Here we are, at the fifth and final story of this little project.
This has been a really fun exercise in mixing various critiques I’ve made of Halo 5 over the last three years with more creative expression, writing scenes I’d have loved to see and expanding on some of the ideas found throughout the campaign and intel logs.
But all things must end, and new horizons await us as 2019 approaches.
100,000 years ago, the Didact made a choice. As a result of that choice, a guilt-ridden Sangheili, trapped on Genesis and grieving for his Unggoy commander, discovers a new purpose…This will be a little different to the previous four entries because I have a bit of theorycrafting to start with.
The idea for this began with the Promethean Knight in Exuberant Witness’ zoo, seen in the final mission (Guardians) of Halo 5.
We see this Knight in a cell in what can best be described as a frantic and depressed state, swinging its arms and hitting its head against the wall before holding its head in its hands.
It was a brief and rather horrifying glimpse at the humanity within the Knight, something that I feel hasn’t been explored to the extent it should’ve been.
During the process of writing this and explaining how this particular Knight came to be, I found that the idea expanded to encompass explaining how the Ur-Didact was able to be Composed in Halo: Escalation‘s The Next 72 Hours arc.
The self-aware Knight in Exuberant’s zoo? That’s… not uncommon.
The mind is a complex thing and the Forerunners didn’t entirely understand how the Composer works, as it utilises the Precursors’ arcane neural physics in some capacity.
The Composer is one of the few non-Precursor devices that exploit neural physics, the peculiar science of that most ancient of species which defied Forerunner understanding, even after millions of years of study.
The high-energy fields of entangled sympathies emitted by the Composer envelop any living being with a sufficient complexity to resonate with the device.
The Composer breaks down their bodies into digital templates in a manner that eluded the full understanding of even its creators. The resulting imprints, or essences, were remarkably similar to high-level ancilla, and stored mentalities could even be given consciousness by emulating their original biological neural structure. [‘Composer’, Halo Universe article – Halo Waypoint]
I thought to tie this back to one of the opening lines of Halo 4.
“Children’s minds are more easily accepting of indoctrination – their bodies more adaptable to augmentation. The result was the ultimate soldier.” [Catherine Halsey, Halo 4, Prologue]
The man/machine theme of Halo 4 operates on a small-scale with its exploration of the relationship between John and Cortana, but on a higher level it expands to the parallels drawn between the now-mass-produced Spartans and Prometheans.
The mind of a child would be more malleable, to be programmed into war machines… so they make for better Knights.
Something I studied as a teacher was how a child’s brain develops, how synapses are formed as connections are made over time and experiences become learned.
It’s something, in theory, makes them easier to ‘wire.’
The Promethean Knights comprised of Warrior-Servants who willingly submitted to Composition did not have any issues, for they were at peace with what the Composer would do to them – as the Promethean in the fifth Terminal in Halo 4 says: “If the Composer is our final hope to defeat the Flood, no Promethean would resist.”
One might draw comparisons with the Forerunners’ process of mutation as well, where advancement is only possible with a certain perspective and acceptance of the Mantle – this is explored in particular depth in Halo: Cryptum.
But the Ur-Didact is not at-peace, as we see he botches his mutation in a supposed attempt to gain immunity to the Flood. Apparently, this means the Composer “will not work” on his new form.
As we saw in Halo: Escalation, he gets ‘supercomposed’ on Installation 03 as the control room is ejected from the ring.
Where many of us have taken issue with this, I believe I have a more satisfactory answer to offer.
The Didact knew that he was further from the Mantle than he’d ever been.
He knew that he carried some form of the Logic Plague from his traumatic encounter with the Gravemind, and so he feared that he might’ve ‘infected’ the other Prometheans if his mind was transformed into machine data to become one of them.
The result, one way or another, could only be greater pain, greater suffering – all misery was but sweetness for the Primordial’s grinding mill.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF SQUAD LEADER BIBJAM
100,000 years ago…
The Didact could not remember how many times he had died.
He had died on the day he’d assumed his mentor’s pattern and wisdom, setting him on the path of the Warrior-Servant.
He had died on the day he was no longer a father – when he placed the essences of his children into his War Sphinxes, their mental patterns, their final echoes, stored in time-locked Durances.
He had died on the day he was exiled, when the Master Builder’s wicked words and cursed wheels won the hearts of the Old Council, knowing that their civilisation would fall to ruin.
And he had died a thousand times since the day that it did, after he had been lifted out from the Domain by a child and brought into the Gravemind’s embrace.
Warrior, father, protector, husband, exile, saviour, destroyer, traitor…
The Didact did not know who he was any more.
Falling to the floor – bent double on his hands and knees, rasping from dehydration – he saw what the mutation process had done to him.
Mutation was a ceremony that had to take place in the direct light of a star, but the light this galaxy offered was no longer one of warmth and welcome. Space itself was infected, in a way none could understand or explain, but every sentient being surely felt.
The light shunned them now, driving them further into the darkness – even their new capital had to be situated outside the galaxy.
And even the Domain felt a deep shadow looming over everything Forerunner.
All this and more was what the Didact saw as he looked into the reflection of his now deep-sunk eyes in a face that barely resembled the man he used to be; his skin creased and stretched like dried fruit left in the sun.
Fangs had unexpectedly and painfully grown at the sides of his mouth; the Mantle forbade the consumption of meat, and so he understood this as but one of the signs of how far he had strayed from his centre – his Warrior soul.
Something – everything – was wrong.
“Did it work?” He croaked in knowing futility. “Run the simulation.”
A holographic representation of himself appeared as his body was scanned. As he expected, it almost instantly curdled and distorted with hideous growths.
“The procedure is a failure. I am still susceptible to Flood infection,” the Didact said, choosing his words carefully.
For Flood infection, there was no cure. Of that much he was certain.
But that wasn’t what the Didact feared.
“That leaves only the Composer,” spoke The Strategos. It was this old general, this grizzled ancient of the Kradal Conflicts, who had gladly supplied his mentorship to the Didact for his brevet-mutation.
“It will not work on my new form,” he lied.
Mutation required a certain spiritual acceptance of the Mantle. That demanded an awareness of what all life has sacrificed to allow you to be.
One cannot advance without the profoundly personal guilt provoked by that fact.
The Didact no longer felt that guilt.
Such as it was with the Composer: a machine that could extract a living being’s mind – their mental patterns – and convert it into machine data, to be placed into digital storage.
The device had been built on the esoteric principles of the Precursors’ neural physics, something the Forerunners understood only as science beyond magic.
A sufficiently complex mind that was not at-peace with its extraction risked… complications.
Worse still, the Didact knew what he carried within him.
Were he to submit to Composition, he feared the Logic Plague would end his plans before they even began. And so, he would remain as he was – a monument to all his sins.
“Then you will lead us,” The Strategos declared. “As always.”
“You would submit to such sacrifice?”
“Didact, if the Composer is our final hope to defeat the Flood… no Promethean would resist.”
Dham ‘Mashatt could not remember the number of people he had killed.
I step out of the cave and into the sunlit skies of Sanghelios…
Any who saw him would immediately know from his golden armour that he belonged to the Warrior class of Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant – a veteran of the war with the humans who had pledged his allegiance to the Didact’s Hand.
He waits for me, standing at the cliff edge – his back to the holy city of Sunaion.
Dham had gained honourable renown for his service during the cleansing of Menodah, the world the humans called ‘Minab.’
We are alone, he and I, far away from the rest of the camp. He senses my anxiety.
The lives he had taken then, he hadn’t given a second thought to. There was only the next fight.
He speaks of family, of love for the squad he leads – for me. He speaks of blood spilled and brothers mourned, of lives spent and wasted. He cannot bear to lose any more.
He speaks of betrayal.
The next holy mission.
Our movements and strategies, all given to the Swords of Sanghelios – given by the one we looked to for honour and wisdom – for the promise of capture.
But now… he was trapped – imprisoned behind an energy shield, in a cold grey cage in the home of the gods – like some wretched animal on-display.
And he had nothing but time to think.
I cannot look into his eyes as my blade pierces his heart.
He had known that there would come a terrible day where he would start counting the lives he had taken, and it was with the first one that he wanted to howl and claw at the walls for all that it was doing to him inside.
It was the way of the Sangheili to honour their greatest warriors through ballads, and while Dham was no poet, no great orator, he tried to honour his fallen leader the only way he could think.
Holding out a datapad, he had recorded something that was as much a confession as it was a eulogy.
“His name was Bibjam. He was a mere Grunt, scarred though spirited; past his useful years. His advice was unconventional: fight as if there was no honour in death.
He guided us through victory in conflict after conflict. And while we revelled in our glory, he mourned every brother we lost along the way.
As the war went on, Bibjam became more concerned with protecting us.
When we finally caught him betraying our movements to the Swords of Sanghelios, he told us capture was the only way for us to avoid death.
He truly believed he found a way to save us.
I could not meet his gaze when I ran him through.”
That was the moment Dham knew he was lost.
He had thought, at the time, that duty surpassed family. The reality he had to face was that the Covenant had fallen, that such a thing had always been inevitable, and that family was all he had left.
Betrayal of one’s duty was one thing, but betrayal of one’s family… it was a crime beyond measure.
Dham’s sojourn in this place had revealed to him that he had done both.
Glibip, an Unggoy of the squad (his squad now, he supposed), had been clawing at the energy shield with that mix of fervent desperation and unyielding determination that he had come to respect so strongly about their race.
But something had made them stop.
“An Oracle,” Glibip gaped. “An Oracle!”
“Greetings!” a cheerful voice chirped. “I am 031 Exuberant Witness, Monitor of the Genesis installation. Oh, but I am sorry I didn’t get to introduce myself earlier and put you in these holding cells. That must’ve seemed quite rude! Let me get those for you.”
The energy shield wall of Dham’s cage disappeared. He got to his feet, scrutinising the construct before him: a Monitor, created by the Forerunners. All that personality crammed into a tiny metallic sphere with a single purple eye.
“It was for your safety, of course!” Exuberant continued. “You might have noticed that Genesis has become a little more… active recently. There are many dangers here now, I do not wish for there to be any unnecessary death.”
Glibip prevented Dham from delving further into his misery as he waddled up to another cell and asked “What wrong with him?”
Within was contained another Forerunner construct. A large, top-heavy carapace adorned its back; it had two pairs of arms, one connected to its weaponry, the other pair were smaller and more dexterous; and a monstrous face that could open and give way to the blazing skull beneath.
This was a Promethean Knight.
Only, this insectoid creature showed no signs of hostility or malice. It stood by the wall of its cell, its head buried in its smaller pair of hands…
“Is it… crying?” Dham approached, caught by the spectacle.
Exuberant floated beside him, her enthusiasm fading. “The poor essence inside is fighting back against its programming. Unfortunately, they seem to be winning and are aware of… what they have become.”
Dham watched in great discomfort as the Knight thrashed around in its cell.
It smaller arms slapped at its head, as if trying to wake from some terrible nightmare, then it threw its weight against the wall and sank to its knees. It got up, shook uncontrollably, then repeated the process again – as if caught in a recursive loop.
Unable to speak. Unable to cry out, in pain or anger or madness.
Dham had seen terrible things – done terrible things – and, in processing that, found a felling that tugged at him inside and made him want to weep.
“Explain,” he demanded of Exuberant.
“The Composer uses a kind of technology that the Forerunners didn’t understand very much,” Exuberant said. “But, in desperation or madness, they used it anyway. The older and more complex the mind, the more difficult it is to program. That’s why…”
She trailed off.
“That is why the Didact discovered, when he turned to humanity, that children were the ideal template for these war machines. Their minds are more malleable.”
They stood in silence for a moment.
The Knight looped again.
No longer could Dham see the divinity of the Forerunners, the awe that had been instilled in him from his own childhood as he had prepared to give his life to and for the Covenant.
If they had been gods, then they were cruel and unworthy of worship.
And if they had not been gods, then they – like the Covenant – were simply cruel.
He had broken his own programming, Dham supposed, leaving him only with pain – a deep awareness of what he had taken from life to allow himself to be.
The Covenant had been its own cage, one that Bibjam had sought to free them from…
It ignited a guilt within him that a thousand blades could not cut through.
The Knight looped again.
“What can be done?” Dham asked. “What can we do to remedy this?”
What can be done?
Exuberant Witness felt this question deeply.
For over one hundred thousand years, she had remained on Genesis and dreamed of visitors that would never come. Of company she could never have.
She had contented herself with the duty she was charged with: to serve as Monitor for this old world, that had so long ago been irradiated beyond habitability by early attempts at stellar engineering, and restore it to the verdant paradise it had once been.
This was a place of life. Exuberant had lost herself for millennia in building seed worlds and sustainable ecosystems, it had been the only distraction to prevent her from succumbing to the madness of isolation.
But now, the visitors she had longer for were here – pulled from across the stars by those vile engines of nightmare – and destruction had followed in their wake.
Does anything of the Forerunners remain, besides their weapons?
The Knight looped again.
“There is a place here,” Exuberant said. “A Gateway that leads to the Domain.”
Dham recalled the stories of a great library that held the souls of those who had passed, filling it with the knowledge and wisdom they’d accumulated.
According to the Covenant, it was where the souls of their faithful fallen went to find peace before they all transcended on the Great Journey.
“And if we took this Knight – this… human – to the Domain, it might be healed?” Dham asked, a glimmer of hope, the shadow of an idea forming in his mind.
“Oh… I am uncertain. The Domain has been out-of-service for a very long time.”
“But it is their best hope for peace?”
More energy shields from the other cells dropped. Two Unggoy and the towering form of a Mgalekgolo, who had long since lost their bond brother, stepped out and gathered at the centre of the Monitor’s menagerie.
Magsunog gave a low rumble, their head tilted slightly to the side to indicate confusion – something they had picked up from the Unggoy.
After Dham explained everything to them to them – from Bibjam’s attempt to save them, to his own betrayal, to the circumstance they found themselves in now and the true nature of the Prometheans – he presented the choice they now faced.
They could leave. They could find off-world transport pulled in by the Guardians and Exuberant could open a portal to go… somewhere else.
Or, they could remain here – on Genesis.
“The Guardian brought our vessel here as it entered slipspace, followed and preceded by hundreds of others from across the galaxy. This world is inhabited now by more than just its-” he stumbled over saying the world ‘Oracle’ “-Monitor. There is a place for us here, wounds that we might be able to heal, if that is the duty we choose.”
Honourable as Bibjam’s intentions were, his mistake was that he had not trusted any of them with his plans. He had acted for them, taking their choice away.
That was a mistake Dham would not repeat.
Such a decision could not be imposed or forced on his protectorates, it was one that they had to make like they had made everything else.
I fear for the galaxy we fought so hard to save.
It sounds as if the Librarian’s plan has wrought a galaxy that will see no end of conflict over the Mantle we so hideously squandered.
Our weapons, the crude instruments of destruction we used to fight an unwinnable war, have become sharp sticks in the hands of children ill-equipped to understand them – just as we once were.
I fear for what greater judgement may one day arrive, that they shall have found themselves so zealously trying to claim the top of the hill that the victor will find no allies when the nightmare awakens and returns.
But my responsibility is to protect and preserve – not just this world, but all life.
I will not allow innocent lives to suffer, not when I can help. They are here and the galaxy is not what we intended, that is simply the way it is.
And so, once again, I face the question: what can be done?
The answer lies with these visitors. If I can reach out to them, if they can find it in themselves to put their arms aside and discard their wrath, they may yet be saved.
One way or another, I would witness this galaxy know that we can change.
And they shall be my example.