Cortana’s Weakness

In the reading journal of The Flood [x], I noted that the creature/plague of the same name works as horror on three levels: intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Silentium provides the first and The Flood provides the last, with the short story “Human Weakness” providing the emotional horror.

“Human Weakness” is the short story in Halo Evolutions Volume II. Written by Karen Traviss, it spans portions of Halo 2 and 3, detailing Cortana’s conflict with the Gravemind aboard High Charity.

Cortana Gravemind 1

Halo 2 Anniversary

At first glance, emotional horror may be seen as caught in limbo between the physical horror and the intellectual horror. In The Flood, we see a physical interaction of horror as an infection form burrows beneath the Master Chief’s skin. This physical horror, described in visceral terms, is later transformed to the emotional level; the Chief wastes precious ammunition in a panic to destroy another infection form springing at him. In Silentium, we see intellectual horror when the Didact discovers the origins of the Flood. Again, this rapidly becomes emotional horror as every belief the Didact holds dear is perverted viciously.

This transformation from physical or intellectual to emotional is an indication, not of a limbo status, but of a foundational status. Horror is inherently an emotional genre. Its very name is an emotion. Genreflecting’s chapter on the genre states that horror is “all about the fear.” It also notes that horror is personal (Genre, pp 314). What scares us reveals on some level who we are. It reveals what we hold dear. That revelation is the emotional horror.

Unlike The Flood and Silentium, in which this level is the reaction to a secondary fear, “Human Weakness” showcases the Gravemind deliberately evoking emotional horror. The Flood’s central intelligence targets Cortana’s greatest desires – “infinite life, infinite knowledge, and infinite companionship” (“Human,” pp 259) – and her greatest fears.

The temptation of infinite life evokes Cortana’s fear of rampancy, the death of an A.I. This is a frequent taunt of the Gravemind’s. It consistently reminds her that she only has seven years before rampancy claims her, sooner if her system is overloaded. This death terrifies Cortana. She understands it to be a place when her world becomes a “sequence of random nightmares” (“Human” pp 255). As the fight with the Gravemind continues, she finds herself on the brink, teetering.

Cortana Rampant

Halo 4

Rampancy is actually what makes Cortana, as a smart A.I., the perfect exploration of emotional horror. Rampancy is progressive and the evidence is certain strong emotions. Sadness, anger, and envy. All of these are triggered by the fear of death. Cortana experiences sorrow in that John will outlive her. She rages against Halsey, that she was given such a short time to live. Envy arises in the consideration that John will be given another A.I., perhaps multiple. All of these are coaxed and encouraged out of Cortana as the Gravemind lays bare her fear.

Fear, Cortana defines, is “not knowing. Knowing is… control” (pp 257). The first thing that frightens her in the interaction with the Gravemind is her inability to know how it struck a damaging blow to her systems. She panics when she thinks that the Gravemind may have compromised her memory.

“She hated it when someone – something – outsmarted her. No, she feared it. And now she felt that fear like a punch in the stomach. … She wasn’t designed to have blind spots and weaknesses. She was supposed to be a mind. The very best.” (pp 242).

The desire for infinite knowledge is always there for Cortana. Part of it, is the inherent need for A.I.s to constantly process data; the analogy to oxygen is made consistently. However it is likely that she inherited a very particular trait from the brain used to map her core code.

“Life is too short. I will never learn all that exist in our own tiny galaxy, let alone the rest of the universe. And I so desperately want to know everything.” (Spartan Ops Episode 6).

Halsey Knowledge

Spartan Ops Episode 6

A clone of Halsey’s own brain, Cortana finds many similarities between herself and the doctor. She tells the Gravemind, “I think I take after my mother” (“Human,” pp 243). It is possible that the Gravemind senses this desperate need and at one point classifies it as more than a basic need for Cortana. It is her drug, her addiction (pp 242). So the Flood targets it. Throughout their exchanges the Gravemind tempts her with knowledge, worlds and ages unseen. It targets the fear of forgetting, revealing Halsey’s deletion of some of Cortana’s memories, again tying in emotions. Abandonment, loneliness, the lack of affection – all these the Gravemind forces Cortana to consider

Just as intellectual horror and physical horror are tied to the foundation of emotional horror, so does the desire for life and knowledge tie into one constant for Cortana.

When considering her own death, it’s not the looming nightmares that causes her the greatest fear.

“John would never have let himself fall into enemy hands. She’d let him down. Somehow the decline into rampancy seemed less important than that right now.” (pp 247).

When considering the infinite things that she does not know, it’s not the question of her deleted memories that haunts her the most.

John’s going to outlive me. Who’s going to take care of him? Nobody else can, not like me. What’s going to happen to him?” (pp 257).

Cortana Protect

Halo 4

While the taunts of rampancy and the lure of knowledge are used frequently, the Gravemind uses the Master Chief and Cortana’s relationship to him to strike very specific blows. It’s how she first knows it has accessed her systems.

“‘John,’ his gravelly voice said slowly. ‘John. So that’s what you call him. Most touching.’” (pp 238).

It’s the tactic chosen when she’s at a breaking point, hoping to shove her over the edge.

“‘Even John has abandoned you.’ The Gravemind repeated the name with heavy emphasis. ‘Live forever. Live on in me, Cortana. And if John comes, John need never face death again either…’” (pp 257).

Cortana’s affection for John is the strongest temptation that the Gravemind can offer – living forever with the person she cares for. It’s also the strongest fear that can be driven into her heart – that he would abandon her, forget her, even after she’s passed.

This ability to directly target Cortana on an emotional level reveals more of the Gravemind’s character and the Flood as a whole. The appendix of Halo Effect notes that the Flood’s central intelligence is “[c]ognizant, emotional, and cunning” (pp 176, emphasis mine). In “Human Weakness,” the Gravemind admits this, acknowledging that it has both pity and impatience within itself. From this possession of emotions, the Flood is capable of manipulating them in others, both directly and indirectly.

However, the Gravemind’s focus on emotional horror with Cortana is the reason that its designs to turn her ultimately failed. The connection between John and Cortana is more than the emotion of affection. There is a love between them. Be it familial, romantic, or platonic, that love is what consistently snapped Cortana back from the brink, because it was more than emotions. It was a choice. A promise, if you will.

I chose you, John. I will not give you up.”
(“Human Weakness,” pp 271).

Cortana Promise

Cortana Promise

Halo 3

Halo Effect is an unofficial collection of essays about Halo, published in 2007.’s Daniel Barbour wrote the Appendix.

DilDev also keeps a Tumblr, where she has a few more pieces published on Cortana.

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