As we march forward, unto dawn,
The path ahead looks bleak.
For while we weather winter's storm,
We've naught the warmth we seek.
But when the dawn breaks, bright and gold,
Lighting our path anew,
Our souls are filled by daybreak's bell
Ringing loud and true.
- Daybreak's Bell, by Dan Xander
Serving aboard the UNSC Infinity was a nice change of pace for the Master Chief. Rather than having the fate of the galaxy or even the planet on his shoulders, those concerns that weren't focused on rote procedure were simple and organic now – limited to a single squad at a time, a single group of scientists, or at most, the safety of the ship as a whole. The ship of course boasted a crew of 17,000, but compared to the population of the Earth threatened by the Didact, or the countless worlds that had once been at stake under the threat of Halo, the burden felt surprisingly manageable.
He knew of course that eventually this would change. Leading a single platoon was a lot less strenuous, but without the fast-paced adrenaline rush of his most recent missions of late, falling back into a slow and steady routine was both a blessing and curse. Working with the same men and women, day in and day out, he eventually began to put names to those faces, and before long, he was pairing personalities with them as well. These were his men now. And that made risking them a lot less easy.
They'd had run-ins with Prometheans on many occasions in the last six months. The Infinity had first tried to take the Forerunner planet of Requiem by storm, backed by an entire UNSC armada. They had plowed through Covenant defenses and managed to establish a foothold, and for a while, it had looked like they would be able to take the planet.
But then the other Didacts came.
The entire metal surface of the planet sprouted weapons that turned on the first ship that approached. Those ships that weren't sucked into the planet's gravity well and destroyed were fired upon by miles and miles of cannon-fire, as the entire surface of the planet suddenly seemed to bristle with weaponry. The Infinity had been one of the only ships to make it out of the encounter alive.
Humanity had a new enemy now. Though, if the illusive Librarian was to be believed, they were actually a long and ancient enemy, dating back to before any human had ever set foot on Earth. The planet Requiem had become a Forerunner stronghold, with the other Didact-level adversaries crawling out of the woodwork, each commanding their own, massive warship capable of matching the Infinity in firepower. The war became less about tactics and more about locating the remaining Halo rings for whatever information could be garnered, maybe even for a weapon to fight back against the Forerunners.
This, once again, became Infinity's mission.
So when the UNSC flagship discovered one of the remaining Halo rings, Installation 01, it became an all-hands-on-deck situation.
"Chief, what's your status?"
Spartan Commander Sarah Palmer had worked with John extensively during his debriefing of what he had missed these past four and a half years as far as human history, UNSC technology and protocol, and the Spartan program as a whole went. She was technically his commanding officer, but she deferred to his judgment nine times out ten.
"Just outside the designated entry point," the Master Chief said into his helmet mic. On the other side of the ring, Sarah was leading a team through a similar set of bases. Scattered across the planet, numerous other teams of Spartan-IV's were scouring the barren wasteland of Installion-01's terrain. Without Cortana's help to locate this ring's cartographer, the journey ahead of them promised to be long indeed.
Installation 01, it seemed, consisted of a massive amount of desert terrain, with the occasional rocky outcropping for where the terminals and stations lay. Chief and his team of three other Spartan-IV's had been sent to scout just such a point. With the Prometheans scouring the galaxy for these rings, it didn't pay to take chances.
"The structure looks stable," John reported, eying what appeared to be an artificial cave carved into the side of a massive rust-red stone mesa protruding from the sand like a giant wart on the otherwise pristine yellow desert. The wind was kicking up all around them, obscuring their visibility at all angles – the Spartans couldn't even make out the outline of the Pelican they had set down in some two hundred yards to their six.
"Are we clear to enter?"
"Go," Palmer barked. "Give the usual scan so we can move onto the next site."
The Chief motioned his team forward, and the three other Spartans wordlessly followed as he stepped into the cave.
The shelter was a welcome reprieve from the dusty sandstorm. The entire team had taken to wrapping their Mjolnir armor with burlap mufflers to keep the worst of the sand from the joints of their armor. Inside, there appeared to be no indication that the base was in any way designed as anything more important than an outpost. There was enough room inside to park a Pelican or two. The most prominent feature inside was some stone walkways positioned by narrow strips cut into the wall that provided a gun sight to the outdoors. It was a good place to bunker down, John noted, in the event that they would have to repel oncoming attackers, and in the past, most likely had been used for just such a purpose.
"Got anything?" Master Chief asked to the blue colored Spartan scout called Troy, as the solider held a scanning device up towards the walls and surrounding area.
"Nothing," the scout confirmed after another moment. "Unless there's an energy signature hiding behind a hundred tons of rock, this place is just another tomb."
John let out a breath. This was the eighteenth position they had scouted, and so far, nothing appeared to be active. They had been at this all day, and every location that did not turn up answers left him a little more concerned.
Something did not add up.
"Give the place another once-over. I want to be absolutely…"
The Master Chief trailed off as his ears picked up the faint crackling of rock. He looked up and he felt his blood pressure spike as he saw an enormous crack spreading abnormally fast across the carved stone ceiling above them, and all at once, the structure began to collapse.
"Cave-in!" he shouted, rushing for the door.
All at once, the walls were crumbling around him, kicking up sand and dust. The room was suddenly filled the groaning and straining of ancient pillars and support beams buckling as the very foundation of the cave began to fail. As falling rock kicked up more and more dust, all the Chief could see was the light coming from the entrance, the rumbling obscuring the sound of any of his squad mates. Around him, he could only hope that each of his Spartans was making for the door, as his legs pumped wildly trying to reach the exit before the structure collapsed.
Out of the corner of his eye, John caught Troy keeping pace beside him as they both made a mad dash for the entrance. A quick glance up at the falling ceiling, and John's instincts told him at once that they weren't going to make it.
Or at least, one of them wasn't.
His team. His men.
Troy let out a grunt as the Master Chief shoved him roughly in the back with all his might, sending him sprawling forward towards the door. The Chief was just barely able to catch a glimpse of the blue scout clearing the exit, before the cave collapsed around him, sealing him inside with a thunderous roar.
John grunted as he opened his eyes, trying to figure out if anything was broken. He untwisted his body from its awkward position and slowly managed to get to his feet. He realized suddenly how dark it was, and he switched on his floodlights, only to find himself in a natural looking cavern much larger than the one he'd been in. Looking up, he saw a rather picturesque array of stalactites mired by a massive hole above where he currently lay. He seemed to have fallen a significant distance. The cave-in had apparently broken through the floor as well, depositing in this underground grotto.
"Fireteam Sigma, do you copy?" the Chief keyed his mic to reach his men. "Troy? Faulkner? Kara? Can any of you read me?"
Static was his only reply.
"Commander Palmer," John tried for his commanding officer. "This is Sierra-117. Can you read me?"
He was alone.
The Chief didn't have the equipment needed to make it back out the way he came, so he turned his floodlights towards the cave system, and saw what looked like a passage. Upon the natural looking cave floor was what appeared to be a carved causeway, decorated with what he recognized as Forerunner symbols. The cave-in had left an impassable wall of debris in one direction, so the only direction to go in, it seemed, was forward.
Clutching his MA5D Assault Rifle, he plodded ahead, determined to see what lie along the path before him.
As accustomed as he was to silence, his footfalls were the only sound that echoed from the walls. Without the footsteps of his squad, he caught his mind wandering. It was in situations like these that Cortana would always make small talk to try to pass the time. He didn't think she had wanted to admit it, but she had hated the quiet. It had probably come from her subroutines constantly chattering within her mainframe, but Cortana always seemed to have something to say in these sorts of situations.
Had always had something to say.
John mentally chided himself. It did him no good thinking about Cortana. It had been months since Requiem, since the Didact had nearly unleashed the power of the Composer against the masses of Earth, since Cortana had begun to slowly crumble under the duress of rampancy, and before the final stages had claimed her, had instead decided to sacrifice her own existence to save his life.
He touched the empty slot in the back of his helmet. The chip that once resided there had been vaporized along with the console it resided on in the Didact's ship, atomized into subatomic particles. What had Cortana said it was? A data purge? The memory was still as vivid in his head as the day he had seen it.
He tried to comm his team as well as his commander several times over the course of the trek. The path did not seem to be coming to an ending, though it did seem to wind through a variety of terrains, from dark and dismal caverns to vast underground rivers, waterfalls and forests of phospholuminescent algae. There was an entire environment beneath the hostile sand that comprised the majority of Installation 01. He would certainly have much to report once he managed to get back to the Infinity.
Then the path reached a vast, open chasm – so vast, the Pillar of Autumn may very well have fit within its depths. It was littered with rivers, foliage and waterfalls, all depositing into a massive basin at the base of the cavern. There were even birds flitting between trees as the paths became bridges that led out over the great body of water below, intersecting with four other such bridges from opposing cardinal directions. At the intersection, there sat a round stone pavillion of some kind atop a tall set of pillars that disappeared deep within the water basin, each bridge ending in a short staircase leading up to the dais. It would not have looked out of place in ancient Greece of old Earth. Columns carved from rock lined its circumference, its roof open and empty, only its ridges marking its height. Perhaps it had been covered at one point, but now all that lay above it was the faraway cavern ceiling, pervaded by an ever-moving sea of mist.
And at the center of the open pavilion sat a stone altar of some kind. Forerunner symbols dotted its sides, and unless the Chief was seeing things, something atop the altar was glowing a faint blue.
Finally, it seemed, something on this ring that still functioned.
Cautiously, the Spartan ascended the short staircase leading to the pavilion. The wide open space made the hairs on the back of his neck bristle, and he swiveled back and forth, pointing his gun in all directions to check his peripherals, not knowing what might try to spring upon him. He reached the wide-open dais, and slowly made his way to the stone altar at the center. Taking one last look around, John holstered his gun to inspect the stone altar, seeing what appeared to be a gemstone embedded within the center of the altar's surface.
It was times like these that made him really miss Cortana's presence. She could have analyzed this artifact six ways from Sunday, let him know if it was dangerous or not, or if it did anything at all. Without her help, all that was left was the old fashioned approach.
He touched his hand to the gemstone.
All at once, it erupted in a great pillar of blue light, and the Chief found himself wrapped in a wreath of pearlescent energy. He felt no pain, but he was effectively trapped as the world around him faded out of focus, until he found himself facing a familiar figure.
"You…" he said, suspiciously as he regained his footing.
Before him, clad in the ancient garments of her people, was the Librarian.
"Reclaimer…" the ancient apparition said, her form drifting ceremoniously above the altar. "It is fortunate that you have come. There is precious little time, and we have much to do."
The Master Chief stared back at the Librarian, waiting to see if he should make a move. If the Librarian was able to reach the Installation, there was no reason the other Didacts couldn't do the same.
"What are you talking about?" he asked cautiously.
"The next step…" the Librarian said, holding out a hand to the Chief's helmet, gently alighting her fingertips upon the brim of his visor. "The next stage of your evolution. Without the power of your Ancilla, the Prometheans will continue to spread across the galaxy. They will begin indoctrinating their conquests. More will succumb to them, and soon, they shall become a plague to rival the parasite that drove your species to war."
"How?" John demanded. "We destroyed the Composer."
"I'm afraid that this is the true danger of the Promethean's power…" the Librarian said, gravely. "They possess more than enough resources to rebuild it, now. All they need are the plans."
"But we also killed the Didact himself," the Spartan said. "How could that information have survived?"
The Librarian gave him a pitying look. "Oh Reclaimer, there is so much you do not yet understand…the ebb and flow of leylines of digital energy coursing beneath the galaxy; a trillion, trillion thoughts exchanged instantaneously; a galaxy-wide network of information; a Domain of digital essence."
The Chief felt a cold chill run through his body. If the information needed to reconstruct the Composer fell into enemy hands, then humanity was once again at risk.
"Is that how you're speaking to me now?" John asked. "Through this Domain?"
The Librarian nodded. "Some, such as myself, committed our conscious minds to the Domain, while others, like the Prometheans, employ the Domain to convey their bodies from one point in space to another, breaking them down into their digital bits and relocating them elsewhere."
The Librarian swept her hand upward, and a holographic map of the Milky Way appeared overhead, magnified images of the Halo rings, dotting individual points all throughout the spiral arms. Some were the mere skeletal structures of where former Halo rings used to be, as well as the Ark, which lay in ruin, but positioned like a crown above the entire geometrical display. There appeared to have been twelve rings in all at one point, some still active, but most destroyed, and together, they formed a constellation of intricacy and balance across the entire system, each point interconnected by tiny filaments of light.
"These leylines pervade every inch of the galaxy. We built the rings upon each node where these leylines intersected, and so, we thrived. You see, these installations were not originally made to be weapons…but libraries; data entry points for the Ark - catalogs where all the information in the known galaxy could be stored, mapped and preserved. In our desperation to halt the oncoming Flood, however, their power was turned to a far darker purpose."
All at once, the holograms of the Ark and Halo rings projected energy signatures being conveyed along this network, starting from the now non-existent Ark to each Halo ring, which pulsed with a vibrant green shock wave, which expanded and reverberated off of each other like ripples in a pond, sending a seemingly endless series of shockwaves throughout the galaxy.
The Spartan was still trying to digest this information when the ground all around them began to shake.
"I'm afraid our time grows short," the Librarian lamented. "My appearance here has drawn the attention of the Prometheans. This module is not as advanced as the one on Requiem – it will take time to prepare. You must keep it safe until all the pieces are gathered."
The Chief tightened his grip on his rifle. "Pieces of what?"
John could not make out her answer, as he was suddenly yanked out of the connection by the feral sound of Promethean Crawlers scaling the foundation of the pavilion.
The Spartan drew his assault rifle and took aim, dropping one of the cybernetic beasts, then two, then four, and then eight. More began coming from all four directions, as the Chief reloaded, emptying clip after clip into the dog-like machine creatures. By the time the first Promethean Knight materialized on the dais, his assault rifle was out of ammo, and he had grabbed one of the Promethean Suppressers that had once been in one of the Crawler's heads.
The wide-open dais had made the Crawlers easy targets, but the Knights slipped in and out of the Domain, dematerializing and rematerializing seemingly at random. They were popping in and out of space with much greater frequency than they had on Requiem. Perhaps something about this place made the transition easier? Either way, the Chief could only react to their guerilla tactics with suppressive fire, staying beside the altar to keep it safe.
Whatever the Librarian was planning, she had better make it fast.
Another Promethean Knight materialized on the dais, and the Chief took aim. But he held his fire when, quiet unexpectedly, the Knight swung its bladed weapon at one of the other Knights standing beside it, splitting it in two. The hapless creature let out a scream of anguish and confusion, it's faceplate opening to reveal its hideous once-human face, giving the defector an enraged snarl before collapsing and dissipating into bright orange particles.
The Spartan stared in surprise. What was going on? Was this what the Librarian was doing, he wondered? Rewiring the Prometheans to fight for the humans?
The defector dematerialized and rematerialized behind another Knight, its blade just as quickly protruding from its victim's chest, who just as quickly fell into bits of vibrant data. The defector vanished again, and reappeared, killing another Knight with swift and deadly accuracy. One by one, more Knights began to fall as the defector made quick work of them each in turn. It seemed to take the group a while to even realize that there was a traitor in their midst, but by the time they did, it was too late. Soon, all that remained was the single defector Knight, standing alone on the dais amidst a sea of purging data bits.
John kept his rifle trained on the defector, not trusting anything until he knew exactly what he was dealing with. The defector did not seem to acknowledge the Spartan at first, and simply stood where it had made its last kill, seemingly catching its breath, if Prometheans even indeed breathed. The Master Chief slowly took a step towards the defector, and then another and another, trying to get a closer look at this newcomer, trying to determine if it was friend or foe.
This one was different in appearance, he soon realized as he approached it. This one was actually smaller than the others, sleek and lithe, its armor a brilliant ocean blue. Its armor was also plated in a different and much more intricate fashion that seemed almost human in design. In fact, this Promethean appeared much more human in shape than the others as well.
Then the armor began to recede. It folded in on itself, shrinking and disappearing, seemingly into nothing. The skin beneath the armor was an equally vibrant blue, lines of data coursing up and down her body. As the armor disappeared, a body began to take shape, and the Chief felt his pulse quicken as he blinked in disbelief at what his eyes were telling him he was seeing.
Who was he was seeing.
He dare not imagine.
He dare not hope.
As the creature turned to face him, a face torn from memory and dreams blinked at him, at first with uncertainly, then with sudden recognition, and then, at last, with joy.
"Hey Chief…" said Cortana slowly, her voice all tears and mirth. "Did you miss me?"
John moved his mouth but no words came out. 'Am I dreaming?' he wanted to ask. Or maybe 'Welcome back.' Or even simply to say her name. Anything. But his throat was clenched as tight as a fist, and his breath simply could not escape his lips. She was here! Alive! Whole and well! And in a body not unlike the last he had seen her in. He felt his mind going numb as somewhere in the back of his mind, his defense mechanisms were screaming that this somehow had to be a trick, that the Prometheans were playing a cruel mind-game with him to get him to lower his defenses. But try as he might, he could not help but stand there, gun lowered, staring dumbfounded at his once late companion.
Cortana actually seemed to blush under his gaze as she hastily looked away, tucking a lock of hair behind one ear, turning her eyes towards him shyly behind her hair as it inevitably swung back into place.
"Well, say something…" she hiccupped, her words spilling out in a titter.
A million words came to the Spartan's mind, none of them quite adequately expressing how he felt right at that moment. He simply could not believe it. His mind refused to comprehend what his eyes were showing him. He had watched her die! She had been gone! And so much time had passed. He had been forcing himself, against every instinct in his body, to distance himself from his attachment to her, as most every soldier was made to do at some point in their life. He had been trying, desperately, to bury her memory within him. And now here she was, bringing the pain of her loss refreshed anew within him, and it hurt so much that he could barely breathe, much less speak.
He managed to take a step an unsteady step forward, his eyes coming dangerously close to tears.
"Is this real…?"
Cortana's laugh nearly did reduce him to tears.
"I'm…I'm still not quite sure myself…" she breathed, nervously.
Neither of them dared to move, both were so worried that doing so would cause them to wake up.
"I…I thought for sure that I was dead…" Cortana breathed again, fiddling nervously with her hair. Now that she had a solid body, it seemed she was unconsciously paying more attention to it. "I felt my entire being break apart…I couldn't hold a single, conscious thought in my mind. Only…feelings…images that would vanish and transform, like I was swimming in a sea of memories that had no meaning or purpose…"
Cortana's eyes seemed to lose focus, and the Chief could tell she was recalling something terrifying.
"Then, I heard a voice. It was so familiar. Well…not even familiar – just…good. I felt…drawn to it. Like it was where I belonged…or where my essence belonged, I suppose…"
The Chief swallowed, understanding slowly creeping upon him. "The Librarian…"
"Yes…" Cortana nodded, as if she too was coming to the realization in the same timespan. "She…she guided me…lead the tiny fragments of data that had once been…me…across an immense distance, fording a sea of thoughts and dreams…tiny fragments of data all rushing by so fast, it was a miracle I didn't get lost in it all…"
John found his footing again, convinced that this apparition he saw wasn't a dream, and slowly began to approach her. He brought his hand up to her face, but hesitated, still not sure what to do.
She looked up suddenly, and saw his proffered hand. She reached up to take it, but she too hesitated. She seemed just as unnerved as he was by the possibility of what that touch might mean.
She clasped both hands around his, squeezing it tightly as she closed her eyes and appeared to shudder, though for what reason, the Master Chief could not identify. But he could feel her grip, feel her hands taking hold of his own.
This was real.
This was Cortana.
"How…?" was all he could think to ask. A million questions flooded his mind at once. How did she survive? How could she have this body now? How had she been brought here? And why had she been wearing Promethean armor?
"The Composer…" she breathed, leaning her forehead against his hand, still clutched between hers, eyes clenched in concentration. She seemed to be drawing immense amounts of data from her memory, while simultaneously sorting them all into a coherent whole, and it seemed to be taking its toll on her. "I wasn't…destroyed. Just…altered. Broken down into my most basic components, and scattered into subspace. The Librarian was…able to collect all of the pieces…and allow them to reconstitute from this terminal into a substantial being…"
Pieces… John thought.
He studied this new body she was in. It looked no different from her normal appearance, aside from its size. She looked exactly the way she did the last time he saw her, with a human-sized body, and enough hard-light energy drawn from the shield around them to give her body substance. He wasn't sure what technology was being employed here, but it must have also been Forerunner in nature.
"Are you…?" he breathed, squeezing her hand in return. "Are you…Promethean now?"
She looked up at him, blinking for a few moments as she considered, before shaking her head.
"I don't think so…mostly because Prometheans were once human – and I was never a human, John…" she trailed off, looking slightly remorseful. "But I was re-forged by Forerunner technology, so I have access to the Domain that the Prometheans use to get around. I think that I should, in theory, be able to physically traverse it at will. The Librarian was even able to give me access to Promethean armor and weapons, so that I'm not completely defenseless wherever I go…"
The Master Chief raised an eyebrow. The way she said that sounded like she meant to fight alongside him once again. Though if her recent demonstration served, she was more than capable of handling herself.
"Cortana…" he breathed, terrified of her answer. "How…permanent…is this? Can you…come back with me?"
Cortana closed her eyes again, pursing her lips. "I…I don't know how long this new body will last. Maybe a day, maybe forever. I don't feel any signs of rampancy though…there's still a lot that I'm going to need to ask the Librarian, and even she doesn't have all the answers…"
She opened her eyes again, locking with his, squeezing his hand with renewed vigor, clutching it to her chest like something precious.
"But John…there's not a force in the galaxy that can keep me from staying with you now…not so long as I live."
She closed her eyes and gently touched her lips to his gloved hand.
The Chief still couldn't believe that he wasn't dreaming.
"There's…something I want to try…" Cortana said, breathlessly. The possibilities running through her head must have been endless. Not only did she have a physical body to interact with the world, but she also had the ability to effectively teleport across any physical distance.
"Is it dangerous?" he asked.
"It shouldn't be…but you never know…"
Cortana parted from him and closed her eyes. Her body glowed a brilliantly bright blue, before breaking apart into a thousand tiny fragments of light. These fragments all seemed to rush backwards into a single point of coalescence, just as the Prometheans Knights did, before disappearing. All of the fragments…save one.
The one remaining fragment proceeded to arc over the Chief's head. He craned his neck to follow its trajectory, but it quickly outpaced him as it rushed around to the back of his helmet, where it flitted into his neural interface.
John blinked as he felt the familiar rush of electrons, and suddenly, Cortana's face appeared in a corner of his heads-up display.
"Just like old times…" Cortana smiled, giving him a familiar wink. "I'm now connected to the entire Promethean network. Most of my…'body'…is within the Domain, but we can still communicate like this. And when you need help, I should be able to reconstitute my body at any time and place. I can even bring Promethean weapons and equipment back with me, though the Librarian tells me I should keep this to a minimum, or the Prometheans will get suspicious. Either way, the Prometheans are going to be in for a surprise the next time they try to get the jump on you."
The Chief smiled. This felt right. This felt…like the way it should be.
"So how do we get out of here?" he asked, holstering the Promethean Suppressor on his back.
"Marking your HUD now," Cortana said, immediately getting to work. "I should be able to reactive one of the lifts. I can just barely make out Infinity's position. ONI is going to have a field day when they get word of my…development."
"Not like there's anything they can do about it…" John offered.
"Guess not…" she smiled as he began the long trek back to the Infinity. "And…John?"
"…Thanks. For finding me again."
John smiled. "You did most of the work. I was here to catch you when you landed."
Cortana's smile was the warmest he'd ever seen.
"Just like you always do."
To Be Continued.
A/N: This is what hope looks like, this is what it does when it catches hold of you. It's eating me a live, and very soon, it will kill me.
According to fan theory, Cortana may not be dead – merely decomposed by the Composer. The game left so many questions unanswered, especially with the Librarian. And at the end, the decomposed piles of ash left by the Composer seemed to be giving off vague facets of blue light. Certainly, Halo 4 is going to have a lot of ground to cover. But in the meantime, us fans are left to speculate. And this is my speculation.
Readers who were hoping to see continuation of "When The Dawn Break," I will most likely be getting to that story eventually, but I had to get this idea down first. Hopefully I'll be continuing both fics. I'm even suffering from the delusion that I'll be able to write a continuation of "When You Need Me" as it occurs during the events of Halo 4. That may well be my next fic, since the other two need some actual story content now that the premises have both been set. We'll see how you guys feel in the Reviews section.
Also, I started playing Spartan Ops AFTER I started writing this fic, so I didn't know how the Infinity would handle facing down Requiem. But I wanted to add an element of adversity, and hopefully this could still work in canon. The Didacts could show up AFTER the events of Spartan Ops, driving the UNSC from orbit. I might go into more detail later, hopefully after more chapters of Spartan Ops are released.