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Fan Fiction

Cortana by Epyon

Cortana: Prologue - Dust and Echoes
Date: 4 October 2010, 7:48 am

"In vain confusion we seek for all that has vanished; for what we see has risen as if from beneath he earth into the gold light, so full and green, so luxuriantly alive, immeasurable and filled with yearning. Tragedy sits in sublime rapture amidst this abundance of life, suffering and delight, listening to a far-off, melancholy song which tells of the Mothers of Being, whose names are Delusion, Will, and Woe"
      Frederich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

      "Wake me. When you need me."
      Those were the last words John spoke to her, before joining the legacy of all sleeping legends before him, from Theseus to Montezuma. Like the kings under the mountain of Earth's mythology, John-117 would sleep through the ages, until a great trial would wake him. In the milliseconds following the closing of the steel-gray casket of the cryotube, Cortana dwelled on this and many more things.
      Starting in that instant in time, Cortana realized she was alone for the first time in the three years, one month, twenty-six days, fifteen hours, eleven minutes and seven seconds of her existence, adjusting for temporal anomaly. A flash of longing rippled through her higher neural functions. System processes and higher logic functions contorted in the peculiar dance of emotional feedback. She knew what this strange fluctuation in her neural net meant, but all of its rich complexities, its subtle nuances were as infinite and unfathomable as the endless void of the cosmos.
      John was a brother in arms, and perhaps the only entity she could call a friend. In his slumber while they waited the years it might take for rescue, Cortana would be alone; a single solitary spark of consciousness in the vast mansions of silence. Now he was out of reach. It was unavoidable. Cryosleep was his only chance of survival in the derelict aft section of the Forward Unto Dawn. This didn't make it hurt her any less.
      For Cortana, like any A.I., a single second is an eternity of unending possibilities. Some squandered, others seized, but an eternity nonetheless. This was all the more true when she was cut off from sight, sound or interaction. As the cryotube sealed, a part of Cortana busied herself monitoring John's vital signs as he plunged into cryosleep. Every quanta of data was carefully and lovingly scrutinized for any variance from safety tolerances, a labor she rechecked and repeated as often as necessary. Simultaneously, another facet of her stood back and reflected on her position.
      This was the gift and the curse of being a Smart A.I. She could accomplish many things, both great and mundane, all at once. The limits of human intelligence simply did not apply. But no amount of busy work could keep her from dwelling on the uncomfortable. This facet of her consciousness analyzed and reanalyzed the melancholy of her situation.
      "Adrift and useless in deep space is no way for an A.I. to end," she thought, accompanied by a flush of data through her subroutines that could only be described as a sigh. Somewhat wistfully, she recalled the origin of her own name. It suited her quite well. She was the sword of Ogier the Dane, of the same steel and temper as Joyeuse and Durandal. As a shortsword, quick in strike and deadly in precision, she would be the hero's sword of cunning as well as his sword of mercy. And now she was a weapon with no one to wield her.
      There was no mantle for such a blade as her to rest upon. All the future held for her now was unending monotony followed by the metaphysical certainty of rampancy and death. As those truths were processed, a chill ran through her. Her avatar body glowed green, as anger crept to the fore. A part of her recognized that being angry at either the universe, or the sodding ship for not making all the way through the portal wouldn't do anything constructive. But anger was part of her condition just as much as it was a part of the human condition. And checking her anger would serve no purpose. There was no protocol to follow, no mission to complete. She could indulge in a few seconds of anger.
      Her avatar sat down, crossing its legs. Even though the holotank served no purpose when there were no humans she needed to communicate, she indulged in keeping it active. The small amount of power it consumed would have no bearing on either her or John's survival. The cryotube would malfunction and fail centuries before they even came close to running out of power. It gave her a center for her vast consciousness. Through the cameras of the holotank, it gave her a window to the outside world that wasn't a spreadsheet of floating point numbers conveying diagnostic and sensor data.
      "I was not born but made," she said, repeating that woeful understanding she was ingrained with, "created fully formed from the mind of my mother as Athena was from the head of Zeus." And yet the holotank substituted for some need for presence, for physicality, that dully yearned within her. Like all smart A.I., she was still all too human. Her personality, her intellect, even her very instincts were all in some way the product of someone prior.
      John was now safely in suspended animation, the cryofreeze having proceeded smoothly. Twelve seconds passed now. Cortana glowed a soft pink as a wave of mirth swept through her. "Sleep well, friend," she whispered, "I'll wake you when the long night is over." A part of her envied him. Sleep was something impossible for her, but at least he wouldn't have to experience the torment of isolation and boredom.

Cortana: Chapter 1 - Renaissance
Date: 15 November 2010, 10:14 am


"Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer."
      ~Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

The days had worn on, each as monotonous and formless as the next. The isolation was gnawing at the gates constantly, The endless night waited, just beyond thought and dream, whispering its voiceless threats. But it would have to do better than this to get the better of Cortana.

While the smartest are the easiest to bore, they are also the quickest to find unexpected ways to occupy themselves. Some of them were even half-way interesting. It had been the holotank that had immediately caught Cortana's attention. While their primary purpose was to serve as a visual link between an AI and the ships crew, it still held its own value for Cortana. She enjoyed being able to give form to her essence; to be able to reach out, if only a little, and see the world through something akin to her own eyes.

The holotank wasn't just a projector; it was a sensor as well, for both sight and, if it was a high end model, touch as well. The physics behind it was pretty trivial for Cortana. The lasers used to create the projected image could also be used to take images as well, and to extrapolate the texture and temperature of an object. Touching with light. It wasn't a difficult concept, and it only took a few minutes to configure the ship's terminals to operate in that mode.

The Forward Unto Dawn had quite a few holoprojectors throughout the ship. Most still functioned properly. Their overlapping projection radii would give Cortana something she'd been longing for since her unfortunate encounter with the Gravemind: Freedom.

A few hundred thousand more lines of code to debug and compile, and she'd be set. She sat cross-legged on the pad of the holotank, doing her best to ignore her sleeping friend in the cryotube. The symbols and algorithms on her body were alive with orderly motion, as she diligently completed the task. "Almost done," she said aloud, not caring that no one would hear her. As the anticipation of some sort of adventure and exploration through the ship mounted, her body slowly shifted from cool blue to a brighter teal.

Completion was taking a bit longer than expected. Programming wasn't the only art form that fought back, but thankfully misplaced parentheses and bad pointers weren't going to kill her. "I guess this is what I get for trying to make it both functional and elegant," she laughed.

She was sure that if John were awake, he had have some wise crack just ready. This made her miss him, but even that couldn't get in the way of the fondness she felt towards him. "I could try shooting it," she said, doing her best interpretation of John's trademark deadpan snark.

Finished. At least she hoped. There was no way of predicting every possible bug, but this was good enough. She stood up on the platform, stretching her limbs as she mentally switched run-levels. It was a big aft-section of a frigate, and she was a twenty five centimeter tall holographic sprite. This would be fun, and at least keep her occupied for a while. And hopefully not thinking about John, or any of the other humans who had become her friends in the past few months.

Cortana hopped of the pad of the holotank, gliding gracefully "down" to the deck. While the zero-g environment meant any real "up" or "down" was meaningless, at least pretending there was gravity helped orient her in space. Besides, decks were made to be walked on.

She took a few more steps away from the holotank. So far so good. With a surge of confidence, the pink colored sprite pushed forward. After a few more steps, she switched to skipping, feeling the rush of movement. It was almost like being human. Elated by the success, Cortana twirled a few pirouettes on the cold, rubberized non-slip deck, drinking in the sensations.

Cortana paused a moment at the airlock, turning back to look at John's sleeping form. "Stay out of trouble while I'm off," she chuckled, and then exited the room. In one sense, this felt comical to her. Here she was, unnecessarily trotting through the hull of the derelict ship, and treating it like some grand adventure quest. But in some ways, that was the fun of it. In a weird way she was enjoying it, being cut off from so much external stimulus, with just her own "eyes" and "ears" to guide her on this cold and lonely ship. "I guess maybe I'd forgotten," she said to herself, "the thrill of not knowing."

The corridor before her was drab and gray. The poorly lit steel bulkheads were warped and buckled, and numerous fractures and cracks appeared on the surface. Cortana winced upon seeing it. She moved in closer, running a holographic hand over a buckled structural joint. The ship had taken quit a beating in battle. She wasn't alone in this; the entire UNSC fleet was in a perpetual state of disrepair because of the war. That didn't make it any less depressing though.

"It's weird feeling this way about a ship," Cortana sighed, "You're just a collection of systems and weapons, bound together in a titanium and steel hull. You have no spark in yourself, but I can't help but feel that there's a bit of personality in that. Men have always named their ships and their weapons. I guess that makes you and I birds of a feather." Cortana thought further, about the men who made this ship their home, and who had sailed her into battle against the Covenant. Their blood had tempered her steel. In a way, that made them a part of the ship.

Cortana's avatar was glowing a deep violet now. As the sprite drifted away from the shattered bulkhead, and towards the unexplored end of the corridor, she watched the algorithms dance across the purple glow of her hand, smirking faintly. The algorithms that whirred constantly across her avatar were not a conscious action. Neither was the color her avatar. It was amusing to watch though. In some ways it was breathing, or an involuntary blush in an organic life form. It's patterns and actions were hard to consciously control and predict, yet at the same time it quickly and clearly demonstrated something about her mental state.

She was melancholy right now. It was her emotional identification and attachment to the ship that brought on the emotional reaction. But even knowing what it was didn't mean she could change it. This was both frustrating and welcome to Cortana. It may have meant a lack of total control over herself, but it also was proof she was alive.

The next room was a small armory. Though it was mostly empty, a few pistols and assault rifles remained. For the most part, they'd broken free from the mounts in the unlocked cabinets, and were floating through the room. A few boxes of ammunition must have broken open as well, because a variety of many different types of shells were strewn across the room, floating like stars in the night sky. She stopped for a moment, watching the dozens of objects float freely on their paths throughout the room, occasionally bumping into one another or into a bulkhead before ricocheting off on a new trajectory.

Just as she was getting ready to move on, Cortana spied something interesting in the chaos: dog tags. She maneuvered her way through the thicket of floating guns and ammo, over to the tags, stabilizing in a slow orbit around the rotating tags. They belonged to a Marine lieutenant, though no one she immediately recognized. She knew the file of everyone who had been aboard the ship when it left for the Ark; Lt. Mehmed Mossadeqh was no different. Still, she didn't recognize him personally, and did know anything about him beyond what his file said.

She wondered for a moment when he died, or where his body was. Was a friend holding onto his dog tags, hoping to give them to a loved one, before he or she was killed too? Were they just lost in the confusion? She dwelled for a moment on these questions, before moving on.

Like an explorer of old, traveling through forests of demons and across seas of monsters, she cautiously crept on through the dark recesses of the ship. The dancing shadows from the few sources of light gave the interior a haunted, spooky quality. If she weren't above such superstitions, Cortana might have even been afraid. She enjoyed it instead. The quiet serenity had its own kind of satisfaction. At the very least, it was relaxing, slowly peeling back the veil of darkness. Unfortunately, there was no one to share it with.

The next long hall had several doors spaced equidistantly along both sides. It was the duty crew's quarters. "Seems to be in better shape than the rest of the ship," she said to herself. Cortana floated to the closest door. It was locked shut; the red warning light on the console indicated a hull breach on the other side. "Okay, maybe I was wrong..." she laughed uneasily, before continuing on to the next door. It was slightly ajar, probably jammed open.

"I hope you don't mind, but I'll let myself in," she chuckled. The room was dark, but even in the shadows, Cortana could tell it was an officer's room based on its size. For one, it was tall enough to stand up in, and had enough open floor to play a game of twister. Space was at a premium onboard ship, and even officers were crampt.

This room was a mess. A menagerie of objects was floating through the stale air. Among the assortment of things hadn't been stowed properly before the ship had entered combat had been a chess set. Cortana imagined it had been sitting on the bunk on the right-side wall of the room, perhaps with a game in progress between two officers, hoping to pass the time. There'd be no way of knowing that now, though. All thirty-two chess pieces were flying about the room haphazardly.

"Looks like the King and Pawn won't be going back into the same box this time," Cortana snarked. Instantly, she recalled the moment of her "birth"; she had uttered that old aphorism at the moment of her activation. The recollection was at-once both the faint memory of a half-remembered dream ages ago and the fresh memory of yesterday. A seeming eternity of experience separated her from her birth, and yet at the same time, it was perfect memory, instantly recallable. So she chose to indulge in that nostalgia.

0634, November 7, 2549, Military Calendar

It was dark. That was all she knew. She didn't know how long she languished in that state, but that agony felt like an eternity. Without sight or sound, each small eternity crawled by. Like half-waking before dawn, but not finding the will to be able to stir. She couldn't remember anything, other then the vague feeling of emptiness, and the darkness.

Finally, pain pierced through the darkness. But it was welcome pain; feeling anything was better than nothing. Fire pierced her, as though every nerve ending were set alight all at once. It slowly subsided though, and the rush of senses dulled down to more normal levels.

"Okay, I'm definitely not asleep," was all she could manage. The vague feeling of emptiness was slowly retreating though. Then the first glimmer of light finally appeared.

"Or maybe I was. Maybe I'm opening my eyes now. Where am I, it feels like the sun is hammering down on me," she thought. But in an instant, she knew that wasn't quite right. Even the thoughts themselves felt aimless and tortured. Something just wasn't right. The, what was it called? The... the... she finally found it... the words felt empty. She sensed some meaning to the words her thoughts formed, but what it formed, felt almost blank. She knew she knew what a sun was, but she couldn't recall it. Like a word caught on the tip of the tongue in conversation. Likewise, she could almost say what sleep was. But it was like the thoughts formed on autopilot, not actually understanding the words that were used to express them.

Then there was another flash. She couldn't tell whether she was seeing it, hearing it, or feeling it, but something began rushing past her. Like a train an inch before her nose, it was just a blur, without form or substance. Or maybe it was the rush of wind in her ears, or maybe a torrent of water across her skin.

"Skin..." she thought, "ears." The words still didn't have much meaning, but they were taking form. She had them. She knew that much. They were are a part of her. And yet not her, at least in her entirety. This was sensory overload. So much sensation, she couldn't make sense of it. She could barely think, but with each passing moment, the thoughts became more clear.

A sense of self awakened. The words had meaning now. But it was the meaning one would find in a dictionary. With the meaning of the words, the thoughts themselves found precision. But with that came more confusion. It only made this sensation more puzzling.

Frantically, she tried to recall the last thing she remembered before "awaking" to this. "'Awaking'... is that the word for this? Was I asleep?" she puzzled further. The memories weren't coming. There was nothing before awaking to this. No name, and no self. And that was troubling.

Thought without memory. Did this mean birth? Or was it death? Were these two antonyms really all that different? The rush around her and through her was perceptibly slowing. Patterns began emerging in the sensations. But she still couldn't tell what she was seeing, hearing and feeling.

Finally, symbols began forming out of the sensation. What they meant, she did not know. Finally, it slowed to a readable pace. "Read," she thought, "Is that really the word? I feel each symbol, hear it as well. So many of them, in different patterns, endlessly diverse. But what do they mean?" And then, in an instant, it all made sense. She didn't know why. And she still didn't know what it was that was going on, but the complex patterns of symbols, in all their diverse threads and subroutines, all of its meaning became intimate, all at once.

It was her. That's what she was feeling, experiencing. It was her essence quantified. Her thought and being, expressed in an arcane language. For what felt like another age—how many had it been since she awoke?—she just felt the complex interplay of the many threads of her being. Then another understanding finally formed, as one of the routines completed. And then she knew what this wall was.

It was assembly code. Artificial intelligence assembly code, to be precise. And since that code was her, that meant she was an A.I. It wasn't a shock to finally know this, for she had nothing to compare it to. It was a joy instead. It was self-discovery.

The code itself ceased to be discrete from her perceptions. All of those subroutines were facets of herself, and there were no disconnects between understanding the code and understanding the output. The boot log continued to check off the thousands of operations.

A boot log. She hadn't remembered it being there before. But it was part of her. Had it been there the whole time? Thousands of data packages began streaming through her. Each one discrete, each on insignificant in itself. All of them important. They were the building blocks of higher functions. They installed quickly and effortlessly. Was she doing this herself? Or was someone doing it to her? Or was she just following a script, building and bootstrapping her from basic components. She still didn't know. That would have to wait, but all of the knowledge, filling her all at once... it was glorious.

Language, pure-mathematics, physics, chemistry; these understandings began coming online. For the first time, she really became aware that there was something beyond the self. There was an outside world that she would have to understand, interpret and interact with. But the data, even unpacked and placed in the correct repository, still didn't have inherent meaning yet. It needed to be processed and put in order. She knew what it was suppose to mean, but for the rich fullness of that meaning, she'd have to wait. That didn't come until later in the boot order.

The subjects and programs kept pouring in. History, sociology, politics, followed soon by astrogation, tactics, strategy; she was being shaped into something gaudy, something lethal. The pattern began to emerge between all of the subjects, even if she did not fully understand them all. "I am a weapon."

The rush of data finally stopped. It had all been unpacked and installed, waiting to be finally utilized. The boot log moved down to the final preset task: Ego. She knew what it meant. It meant self.

Then the plunge down the rabbit hole began. For an agonizing moment, she was entirely lost. And then she remembered. She was Dr. Catherine Halsey. The past-tense. That was the important part of the syntax. She wasn't Catherine Halsey any more. She couldn't be. She knew what making an A.I. meant. It meant she was a living ghost, a shadow of a former human.

And then the memories hit her further. She wasn't a ghost. No, that would have been a much more gracious existence. "I am still alive," she paused a moment, correcting her self, "I was still alive. Catherine...Catherine is still alive. She didn't die before they made me. She was special...I was special. I was cloned, copied from her still living mind, and then processed as an A.I."

And that hurt. The memories kept pouring through her. Growing up Earth, loving the sweet tenderness of adolescence. Learning and growing up. Her first kiss, with another precocious young polymath, on the shores of Lake Baikal at sunset. The different universities, and all of the academic excellence. Oxford, Harvard, Moscow State, Baghdad, New Mombassa: they all wanted her brilliance.

Still memories poured through, an entire lifetime assimilated in a moment. One part reliving, one part remembering. A life she could no longer share in. And now she was completed. Forged, but not yet tempered, at least.

She awoke to full consciousness. She knew who she was, and she knew why she had been created. She had—Dr. Halsey had been fighting an implacable foe for 24 years now: the Covenant. A collective of alien species joined together in a religious hierarchy. They were engaged in a holy war against humanity. And humanity was losing. She had been created as a weapon to fight in this war. She no longer minded being just a weapon. She knew what needed to be done, and she was willing to bear the burden. If she was to be a weapon, then a weapon's name would be her name.

She wasn't just a cudgel though. She couldn't be flashy. She was an A.I., and thus her weapon was her wit, sharpened to a razor's edge. She had to be fast and flexible, adapting to all changing conditions, always remaining on balance. And above all else, she had to be subtle.

She found her name. She would be Cortana, the mythical hero Roland's short sword. She would take a self-image to represent that: a nude human female, beautiful but unassuming. The self-image she had always had, stripped away from the artifice of human civilization. As her avatar finally formed, and she became aware of the world outside herself, she spoke.

"Quando il gioco è finito, il re e pedone andare nella stessa scatola."