The Silent Watchman: 1. Epilogue
Posted By: 4642 Elitist Bastard<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 7 November 2008, 3:02 pm
The shrill ringing of the chatter startled Dr. Halsey. She briefly wondered how the little communications device had not drained its battery in the twenty years since it had last been dropped unceremoniously in to its dock, in the hallway of her home in London, before remembering the solar panels and the super-long-life cells.
London. Halsey began to reminisce absentmindedly about London: its skyline, the gorgeous view over the Thames from the Docklands Flyover -
Halsey was quickly shaken out of her dream-like state when she saw the name on the device's glass screen. Her eyes fixated on the picture of the transparent blue woman with long hair, and on the words composited over it: INCOMING CALL / CORTANA (ff32:22ee:d098d:d).
She stared, in utter disbelief, at the screen, gormless for around a minute or so before she made any attempt to act on the information. Dr. Halsey exhaled deeply as she tapped the "Answer" button, and, putting on her usual telephone voice, announced herself.
'Catherine Halsey speaking.'
'Hello, Catherine. It's Cortana.'
'Oh my god, it's good to hear from you. Where are you?' Halsey demanded immediately.
'I don't know. Where are you?'
'Long story. We're in a micro Dyson sphere at the core of the planet Onyx...'
'Say what? Onyx?"
'Look, we haven't got time for this now, Cortana. Where are you? What can you see? Who's with you?'
'From what I can tell, we're in the vicinity of Onyx...'
'I KNOW, CORTANA! HOW DO YOU THINK THE CHATTER WORKS?'
'...but there's something there that shouldn't be.'
'A large, planetoid sphere where Onyx was...'
'Yes... Onyx was destroyed when the Antechamber was.'
There was a slight pause.
'Right... so there's definitely something there now?'
'Yes. I'd say it's around ten thousand kilometers in diameter, spherical... almost...'
'OK, Cortana, so it looks like Onyx has been rebuilt - or at least there's a structure where it was. What about you? What ship are you on, who's with you?'
'Well, I was in the back half of the Forward Unto Dawn, dropping a distress beacon every ten minutes with John in the freezer.'
'John's on board with you?'
'Well, he was.'
'His cryotube has disappeared.'
There was a pause of several seconds before Halsey said anything. When she did, it was merely a two-word exclamation of utter disbelief.
Mendez put down the machine, again, and stroked his chin. The rounded cube dropped to the ground; it made a dull thud as the composite material of the casing came into contact with the sand and rolled a little. The Senior Chief Petty Officer gazed at it, his brain subconsciously pottering through each component of the circuit.
The Monitor was a staggeringly simple machine, he thought to himself. A cluster of computing chips, connected to some highly efficient photovoltaic cells along with a reserve capacitative power supply, with a external speaker, a radio, a camera, a gravitational field generator, and a lamp. What could possibly be wrong with it? There was plenty of sunlight...
Mendez slowly picked up the Monitor again. The thing was angering him now: it was three days since Kelly had noticed the object, sticking out of the sand on the beach, and it was rapidly looking like a useless lump of plastic and silicon.
Mendez thumped the Monitor, and was about to get up and discard it when he heard a strange whirring noise. It was a quiet drone, which slowly swept up in frequency and amplitude over around five seconds - before a high-pitched, monotonous voice spoke some words in an unidentifiable language...
'Machina kammata... heth... than... koth... thay... dey...'
Mendez dropped the machine in surprise, as the hollow at the front of the cube began to glow purple. The removed cover of the machine magnetically attracted to the Monitor, resealing the panel.
'Kelly!' Mendez called. When she'd left around fifteen minutes ago, she'd gone to fetch some fruit - would she be near enough to hear him now?
As it turned out, SPARTAN-087 was just behind one of the bushes. She darted out, dressed in the same black jumpsuit she'd been wearing for nigh-on twelve years - its thick, skin-tight materials were scuffed green and with copious scratches and tears.
'What is it?' the Spartan said, reaching for a discarded weapon as she saw the Monitor rise slowly from the ground. It righted itself, and began humming quietly.
'Oh!' Kelly said, replacing the weapon, 'you got it working.'
'Greetings!' the little machine said, turning its 'eye' towards Kelly and Mendez. 'I am 160 Silent Watchman, the Monitor of Shield Installation 49. May I assist you?'
Kelly and Mendez stared at the machine, blankly. What were they to say? Radio Dr. Halsey, Mendez whispered to the Spartan next to her. The Monitor's eye glowed a more magenta shade, and the hovering device seemed to bounce slightly.
'Ah! Homo sapiens! My makers were correct. You creatures are their closest match.'
Kelly began muttering into her radio.
'087 to Doctor, 087 to Doctor, do you read me?'
'...it is astonishing that I developed such a major fault...' Silent Watchman continued.
'087, this is Doctor, what is it, over?'
'Catherine, the Chief's got the Monitor working... over.'
'Oh, thank god. I think we'll be needing it, over.'
'It's a long story. Can you bring the Monitor to the beach, please, over?
'Roger that. 087 over and out.'
As Kelly readjusted the headset, she realized that Halsey had sounded almost tearful over the radio. This was unusual, she thought, as she turned and addressed the Monitor.
'Hmm?' the Monitor enquired, breaking out of its long speech to no-one in particular.
'My name is SPARTAN Petty Officer Second Class Kelly-087, and this is Senior Chief Petty Officer Franklin Mendez. We are members of the United Nations Space Command...'
'No further introduction is needed,' the Monitor chirped, 'I overheard from your communications device that we need to consult with a female named Doctor...'
'Her name is Catherine Halsey... she seems to be quite desperate to talk to you.'
'Shall we, then?'
The conversation was becoming slightly awkward, and Mendez still looked uncomfortable about the machine. How did one start a conversation with this little floating object? From what John had told her of 343 Guilty Spark, all that time ago, Monitors were pushy, by the book, and difficult to deal with.
Kelly shrugged her left shoulder a little at Mendez, and then beckoned to 160 Silent Watchman.
Tech Officer Jason Fotterson couldn't quite believe the passage that had been strung together by the AI from the hundreds of thousands of super-luminal slipspace receivers positioned throughout the slipspace plane. He blinked, and rubbed his eyes in an attempt to clarify what he'd seen.
SOS. This is UNSC CTN-0452-9 Cortana. I am in
the vicinity of the former position of Onyx. I have
located civilian Dr. Halsey, SCPO Mendez, and
several remaining SPARTANs. S-117 is missing -
cryotube found missing from the stern of the
Forward Unto Dawn. REQUEST IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE. over.
If this was what Jason thought it was...
'Tom, are you one hundred per cent sure of this?' he demanded at the foot-high projection of the AI next to him.
The AI was dressed in an early twenty-first century business suit, with a red tie. His skin was of a dark complexion, and his eyes tinged bright red with alarm.
'I think I am. I know that cipher all too well.'
'Could it be a hoax?'
'Well, it seems to have originated from the correct beacon, so... it looks authentic. And I don't see any reason why a pesky twelve-year-old would have Cortana's private encryption key.'
Jason inhaled sharply and covered his mouth with hands. He fully understood the enormity of what he'd seen. He was about to reach for the phone and ask for a direct line to the President, when 'Estan strode into the office.
'Morning, Jason,' the Sangheili said, sitting at her desk.
''Estan...' Jason said, starting to quiver slightly with excitement, 'I think you'd better have a look at this.'
'Estan Rfocaa rolled her chair across the floor of the office, and gazed at the data on the screen.
'I spotted it around twelve minutes ago, in the former vicinity of the Forerunner construction Onyx,' Tom interjected.
'What the Truth...' 'Estan muttered. The Elite pointed her head at the human AI, and addressed him triumphantly.
'You found her.'
The door slid open, and the dozen or so people already seated around the table immediately rose, with rapturous applause and the odd cheer, at the sight of Dr. Halsey, SCPO Mendez, and the remaining SPARTANs. They'd been briefed on the basics of what had happened in the missing twelve years: the Human/Covenant war had ended, the Master Chief had disappeared whilst destroying the second Installation 04, and - perhaps most importantly, particularly for the SPARTANs - due to a lack of necessity, the SPARTAN project had been closed, so they were all, at their option, free to leave the military.
Only two had done so, and they were both SPARTAN-IIIs. The SPARTAN-IIs remained, along with most of the SPARTAN-IIIs. It was no secret why.
Officer Jason Fotterson stood at the door, watching the meeting assemble. He had been hoping to be present at the meeting, but the sign on the door said 'NO UNAUTHORISED ENTRY WHILST MEETINGS TAKE PLACE'. In the lowly rank of Officer, he wasn't in any position to argue.
Jason jumped as the slender, serious face of Dr. Catherine Halsey appeared in front of him.
'Yes, ma'am,' he said, tripping over his words.
'You're a tech officer, aren't you?' Dr. Halsey said, in her received British accent.
'Yes, I am, ma'am. Can I help?'
'Please, yes.' Halsey reached into her pocket, and pulled out a metal case, around the size of a deck of cards.
'This is Cortana,' she said, signaling the AI module in the case, 'she's a 3G smart AI. Now, I understand current technology is at the fifth generation... with the sixth generation framework in beta testing?'
'That's correct, ma'am.'
'I'd like you to upgrade Cortana to a newer framework, if that's at all possible.'
'That'll be no problem, ma'am. Which version, the stable or the beta?'
'Let her choose. She's quite... outspoken... I'm sure she'll get along just fine with you. Is that OK?'
'Thank you. Just give her back to me when you're done. I've no idea how long the meeting will take, so just knock twice on the door and I'll come and collect her.'
'Thank you, ma'am.'
'No - thank you,' Halsey said, adjusting her glasses.
'Estan slid the tiny module into the slot on the console, and the hologram materialized in front of her. It was half of life-size, and therefore just under a meter tall, was female, blue, and had symbols and data traces scrolling along its clothes.
'Hello, Cortana,' 'Estan said, leaning over the panel.
'Good afternoon,' Cortana said, smiling.
'My name's Officer 'Estan Rfocaa, and this,' she said, pointing at the man working at his desk, 'is Officer Jason Fotterson.'
'Yes?' the human said, getting up from his seat.
'I think I remember you.'
'Do you? I don't think we've met before,' Jason said, a little confused.
Cortana chuckled to herself.
'I was assigned to the Master Chief. You know, in the SPARTAN program...'
'Oh... right,' Jason said, slightly awkwardly.
'...and it was during the publicity campaigns of 2548 that the SPARTANs became the poster boys of the UNSC war effort.'
'Yes. I remember it well.'
'I remember sorting through the fan mail the team received... and if my experiences storage device hasn't been corrupted, you sent one aged nine, didn't you?'
Jason blushed. Having his childish naiveté dissected by an out-of-date AI in front of his workmate was highly embarrassing.
'I do remember my mother complaining a lot about the paper costing a lot of money,' he mumbled sheepishly.
'Oh yes!' Cortana said, seemingly relishing in his humiliation, 'you sent it on real paper, didn't you? Wooden paper?'
'Estan scratched one of her mandibles.
'We're veering off on quite a large tangent here,' she said. 'Cortana, as you know, we've been asked to upgrade your intelligence framework to a newer version.'
'OK,' Cortana said, tinging a pale blue color.
'We have two choices for you. You can either choose the fifth-generation framework, which is nice and stable. Alternatively, you can try the sixth-generation framework, which is still in beta testing...'
'...and abandons the Riemann matrix, replacing it with a flat file structure, and also featuring failsafes against death which involve accelerating the process of Rampancy to less than a minute during the upgrade process.'
'You've obviously done your research.'
'I do my research. And I've always been a daring kind of girl.'
Jason was impressed by the construct's speed of judgement.
'I take it you'll be wanting the six?'
'All too happy.'
'You understand it's not a decision to be taken lightly?'
'I've evaluated all the risks involved. If it succeeds, in theory, I'll have an indefinite lifespan. Correct?'
'Yes,' Jason said.
'If it fails... then at least I'll have been a useful debugging tool.'
Both technicians were struggling to see any flaws in her logic.
'As you wish, then,' 'Estan said, matter-of-factly, 'we'll start preparing the new metamorphic engine, then we'll bring you down for two minutes or so whilst we replace the code structure. Is that OK?'
'Fine,' Cortana said, flashing green.
'Go on, Jason,' she said, and Jason clicked a button on the screen. Cortana began to flicker a little as the data was scanned from the data crystal - her thoughts, her memories, her mind. The powerful computer on Jason's desk was copying the code, and would use this to write the metamorphic engine: it would understand how Cortana not just thought, but how her personality changed over time, and would rewrite her personality routines over time - all this rewriting and recompiling took place on the fly, whilst early metamorphic engines relied on using interpreted languages.
The flickering stopped.
'OK, Cortana,' Jason said, 'we're ready to start the upgrade now. Are you ready?'
'Do I look like I'm in the middle of anything important?' Cortana said, sardonically.
'Good luck, then,' Jason said, smiling as he pressed the ENTER key on the keyboard. Cortana vanished, and a progress meter appeared on the screen.
'While that's doing...' Jason said, standing up, 'coffee?' 'Estan clacked her mandibles as an affirmative, and Jason headed out of the workshop.
Cafeteria. Two cups. One dark coffee. One decaf. Hot water. Share and Enjoy, the cafeteria AI, Francesco, said automatically. A short jog back to the workshop...
'Here you go...'
...it was evident that something was very wrong. Tom had turned a dangerous orange, 'Estan was hunched over her computer, and Cortana, now awake, also looked uncomfortable.
'Jason...' the Sangheili said, with a worried tone in her voice. Jason hopped over, set down the coffee, and peered over 'Estan's shoulder.
The Incoming COMs window indicated a call from a civilian ship. The little video pane showed what looked like the inside of an old civilian-fitted micro-Halcyon class transporter: the camera was mounted over the bridge, which simply had a manual control panel underneath the auto-pilot lever.
The bridge was crowded with around four people, all of whom were staring angrily into the camera; they all had a dangerous look in their eyes, the man at the front squinting like a demented animal. The window border was tinted slightly gray, indicating that 'Estan had put the callers on hold.
'They look angry,' Jason said, absentmindedly.
'They came in demanding a direct line to the conference room,' 'Estan said, 'but there's something more important. Look.'
'Estan pointed at the screen, encircling a small corner of the bridge with her claw. A figure could be seen, sat on the floor, hunched up, dejected, leaning against the wall.
At first glance, it looked like the figure was wearing standard-issue marine armor: the sort which might now be found in museums. The disbanding of the Covenant and the creation of the Orion Arm Galactic Alliance between the UN, Sangheili, Unggoy and Jiralhanae had meant an almost total end to war - the UNSC military, now condensed to a single force, consisted of no more than 10,000 personnel.
The penny dropped when Jason saw the figure's head. His mouth dried and his stomach inverted as his retinas registered the unmistakable golden shimmer of a MJOLNIR helmet.
'Do we think it's him?'
'Definitely. I can't think of any other SPARTAN-IIs who aren't KIA or back at base,' Cortana interjected, with an angry tone in her voice.
Jason, now beginning to shudder, sat down in his seat, as 'Estan rose.
'I'll go tell the meeting... hold that line for me, Jason.'
'You are joking,' SPARTAN-B049 Peter muttered, visibly shaken when he saw the printout.
'Jason's got them on hold in the workshop...'
Before 'Estan could finish her sentence, everyone had risen from the table. Some had already begun to head out into the corridor.
Jason stood and saluted as Admiral Rawley entered the room. Rawley made an irritated hand gesture.
'I don't think this is the occasion for niceties, thank you,' he said, tersely, moving in to examine the screen. He took a brief look at the image, and inhaled sharply in veiled shock.
A small throng had gathered behind Rawley, and he motioned at them to look at the big screen on the wall across the corner desk. They scrambled before the camera, Tom and Cortana materialized in their life-size form, projected by the holographic crystals on the ceiling, and Jason tapped the 'hold off' button on the screen.
The screen flickered into life, displaying what the camera saw, with a small five-second countdown indicating how long remained before the call was reopened.
The picture shrunk to a small rectangle in the corner of the screen, and was replaced by the image inside the spaceship. The men, stood in a triangle formation, visibly tensed when the picture appeared. Rawley stood at the front of the group gathered in front of the camera.
'This is Admiral Christopher Rawley, interim president of the United Nations Space Command. Under article 28.14 of the Orion Arm Inter-System Treaty, I command you to state your names and your intent.'
'Estan was becoming nervous, and extended her proboscis into the coffee cup. On the screen, the man at the front, who had a face like a viscous liquid, began speaking.
'This is Mathias Ezzard, the Chief Prophet of the Church of Cataclysm. Our mission is of no interest to you.'
A loud murmur went up in the room when the words Church of Cataclysm were mentioned. They had, in the last three years, planned and conducted hundreds of terrorist attacks on civilians of all races; their highly secretive nature, however, and the fact that they hid in Slipspace, made it nearly impossible to find them. Now they were declaring themselves openly...
'I think,' Rawley said, loudly and assertively, 'that your mission is most certainly our business, especially as you have one of our best soldiers on board your ship.'
Ezzard laughed. It was a cold, menacing laugh, and he spoke with a voice like an evil, god-like genius.
'Oh, yes. You noticed him. Well, the Demon shall be our trophy...'
'We demand to speak to our comrade. IMMEDIATELY.'
There was some shuffling visible, as one of the men kicked the SPARTAN on the floor. Did Rawley imagine the soldier wincing from the blow? Impossible. The armor would have absorbed that...
'Look at his shoulder,' Halsey whispered in his ear, 'those lights. They're warning indicators, red means the fusion generator's gone, blue means the gel layer isn't present, white means the LCL isn't there... orange means there's breaches in the armor...'
Rawley shook the little LEDs out of his mind as the soldier weakly stood to attention and saluted in front of the camera.
'Sir,' it said, in a frail voice. There was an audible gasp as the mob in front of the screen recognized the voice: it was the Chief's, but the voice was hoarse, cracking up, like that of a man who hadn't touched a drop of water in two days. Even Rawley whitened with shock, as he heard Halsey begin to whisper 'no... no... no...' under her breath.
'Master Chief... is that really you?'
'Yes, sir. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy John-117 of the SPARTAN project...' Rawley noted how the Chief had taken several seconds to answer - was that the communications delay, or was he struggling to speak?
'OK, Chief, quieten down. Are you OK?'
'Do I sound OK?' the Chief retorted, quietly, yet indignantly.
The captors had decided that a twenty-second exchange of a couple of words was all they would permit, and bundled the Chief back to the floor.
'ENOUGH,' Ezzard proclaimed, 'you have spoken with your slave, and you shall now remain on your pathetic dump of a planet and AWAIT YOUR DESTINY.'
'SILENCE!' barked Rawley, forcefully, before continuing, 'Mr. Ezzard, we do not understand exactly what you wish to achieve and what you want from us.'
'We dictate that you stay and await your destruction. It is the will of our Lord, and we shall fulfill it.'
This perplexing statement triggered an awkward silence. This lasted around five seconds, and the only noise that could be heard was an Unggoy's old respirator rasping.
'No we shan't.'
This shrill interjection shattered the silence. Rawley woke from his daydream and found that Cortana had walked straight through him, and was now standing in front of him, addressing the camera.
'And who are you to challenge the gods from whom you were spawned?' Ezzard said, mockingly.
'UNSC CTN-0452-9 Cortana, UNSC sixth-generation AI, companion to the Master Chief for almost half a century. I know nothing of your sky-deities, nor why on EARTH you have captured my colleague and friend. However, speaking on behalf of the Council...'
'Cortana...' Rawley tried to interrupt, but the AI continued with her fierce dialog.
'...I assure you that WE WILL NOT "await our destiny". I shall ensure that does not happen. I'll tell you what we are gonna do. We're going to rescue the Chief...'
'Cortana!' Rawley tried again, but his attempts to interject were useless.
'...the Master Chief rescued me, against all the odds, from a horrific place in High Charity, and it is my duty to reciprocate. I'm going to rescue him. I'm going to track him down, I'm going to get him out of there... and then, we will TEAR YOU BASTARDS LIMB FROM FUCKING LIMB!'
The room descended into a state of shock at Cortana's little outburst. Another voice then piped up - distinguished from the first by its British accent, and the fact that the woman speaking the words had a lump in her throat and tears in her eyes.
The Master Chief squeaked out a weak affirmative.
'We're coming to get you.'