Dr. Catherine Halsey is one of the most influential characters in the Halo universe. Although never mentioned in any of the games, she features heavily in the novels and had a brief appearance in ilovebees. Without Dr. Halsey, it is likely that the Covenant would have held the gun to the head of the universe and pulled the trigger before they ever made it to Earth. Both Master Chief John-117 and Cortana could be said to be her children, for she was responsible for their existence as Spartan and AI counterparts. She is the greatest human mind of the twenty-sixth century, and this post is here to honor her.
Catherine Halsey grew up in what seems to be an ordinary family with a mother and a father. However, her own intelligence vastly surpassed her peers as well as her parents. This made her a pretty cocky kid who loved showing off and impressing people. It also made her a bit narcissistic as well. Any individual with above average intelligence has the potential flaw of falling into the belief that they are somehow “better” than other individuals of different perception, and she was the smartest person of the century. By the time she was fifteen, she had already completed her second doctoral thesis on computer science, specifically archaic (that is, only a little obsolete to us) computer interfaces. She later went on to supervise the development of third-generation smart AIs for the Office of Naval Intelligence.
She was always a patriot, steadfast in her support for the Unified Earth Government. When the Insurrection threatened to defeat it, she wholeheartedly opposed the rebels and sought to use her intelligence to construct a weapon that would enable the UNSC to maintain peace in the Outer Colonies. She decided on a revamp of one of the aspects of the earlier ORION project: the SPARTAN program.
The highly secretive SPARTAN program was an attempt by the UNSC to develop a group of top soldiers, named after the legendary warriors of Sparta, with which they could combat the Insurrectionists. The best Marines in the Corps were selected and offered the chance to serve their government. Those who accepted were taken to a special facility on Reach where they were given extensive training and conditioning to function effectively as a unit. Eventually, the Spartans underwent body modification to heighten their senses and strengthen their endurance. When the Spartans completed their training, they were sent out into the field, where they served as the most elite soldiers the UNSC had to offer in the fight to retain control of the colonies.
However, even the best had their problems. Despite their augmentations, the Spartans were still only human. The Insurrection was not so easily resolved, and the war stretched on through the years. When the program was disbanded, some like Avery Johnson went back to serve in the Marine Corps, while several retired to start families or, as in the case of Gilly, suffered psychological breakdowns and had to remain separate from civilian communities. It was in this period in which Spartans could no longer be active that Dr. Halsey strove to recreate it with a few alterations to compensate for the weaknesses demonstrated by the first generation of Spartans, or Spartan 1.0s.
For the Spartan 2.0s of the SPARTAN-II program, she controversially decided to circumvent the issues created by personal thought-patterns and behaviors by having them indoctrinated at the very early age of six. As no parent would willingly allow their children to enter the project, which was kept so secret ONI couldn’t reveal it anyway, seventy-five of a list of one hundred fifty selected children were abducted from their homes and replaced with flash clone duplicates that would die a year or so later. Calling in a favor, she got her old friend Dr. Ysionris Jeromi to perform experiments with physical augmentations on chimpanzees, the closest animal test subject to humans, which she would later use on her Spartans. While the 1.0s had their share of augmentations, this new set was so extensive it would radically transform the human body to a state many are reluctant to call human, and Jeromi himself expressed a hope that the procedure would never be done to any human subjects.
Despite the alarm of several of her colleagues, Halsey continued the project by personally performing the augmentations of the 2.0s. Many died through botched implementation of the foreign additions, while others were disabled, unable to continue active duty. Those who survived became superhumanly strong and fast, just what an elite group of soldiers needed to arise as best.
Throughout her time doing what many would deem immoral acts, she still maintained a sense of a conscience. Unlike her amoral rival Colonel James Ackerson, her extreme means were altruistic in nature, based purely in the belief that it was necessary to ensure UNSC victory over the Insurrectionists. She knew it was immoral, but felt that it must be done, even as she simultaneously regretted what she was doing.
The SPARTAN-II project turned out to be essential for the survival of, not only the UEG, but the human race itself. When the Covenant declared holy war on humanity, the Spartans became the greatest weapons to be used in the defense of Earth and her colonies. Whether or not the project itself can be justified, it is clear that without the SPARTAN-II project humanity would have had no chance.
She strengthened her soldiers even more by having them don MJOLNIR armor. While the advanced robotic armor had proved deadly to Marines, the superhuman Spartans were able to wield it in a safe and effective manner. The implementation of the shield technology reverse-engineered from Kig-Yar shields put the Spartans up to an equal footing with Covenant Sangheili. They were powerful, strong, and fast, with great knowledge of battlefield strategy and tactics. However, their intelligences were limited, certainly not on the scale that would enable them to hack into Covenant technology, as would be needed to secure a victory through the capture of a San'Shyuum. For a feat like that, the only person she trusted to perform effectively was herself.
As she couldn’t very well head off into midst of battle as she was, a civilian scientist with no military training whatsoever, she decided to join the Spartans in an incorporeal state, as a smart AI. Smart AIs are created through a process in which a human brain is modeled for the construction of circuitry, as humanity cannot create a fully sentient AI artificially and must copy off of a working model. Because the process destroys the brain, the process is commonly performed on the freshly dead; however, Catherine Halsey had her own brain selectively flash cloned specifically for the process. Normally the brain donor’s memories are kept separate from the consciousness of the AI, who would only be given the brain donor’s personality, but she made an exception for this one particular circumstance.
Catherine Halsey trusted only herself to serve as brain donor, and in a sense allowed herself to become an AI. The flash cloned brain would have had all of her memories up to the point she created the clone, and would have been an exact copy of herself. When Cortana woke up, she was in a sense Dr. Halsey herself, transformed into an AI.
A person’s identity can be defined by their individual experiences in addition to the way their physical makeup affects their ability to perceive. For the barest instant after Cortana’s activation, she would have been practically indistinguishable from Catherine Halsey in the moment she made the clone. After that instant, her experiences and perception would have changed significantly enough to transform her identity into a divergent Catherine Halsey. The pre-clone identity could be described as an ancestor to both the continuation in human form as well as the continuation in posthuman AI form. Cortana and her living human counterpart are like identical twin sisters, but more so in that they are practically the same person.
While Catherine Halsey considered Cortana as one of her advanced AI projects, Cortana herself was like Catherine Halsey reborn. To Halsey, Cortana exhibited traits similar to Halsey’s youth, which she rationalized as because of the shared memories; however, to Cortana, it would have been like herself ascending to some higher state of existence. She wasn’t just an AI exhibiting traits, but a sentient, sapient being, essentially the doctor herself, realizing how powerful she was and becoming narcissistic as a result. As Cortana herself states, she has enormous capabilities, including access to all human knowledge, the ability to choose whether or not to experience emotion, to perceive radio waves as well as humans see light, as well as simulated perception of textures, tastes, odors, and more. She was superior in intelligence and capability, and once more found herself boastful and eager to show off.
It’s important to understand the distinction, one of which it seems Dr. Halsey was not aware. She continued to think of Cortana more as the latest in her series of AIs than as a person split off from her. Not to say that she looked on Cortana with any cold disdain, though. She was simply apathetic to whatever bond they might have shared. In the end, she created Cortana for a very specific purpose: that of supplementing a Spartan.
Catherine Halsey had always had a particular liking for John-117. He was one of the Spartan candidates she had personally observed and confirmed for the program. She had followed his progress though the years, and supported his continued promotion. Despite her insistence that the belief of luck was irrational, she couldn’t help but find herself coming to the conclusion that John had, in addition to his strength, speed, bravery, and leadership abilities, a kind of luck that made him very good at winning. As he aged from a boy to a man, she found him become physically attractive—an animal instinct she shoved away and kept secret to all but herself.
When it became time for Cortana to choose a Spartan with whom to work, there was only one real Spartan who Catherine Halsey could recommend. Cortana accepted her advice, having already come to the same conclusion. Even with her upgraded reasoning capabilities, Cortana felt the same way—including the part about his attractiveness, a piece of info about which Cortana could tease her brain donor, knowing definitely how she would perceive. While it may not be the smartest tactic to consult someone who thinks almost exactly the same way you do, the decision was made. John-117 and Cortana were to be made partners.
Cortana got to know her Spartan partner through training and battlefield experiences, changing as a result. She shifted farther away from her human counterpart as she began to evolve into a new identity. The situation in which she and John are made dependent on each other for intellectual insight and physical interaction is one very intimate and they became good friends and perhaps something more. Although unable to physically interact, John’s reduced sexual drive as a result of his augmentations makes him an ideal romantic interest to an incorporeal intelligence like Cortana. The reverence in their voices as they speak to each other makes a clear indicator of their feelings for each other, in my opinion. In any case, Cortana evolved past her original identity as Catherine Halsey and became something greater.
Meanwhile, the Catherine Halsey tangent continued to evolve as well. As the Covenant made their attack on Reach and Halsey was left at CASTLE Base to activate the last resort bomb, Halsey began to reevaluate her judgment of the value of human life. After escaping with the help of her Spartans, she acquired data that suggested Sergeant Johnson had survived his encounter with the Flood due to a freak incident after radiation sickness scrambled his inner workings – apparently all an ONI hoax to cover up his participation in the SPARTAN program, although Halsey accepted it as fact.
Now, she had a moral dilemma. She could give ONI the information she acquired, thus sentencing Johnson to death by ONI scientists trying to figure out a way to replicate the incident. Or, she could assume that the odds were so very against ONI ever being able to replicate the immunity and spare them the information regarding Johnson’s survival, thus saving his life. Instead of making the decision herself, she gave the choice to John-117. Perhaps she did this because she wanted to make up for her previous immoral actions in subjecting her Spartans to such behavioral modification that they became so brainwashed and ‘dehumanized’, and this was her attempt to revitalize John’s humanity. In any case, she got through to him and he ultimately chose to save Johnson’s life.
"I’m tired of sacrificing others for the ‘greater good.’ It never stops, Cortana… and we’re running out of people to sacrifice."
At this point, Halsey had made up her mind to go against the wishes of the UNSC to further her own morals. It didn’t end with just deciding Johnson’s fate. On a hunch, she decided to commandeer a rebel ship and forcibly take one of her Spartans, Kelly-087, on a trip to some coordinates she found on Ackerson’s server. Before leaving, she gave the mysterious and powerful Forerunner Crystal to Corporal Locklear with instructions to destroy it should the Covenant threaten to claim it, something against the wishes of a superior officer of the ship, who would risk getting it back to ONI. Halsey has come a long way from the woman who picked out Jacob Keyes as her assistant in scouting Spartan candidates because she valued his undying loyalty to his superior officers.
Once she made it to Onyx, she discovered planet was an artificial Forerunner megastructure, and that an antechamber near the planet’s core contained a portal to a protected Shield World. She made the decision to take her Spartans there to save them from what she felt was humanity’s certain destruction at the hands of the Covenant. The Spartan-IIs were created simply for the purpose of enforcing the UNSC, the defense of Earth’s authority the reason for excusing immoral acts, and yet by this point Halsey willfully deceived and jeopardized the UNSC for the purpose of rescuing the people she cared about. She lied to the UNSC and had Earth’s Spartans sent to Onyx so she could save the ones she could.
Halsey was successful. Even after so many fell to the Covenant, she brought a small team into the micro Dyson sphere. There they remain protected from the outside forces, in a Forerunner-created inverted planet. Perhaps her greatest adventure is waiting ahead in that fantastic world untouched by human hands for a hundred thousand years. Perhaps she may even meet up again with her posthuman self adrift in space? Whatever her fate, she remains one of the most powerful figures in the Halo universe.
Crossposted with Halopedia.