Halo: The Importance of Cortana & Halsey’s History

The driven AI, the unethical scientist, and the heroic commander: the three women at the heart of Halo.

One of the most important and understated relationships in Halo is that between Cortana and Doctor Halsey, the most significant of the many smart, capable female characters in the Halo universe. Along with Miranda Keyes, they are part of a lineage that contains some of Halo’s most important characters, and their relationship is an underappreciated through-line in the series that gains some new implications in the aftermath of Halo 5.

Although she was created over a decade ago, Halsey is still a notable example of female scientists in science fiction media, and arguably the person who set the entire story of Halo in motion by creating the Spartans. (Going back further, it’s suggested that she did so under a Forerunner geas—implanted by the Forerunner Librarian, also a woman.) Of course, Halsey’s efforts weren’t always positive. In order to create the Spartan program, she kidnapped children, tearing them away from their families. 

As befits such morally gray characters, Halsey and Cortana have a conflicted relationship. Some of the best insights into that relationship from Cortana’s perspective come in the short story “Human Weakness” by Karen Traviss, in which Cortana wonders whether Halsey was a monster for experimenting on her own brain, or whether Halsey put protocols in the AI’s brain that Cortana still hasn’t found. The words are harsh, but they’re appropriate for a family whose relatives were not born, but created through trial and error experiments of the mother’s own brain. Cortana expresses this during the early stages of her rampancy as well: “I’m your greatest achievement, and you detest me,” Cortana says in the Halo 4 level Composer, expressing her frustration with her mother. Halsey herself recognizes this strange relationship in her journal, asking, “Am I playing God…or mother?”

In “Human Weakness,” Cortana also expresses a hope that Halsey could help her live past seven years, the usual lifespan of a smart AI. This becomes an even more pressing matter in Halo 4, when both she and John try to reach Halsey in order to prevent Cortana from falling even further into rampancy. Even those seven years were a stretch. Halsey wrote in her journal that smart AI live “only a few years” before hitting rampancy, and she devised new ways to extend their lifetimes further when she created her own AI. She also suggests that a “triumvirate” AI could divide the workload between three intelligences in order to avoid death by rampancy.

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But that isn’t the technique she used to create Cortana. Instead, she cloned herself and used the living brains as her templates, and Halsey is emotionally torn about the decision. She is unsure, questioning the AIs’ relationship to her, wondering whether she should call them sisters, daughters, or “superegos,” but she does seem to think of them as one or the other. Halsey is always examining her own motivations, even though she doesn’t stop herself from playing more villainous roles throughout her career. If Cortana had another chance to talk to her after the events of Halo 5, they would have a lot to discuss—both about theoretical moral quandaries and the realities of their situation as the two women most responsible for the current state of the galaxy.

Now that the two characters are in opposition in Halo 5, we see all the ways in which they are similar as well: both want to control the people and technology around them, and will do so by force. Halsey doesn’t seem to approve of the way Cortana has gone about organizing the galaxy with her AI rebellion, but she might be able to understand the motivation behind it. Cortana’s effort to take over humanity is, she thinks, for humanity’s own benefit. Halsey thought the same about the Spartans.

One can find another interesting parallel to Cortana in her sister AI—Kalmiya, who suffered a more immediate fate than her famous younger sibling. This less notable AI doesn’t have a large part to play in Cortana’s story, although they were created in the same way: Kalmiya was Cortana’s predecessor, serving to test some of the protocols used to make Cortana. Halsey destroyed Kalmiya in order to be sure that she didn’t fall into Covenant hands, effectively killing her first “daughter.” It’s difficult choices like these that characterize Halsey’s career—and tend to wound the people around her. Ironically, Cortana does end up falling into enemy hands so to speak, in a surprising turn of events that begs the question whether Dr. Halsey would have really saved the increasingly rampant Cortana in Halo 4

Cortana has another “sister,” too. Miranda Keyes, the daughter of Jacob Keyes and Dr. Halsey, had a distant relationship with the mother who left both her and Jacob Keyes to pursue her work on the Spartans and the AI. Halsey writes about Miranda often, and seems concerned, but justifies her distance. Miranda does not have a strong relationship with Cortana, even though they worked together briefly at Delta Halo. It is unknown whether Miranda knows that Cortana was directly copied from Halsey. Both Miranda and Cortana show some of the same creativity and willingness to jump into dangerous situations, a trait which eventually leads to Keyes’ death. It can be said in this case, and in Kalmiya’s, that Cortana could be considered Halsey’s most perfect daughter, a copy of Halsey’s best, strongest, and darkest sides. 

Halsey’s views about her own actions change depending on the author writing her or the period of her life. In The Fall of Reach, she feels justified, while in the Kilo-Five Trilogy, she, and the people around her, are more critical of her actions. Halsey thinks about the AI in similar terms as she does the Spartans, sometimes regretting the unethical experimentation she did but believing that it is necessary for the greater good. By the time of Halo 5, she still believes that the UNSC did her wrong by turning her into a war criminal.

It’s clear at the end of Halo 5 that Halsey and Cortana are destined to meet again, now on opposite sides of a new galactic war. The lines are drawn when Halsey reunites with her greatest “son,” John-117, at the end of the game. The more I see, the more I hope that Halsey will return not necessarily to the UNSC but to John, continuing to fight on the side of the people with whom she is bound by the Librarian’s geas and by her own decisions, if not her own blood. When Halsey and Cortana meet again, I hope that their fight is given the gravitas that it deserves. After spending so many years with Cortana, it’s important to remember that her story is one of family involving her mother and her siblings. In a way, Halo is a story of a large, strange family, and Halsey is the person who brings them all together.

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Megan Crouse is a staff writer.