There are spoilers ahead for the Halo series, but we do not spoil anything from Halo 5 here.
Cortana is a poster child twice over. On top of being one-half of the team that headlines the Halo series, her name and likeness are now packaged with Microsoft products as a voice assistant. One of the most beloved characters in Halo, Cortana has a range of roles throughout the series, from loyal friend to dangerous destroyer.
Even though she seemingly sacrificed herself for the Master Chief in Halo 4, Cortana’s fate will still be a key element in Halo 5: Chief is holding on to what’s left of her data chip in the earliest trailers and it seems like he’s looking for ways to bring her back.
Now that Halo 5 has arrived, we’ve looked back at some of Cortana’s most memorable and triumphant moments from other entries in the series.
Her Introduction in The Fall of Reach
One of the lasting charms of the novel The Fall of Reach is the introduction of John to Cortana. The more adventures the two have together, the more meaningful it becomes to see the two of them immediately click, her chipper humor and his stoic determination. It’s also a bit of a time capsule, with its pitch-perfect expression of the mischievous attitude Cortana showed in Halo: CE. The Fall of Reach also shows how Cortana set all the events of Halo: CE into motion, since she loaded the mysterious Forerunner coordinates into the Pillar of Autumn’s computers, eventually leading the ship to the first Halo installation.
The Destruction of Installation 03
While it was the Master Chief who carried her through the Flood-infested Halo and protected her from the Covenant, Cortana was the mastermind of the first game. It was her idea to use the Pillar of Autumn’s reactor core to destroy Installation 03: she just needed John to get her there. Although Cortana’s victory is never celebrated in-universe in the same way that John’s is, the two of them succeeded because of their partnership. Halo: CE’s campaign showed that the two of them working together wasn’t just an expression of a friendship between two characters, but was an absolute necessity in order for the story to work. Cortana enabled everything that takes place in Halo: CE, even if she isn’t lauded for it.
Cortana vs. Ascendant Justice
In the novel First Strike, Cortana, John, and some surviving marines board a Covenant ship, the Ascendant Justice. Cortana takes control of the ship, destroying its onboard AI in an attack the book compares to “dissection.” Her destruction of the Covenant AI allows her to control the ship on her own, and shows her triumphing in her particularly AI brand of digital warfare. She also copies some of its abilities, including the ability to make copies of herself. This takes its toll, though: Cortana is distracted and weakened by creating the slightly flawed copies, and shows some of the worry and distraction that, later, could be tied to her rampancy.
One of the best stories about Cortana is also the one that focuses the most on her perspective. “Human Weakness,” from the Halo: Evolutions anthology, takes place in the time during which Cortana was captured by the Gravemind. In some of her dialogue in the games, we see how her capture affected her, infecting her with the Gravemind’s darkness. In “Human Weakness,” Cortana is actively working to save herself, even though she struggles to do so. She manages to fight the Gravemind’s digital and mental intrusions enough to send a message to the UNSC – not a distress call, but information about how to find the Ark and defeat the Flood. Cortana thinks of herself as a soldier during this difficult time, and realizes the value of humans and human friendships – but also uses her unique capabilities as an AI to send the information she hopes will help the military. (The information, though, ends up being a trap.)
Cortana vs. Didact
Cortana’s most memorable moment in Halo 4 isn’t one of my favorites. Cortana’s death in was a moment of critical decision for her, a way for her to save John despite her own deteriorating condition. It was also key to unlocking some of the humanity in John that Halo 4 intended to explore.
Cortana’s rampancy put her into the sometimes uncomfortable role of the character who is more a reflection than a complete person. She is John’s humanity, but he is not her body. He (and the Rookie, and Noble Six, all the player characters who contributed to this narrative) is the perspective, while she is relegated to the role of navigation tool. He carries on after she is gone, although Halo 5 may change this.
For now, Cortana’s death doesn’t rank as one of her best moments for me, even if she did sacrifice herself for John. I hope to see her have more moments where she takes her life in her own hands in the future – and succeeds, instead of dying. Instead, my favorite Cortana moment in Halo 4 comes earlier, when despite her rampancy, and even with the help of it, she defends the Master Chief against the Didact. Cortana has doubted her own sanity throughout the game, but she is still determined to do what she can to save the Chief.
She uses all of the copies of herself created by her rampancy to hold the Didact down, and her actions there save the Master Chief’s life. Like many Spartans have also done, Cortana sacrifices herself for others and shows her heroism one final time.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.