“So, High Command has finally given us a real mission, huh?”
Catherine looked up from her computer to where Cortana was standing with a raised eyebrow.
The AI had been working in her office for the past two weeks since her first meeting with John. Catherine’s request for the AI to get her own lab had been approved three days before, but Cortana hadn’t yet made the move into her own unit.
She pushed up her glasses. “I thought that information was classified until I had given you the orders.”
Cortana shrugged. “Nuance.”
The entrance doors to her lab slid apart, revealing John. “Ma’am,” he greeted.
“You never call me ma’am,” Cortana noted from behind the desk.
He turned in the direction of the AI and frowned slightly. The motion was so brief and subtle that had Catherine not known him as well as she did, she would have thought she had imagined seeing things. Was there some kind of issue between the two of them that she didn’t know about?
Cortana didn’t miss his look of discontent either. “It’s fine.”
Catherine looked at Cortana who had taken off her “oppressive” ONI jacket and left the dark grey tank shirt exposed. The red, angry skin on her bicep where the sniper's bullet had hit her stood out in contrast to her pale skin. Catherine had offered for her to have under reconstructive surgery on the scar, but the AI immediately dismissed the idea.
“I always want to remember what Ackerson wanted to do to me.”
Neither of them had commented on the fact she couldn’t forget anything, even if she wanted. She understood the AI’s anger and hadn’t pushed the point any further.
“Really,” she said emphatically. She grabbed the jacket off the back of the desk chair and flashed Catherine an exasperated look. “Maybe you should tell him about our new orders so he will stop being such a mother hen.”
Catherine noticed the shocked look on John’s face. He had been called many things since his entrance into the Spartan program; she doubted mother hen had ever been one of them.
She held out a tablet. “Here are your new orders.”
Cortana gestured for John to take the tablet Halsey was offering.
“Your objective is to retrieve several officers who fell under attack in an outskirt of Los Angeles by Covenant forces twelve hours ago. I don’t need to tell the two of you that your actions throughout the mission will be under full review once it is completed.” Halsey looked at the two of them.
“We’ll be successful, ma’am,” John assured her.
A whisper of a smile passed over Halsey's lips. “I would expect nothing less, John. The two of you are to report to the pod station immediately.”
Cortana froze briefly. “Pod station? I thought we were going to have a Pelican transport.”
Halsey pressed her lips together. She had been deliberate in not allowing Cortana to have access to the final version of their mission plan. “Yes, well, there was a last minute change. It would seem that General Ackerson learned of your...aversion to enclosed places.”
“Of course he did,” sneered Cortana.
Catherine reached to the back of her table and held out John’s helmet for him to take. “Here you go, John.”
He looked appreciatively at the helmet and placed it on his head.
“I think if it was up to the Chief, he’d always be wearing that armor,” Cortana mused.
It was true. All of the Spartans felt the same way. But with the enormous energy consumption the armor took, they were only able to wear the armor during active missions.
The doctor picked up her tablet and walked to the door. This was their first major mission since the test and she wanted to see the two of them off. Cortana took the lead with John following behind her.
Catherine watched as the future of the UNSC walked in front of her. She trailed Cortana and John at a distance, allowing herself to watch the two of them interact. John walked with sturdy steps, his posture perfect, his gaze facing forward. Cortana kept up with the Spartan, leaning in his personal space, casting glances in his direction as she spoke to him.
She didn’t miss how John momentarily paused when the officer in the ONI lobby saluted at Cortana when they exited the building. She smothered a smile. After seeing him and his Spartans adapt to so many different kinds of scenarios, it was amusing that he seemed to be having trouble trying to acclimate to the AI.
Despite her permission for Cortana to be assigned to work with John, Halsey had her concerns about their compatibility. For all of John’s stolidness, Cortana was overt. She knew he would rather be with a group of his own Spartans rather than a high-spirited AI. But, they were the best the UNSC had. They, in time, would adjust to each other and they would finally be able to take a stand against the Covenant.
The two of them proceeded to the security checkpoint. As they were waved forward, Cortana looked up at John. “So, do you have a plan?”
“To complete the mission.”
Cortana crossed her arms at his reply. “So I take that as a no. I guess it’s a good thing I’ve already come up with several possibilities.”
Before John could respond, they entered the hangar.
Catherine knew the second Cortana spotted their transport. The AI did her best to hide her discomfort at the sight of the Scorpion, but the doctor knew John noticed her trepidation immediately.
The doctor wanted to offer some kind of encouragement, but that wasn’t her place. Cortana was more than capable; she would have to do some adjusting of her own if this partnership was going to be successful.
“Cortana?” John’s one word was weighed with concern.
She shook her head and faced him, painting a smile on her face. “I’ll be fine.”
Catherine frowned. She didn’t look like she would be fine. Even from this distance, the doctor could tell her face was paler than it was before, her voice was laced with tension.
“Still think she’s the answer to the UNSC’s prayers?”
Halsey pulled her eyes from Cortana and John and faced the general. “I have faith in Cortana and the Master Chief.”
He nodded in Cortana’s direction. “Think she’s going to make it? She’s not looking too good out there.”
Catherine reluctantly followed his gaze. Oh, Cortana was doing her best to act nonchalant as she approached the vehicle, but, Ackerson was right; she didn’t look good.
He leaned down to her ear. “Only you could have created an AI that was claustrophobic, Catherine.”
She bristled. “She’ll be fine, James. You’ll see.”
“You know,” he said, pulling back. “I keep coming back to the part during their test when the Master Chief nearly blacked out when Cortana boosted the signal. Are you sure they are up for such an intense mission?” He tapped his finger on his chin. “I don’t remember reading anything in your scenario reports about the possibility of that happening. It kind of makes me--and High Command--wonder what else you missed during your simulations.”
Catherine tapped down the urge to rise to her defense. She and Cortana had already integrated a buffer in John’s helmet than would lessen the amount of data assimilated by his neural lace. “I would hold off on your concerns until their mission is complete, James. One glitch does not debunk the years of research I have done with ONI.”
He grinned widely. The gesture was not sincere. “Oh, I have full confidence in your pet projects’ abilities. That’s why I requested that an additional objective be added to their mission.” He paused dramatically. “That isn’t going to be a problem, is it?”
She glowered as she turned away from him to grab her tablet. She tapped in several commands and saw the updated file. “You want them to salvage the Autumn? The last report we got from them showed that their navigation system is shot and their defense screen is shoddy at best.”
“If you don’t think the two of them are up for it, I could always contact Lord Hood--”
“That won’t be necessary, James. They will finish all of their objectives.” She raised her gaze to John and Cortana who were in the process of getting into the Scorpion. “You and the rest of High Command will see that they had not to be underestimated.”
Despite Cortana’s dislike for tight places, they made it to Glendale without any major issues. Cortana piloted the Scorpion two kilometers to the east of where Keyes’ last signal came from. The craft was carefully tucked behind the rumble of a destroyed building.
“The casualties here were devastating,” she commented as she stepped out of the cabin. She looked at the west. “But so far, we’re still holding our ground in Los Angeles. Blue Team is responsible for most of its success.”
John nodded. Before his abrupt transfer to Reach, he was there fighting alongside his Spartan counterparts. Though the battle was tough, he knew that Fred would lead the team to success.
She opened the storage compartment on the side and pulled out an ankle holster. Quickly, she strapped it on and grabbed the pistol from its holder inside the ship. “And yes,” she said with an amused grin, “I have used a firearm before.”
He didn’t comment on the fact that she answered his unspoken question. It was clear that she was much more familiar with his thought processes than he was with hers. John reached in and grabbed his assault rifle with a couple of extra mags. He reached around and attached the firearm to the back of his armor before grabbing his pistol.
“We’re going to have to take this nice and slow. You know how the Covenant work.”
Of course he did. When they did manage to secure a town, they stationed snipers to pick off any person who attempted to infiltrate their area. Their high powered rifles had claimed the lives of too many UNSC officers over the past two decades.
“There is a sewer line that runs under the majority of the city. We should be able to use that to get by the border unit.”
John frowned slightly. Sewer lines had their own dangers as well. “What about the proximity mines?”
“Like I said, Chief, nice and slow.”
Stealthily, they ducked between the destroyed buildings and abandoned shopping centers until they reached the position. Cortana stopped in front of the entrance and held her hand out. “Spartans first,” she said dryly.
He walked inside and activated his helmet lights as the sunlight faded. Cortana walked beside him, carrying a flashlight of her own. She had uploaded the underground layout to his HUD already, now it was just staying alert for any proximity mines the Covenant possibly hid.
As they approached the first major intersection, John paused. He carefully scanned the area, looking for any anomalous energy readings. When there was none detected, he crossed through the open area.
Several minutes passed without any incident, but as he was about to make a right turn, Cortana held out a hand. “Did you see that?”
John shook his head slightly. “No.” Suddenly, John felt a pressure building in the back of his head.
She got a far off look for several seconds. “Take a look at this.”
The video feed from two minutes before started playing through his HUD. A section of the video had been highlighted and filtered through his inferred sights. Three small figures appeared momentarily before disappearing before a large column.
“They’re too small to be Covenant,” he said as the video feed faded away.
“They could be survivors from the initial attack,” offered Cortana.
John frowned. That would be a snag in their mission. But, there was a long standing order that UNSC officers would to rescue any and all civilians from the Covenant. If there were survivors from the attack, it would be their responsibility to bring them back as well.
Left with no other option, John started cautiously walking forward. As they approached the position where they detected the life signs a young man, no older than twelve years old, jumped out and pointed a plasma rifle directly at Cortana.
“Don’t move,” he said.
John instantly stopped. If the boy accidentally shot Cortana, there would be no way she would be able to survive the blast. “We’re here to help.”
“You UNSC?” A little girl asked from the shadows.
“Yes.” Cortana’s voice was more annoyed than frightened, John noticed.
“They’re here for the ship they shot down,” the boy proclaimed to the shadows.
Now that John was closer, he could detect at least twenty separate life signs in the shadows.
The boy turned to John. “What’s your name and rank?”
Briefly, John considered not answering the child’s question. But time was not on their side and they needed to get to the Autumn’s position as quickly as they could. “I’m Sierra-117. “
The boy’s hold on the rifle faltered slightly. “You’re a Spartan.”
John raised his eyebrows. Very few people in the UNSC knew about the elite solider force, let alone a child in the middle of southwest America. “Yes, I am.”
“Since you seem to know about the Chief, why don’t you give us your name?” Cortana asked. “And stop pointing that gun at me, for that matter.”
He lowered the weapon and looked at Cortana. “Billy. Billy Cole.”
Cortana looked at his suspiciously. “As in…”
“Preston Cole was my grandfather,” he answered knowingly. “We were in the city when we saw the Covenant coming. My father told me to gather the children and remain underground until he came for us. That was seven days ago.” He looked at Cortana. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “He’s been listed MIA since his transponder signal was lost four days ago.”
Billy jutted his chin forward. He was strong, John noticed. The boy reminded of himself when he was a child in the Spartan program. “I understand.”
“We can’t leave them here. Protocol 431.0 is clearly in effect here,” she said via their private COM channel. Though she had spoken without moving her lips in Halsey’s lab, it was still disconcerting for him to hear her without seeing her speak.
He suppressed a sigh. “No, we can’t.”
Their options were limited. They could backtrack and escort the children back to where the Scorpion was waiting. One of them could stay behind with them and wait for the other to return with the Autumn. Neither option was preferable.
“We’re fine here,” Billy said, picking up on the fact they were talking about them.
“You might be safe from the Covenant for now, but they have been known to patrol the sewers and underground tunnels,” Cortana replied.
The boy swallowed thickly. “I know. A patrol came through the area three days ago. We–I–” He paused, taking a deep breath. “I killed them. That’s how I got the gun.”
“More Covenant haven’t come?”
He shook his head, still shaken by his confession. “No, I think the ship that crashed near City Hall distracted them.”
“Where are the bodies?”
“I didn’t want the others to see them. Especially the little ones. So I pulled them into a dead-end,” Billy replied. “I took everything off of them that I thought we could use.”
“Show us,” John instructed.
The young boy looked at John for a second before nodding. He led them past the nearly two dozen children that were watching the exchange eagerly.
“Are they going to get us out of here?”
“Do they know what happened to my mommy?”
“Why is he a robot?”
“Do they have food?”
Billy held up his hand and all the questions ceased. “Everything will be fine,” he assured his peers as he walked to a small pile of picked items. “This is what I found.”
Cortana knelt down and picked up a small sphere. “A communication transponder. This could come in handy.”
Their conversation was cut short by a young girl walking to them. “Are you guys going to get us out of here?” The oldest of the girls asked with her hand on her hip.
“I say we send them to the Scorpion. Billy seems more than capable of leading these kids there,” Cortana suggested via their private comm. She turned to the boy. “How was your father going to contact you?”
Billy hesitated. “He gave me this.” He dug in his pocket and pulled out a UNSC communicator device. “I know he wasn’t supposed to. He, uh, found it on Private Masterson after he died, ma’am. He said the private would want me to have it, so that we wouldn’t share the same fate.”
Cortana looked directly at the boy. “He’s right, you know. I’m going to upload the coordinates to the Scorpion’s position. Take the other children and wait there until the Chief or I give you the signal.”
The boy’s eyebrows furrowed. “How are you going to upload anything? We don’t have a computer.”
John watched a flutter of a smile pass over Cortana’s lips. “I’m a…computer specialist. It will be no problem for me to get those to you.” She looked at the group of children. “Is anyone hurt?”
Billy shook his head. “No. But we are hungry.”
“There are some provisions in the main storage hub on the Scorpion,” Cortana replied. “There were no Covenant patrols in the area when we landed, but you need to be careful.”
“We will, ma’am.” He turned to John and saluted. Slowly, the Spartan returned the gesture. “Good luck.” He turned back to the ground of children. “Let’s go.”
John and Cortana watched as the nearly two dozen young children followed Billy into the darkened shadows of the tunnel.
“That was unexpected,” Cortana said dryly after the group had turned a corner.
John nodded as they started walking again. He couldn’t help but to wonder what other unexpected surprises this mission had waiting for them.
Cortana emerged from the sewer tunnel, relieved. Fortunately, they hadn’t run into more snags in the mission and had made it within an eighth of a mile to the building where Keyes’ last known location was. She uploaded the building schematics to the Chief’s HUD and activated a location marker on the sixth floor of the enormous building.
“This is Keyes’s last known location. If we’re as lucky as Doctor Halsey claims you are, then the rest of his crew is with him. If not,” she said, activating another marker on the display, “I’ll be here. By the time you reach the signal’s position, I should be in the system and I’ll be able to locate the others.”
On the way there, they had quickly agreed the best way to succeed in their mission was to separate and each complete their own the objectives: John would proceed to the last known coordinates of Keyes while Cortana would attempt to infiltrate the Covenant’s control center to release the Autumn. But, first they had to get into the eight-story building.
Cortana craned her neck and shielded her eyes from the building’s reflective windows' harsh glare. “I hope you've stayed in shape, Chief. Climbing seven flights of stairs is going to be difficult, even for a Spartan,” she teased quietly.
He didn’t respond to her comment, as expected.
She activated another location marker on his HUD. “There’s the Autumn.” She frowned. It was guarded more heavily than she anticipated. That would slow them down a bit.
John looked in the Autumn’s direction. “Will you be able to repair it?” He asked, seemingly unfazed by the number of Elite soldiers standing watch.
“You mean, will we be able to complete our mission?” she asked, amused. She got a distant look for a second. “Yes, based on the information I’m getting from the onboard computer, we should be ok. The shipboard AI and navigation systems were completely destroyed...I guess it’s a good thing I can fill in that void. But, despite the beating it took during the crash landing, the engines are operational.”
“We’ll rendezvous there,” John said.
“Will do, Chief,” she agreed. “We need to get into the back of the building. I’m only detecting three life signs back there. It seems as though they are more concerned with the ship than they are the building.”
Together, they ducked behind abandoned cars and stealthily made their way to the back of the building without being detected. She knelt down and pulled out the Covenant communication device. “Now it’s time to put this to good use.”
She quickly hacked into the Covenant communication grid and sent several false signals to the Grunts that were guarding the back of the building. Seconds later, the three soldiers walked away from their post.
“We won’t have much time before they realize something is wrong,” Cortana said as they sprinted across the open parking lot. When they entered the building, they went through the maintenance access door.
A pile of corpses greeted them as they walked through the hallway.
Cortana swore under her breath.
They were mostly UNSC soldiers, including Thomas Cole. The Chief wordlessly collected their dog tags while Cortana changed their statuses from MIA to KIA in the UNSC database.
She said nothing to the Chief as they continued making their way to the fire stairwell. Cortana did her best to ignore the blood-spattered walls and push forward. Seeing the Covenant’s handiwork firsthand was significantly different than accessing data files from the safety in Reach.
Death was in the air.
Danger surrounded them.
The climbed the first three flights of stairs together. “The control panel is on this level. I’ll hack into the security grid and get you access into the east wing.” She frowned briefly. “I’m not going to be able to get an accurate head count on the Covenant until I’m in the mainframe. But, based on what we’ve soon, I’d say this building is swarming with Covenant.”
“Good luck,” she said as he started climbing the stairs again.
Now that the Chief had left, Cortana cautiously opened the door. The lights had been cut off; only the faint emergency lights were glowing. Her enhanced vision allowed Cortana to make out the shapes of two Jackals. They had their backs to her, watching for any movement in the intersection they were standing in.
She slipped her combat knife out of its sheath. Her timing would have to be perfect, her speed like a Spartan. She slowly slid from behind the door and slithered to the shadows.
Nearly three minutes passed before one of the Jackals started to move away from the other, approaching her position. Cortana knew he didn’t see her because his steps were still slow and deliberate. She glanced at the other jackal that was still turned away from her before turning back to her target.
She held the knife in position, ready to strike. When the Jackal unknowingly walked by her, she struck. She stabbed the unsuspecting soldier. Before he could let out a cry for help, she advanced on the other Covenant soldier.
He slumped to the floor. Cortana ignored the gore and carnage and put her knife away. She made her way to the T-junction at the end of the hall. The sound of talking caused her to freeze.
She carefully peered around the corner and saw three Covenant soldiers: two Grunts and an Elite. She considered her options. While the Elite was undoubtedly more skilled than the Grunts, Cortana knew the kamikaze tendencies of the bumbling soldiers were more of an immediate threat.
She pulled out her pistol. It wasn’t the most effective tool for the job, but she would make it work. With deliberate aim, she shot the two Grunts in quick succession.
The Elite roared as he watched the Grunts fall.
Cortana double-backed to her previous position. It would be nearly impossible for her to see the Elite due to his cloaking armor. Cortana would have to rely on her other senses to take down the Elite.
“Come out, vermin,” he demanded.
As if it was a possibility that she would listen to his demand.
She could feel the vibrations of his heavy footsteps. Quickly, she calculated where she needed to aim her pistol. Without hesitation, she whipped around and fired.
The cloaking device was nonfunctional.
The Elite’s shielding failed.
The Elite fell to the ground, never knowing where his attacker had come from.
She collected his plasma rifle and looked around for any other Covenant that heard the attack. When she was confident that no one else was coming, she accessed the Chief’s location: he was approaching the captain’s last known location.
She proceeded down the narrow hallway, collecting the plasma grenades from the dead Grunts. Finally, she approached the security door to the control center. She quickly hacked into the system and overrode the codes.
The locks released. Cortana reached for the handle and pushed the door open.
The lights were on in the room, allowing her to see the five-person security team who had been executed at the hands of the Covenant. She pushed aside her feelings and focused on the task at hand.
“All right, Chief,” she said, ignoring the blood spatter on her own clothing, “I’m in.”
Cortana was right. The building was swarming with Covenant.
John ducked behind a corner and dodged the laser beam coming his way. Despite her warning, John didn’t expect for two pairs of Hunters, the Covenant’s heavily armored fighters, to be waiting for him. The first three had been dealt with quickly, thanks to the rapid fire of his assault rifle, but the last Hunter stubbornly clung to life.
John fired a volley of shots, but it wasn’t enough. The Hunter staggered under the gunfire, but didn’t fall. John’s gun clicked as he reached the end of his clip.
He was out of ammo.
Without taking his eyes off the Hunter, John reached down and grabbed the handle of the combat knife that was attached to his armor. It wasn’t his preferred way of killing a Hunter, but without any more bullets, it was his only option.
“All right, Chief,” Cortana’s voice came through their private COM channel. “I’m in.”
“Understood.” His eyes never left the bulking soldier. Or his Fuel Rod Gun.
John waited until the attack stopped and the Hunter had to wait for the powerful weapon to recharge before he took aim. Without hesitation, he hurled the knife in the Hunter’s skull. It embedded into his helmet, causing him to howl in pain.
Even a hunter couldn’t survive that wound, John knew. He stepped out from his position and watched the solider twist in pain. Finally, with a grunt and a thud, the last of the Hunters fell.
John picked up the Hunter’s weapon from the ground and ignored the corpses sprawled on the ground as he approached the security door. He tried opening it.
He hated being exposed, in the open, but he needed to be ready when Cortana was. He opened a comm channel, hoping Cortana had time to hack into the security system. “Cortana?”
Several seconds passed before she responded. “Give me a second, Chief.”
Two seconds later, he heard the locks released.
“I’m detecting five life signs, but that’s all the sensors are giving me. It’s pretty low tech, no cameras, which is odd when you think about it,” Cortana said as he entered the narrow passage. “You’re going to have to move fast. I’ve been able to implement a jamming signal, but they already know we’re here. While you’re getting the captain and the others, I’m going to work on releasing the Autumn. They’ve got a lock down code on it right now.”
“Will you be able to get it ready?”
“Don’t worry about me, Chief. But...”
“There is no way I’m going to be able to repair the cloaking shield. So, expect a bumpy ride out of here,” she warned.
“Understood.” He closed the comm channel and turned the corner. Slowly, he carefully proceeded down the corridor. As he approached the door, the locks were released. Apparently, Cortana was still accessing the data from his helmet’s video feed.
John opened the door.
The room was pitch black. He turned on his helmet’s lights and looked at the soldiers who were squinting in the brightness. There were several bodies on the ground. The surviving crew had been assaulted. Some were bloodied, others looked like they wouldn’t be able to walk out of the building on their own.
It was another snag in the mission.
“Where is Captain Keyes?”
Avery Johnson stood up. His lip had been spilt; his left eye was nearly swollen shut. “He’s back here.” He paused for a second. “He’s not doing too good.”
John followed Johnson to the back of the room. A woman he recognizes as Melissa McKay was kneeling beside the captain. Dried blood was caked on her face; her left arm had been hastily bandaged. She rocked back on her heels as she took in the sight of John. “Sir,” she greeted.
“Is he conscious?” he asked, looking at the captain. Keyes had suffered the worst at the hands of his captives. His left eye was swollen shut; his right foot was contorted in an unnatural angle, blood was dripping down his face. His eyes were dilated. Sweat was dripping down his face.
Keyes turned to him and flashed him a loopy smile. “A Spartan, eh? I guess the UNSC missed us,” Keyes said, his voice slurred.
John didn’t bother correcting him. He didn’t need to know that the truth was this mission was put together by High Command to highlight any issues with the neural link between him and Cortana.
“What happened, sir?”
“They tried to get me to talk.” He swallowed thickly and laughed harshly. “Should have known I was too stubborn to say anything.”
“The bastards came in here about an hour ago and injected him with some kind of drug,” Johnson said from behind him.
“It’s hard to say what it is, Chief. Not without full blood work. Needless to say, we need to get out of here and back to the Autumn.”
John looked at McKay. “What’s the status of the rest of the crew?”
“Eight of us, including the captain, are left. The others,” she gestured to the fallen bodies, “weren’t so lucky.”
John nodded. “Sir, we’re getting you out of here.”
He knew the captain would be unable to walk due to his injuries. McKay moved out of his way as he knelt down to pick the captain up. He hoisted Keyes over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
The crew followed him out of their cell. McKay and Johnson picked up the fallen Hunters’ weapons. “This is what I’m talkin’ about,” Johnson said as he reloaded the gun.
“Chief, you’ve got several dozen Covenant headed to your location.”
Several dozen Covenant versus eight UNSC officers that were able to fight. The odds were decidedly not in their favor.
“I’d thought you’d never ask. Go to the elevator I just marked on your HUD. Push the up button, but do not get in the car. The Covenant set up a little trap for us, but we’re not going to fall for it. There is another fire escape in the far northwest quadrant of the building, go there and you should be able to make your way to the Autumn. But you’ll need to hurry, Chief. Things are going to get crazy when you push that button.”
“What about you?”
“I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve.”
John made his way to the elevator and pushed the button as Cortana had told him. He spun around and quickly ran to the other set of stairs that Cortana had marked. He glanced over his shoulder to the rest of the Autumn's crew. They were moving slower than he was, but, despite their injuries, they were keeping up with the Spartan.
They descended down the stairs with minimal contact from the Covenant. Whatever Cortana was doing to keep the Covenant distracted was working. When they approached the ground level, John led them out of the building.
“Wait there. There are still too many Covenant around.”
John looked for any signs of Cortana, but didn’t see her anywhere.
He looked at the Autumn which was still being protected by a half dozen Elites and over a dozen Grunts. Cortana was right. They wouldn’t be able to board the ship being so outnumbered and outgunned.
To his surprise, moments later, one of the Elites roared. John looked at the building they were in and saw a helicopter’s blades spinning from the rooftop. What was Cortana doing?
“Impossible!” another Elite roared.
Three of the Elites ran into the building. “That’s the best I can do, Chief. The rest is up to you.”
John nodded to McKay and Johnson who were already taking aim at the remaining Elites. “On my mark.” John lined up his shot. “Mark.”
Three bullets fired simultaneously. The Elites crumpled to the ground. Quickly, the three of them killed the Grunts that were scrambling around.
Once the threats had been eliminated, they sprinted to the Autumn’s position. The loading ramp lowered automatically and the crew ran inside.
The last crew member was barely inside before Cortana started the engines. John handed the captain to McKay and Johnson. He stood at the top of the loading ramp. “Cortana, where are you?”
“I’m still in the building.”
John frowned. How was she going to get on board the Autumn?
“Don’t worry about me, Chief. I’ve got an escape plan.”
His vantage point from the bay was poor, but he needed to insure that Cortana got safely aboard the Autumn to complete their mission. The Autumn spun around, allowing John to see the building they had just escaped. He saw the familiar blue glow of a plasma grenade land near the large windows.
Glass was spat out in the force of the explosion. John raised his gun, ready to take aim at the threat.
“It’s just me, Chief,” Cortana said.
Sure enough, the unorthodox AI stepped over the shattered glass and gave the Spartan a wave. She paused a second, then, with a determined look, she started sprinting towards the Autumn.
She jumped and landed on the ramp with a loud thud. She had made it.
Unfortunately, the Covenant weren’t idle during her escape. Several Elites approached the newly renovated building and began shooting at the Autumn. Cortana rolled out of the way as John aimed the gun at the threat and fired, taking care of the Covenant.
“Thanks,” she said with a soft smile.
As the loading ramp started closing, Cortana looked at the captain and the Autumn’s crew. John watched her wince as she looked at the captain.
John noticed Cortana tense slightly as the captain’s mistake.
“No, sir. I am not Doctor Halsey.”
“You’re the AI...” he muttered.
Cortana’s eyebrow rose at his comment. Obviously, she was surprised as John that the captain knew about Halsey’s project. “Yes, sir.”
She looked at McKay and Johnson. “He needs to get into a cryochamber until we can get him back to Reach. They’ll be able to take care of him there.” She nodded to John for him to follow her.
When they made it to the bridge, she sat in the pilot’s chair. “I’ve got one more surprise for them,” she said as they started retreating. She steered the ship so that it faced the building. An enormous explosion rocked the building.
She nodded. “I modified the commands after you triggered the switch.” She shrugged. “I just thought it was time for the Covenant to get a taste of their own medicine.”
She leaned back in the chair and flashed him a smile. “I don’t know about you, Chief, but I would call this a successful mission.”
Part 3: Crashing the Party