Chapter 39: Goodbyes and New Beginnings

Warm sunlight filtered through the polarized visor. The Master Chief blinked as he drifted back to consciousness. This didn't feel like waking from cryo-sleep. Where was he?

The memories of the past few months rushed back in on the Spartan. He was on his feet in a fraction of a second, scanning the environment and trying to get his bearings. The first thing he noticed was that his rifle was missing. He must have lost it in whatever happened during, or after, the journey. He drew his sidearm and kept it at the ready as he cleared the area.

The second thing he noticed was that he was alone; neither the Monitor nor whatever had tackled him from behind were detectable. Something had very clearly gone wrong. He didn't think Exuberant Witness had betrayed him—for one thing, it made no sense not to at least restrain him rather than leaving him fully mobile in a random field—but that might not be true of whoever was currently in charge here, wherever 'here' was.

Third, he determined was that he was on some kind of Forerunner artificial world. He could see the curved 'roof' that indicated he was standing on the inside of a spherical Installation, like an inverse of a natural planet. It matched descriptions of the Forerunner facility within the planet Onyx that his siblings had been stuck while he was separated from them. He wondered if this, too, was some kind of physics defying miracle of alien science. Regardless of that, the grassy field he was currently standing in and the forest that surrounded it were typical of Forerunner facilities. The ancient galaxy-conquerors must have been quite the gardeners in their spare time. The final thing the Chief noticed was, perhaps, the most significant of all.

There were Guardians in the sky.

As in, more than one.

Dozens of them, in fact, all crowded together in the center of the inverted sphere, a safe distance away from the artificial star providing light and heat and probably less than a hundred kilometers apart. Varied landscapes could be glimpsed on the concave surface beyond them. Another of the titanic war machines emerged from a portal as he was looking. The Chief suddenly felt very small as he realized the sheer power of what had been assembled here. Just one of these things had been nigh-unstoppable. If they found a way to resist the tampering that had undone the Guardian over Sunaion, a level of adaptability even less than that showed by the Soldiers, then a fleet of them could burn the galaxy without taking a dent.

The Master Chief shook himself out of his trance. He forced himself to look at this as just another challenge to be overcome, as he had done with countless supposedly 'impossible' tasks in his career. The presence of the Guardians suggested that he was on the correct world, at least. He tried to raise someone on the comms, but to no avail. It seemed he was on his own again.

During his light recon of the area, the Chief had noticed an enormous pyramidal structure in the distance, stretching slightly onto what could be considered the 'wall' from his current point of view. If Genesis followed standard Forerunner design conventions, that would be where he would find the Control Center. He set out immediately.

The journey took him several hours. The trip itself wasn't particularly challenging. The gravity was Earth-normal, the air was breathable, and the terrain was like any deciduous forest on a human terraformed world.

The only thing that held him up was caution. Something kept screaming at him that he was being shadowed the whole way there. His sensors weren't showing anything but the Chief hadn't survived this long by ignoring his instincts. He was constantly on the lookout for an ambush. This meant occasionally doubling back to avoid any obvious killzones, as well as frequently pausing or ducking into hiding spots to try to catch his stalkers.

Nothing. Several times he thought he saw a whisper on his motion tracker but there was never anything concrete. Maybe it really was just nerves.

Right, he thought sarcastically. He gripped his sidearm tighter.

Eventually, the Chief approached a hill. Beyond that hill was a valley that contained the base of the pyramid. He went prone and crawled to the crest. The sight below was not as terrifying as that of the Guardians above, but it still chilled his blood by several degrees.

The valley was full of Soldiers. Rank after rank of the chrome-colored, humanoid combat drones were lined up below him. There were multiple armies' worth down there, thousands upon thousands of them. They were diverse, too, with every variant he had seen as well as several more. Lumbering behemoths clearly based upon the Hunters moved about, their smaller brethren instinctively making room for them. What appeared to be snipers stalked, cat-like, in 2-person teams. A slender model moved silently about, its armor so thin that it looked gray at first due to the black under-layer showing through the chrome hard-light armor. The Master Chief could not discern the purpose of these small-fries, but it had to be significant to compensate for their absurdly thin armor. A new pilot model, perhaps? Whatever the case, it was clear that the enemy was evolving, fast.

The area itself had clearly once been full of foliage. No longer. What space wasn't taken up by Soldier infantry, buzzards, and assorted vehicles was occupied by some kind of alien factory that was cranking out more of them by the score. This one location could manufacture millions of them per day if it was able to keep up this pace. The display of industrial proficiency was enough to give the Spartan chills.

A river flowed through the area, poisoned black by some kind of industrial runoff. What plant life remained was withered and sickly. The soil varied from black to multi-colored patches that had clearly been poisoned by chemicals. The entire area would probably be uninhabitable soon. A ravine at the far end served as an exit through which a continuous stream of death machines flowed out; its sides were as bare and sickly as the heart of the valley itself.

This was going to be tricky. The Master Chief crawled backward and tried to come up with a plan. He needed to get past the Soldiers to the pyramid without being seen. A cloak would have helped, but even if he'd had one there would be little chance he could work his way through that many hostile units without being spotted. He could understand why Exuberant Witness would have so much trouble taking back her Installation.

Tactical retreat, then. The Chief would have to do more recon, hopefully locate the Monitor and come up with some kind of way through.

A full squad of Soldiers de-cloaked around him. That explained the small-fry models, then.

The Master Chief instantly fell into position, centering his pistol on the nearest hostile and searching for a route out of the ambush. The Soldiers must have developed their own cloaked units after seeing the member of Fireteam Osiris in action. They must have been the ones stalking him. Things kept getting better by the second.

Except...the Soldiers didn't open fire. They weren't even carrying any weapons. The Chief restrained himself at the last fraction of a second. The Soldiers had revealed themselves first, and now they were just staring at him. That wasn't all that was unusual; unlike their brethren on Meridian and Sanghelios, these units did not have ocular sensors colored burning orange.

They had eyes of a familiar blue.

One of the Soldiers gestured at the valley behind the Chief. Feeling increasing amounts of dread about what he was going to find there, he nodded, holstered his pistol, and crested the hill.

None of the Soldiers in the valley took notice of him. The biggest reaction was of the units directly in his way, who parted to allow him passage. It was bizarre and unnerving, being surrounded by inhuman enemies that weren't trying to kill him. It felt like the first time he had participated in a joint operation with the Arbiter's people, actually. Somehow, he didn't think things would turn out as well this time.

The pyramid took time to scale. There were multiple levels, all external, connected by ramps. Naturally, each ramp was on the opposite side, meaning the Chief had to cross every centimeter of the structure's exterior to reach the peak. It wouldn't have been such an unpleasant journey if he hadn't been expecting to take a sniper shot to the head every step he took.

Eventually, he reached the flat top of the Forerunner pyramid. The armada of Guardians continued to hover unnervingly overhead, as if they were watching everything that happened on the world below. Looking back down, the Chief noticed the contents of the structure's peak. There was a small building, fully enclosed with walls and a domed roof, taking up the far half of the summit.

The other half was occupied by a legion of Warden Eternals.

There were dozens of them. The units looked exactly like the one the Chief and the rest of the Spartans had just destroyed, minus the replacement arm. They were lined up in orderly rows like a proper military formation, swords at their sides, backs straight, all facing forward. When the Chief stepped onto the top deck the formation parted down the middle and the Wardens, turning as one to face each other across the gap, fell to one knee in respect. The Chief moved forward.

Everything in the Spartan screamed at him to stop. This was all wrong. If the enemy wanted you to do something, it was going to get you killed. Going along with this was reckless at best.

He kept walking. He needed to know. To end this. The hard-light doors pulsed blue and opened. They closed shut and locked behind him.

A simulation of the Milky Way Galaxy was projected onto the curved roof. Constellations and solar systems, most too small to make out individually, revolved slowly around the galactic core. The Chief was sure that all of the galaxy was depicted here, down to the smallest detail. The scientists of the UNSC would kill for such detailed information on all of the space not yet mapped by human astro-cartographers. It showed the breadth of knowledge that the Forerunners had possessed at their peak. It was as much a show of power as the Guardians above their heads.

The center of the room was occupied by a large console, aesthetically similar to the one in Sunaion. It was circular, gray in color and clearly hard-light, covered in glowing hieroglyphs of infinite complexity, with a hologram projected above its surface.

It was Cortana.

The Master Chief rushed forward to greet his friend, to be reunited with one of the people he had been unable to save, one of the very few that had been returned to him. He only made it a few steps before he faltered.

Something was wrong.

The image of Cortana was...blurred. Pixellated. Where there should have been a clearly defined human female, there was a humanoid figure divided within itself. Some of Cortana was there—an arm, most of her legs, the left half of her torso. The rest was fragmented. Unclear. Her face, once lively, immensely intelligent, and mischievous, was constantly shifting between states. One moment she looked overjoyed, the kind of unrestrained happiness normally reserved for young children. The next moment she looked enraged, as if some affront beyond comprehension had been committed against her. Fear. Sorrow. Remorse. Desire. Often, Cortana's features would become a mess of pixels before shifting to the next extreme emotion. Unbidden, unwanted, a word forced its way into the John's conscious mind.


At last, the figure seemed to notice him. The joyous face returned, managing to sustain itself long enough to shout his name.


"Cortana..." the Chief whispered, approaching slowly. He couldn't believe it. Didn't want to believe it. He arrived at the console at last. "Are...are you..."

So-so-so glad you arrived-d—

Abruptly, the image of Cortana went from its normal blue with a serene expression, to a blood red, its features contorted in rage.


John resisted taking a step back. This was his friend. She would never hurt him. At least, not intentionally. He struggled to think of a way to diffuse the situation.

It turned out to be unnecessary, as Cortana shifted moods once again. Her voice took on a deliriously amused and happy tone and her hologram returned to its normal blue shade.

Heh-hee, Gla-aa-ad to see yo-ou again, 117, Hah-hah hah!

She struggled to get any words out around the giggles and howls of laughter.

Your name is a nu-u-umber, your name is a nu-u-umber, hah-hee—It has been over a quarter century since the Human Covenant War began. Without question, it proved the most bloody and destructive conflict in human history...

The Chief just watched silently as 'Cortana' seemed to recite some sort of history text or documentary about the conflict that had dominated his entire life. Their interaction went on like this for some time. The Chief would try to get her attention, she'd be able to focus on him for a moment...but then she would be gone. Her fractured mind was unable to focus on any one thing for an extended period and her words rarely added up to a coherent statement. One thing she had said stuck out to the Chief. A clue that might help him make sense of this.

"Cortana," he said, clearly and carefully. "Do you think there are hostiles here?"

The AI once again turned a bright shade of red, her avatar automatically reflecting her agitation. Her voice shifted from sarcastic to outraged as she went on.

Gee, I-I-I wonder if a Forerun-run-runner world has enemies on it? I had to wonder, being stuck in here WITHOUT YOU!

Finally, her next words, her last before going silent again, were said in the deepest sadness. The color of her avatar shifted slowly from angry red back to deep blue.

I was so alo-lo-lone here. Had to ge-e-eeeettttt my own protect-tect-errrrrrsssss...

That was it, then. That was where the Soldiers and the Wardens had come from. This fragmented, insane version of his friend had created them to guard her from phantom threats. She'd probably taken over Genesis for the same reason. It made a lot of sense, actually. The irrational design of the Soldier infantry and equipment, the fairy-tale knight aesthetic of the Warden. Even the Guardians were probably summoned to quell Cortana's delirious terror.

It took some doing, and a lot of intuition, but the Chief managed to get close to the full story from the AI. The Guardians were the machines that the Forerunner Empire had used to exert its will. Any of the 'lesser' races that defied the Forerunners would face the wrath of one of these fearsome war machines. That explained much, particularly their horrific visage. Psychological warfare was a force multiplier without peer.

The original Soldiers had been a product of Cortana alone. Following the events on Meridian, she had delegated the task of designing and constructing the combat drones to computer systems within Genesis itself. It seemed that she was unable to exert direct control of them beyond the artificial planet, which explained their erratic and illogical behavior. A drone army created and controlled by sub-sapient computers; no wonder they'd been such a mess.

That was it. He had his answers, or enough to satisfy him, at least. It was time to complete his mission.

"Cortana..." the Chief began, his voice strengthening as he went on. He produced the datachip he had been carrying. "I need you to transfer yourself into this"

The shuddering, pixellated form of his friend paused. Her tone turned tender, wistful.

Like old ti-iimes...?

"Like old times," he confirmed, fighting back tears. "It's the only way I can help you."

You'll make the v-v-voices stop?

Her words were full of hope grasping for relief. As bad as he was at reading the emotions of others, the Chief could tell that she desperately wanted the nightmare of her current existence to end. She was suffering in ways he would never be able to imagine. Never be able to fix.

"I'll make them stop," he promised. "I'm going to help you go to sleep."

Sleep...I've always w-wanted to try it...

The Chief plugged the datachip into the console. Cortana paused to 'look' at him, doing the best she could with her malfunctioning hologram. The half of her face that was coherent had a tear in its eyes and an echo of her old cocky grin was on her lips.

I do know how to pick 'em.

She closed her eyes and disappeared into the chip. The Chief removed the device, the Forerunner console and holographic galaxy going dark with the loss of their current master.

The datachip glowed blue in the middle. It seemed as if Cortana's electronic presence was a luminous thing, a living sliver of light. It flickered and dimmed in ways it never had when he first met her. The Chief closed his hand over the chip, blocking it out. He knew what to do.

The Master Chief crushed Cortana's chip in his superhuman grip. The crystalline data-storage container became so much dust in his gauntlet. His friend was gone.

"Goodbye, Cortana," John whispered.

The pain was immeasurable...but also, a kind of relief. No longer would he lay awake at night wondering what had really become of his friend. No longer would he have to worry about her suffering in some kind of derelict Forerunner computer system or being picked apart in some kind of electronic dissection by hostile aliens. Her suffering had ended and her death was quick.

Strangely, it was less devastating than the Chief would have thought. His stance was wearied, but he was still standing. Still functioning. Perhaps the events of the last few months had strengthened him in some way. Perhaps now he didn't need her quite as much as he thought.

The Master Chief shrugged. This kind of thing was never his specialty. He was a soldier, not a shrink.

The Chief walked out of the structure. He walked past the rows of Wardens, now kneeling completely still, their inner lights having gone dark. He walked to the edge of the pyramid's summit and looked out over the inert Soldier factories and the silent and motionless Soldiers themselves. Even the Guardians, while still hovering above, seemed dormant somehow, their threat removed.

John looked down at his fist. He opened it, allowing the shattered remains to be scattered by the wind like ashes. He breathed a sigh of relief.

"It's...not over, yet," a pained voice said. The Chief turned around to find Agent Locke behind him, breathing heavily and blinded in one eye, awkwardly aiming a light-rifle at him. Instantly, the Master Chief was back in combat mode. He cursed internally as he remembered his sidearm was still holstered. His experienced mind began calculating a way to disarm the Spartan IV with minimal risk—

"I need some answers from you."


"Why did you go rogue?" Locke asked. "Why did you go to Meridian? Did you make the Soldiers?"

A spike of annoyance ran through the Chief. That was too much, especially after what had just happened. "I don't know if you noticed," he said sarcastically, "but we helped kill the Warden, and a lot of Soldiers besides. Plus, look around you. Why would I make them only to disable them now?"

"Then why?!" Locke asked insistently. The Chief noticed his grip on the light-rifle tremble. The Spartan II was reminded of the many Marines he had seen break over the course of his career and knew that Locke was on the verge of some sort of episode. He decided to keep talking, if only to stall for time.

"I..." John said, struggling to express himself in words. He didn't know why, but he felt the need to be honest with Locke. "I decided my old masters didn't deserve to be followed." His face set behind his visor, his resolution strong. "I went to Meridian because I thought it was the right thing to do."

"What were you doing on Meridian? What was your objective?!"

Definitely on the edge. The Chief kept his tone carefully neutral but authoritative as he answered. "To stop the Guardians. To protect humanity, from threats both foreign and domestic. That is my purpose. That is what I have chosen to do."

"Don't lie to me!" Locke demanded, the uninjured half of his face contorted in rage. "You expect me to believe that's all you wanted? After everything ONI did with your trust?!"

What was going on?

Insight blazed into the Master Chief's mind. He recognized the look in Locke's eyes. The denial, the desperation. He realized that the ONI Agent was experiencing the same thing that he had back on Meridian. He was feeling guilt at all he had done and the betrayal of his leaders was threatening to destroy him. The Chief realized, at last, that Linda had been right. He and Locke were not so different, after all.

He decided to take a risk. He decided to give Locke a chance. John depolarized his visor and looked his opponent in the eye.

"I've told you what I want. What I believe. Whether you trust me or not is up to is whatever you do next."

Silence. The 2 soldiers stared at each other, neither speaking, neither moving, for what felt like years. At last, Locke started to shift in his stance.

The light-rifle began shaking. Tears started flowing out of the Spartan IV's remaining eye. He lowered his weapon and looked down, breaking eye contact. After a moment, he looked back at the Chief, an expression of unfathomable pain and sorrow etched onto his broken face. He tossed his weapon to the Chief.

"Do it..." Locke pleaded. The Master Chief looked down at the weapon now resting in his hands. He looked back up at the former ONI Agent.

"No," John said. "You don't get the easy way out, any more than I do."

Locke faltered. He thought it over for a moment, took a deep breath, and nodded reluctantly. "What happens now?"


"Assignment completed, Reclaimer," Exuberant Witness cheerfully proclaimed.

The Master Chief watched as the last of the Guardians passed the point of no return and was swallowed by the black hole. He had immediately decided to demolish all of the forces that had been gathered within Genesis. He knew better than most that no good could ever come from them. Fortunately, the Monitor of this installation was more than happy to fulfill his request upon regaining control of her assigned facility. The Soldiers had been loaded onto hard-light transports and similarly disposed of. The threat that had catalyzed the previous few months had been resolved.

The Chief turned away from the display and walked the short distance toward the makeshift medical bay. Locke was floating in a transparent tube filled with some kind of viscous fluid. It would supposedly stabilize and heal the Spartan IV, although his eye would need to be replaced. The man himself was in a deep sleep, his body breathing in the oxygen-rich liquid, at last finding a shred of peace.

This would be a complicated relationship, the Chief knew. He doubted he would ever like Locke. Their similar origins weren't enough to erase the pain which a small part of the Chief's psyche still blamed on the former ONI Agent. Still, he no longer hated the man, and he thought he could even work with him, so long as they were kept apart most of the time.

Deciding he needed some fresh air, the Chief walked out toward the edge of the pyramid's top once again. Numerous maintenance drones were buzzing about down below, undoing the damage that the Soldiers had done. Exuberant Witness had been quite distraught upon arriving to see her base of operations reduced to such a state. Thankfully, she calmed down after a few minutes and now things were well on their way to recovery. The Chief was grateful. He was sure Cortana would have wanted it that way.

John closed his eyes. It had been a...remarkable mission. Things had changed drastically, and he knew that they would continue to change in the future. He was marching into unknown territory. It was frightening, in a way far deeper than any enemy had ever been.

The fear would not stop him. He was Master Chief Petty Officer Sierra-117. It was his job to do the impossible.

He smiled, free at last.


The noise should drown out any recording devices, at least.

Veronica Dare leaned into the shadows, the booth she occupied, alone, being set far in the back of the pub. She watched as the monitor above the bar played footage of the final naval battle against the Storm Covenant.

The pub's patrons cheered as the UNSC Infinity fired its main guns, obliterating the Forerunner war machine that the Covenant had thought would be their salvation. Fleet Admiral Hood had been able to spin the involvement of the Swords of Sanghelios as a sign of the peace that was soon to come. Humanity was strong again, made stronger by its alliance with the Arbiter's people, and would never need fear extermination again. Dare smiled privately; she was sure that, somehow, her husband had been involved in this. It was just like Buck to get in way over his head.

The video's effect upon the common populace was palpable. Despite the fact that the battle footage had been playing on what felt like non-stop repeat all week, the people around her never stopped cheering at the video's climax. They were smiling, laughing, and seemed genuinely hopeful for the first time since Dare had arrived on this backwater. Maybe for the first time in years. It seemed the Infinity was living up to its promise, after all.

Not that she could really pause to appreciate it. The former ONI Agent frowned as she was reminded of her current circumstances.

She had been on the run for months. Every attempt she made to contact someone she could trust was intercepted by her former associates. It didn't help that the list of people she trusted with the data cube she carried could fit on a business card. The corruption just went too deep. Thus, she had been forced to keep running, jumping from world to world, trying to contact someone that could help her. More importantly, someone that could use what she'd found. The data cube felt like it weighed a ton; she could feel it in the deep, inner pocket of her jacket she had concealed it in.

The server arrived at her booth and Dare smiled as her drink was placed upon the stained table. Her smile was skin-deep. The contact she was supposed to meet here was late, which was a bad sign. She would probably have to run. She reached out and grasped her glass.

An alert popped up on her visor. The sensors in her glove had detected a powerful sedative in her drink.

Damn. She was right. Dare immediately got out of her booth and moved toward the rear exit, keeping a half an eye on her surroundings and half on the readouts from her scanning equipment. She opened the door silently, drawing a collapsible baton as she did so.

A Night Watch officer lunged at her with a stun prod.

Dare dodged the blow and struck the kill-team member on the wrist. The hostile shrieked in pain and dropped their weapon. Dare deftly grabbed it out of the air and shoved it into the seam between the officer's helmet and torso armor. They jerked spasmodically and collapsed to the ground. The former ONI Agent rushed around her fallen foe, each hand wielding a weapon, and moved toward the safety of her pre-planned escape route.

A shock round hit her back.

Then another hit her in the arm. Then another in her leg, and so on. She collapsed to the ground, her teeth clenched as electricity forced her muscles to seize and contract. A trio of Night Watch officers moved in and disarmed her.

"'Bout time we caught this bitch," one of them said. He kicked her in the stomach for emphasis.

"Watch it, man!" one of his companions warned. "She might have it on her." This one, evidently the leader, crouched as his buddies held their target immobile. He drew a combat knife and used it to push the visor off of her head, leaving a fine cut in the process. Dare resisted the urge to wince in pain. "You've got pretty eyes for such a rotten cunt," the officer said with a sneer hidden behind his polarized visor. "Wanna cooperate, sweetie? I might go gentle on ya if—"

Blood splattered onto his visor as a round punched through his buddy's neck.


The second officer jerked as another silenced round struck him clean between the eyes, shattering the front of his helmet and killing him instantly. The last Night Watch officer dropped his knife and raised his silenced SMG. His helmet darted to and fro, trying to find the shooter.

Dare kicked his legs out from under him and he struck the ground with a shriek. To his credit, he immediately rolled onto his hands and knees and tried to get up. Dare climbed on top of him, grabbing his forgotten combat knife as she did so, and rammed the weapon into the back of his neck. The Night Watch officer went limp, his spinal cord severed.

"Damn, lady," an obnoxious but beautifully familiar voice said, "no wonder Gunny's so hot for ya. Remind me never to piss you off." Dare looked up to see a quartet of ODST troopers enter the alley. They all faced outward, careful not to be ambushed.

"Mickey, call in evac, now," the same voice ordered. "We've got the package."

"Copy, sir," his subordinate responded.

The leader glanced at another trooper, this one carrying a silenced SMG of his own. "Good shooting, Rook," he said. He received only a respectful nod in return. Dare was moving to get up by this point, so he walked over and gave her a hand. "You're a hard woman to find, lady," he said, depolarizing his visor.

"Lord Hood would like to have a word with you about...recent events," Romeo told her, smirking.

The data cube started to feel a bit lighter, but no less important.



The briefing room was deathly silent. None of the occupants made a sound, most due to a fully justified fear. The only exception was the chief voice, the speaker's Voice, whose silence was due to a barely-concealed frustrated rage. The heart of the Point of No Return, and of ONI in general, was riven by the cold of potential retribution and the heat of outrage. Ambitions had been quelled this day.

For the third time that year, the door opened, and Major Caroline Ackerson walked through. She stopped and stood in the accustomed place. As expected, the spotlight activated and illuminated her from above, singling her out while preventing her from seeing any of those who now sat in judgment of her. She opened her mouth to speak, perhaps to offer some justification or excuse. She never got the chance.

A knife slit her throat from behind.

Blood shot out of the Major's arteries as she collapsed to one knee. Her hands grasped her gushing neck, trying futilely to stem the flow of lifeblood. Her eyes showed neither fear nor desperation. Rather, they showed surprise; astonishment that she had lost the game she had spent her entire life trying to perfect. She fully collapsed to the deck after a moment, her eyes glazed and lifeless.

A Spartan de-cloaked behind the now deceased ONI Officer. The enormous form knelt and wiped its blade on the Major's uniform, cleaning the weapon before sheathing it. It rose to its feet and the glowing optic in the front of its helmet dipped as the figure nodded its head before leaving. The spotlight continued to shine upon the fresh corpse.

"Seems...unfortunate..." one of the lesser voices offered. It said so in a halting, submissive tone, as if afraid that each syllable would bring the same fate upon itself.

The voice's owner dared not offend their superior but this ruthless act was part of a rather worrisome trend. Ever since coming to power, the current Admiral/Director of ONI had displayed a deteriorating pattern of behavior. Too many Agents and Officers were being executed for failure, too many risky operations and doctrines were being adopted, too many targets were being assassinated or covertly imprisoned. ONI had always undertaken the ugly tasks necessary for an interstellar government, but things were being taken too far. For goodness' sake, the Major hadn't even been involved in the disaster on Sanghelios!

"Unfortunate, but necessary," the Voice dismissed. "ONI cannot and will not accept failure on such a magnitude. Its ranks must be cleansed from time to time to maintain standards."

These words did little to comfort the lesser voice. Its owner had long feared that the failed Spartan II augmentations that had damaged the body of their new Director had also had a deleterious effect upon her mind, as well. More and more they were becoming convinced that they were correct.

Not that they would ever admit it publicly, of course. There was little to gain in taking such a risk, and knowing that an individual was crazy could produce advantageous circumstances. One just had to keep their eyes open and lunge at the opportunities.

The Voice decided to continue. It spoke oddly, distantly, as if addressing itself rather than the lesser voice that had spoken up. "ONI is still the dominant force in this part of the universe and with that power comes responsibility. We hold the galaxy by the throat, after all."

The smile was clear in Admiral Serin Osman's voice as she finished her monologue.

"Perhaps it is time we gave it a squeeze..."

DONE! I am DONE! Holy heck, I never imagined this would turn into such a massive project. It's been worth it, though, and I like to think the finished product is quality and an improvement over the canon story.

Note: I just want to thank everyone who has been reading this story. The attention and feedback you've given me kept me going and bolstered my spirits. I can't tell you how much I appreciated everything you've done for me. Your feedback was the main reason I decided to push myself to become a professional author. So, uh...thanks for changing my life and everything :)

Note: Thus, the last twist is revealed: Cortana was really dead all along. Well, sort of. My intention was to portray a rampant fragment of the real Cortana, as one of the last things we saw her do was tear herself to pieces and almost succumb to the madness. I knew I had to include Cortana somehow, given how important she is to the canon story, but I didn't want to do anything to undermine the heart-breaking death scene she had at the end of Halo 4. This was what I came up with and I think it works rather well, given the circumstances. What do you guys think?

Note: I tried to establish from their first appearance that the Forerunner Soldiers made little sense from a design and tactics perspective. This is what I was building up to. The rampant Cortana felt threatened and thus 'designed' a bunch of drones that looked and acted a lot like the UNSC Marines that she had been familiar with over the course of her career. Given that she is not in a sound state of mind, the results were a bit...lacking. What do you guys think of this explanation?

Note: The Chief meeting the rampant 'Cortana' and deciding to end her suffering was one heck of a heavy thing to write. I had to balance an emotional reunion/goodbye and an exposition dump. Not to mention handling the final farewell of perhaps the best known and beloved character in all of the Halo franchise. How'd I pull it off? Was it too cheesy? Did it tug the heartstrings at all? Are you all forming an angry mob outside my house?

Note: Yes, in a way I have killed off another beloved character. No, I'm not George R. R. Martin in disguise, as some commenters suggested after I nuked Meridian, but I like to think I mirror the guy's thoughtful application of the gut punch. From what I've heard, he's a lot better at balancing character deaths to prevent reader fatigue than the show has ever been. I stopped watching 'Game of Thrones' several seasons ago because I just got fed up with the senseless death and nihilism on display. Have I avoided that here with you guys?

Note: Sigh. When I started this story I swore to myself I wouldn't end it on a blatant sequel hook. Unfortunately, I really couldn't think of anything else to do without having multiple chapters of resolution for the events of the story. Given that this is primarily about 2 characters rather than an entire setting I just didn't feel that such an extended ending would be appropriate.

Note: Next up, I'm going to be writing a fix-fic adaptation of Fallout 3. Don't worry, I haven't abandoned Halo. I actually have a lot of ideas for a sequel already written down. I just want to make my main focus writing the Fallout story, so updates to my version of Halo 6 will probably be less frequent. I hope you'll all join me in the adventure of the Lone Wanderer.

Thanks for reading. Love you guys.

Slipspace Anomaly