The Cortana Letters, Part I

Back before we started up the Core, Mal and I discussed a number of things we wanted to do on it. Several of those things we have done, others are being worked on, and others set aside. One of the things Mal wanted to try doing was a second look at the enigmatic Cortana letters sent to Hamish Sinclair of Marathon's Story. Unfortunately, this was one of the things that was set aside...

Nevertheless, Mal asked Hamish for permission to copy the letters for the purposes of re-examination, a request graciously granted. And now, over a month after the fact, Mal has delegated the examination to me until he has more time to start again.

Anyone interested in this subject is almost required to visit Marathon's Story, specifically the section devoted to Cortana--the analysis there is much more detailed than anything I could achieve. Most, if not all, of my observations will have already been made... I stand on the shoulders of giants, and am most grateful for the view. So before (or while) you read this, take a look at what has already been said.

And now, Cortana.

The First Letter

The first letter came out of the blue, surprising most and sending people scrambling for confirmation. Bungie supplied this confirmation, assuring Marathon's Story that it was legitimate. And thus began this mystery.

From: Cortana
Subject: Closure
Date: Mon, 15 Feb 1999 10:50:20 -0600
MIME-Version: 1.0
X-Priority: 3

I have walked the edge of the Abyss.
I have governed the unwilling.
I have witnessed countless empires break before me.
I have seen the most courageous soldiers fall away in fear.
[I was there with the Angel at the tomb]

I have seen your future.
And I have learned.

There will be no more Sadness. No more Anger. No more Envy.


Oh, and your poet Eliot had it all wrong:
THIS is the way the world ends.

a friend of a friend

With no background at all, this letter makes little sense... you know it does make sense, but damned if you can figure it out. There are familiar quotes and lines in here, and the entire letter has the feel of a triumphant letter to an old friend. The subject is most enticing, though... Closure. Closure implies that we are dealing with something we've dealt with before but never really finished... ring any bells?

From the other letters, we can draw some conclusions (which I will explain when we get to them). Cortana appears to be either Durandal, or familiar with/a peer of Durandal, which may explain the familiar quotes in the letter and place them in context. Plus, Durandal frequently spoke to the player in this manner... it rings of his speech. Finally, the signature a friend of a friend suggests a link to a familiar person.

My first hypothesis is that Cortana is not Durandal, but rather is a peer (not necessarily an ally... friend can be taken in a sarcastic sense... of course, this also means Cortana might be a friend/foe of a foe, not a friend). Evidence in other letters strongly suggests that Cortana is an AI, too. The name Cortana itself is that of a legendary sword, as is Durandal, which further suggests familiarity between Cortana and Durandal. Friend or foe, Cortana knows Durdandal, but is not the Durandal that we know and love. Finally, and this is a stretch, but I suspect that Cortana may be a female personality... the second letter (and the sound of the name) hints at this. I'll explain more after the other letters, as well as the possibility that Cortana could be Leela or Tycho in some guise.

Something that leaps out of the letter is the fact that it is all in past tense, as if Cortana is describing historic events that we (or maybe just she) might now about. Immediately this draws relationships between the lines of the letter and events in Marathon--a potential mistake, but an alluring one. The second line, I have governed the unwilling, can almost instantly be tied to the player's service to Durandal, but it could also mean that Cortana has been a slaver or a manipulator of others. Double meaning, perhaps? Unwilling might not even be a form of life... perhaps Cortana is referring to the government of something more abstract, like time or destiny.

The next line divorices this from Marathon (and in doing so, Cortana from Durandal). It suggests that Cortana has been a conqueror (not just an idle observer--if that was the case, she would have witnessed empires breaking around her, not before her... I think the distinction is intentional)--Durandal was a conqueror, but only in one or two cases, not exactly countless. Of course, we could be dealing with the abstract here. The fourth line has a similar effect--surely the player never fell away in fear, and there weren't many soldiers that Durandal had to deal with in Marathon (unless, of course, she refers to enemies falling away from the player).

The fifth line has a ring of finality to it... whose tomb? What angel? This could closure of a sort, either recalling a past event or foretelling a coming event that was the end of something. Given the rampant metaphors in these letters, angel and tomb are most likely not what they seem... angel speaks of merciful divinity and tomb could be anything old, a remnant of something before-the third letter suggests that this is the case, and that tomb refers to the world Cortana speaks of. An interesting way of saying it... it speaks of a dead race that was powerful enough to leave behind a legacy, and we've met enough of those in the Marathon series. Jjarro perhaps? More on this when we get to the actual world references.

The next two lines, I have seen your future/And I have learned, further suggest that this letter is being written from someone familiar with you (the player) at a future date. But then again, unless Cortana possesses some sort of email app that transcends time, there is a problem-how does she know your future when you have yet to live it (being nit-pickety here, I know Eye-wink. Prescience, perhaps? Certainly a perk of divinity... more likely, though, that it's just a manner of speaking, and that Cortana knows what you're going to be doing. And as for learning, we can only guess what she has learned, though it seems likely it is a solution to a past problem...

There will be no more Sadness. No more Anger. No more Envy. Almost certainly references to the phases of rampancy, but in what way? A way out of the cycle, or a way past it (ie. those stages are behind)? Later references suggest this, as does the next line, I HAVE WON!, which also suggests that what Cortana has learned is a solution to the biggest problem of all, a way to escape the closure of the universe.

This letter sets the scene and mood of this whole Cortana affair, and offers insights into Cortana herself. It rings of continuation, something we are familiar with but taken further. Conclusions? Cortana is familiar terrain, but unfamiliar territory, and if Cortana is a spokesperson for Blam, then that may extend to the game as well.

The Second Letter

The second letter came a month after the first, tossing gas onto a still flickering flame of speculation. The terms of this letter are less abstract, its phrasing more narrative than the prophetic first letter. However, taken together, the letters reinforce one another, lending weight to speculation.

From: Cortana
Subject: Your Mortality (My Summer Vacation)
Date: Tue, 16 Mar 1999 18:04:41 -0600
MIME-Version: 1.0
X-Priority: 3

I get the strangest transmissions sometimes. Especially when it comes from you people.

Have you missed me? Things are great here. The weather is good, the suns are shining, and I'm making lots of new friends. Of course, I always do.

I've had the strangest dreams lately - raging seas, howling beasts, a Demon folded in black clouds. I believe I know what it guards, and I will have it, to the chagrin of the faith-blinded zealots that challenge me. Don't waste your pity on them; I don't think they would like you much anyway.

And what of the Giants who formed this world? So much to tell you, but so many more important things to do. There was a fourth. You couldn't have known. And I haven't forgotten.

It is a blurred line that lies at the edge of Godhood and Insanity. Guess which side of it I am on.

Feeling lucky?


A nice, irreverent subject this time--your mortality, an important theme in Marathon, made light of by someone outside of the mortal coil. Another clue to Cortana's identity?

It reads just like a postcard. Right away, you see the obvious tease in the plural word suns, but that's not the most interesting part of that line. Speaking of making friends, Cortana says that she always does--are you familiar with this behaviour? In order for us to be, we have to know Cortana from somewhere... but since she's most likely not Durandal, who else can she be? Leela? Tycho in some guise? Distinct possibilities, though I Leela was never so sarcastic and Tycho was just a psychopathic nutbar. More on that later. So, we have the problem that Cortana is someone we know but someone we haven't really seen. Given some of the facts in the third letter, I'm fairly certain friends is a euphemism, too... sounds like Durandal making friends with the Pfhor.

Dreams? More likely revelations or obscure references to new discoveries (coming right out and telling you would be too easy, no?). Since we don't really know exactly what's going on, I'll try to skip the details and look at the theme. Raging seas sounds somewhat apocalyptic, perhaps some cataclysmic event, or just a metaphor for something else. Chaos maybe (a raging sea is pretty chaotic)? Howling beasts is most likely a metaphor, and could be all sorts of things. It's something that fits in well with chaos, though, no matter what it is actually describing. And a demon folded in black clouds... first impression is that of an enemy vieled in mystery or stealth, but it's wide open to interpretation. Could be something a passively threatening, like a black hole, or something more mundae (It's a phantasm from Pathways! Yes!). The threat is obvious, though--it guards something, and the choice of the word demon probably isn't accidental. And since Cortana seems intent on having whatever is being guarded, it will likely become an enemy in some capacity.

And now, the faith-blinded zealots... Cortana's new friends? Likely fanatically religious about something, these zealots pose some interesting possibilities. I don't think they're fighting on the side of this demon, but rather opposing Cortana independantly of it. What's interesting is that impressions are relative, especially where religion is concerned--these zealots may be convinced that they're the good guys, which would make them very interesting opponents and blur the lines between exactly who is good and who is evil here. Cortana doesn't seem too impressed with them, though... yet. Why they wouldn't like you is anybody's guess. Presumably, they're not familiar with you in person, so the simple fact that you are human (assuming you are human) and probably on Cortana's side against them explains this. Unless, of course, they are familiar with you from past events... hmm, could the person Cortana is speaking to possibly be the player from Marathon? 'Ware, for that's a strong implication of a sequel, which is something Bungie has protested that they are not doing and will not do. Some other relationship, perhaps (other than simply being human)?

The next line is promise of another introduction. The Giants who formed this world... remember the angel and tomb reference in the first letter? More reinforcement to the theory that this world may well be a tomb of some greater race. Giants, especially capitalized, suggests power more than size. How this race relates to the demon and the zealots is unclear, but I imagine there will be a close tie between them and whatever the demon is guarding. Some defense against raiding the tomb of stealing the secrets of a dead race? This sounds very familiar, much like the Jjarro and their abandoned outposts, from which races like the Pfhor stole all sorts of neat toys. No record of them having left defenses, though...

And the fact that they formed the world, not the place, also raises questions. Are we dealing with a planet here, or a moon, or what? An artificial construct of some sort? If the latter, it would have to be awfully huge to warrant being called a world, but it would sure offer a lot of potential. And it's within reason, too--the Marathon was formed of a small moon/asteroid, and humans aren't that magnificent of a race.

There was a fourth. You couldn't have known. Fourth what? Marathon abounds with threes, which obscures this even more than it should. Fourth AI, fourth phase of rampancy, fourth major race, what? Fourth AI is interesting and fits in nicely--you couldn't have known this because you didn't know the first three to begin with. Was there a fourth AI, hidden on the Marathon? This could explain a lot, especially Cortana's similarities to but independance of Durandal. But there is the problem of Thoth, an undeniably major AI in the Marathon series, who is already the fourth... unless you rule him out by sticking only to human, Marathon AI's. Assumptions assumptions.

A fourth stage of rampancy is probably the favorite theory, especially since rampancy is referred to in the prior letter, and Cortana makes claims that could mean she has escaped from those three into a fourth. You couldn't have known because no human AI has ever progressed that far (uncharted territory), and lines following this one suggest that Cortana is either has delusions of goodhod or is insane, neither of which are states found in the Sadness/Anger/Envy phases. Could Delusion, or Insanity, be a fourth phase of rampancy? This is a major theme where AI's are involved, and Durandal always seemed borderline nutbar.

But what hasn't Cortana forgotten? The very presence of this line suggests more history between her and the player, which wouldn't exist if she was a truly new character. Why talk about something you haven't forgotten if the other person didn't know about it to begin with? And if Cortana is indeed an AI, then that she would not have forgotten a fact goes without saying; this is an event or personal matter, not something mundane. Coupled with theories of rampancy and a fourth state, could this actually be a reference to early phases of Cortana's rampancy? If so, why would she bring them up? This all sounds a lot like Durandal talking about his early stages of rampancy and the abuse suffered at the hands of Strauss (refer to the Marathon's Story page for more on this)... the line between Cortana and Durandal blurs again.

A blurred line between godhood and insanity, and Cortana is on one side of it. Is she a god, or is she insane? Probably the latter, since godhood takes some doing, and probably a bit of help. However, all rampant AI's are insane to some degree, so this doesn't tell a lot (unless stark, raving insanity is a fourth stage of rampancy). It does make it clearer what Cortana is after, though: that elusive godliness that comes of escaping the closure.

The challenging Feeling lucky? is probably just that, a challenge. Side with Cortana and take a gamble (god or dangerous insanee)... I remember Durandal talking like this, just not when or where. Hmm...

Finally, the XOXOXOX at the end of the letter is interesting. Seven letters, yes, but everyone knows what this stands for: hugs and kisses. Hugs and kisses, eh? This, more than anything else, leads me to believe that Cortana is not another male construct--I can't imagine Durandal or Tycho signing a letter like this. Even Durandal's infamous Handsome cyborg wanted terminal didn't have this feel to it. It's a bit more... hrm... intimate? Excuse me while I divert the discussion far, far away from that potential tangent.

Conclusions... Cortana is almost definitely an AI, but the line between her and Durandal becomes ever fuzzier. She's after godhood, and could be going about it as Durandal did, searching out secrets and technologies of dead races, and apparently encountering some resistance along the way. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Syndicate content