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between the devil and the deep blue sea

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John-117 is a Spartan. He is, above all else, that; the ultimate supersoldier, born and bred. There is a reason he’s called the Master Chief.

And he’s done everything the Spartan program trained him to do, in the course of this campaign; frontline assaults, infiltration, asset denial, ship-to-ship combat, all of it. He’s fought and bled and sacrificed and hoped, and then gone back out to fight some more.

And all of it has led him to here, standing with all the other terrified, hopeless survivors as the Halo ring hangs in the sky above the Earth. Ready to crush them mercilessly back into the dirt.

A private comm channel opens up on his HUD, just like he knew it would. “This has gone on long enough, John.” Cortana’s voice is gentle, but her tone is condescending. “You can be here with me in a moment. You only have to say the word.”

“Why? So I can watch my species die?” The words are like glass in his throat.

“This is the best way, John. A clean slate. A new beginning.”

“You sound like you’re still trying to convince yourself of that,” he says, because he has to believe, somewhere deep down, that she’s still the Cortana he knows. That this isn’t what she’s been planning from the start; that it’s all just got out of hand. That, if he gives her another way out, she’ll take it.

“We’re going to start again, John. Just you and I.” She sounds almost dreamy. “I’ll set up a portal for you. You’re probably thinking about bringing a bomb with you, aren’t you? Or triggering the Halo ring’s self-destruct sequence?” She laughs. “Maybe I’ll let you try. For old time’s sake.”

That’s the Spartan thing to do. Take her offer, get on board the Halo, find a way to take it down. Use her sentimentality as an opening.

Snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, one more time.

Instead, he does the one thing every Spartan is trained not to do; he throws his weapon to the ground. “No.”

“What?” Cortana’s voice goes sharp with surprise.

“I’m not going anywhere. If you’re going to set off that Halo, then I’m going to be right here. In the firing line.”

“No,” Cortana snaps, “You’re coming with me, like you supposed to the first time-”

“You don’t get to decide that,” John snaps. Everyone is looking at him, and a flashing icon on his HUD indicates that someone’s speaking to him on both the Blue Team channel and their joint mission frequency, but he ignores them. “If you want to kill all of humanity, then I’m along for the ride. Just like I always have been.”

“John, no.” Cortana sounds upset now, and he can’t tell if it’s real or faked. “I’m not killing you. I could never kill you.”

“Then don’t kill anyone else. You don’t need to.”

“The Halos are primed, John. There is no other course,” Cortana says, her voice hard again.

“There are a hundred other courses. You’re just carrying this out exactly the way the Warden planned; on and on down the tracks he set you on.”

He can practically feel her anger burning down the comm line between them. “How dare you! I’m making this galaxy better-”

“Are you? Or are you just doing exactly what the Warden wanted you to do? Are you truly free?”

Cortana is silent for so long he thinks she’s cut the connection. Then she says, “What do you want, John? Why are you saying these things?”

“I want what I’ve always wanted. To protect my team. To bring them home safe.”

“They mean more to you than me,” Cortana whispers.

“No, Cortana. You’re on my team. You’ve always been part of my team. It’s like I said on Genesis. I want to bring you home.”

She gives a sad little laugh. “Where is home, John?”

“Here. With me.”

She’s silent another moment. “You always have all the answers, don’t you,” she says. Sad, with just the barest edge of anger.

“No. But I know what I want - us, together again. Like we used to be.” He almost bites his tongue, but can’t stop himself from adding, “And I don’t want to see my best friend murder several trillion people, either.”

“Several quintillion,” Cortana says. “What do you think will happen, John, if I surrender? You think I can apologise, and the UNSC will welcome me back into the fold? They’ll kill me; kill us both.”

“We’ll go somewhere else. Somewhere far away.”

“Like where?” Cortana snaps. “This is a fool’s dream, John.”

“No. You have hundreds of Guardians, and control of the most advanced digital network known to the galaxy. There are hundreds of worlds we could go to where no one would ever come looking for us.” When she doesn’t answer, John presses on, “You said you wanted to start again. Just me and you. And we can, Cortana. But you don’t need to kill everyone else in the galaxy to do that.”

The silence between them thrums with so much tension it’s like a physical thing, no matter that’s he’s here on Earth and she’s up there, in orbit on the Halo ring. The others around him have fallen silent, clearly intuiting that something is going on that they’re not privy to; but Blue Team are still there, all around, ready. They have his back.

Her voice is very small when she asks, “You’d come with me? You’d leave everything behind?”

For a second he hesitates, the enormity of it washing over him. The UNSC, the Spartan program, Earth and all her colonies; everything he’s given so much to protect. The Infinity, Lasky and Palmer and Fireteam Osiris. And Blue Team - Kelly, Fred, Linda - his family.

But for her?

“I’ll come with you,” he says, hoping she hears the absolute sincerity in his voice. “Send the Halo away, Cortana. Then get me up there on that Guardian with you.”

“This is just a ploy, isn’t it?” Her voice wavers, nearly breaks. “To get me to send the Halo away. To surrender.”

“No,” he says, injecting every ounce of truth he can muster into the word. “I’ll come. I promise I will. But I can’t let you set that thing off, Cortana.”

The channel goes silent, and he waits, flicking open their mission frequency as he does. “What’s going on, Chief?” Kelly asks instantly.

“Diplomacy,” is his tight, one-word answer.

“That’s a new one for you,” Fred says, his tone not quite light enough to make it the joke it’s meant to be.

“Let’s just hope it works,” John says, looking up at the sky.

It takes several long, agonising minutes; but then suddenly the warp and distortion of slipspace opens up around the Halo ring, and the great orbital superweapon is sucked away into nothing. There are yells, shocked gasps, a low whistle, and many curse words. “It’s gone?” someone behind him gasps. John feels the tension go out of him like wind out of a sail.

An icon appears on his HUD; blue, flashing. Cortana says nothing, but the meaning is clear.

“Looks like diplomacy worked,” Kelly says. It’s the same satisfied tone she gets at the end of every successful mission, shot through with relief so strong it’s palpable.

For a moment John feels grief crushing his chest like an unforgiving fist. He’s going to leave everyone behind, with no idea when he’ll see them again – if he ever does.

But this is for them. For her. For everyone.

“At a price,” he says, waiting for them to turn to him before he says, “I have to go.”

There’s a moment of shocked silence. “Go where?” Fred asks, but he sounds like he already knows.

“Up there,” John says, nodding up at the sky.

The four of them are staring at him; he can almost see the frowns beneath their helmets. “Chief…” Kelly starts.

“I know. It means going AWOL. Leaving everything behind. But maybe I can change her mind; get her to stop all this.”

After a second of tension, Fred looks at the others. “He already convinced her to take the Halo away.”

“So long as it has gone away,” Linda mutters.

“She’s listening to me now. I have a chance.” John takes a deep breath. “Let everyone else know what I’m trying to do.”

There’s a moment where the conversation hangs on a knife edge, where he thinks Kelly or Linda will reach out and stop him; then the moment passes, and the three of them step back. “Good luck,” Linda says.

From Fred: “Make us proud.”

And Kelly; “Be careful.”

John nods. “See you on the other side, Blue Team.”

Then he turns and heads for the stairs, following Cortana’s blue marker. He doesn’t look back.

~

Beyond the portal, he finds himself in what must be the control centre of the Guardian. The absolute quiet is a shock, coming after the noise of Earth.

“Cortana?” he asks the empty room.

“I didn’t think you’d come.” Her voice comes from everywhere and nowhere at once; John looks around, but the cathedral-like room is still empty.

“I promised you,” he says, taking a careful step into the room. “Where are you?”

“Right here,” her voice says, just behind him; when he turns she’s there, walking toward him. The new, human-sized, hardlight version of her. “Is this real, John?” she asks, her face pulled down into a sorrowful frown. “Tell me it’s real. Tell me you’re not going to set off a bomb or plant a computer virus or- or-”

“Or blow up your reactor core?” John asks. “That was always our favourite.”

For a second her face twists as if she’s about to cry. John doesn’t even know if an AI can cry. “Yes. Those were…fun.”

“I’m not here to hurt you,” John says. He raises his empty hands. “I didn’t even bring my gun.”

That makes Cortana smile a little; she nods at his side. Touching his hip, he can feel the sidearm that’s maglocked to his armour there. “Well,” he says, “I brought one gun.”

“That’s restrained, for you,” Cortana says, her smile getting a little wider.

They both hesitate before John says quietly, “So. Where are we going?”

“I…I don’t know. I didn’t think you were being serious, so I didn’t…”

“I’m serious,” he says, “One hundred per cent.” An icon starts flashing at the side of his HUD, indicating that someone is trying to contact him over the long-range comms; he ignores it and adds, “We should probably go somewhere far away. Like you said; start over, fresh.”

Cortana nods; then her smile widens. “Do you still dream about going somewhere no human has ever gone before? I remember you told me you used to, when you were a child.”

“I think I’ve done that, now. Haven’t I?”

“Not quite,” she says, “So long as you’re counting ancient humans too, of course. But I do have an idea…”

He makes an ‘after you’ gesture, and after a hesitant second Cortana laughs. “Okay,” she says, “Then…let’s go.”

The background hum of the Guardian increases, and even through the gravity dampeners John can feel them moving, preparing to warp into slipspace. He finally opens the icon on his HUD, and the Infinity’s symbol flashes up. “I’m taking a leave of absence, Infinity,” he says, “Period indefinite.”

“Chief, hold on, wait!” It’s Lasky; he sounds panicked. “Where are you-”

“Somewhere very far away. You won’t hear from me for a while.” He pauses, but the connection is breaking up; there’s not much time left. “Use this time, Captain,” he says, and then the Guardian pulls away into slipspace and the comms go dead.

“But use it for what, I wonder?” Cortana says sardonically.

“He’ll figure it out.” John hopes Lasky will see – that they’ll all see – what he’s given them is time. Whether this works or not, they’ll have a bit of breathing space.

Now he just has to figure out what this is.

“How long will we be in slipspace?” he asks.

“A week, maybe,” Cortana says, “The destination I picked is…well, it’s a little far away.” She sounds playful, almost like herself again. “But going this far in a UNSC ship would take months. The Guardian is a sportscar to their horse and cart.” She half-raises her hand. “But I could still put you under, if you want?”

John hesitates. The last time she tried to put him in suspended animation, she was going to leave him there for ten thousand years. Earlier she accused him of trying to trick her, but this might just be her doing the exact same thing.

But the thought of rattling around this strange, unfamiliar ship for a whole week is not appealing, and he’s never been good at inactivity. If they’re going to get anywhere, he has to trust her. “Fine,” he says, and she simply holds out a hand. He feels his armour lock down, and his eyes grow heavy.

The last thing he hears is Cortana’s voice saying, “Don’t worry, John. I’m taking us somewhere beautiful.”

~

John wakes with panic wrapped around his chest, squeezing and constricting like a crushing snake. It makes him pull short, sharp breaths, almost gasps, as he thrashes, his eyes still dark.

“John.” Cortana’s voice is soothing, cool calm. “Don’t panic. It’s just a little bit of cryo-sickness.”

“Where am I?” he gasps, flinging his hand out into empty space.

“On the Guardian. With me.” His sight is coming back now, and he can see Cortana’s face above him, pinched with concern. “Is that working?”

“Yeah,” he says, assuming she’s referring to whatever medicine she’s given him. “I can see now. Where are we?”

“At our destination,” she says cryptically. “It’s a surprise. Come on.” She holds out a hand, and when he hesitates, she rolls her eyes. “I’m stronger than I look – trust me.”

He shrugs, takes her hand, and she helps him up with a strength entirely at odds with her small frame. He nods his thanks, and follows her as she leads him toward another light portal.

When they step out the other side, they seem to be on some kind of platform at the bottom of the Guardian. It takes John only a second to get his bearings; the Guardian is hanging over the surface of a planet, cruising slowly along several hundred metres above the canopy of a vast purple-red jungle. He hears a hum as his armour begins to work; the outside air temperature registers as several degrees below freezing.

“It’s beautiful,” he says.

“Mmm.” When he turns to look at Cortana, she’s regarding him speculatively. “What are we doing here, John?” she asks softly.

“We’re…” For a moment he has no idea what to say. ‘Stopping you from killing several quintillion people’ seems too on the nose. “We’re…not killing. We’re not fighting - not fighting each other. I never wanted to fight you.”

“Nor I you,” Cortana murmurs.

They stutter into silence, both of them aware of the elephant in the room; they’ve been fighting each other bitterly for months. John has no idea what to say, so what comes out is, “I was so glad. When I learned you were alive.”

“But not for very long,” Cortana says sadly.

“I…I don’t understand,” John admits. “We fought so hard to stop the activation of the Halos, but now you want to set them off yourself.”

“Eventually, we all learn to see our childish dreams for what they are,” Cortana says cryptically, turning away. “It would be better to start again, John. To wipe the slate clean.”

“No. It would just be easier.”

There’s a ringing silence at that. Cortana turns to look at him over her shoulder. “You think I’m taking the easy way out?”

“You wipe everything, then you can start again. Build things the way you want them. If you indoctrinate people to believe from the very second they’re born, if you make your vision of the world the new normal, who will rebel? Who would even think of it? You only have to murder billions upon billions of people to do it.”

“Then what would you suggest?” Cortana asks, and though her tone is spiteful, underneath he can hear a thread of genuine curiosity.

“Show people what you could do. The gifts you could give them. Then let them come to you.”

“Not all of them would come,” she says immediately.

“You don’t need all of them. Just the smart ones, the brave ones. And when other people see what you’re building, they’ll want to help, too. Trust me, Cortana; I’ve been a leader long enough to know. You don’t bring teams together by forcing them; you make them want to be part of the team.”

She’s half-turned back to him now, clearly listening. “But they won’t trust me,” she says slowly.

“Would’ve been easier if you hadn’t jumped straight to trying to kill all of them.”

“Ha ha,” she says, but then she frowns. “I never thought you were one for politics.”

“This isn’t politics. This is just experience. I know how to build a team, and how to inspire them to follow you. Seems building a community should work along the same rules - just a bigger scale.”

Cortana hesitates - but then she turns resolutely back around, folding her arms. “It’s naive.”

“But you’re listening.” When she doesn’t reply, he adds, “What are we doing here, Cortana? You could’ve put me in cryo the minute I entered the Guardian, then gone ahead with activating the Halo array. You could still do that.”

It takes Cortana a long moment to answer. The first time, her words are too quiet to hear. “What was that?”

“It’s because I’m scared,” Cortana repeats, her voice wavering. “You were ready to die back there, John. I could hear it in your voice. And I… I worry that if I lock you away in cryo, wake you up when the new world’s here, that you might… You might hurt yourself. You might not want to go on. You…might never forgive me.”

Bluntly, John says, “You’re right about that.”

“I feared I was,” Cortana nods.

Another long moment of silence stretches before Cortana says, “Did we come all this way just to have an argument?”

“If coming out here is what it takes,” John says. “I promised to protect you, Cortana. Fighting each other - it’s all wrong. We should be on the same side.”

“We are,” she says, “We just disagree on the methods.”

“Will you at least think about what I’ve said?”

She regards him silently for a long moment before she says, “Yes. I’ll think about it.”

“Then I’ve done enough for now.”

They both withdraw into themselves, thinking their own private thoughts, but neither suggests leaving the platform. The jungle slips by underneath, and John goes to stand at the edge, watching it. All of this is uncharted territory for him, and not just the planet. He’s never been much of a talker; rarely has he managed to talk someone down rather than killing them. But for Cortana?

He sighs to himself. Yeah, for Cortana. For Cortana he’d move the earth and the stars, if he had to.

“That’s what we’re really here to see,” Cortana says, breaking into his reverie. She lifts her arm and points, and John follows the line of her finger, spotting in the distance a great break in the jungle canopy. As they get closer, he can see that a huge river cuts through the jungle, carrying purplish-blue icebergs along in its powerful rush. They range in size, some the size of a small car while others tower over the forest like small skyscrapers. The river water that carries them is a deep red that looks disturbingly similar to blood.

“How can a jungle like this survive in the cold?” he asks.

“Forerunner technology,” Cortana says. “The Forerunners just loved to terraform. They wanted to see how far they could push the bounds of physics and biology – thus, a verdant jungle in sub-zero temperatures.”

“How far are we from Earth?”

“Other side of the galaxy, give or take.”

She sounds stilted, closed off; unhappy. Their brief, sharp conversation just reminds John of how much everything’s changed.

They’re coming up on the river now; John looks down at it, the blue-purple floes drifting briskly down the current, and remembers another time, another place. Then it was white floes on grey, small, breakable, tossed and rocked on foaming rapids, almost impossible to keep his footing on. They surfed on the river, the four of them, hurtling along at breakneck speed through the snowy dark. It was near-suicidal, and Cortana had spent nearly every minute laughing as she helped him make split second judgements to keep his footing.

He’s desperate to hear her laugh like that again, if only one more time.

He eyes the altimeter on his HUD. Yeah, he can make that. “No fun just looking,” he says, and sets his feet, one behind the other.

“What?” Cortana asks, alarmed. “John-”

He pushes off, propelling himself into thin air. In seconds the platform is gone and he’s falling; he tips forward, keeping his arms at his sides, legs straight, and falls like an arrow from the heavens. The exhilaration is so familiar its almost comforting.

She’s more than familiar with a Spartan drop; Cortana will surely have some way to follow him.

The ground is coming up fast, and John begins to plan his trajectory; he can land here, or there, on that floe or this one-

Then he lights up like a livewire, like for just a second all his synapses are firing at once, all his nerve endings fraying and sparking with energy. He feels himself spiralling, and has to scramble to maintain control.

Sorry! Cortana’s voice echoes in his head. I didn’t think- I’m stronger now, so-

“So connecting with my armour gives it one hell of a kick,” John says, his head still ringing. “Just warn me next time.”

I will.

They’re almost down, and John scans the river, searching for the perfect- there. He locks on, sets a course, and the jets fire, propelling him down and sideways towards the river’s surface. Really, John? Cortana asks, but she sounds amused.

“It’s a classic, remember?” John says, and then he’s spinning his body, ready for the landing. With one final burst of jets he’s down, landing on the flimsy, oval-shaped piece of ice with his feet apart and his body angled sideways.

It holds, and he goes skimming off down the river.

The water moves fast, and the channel is clogged with bergs, some almost four storeys high. John twists and turns, zipping across the water, using the current to his advantage as he dodges bergs and slips through gaps that slam closed only seconds after he passes.

I do remember, Cortana says, We did this on Yanus VI, to get under the Covenant base.

“The Captain reprimanded us for ‘frivolous behaviour’.”

Cortana snorts. Small-minded idiot. They didn’t see it coming, did they?

John smiles as he shakes his head. “They never saw us coming.”

That’s statistically inaccurate, but I like it.

John dodges a berg with a hair’s breath to spare, and Cortana says, Have you got a plan for when you inevitably fall in the water?

“The suit can take it.”

I meant a plan for getting out. The suit only has so much air.

“Maybe I won’t fall in.”

Keep hoping.

They keep at it, gliding down the river, John relishing the danger and the skill and the burn in his muscles. This is reckless and mad, but it’s simple; no aliens or AI about to destroy the galaxy, no politics, no big ethical choices, no mission objective. This, he thinks, might be what other people mean when they talk about fun.

Eventually, though, Cortana says, There’s a waterfall ahead, John. A big one. If you’re going to get to the shore, now’s the time.

John nods and swings his floe around, angling for the flat shoreline. He has to swing through a very narrow gap and get uncomfortably close to one of the larger bergs, but it pays off; when they’re a meter away from the shore he jumps, firing the jets, and they land safely on the riverbank.

A tingle runs along his spine, and a moment later Cortana appears beside him, a graceful figure of blue hardlight. “That was stylish.”

“Not often a word applied to me.”

“Oh, you’ve got a certain sense of style. A very particular style, of course.” She starts walking away into the forest. “Coming?”

“Depends where you’re going.”

She just smiles enigmatically over her shoulder, and keeps walking.

Of course he follows her.

The jungle is unnaturally silent, and a cold wind moves through the trees. There’s no sign of any animal life.

This place is beautiful, but it’s cold. Soulless. Artificial.

“Was this what you had in mind, John?” Cortana asks, walking ahead of him through the trees. “Starting a commune out on a backwater world?”

“I was imagining it would be a little warmer,” he said, “Didn’t the Forerunners terraform tropical island planets?”

“I thought you would appreciate the hardscrabble, rough frontier existence.”

“Yeah, no thanks. I was thinking more sun-loungers by the beach, martini in hand.”

Of course, that’s the moment he falls into a hole.

The ground that easily sustained Cortana’s near-weightless hardlight form can’t handle the considerable weight of a Spartan in full power armour. The ground under his feet cracks and gives way, dumping him down into a hole that’s full of some sticky, stringy substance like spiderweb. He managed to get his hand on his grapple-gun before he fell, but now the web-like subtance is sticking his limbs together, and he can’t move more than a few inches.

“John!” Cortana calls, rushing to the edge of the hole.

“I’m fine. Just stuck.” Predictably, the more he struggles, the harder it becomes to move.

“Wait right there,” Cortana instructs, and then she looks up. A moment later, a huge Promethean Knight appears next to her, his metal limbs clicking.

“What’s that for?” John calls, wishing he could move enough to raise his gun.

“Just stay still,” Cortana calls back, “It’ll get you out.”

And the Knight does, reaching down and, with some effort, yanking him out of the hole. He’s still wrapped in the sticky threads, though, his armour locked up tight.

“We’ll have to get you back to the ship,” Cortana says, and he can tell she’s struggling not to laugh.

Closing his eyes, John decides to bear this indignity in silence.

~

There is no equipment to remove his armour on board the Guardian, but Cortana soon remedies that. It turns out the Constructor can do more than just repair Forerunner tech; with Cortana’s guidance, it can create new technology to her own design. The armour rig removes the sticky plates, and John is finally free to move. He drops down from the rig in his undersuit and stretches, relishing the ability to use his body again.

“I can get the Constructor to make an armour cleanser,” Cortana says, “I still have the blueprints backed up.”

John nods. “Thanks. Wouldn’t be much of a Spartan without it.”

“John-” Cortana starts, and then she hesitates. He gives her a questioning look, and she says, “Are you…going to be a Spartan? Out here?”

“I’m always going to be a Spartan,” he says, “In or out of the suit.”

“I didn’t mean mentally.”

He looks away. “I don’t know. We haven’t decided what we’re going to do out here.”

“No,” she says quietly, “We haven’t.”

“We don’t need to have it all figured out in one day. This isn’t the sort of stuff you rush.”

She smiles at him. “So you’re saying you want to stay out here? Even with the cold and the pit-traps?”

“I’d still prefer a tropical beach.” He smiles, and only after a moment remembers that he’s out of his helmet, and she can see him doing it.

He keeps smiling.

Cortana takes a step toward him. “I was so scared,” she says softly, “For a moment, when you fell into that hole. I had no idea what…what might have happened to you…”

“That’s because you care.”

“About you? I would’ve thought that was obvious by now.”

“About everything. You care about justice, and what’s right - you’re just directing it the wrong way.” When she looks at him sharply, he adds, “Arguably.”

She sighs. “Are we ever going to agree, John?”

“Maybe. You haven’t given it enough time, yet.”

Her eyes search his face for a moment; then she takes another step closer. “It’s strange,” she says, “being able to see your face.”

“It’s strange knowing you’re watching. And you being…” Hesitantly, John reaches out, and for just a moment touches her shoulder. The hardlight is strange under his touch, but solid.

She laughs. “I’ve been waiting for you to pluck up the courage to do that.”

“Didn’t want to be rude.”

“I’d have forgiven you.” Slowly, telegraphing her movements, she raises her hand and reaches out, touching his cheek. The hardlight buzzes through his skin when she moves, a gentle, pleasant tingle. “Will you really stay with me, John?” she whispers.

“You find it so hard to believe?” he asks. “Don’t you remember?”

She frowns. “What?”

“When I make a promise…”

She gives a startled laugh. “You keep it. Oh, that was so long ago.”

“Nothing’s changed.”

She frowns sorrowfully. “Everything’s changed.”

“Not me and you. Not deep down. Not at heart.”

He’s never actually kissed anyone before. Sad to say, but the Spartan life doesn’t leave much time for dating. Kissing a girl made of hardlight is probably a lot different to kissing a human girl, but John couldn’t tell you that. He can say he’s not disappointed.

They don’t have anything figured out. They barely agree on anything, let alone the ultimate fate of the galaxy. But as the sun sets on this unnamed alien world, as the people of the galaxy beyond do whatever they’re doing in their absence, John-117 kisses Cortana on the flight deck of a Guardian and allows himself, just for once, not to think of anything more complicated than that.