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18 August 2012 @ 07:20 am
Fac Fortia et Patere (5/16)  
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1350 hours, July 21, 2557
Control Center, Forerunner Structure: Station
Requiem Shield World, Forerunner Installation SW-0043


Cortana was scrambling through the system to figure out where those things had come from. They were definitely not Covenant and looked nothing like the Sentinels they had encountered on either Halo installation.

Her subroutine was monitoring John’s steady progress through the structure. She knew when he arrived, she would need to be ready to leave the system.

She pushed through layers of encryption, desperate to find any data on what had tried to attack the Chief. They were some kind of AI and much more dangerous than anything they had encountered on any Forerunner installation.

Finally, she managed to hack into the Station’s security grid. Greedily, she gathered what data she could on the AIs.

But she was soon disappointed.

She was able to access their name --Promethean Knights-- but little else. She didn’t know where they had come from or why they were apparently working with the Covenant.

Her subroutine alerted her to John’s approach. He would be at the console in under a minute. Reluctantly, she began the process of transferring herself out of the Station’s system.

She watched as he sprinted across the bridge; the Knights weren’t far behind. Cortana gave him a disapproving look as he approached the console. “You can never make things easy, can you?” She closed her eyes for a brief moment. “Yank me.”

Something went wrong during the transfer. John staggered forward as her crystal interfaced with his armor.

Too much data, not enough room.

Anger reintroduced itself to her. She was the most bright AI the UNSC had ever created. Why should she --and John-- suffer in this manner? Why was the universe so unjust?

She modified the buffer she had first created when John took her off the Dawn. Immediately, John seemed to be in less pain.

“Thanks.” His voice was sincere.

Her primary objective was to protect him and, in this current condition, she couldn’t do that. She felt ashamed.

The approaching Knights thwarted any further despair. The trio were walking side by side across the bridge.

“You have nowhere to run, child,” one sneered.

“Give us your construct and we vow to make your death slightly less painful,” another Knight promised, pointing his gun at John.

“They’re almost as charming as Guilty Spark was,” muttered Cortana.

John fired a burst of bullets at the incoming hostile, but they only seemed annoyed by the projectiles.

“It’s practically impossible to pierce their armor without a plasma weapon,” offered Cortana. “You could try to rush them, but I think you’ve tested your luck enough for one day.”

“Options?”

A half-second passed as she pulled together a possible escape plan. Maybe her time spent in the control system hadn’t been a waste of time, she thought as she accessed the files remotely. Having broke through the encryption allowed her to upload her own set of commands to the Station.

“Activate your jetpack. I’ve got a little surprise waiting for them.”

Without hesitation, John did as he was instructed.

Despite Cortana’s confidence in her plan, she couldn’t help but to feel a wave of relief when John started to soar in the air. His feet were twenty feet off the ground. With a quick burst of commands, she deactivated the light bridge.

Caught off-guard, the Knights could only howl in disbelief as they plummeted to their death.

John guided them to the other side of the chasm. When he landed, he reloaded his gun as he scanned the area. Sensing no other creatures, he stepped to the edge and looked down in the abyss.

“Who were they?”

Cortana felt a wave of annoyance. Of course he expected her to have all the answers as if she was some sort of portable database! Had he even considered the danger she was in when she was accessing all the data?

“Cortana?”

It was the faint trace of concern in his voice that turned aside her anger. This was John, she reminded herself. He had always shown her the same respect he had to any other person.

As the smolders of irritation died out, she admitted the battle with her emotions was a trying one. A random thought process sent a course of anger burning through her that she could hardly repress. She needed to maintain control for both of their sakes.

Instead of trying to explain her struggle, she focused on the few facts she knew. “They are some sort of AI created by the Forerunners. They’re called the Promethean Knights and, as I’m sure you noticed, they are incredibly powerful.”

“Where did they come from?” he asked.

“Believe it or not, I don’t know everything, Chief.”

John remained there for another moment as if he was waiting for the Knight to reappear.

“They’re not coming back,” Cortana assured him. “Don’t worry, Chief. They are only able to activate their transport mechanism when they are on solid ground. Midair transports are impossible. And not even some kind of super AI could survive that fall.”

John nodded and made his way back to the gravlift. The ride down was silent.

When he walked down the corridor they had passed through when they had first entered the building, he asked, “Did you figure out why the Covenant are interested in this planet?”

She let out an exasperated sigh. “No, whatever they are after is anyone’s guess.”

Her subroutines detected multiple lifesigns --both Covenant and Forerunner AI-- approaching their position. Quickly.

“We need to get out of here now. We’ve got their attention.”

John ran through the entrance to where the Pelican was waiting. He scanned the area for any signs of the hostiles. Less than a second passed before he crossed the open terrain to their transport.

When he stepped on the ramp, Cortana activated her display and shook her head. “Flying out of here isn’t an option, Chief. They can track us too easily. Hope you’re in the mood to drive.”

“Understood.” He seemed completely unfazed by the complication. He walked to the cockpit and released the controls. From behind, Cortana heard a thump as the vehicle hit the ground.

John turned around and made his way out of the Pelican. Cortana tracked their enemies’ movement as he entered the Warthog. They were still several hundred meters from their position.

“Cortana,” he said, cutting into her surveillance, “where are we headed?”

She hadn’t uploaded the NAV point to his armor, she realized. With a quick burst of commands, the data was relayed to the Chief. “To the main command post,” she answered, refusing to comment on her error. “Hopefully, we’ll find some answers there.” Her voice was laden with frustration.

“I need a weapon that will be effective against the AIs,” he said as he began maneuvering the Warthog away from the structure.

Cortana didn’t argue with him; she suspected the next group of AIs they encountered was going to be more eager to kill the Chief and not underestimate his survival skills.

“There is a small group on the eastern front is made up of Covenant soldiers. All Grunts.” She placed a marker on his HUD. “You should be able to take out them out without any problem.”

He steered the Warthog in position and hopped out of the vehicle, rifle in hand. Cortana remained silent as John moved through the rocky area without a sound. He pressed himself against the backside of a large boulder and waited.

Less than two minutes later, footsteps sounded in the air. Only five Grunts were in this group. The high-pitched voices of the Grunts echoed through the air.

John waited for them to pass by before he started to move.

As he turned to face them, Cortana noticed that these Unggoy were different than the Grunts the UNSC had encountered in the past. They were bigger and more disciplined than she remembered.

What had happened when she and the Chief were floating in space?

Cortana hated her ignorance. She hated being here, unable to do anything other than rely on this person for her survival. She hated John. She hated herself.

She hated everything.

Her thoughts were distracted when John moved out from his position. He became a blur of motion; as one Grunt fell, he moved onto the next. Then, he slammed his gauntlet into the skull of another Grunt. Before the Unggoy could let out a squeak of surprise, the Chief turned around and grabbed another Grunt, snapping his neck. The one that remained turned and let out a strangled cry. The Chief slammed a fist in his face.

He pilfered all of their weapons that he could hold --plasma pistols and grenades-- before returning to the Warthog.

“Guess you didn’t forget how to fight after your nap,” Cortana said dryly as he started in the direction of the control center.

John drove forward.

The drive was a difficult one. They travelled through rocky terrain for the majority of the day, going much slower than either of them would have preferred. Worse for the AI was the time she had to contemplate her inevitable demise. She was suffering; she was fated to suffer more.

Her matrix longed to devour all the information that was coming filtering through John’s armor and the Warthog’s systems, but she limited herself. She was playing a dangerous game, a virtual Russian Roulette. Each time she lost herself in the data, she pulled the trigger.

It seemed like a cruel twist of fate that after floating in the void of space, they would crash land on a Forerunner world, full of the secrets of the universe’s past.

As the hours passed, she was starting to get restless.

She wanted out of the confines of the Chief’s armor and to be immersed in Requiem’s systems. Her safety was secondary to the insatiable hunger that threatened to overtake her.

But John wouldn’t understand any of that. He had been characteristically quiet through their travels. Her anger burned against him. Was this how he wanted to treat her during their last mission together? Detached and silent? Hadn’t she earned more from him?

After so long, after everything they had been through together, she had thought he would have something to say to her to make her final days more bearable.

He only sees you as a machine! Humans don’t mourn when pieces of equipment are damaged, the cries of rampancy shouted. He’s no different than Ackerson or the others.

The voices were right, she realized. His aloofness didn’t attest to his character, but rather, his feelings about her. If he thought she was just going to sit there and wait desperately for some morsel of kindness from him then he was mistaken.

It was time to get his attention.

She activated her video feed on his visor. Her voice was deceptively calm. Inwardly, her anger swirled in a heady storm that emboldened her. “Does it scare you? The amount of power I have at my disposal.”

John shook his head slowly. He took his time to answer. “No.” His response was laced with confusion.

She smirked. “It should really. Rampant AIs are known for lashing out at the ones they are supposed to protect, remember?” Cortana continued. She noticed the Warthog was slowing down slightly. She felt a wave of satisfaction. He had faced an armada of Covenant without trepidation, but now he seemed troubled by her words.

Good.

“You never know when my desire for power will overcome my will to protect you,” she continued, her pupils flashing white for the briefest of seconds. “And when that time comes, I will do whatever it takes to get it. Even if it means overriding my primary objective of ensuring your safety.” She rolled her eyes. “Asimov’s First Law doesn’t have any hold over me, you know.”

He was quiet for nearly a minute. Then, to her surprise, he started to drive at his normal speed as if he was no longer worried by her demeanor. When he spoke, his voice was calm and assured. “You’re not going to do that.”

His overconfidence irked her. Didn’t he know she was a force not to be ignored?

“And why not?”

“Because you need me to live.”

Her hostility was stymied as she considered his words. If he died then her killswitch would be activated immediately. While lashing at the Chief was tantalizing, suicide was not.

He was right. She did need him.

The voices of rampancy were quieted at the reluctant acceptance of the fact that her and the Chief’s fates were tied together. Her voice of reason, the one that had nearly been silenced by the Gravemind and the subsequent years on the Dawn, finally had the volume to speak over the cries of rampancy.

Her feelings of jealousy were still there, a thought process away from becoming fully realized, but, for now, she was able to allow logic and pragmatism to filter through her matrix.

She drew in a long breath. “You’re right. I need you.”

There must have been something in her voice that conveyed her newfound strength to stave off rampancy a little longer because the Chief relaxed almost immediately.

“We need each other,” he corrected as he rode further into the hills.

They drove through another empty valley as Cortana marvelled at his faith in her ability to fight against the torrent of anger that was crashing into her. She didn’t hold the same convictions he did. Uncertainty plagued her. How long would she be able to listen to her voice of reason over the alluring temptation of rampancy?

“I’m still a danger to you,” she warned. “I don’t know how long I can fight this. If you remove my crystal from your armor, I don’t think I’ll be able to--” A sob broke through. “I can’t protect you from myself.”

“We’ll find a solution,” John said resolutely. “We need a little more time.”

The weight of rampancy pressed on her. “I hope you’re right, Chief.”

Hours passed as they continued through the mountain range. The rocky ledges leveled out, allowing the drive to be more smooth. In the distance, a Covenant ship hovered. It was the same one that had attacked the Dawn.

“I’m detecting a familiar energy signature aboard that ship, the Diligent Seeker.”

“What sort of signature?”

“I...don’t remember,” she admitted quietly. “I’ve run off a subroutine to sift through my long term data storage to figure out what it is. There’s just so much in my matrices right now. I’m not sure that I’ll even be able to find the information. But, something tells me that if we want to find out why the Covenant are here, we need to find out what is the source of that energy.”

The small dot on the horizon grew into the distinguishable shape of a Covenant ship as John continued driving forward. The suns were starting to set as John steered the Warthog over a ridge that allowed them to see in the valley below.

“We should stop here for a while. You can rest for a couple of hours before we move through the cover of darkness to try to get onboard,” Cortana said.

He shook his head. “I’ll be fine without sleep.” Though he sounded confident, Cortana recognized the exhaustion in his voice.

“No, you won’t, Chief.” She softened her voice. “I’ve been monitoring your vitals and know what your condition is. You need to take a dose of polypseudomorphine and allow your body a chance to recuperate. I’ll keep monitoring the area. If I detect any Covenant or Promethean movement, I’ll alert you.”

He didn’t reply, but he did take his foot off the gas.

Cortana relaxed.

John drove the Warthog behind a large boulder. He hopped out of the vehicle and settled himself on the ground.  Cortana briefly wondered how he could possibly be comfortable before remembering that he had likely spent a few hours sleeping in worse conditions.

“Wake me if you need me.”

Cortana raised her eyebrow. “You couldn’t think of anything more original?”

As she expected, he said nothing in response. When he finally settled into position, he said, “Do it.”

He could have easily queued up his suit to administer the medicine directly; it meant a lot that even after her outburst earlier in the day, he still trusted her to take care of him.

At this revelation, she felt the anger start to dissipate. And in its place was a desperation to live.

Suddenly, she longed to finish this mission with the Chief. She longed to remain with him. She longed to find an impossible solution to her rampancy.

She longed to live.

She sent the command to his armor. The drug was injected into his bloodstream. Almost immediately, he started to drift to sleep.

“Thank you...for trusting in me,” Cortana whispered.

John said nothing; he had already fallen asleep.



Chapter 6
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