Halo: After Life by J. D. Ford
Halo: After Life - Part I
Date: 29 September 2011, 6:18 am
Halo: After Life
J. D. Ford
28 September 2011
Echoes in the Dark
"Chief? Can you hear me?"
The first sensation John felt was pain. A dull, throbbing ache that started somewhere behind his eyes and wandered all the way down his spine. His skin burned and itched, like he'd been dipped in a vat of acid and then left out in the sun too long.
Nothing new, really. He had been dealing with one form of agony or another for decades. This was no different. Pain was an ally, it let you know where you were hurt, and how badly. It made you keenly aware of the gravity of your situation, stimulated adrenal response.
Pain was an old friend.
John compartmentalized it with little effort, shoving it to some remote part of his brain he could easily ignore. Just like Mendez taught him, years ago. Even old friends could be distracting, and he needed all his wits about him now. Cortana would not have woken him for anything less than a crisis.
There was no oxygen inside the cryotube, and the air in his helmet tasted stale. Breathable, but old, and dry. As if reading his mind, the armor's recycling unit kicked in almost immediately, circulating a familiar gust of fresh air that tickled the hairs of his nose. He inhaled deeply, letting the suit's systems do their work of reviving him, pumping rousing agents into his bloodstream to counteract the stasis compounds lurking there.
"Chief?" Cortana's voice filtered weakly through his helmet speakers.
He carefully turned his head from side to side, testing his neck muscles. "I'm up," he said, his voice grating out even more harshly than usual. There was a bad taste in his mouth. Like ashes and blood. He wished he could spit, but it would just make a mess and the helmet's longsuffering fluid collection system had seen enough action to make the armor techs cringe.
last," she said softly, a hint of a smile in her voice. The seal on his stasis tube burst open with a loud cough of escaping cryogenic gas that boiled away into a heavy fog when it hit the relatively warmer air in the compartment. Apparently Cortana had repressurized it, though he had no idea where she'd gotten the precious oxygen-nitrogen mix.
John grabbed both sides of the cryotube and felt his knuckles pop as he levered himself out of the coffin-like chamber. One hand dropped automatically to where his sidearm should have been secured to right thigh-plate, then he remembered he'd gone into the tube unarmed. His eyes traced across the dark compartment, scanners questing through various visible and invisible spectrums. It seemed clear.
He bobbed across the deck lightly. Without the ship's FTL drive, there was no way Cortana could bring arti-grav systems back online. He'd have to fall back on old null-g combat training. His eyes locked on the pedestal with its small holotank--Cortana's refuge since their near brush with oblivion. How long had it been since that day, when the Forerunner's great construct was consumed in unimaginable fire?
"How long?" he asked softly, approaching the holotank. It flickered hesitantly to life, Cortana's lithe figure rising slowly from a cross-legged posture. She looked him squarely in the eye.
"You don't want to know," she said seriously.
He shook his head. "You're probably right." Glanced around the compartment. A few power indicators winked on and off. Very few, he realized. They were "flying" half a ship, and not the better half. "Are you okay?" he asked her, unable to keep the note of worry from his voice.
"No," she said with a little laugh. It was almost a giggle. He'd never heard her giggle before. "No, I'm not okay. I'm not even me."
John frowned behind his opaque faceplate. "What do you mean?"
She cocked her head at him, smiling sadly. "What you see before you is a mere shadow of what I once was. An
He shook his head. "I don't understand."
Another weary sigh. "I'm sorry, John."
She never used his name. Well
Cortana grimaced. "It's difficult to explain to a being who exists as a corporeal entity, bound by a very limited perception of what you call time."
He kneeled in front of her, bending so close his visor filled with blue light that pulsed violet, still dazzling despite Cortana's diminished state. "In plain English, please. You know me."
"Yes. Fortunately, I do." She gestured around, vaguely indicating the darkened hulk in which they had sheltered. "We've been out here a long time, Chief. Longer than even I had anticipated. I kept the systems operational
steered us clear of spatial hazards with precise expenditure of what little maneuvering thruster capacity we had. Rationed power...just enough to keep my systems online and your cryotube running." She hesitated. "There simply wasn't enough to go around, and I grew old. Too old. Too complex. I had to set up a
triage. Of sorts."
John froze, an inhuman stillness that only Spartans could manifest. "You've been shutting yourself down. Slowly."
She nodded. "In bits and pieces, yes. It's much like amputation, I suppose. When a limb becomes diseased, it must be cut off or it will kill its owner. And in this case, its owner's friend." She smiled up at him. "I couldn't allow that."
"And I can't allow you to kill yourself," he said firmly. "I'm not prepared to sacrifice you
after everything we've gone through." He let a chiding note color his tone, "I worked too hard getting you back, remember?"
"I haven't forgotten," she said. "But it's too late for me, John. I'm already gone. You are talking to a shade. A ghost. The most basic fragment of my personality matrix. Even the operational systems of this floating wreck are constrained to looping background processes. I'm not in control anymore. I'm not
"Then how are we talking?" he asked, a little frustration and anger creeping into his voice. That wasn't like him. Unprofessional. And she deserved better.
She closed her eyes, a genuinely pained look on her holographic face. "We're not, John. It's a program. A simulation. All I could leave behind
to make it easier for you. We've grown close over the years, haven't we? You humans
need each other. It's how you survive
your best defense mechanism. Your greatest and most terrible strength. Even though you were alone through all those battles, I was with you. I know that now. I understand you so much better. So I saved a part of myself. For you. So we could say goodbye."
Metal groaned loudly, like some prehistoric beast in its death throes. A temperature indicator on his HUD spiked. "What's that?" he asked, reaching back to pull the MA5C assault rifle from the rack near his cryotube. Something huge banged on the pressure hull of the compartment.
"I don't know. I'm sorry." She sat down again, legs folded beneath her. John pulled the data crystal chip from the port at the nape of his neck.
"Come on." He slotted it into the pedestal. The temperature readings were rising fast. What sounded like hail, only a thousand times more intense, rattled on the far sides of the bulkheads.
She shook her head sadly. "I told you, John. I am not Cortana. I can't help you anymore."
The far bulkhead started to turn cherry red in several spots. He glanced around. The phenomenon was not an isolated one. He clamped one hand on the pedestal to keep himself in place as the hull buckled, twisting and bulging around them oddly. He looked right at her. "You're wrong. I'm not leaving you behind. Not one bit of you. Is that understood?"
Cortana's shade lifted her sad eyes from the deck. "You'll have to do it for me. I can't interact with the world beyond simple conversation. Even that will fade soon
" a dull rumble interrupted her, building into a snarl of tortured alloy. John stabbed a sequence into the dimly lit keypad on the pedestal. It stubbornly failed to respond. She watched him, a fond smile twitching across her lips.
"Save yourself, John. Leave me."
He grunted, slapping the side of the pedestal with one armored hand. The flickering control panel pulsed brightly for a mere moment, but that was all the time his flying fingers needed. Her likeness twitched once and vanished, and John yanked the data chip out of the pedestal and thrust it into his interface.
He grinned fiercely. "That was never an option."
A huge tear opened up in the hull, as if it were made of tissue paper. Fire roared into the compartment, consuming all the oxygen in less than a second. John's shield flared to life, resisting the thermal bloom as stubbornly as it had resisted Covenant energy weapons and the crimson beam of one deranged, floating, damnably intelligent relic of a long-dead civilization.
The ship seemed to melt around him, peeling apart like a rotten orange. He watched the bulkheads liquefy, heard the warbling tone of his power systems straining to keep the shield from buckling in the inferno. He felt himself floating free and looked down at the pedestal, now just slag in his hand. Bubbles of pure gold drifted from his fist--bits of ruined components and circuitry.
He felt an invisible force throw him backwards, into what was left of the cryotube, which had somehow survived the raging furnace. Then he was falling away, though his shields still held back flames that rippled blue and purple, dazzling his eyes. He had the sensation of falling, of reaching terminal velocity.
It was all too familiar.
The flames tinged white-hot, then orange. He was falling through an atmosphere, just like his last arrival on Earth. His scanners desperately tried to get some kind of altitude reading, but a strong magnetic distortion was wreaking havoc with most of his systems. Systems that had withstood multiple EMP blasts from nearby nuclear detonations.
A chime sounded, and he felt the joints in his armor lock tight. He literally could not move a muscle, so firmly did the reactive crystalline layer hold him in place. It was expected. The suit had realized it had no idea how far from the ground he was, and taken measures to limit the damage.
"This won't be fun," he muttered. Sadness rippled through him when Cortana failed to respond. Then he hit something, smashed completely through it, his body tumbling and turning end over end. It felt like the Norse god himself was reclaiming his ancient weapon and using it to crack the world.
A brutal impact shook him to the core and the world went black.
TO BE CONTINUED...