“I take it you saw Jacob’s request.”
Terrence stepped into Catherine’s lab, looking at all the various screens and tablets she had laying on her desks. “You know I keep tabs on the two of them.”
“Then you know I have approved their transfer.”
Catherine nodded. Cortana and John were no longer a project under the umbrella of the ONI, but now active members of the UNSC’s most elite special strike force: Alpha Team. “Did you already tell them?”
“Not yet. Though I suppose if you know, then Cortana already does.”
The doctor ignored his comment. Her feigned ignorance on the AI’s activities had kept her out of trouble so far. “They are on their way here right now. We’re working on some last minute upgrades to John’s armor,” Catherine said.
As if on cue, the doors slid apart. The two of them walked in tandem as they walked inside her lab. “I’m telling you, Chief, I have no idea how Ackerson got assigned to Antarctica,” Cortana said dryly as they entered Halsey’s lab together.
“And the emails?”
“What can I say?” She shrugged. “Not every man is as noble as you.”
It was John who noticed Lord Hood standing next to the doctor. He straightened up. “Sir! Ma’am!”
“At ease, Master Chief.”
Cortana cast a smile in their direction. “I’m assuming we’re here because of the memo that passed over your desk this morning.”
Terrence looked at the doctor, unsurprised.
Catherine frowned slightly. It was one thing for Cortana to tell her about her hacking endeavors; it was another to fill the admiral in on those details. “The one that was marked ‘For Eyes Only’?”
“Did it say that?” She looked at the admiral with wide eyes. “I just accessed the file because it had my serial number embedded in the file. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss any important orders.”
Catherine knew the admiral didn’t believe a word Cortana said, but he let the subject drop. He looked at the two of them closely. “Effective today, the two of you are assigned to Alpha Team.”
John somehow straightened even more. “Thank you, sir!”
“You both earned it, Master Chief. You impressed Captain Keyes and a lot of the brass with what the two of you did with the rescue mission.” Terrence slid the tablet with the dossier across the table for him to read. “Here are your new orders.”
They were to take control of the main port in the Panama Canal. The Covenant forces were thin there, nearly a half-world away from the main center of the Covenant in Rome. While the leaders, the Prophets, didn’t see South America as much more than a land mass they could control, the UNSC needed that port so that ships would refuel and resupply without having to go around the entire continent.
Alpha Team was going to meet up with Noble Team in El Salvador to coordinate the double fronted attack. Although the Covenant didn’t use the canal as an important hub, preliminary recon hinted of a database in their system. The Alpha Team was going to use a newly acquired Phantom and attempt to infiltrate the dropship that was stationed above the canal while the Noble Team tried to secure the canal.
“The two of you need to meet with Captain Keyes at 1600 hours.”
“Understood, sir.” Cortana flashed a smile at John. “Told you we’d get someone’s attention.”
The admiral started walking towards the door. “Good luck.”
When the doors closed behind Terrence, Catherine looked at John. “John, you need to go to the main lab so you can get suited up while Cortana stays here to update the software.”
John nodded curtly and turned away.
“Don’t miss me too much,” Cortana called, not turning back to him.
He paused briefly, but didn’t say anything back.
After the door closed, Cortana half-smiled at her. “I’m determined to get him out of his shell.”
Cortana had a better chance of expecting the Covenant to surrender to the UNSC, but Halsey didn’t make a comment. Instead, she spun another monitor in her direction. “I assume you’ve had time to review the latest software update.”
The AI nodded her head. “I think streaming would be more effective if you stripped out several lines of redundant code. I know they are there for backup, but I’m less concerned with fail safes as I am with making sure our reaction doesn’t suffer due to the distance.”
“How are the headaches?” the doctor asked, cutting to the heart of the issue.
Cortana had reported feeling headaches after her and John’s last mission. When she boosted the signal between them over fifty percent, the link would cause an echo effect, causing the AI to have migraines.
The AI waved off her question. “They are fine. Nothing a couple of aspirin can’t control. Besides,” she said, nodding towards the computers, “with the latest batch of upgrades, that issue should resolve itself.” Cortana must have noticed her reluctance to believe her. The AI crossed her arms. “We have time to run another simulation before I need to get to the Autumn. You’ll see that everything will be fine, Doctor.”
Halsey let out a long silent sigh. She hoped for the sake of Cortana and John, the AI was right.
Three hours and an armor fitting later, John walked to the port, eager. Since he had been paired up with Cortana, he had remained at Reach longer than he had since his early Spartan training. Though they had gone on several missions together, including the highly successful rescue of the Autumn and her crew, most of his time was spent on base waiting for orders that were tailored to his and Cortana’s link.
Now, however, with the reassignment to the Alpha Team, he knew that was all going to change. He still hated the idea of leaving his team, his Spartan brothers and sisters, behind on Blue Team, but if the UNSC was able to make some headway in the fight against the Covenant, then it was a price he would gladly pay. Fred would be a good leader; the Blue Team was in capable hands.
He gave Cortana a sidelong glance. Their new mission would require them to travel underground for nearly seven hours, the only way they would be able to circumvent the Covenant’s superior air force. Though she had gotten better about handling her claustrophobia, there was an unmistakable hesitation when she boarded a Scorpion or similar vessel.
But there was no evidence of her uneasiness as she approached the Autumn.
He raised his eyebrows. Despite working with her for the better part of six weeks, she still managed to surprise him.
As if she could see him, she turned back to him and flashed a grin. “A ship that is roughly the size of a five story building is a lot different than being crammed inside a sardine can of a cabin with you.” She paused. “No offense, Chief.”
She faced the Autumn. “The techs did a hell of a job getting her back to fighting form. I didn’t have much hope for her when we limped back to base.”
John agreed with her apt assessment. Though she didn’t look new and shiny, there was no doubt that the Autumn was a vessel ready to fight. Its upgraded burrowing technology, new for this mission, stood out compared to the muted grey tone of the rest of the ship.
As they made their way aboard the Autumn, John noticed the rest of the crew was waiting for the captain near the loading ramp. While most of the faces were unfamiliar, there was one hulking figure that was impossible to miss.
“John,” the tall man greeted, surprised. He pushed his way to the front of the crowd, standing next to John and Cortana. “Mum didn’t say that you were going to come along.”
“We got the orders this morning,” John replied.
John knew he was looking for another Spartan. He turned to Cortana who was watching the two of them closely. “This is Cortana.”
“The AI,” Jorge said.
John’s eyebrow arched. Apparently his highly classified assignment had managed to escape the confines of the ONI building.
“Don’t be too surprised!” Jorge said, laughing softly. “Kat has been keeping tabs on Mum’s latest project.”
“I thought there was a level eight clearance.”
“Tell that to her. She’s thinks of clearance levels as suggestion only.”
“Sounds like my kind of person,” Cortana said, stepping forward. “And you must be Spartan-052. Doctor Halsey had spoken highly of you. Though,” she said, looking closely at his armor, “I can’t say she’s too happy with all the modifications you’ve made to her armor.”
“I’m quite aware of what she thinks of it. Mum isn’t exactly quiet on the subject,” Jorge said, holding his hand out for her to shake.
An amused smile fluttered over her lips and she shook the Spartan’s hand. “No, I wouldn’t imagine she would be.” She turned away slightly, as if listening to another conversation. John knew it was their benefit; Cortana could listen to thousands of conversations simultaneously. “The Captain needs to talk to me. You two, have fun catching up. I need to get to the bridge,” Cortana said to John before walking away.
The two Spartans watched her go down the hall. When she was out of sight, Jorge turned back to face John. “So that’s Cortana.”
John nodded. “Yes.”
Jorge leaned against the side of the corridor, looking where Cortana had walked away. “She’s not what I expected. She’s got some spunk.”
That didn’t begin to describe Cortana.
“She’s a bit unorthodox,” John replied, thinking of the exact word he had used to describe his AI counterpart in his after-action report, “but I do trust her.”
“That’s saying a lot,” Jorge said knowingly. “Is it true about the link? That she’s in your mind?”
John shook his head and explained how the neural link worked between the two of them.
When he was finished, Jorge smiled faintly. “You’re relaxed when you talk about her.”
John paused briefly, not sure what to make of Jorge’s statement. Before he could respond, Jorge reached out and clasped him on his shoulder. “It’s ok to feel human, John. Lord knows you need it more than any of us.”
“I can’t believe they hijacked a Phantom.” She was impressed.
John looked at Cortana out of the corner of his eye. “Noble Team is one of the best teams in the UNSC,” he pointed out.
“Well, it will make getting to the drop ship that much easier,” Cortana said quietly. “I’ve already hacked into the Carrier's mainframe. Getting on the drop ship shouldn’t be a problem. Getting off of it...”
“We’ll be fine.” He slid on his helmet and Cortana saw the quick gold flash of his shield being activated.
She wished he had his optimism. Even with the relatively good intel they had on the ship’s schematics, being stuck on a Covenant Cruiser nearly a mile above the ground was a dangerous situation.
He reached in the weapons locker and pulled out a pistol as she put on her much maligned flak jacket. She grabbed the butt of the firearm and slid it into her shoulder holster.
“Damn right, we’ll be fine.” Johnson walked up to the two of them with a smoldering cigar between his lips. “I don’t know how things are over in the ONI, but Alpha Team doesn’t do anything less than the best.”
Cortana raised an eyebrow. “Then we’ll fit right in.”
Johnson’s grin widened. “After what the two of you did with the Autumn, I’d say that’s true.” He grabbed an assault rifle and nodded towards the exit. “The captain’s waitin’ in the cargo bay for us.”
The three of them made the short trip to the small bay. Cortana saw the six-member Noble Team huddled together in the far corner of the room. Captain Keyes was standing by the Phantom, pipe in hand.
Normally, the captain took a more active role in participating in the mission, but because of the two pronged attack, he was forced to stay behind in the Autumn and make sure things flowed smoothly. Cortana watched him as he took in the three of them.
“I trust that all of the Covenant protocol has been uploaded to your matrix,” he said without preamble.
Cortana nodded. “We’ll be able to board the ship without a problem, sir.”
“Noble Team is going to need some time to get to the control room, so discretion needs to be used. Carter will contact the Autumn when his team has secured the area. If you run into any trouble...” His voice trailed off.
They were on their own.
Johnson huffed. “Then the Covenant are going to regret it.”
Cortana allowed herself a brief smile. Johnson certainly added some sprightliness to the conversation.
She led the two men to the Covenant vessel and sat in the pilot’s chair. When Johnson and the Chief were situated, she disembarked from the Autumn. She piloted the craft several miles away from the ship’s position before tapping the controls, sending out a transmission signal to the Cruiser.
As they approached the Assault Carrier, they were granted docking clearance.
“The secondary hub should be here,” Cortana said, pointing at the holographic layout of the ship. “I’ll access the database from there.”
John nodded. “Johnson and I will secure the quadrant.”
Seconds later, the system’s controls were overridden by the Cruiser. “Now we just sit back and wait.”
She looked out the Phantom’s windows and saw nearly three dozen Ghosts, Banshees and Phantoms going back and forth from the large vessel. She hoped with the high amount of traffic, their Phantom wouldn’t cause any sense of alarm. According to her calculations, Noble Team was going to need the better part of an hour to secure the base below them.
The ship glided into a docking bay. “Purple, huh?” Johnson said, looking at the walls around them. “Somehow I didn’t picture the place looking so damn cheery.”
Cortana saw three Grunts, who were busy talking to each other. She scanned the room for any other hostiles, but the bumbling soldiers were the only security in the room.
“It’s almost too easy,” Johnson said as the Phantom settled on the ground. “You’d think they weren’t expecting company.”
Cortana released the rear hatch. The three of them slipped out of the ship and crept to the darkened corner of the room. The Grunts didn’t look in their direction.
“I’ve got this.”
Three Grunts against a single-minded Spartan? They didn’t stand a chance.
Johnson nodded towards the cargo containers. Cortana followed the Sergeant as they watched John silently make his way to the first unsuspecting Grunt.
His method was quick and effective. In less than two minutes, there were no Covenant left alive in the room. He gestured for them to move forward to the large doors.
Together, they made their way through the assault carrier. They avoided the patrols easily; the Covenant were not expecting the UNSC’s finest to board their ship. The ride down the gravlift was unmemorable.
“Think they are all sleeping?” Johnson asked, snickering.
At the intersection, John carefully looked around the corridor before pulling back and held up two fingers. She watched as he aimed his pistol and fired twice. The three of them made their way to the single door at the end of the hall. Johnson pulled out his snake cam as Cortana hacked into the console.
Within a second, she hacked the security code and the locks to the doors released. John opened the door and allowed Cortana to walk in.
This was what they had been looking for.
Several dozen large computers towers, three meters high, were in the center of the room.
Johnson let out a long whistle.
“I’ll take it from here,” Cortana said as she approached the database. “You two should be able to reach the armory and find some goodies there.”
“Are you sure you’ll be alright?”
Cortana looked at John, surprised by his question. Why if she didn’t know any better, she would have thought he was openly concerned for her.
“Well, I have gotten used to having a Spartan bodyguard, but I think I can manage.” She offered him a smile. “Infiltrating the security grid will be my first priority. If I sense any trouble, I’ll transfer out of the system.”
He seemed to hesitate briefly, but before she could say anything he nodded. She watched the two of them leave the room before transferring herself into the ship’s systems.
Suddenly, the world exploded in ones and zeroes around her. Though she preferred the flexibility to move around in her human body, Cortana felt at home in the data stream of information.
Schematics of various bases, planned attacks, and the hierarchy structure of the Covenant...all of it and more were at Cortana’s fingertips. Greedily, she amassed all the data she could find.
Within seconds, she had full access to the ship’s security grid. She spun off a subroutine to monitor John and Johnson’s progress. She was tempted to open a channel to John, but decided against it. She didn’t need to advertise the fact she was in the database.
Terabytes of information came rushing into her matrices. She noticed that most of the information was new and unknown. The information she was processing would allow give the UNSC a desperately needed advantage over the Covenant.
Cortana nearly lost track of time as she categorized each data cluster that she uploaded. As she continued making her way through the information, a disturbing piece of data streamed by her. Quickly, she accessed it.
She froze as the irrefutable data plainly presented itself. It was impossible, she thought. But, as she hacked and accessed the security camera from the hangars, one sinking truth stuck out.
They had been discovered.
She opened a comm channel to John. “We need to get out of here. Now.”
Johnson looked at the Chief knowingly. John didn’t know how the sergeant seemed to know what was going on behind the armor, but he have an uncanny ability to know what was going on with little to go on.
John nodded. “What’s going on?”
“They’ve got an Elite special forces team headed to both of our positions.” Her voice came out of his helmet speakers.
“Damn it,” Johnson hissed.
“I’ve already transferred out of the system. Their ETA is in five minutes. You two need to get back to the Phantom before they lock down the cargo bays.”
“What about you?”
“I’m going to have to improvise.”
John frowned at the snag in the mission.
“They are closer to my location and I can’t see a way back to the Phantom, but I think there is an emergency bay available,” explained Cortana. “I’ll keep you updated.”
“Were you able to get all the data?”
“Of course.” She sounded almost offended at the idea that she hadn’t completed her mission.
He and Johnson started backtracking in the direction from which they came. He took point while Johnson took the rear, holding the plasma cannon they had found during their search.
As they approached the gravlift, John saw a half dozen Covenant on the pad. He aimed his rifle in their direction. Johnson knelt beside him and took aim with the stolen weapon. “Let’s see how this baby works.”
Before the three Elites could step off the elevator, the two men had fired. The impact from the shots caused the trained soldiers to fall back into their less effective Grunt counterparts. In the midst of the confusion, John threw a plasma grenade in the chaos.
He ducked as the powerful blast rocked the ground.
Bodies flew from the force of the explosion. Once he was confident that the threat had been eliminated, he proceeded to the lift.
“I hope it still works after all we put it through,” commented Johnson as they stepped over the fallen Covenant soldiers.
John said nothing as he pushed the holographic console in the center of the lift. To his relief, the unit started moving upwards. As they climbed, John kept his eyes open for any more soldiers, but saw none.
Several seconds later the lift stopped and he and Johnson disembarked from the lift.
“Your path is blocked, Chief. I’m uploading a new route to you now.” Her voice sounded tense.
“It’s nothing a couple of painkillers on the Autumn won’t fix.”
John’s eyebrows pressed together. The new buffer she and Doctor Halsey had been working on was supposed to prevent the headaches from happening.
The new destination point that appeared on his HUD distracted him from pursuing their conversation any further. “This way.”
He led Johnson to an access door which slid apart. Inside, there was a long, narrow corridor. Johnson looked around the Chief and frowned. “You think you’re gonna fit in there?”
It was going to be a tight fit, but John knew that Cortana wouldn’t have given him this path unless she knew that he would be able to use it. “I’m sure.”
“I’m going first.” Johnson stepped forward. “No offence, Chief, but if you get stuck I don’t wanna be trapped here with you.”
The passage was filled with curves and dead ends, but Cortana’s careful planning kept them from getting lost in the vast corridors. Finally, they reached the end of the passage. John tapped the console to release the door.
He tried again, but the panel didn’t respond.
He closed his eyes briefly, wondering where Cortana was. She had been proactive in helping them so far.
To his surprise, as he concentrated on the AI, a fuzzy image filled his mind. Several Elites were shooting in his direction. A slender, decidedly female, arm came into view. It was holding a pistol. Four shots were fired in quick succession. John watched at the prized soldiers slithered to the floor.
It took him several seconds to realize he was seeing through Cortana’s eyes.
He pulled his thoughts away from the AI and their link. What this part of the new software they had integrated into his armor? Or was this a side effect they hadn’t been expecting?
Before he could ask any more questions, Johnson spoke up. “Chief, I think we might be having some company.”
John listened. The sound of the Covenant’s footsteps echoed throughout the corridor.
“Cortana, we’re boxed in.”
So was she.
She ducked behind a corridor and waited for the frag grenade to explode. She stormed past the remaining Grunts and set the security locks in the emergency cargo bay she had found. Gasping for air, she opened the connection between her and John. She saw the access panel and started hacking the system. “All right, I’m in,” Cortana said.
She tried to break through the firewall, but the Covenant had an adapting-encryption program.
They were smarter than what she had thought, but still no match to her.
The only flaw was that she needed to boost the signal. She calculated the risk and before she could second guess herself, Cortana pushed the link to the maximum level.
Her eyes slammed shut as pain pummeled into her skull. A burst of ones and zeroes scrolled before her eyes.
“John...” she whispered.
Her host body was sluggishly responding to commands from her neural lace. She staggered forward, nearly tripping over her feet.
She leaned against the wall in reprieve as she focused on the carrier’s security system.
The encryption file was in front of her, silently challenging her to decipher it. She was going to delete the code line by line. Unfortunately, the pain coursing through her nervous system was bogging down her ability to quickly delete the code.
She pushed aside her pain and focused solely on the security code. She ignored through the superfluous lines of code and focused on accessing the firewall directly. Trillions of characters came whizzing passed her as she continued the hack.
Her subroutines were screaming at her to terminate the link, that there was a fifty-seven percent chance of lasting nerve damage to her brain. But she couldn’t let John and Johnson down, couldn’t let the mission fail.
“I’m doing the best I can,” she hissed.
She vaguely registered that she was about to pass out. The intensity of the pain made it nearly impossible for her the concentrate on anything outside of the code she was trying to crack. She pushed herself forward and finally managed to hack the code.
“Hurry, John. They’re sending out more strike forces.”
Then the comm channel ended. She quickly terminated the link and allowed herself the relief of no longer feeling the intense pain as she transferred herself back to her main matrix chip.
Doctor Halsey and she were going to have some things to discuss when she returned to Reach.
As the worse of the headache started to fade away, Cortana saw her means of escape: a row of Banshees was before her. Cortana walked to the closest Banshee and climbed inside.
It was certainly snug, but the knowledge that her life was in grave danger silenced her irrational fears. She activated the bay doors as the engines purred to life.
She accessed John’s armor and noted with satisfaction that they had made it back to the hangar and were preparing to board the Phantom.
“The Autumn’s position in marked on your HUD.”
The Banshees screamed out of the cargo bay. Cortana was tossed around the cabin as a shot from the assault carrier nicked the ship. “I guess they’re going to miss us,” she muttered.
“Get to the Autumn. We’ll hold off the carrier.”
Cortana was tempted to argue. Her pride didn’t like the fact that she needed anyone’s help, even John’s. But, the information that she held would help the UNSC in their fight. Her safety was the priority for right now.
“Be careful, Chief.” She piloted the unfamiliar craft in an unpredictable flight pattern. She zigged and zagged through the air as the carrier unsuccessfully shot at her.
She frowned as she monitored the Chief’s position. They were far too close to the assault carrier. “You might want to--”
The assault carrier aimed at the Phantom and fired its deadly plasma weapons. The stolen craft started spiraling towards the ground, smoke pluming from the cabin. Despite the damage it had taken, the Phantom’s passengers would survive the fall, Cortana calculated as she dodged another attack.
Now that she had no more support, Cortana did her best to avoid the attack, but the gunman on the carrier was too skilled and the Banshee was too easy of a target. A direct hit from the plasma beam caused the Banshee to spin violently. Cortana could barely get her bearings and she tumbled around the small cabin.
She wasn’t going to survive this, she grasped with a sickening realization.
The only chance she had was to attempt to pilot the fallen Banshee in the water and hope the air-tight lock of the shell would hold at the impact.
John would save her.
She issued several commands. The failing engines struggled to respond, but after several attempts, the engine started pulling to the east. She closed her eyes as the ground came racing towards her. There were only a few seconds before impact.
The ship slammed on the top of the water. Cortana’s head slammed in the back of the Banshee.
Then, everything went black.
John slowly opened his eyes. His shields were squealing, his head was roaring, but no was no humming in the back of his mind as there had been for the past two months.
He opened a comm channel to her, but got no response. He forced himself to push himself from the wreckage of the Phantom. Johnson lay semi-conscious on what remained on the passenger seat.
The older man twitched.
“We need to get out of here.” And he needed to figure out where Cortana was.
He jostled Johnson’s shoulder slightly. Finally, he started to move under his fingers. He sat up and coughed, blood spattering on the destroyed controls. “Hell of a landing there, Chief.”
“Are you going to be alright?”
Johnson winced as he pulled himself upright. “Of course. I went through worse going through basic training.”
John took in his appearance. He was bloodied, but he didn’t seem to have any broken bones or other major injuries. “You need to get back to the Autumn.”
Johnson’s brows furrowed. “Where are you going to be?”
“I can’t contact Cortana.”
Johnson swore under his breath. “You think the Covenant shot her down?”
Johnson clasped the Chief’s shoulder. “All right, but, Chief?” He handed him a Needler. “Here on Alpha Team we stick together. We’re going to look for her.”
John nodded as they walked away from the wreckage. He closed his eyes and tried again to establish some kind of link with Cortana. He was unable to duplicate his ability to “see” through Cortana’s eyes as he had on the ship.
But, when he opened his eyes, he noticed a marker on his HUD. It had to be Cortana.
They carefully made their way through the rocky coastline. There were no Covenant patrols in the area; John assumed they had their hands full with Noble Team in the facility.
As they approached the position, John realized that signal was coming from the water. He paused their trek. Johnson followed his gaze out of the choppy ocean.
“She’s out there, isn’t she?”
John scanned the water. There. Approximately ten meters from the coast, he saw a Banshee floating in the water. “Cortana, please respond.”
He took a step in the direction of the ocean. Johnson put a hand on his chest. “I didn’t think Spartans could swim.”
Technically, Johnson was right. The weight of the armor made swimming a difficult prospect, but John would do what it took to get Cortana off the ship.
“Here.” Johnson thrust the plasma canon in his stomach. “You hold this and I’ll get Cortana.”
“I’m not going to lose her, Chief.”
Finally, he nodded.
He stayed alert for any random Covenant while he watched Johnson swim in the dark waters. The sergeant moved swiftly and reached the Banshee without incident. John watched as he gingerly lifted Cortana, who seemed unresponsive, into his arms.
With practiced ease, Johnson started swimming back to shore with the AI in his arms. As he approached John, he looked at the Spartan remorsefully. “I don’t know, Chief.”
He placed her on carefully on the ground, allowing John to look at her. Her face was smeared with blood; pieces of glass were embedded in several long cuts across her jaw. Her eyelids were fluttering, her mouth was moving imperceptibly.
Her eyelids opened slightly and she started to speak. “Sierra-117, UNSC AI CTN0452-9 has sustained catastrophic damage to data clusters 100.123-795.98. Suggested course of action: activate killswitch. Proceed?”
John’s gut tightened. While Halsey had given him authorization for Cortana’s killswitch, he knew he would never use it. But, more disturbing was the fact that while Cortana knew who he was, as evidenced by her use of his code name, she didn’t seem like herself.
“Negative,” he told the AI. He turned to Johnson. “We need to get her to the Autumn.”
Johnson took point as John scooped her from the ground. They cautiously made their way to the hidden vessel.
The half-mile hike took much longer than John anticipated; he knew their cover from the Covenant wouldn’t last much longer. Finally, the Autumn came into view in the horizon. As he stepped onto the more sturdy hard pressed dirt, Cortana’s hand pressed into his chest.
“John...” Her faint whisper floated on the wind.
He stopped walking and looked at the woman in his arms. Her eyes fluttered open. She gave him a sad smile. “I am so sorry.”
Then her eyes slid shut.
Several seconds passed before Johnson walked back to them. “Come on, Chief. The captain already has Doctor Halsey on a comm channel.”
They crossed the wide field and stepped on the Autumn. Captain Keyes stood on the loading platform. A deep frown passed over his lips as he took in the sight of Johnson and Cortana. “We’ve got Med Bay two ready for you two,” he said to the sergeant.
John walked to the medical room and laid Cortana on the closest examination table. As soon as he released her, the screen to the side of her bed activated.
It was Doctor Halsey.
“What happened to her, John?”
John described as best he could what had happened after they had fled from the cruiser.
When he was finished, Halsey sighed. “I need you to remove the chip from her neural lace, John.”
He hesitated briefly. Wouldn’t that kill Cortana?
“She’ll be fine,” Halsey replied, picking up on the Spartan’s thoughts.
John reached around and pushed her hair out of the way, giving him access to Cortana’s neural lace. He pressed the release and the chip slid into the palm of his hand.
It was had a deep crack running through it.
John didn’t miss the panicked look that flickered over Halsey’s face when he held the chip up for her to inspect. “Will she be alright?”
Halsey pressed her lips together. “I don’t know, John.” She pushed her glasses up. “Let's hope that some of your luck managed to rub off on her."
It had been three weeks.
Three weeks since the Panama port had been secured by the Alpha and Noble teams, offering hope to the war-wearied soldiers in the UNSC. Three weeks since he had found Cortana floating unconscious in a nearly destroyed Banshee, hoping that Cortana would be able to recover from the impossible injury.
He and the rest of Alpha Team, along with Cortana’s temporary replacement, had returned to Reach earlier in the day after completing another successful mission. As he had finished his debriefing with Lord Hood, Halsey had contacted him, requesting for him to stop by her lab.
It had to be about Cortana.
He quickly made his way to the medical building and into the wing where Cortana was. Doctor Halsey was waiting outside her room. “We’re ready to reestablish the link between the matrix chip and her host body,” she said, looking into the room where Cortana lay. “But, with the shard in your neural lace, we need you here.”
Together they walked into the room. Her black hair stood out starkly compared to her pale face and lips. Her cheeks were hollowed. Halsey had done her best to mend the wounds Cortana had taken, but there was still a long, raw scar running across Cortana’s jawbone.
Halsey reached for her tablet that was on the table next to Cortana’s bed. “Are you ready?” she asked her tech finished hooking up a medical scanner to John.
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Do you want to take a seat?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Very well,” she said before tapping in several commands.
Nearly a minute later, John felt liquid ice pour in his skull and a familiar hum in the back of his mind. He resisted the urge to stumble forward at the intensity of the link and grabbed the railing on the edge of Cortana’s bed.
“John?” Halsey asked, concern entering into her voice.
“I can feel the link again,” he said.
“A promising sign,” Halsey said with a small smile. “It may take a while for the link to fully establish itself, but so far there is nothing to indicate her host is rejecting the chip.” She stood up with her tablet. “I should inform Lord Hood of her condition.” She led her tech out of the room and left John alone with Cortana.
Nearly twenty minutes passed before John saw her right hand twitch slightly. He took two steps to stand next to her bed.
“John?” Her voice was raspy, raw.
She opened her eyes slightly and gave him a small smile. “Miss me much?”
It was meant in jest, but the playful question reminded John how much he had missed her over the past three weeks. “How are you feeling?” he asked, deflecting her question.
“Confused. Which for an AI is not a good thing,” Cortana retorted. “How did I get back on Reach?”
He shifted slightly. “I’d better let Doctor Halsey tell you.”
“Keeping secrets?” she asked, slightly annoyed. “Can you at least tell me how long I’ve been here?”
“What?” Cortana pushed up weakly, trying to sit up. She looked at him, her blue eyes panicked. “How is that possible?”
He was saved from answering her question when the door opened. Halsey walked in and appraised the AI. “Cortana,” the doctor greeted with a rare smile.
John knew that the AI was in not in a mood for chit chat. “I’ve been here for three weeks? Why don’t I have any recollection of that time?”
The doctor didn’t waste any time in answering her questions. “When you crashed landed in the canal, you slammed your head and damaged your matrix chip. You were practically non-responsive when they found you. When you were brought back, the techs and I spent nearly two weeks repairing the damage done to your chip. It was touch and go for a while, but we managed to repair the damage done.”
“High Command didn’t want to risk losing the information you had obtained, so they insisted that all data acquired from the mission was to be transferred to ONI before we could reunite your matrix chip to your host body.” She stepped forward and placed a hand on Cortana’s arm. “You’re lucky to be alive,” she said softly before straightening. “I know you’re going to be eager to get back on your feet, but you won’t be cleared by ONI until we make sure that everything is green.”
“Wonderful,” she said dryly.
“Kat has been temporarily assigned on Alpha Team until you are given clearance,” Halsey continued.
Cortana frowned. John knew she didn’t like the idea of being replaced.
“If all goes well, you should be active in a week,” Halsey continued. “I’ll give you access to your files. No need to waste your energy on hacking into the database,” Halsey said before walking out of the room.
John watched her as she experimentally moved. “Lucky, huh?” she said dryly.
The image of her lifeless body as he carried her back to the Autumn came to his mind. She should have been dead. “We didn’t think you were going to make it when I found you,” John said.
“You found me?” she asked, interested. He waited several seconds as she undoubtedly accessed his mission logs from Panama. “You did miss me,” she accused.
He didn’t refute her claim.
“Thank you for saving my life,” she said, reaching out and grabbing his hand. She gave it a squeeze.
A voice in the back of his head warned him not to get too close, to pull away from the desire to think of Cortana beyond the boundaries of a fellow soldier. But, as he felt the warmth coming from her fingers, he wasn’t sure if that was a battle he could--or wanted--to fight.
Finally, he gave her hand a squeeze back. “You’re welcome, Cortana.”
Part 4: Pushing the Boundaries