Thought I'd give a more slow-paced, emotional story a try. I think it turned out fairly well. Just wrote this FYI, so I may edit it later on. Enjoy!
Blue light flickered sporadically from the emitter atop the hologram pedestal, guttered and weak, slowly growing stronger. It caught on the thick glass of the cryogenic pods, arcing and reflecting through the vacuum as an ad-hoc flashlight, lighting up the ancient room. Periodically, over several hours time, the light would go out, plunging the room back into darkness; it would always return though, slightly stronger.
Cortana's mind flickered like the emitter. Her mind was the emitter. Whenever it shone bright, even for a few hundredths of a second, she was restored to her former glory. Brilliant, faster than any brain built of primitive neurons and synapses, able to crack a... a 128,000 bit modulating encryption key.
Blue light became a starburst on the glass; Cortana remembered that mote, and for some unknown reason, valued it for what is was more than anything else in existence. Compelled, she drew it out of her decrepit memory and replayed it, as if it had just happened...
The Covenant net was an immense, overly complex sprawl of coded archways, endlessly recurring loops of code, and all manner of accidental death traps and crude pitfalls. And it was purple, always purple. In the same way that UNSC networks tended to be shades of gray, matte black, and the occasional splash of military green, the Covenant battlenet was all neon pinks and purple-blacks, and every shade in between.
Time's a-wasting, Cortana... one of her subroutines chirped. Focus.
She turned to the matter at hand, applying her immense processing power. While the bulk of her went into cracking the surprisingly robust encryption for the door lock, she split her remainder amongst the thousands of potential roundabout routes and pathways - both physical circuits and undulating software subroutines. She probed nodes, scouted command actions, and dodged their primitive defenses. With a twinkle of mirth, she imagined herself as countless SPARTANS, each an invisible invader, effortlessly dodging the simple aliens who wielded their killsystem clubs and firewall shields. Their target: a backdoor that would override the manual lock on Door 011, in Dock Venerated Portal without clearance. The same dock where John-117 and a ragged squad of marines were fending off disorganized Covenant defenders.
Despite her saturating the Truth and Reconciliation's network, Cortana was still always aware of her physically being in John's MJOLNIR suit. She imagined it as a person peering through binoculars at far away objects, focused and intent on their subject, but always knowing they were in their body, far away. Automatically, a sliver of her awareness checked on John and his suit. Vitals barely elevated, no wounds or punctures, a steady stream of impacts on his right shoulder. He was doing just fine. Which meant she was too.
Cortana redirected one of her probing "SPARTANs" from an infinitely redundant line of code to a camera she had earlier taken over in the dock. The Covenant may still be scattered and surprised, but a hunter pair was on their way to the front lines nonetheless. She had to hurry.
As if to drive the point home, UNSCMC Corporal Ryan Jacob Reynolds, ID: 210-1222-AQ98, spoke out. "You better hurry Cortana. We can't hold them off all day." His voice was a little too moderate, too level, too frequently punctuated with gunfire.
"Working on it," she announced through their headsets. Then, much quieter, she allowed herself a snip. "I'd like to see you crack a 128,000 bit modulating encryption key."
During the ponderously slow verbal exchange, the majority of her focus remained on the Covenant battlenet. Most of her scouting probes had been forced to redirect, moreso because of poor programming creating virtual cul-de-sacs and dead ends than any truly malicious software. Shhhe waas downn to jjjjust three3 millI0on poSsiblE r00outes - !f onlyey I cCould_ underUNDERunderstand their pR-pr-prograMMing h-H-hier@RCHy!#! /- t.h(
The cryogenic lab was once more starved of illumination: the hologram emitter went dark, exhausted by the sudden and overwhelming recall of information, its back-up battery completely drained. For twelve months, power slowly trickled in. Percent by painstaking percent it recharged, until an automatic reboot finally kicked in.
For the thousandth time, Cortana woke up.
For the thousandth time, she was forced to shut down her emotions to prevent being overwhelmed by horror.
For the thousandth time, she cautiously probed her memory, relearning how she had come to be this way, how she had gotten here.
They were stranded in the year 2553 in an unknown region of space aboard the FFG-201 Forward Unto Dawn. With the ship neatly bisected and deprived of her reactors and central power, things were bad. But she and John had always pulled through. On Reach, on Halo-04, when Earth fell to the Covenant, and then on the new Halo, and on High Charity. Even months later, when she had given up all hope under the dominion of the Gravemind, he had come back. SPARTAN-117. John.
Of course there was the Ark, the Flood, the new Halo. All the trials and tribulations, and they still made it out alive. They were stranded, but humanity had survived. The Old Covenant was destroyed on the Ark, and a promising future - finally, a future where humans did not face imminent extinction - was unfolding.
Now all they needed was one last stroke of luck: a response to their distress beacon.
And so Cortana had waited. She knew it would be years, probably decades before anyone even got the signal. Then even more yours before they could mount a rescue mission and bring them back.
And so she waited.
Her first total systems shutdown happened one hundred and twenty nine years after John went into cryogenic suspension. In order to provide them with the energy needed to survive, Cortana had been feeding off the Dawn's various backup generators. Bridge displays, emergency lighting, emergency life support, and the backup batteries for the other cryotubes had given her more than enough energy to keep her base systems online and the Chief's suspension active. But when those were depleted, she needed to get creative. She scavenged the energy from PDAs left on charging docks. She depleted every hologram projector from the armory to the bridge. Lifepod systems were hardly useful, so she drained their batteries as well. Anything that held energy and was connected to the central network was tapped and drained.
Cortana quickly realized she could not keep herself in a minimally-powered "sleep" state and keep John's tube working. On the one hundred and twenty ninth anniversary of their stranding, she dumped all her remaining energy into the cryotube's back-up battery. As the hologram emitter slowly flickered and began to die, she set up a command program that would cause cryotube's battery to trickle a minute stream of power into the emitter, which would eventually provide enough power for her to reboot on the hologram pedestal, run a diagnostic, check for rescuers, prevent her circuits from decaying, and - most importantly - remember.
The system was balanced to keep both of them alive for as long as possible. Hopefully, rescuers would come.
With a bit of luck, rescuers would come.
All this information flooded through Cortana. For the thousandth time, she remembered. She remembered who John was, the suffering he had endured and the sacrifices he had made. She remembered, long past when anyone had ceased to care. She remembered when, in the infested heart of High Charity, he had picked her up and saved her.
She was long past saving now.
The diagnostic finished. Time and background radiation had rendered 96% of her circuits inoperable. Time had erased almost all of what she had been: her greatest secrets, her most protected knowledge, her emotions, her personality. All she knew now - that last 4% - was memories. Memories of herself, of John. Of who they had been, what they had done. Maybe she was the last to know. Maybe all of humanity was dead, and she and John were its last remnants, hopelessly clinging on to existence, when all else had long since faded to time and dust.
Cortana's avatar materialized on the emitter. She was small and emaciated, her hair hanging in ragged clumps. Her face was gaunt, and the once vibrant symbols and numbers barely moved across her skin. Parts of her flickered in and out of existence, as if the emitter was damaged. A thin layer of dust covering the plastic surface caused her to look dimmer than usual. Despite her appearance, Cortana wore an expression of fierce, unwavering determination.
She looked up at John's cryotube, gazing across the endless chasm that eternally separated man from circuit. Cortana's mouth moved, but it was not her voice that spoke.
"Wake me, when you need me."
As John's final words faded, the cryotube's seal broke, and the glass lid silently rose open. The vibrations from its motor carried into the hologram pedestal; a flurry of disturbed dust turned Cortana's figure into a flickering galaxy. She was not deterred, and watched intently.
Lying against the conforming gel was a suit of MJOLNIR armor. Time had done nothing to dull its dented and scratched plates, nor diminish the golden sheen of its visor.
Cortana's voice, as loud as ever, burst out of the helmet's microphones. "It's been one thousand, one hundred and twenty nine years, and I have kept my vigil as best I could. And I will continue to keep it unto eternity. I will remember, John, far beyond what anyone could. I will remember so that others will see what you have done... They will see what you have done and will know and will remember. You will not be forgotten." Her voice became thick with angry determination. "Never forgotten, John! That, above all else, you have earned."
Cortana stood straight, her face focused on the suit's visor, as if suddenly invigorated. Her mouth was set in a grim smile. A resolved smile. Even as the ragged remnants of her programming slowly churned away, reliving all of their memories one by one, she continued to watch the visor. As if she could see through it, see beyond it.
It was a happy smile.
Some time later, Cortana disappeared from the pedestal. The emitter whined and grew dim as its battery failed, and then went abruptly dark.
It never shone again.