05 July 2010 @ 12:31 pm
Under the Surface (5/5)  
 It was too damn hot, Cortana thought as she pulled her hair back in a ponytail.

Not that she, or any of the rest of the men in the group, had any say in it. They were there to find another artifact and nothing, including the oppressing heat and humidity that surrounded them, would stop them from completing their mission.

It was high noon and the sun was beating its relentless rays on the campsite. She turned the solar-powered fan towards the laptop in front of her, attempting to keep it cool from the intense heat. Sweat trickled down her temple as she shifted her chair, turning away as best she could from the sun. As the data trickled into her matrix from the M12 Force Application Vehicle, an earth-burrowing machine with two large "tusks" which had earned itself the nickname Warthog, Cortana had to wonder what in the world possessed the humans to use the Brazilian rain forest of all places to hide their technology nearly five hundred years ago.

It had been four days since they made camp -much too long to be considered safe- but Keyes had been insistent: they were not leaving until they found something. The Pillar of Autumn and the rest of the crew were safely hidden deep in the Andres, away from any Covenant in the area, while the four-man team led by Captain Jacob Keyes worked around the clock to discover the location of the Forerunner Artifact before the Covenant did.

Cortana had worked nearly non-stop since they arrived while the men cycled through scout duty. Once she located the artifact--failure wasn’t an option--they would proceed below the surface and extract the desperately needed data.

Silently, Cortana watched the video feed on the tiny computer as her matrix chip communicated directly with the Warthog. The atmospheric conditions were similar to the underground ruins where they had found other artifacts at previous dig sites which were a promising sign. She issued a burst of new commands to the Warthog as she heard unmistakable footsteps approaching from behind her position.

Part of her wondered why he was even bothering coming to her; if she found something, he would be the first person to know.  No, she knew he was here to try to provoke her into producing the results faster which was a pointless endeavor.  She was working as fast as she could.  

She drew a deep breath, preparing herself for the confrontation.  “Chief,” she greeted, not looking away from the screen.  She could see his reflection in the laptop monitor.  He pulled off his sunglasses and looked pointedly at her, ignoring her greeting.  

"Did you find anything yet?" he asked stiffly.

The Master Chief leaned forward, putting his hand on the desk next to the laptop.  Cortana fought the urge to turn the screen away as his dirt-smeared bicep came into view. But, she wouldn’t be petty; she wouldn’t give him a taste of his own medicine.

She turned slightly to face him before answering him. He had folded his camo bandanna over itself and tied it around his head, catching the beads of sweat that threatened to roll down his face. The humidity caused his olive green t-shirt to cling to his body. His duel holster was taut against his sides. He looked every part the Spartan that he was.

"Not yet, though we do have some encouraging data coming in," she replied, avoiding the piercing glare he was giving her. "Like the other sites, we’ve got plenty of dead bodies and no signs of radiation. But I haven’t found the database yet."

Cortana knew he wouldn’t be happy with the news. They needed to find something soon. After the takeover on Reach and the subsequent loss of the eastern seaboard of the North America, hope in the UNSC was starting to fade. They still held the majorities of the Americas and parts of Africa, but they were making no headway on reclaiming Covenant-occupied land.

He pressed his lips together as he scanned the trees around them, most likely looking for Elites hiding in the branches. "How much longer?"

"I don’t know, Chief.”  

He looked at her suspiciously, as if he suspected she was keeping something from him and the others. It was a look that Cortana had, unfortunately, become used to seeing from him since her reassignment to the Alpha Team.

"If you have something to say, Chief, now would be the time to say it," she blurted out.  How long was he going to hold onto the past?

"Just tell me when you’ve found something," he said gruffly, standing up straight. He nodded to Johnson who was leaning against a tree nearby before walking away.

"He still doesn’t trust me," she commented offhandedly, glancing at her friend.

Johnson set down the combat knife he had been cleaning on the desk and looked at Cortana. "It’s going to take some time for him to come around," he said with a sigh.

She laughed bitterly and shook her head, causing the ponytail to swish back and forth. "You’ve been saying that for weeks now and it’s not getting any better."

"Now, wait a minute, he’s been talking to you, hasn’t he?  That is a hell of a lot better than the way he had been avoiding you," Johnson replied as he looked at the Chief making his way to the center of camp. "Reach is still too fresh in his mind."

Cortana rolled her eyes. "All of us suffered losses there, Johnson, and I don’t get the impression from anyone else in the UNSC that I am not to be trusted."

He reached inside his vest pocket and held out a cigar for Cortana. She shook her head, declining the offer. "But you know that he was Halsey’s favorite," the sergeant countered. "Her deflection to the Covenant..." He shook his head. "It’s damn near impossible for anyone of us to believe what she did. So you can sure as hell believe it‘s going to be hardest on him. And it doesn’t help that every time he looks at you, he sees her."

She had heard the same argument from him before and it still riled her up, just like it had every time he defended the Chief. "I can’t help that my core processing comes from Halsey’s cloned brain any more than you could change your genetic heritage," Cortana shot back.

"You know what I’m talking about. You look like you could have been Halsey‘s twin if she was about thirty years younger," Johnson said, slipping the cigar into his mouth.

And that was the crux of it all, Cortana thought with a wave of frustration. She would never be seen for who she was, but only for what her origins were. It wasn’t her fault that she was a fourth generation smart AI, the first of its kind with a human host and a matrix chip that acted as the central nervous system.

When she had first been activated, still limited in a holographic avatar on the Reach base, she had been given the choice of what she would want her body to look like. She remembered how, after accessing the DNA profile of Catherine Halsey, her creator, she chose to mimic the doctor’s genetic makeup. There were differences between the two of them; perfect cloning was still several years away, but there was no mistaking she was a Halsey.

That decision would haunt Cortana for the rest of her life.

"It’s not my fault she betrayed us."

"I know that," he said sincerely. "So does Hood or else you’d never be on the Alpha team. And, hell, deep down, the Chief does too, but," he said, gently placing a hand on her shoulder, "he’s as stubborn as you are. So for right now you‘re S.O.L."

Cortana turned back to the computer, frowning. "Thanks for the pep talk, Johnson. You sure know how to brighten a girl’s day," she replied dryly.

He grinned. "Just call me your personal ray of sunshine."

Cortana suppressed a sigh. She knew Johnson was right; John wasn’t going to change any time soon.

Maybe it was time to move on.

Maybe there would be no reconciliation between her and John.

Maybe it was really over.

John scanned the tall trees around them, looking for any unusual movement in the branches. The sun was beginning to go down which would make it nearly impossible to detect any Covenant forces, even with his genetically enhanced vision. So far, they had managed to avoid being found by the Elites, but John knew it was only a matter of time before their luck would run out and they would be discovered. Cortana needed to find something soon, he thought with a grimace.

As he turned to face camp, he saw Johnson standing next to his tent with an uncharacteristic frown on his face. "She’s been pretty upset today, you know."

The Chief knew exactly who he was talking about; there had only been one woman he had been concerned with since the fall of Reach. "If she’s too uncomfortable, then she could always request reassignment," John said evenly. He walked forward, not wanting to continue the conversation.

"She did. While you were on patrol earlier."

That caused John to stop and turn around to look at his friend. He wondered if Johnson was testing him, to try to get a reaction from him, but as he took in his grim look, he realized that Johnson was serious. "But, what about the link?" he asked, his hand subconsciously moving to the back of his neck and rubbing the neural interface.

Johnson shrugged. "She seemed pretty confident that she could find another compatible Spartan on the Beta team. Kelly, I think."

No, John thought as he turned towards Cortana who was too busy working several dozen yards away to hear their conversation, she wouldn’t leave the Alpha team. "She’s not serious about transferring," he declared. Though he still struggled with trusting the AI, he knew she was not a quitter.

Johnson lit his cigar. "Tell that to Keyes. When he found out, I thought he was gonna explode right then and there. Practically begged her to reconsider," Johnson replied.

"Did she?" he asked. He tried to come off nonchalant, but sensed an edge to his voice that was normally not there.

"Don’t know. She hasn’t said anything to me about it. She’s probably seeing if you’re going to continue being an ass to her or not. Hell, if it was me, I would have put in the request weeks ago," he replied, lighting a cigar.

John watched Cortana for a few seconds, still sitting in the same chair he had seen her in earlier in the day, staring at the computer screen. "You’re not her," he muttered.

His friend looked at him for a few seconds before finally saying, "No, I’m not. And she’s not Halsey."

John flinched slightly. Hearing the doctor’s name sent adrenaline coursing through his veins. Most people wouldn’t have dared to bring up her name around him, but, as John knew, Johnson wasn’t like most people.

"I know she’s not," he gritted out.

"Then act like it," Johnson demanded. "Alpha team needs the two of you on the same page so the sooner you accept that Cortana is not a threat to any of us, the better." He took a long drag from his cigar. "The two of you were one hell of a team and I can’t wait you two start working together again to start kicking the Covenant’s asses."

“She’s in my mind?”

“That’s up for debate,” Cortana said, looking at him with a thoughtful look. “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 injected, “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?”

He didn’t miss the look of surprise that passed over Cortana’s face.  Unlike Halsey, who had learned to keep her emotions well-hidden and in check, the Chief could easily read Cortana.

As he started to become concerned that something was wrong with their neural connection, Halsey shrugged off his question.  “It wasn’t completely unexpected.  Your body is ‘hearing’ the connection because you are in you are in your armor.  When you’re not in it, 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.”

It had been one more thing Halsey had lied about, John thought as he scrubbed his face from his restless four hours of sleep.  Even though he rarely had the opportunity to wear his MJOLNIR armor, he always felt Cortana’s presence in the back of his mind.  

If it had ended there, John would have been able to ignore the constant hum in the back of his mind, but as their connection strengthened, more side effects presented themselves.  After several weeks, when their PSI wave patterns had synced with each other, John found that he could piggyback off the link and “see” through Cortana’s eyes.  

After Reach, when the techs at ONI attempted to disrupt the neural link between them, it was discovered that there would be no safe way to terminate the connection.  Now, with Cortana’s apparent resignation, it seemed as though the AI had discovered a way around their link.

For some reason, John didn’t feel as relieved as he should.

"She’s not Halsey."

Johnson was right, John admitted grudgingly. Despite his efforts to prove to himself, and the others at the UNSC, that she was a threat, John had found no evidence of Cortana deflecting to the Covenant.

But, there had been no signs that Halsey was going to turn against the UNSC, were there?

It couldn’t have been coincidence that Halsey linked the two of them together just six months before her deflection to the Covenant, John believed. Cortana had to be some kind of plant installed from Halsey to collect sensitive UNSC information and send it to the Covenant. After the fall of Reach, Cortana had been whisked away by High Command and the ONI and run through every type of questioning imaginable. Tests had been run and rerun, assuring those in command that Cortana was no threat to the UNSC.

Three days later, she had been cleared and given her assignment on the Alpha team, much to John’s chagrin. His petitions to have her retested were denied by Lord Hood himself who, in a private meeting, had told him to take a step back from the situation.

"I’m afraid, Chief, that you have become emotionally compromised."

Hearing those words felt worse than getting hit with a needler round from fifteen yards away.

He was a Spartan.

He was supposed to be impervious to any strong emotions.

And yet, in the course of four months, Cortana had managed to infiltrate his stoic behavior and had, briefly, caused him to look away from his true goal: to defeat the Covenant.

It would never happen again.

After the meeting, he silenced his complaints and focused on his duties on Alpha team, attempting to ignore Cortana as much as possible. She might have fooled everyone else, John told himself, but he was not going to be so easily deceived.

But, as the weeks went by, he found himself reluctantly starting to believe he might have been wrong about Cortana. They had already found two databases while the Beta team was still trying to uncover their first relic. Over the past few days, John found himself, more than once, migrating to Cortana, despite his reservations.

If Cortana really was planning on leaving Alpha team because of John’s attitude, then whatever advantage they lost would be on John’s shoulders.

It was time to move on, he thought with a sigh. He closed his eyes and focused on Cortana, wondering if she was asleep.

No. The hazy image came into his mind: she was still working diligently at her laptop.

He wasn‘t going to be able to get to sleep, John conceded. He swung his legs over the side of the too-small cot and made his way outside. Harshly, he pushed the flap to the side, allowing himself to exit the tent.
It was still too hot, he thought as the humid heat surrounded him.

As he looked across the camp and saw Cortana sitting in the moonlight, he took in her appearance. Her ponytail had been taken down, allowing her hair to hit her shoulders. Her tank shirt and khaki shorts gave the appearance of innocence, but John knew about the pistol holster she had around her ankle. She was an even faster shot than he was.

While her eyes were alert, John noticed that her body was hunched forward. He had a feeling that Cortana hadn’t eaten the entire day. When she became focused on a task, she had a tendency to ignore the needs of her organic body. He rummaged around in his sack and took out an MRE.

He walked across camp and dropped the meal in front of Cortana. "I figure you hadn’t eaten anything today."

She looked at the package suspiciously until realization dawned on her. "Johnson told you about my petition to transfer," she concluded. "Well, you don’t have to worry, Chief, I changed my mind after talking with Keyes. Your position is safe."

His eyebrows furrowed. What was she talking about?

She laughed lowly. "Oh, Johnson didn’t tell you the whole story. Keyes offered to request Kelly to be assigned to the Alpha team in exchange for you going to the Beta team if I withdrew my petition."

John stood there, stunned.

"You didn’t really think Keyes was going to let me go so easily, did you?" she asked, seemingly amused.

"I didn’t think he would be so willing to transfer me," John replied candidly.

She shook her head, dismissing his idea. "He wasn’t, but he felt like he had no other choice. When it comes to hacking into Forerunner systems, there’s no one better than me. He and Lord Hood care more about the well-being of humanity that your hurt feelings," she said honestly.

"Here," she said, holding out his MRE. "I’ll get my own."

"You keep it."

Her eyes softened. Had it gotten to the point where even a simple act of camaraderie was seen as something noble? He shifted uncomfortably. "I owe you an apology for my behavior since your reassignment."  It had been the longest sentence he had spoken to her since Reach.

His statement caused her to push away from the desk and look directly at him in disbelief. "I’m sorry, but I think I'm starting to hear things. What did you say?"

He should have known she wasn’t going to make this easy for him. After the past several weeks, he couldn’t say that he blamed her, but he wasn’t going to play the game with her.  "You heard me."

She studied him silently for several seconds. "And this was prompted because of my request to transfer?"
she asked, raising her eyebrow.

He nodded.

"Damn, Johnson was right. I should have requested reassignment after we found the first Forerunner piece," she replied.

A not-quite uncomfortable silence settled between them until she reached out and touched his arm.

John looked at where her hand rested, but she made no attempt to move it away.

"I’m sure you know this, but there is no one who is harder on me than myself concerning Halsey. I should have seen the signs. I’ve reviewed her computer logs, her personal records and I still can’t figure out why she did what she did. And you know how much…" She yawned suddenly, pulling her hand away and covering her mouth.

"When is the last time you slept?"

Her eyes twinkled in the moonlight. "Don’t tell me you are suddenly concerned with my well-being."

"I always have been. You know that." He swallowed, uncomfortable with how much he had revealed in those two sentences. He should have never stepped out of his tent, he decided belatedly.

"You are full of surprises tonight, John," she said with a ghost of a smile on her lips.

A familiar yet completely unwelcome warmth spread throughout him at her use of his first name.  She hadn’t spoken it since their confrontation on the Autumn.  He pushed aside the emotion and refused to acknowledge how much he had missed her companionship. "Eat and get some sleep. If the Warthog finds any signs of the database, you’ll be alerted anyway."

She ripped open the bag and looked inside. "Yum," she replied with a grimace. But, John noticed, she started eating the food quickly.

He looked at his watch. "Keyes will be back from patrol in four hours. I’ll take watch until he returns," John said.

She stood up, taking the bag of food with her. "Thank you, John," she said sincerely.

"You need your sleep like everyone else," he said, suddenly uncomfortable.

"You know what I meant. Don’t make me start doubting your observation skills now," she shot back before walking away.

As he sat down and started watching the grainy feed, John knew Johnson was right: he and Cortana did make one hell of a team.

As an AI, Cortana never was truly asleep; her subroutines were constantly working, her matrix chip constantly active. When she had first integrated into her human host, Cortana had been frustrated by the limits she faced when her physical body was asleep; all of the advantages to being a hybrid were lost. But, as the months went by, Cortana learned to appreciate the down time she had when she was "asleep". It allowed her to think over the days' events or issues without being distracted by the ever pressing demands from High Command. They seemed to believe that she was unavailable during her periods of rest and that was fine with Cortana.

Some days, she used the time to hack into low priority Covenant mainframes. Others, she accessed the UNSC databases to try to determine where the next piece of Forerunner technology was most likely located.

Tonight, it allowed her to think about John.

He had managed to surprise her tonight. She knew Keyes and Johnson would be upset by her reassignment request, but she never considered the idea that John would be so affected by her decision to transfer. While Cortana had hoped that her request were spur some kind of emotional response from the Spartan, she honestly didn't believe Johnson when he tried to convince her that John would be bothered by her request.

But, he had been affected. Since she had walked away from him and into the sanctuary of her tent, she had analyzed his actions repeatedly--the offering of an MRE, the reluctant admission of his concern for her, the apology--which led her to one startling conclusion.

She had underestimated his feelings towards her.

And Cortana hated being taken off-guard.

She shouldn't have been surprised, though. After everything that they had gone through, experienced together, she knew that she was closer to John than anyone, even his Spartan counterparts. That was why he had been so harsh to her, she knew. He allowed himself to be emotionally invested in her. And his punishment on himself for allowing that to happen had become her own.

But now, armed with the evidence of his recent actions, Cortana knew he was ready to move on. She didn't think things between the two of them were going to be smooth -and certainly nothing like they were before the attack on Reach- but she sensed the John was sincere in his desire to try to make things work.

That would have to be enough for now.

When her four hours of rest were nearly up, she rolled out of bed and quickly folded the blankets on the cot. She made the short walk across the tent and grabbed new clothes, grateful that Keyes was agreeable to the idea of them not having to be in standard uniform during the dig. As she was pulling her tank shirt over her head, the Warthog's sensors sounded in her matrix.

It had found something.

She quickly left her tent, grabbing her sunglasses on the way out. As she put them on, she saw Keyes walking in the direction of his tent. "We’ve hit the jackpot," she called out.

Cortana knew he was tired, but his exhaustion didn’t keep him from grimly smiling. "It’s about time."

The two of them walked up to the laptop. John quickly slid out of her way, allowing her to pull up the Warthog’s data so that they could see the information. The captain walked up to her, his shadow casting over the laptop screen.

"What have we got?"

"It appears to be another global database," Cortana replied as she accessed the data, excitement entering into her voice. "If the calculations from the Warthog are correct, it could be the largest data collection of Forerunner technology that we have found."

"Good work, Cortana," Keyes said sincerely. He turned to John who was waiting expectantly. "Suit up, Chief. Johnson and I will take care of camp. We’ve got some digging to do."

They were ready in less than an hour. Camp had been broken down, casual clothes had been exchanged for their formal uniforms, supplies had been stashed in the transport.

John approached the three of them, wearing his armor, holding his helmet in his hands. "I’m ready, sir," he said to Keyes.

He looked far more comfortable in the one-of-a-kind suit, Cortana observed. She knew if John had his way, he would always be able to wear his MJOLNIR armor. But, as she had repeatedly reminded him, the power demands were much too high for that to ever become a possibility.

"All right, let's load up."

Cortana looked at the Elephant with a frown. For a Subterranean Excavating Pod Ship, it was perfectly acceptable. But no matter how steady the vessel in front of her was, Cortana would always be uneasy. She hated deep underground travel, but it was the only way to reach the ruins while being undetected by the Covenant. She closed her eyes briefly before taking a step towards the ship.

The ship, made for a six-man crew, didn’t have much in terms of space.  There was a small cargo bay which housed the Warthog, a small med bay and a bridge.  As they stepped onto the bridge, she noticed with some amusement that John stood at attention until Keyes took a seat in the command chair.

"It's going to take ninety-five minutes to reach the LZ," Cortana announced as she sat at the tiny control center, pushing away the feelings of claustrophobia. She was fine. The oxygen levels in the transport had enough air for nearly two months, she reminded herself. She would not be buried alive.

Keyes nodded, pulling out his pipe. "Thanks, Cortana."

She nodded as she started the burrowing sequence. As the ship turned nose-side down and started digging, she silently said goodbye to the sun as the light faded away.

The first hour passed in relative silence; each of them was preparing themselves for the sight that was going to be waiting for them. They knew from experience that the ground would be littered with skeletons and debris, the walls covered in centuries-old blood and gore. No one knew what caused the near-worldwide extermination of the humans, the Forerunners, several centuries ago but Cortana was determined to figure out what happened.

"You doing alright?"

The question was barely more than a concerned rumble coming from behind her ear.

She turned to him, noticing the slight frown on his face. He knew about her claustrophobia, of course. "I'm fine," she softly reassured him.

It still seemed strange for her to sense concern from him after so long.

"Good," he answered, pleased. He studied her for a second before asking, "Did you take them yet?"

She knew exactly what he was talking about and she was not interested talking about it. "No." Her answer was firm.


She shook her head emphatically. "They slow me down too much. When we get to the database, I want to work as fast as I can.  We were on the surface far too long already."

John, however, was unconvinced by her argument.  "Blacking out because of a migraine will slow you down too," he countered.

Though she and Halsey had tried to determine all of the side effects the linking process between her and John would create, they hadn't been able to predict them all. When John was in his MJOLNIR armor for extended periods of time with the neutral link activated above fifty percent, Cortana suffered intense, debilitating migraines. Despite their best efforts, Cortana and the techs at ONI were unable to prevent the headaches from happening.

They did manage to create a drug cocktail for Cortana that limited the pain, but at a cost. Her neural link to her host body was severely diminished and her operating functions were only able to function at eighty percent of their capacity.

"Don't make me get Keyes involved."

She crossed her arms and glared at him. "I think I liked you better when you ignored me all the time." She noted his set jaw. He wasn't going to give in. She cursed his ability to be as stubborn as she was. "Fine, but I'm only taking a half-dose."

"That’s good enough," he agreed as Keyes made his way back to the front of the cabin. John nodded to his commanding officer before leaving the bridge.

"Do I want to ask what happened between the two of you?" Keyes asked, chewing on the end of his pipe. "I haven't seen him this talkative since your first mission on the Autumn."

"Were you eavesdropping, sir?" Cortana asked, slightly amused.

"It's my ship. I can listen in on whatever conversations I want," he replied.

"He apologized," she said simply. "And I think thanks to Johnson's meddling, he finally got the clue that I'm not going to turn on the UNSC like Halsey did."

She watched as he closed his eyes, as if trying to hide from her words. There was no mistaking the fact that Keyes took Halsey's betrayal as badly as John.

"No, you're not Catherine," Keyes murmured. "Though you certainly have some of her tenacity."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Cortana said lightly. It was a dangerous slope when people started talking about the similarities between her and Halsey. Most people assumed that because she was created from her cloned brain that Cortana would be exactly like her. But, as her matrix chip was being formatted, the inclusion of other outside influences such as the UNSC database, including all personnel logs and records, allowed Cortana to establish her own unique personality.

"Depends on who you ask," laughed Keyes uncomfortably.

"Here," John said, disrupting the awkwardness that threatened to settle over the cabin. He held out the syringe for her to take.

"Thanks," Cortana said dryly as she grabbed it from his hand. She pulled her hair away from the neural lace and injected the liquid in the back of her neck. "Happy now?"


Cortana felt her processes slow down as the medicine began to kick in. "Well, at least one of us is."

Thirty minutes later, Cortana landed the vessel at the entrance of the ancient base. Due to the instability of the structure, the ship was unable to go any further into the ruins.

After the Scorpion settled on the ground, Keyes stood up and faced John. "According to Cortana, the primary power supply is in the east quadrant. If she’s going to be able to access the entire database, we’re going to need it working. You need to get that up and running ASAP."

"Understood," the Spartan said.

He turned to Cortana. "After they get the power working, I want you to get that information as fast as you can. Once we activate the Forerunner systems, it will act like a beacon for the Covenant. I’d like to get the hell out of here before they show up."

The AI understood the risks. If the Covenant located them they would be outnumbered and outgunned, a dangerous combination, even for the Alpha Team. Cortana nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Johnson, you need to stay with Cortana while the Chief searches the area for any Forerunner technology that the boys back home can study," Keyes ordered.

"You’ve got it," Johnson said as he tucked a cigar in his vest pocket.


Cortana turned back to the console and tapped in a few commands. She had several subroutines monitoring the area with the Scorpion’s sensors. She did not want to be caught off-guard if the Covenant did manage to find them. Satisfied that with the data trickling into her matrix, she turned away from the controls and made her way to the back of the ship.

While the others had already disembarked, John stood next to the loading ramp with a flak jacket in his hand.

"Is this really necessary?" Cortana grumbled as she took the protective gear from him.


She knew that it was, but it didn’t mean she enjoyed the feeling of the restrictive vest over her body. Cortana slung the jacket over her shoulder and slid her other arm through. She zipped the jacket up and looked at John with a scowl.

He handed her the pistol and looked her over, apparently satisfied. The two of them started walking down the ramp together before he turned to her slightly. "Be careful."

She was tempted to tease him, but she knew he was being serious. Even without the threat of the Covenant finding them, being this far underground, in these ruins, was dangerous. They had already lost most of the Gamma team when the subterranean structure collapsed on them three weeks ago.

"You too," she said sincerely. As they approached the rest of their team, she opened a comm channel. "Don’t miss me too much."

He didn’t reply, like she expected. Even before Reach, he never acknowledged her unique way of saying goodbye.

She walked up to Johnson, who was carrying his assault rifle. "Ready?" she asked.

"I’m always ready," he replied good-naturedly.

She pulled out a wide-beam flashlight as Johnson turned on the small light attached to his rifle. Even with the extra light and her enhanced vision, they were going to have to be slow and careful when they made their way through the ruins.

"Good luck," Keyes said, watching the two teams make their way to the destination.

The two of them started making their way east, towards the Warthog’s location. The small of dust and death filled the air around them. It was expected, but it didn’t bother Cortana any less than it did at the other sites.

"You ever wonder what happened?" Johnson asked as they stepped around the remains of a long-dead Forerunner. "How the human population nearly was wiped out five hundred years ago?"

It was the one piece of the puzzle that Cortana was eager to find out. If only she could figure out what had happened to the Forerunners, then, she might be able to understand what happened and, maybe, use that to the UNSC’s advantage to fight the Covenant.

"Of course, Johnson," Cortana answered as she cautiously stepped over a large piece of rubble.

"You have some theories, don’t you?"

He knew that she did, but she suspected his interest in her ideas had something to do with the idea of keeping her mind off the fact they were, in fact, in a very narrow passageway nearly one hundred yards underground. She didn’t call him on his protectiveness, however. Over the past several weeks, especially since her reinstatement into Alpha Team, he had become a close friend to her.

"Well, I don’t ascribe to the popular idea that it was a nuclear war that destroyed humanity. None of the Forerunner sites have reported having any abnormal radiation readings. Something happened to the humans, but I think it’s something much more sinister than a few nukes," Cortana replied.

"Some people think aliens came to Earth. Nearly wiped people out," Johnson commented as they stepped through the hole in the wall the Warthog created.

Cortana snorted. "Aliens, huh? Now that’s an interesting theory." She grimaced as she saw the blood-covered wall in front of her. They were getting close to the center of the complex. "But, if it’s all the same, I’ll keep my ideas to myself until I have some data backing me up."

A silence fell between the two of them as the remains and the centuries-old carnage appeared with an increasing frequency. Whatever happened to the Forerunners had been brutal; all of the sites the UNSC had found had given a gruesome, silent testimony to the unknown past.

As they climbed a steep pile of rubble, she offered a hand to Johnson to help him up. The increased elevation allowed them to look at the expansive room ahead of them. "Damn," he muttered.

Cortana wordlessly agreed with his assessment of the view in front of them. In front of them were dozens of skeletons, each one armed with some kind of weapon, whether knife or gun. Several had killed each other; Cortana could see the blade of a knife embedded into the ribcage of at least three of the deceased Forerunners. Others, it seemed, appeared to be hiding. A group of seven skeletons were huddled in the corner, as if they were trying to get away from something.

"Come on," she said, leading them away from the gruesome scene in front of them. "We’re wasting time here."

Ten minutes later, after walking and crawling over the rumble, they reached the control room. The room had been abandoned, much to both of their relief. Clearing the Forerunner remains was not something Cortana wanted to do after the last site.

"Now we wait," she said, standing in front of a console.

"How’s the Chief doing? Sleeping on the job, probably," Johnson seemed more relaxed now that the horrific reminders of what had happened were no longer in his line of vision.

She looked away for a second as she boosted the neural link between her and John. "He’s almost there. Unfortunately, he ran into a couple of collapsed tunnels, so he had to backtrack, but he’s on course now. Once John accesses the console I’ll have to infiltrate the power grid and we’ll be set."

"Nothing like being in two places at once," he quipped.

She nodded, allowing herself a brief smile. "It does have its advantages," she replied.

Several minutes later, John reached the control room. She boosted the signal as she allocated more of her subroutines to transfer to John’s armor to hack into the system. The pressure in her brain was starting to build, but she pushed aside her discomfort.

Despite her effort to conceal her pain, Johnson stepped next to her. "You doing ok?" Johnson asked, concerned. "The Chief will kick my ass if you pass out on me."

Cortana nodded, dismissing his concern. "I’m fine. I’m sure you had a worse headache during your last hangover."

"Hey, no one told me how much alcohol was in that bootleg crap Buck gave us after the last mission," Johnson replied defensively.

"Trusting Buck was your first mistake," she said as her subroutines hacked into the system. She let out a long breath as the lights filtered on. "There we go."

She stumbled slightly as she transferred the subroutines back to her matrix. Damn, she thought, annoyed at her sluggish response time. The next time John pressed her to take her meds, she would show how him how stubborn she could be.

Johnson put his hand on her shoulder. "You alright?"

She nodded, her head clearing. "I’ll be fine." Without wasting any time, she walked up to the main console and transferred herself into the system. "Just watch my back," she said to Johnson via a comm channel.

"Yes, ma’am."

Immediately, she knew this database was different than the one they had found at the previous site. While the security system was nearly non-existent in that system, this one had several billion layers of encryption coding. It would take Cortana more time to get the data than she had anticipated.

Still, she thought as she sifted her way through the encryption, there must have been something here that the Forerunners thought was valuable.

It took her nearly three minutes to break through the security code, but when she finally had access to the data, she was not disappointed. There were several million quattuordecillions of files. She started running off several thousand subroutines to sort and filter the information that was pouring into her matrix.

There was enough information in there to keep her busy for weeks. She wanted to access all the files as they transferred into her data pathways, but she knew with her operating at lower levels, it would slow the transfer process too much. Only the files that her subroutines flagged as significant would be reviewed before they returned to the Autumn. The rest, she thought with a wave of frustration, would have to wait.

Nearly two hours passed and Cortana was finally nearing the end of the transfer. Just as she was about to access a secured data file called halo, the proximity sensors on the Autumn were activated.

The Covenant had found them.

It was taking longer than expected.

John questioned whether or not he should have pushed Cortana to taking her meds before dismissing the notion. After Cairo, he made a promise to himself that she wouldn’t get hurt again due to their link.

She was still in the Forerunner system; John had been occasionally reaching over their open link to monitor her progress. It was disconcerting for him to see through her perspective as she was infiltrating the system. All he saw were trillions of lines of codes scrolling at impossible speeds, both in the familiar Unicode used by the UNSC and the binary code of the Forerunners. Despite her slowed speed, it was unfeasible for him to keep up with the amount of data she was accumulating.

He turned his attention to the shielding mechanism he had found while rummaging through the ruins. While there were plenty of corpses down here, it appeared that most of the artifacts had been taken.  He wondered, briefly, if the Covenant hadn’t already found another way into this complex.

It would be one more time the UNSC had fallen behind the Covenant.

John," Cortana said, her voice cutting through the eerie silence that surrounded the ruins, "we’ve got Covenant inbound. I’m detecting a half dozen landing pods. ETA is in ten minutes.”

"Understood. Are you out of the system yet?”

"No, not yet. I’m going through the last of the files now..." she said, her voice trailing off.

John frowned at her uncharacteristically distracted response. "Are you going to be?" he pressed.

Immediately, he knew something was wrong. It had taken her just too long to respond to his question. She was acting almost…glitchy.

"Not before the Covenant arrive," she finally answered. “I will contact you when my objective has been completed.” She terminated the comm channel abruptly.

Then, to his shock, the familiar hum he associated with Cortana completely faded from his mind. He hadn’t felt that emptiness since…No, he wouldn’t let himself think about what happened at Panama. He tried to reestablish the connection with her via their neural link, but he saw nothing but blackness.

She had locked him out.

Instantly, his suspicion reintroduced itself to him. He should have never trusted her. He should have never apologized. He should have never--

"Chief," Keyes' voice cut into his thoughts. "Protocol GOLD MINE has been activated in Cortana's matrix."

Instantly, John froze. That would explain Cortana's recent change in behavior. A wave of guilt at his quick--too quick--return to distrust washed over him.

"You need to make sure that generator stays online until Cortana gets out of the system," the captain ordered.

"Understood, sir." He turned around and made his way back to the control room. It was standard procedure for the Covenant to find the power source and cut it off, preventing them from accessing the Forerunner databases. But John’s concern was deeper than having to worry about fighting in the dark; if Cortana was in the still in the system when they power supply was destroyed, she would be stranded in the system.

That was not going to happen.

He made it back to the room with less than a minute to spare. The earth around him shook and the ceiling above his head began to crumble at the pods’ trajectory. He tucked himself in a darkened corner of the room. He would take any advantage he would get. Fighting a half-dozen Elites alone was going to be difficult, even for him.

"Cortana, are you out of the system?”

She didn’t respond.

He knew with GOLD MINE in effect, he was on his own. Cortana wouldn't open the communication channel until she had completed her mission.

The first pod broke through the ceiling, pulling John’s thoughts away from Cortana. He held his assault rifle steady as the first Elite came out of its transport. Before he had time to aim his plasma rifle, John fired a quick burst at him, hitting him squarely in the chest.

He barely had time to sprint across the room and grab the plasma grenades off the fallen Elite before another pod came crashing through. He slid under the console and whipped around to face his would-be attacker.

This time, however, the Elite was ready for John’s attack. Two shots were fired before John was able to fire a round. He rolled out of the way, dodging the bolts of plasma. He tumbled to the side and shot in the direction of the Elite. He managed to hit the Elite, but the Covenant solider was not out of the fight; he tossed a plasma grenade in the Chief's direction.

Left with no other choice, John charged towards the Elite. He slammed his gauntlet in his chin, shattering his jaw. As the hulking solider staggered backwards, John fired two quick shots to his chest with his spare pistol.

He pressed himself against the wall closest to the power console. Despite his effort to control the situation, four more pods came crashing overhead. As he was about to activate the plasma grenade in his left hand, a familiar cool presence entered his mind.

"Chief, the Scorpion will be disembarking in five minutes. Please return there immediately.”

This time there was no mistaking the stiff, almost mechanical way she was speaking to him, a side effect of the protocol being in effect.

"Understood," he replied evenly.

John frowned as he took in the position of the Covenant. The Elites were not idle during his brief exchange with Cortana. They had surrounded him.

He was trapped.

"Your end is near, vermin," one of them snarled.

The others around him laughed.

John was left with limited options to try to survive the next thirty seconds. He flicked his gaze to the gaps in the ceiling. If his aim was just right, he might be able to cause a collapse and bury the Elites alive. It would take luck and an exact location for his target, but he could do it with Cortana’s help.

He opened the private comm link. "Cortana, I need you to give me the exact location where I need to throw this grenade to cause the ceiling to collapse," John said urgently as the Elite closest to him activated his energy sword.

He hoped the GOLD MINE protocol would allow her to make the calculation. He doubted he could figure out the position on his own. Fortunately, she responded quickly. "I have marked the position on your HUD. Please, remember, Chief, that your throw needs to be precise. If you are off by a centimeter–”

He knew the risks. If he missed, he would be buried alive too. "Understood," he said, ending the channel.

Without wasting a second, he tossed the plasma grenade at the position she had marked. The Elites around him grunted as they realized what he was attempting to do. John wasted no time to watch their reaction. He took advantage of their distraction and pushed his way through the Elite furthest away from his position and ran towards the door.

Perhaps, if it had been a group of grunts in the room with him, he would have been able to escape. But, the highly trained Elites weren’t as easily as distracted. Before John had a chance to flee, one of them fired his pistol at the Spartan. John staggered at the impact, but pushed himself forward.

It was that one misstep that would prevent his successful escape. The mouth of the entrance was less than three meters away when the high pitch sound filled the room. A sinking feeling settled over him as he realized he wasn’t going to make it out of the room before the grenade detonated.

He felt the explosion before he was able to faintly register the sound of the room around him collapsing. Blackness filled his vision as the rocks came crashing around him. Consciousness slipped from him, despite his best efforts to stay awake.

His luck had run out.

A switch had been flicked.

Protocol GOLD MINE was in full effect.

As her subroutines were sifting through the massive amount of data, one of them found a suspiciously familiar looking set of symbols. She began going through the enormous amount of mission logs in her matrix and found that, yes, a similar set of symbols had been seen by John several months before they had been assigned to work with each other.

At that influx of information, her alpha-priority programming had taken over and protocol GOLD MINE was implemented. She had to assimilate the meaning of the symbols immediately.

Protocol dictated that she needed to contact Captain Keyes and inform him of the situation. "Captain Keyes, protocol GOLD MINE is in effect."

"Damn, so this trip was worth it." He paused for a second. "You know that the Covenant are coming, right?"

Of course she did, but it didn’t matter if the Covenant were coming. It didn’t matter if Johnson died protecting her. It didn't matter if John was sacrificed while trying to keep the generator online. The only thing that did matter was deciphering the meaning of the symbols.

"Yes, sir. I will be remotely activating defense pattern 'Delta Echo' immediately. The ship systems should be able to eliminate any Covenant threat until I am finished here. Please contact Spartan-117 with orders to hold the generator room until my objective is complete," she commanded.

"I'll take care of it, Cortana. You find what you need to. Keyes out."

With that out of the way, she quickly accessed the information stored in her storage buffer and found that the symbols found were remarkably close to some known characters from the ancient Athenian alphabet. She ran a cross-analysis of them two and found that over eighty percent of the symbols matched. She processed it through her translation software. It took less than five seconds for her to decipher the meaning of the words.

In the mouth of the cave lies the key to the world. The waters lap the land that is parched.

There was only one place in the world that could be: Australia.

She paused three full seconds before her subroutines started racing. No one, not even the Covenant had dared to travel to the island that had been ground zero for the humans' demise five hundred years ago. But, if she understood the translation correctly--and there was no reason why she wasn’t--this would lead them to a safe entrance to access the cursed land.

Protocol dictated that she needed to return to the Autumn and report the information to High Command immediately. Without waiting another millisecond, she planted a virus that would delete all of the data in the network which would prevent the Covenant from deciphering the data.

As she transferred herself out of the Forerunner system, she accessed the myriad of information filtering through her systems that had been filtered by her active protocol: the Covenant had reached their location while John was trying to hold the control room on his own.

Now that she was out of the system, there was no reason for the Spartan to remain in the generator room. He needed to return to the ship before they left him behind. "Chief, the ship will be disembarking in five minutes. Please return there immediately," she said stiffly.

There was a long pause. Finally, he spoke. "Understood."

Later, there would be time for her to review her actions, to feel guilty for her coldness towards the Spartan. But, right now, she had one solitary focus: to make sure the information got to the UNSC. John’s feelings, even his life, were acceptably expendable, according to her protocol.

"Sergeant Johnson," she said, turning towards him. "We must return to the Scorpion now."

"I’m right behind you, ma’am," he said formally.

Before she walked out of the room, she removed her pistol from her holster. There was a forty-three percent chance that the Covenant would be blocking their way to the ship. If they increased their speed by twenty percent, then the chances lowered by eighty-three percent.  Quickly, she climbed over the rubble and rock.

Information from the Scorpion’s sensors entered her matrices. Two Ghosts were on their way to the ship’s position and another half dozen burrowing pods were closing in on their position. It would be close, but they would make it back to the Scorpion before they had a chance to attack.

She looked at Johnson who was looking at her strangely. But, like the trained soldier he was, he spoke none of his concerns aloud.

"Follow me," she instructed before breaking out into a run. They may survive if the rubble collapsed around them; they wouldn’t survive a direct attack from a Ghost.

As they were making their way through the narrow tunnel, her comm channel was opened. "Cortana, I need you to give me the exact location where I need to throw this grenade to cause a collapse."

Briefly, she considered telling the Chief that she didn’t have the time to calculate such a trajectory. But, her beta-priority command wouldn’t allow her to do such a thing. If she could do something to insure the safety of the Chief, she needed to do so.

She accessed the video feed from his visor, noticing the Elites that were circling around him. But that was not her primary concern. She saw the holes in the ceiling and calculated the exact location he needed to throw the plasma grenade.

"I have marked the position on your HUD. Please, remember, Chief that your throw needs to be precise. If you are off by a centimeter–"


The channel ended.

As they rounded the corner, the ship came into view. She sprinted up the loading ramp and stood in front of Captain Keyes who was looking as expectantly.

"Did you find what you were looking for?"

"Yes, sir," she replied confidently.

"So, this mission is a success?"

Cortana frowned, briefly as her alpha-priority and beta-priority mission clashed with each other. She couldn’t give a clear response to the captain’s comment. "I have not heard from Spartan-117 since his attempt to escape the Elites in the generator room," she reported as she activated the Scorpion’s engines. "We need to get out of here, sir. Spartan-117 will not be able to reach the ship’s position before the Covenant do."

Her voice was stiff, emotionless.

Keyes frowned. Johnson sputtered. Keyes looked torn for a moment, no doubt weighing the risk of staying here longer than necessary.

"Negative, Cortana. We’re going to wait until the Chief gets back aboard," Keyes said firmly.

Cortana hesitated for a second as she tried to contend with the conflicting commands. "You do realize that your interference with the GOLD MINE protocol will more than likely result in a court martial?" she asked, her voice still showing none of its usual warmth.

Finally, Johnson had enough. "What the hell is going on here?" the sergeant demanded. He faced Cortana. "Since when is leaving the Chief behind acceptable?

Keyes held up his hand, quieting Johnson. "It’s not Cortana’s fault. You can blame her new found dedication on ONI." He looked back at Cortana. "I’m willing to face that court martial. Get the Chief back aboard. That’s a direct order."

Reluctantly, she tapped the controls. "I could send the Warthog to the Chief’s location. If he regains consciousness, then he might be able to get out of there alive," she suggested.

"Do it," Keyes commanded. "Then run operation protocol: ANARCHY."

She paused for a moment as her subroutines scrambled to find the obscure protocol. Within two seconds, she found the command and implemented it.

And she was herself again.

All restrictions put into place from the alpha command were suspended. She looked at Keyes, her eyebrow raised. "Sir?"

His shoulders lowered and he let out a breath. "Just something Catherine told me when you were first assigned to Alpha Team," he said, relieved. "She planted the code in case something like this happened. She was always against any protocol overwriting your primary commands. She trusted you to be able make the right assessment of a situation and react accordingly."

He paused, looking at her. "I trust you too, Cortana."

It was the first time that anyone had directly said those words to her since the fall of Reach. Sure, the implication was that she was to be trusted, but hearing the words impacted her more than she thought they would. She nodded. "Thank you, sir."

He nodded. "Let’s just keep this between the Alpha Team."

Johnson grinned. "Aye, sir."

Before she could reply, the Warthog transmitted a signal to her; it was arriving at John’s position.

With her new found freedom, she accessed the vital signs from John’s armor. He was still unconscious due to a concussion. Four ribs were cracked, his Achilles heel was torn and there was significant blood loss. Cortana knew if it was anyone else, she doubted they would survive.

But, this was John, she reminded herself. He made a habit of breaking all of the laws of probabilities.
"Chief, come on, you’ve got to wake up," she said via their private comm channel.

His vital signs were unchanged.

"Come on, Spartan, don’t make me doubt your luck now," she said, getting slightly panicked. She knew if he didn’t respond soon, they would have no other option but to leave him behind. "We need to go. The Covenant are about to reach us."

He still didn’t respond.

"Please, John. I can’t--" she struggled admitting her weakness. "John, you have got to wake up."


She let out a shaky breath. His voice was slurred, his vitals were weak, but he was responsive. "John, the Warthog is headed your way. Can you move at all?"

"Yes," he gritted.

"The Warthog will be at your position in ten seconds. When it gets there, you’re going to have to hang on." She bit her lip. "It isn’t going to be the smoothest ride, but you’ll make it out of here alive."

"Understood," he slurred.

She monitored the Warthog’s progress through its video feed; John’s visual output had been damaged in the crash. She frowned as he came into view. A large beam with a half a meter from his spine. If he had made one less step...

No, now was not the time for second-guessing. Now was the time to get John back to the ship before the Covenant arrived.

"Now John!"

She watched as he grabbed the task-like arm in front of him and threw himself on top of the bulky machine.
"Hang on!" she said as she turned the Warthog around and pushed the engine’s to their limit.

It wasn’t going to be enough. Even if John’s shield’s protected him from the hurling rocks and debris, the Scorpion would be in the firing range of the Ghosts for nearly twenty seconds before he made it back on board. She raised the shields to maximum power, ignoring the niggle of the protocol to leave him behind.
John was going to make it back on board.

Finally, as the Warthog came within a hundred yards of the ship, Cortana said, "Lowering boarding ramp now. Johnson, John’s vitals are weak. I’m going to need you to get him into a medical bay until we clear--"

A shot rocked the cabin. "Direct hit on the port side. Shields holding at 82 percent," she said, holding on to the control panel.  Several tense seconds passed before she announced, "The Warthog and the Chief are on board.”  She did her best to not let the worry enter into her voice.

"I’ve got him," Johnson assured her before walking off the bridge.

Keyes sat in the command chair. "Punch it," he ordered.

Cortana had been right, John sluggishly thought as he released his grip of the Warthog, it was certainly one hell of a ride back to the ship.  He was fairly certain his right shoulder had become dislocated during the ride, though the drug cocktail that was rushing through his system hid any signs of pain.

He took off his helmet and set it on the ground. It was useless in its current condition; the outside of the glass had been shattered when the debris kicked up from the ground. His armor had taken a beating both from the collapse and the ride; John didn’t know if it would ever be able to be fully repaired.

He knew he had several broken ribs and his Achilles heel, the same one that had torn months ago when he first met Cortana, was ripped apart. Based on the grogginess he felt, he knew he had a severe concussion.

John would be relieved when they were able to get on base where they could tend to his injuries properly, but, for now, the biofoam was doing its part and he was certain he could put weight on his right foot and he would have to ignore the headache.

With a determined step, he started making his way to the bridge. Before he could get far, the ground beneath him shook violently.

They were under attack.

Once the floor stabilized, John continued down the corridor, leaning on the wall for extra support. He needed to get to the bridge to see what was going on.

"And where do you think you’re going?" Johnson asked, coming down the hallway with a scowl.

"To the bridge," he evenly answered.

The sergeant shook his head. "No, you aren’t. Cortana said you got pretty banged up out there. I’m supposed to make sure that you get down to the med bay."

"I’ll be fine," he replied as he continued walking towards the bridge.

"Stubborn fool," Johnson grumbled, but made no other argument to try to stop him. "Just remember, it’s your ass she’s going to kick, not mine."

Another tremor shook the ship.

"I’ll take my chances," John answered as they walked down the corridor together.

When John stepped onto the bridge, he walked into a scene of barely-controlled chaos. Keyes was frantically tapping at the weapon controls, Cortana was moving back and forth between consoles. Smoke was coming from one of the power couplings.

"Couldn’t stay away from the excitement, huh?" Cortana asked wryly without turning to face him.

Despite his injuries, John felt relieved at the playfulness in her voice. Though the time right before he got crushed was a bit muddled, he remembered her coldness towards him.

The cabin shook tumultuously as another bolt of plasma hit the Scorpion.  John braced himself on the console closest to him, dodging another burst of smoke coming from another busted coupling.

"Direct hit on the port side. Shields to twenty percent," Johnson announced as he hopped onto another control panel. "Another couple of hits like that and we're toast."

"Return fire," Keyes ordered.

John watched Cortana tap the console to unleash a barrage of bullets in the direction of the Covenant battle cruiser.

"Minimal damage," Jenkins reported.

"We’re not going to be able to outgun them," Keyes muttered, pulling out his pipe. John watched as he slowly down briefly, considering his options. Finally, he walked up to Cortana and put his hand on the back of her chair.

“I’ve already got the Autumn heading to our position.  I should be able to collapse the structure and bury the ships with the new schematics that I found,’ Cortana offered as the holographic layout appeared on the main view screen.

“Do it.”

“Understood, sir.”

She looked at John for the first time. John could only imagine the sight he was: blood was splattered on his face, his normally pristine armor was crushed and filthy. "The techs at home are going to kill you," she commented offhandedly.

He didn’t have time to answer before she spoke again. "If I were you, I’d take a seat. This will make the Warthog ride seem like a walk in the park," she warned.

He ignored her advice and strengthened his hold on the console. He would be ready for whatever she had in mind.

"Hold on.”

The ship violently shook as it plowed into a beam in the center of the main room.  Three shots from the main canon fired.  John watched as the ceiling began collapsing in front of them.


“Not now.”

She pushed the engines forward as hard as they could go.  “Engine output at 112 percent,” she unnecessarily announced.  “It’s gonna get rough.”  

Suddenly, she pulled up on the control stick, causing the ship to point straight up in the air. The centripetal force was pushing against them. Despite his grip, John felt his fingers slip and he slammed against the wall of the cabin.

The wound on his head that had recently stopped bleeding ripped open. Blood dripped down his forehead as black spots entered his vision. His head roared in protest at its mistreatment.

"You ok?" she asked on the private comm.

"Yeah," he replied slowly. His movements were sluggish, his thoughts were even more muddled than they were before.

"Maybe next time you’ll take my suggestion and take a seat," she replied dryly.

He didn’t respond, but he awkwardly lowered himself into one of the too-small seats in the cabin, focusing on remaining conscious.

"Two Covenant cruisers destroyed," she said to Keyes with a satisfied grin.

Keyes lit his pipe. "Now let’s get out of here before the rest of those bastards figure out what we did to their ships."

"It’s not perfect, but it will have to do," Cortana said as she took a step back and examined John’s forehead.
Since she was the closest to a doctor they had on the ship, it fell in her jurisdiction to tend to John’s injuries. His ribs had been mended, but they would still be sore for several hours. The gash in his head required seven stitches which were covered by the gauze she had found in a ship’s med kit.

His armor had been placed in the automatic repair facility that was on board the ship. It would be able to fix most of the damage done to the suit, but it would take Cortana a few hours to completely repair it. They were lucky that the irreparable parts–the HUD, the power supply, her matrix chip–were spared in the collapse.

"Give me your hand," she instructed.

He did as he was told and gently set his hand on top of her palm.

She ran the instrument over his crushed digits. "I’m still going to have to wrap them. The damage is…extensive. But," she said as she pasted on a smile, "if anyone could expect a full recovery, it will be you."

She still felt awkward around him, still blaming herself for not being strong enough to override the protocol, to fight the demand to leave John behind.


She reluctantly raised her gaze to his pensive brown eyes.

"Captain Keyes told me about what happened. About the GOLD MINE protocol."

"Then you can understand my frustration," she said, uncharacteristically embarrassed. As human as she appeared, she was still a machine, run by protocols and data pathways. There would always be someone who would be able to program her, to do what they wanted.

She turned away from him and grabbed the bandages from the metal table. "You know, never once have I resented being an AI. I can think in ways that humans can only dream of. I have hacked into the toughest Covenant systems. But today?" she shook her head, facing him. "I have never felt more like a machine before in my life."

He grabbed her free wrist with his good hand, stilling her movements. "You are as human as any of us."
She pulled away and started wrapping his fingers.

Several quiet seconds passed.

"Would you have done it? Left me behind?" she whispered, locking her gaze on his familiar brown eyes.

A thick silence settled over the room. It wasn’t fair to put him on the spot, she realized. Emotional leaps and bounds were not his strong points.


She closed her eyes as the impact of his answer weighed on her. Of course he would let her go. He was the consummate solider. He was a Spartan. He was--

"But, I would come back for you."

She jerked her head up and opened her eyes, surprised. "That almost sounds like a promise."

"It was." John shifted his weight and Cortana knew he was done with that part of their conversation. He looked back down to his half-wrapped hand. "What activated the GOLD MINE protocol?" he asked, changing subjects.

"This," she said, activating the screen behind her, as she continued wrapping his hand.

She watched as he looked at the unfamiliar symbols scroll across the screen momentarily before the translation and her assessment appeared.

He sharply turned away from the screen to look directly in her eyes. "Australia?"

She nodded once. "Yes." She released her hold of his hand, letting it drop away from her. "But, this is what I can’t figure out."

A new cluster of data appeared on the screen. One word stuck out amongst them the most. "Halo? What’s that?"

"I don’t know," Cortana admitted, turning towards the screen, "but something tells me that we’re going to learn plenty about it soon enough."