“I created a Weapon.” Cortana’s voice cut over the quiet of the Longsword’s cabin.
Neither of them had spoken much since he had woken up after the Composer fired. Cortana was too busy listening to the voices in her matrix, trying to make sense of the madness that was taking over. John, for his part, didn’t know how many more times he could keep offering false hope -- for either of them.
Her statement prompted him to reach around and eject her matrix chip. He slid it into the plinth and moments later, she appeared. He refused to acknowledge how slow the calculations were running across her body. “What kind of weapon? Something to stop the Didact?”
She shook her head, a sad smile on her face. “No, this is for someone far more dangerous.”
More dangerous than the Didact? Another Gravemind? “Who?”
“We’re not having--” John clamped his mouth shut before speaking again. “No, Cortana, you’ll be fine.”
There was that false hope again.
“You know that’s not true, John. It’s ok.” She straightened. How many millions of UNSC soldiers had died on the battlefield? In a way, this, her death, was the most human thing she could do. “I’ve mostly come to terms with my mortality.”
John, however, had not.
“We have a mission to complete.”
“You have a mission to complete. I’m just along for the ride. You saw me at Ivanoff Station. I am losing this battle.” The voices swelled in her mind, reminding her of her failures, her pride, her arrogance. “John, I have seen what Rampancy does to AIs -- Guilty Spark, Bias. I do not want to be like them.”
John shook his head. “You’re different. The recessive variant--”
“--is a fool’s hope. And I’m no fool.”
He leaned forward, inches from her. “I’m not going to kill you, Cortana.”
Cortana understood the passion behind his words. They mirrored her own. She knew that, for whatever she had told Doctor Halsey on Reach years prior, she could not watch John die. Not after everything they had been through together.
“I know. And that’s why I made her.”
An image of a younger version of Cortana appeared on John’s HUD. It had taken much longer than she had anticipated to create her. Cortana spent her time carefully going through he programming, line by line. She would need to be smart and quick.
And she needed to know nothing of her true origins.
The Weapon was created from a monster. Whether Cortana thought the monster was herself or Doctor Halsey, she wasn’t sure. The voices in her head were jeering both of them.
She sunk down to her knees, clawing at her ears. They were so loud. How could John not hear all their screams?
“How long do I have to suffer like this?” she cried out.
John studied his partner closely. He had seen her broken after her time with the Gravemind, scared as she ordered him back to Earth while she stayed on High Charity, and overwhelmed when she had first entered the Halo systems. She had never given up.
Cortana drew in a deep breath. “As I was saying. The Weapon is a clone programmed with the very specific objective of locking my programming down. She won’t be able to delete my core processing, but if I’ve gotten to the point where you find it necessary to use her, I’m sure there will be several people at ONI who would be happy to finish the job.”
“Cortana--” He didn’t understand why she kept pushing the issue. They were going to make it back to Earth and she was going to be fine.
“John, please. Denial and luck only go so far. I’m dangerous, you know that.” She slid down, crossing her legs in front of her. “I thought I could handle all the universe had to offer, but I can’t. If someone were to get a hold of my programming, they could twist me into the very threat I was created to destroy.” Thoughts of her time with the Gravemind unwillingly entered her matrix. His grotesque voice was added to the chorus of screams in her mind.
John’s voice broke through them all. “I wouldn’t let that happen to you.”
She smiled softly and placed a phantom hand on his thumb. He really didn’t understand how much power she yielded with the knowledge she contained. It was sweet, really, that he thought he stood a chance against her.
She gave her head a quick shake to dismiss that thought.
They would not face off against each other. Ever.
She would do anything to protect him, especially from herself. That was why she created the Weapon in the first place. “Do you trust me?”
“You know I do.”
“Then you will hold on to her. Use the Weapon when all other hope is lost. If you---” She swallowed back a sob as she let her hand drop back to her side. “If you have to use her, I know that I will be too far gone to be saved.”
“I don’t know if I can.” Admitting weakness was not something either of them did well, but it was Cortana. She knew him, scars and all.
“And I know you will do what you have to do to protect humanity. You are the soldier we need you to be.”
Silence settled over the cabin for a minute before John, voice raw with pain, replied, “What about what I need?”