve overwritten the security protocols so you can now open the case anytime you need to. You just need to put one more thing in there.”

“What?”

“My data crystal.” She paused as the weight of reality pressed on her. Her program was going to terminate. Soon. “I’ve made some modifications so that you’ll be able to use it if the Schism gets activated and you get sent back to Reach. I sent the files with the exact location of the crystal based on Doctor Halsey’s report.”

John hesitated. If he took the crystal, then she would be sealed to her fate.

“It’s alright, John. I’ll do what I can to keep them busy until you get in there.” She hoped she could last that long; she was drowning in an impossible amount of data. Only the vastness of Requiem’s computers kept her from getting pulled under.

There was a mixture of terror and relief when he ejected the chip and slid it inside the case.

She was alone. She was going to die. But now, unlike when she was floating in deep space, her death would have purpose.

“Good luck, Chief.”

For a moment, it seemed as if he was going to say something. But, he simply nodded curtly. Then, he turned around and walked away.

Cortana waited until the doors closed behind him. Then, she deactivated her avatar and transferred herself to the Schism’s core. It was time to confront a certain Promethean with an attitude problem.

Moving through the control center’s systems was more difficult than Cortana would have liked. She had never encountered such enormity of power and knowledge. The data lured her like a siren’s song, doing what it could to distract her from her objective.

Once or twice Cortana found herself straying off task. But, she thought of John and was able to pull herself back on focus.

She transferred herself to the Schism’s main control systems. The Delegate stood in the center of the room.

It was time to say hello.

She activated her avatar from the relay. The Delegate walked in her direction, appraising her. “We meet at long last, Intellect.”

“Don’t flatter me with pet names.” She needed to stall. John was only halfway to the inner core of the Schism.

“We all have titles. Some have been earned, others have not.” The Delegate leaned down and studied her closely. “Which category do you fall in, I wonder.”

“Considering I’ve managed to keep you from activating this machine, I’d have to say earned,” she said with false bravado. Her matrices were significantly slowed. Travelling through the system had bogged her down. But he didn’t need to know any of that.

“Such arrogance,” he sighed. “Tell me, Intellect, was that something programmed into your personality or did you steal that from your Source like you did so many her other memories?”

Cortana was stunned. He knew her origins.

Then, to her dismay, the countdown to Schism’s systems activated.

“You will not be able to save the one you were programmed to protect.” He pulled back. “Your creator added that protocol to your program, you know. Your feelings to protect the Reclaimer are nothing but a result of subroutines working with your original programming.” He scoffed. “You did not think you had real emotions, did you?”

“That’s not true.” She raised her head resolutely. “The connection we have is bound in destiny and fortified in trust.”

The Delegate stiffened. “Where have you heard that?” he demanded.

Truthfully, Cortana didn’t know. The random cluster of data seemed to enter her matrices on its own volition. She wasn’t going to reveal that to him though. She shrugged. “Around. I am the Intellect after all.”

His pupils burned behind the mask. He spun around the room and shouted, “You are too late! Nothing will stop the plan. He has declared it!”

He stomped to where Cortana stood. “Do you think we fear this? The evidence of its demise is glaringly obvious!” He turned to the AI. “You pose no threat to us.”

Her subroutine alerted her to the fact that John had entered the inner core. “Don’t be too sure about that.”

He waved off her words. “We will get what we seek.” The Delegate leaned down, only inches from her avatar. “The Reclaimer seems terribly protective of you, does he not?”

The calculations over Cortana’s body stopped as understanding dawned on her. “You allowed John to get in here,” she whispered.

His helmet shot open, revealing the flaming skull underneath. “Of course we did! When he travels back in time, he will retrieve the crystal and then give it to us himself. Perhaps the man he was five years ago would have easily allowed your program to terminate in exchange for a successful mission. This man will not.”

Cortana crossed her arms defiantly. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Perhaps you underestimate the power you hold over him.”

She needed to stop the Schism. Now.

With a speed that she thought she had lost, she raced through the systems, doing what she could to sabotage the Promethean plan. She uploaded billions of algorithms to the Schism’s primary systems, hoping to slow it down with all the superfluous data. Cortana did her best to outthink the computer’s adaptive technology, but she was smothering herself with all the data.

“I will not allow you to leave this planet!” she cried, her pupils blazing white.

He leaned close to her. Cortana thought she could feel the heat of the flame on her cheeks. “You are powerless to stop us, Intellect.”

“Leave her alone.”

The Chief was standing at the entrance of the room with a lightrifle pointed at the Delegate.

The Promethean snarled as he stood up to face John. His helmet snapped shut back into place. Before he turned around, he said to Cortana, “As I was saying...quite protective.”

The Delegate moved to stand between her and the Chief. “My commission is now complete. I have fulfilled my purpose.” Then, much louder. “You have failed!”

He disappeared as he transported himself out of the room.

John walked across the room and knelt in front of the holotank. “What happened?”

Her thoughts had nowhere to go; her data saturation level was nearly at one hundred percent. She shrugged. The movement took more effort than it should. “You know guys like that. They talk the big talk--” Her hologram flickered. It was becoming almost impossible to find the protocols to operate her avatar. “I don’t have much time left, John.”

There was less than a minute until the Schism was activated. She wouldn’t be able to stop it, but, at least, she could pass on knowing that John would be able to continue where she left off. He would make sure the mission was a success.

She needed to warn him of the Delegate’s plan. “He let you in here, John. They are going to force you to make a choice: me or the crystal. You know what you have to do.”

“I’ll make my own option.”

“Stubborn,” she said exasperatedly.

Cortana suddenly fell to her knees as she felt a bolt of pain course over her. She was getting buried by the amount of information her matrix contained. Her thoughts were moving too slow --or was it too fast? There seemed to be an impossible contradiction of having too much and not enough data to process.

“What can I do to help?” John’s voice distracted her from the agony of death.

She shook her head. “Nothing, Chief. This is the end for me. You’ve shown me--You’ve shown me--” She stopped talking and implemented a simple protocol to attempt to prevent any further redundancies in her speech subroutine.

She started again. “You’ve shown me the best humanity has to offer. Your intelligence, your bravery, your stubbornness.” She managed to smile despite the overwhelming sadness she felt. “Thank you for making me feel alive.”

They only had a few seconds before the Schism activated. She squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to see her warped reflection in John’s visor.

In the darkness, she saw a glowing light. It wasn’t white as humans often claimed, but a serene aqua.

It was time.

She allowed the light to surround her.

“I’ll miss you, John,” she whispered.

Then, CTN 0425-9’s program was terminated.


Chapter 8
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