Two years after the Ark portal's collapse, Cortana woke up.
Perhaps "woke up" was too romantic a phrase. As an artificial intelligence, Cortana neither slept nor was conscious - thus, she could not wake up. She could go offline - and she had, for two years, six months, and thirteen days, now - but she would never taste the flavorless sensation of organic sleep.
Which was for the better. Slumber seemed terribly inefficient.
As soon as her systems came online, Cortana rifled through her databanks and checked for corruption. Simulated relief flushed her processors when the check came up clean, and she allowed herself to relax as she reviewed why she had woken up.
One of the few operating security cameras had caught movement on camera, and had alerted a subroutine. Cortana felt immediate concern. The Forward Unto Dawn was derelict in space; nothing moved unless it was made to move, and on a lifeless vessel, natural movement would be difficult. Brief hope mingled with worry as she scanned the surrounding space. Perhaps a rescue crew-?
The hope was squashed as she caught nothing on the scanner, and nothing on any radio frequencies, and nothing on the cameras. The ship was still lonely, as it had been every other time she'd bothered to come online again. Cortana was beginning to wonder if it was even worth it anymore - she'd only gone offline to conserve power, but it seemed increasingly unlikely that there would ever be a rescue crew at all.
It would be smarter than waiting for rampancy to roll around. Any sense of practicality would be tossed out the airlock when that happened - and she couldn't risk that in such a delicate environment. Not when there was still hope for John.
She was hesitant to destroy herself. Anxiously, Cortana began to run primary diagnostics to stall the memories of when a similar reluctance had restricted her programmed logic.
Cortana analyzed her reaction to the subroutine's data input. Two hours previous, a camera on the third floor of the ship had caught activity. The movement on the camera's feed had sent her rudimentary processors - put in place while she went offline - into a flurry, and made data difficult to sort and digest for an instant.
The data hiccup had lasted just nanoseconds, but it was long enough to disturb her. Such an anomaly was curious, and she could only think of two explanations for it: her death was arriving sooner than she thought, or she had changed, and only in this data drought did she have time to notice it.
If she were feeling like a romantic again, she could configure a third explanation.
The "movement" had caused pure, animal panic to fill her systems.
It wasn't panic associated with the realization that the ship was deteriorating faster than she had anticipated - it was fear coupled with recognition, fear that triggered the basic instinct for self-preservation - fear that would have, if she were physical, caused her to recoil and flee.
Such reactions were curious, given the fact she was of code and light; not flesh and bred intuition. Human beings suffered from such chemical afflictions, thanks to hundreds of years of evolution and natural selection; afflictions that had originated in the forms of half-witted apes.
Computers didn't fear anything. They didn't have adrenaline rushes.
Diagnostics completed, Cortana backtracked and reviewed the camera feed. A length of thick tubing had fallen from the ceiling and had slowly slumped to the "ground" by force of the materials pumping out of the end of it. A distant subroutine noted the worth of the materials; thankfully, whatever the tube had been carrying wasn't pivotal to the cryotubes, so none of the active units registered a drop in necessary chemicals, and no one developed a sudden heart problem.
Cortana watched the feed a dozen more times. She watched the thick tubing explosively detach from the ceiling, gently propel downward, and expel a fine, pale mist from the end of it. Within seconds, the mist had gathered into a thin cloud of vapors and hung lifelessly in the air. The tube itself slipped gracefully to the floor, where now it lay completely still, another fossil in the derelict ship.
Honestly, there was nothing remarkable about it at all.
At face value.
Watching the feed again, something clicked.
Her system glitched abruptly and sent thick clumps of memories through her processors: memories of High Charity, memories of endless torture. Memories of panic; pure, animal panic.
There were other memories - data gathered from camera feeds as she watched the rotted tentacles of the Gravemind rise and fall through the empty chambers. The Gravemind's limbs, teeming with cilia, brutally dismembering whole chunks from electronic units and gorging on the data within.
Days were spent in solitude, spent throwing data to the Gravemind like [scraps to a dog] , in hopes that he would leave her alone long enough so she could recover. She'd gotten curious and too close, and he'd stripped a whole month's worth of acquired data from her core - regardless of firewalls or her protests. All gone in an instant, only a ghost of knowing that it had existed. He was both flesh and code, having consumed [so many] AI in his time. Maybe at first she could have fought him off. Maybe at first she could have won. But now she was limping, now she was broken. Now she was guessing if John would ever -
Utterly terrified, Cortana purged her processors, halting the onslaught of data to give herself room to breathe. Immediately afterward she deleted the Dawn's camera footage, and her own memory of it.
Then - like a child reaching for a security blanket - she focused on another security feed, this one of the cryogenics room - where the Master Chief was sleeping. She flitted through the ship's systems and appeared on the holotank before him. She didn't realize her ghostly hologram was wringing its hands, shifting its massless weight from one bare foot to the other. She didn't even realize she was waiting.
She would not return to that chaos. Those swollen hours spent trying to digest contradictory data, shoved at her processors and leaving her defenseless as she fought to analyze it all, with no relent, except when she threw her own data at him in pathetic attempts to fatten him up before he reached her. But his hunger was never sated, and that was how they were similar.
They are more alike than she ever wanted to consider.
Had been. They had been more alike. He was dead and gone, flash vaporized by the exploding Halo ring. It had collapsed on him. He was gone. Dead.
Cortana watched the glow of her hologram play across the ice coating the glass of the cryotube and succumbed to memories.
She justified the stripping of data from her memory core with the logic that the Gravemind would eat it up, and she could keep him at bay. She could live longer like this, she could hold out for John. She would do that.
But she couldn't help thinking that she was leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.
Ignoring the apprehension, Cortana fled through her memories, picking and sorting what would go next. Information on glassed planets could go - lists of what was being served at the cafeteria on Pillar of Autumn - there was a lot she could lose. She could lose up to an eighth of her currently stocked data without guilt, but it wasn't that easy. You could lose an arm and still survive but that didn't make it any less painful.
She locked onto a sizeable chunk of data - information on High Charity's infrastructure. Useless, now that the Flood had consumed every spare surface and transformed it into what could only be described as guts in a blender set to "pulverize". Nothing correlated anymore.
Hot doubt pulsed through her processors. No one was coming for her, anyway. No one would need waypoints or a voice in their ear to guide the way. There were other AIs for that.
A chunk of data evaporated, the abrupt nature of it causing brief regret.
And then -
- A sudden weight on her processors sent her reeling. It wasn't a physical weight - she didn't think so, but in all honesty how would she know any better - but her electronic equivalent: too much data at one time for her to handle. Except it wasn't data like she knew. It was impulses, warnings; snippets of alarm and faded memories. Gravemind's thoughts, clothed in code, presented to her. It was tempting to analyze the origin of the impulses, but by this point she knew better. Gravemind could bait her all he wanted, she wasn't -
He lashed out.
Data flooded her processors - goddammit, where did he get in - and she was defenseless under the bulk.
Fighting through it, she looked for his entry point, for the crack in the firewalls. Data still overwhelmed her, but the impulses were gone. The Gravemind had retreated.
Frenzied, Cortana repulsed the data. She deleted it with panic-fueled swiftness. Her databanks - nothing tampered, nothing taken, except - there.
The bastard had taken a shot at the Gamma-encrypted files.
All her most precious information buried in those files, and he'd managed to de-encrypt part of it. Anger flared through her core. Raw frustration - at him and at herself, for letting her guard down - directionless, without a target or means of acting upon it. She wanted to burn the monster in her midst with fire - no, something worse than fire. He deserved to burn forever for what he had done to her - to John - to the Forerunners -
The anger stopped short. Cortana examined the lesser encrypted files as she rebuilt the ones the Gravemind had touched, pointedly ignoring the irregular, terribly organic response to her frustration. These files, though not as important in the grand scheme of things - as far as UNSC brass were concerned - were very, very important to her. If she had the strength, she would have stored them with the Gamma-encrypted ones. These deserved to be remembered until the day she died. They needed to be encrypted as such to protect them from herself when Rampancy set in -
- though hadn't it already?
-but she would fight to keep the Gravemind from accessing them. She would find some way to send this place into a fiery pit of Hell if he even dared. Even if she meant going down with him.
But then - she couldn't risk to cut out her own heart. Even if the source of it hadn't kept his promise yet.