05 July 2010 @ 12:22 pm
Under the Surface (1/5)  

Today was the day that would mark the change in the fight against the Covenant.

Today Cortana would be partnered with Spartan-117.

It had taken three weeks for ONI and High Command to approve the armor upgrade for the Spartan. The advancement was expensive and risky. If it failed, the UNSC would be unlikely to recover from the investment. But after hearing both her and Halsey's persuasive testimonies, they, led by the influential vote of confidence from Lord Hood, finally green-lit the project.

Unlike the slow moving bureaucracy of High Command, once the permission had been granted, Cortana and Halsey had worked quickly to move the process forward. It had taken Cortana less than a half a minute to decide on her Spartan counterpart and nearly as long for Halsey to agree. The paperwork had been rushed through and Spartan-117 had been removed from his current team and transferred to Reach.

Now, Cortana was getting ready to do her part to complete the project.

The Master Chief was in the lab with Halsey already, getting accustomed to the first set of upgrades on his armor: a new shielding system, an onboard data storage unit that rivaled most ships in the fleet, and an advance HUD.

But that was nothing compared to the second half of the upgrades, she thought with a smirk.

"Cortana." Halsey's voice cut through her thoughts. "We're ready for you now."

She looked at her reflection in the window and straightened her short, black hair, pulling it away from her face. Satisfied, she turned away and walked inside the doctor's lab.

"This is Cortana," Halsey said, stepping to the side as she entered the room. "She is part of the upgrade to your armor I mentioned earlier."

Cortana took in the sight of the Master Chief before her. He had been fitted in his armor, though he hadn't yet put on his helmet. His short brown hair matched his cocoa colored eyes. There were several scars on his cheeks and neck, a testimony to the amount of time he had been fighting the Covenant. He looked serious, unshakable. He was every bit the professional soldier Cortana believed him to be.

There was no doubt that he was the right choice.

She watched as his eyes flickered between her and Halsey, no doubt noticing the similarities between the two women.

She stuck out her hand for him to shake. "It's good to meet you, Chief."

"Likewise, ma'am," he said as he shook her hand.

"Cortana," she corrected.

"Cortana," he repeated uneasily.

Her request for him to use her first name bothered him. He looked at her ONI issued uniform for any signs of rank, but found none.

"I'm a fourth generation AI," she said as way of explanation.

John looked her, confused. "But you're human..."

"I am," Cortana answered, amused by his awkwardness. She turned to Halsey. "You didn't tell me how observant he was."

She noticed how the Spartan stiffened at her dig. She was tempted to apologize, but he would have to adjust to her personality. If he was expecting someone who fit the UNSC mold the way he and his fellow Spartans did, he was in for a bit of a surprise.

"You'll have to forgive, Cortana. She's a bit more...high-spirited than you," Halsey quickly interjected. "She is a human-AI hybrid, the first of its kind. This allows for her, when working with your armor, to be in two places at once. We're going to implant a shard of Cortana's matrix chip into your neural interface, John. This will allow for her core programming to communicate directly with your armor and its data while allowing her to remain mobile. We believe that with the two of you working together, it will allow for us to access more of the Covenant databases, to try to get ahead of them."

Cortana frowned at the mention their long-standing enemy. The Covenant, the zealous cult that had started off so small nearly forty years ago had grown into humanity's biggest threat. They controlled nearly seventy percent of the world's land mass and dominated over two-thirds of the world's population. Those that didn't join their forces were killed ruthlessly, mercilessly.

The UNSC, the United Nations Salvation Collation, were the only major force in opposition to the group and even they were fighting a losing battle. Over the years, the UNSC lost dozens of strongholds to the Covenant. The only promising signs that the UNSC would ever be able to stand against them were Halsey's Spartans. Now, with Cortana joining the fight, humanity had its best chance of stopping the Covenant from gaining any more ground.

John looked at Cortana with grim smile. Somehow she had known he would warm up to her once he heard she could help in the fight against the Covenant.

"We're going to proceed with the coupling process. John, please finish putting on your armor and have a seat," Halsey instructed.

He grabbed his helmet from its position on the metal table. He placed it over his head. When the locks clicked into place, he raised his visor. He was still watching her closely, Cortana noticed.

She watched as the Chief sat in the large chair, allowing Halsey to have access to the back of his armor. She wondered if he understood what the link would mean for him, that no matter where he was on the planet, a part of her would be with him.

She stood in front of John and flashed him an encouraging smile.

He looked at her blankly.

Briefly, she wondered if he was perhaps a little too rigid for her personality.

Cortana turned around to face the doctor who seemed unconcerned with John's stolid behavior. She trusted Halsey. The doctor wouldn't risk the project failing. If she thought there was going to be a compatibility issue, she would have brought it up to the AI before getting this far into the project.

"Look forward and do not move. I will tell you when the procedure is complete," the doctor said from behind him.

"Are you ready?" Halsey asked, glancing at Cortana.

Cortana nodded. According to the simulations they had run, she should feel nothing more than a faint energy drop as the shard reconnected with her matrix chip inside her body. Once the shard was recognized by the Chief's armor, it would allow her to have a direct window to what the Chief saw.

She watched as Halsey carefully removed the shard that was suspended in a matrix chip from its cylinder-shaped holder. She heard several clicks as the chip slid into place in the Chief's armor.

She felt a tug in her consciousness as the shard reached out to connect with her neural lace. "All right, I've got it," Cortana said. "Activating MJOLNIR interface now."

She stumbled slightly as the huge influx of data came roaring into her matrix. Quickly, she created a buffer between her and the Chief's armor, allowing the data to flow in at a more easily digestible rate.

Halsey looked at her questioningly, but Cortana waved off her concern. She would be fine.

She switched her subroutines and transferred her primary system into the shard. It felt strange for her to be confined in the small matrix chip after being in her host body for the past several months. But, she adapted smoothly and accessed the armor's systems. "I'm in." Cortana's voice came from his helmet speakers.

When the Chief turned to face the human sitting next to him with an inquisitive look, she waved. "Please don't be surprised at my ability to do more than two things at once," she quipped.

"Excellent," Halsey murmured, taking notes. "And are you getting the readings from all the armor's systems?"

"Yes," Cortana said, distracted. She accessed his vital signs during the procedure. He had nearly lost consciousness when the shard was implanted into his neural lace.

Had they missed anything else in the simulations?

"She's in my mind?" John's voice pulled her back into the discussion.

"That's up for debate," Cortana said, transferring her main systems back to her matrix chip and allowing the normal subroutines to work in the shard. "My subroutines will transfer your neural impulses and transfer them directly into motion. So, in that regard, yes, I'm in your mind."

"But," Halsey interjected, "she will only be able to perform those actions when you are in your armor. When you are not in it, the shard will be no more intrusive than any other part of your neural lace."

John shifted his gaze to Cortana briefly before looking back at the doctor. "I feel a hum in the back of my head. Is that normal?"

Cortana exchanged a glance with Halsey. Yes, there was a chance that he would "feel" her presence, but the doctor had assumed the sensation would be minimal at most.

The doctor looked unperturbed. "That is to be expected. When you're not in your armor, Cortana's chip will be nothing more than a hum in your subconscious, like your heart rate or your breathing patterns. It might take time to adjust, but soon you won't even know she's there," Halsey assured him.

Cortana raised an eyebrow at the doctor, surprised at how confident she seemed. While it was true that they had no evidence that there wouldn't be any lasting side-effects of the link between the two of them, the truth was her and the Chief were entering into untested territory. No one knew what the long-term effects of the connection would be.

"Now, if the two of you would follow me, High Command had arranged a little...test before they give you the green-light," Halsey said, leading them out of the medical room.

Cortana frowned slightly. Why hadn't she known about this?

"And you thought giving up a thirty-second advance warning would help the cause?" Cortana asked sarcastically.

Halsey didn't reply to her comment. She picked her tablet off the desk and led them to the door. "Follow me."

John didn't know what to think of Cortana.

She was certainly different than any other officer than he had ever worked with in the UNSC. She wasn't a soldier, but she seemed to command the respect of people around her. To John's surprise, there were several officers inside the ONI building that saluted at her when they left the facility.

They loaded into the waiting transport. Halsey took the passenger seat, next to their driver. Cortana sat next to him in the back seat and flashed a quick smile. "Gotta love how cozy these things are."

John didn't reply.

The rest of the ten minute journey was relatively quiet. Cortana had a far-off look for most of the drive, only occasionally looking away from the direction they were driving to give John an appraising glance.

What was she thinking?

John didn't have time to ask his question out loud. Once the Private made the last turn, the training facility that he had become intimately acquainted with during his early Spartan training came into view.

The Labyrinth.

Its thirty foot walls stood before them, silently daring John and his new partner. Even with his fellow Spartans working together, the obstacle course was a challenge. It had several terrain obstacles, including a twenty foot cliff and a half mile of rocky, rolling hills and a set of caves and underground pathways where the instructors would plant surprises for those recruits that rushed into the room too quickly.

"Little test, huh?" Cortana said, raising her eyebrows.

Halsey didn't reply immediately as they disembarked. She held her tablet close to her as she escorted them to the lone bunker in front of the entrance.

"Cortana will remain at the instructor bunker at the entrance and guide you through the course, John. None of the surveillance equipment that it normally at their disposal will be available to you. You will rely solely on your neural link with each other to communicate. At the end of the maze is a bell, John. Ring it three times and the test will be complete," Halsey explained.

She lowered her voice slightly as she leaned forward. "Be cautious. I think Ackerson has some tricks up his sleeve."

Cortana rolled her eyes. "So basically be expecting anything sleazy and underhanded. Got it."

John frowned. No one spoke about their commanding officer in such a way. Even if Cortana wasn't technically a UNSC soldier, he couldn't say he was comfortable with how she treated the chain of command.

If Halsey was bothered by her outburst, she made no outward signs of showing it.

"Your test will begin twenty seconds after Cortana enters the bunker. You have been authorized to use whatever force is necessary to eliminate the threats," the doctor said, raising her voice to a normal level. "Good luck."

"Thanks." Cortana looked at the Labyrinth and scowled. "So, Chief, ready for a challenge?"


"All right. I'll get myself in the bunker and give you the signal when your test will start."


He moved to the entrance as Cortana walked towards the bunker. A feeling of uneasiness washed over him. Going into the Labyrinth unarmed was almost suicidal. But, that was his instruction, so he would have to wait for the opportunity to arm himself once the test begun.

"All right, Chief. Time to dazzle High Command."

John sprinted inside the course, knowing that the twenty foot cliff face would be his first obstacle to contend with. Normally, he would approach the siding with caution and a weapon, slowly taking out any sniper threats that may be hiding in the vantage points around him. But now, unarmed and unable to help himself from such a threat, John knew his only course of action was to get up the cliff face as quickly as possible.

He dug his fingers into the jagged rock and started climbing to the top. Only one sniper shot was fired before he made his way to the top of the plateau. As he was pulling himself up, he heard the sound of a half-dozen guns being cocked.

"Watch out, Chief."

"I've got it." His voice was confident.

When he stood up, he became a blur of motion. The first unfortunate soldier who was in his path was knocked out cold by an elbow in his face. John swooped down and grabbed the assault rifle and slammed the butt of it into the chest of an ODST who was starting to take aim at him. He spun around and fired two quick shots at the Marine that was running in his direction, hitting him in the shoulder.

John kicked away his gun as the fallen soldier attempted to reach for it. He ducked out of the way of a barrage of bullets that another ODST had fired several yards away. He managed to dodge most of them, but several of them hit him.

He watched on his HUD as the shield levels started to drop.

"Keep your head down. There's two of us in here now...well, figuratively speaking."

John pressed his lips together at Cortana's flippant remark. Was she going to give a running commentary in his head throughout the entire test?

He fired several shots in the direction of the ODST. The bullets hit their mark and the man slumped to the ground.

Only two more to go.

He picked up the smoke grenade that the Marine had dropped and threw it in the direction of the remaining soldiers. In the midst of the confusion, he barreled through and incapacitated the two men.

"Not bad for a Spartan."

He didn't reply as he made his way past the unconscious men and took the extra ammo with him. He slowly turned a corner.

A plasma grenade landed at his feet.

He sprinted to a safe distance and waited for the blast from the projectile. The ground shook beneath his feet as the grenade exploded.

"RPG, obviously. Actually," she said, as he slowly started making his way back to the corner, "there are four grenadiers on the wall."

John frowned. He was going to have to outrun the grenades that were being aimed at him. Maybe Kelly could complete such a feat, but he was nowhere near as fast as his longtime friend.

"Don't worry, Chief. I've got you covered."

Suddenly, he felt like his entire brain was doused with ice cold water. His vision blurred, a wave of vertigo washed over him. He lurched forward as dark spots swirled in his vision, but managed to stand upright.

"You felt that?" She seemed slightly surprised.

"Yes," he replied uneasily. Was there something wrong with their link?

The pain started ebbing away. "Do you feel anything now?"

He checked. There was nothing there except for the slight hum that he had experienced since the shard had been implanted. "No."

"It seems like you feel the PSI wave shift when I access your armor. We'll have to work on a buffering system when the test is finished, but, for now, I'll keep the link at its current intensity. We can't have you blacking out in the middle of the test, can we?" She paused for a moment. "I guess that means I won't be able to sneak into your subconscious now." John could almost see her smirking.

Doctor Halsey hadn't said anything about her being able to access his subconscious thoughts. "I didn't think-"

"It's a joke, Chief," she said. "I transferred my primary system into your shard. With the increased speed, you should be able to sprint down the straightaway before they have a chance to fire any grenades off," Cortana replied.

John didn't like how she said "should" but there was little else he could do. Not finishing the course wasn't an option. "Understood."

He inched his way to the corner, knowing that all eyes down the path were on his location. He drew a deep breath and started sprinting as fast as he could. He raced down the narrow road; he had never moved so quickly in his life. He rounded the corner and leaned against the wall, his chest heaving.

His rest was short-lived.

A Rhino was waiting for him in the open area before her.

The Chief looked at the bulky tank. One blast from its turrets would kill him instantly, even with his new shielding system.

"Looks like you've got some trouble, Chief."

Cortana watched helplessly as John moved to a more discreet location in the shadows of the large wooden pillars, the only cover in the wide field. "I would suggest using a couple of those plasma grenades you snagged earlier to make quick work of the Rhino," she said, her voice deceptively even.

She frowned as the feed from his visual sensors started flickering. Something wasn't right.

"Can-und-pl-rep," came the broken response. Then, the video feed from his armor stopped completely.

Damn, Cortana swore silently.

Ackerson must have put a scrambling channel in the course. She hacked into the UNSC database and found the frequency Ackerson was using. She tried to disrupt the signal, but the colonel had put a reinforcement emitter in the course. Unless it was physically dismantled, the link between the two of them would continue to be interrupted.

Cortana weighed her options. She could remain in the instructor's station and attempt to contact John, hoping that he would be able to piece enough of her transmission to understand her message, or she could enter the course and find the source of the problem herself.

No, she finally decided, she would play-and win-by the rules that Ackerson and ONI had set up.

She sent a brief message to the Chief, detailing what he was to look for and destroy in order to get the signal working properly.

Ackerson knew what he was doing, she admitted grudgingly. John couldn't backtrack to the location with grenadiers on the wall, waiting for his return. Before he could even attempt to destroy the emitter, he would have to disable the Rhino.

Thirty long seconds passed with no change. She could still access his vitals-which were still strong- and know how much damage he had taken-a relatively small amount-, but the impulse to run in and take care of the problem herself was pressing on Cortana.

She forced herself to ignore the feeling. The Chief was more than capable of demolishing a small piece of equipment.

Another minute went by. She started pacing in a tight circle, wondering if the Chief would be able to decipher enough of her message to know what he needed to do.


The AI relaxed.

The video feed flickered for a second before being fully established.

She allowed herself a brief smile. "I'm here, Chief." No sooner as she transmitted the message to him, she heard a loud single shot coming from the west.

It took less than a fraction of second for Cortana to identify the sound as a shot from a DMR. She almost warned the Chief about the incoming projectile, but she realized it wasn't fired at the Spartan.

No, the bullet was headed her way.

She knew based on the speed of the bullet, she wasn't going to be able to avoid getting hit. Swiftly, she shifted and ducked. Fire tore through her bicep as the bullet ripped through her flesh. She hissed as she looked down and saw the blood oozing from the wound.

So, that was how Ackerson wanted to play, she thought bitterly.

The pain was intense, but manageable. The blood was steadily trickling down her arm. She would tend to her wound, but first, she needed to take care of the threat. She pulled out her pistol from her ankle holster as she analyzed where, exactly, the bullet had come from.


A tiny black speck, the only sign of the sniper, was on the horizon. She adjusted her aim slightly as the calculations to make the perfect shot filtered in her systems. The pistol wasn't the best weapon for the job, but she was left with no other options. The sniper wouldn't miss the shot a second time.

She fired.

She leaned back as she waited for the black dot to fall to the ground. Two seconds later, the bullet had hit its mark. It wasn't a kill shot; Cortana was painfully aware of the dwindling number of troops in the UNSC. If Ackerson was foolish enough to order another sniper to take her out, however, Cortana made no promises as to their fate.

Now that the threat had been taken care of, she quickly shifted her attention to John who was removing the extra ammunition from the fallen ODSTs.

Confident that John was doing fine without her immediate assistance, she focused on her injury. She took off her jacket, wincing as the rough fabric pulled across the wound. Quickly, she made a tourniquet around her arm while keeping sensors alert for any more of Ackerson's surprises. When she finished, she grimaced at the sight of her left arm; her uniform had been tainted with blood, her hand stained scarlet.

There would be time to think about her injury-and payback- later. For now, she shifted her attention to the Spartan inside the course. She accessed all of the information coming over the feed: the Rhino was several yards away, smoke pluming out of the main cabin; three ODSTs were lying on the ground, writhing in pain.

John walked across the now-safe field and approached the entrance to the underground portion of the course.

It was pitch black in there.

He was about to turn on his helmet lights and step inside the corridor when an uneasy feeling settled over Cortana. Ackerson had something planned; he knew not powering the lights in the underground corridor would not be an issue for the Chief.

"Hold on, Chief."

He stopped instantly.

Inferred and night vision sights hadn't shown any threat, but Cortana wasn't willing to take any risks. She needed to make sure that the Chief made it through the course safely.

"Throw a grenade in the marked position," she requested as she uploaded the location to his HUD.

He hesitated briefly, undoubtedly wondering why she would make such a request. But, he remained silent and tossed a grenade where she had asked.

Six well-hidden MAC guns shot it down before it hit the ground. The ceiling shuttered and shook as the blast of the shattered flash bang bounced off of it. Cortana knew that he would not have survived the barrage of bullets, even with his improved shielding system.

Another attempt from Ackerson's plan to make them stumble, Cortana thought with a wave of annoyance.


"Glad you asked. What ammunition do you have?"

"Three extra magazines and two grenades."

She pressed her lips together. Even if he used all of his ammo and the two remaining grenades, he would be lucky if he destroyed two of the six guns that were in front of him. No, they would have to use the fact that he was underground to his advantage.

"You should be able to disable two of the MAC guns if you cause a partial ceiling collapse. The debris then should give you enough cover to evade the remaining guns," she said.

Based on his long silence, she knew John did not like her plan. "Other options?"

She sighed. "If there were any, I would have suggested it, Chief." She marked two positions on his HUD. "You will need to be exact or this won't work."


She watched the Chief toss the grenades, holding her breath. The ceiling cracked and crumbled. He ducked down around the falling debris as best he could, but the MAC guns were still targeting him.

"Hurry, Chief!"

His shields were depleted completely as he was approaching the end of the corridor. The Chief managed to tuck himself behind a large piece of the fallen ceiling before the last MAC gun could hit him. He waited there until his shields fully recharged before he continued through the course.

The exit out of the underground path was blocked by a fallen beam. Cortana frowned. "You should be able to crawl out of there," she said, after she calculated the dimensions. "You'll have to lift the beam a half meter to the right, but no more than that or else the structural integrity might become unstable."


Cortana raised her eyebrow. So, it seemed like the overly-stolid Chief did have a dry wit about him.

She waited as he moved the beam out of the way. He slid on his belly, getting caught on the debris several times before clearing the room. Slowly, he stood up and continued down the path. It led to a dead end. Three meters above him, a hole to the outside loomed.

Before she could come up with an action plan, John had walked several yards backwards. Just as she was about to ask what he was going to do, he ran straight ahead and kicked off the stone wall in front of him. She held her breath as he twisted in midair and grabbed with one hand the edge of the hole. He grunted as the weight of him in his armor pulled against his arm. He swung his left arm over and secured his hold. Seconds later, he pulled himself out of the hole.

"Do I want to know when you learned how to do that move?" she asked, amused.

He didn't acknowledge her question as he sprinted towards the mouth of the cave. It was the last portion of the test. Cortana could almost feel their victory.

Her triumphant feeling was premature; the energy scan readings coming from the Chief's armor made her question whether or not he would survive the next five minutes.

"What is it?"

She frowned. How had John known something was wrong? She pushed aside her inquiry and focused on the much more pressing issue. "This can't be right," she muttered. Yet, as she reanalyzed the data, she couldn't deny the facts.


She frowned. "According to my readings, there are four plasma cannons in there."

"Plasma cannons?"

She understood his disbelief. Plasma artillery was the most recent, and most powerful, addition to the UNSC's weaponry. Apparently, Ackerson was doing everything he could to make sure they were going to fail the test.

Cortana ran through the calculations; things weren't looking promising for him. He would never make it across before the canons fired, unless…

She crossed her arms though he couldn't see her. "Do you trust me?"


The conviction behind his one word answer surprised Cortana.

"I want you to run across the room as fast as you can. When I give you the signal, I want you to drop to your knees and duck," Cortana said as her subroutines were busy pulling the files for the side project she had been developing for the MJOLNIR armor.

"You want me to stop in the middle of the room?" The doubt was clear in his voice.

"Yes," she said as she uploaded the protocol to his armor. "But it is imperative that you don't get hit with any plasma shots before I give you the signal."

She watched as he glanced in the mouth of the cave. "Right," he said dryly.

"Go," she instructed before she could second-guess her decision. If her upgrade didn't work, then John would be dead within seconds. She watched as he raced across the room, her subroutine automatically adjusting for John's increased speed.

"Now!" she said to him.

Instantly, he dropped as she had told him. His armor locked up immediately and the plasma blasts bounced off the shielding. The impact of the blasts knocked the Chief to the ground. She quickly accessed his vitals.

He was alive.

"Chief!" she called when he didn't move. "Chief! Hurry! Before they have a chance to recharge."

Slowly, he stood up. She knew based on his vitals he was teetering on the edge of unconsciousness, but he pushed himself forward. He sprinted to the bell at the end of the room and rang it three times.

Cortana let out a breath that she didn't realize she had been holding.

It was over.

They had won.

And, more importantly, Ackerson had lost.

"The test is over." Halsey's voice came over the comm channel. "I need to med team in there now. And Cortana?"

"Yes?" She didn't think her modification would go unnoticed.

"We've got some talking to do."


John was going into shock.

His vision narrowed. The world around him was fading.

Though Cortana had undoubtedly saved his life with her modification in his shield, the impact of the blast was almost more than his body could handle. Blood covered the inside of his visor, his shoulder throbbed where it had been pulled out of its socket, and he was pretty sure he felt his tendon tear when he made his final dash to the bell.

"Chief? Can you hear me?" He faintly registered Cortana's rushed footsteps approaching him.

"Med team?" he forced out.

"On its way," Cortana said as she moved towards him. "Three minutes."

He could last that long. He had to. Losing consciousness would mean that Ackerson to take down the Spartan down had worked.

John tried to focus on Cortana, but his vision was still blurry. He was able to see enough to tell that she was no longer wearing her jacket. Why would she have taken it off?

"Just lay down," Cortana instructed, pushing on his shoulder.

His shields glowed in response.

"You can turn them off now. The test is over," Cortana noted wryly.

He turned off the shields and looked at Cortana who was saying something to him, but his brain was unwilling to cooperate with him. He forced himself to concentrate on the woman in front of him.

"You need to stay with me, John."

That caught his attention. No one, outside of Halsey and the Spartans, ever used his first name.

"Here," she said as she reached around and released the lock on his helmet. "Let's get this off you. That contusion on the back of your head doesn't need any more pressure on it."

He lifted up his head and allowed her to take off his helmet. When his face was revealed, she gasped softly.

"Ackerson," she hissed.

John was surprised at her anger. After years of dealing with his fellow Spartans, he was unaccustomed to how...civilian Cortana acted.

"I'll be fine."

She stared at him for a second before nodding slightly. "You have survived worse. Most of the blood is from your broken nose," she assessed. "Doctor Halsey and her team should be able to mend your wounds fairly quickly."

The medical team led by Halsey approached them. Quickly, he was loaded onto the gurney and led away from the obstacle course. As they made their way to the Medical Bays, John overheard the two women talking.

"Any armor modification should have been run past me," Halsey said, annoyed.

"So Ackerson could have prepared for that too? I don't think so."

Halsey sighed at Cortana's stubbornness. "You did a good job stopping the bleeding," she said changing the subjects.

"I did a good job avoiding the bullet," Cortana countered emphatically. "We're lucky the bullet went through or else I'd be on a gurney too."

Cortana had been shot?

John lifted up slightly and saw the blood soaked fabric on her left arm. "You should have told me."

She, however, seemed unconvinced. "I'm not the one with a bruised kidney, a ruptured spleen, a torn Achilles tendon, a severe concussion and about a half-dozen other injuries," Cortana argued heatedly before turning back to Halsey. "I can't believe that you would authorize-"

"I didn't," the doctor interrupted. "High Command gave Ackerson full control of the test."

John felt a slight wave of relief. He knew the doctor always demanded the best from her Spartans, but the test seemed extreme, even to him.

"Regardless of who was in charge of the test," Halsey said, reigning in that part of the conversation, "the brass was certainly impressed with your shot. Most soldiers in the fleet couldn't have hit the sniper from where you were positioned."

John watched Cortana raise an eyebrow. "Did they miss the part in my assessment where it showed that my shot accuracy rivals the Spartans?"

"Reading and seeing are two different things," the doctor pointedly reminded her.

They entered into the medical bay where the techs started taking off the numerous pieces of John's armor. Cortana, thankfully, had her back to him as she continued talking to Halsey as he was clothed with paper scrubs.

The doctor approached him and looked at him with an indescribable look on her face. "The two of you did well." She looked up at the AI. "Better than I could have hoped. I'll be back when the room is ready for you."

As Halsey walked out of the room, Cortana turned to the Spartan. "How are you feeling, Chief?"

"Like I got shot with a plasma cannon."

She raised her eyebrows. "Please don't tell me you've been holding out your sense of humor just for me."

"How did you get shot?" he asked, ignoring her dig.

She pressed her lips together. "Ackerson had a sniper try to take me out of the game," she answered angrily. "But don't worry, Chief, I've already arranged a little payback." She smiled grimly.

Ackerson tried to kill Cortana?

He pushed aside the uncomfortable feeling. "And my injuries?"

Cortana looked away from her wound to his face. "You were right, you'll be fine."

"And the armor?"

She frowned. "The shields took a beating out there. It's probably going to take a couple of weeks, at least," she answered. "And that's if Halsey and I work on them non-stop."

Though the missions that required the use of his MJOLNIR armor were rare, due to the energy demands that they had, John couldn't help but to feel annoyed at the unnecessary damage caused to them by the test.

With a curt nod, he lay back down. Several quiet minutes passed with Cortana watching his vital signs carefully. She looked up as she heard footsteps approaching.

"All right. John, we're ready for you," Halsey said, nodding to the techs who led him out of the room.

John half-expected for Cortana to join them in the operating room, but she remained in the prep room.

"You will be fine when we're done," the doctor said, mirroring Cortana's assessment as she studied the data coming from the medical readout.

John remained still as Halsey and her techs tended to his injuries. He hissed slightly as the doctor set his shoulder back into position. She carefully pushed him into a laying position and began knitting his torn tendon.

When she finished the procedure, Halsey took a step back, looking at him. "What did you think of Cortana, John?" she asked.

The problem was he didn't know quite what to think of the AI. He was having adjusting to how she thought and acted. She was unlike any person he had ever worked with since he entered the UNSC.

Finally, he looked at the doctor. "She's…unconventional," he finally answered.

That caused Halsey to raise her eyebrows briefly. "Is that going to be a problem?"

"No, ma'am," he quickly answered.

Before the doctor could reply, Cortana walked into the room. A bandage had been wrapped around her upper arm. Cortana glanced at the screen, appearing to read the data from it. "I told you that you would be fine," she said.

"How's your arm?" he asked.

"Shouldn't you be more concerned with your recovery?" she shot back.

He looked at her before repeating, "Your arm?"

She rolled her eyes before shooting an exasperated glance at Halsey. "None of the reports I read on him mentioned his obstinacy," she complained lightly.

She gingerly crossed her arms and looked at John exasperatedly. "It will be fine. Just like I told you," she answered, showing him the bandaged arm. The AI took a step towards him and leaned down to his ear. "And there is nothing wrong with being unconventional," she whispered conspiratorially.

John wasn't surprised at the fact she had overheard the conversation between him and the doctor.

She straightened as she cracked a grin at Halsey who was watching their exchange with unabashed interest.

"I never said there was," he replied as he pulled himself into a sitting position.

She grinned briefly at Halsey's direction. "I keep liking him more and more."

John refused to acknowledge her offhanded comment.

"You need to report to Lord Hood. He wants your after-action report right away," Halsey said. "John will be up there when I have cleared him."

For a moment, John thought the AI might argue, but Cortana just nodded. "I think I'll have a chat with him about allowing Ackerson having total control in our little test." With a wave in their direction, she walked out of the room.

"Unconventional?" Halsey asked with a touch of amusement in her voice.

He nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"Well, all I have to say is that the two of you left quite an impression on High Command," Halsey said quietly. "The two of you make quite a formidable team."

"Thank you, ma'am." Whether he was grateful for the compliment or for Cortana, he wasn't sure.

"You're welcome, John. Take care of each other and you'll be fine."