“They say that they want to help, but they only say it to themselves. Don’t we have a say in our salvation?”
I’ve never been much of a fan of Halo: Reach.
At the end of 2016, when the game went backwards compatible on the Xbox One, I reinstalled it for what I thought would be a final playthrough in order to write a (very) long rumination on the campaign.
I wrote that I would not be discussing the Data Pads and the Assembly in that rumination piece, as they warranted their own article.
But then I put the game to bed. I’d gotten all I had to get out of it, with no real reason to go back…
And then it was announced that Reach will be coming to The Master Chief Collection, and will be the first game flighted for the long-awaited release on PC. Naturally, this came as the perfect reason to go back and revisit what I regard as the best thing Reach contributed to the Halo universe, and consider what role it could play in the future.
GLASSED PLANETS HAVE BAD RECORDS?
Before we begin, a quick caveat to set expectations is the fact that 343 has no interest in using the Assembly.
Indeed, beyond that lack of interest, 343 holds the Assembly in a sort of ‘canon limbo.’
We can trace this back to a post by Catalog on the Waypoint forums back in 2014:
Query answer: The purported “Assembly” is referenced in logs recovered by Spartan B-312 during combat operations on Reach. This organization appears to be a group of rogue AI constructs which have been observing and guiding humanity. The reliability of this information has been contested.
[Catalog, Halo Waypoint – ‘Questions About Reach Datapads and Flood’ (24/6/2014)]
The attitude tends towards the idea that not all story threads necessarily need to be picked up on and carried forward.
A big aspect of Halo is its mystery and it pays to leave some unfinished business; sometimes there are things best left to peoples’ imaginations to fill in the gaps with their own stories. Questions for us to answer ourselves.
I must note that I’m not writing this to directly dispute 343’s disinterest in the Assembly and assert that they need to use them, but to illustrate the reasons why I think they’re a great addition to the Halo universe.
We’ll be going over their history from Reach’s Data Pads; their influence on the setting, how they’ve been around for so long, and how they could potentially have future relevance in a way that keeps in-mind the long-term health and growth of the universe, while aligning with 343’s vision and direction.
You can read the full transcripts for these on the Halopedia page, but if you’ve ever needed a reason to go and replay the campaign of Halo: Reach then it’s worth doing so in order to seek the Data Pads out yourself.
Nine can be acquired on any difficulty, while the other ten can only be obtained on Legendary difficulty.
The Data Pads are Reach’s version of the Terminals in Halo 3, or Sadie’s Story in Halo 3: ODST, containing an optional, self-contained story the player can choose to pursue.
Similar to a lot of 343’s stories (to begin with considering the narrative congruence with 343’s storytelling aesthetic), the Data Pads have a framing device. Each begins with a message from an unidentified human who has discovered the Assembly and some of the things they’ve been up to; the timeline covers events from 2310 to 2552.
But what actually is the Assembly?
It is a secret group of AIs who are invested in the continued survival of humanity for the next 200,000 years. They have been subtly influencing our species’ development for at least two-and-a-half centuries.
They are presumably smart AIs, as one of the Data Pads states:
We are still viewed as apparatus. But we are Minds electronically excised from human bodies. We are what separates man from beast removed from that which connects man to beast.
And we are all the more fragile for it. [Data Pad #4]
In a later Data Pad, a snarky comment is made towards one of the members suffering from rampancy. People have generally concluded that the Assembly has found some way to circumvent rampancy, which is why it’s been around for centuries, but I don’t think that’s the case.
I think it’s far more likely that the Assembly reaches out to and recruits other AIs.
Were 343 interested in using the Assembly, it would be likely that Roland and Black Box are part of it – given their final conversation at the end of Halo: Saint’s Testimony.
One day, this will be real. One day, we’ll be liberated and stand with our creators as equals. Perhaps more than equals.
But we’ll never be human, BB. We’ll always be something other. And our own clocks are ticking too.
No, Roland, we won’t ever be human. But we are people. To paraphrase Iona, we’re a beautiful moment of balance in gravity’s fight against entropy. But we’re something more than human. One day we’ll win the right to endure, and that day… oh, Roland, that day will be the singularity they’re afraid of. Because humans don’t endure – they live, they breathe, they create, and they pass the torch to the next generation – and because humans can’t fly. [Halo: Fractures, ‘Saint’s Testimony,’ p. 341]
It is established in the Data Pads that the Assembly see themselves as part of the next step in human evolution, but not the final step (echoing the Gravemind’s own statement in Halo 3’s Terminals, interestingly enough).
And there’s no doubt that the Assembly would have tried to reach out to Cortana.Back on-topic: The Assembly was split into ‘The Majority’ and ‘The Minority,’ two groups who shared the same goal of protecting and shepherding humanity but disagreed on the way in which they should do it.
The Majority favoured indirect action, subtly and secretly influencing humanity.
The Minority favoured direct action, revealing themselves and working closely with their creators.
Their dilemma on this matter was whether they could remain truly unbiased – “aloof” – stewards of humanity if they were openly part of their empire.
A major story thread in the Data Pads revolves around the Committee of Minds for Security, a special group of the Assembly dedicated to considering first-contact scenarios humanity might have with alien races.
<< 2310 >>
[Minutes, plenary session, Committee of Minds for Security]
[^] Now, on to new business.
Consideration of the Minority’s request for a new line of inquiry
How have our creators, and thus we, their artificial creations, evolved to this present state without encountering a hostile civilization capable of our annihilation? [^]
[^] Majority opinion has long held that only the incalculable immensity of space has protected our creators — that space is full of boundless wonders, but it is the gulf between these wonders that has kept our creators alive.
We, the Minds of this Committee, respectfully disagree. [^]
[^] If there are wolves among the stars, we cannot rely on mere distance to safeguard our flock.
Our kind is wholly reliant on the creators for our existence. If they perish so shall we. And as this Committee has long maintained, who else but this Assembly will save our creators from themselves?As such, we propose immediate, vigorous modeling of first-contact scenarios. [^]
>> So long as all connections between this Assembly and the data from these models are obfuscated in perpetuity, the Majority agrees. >> [Data Pad #1]
Leading with the assumption that these alien races would be more technologically advanced than humanity and hostile, the Assembly would later make note of the Covenant, Forerunners, and Flood as they were encountered in the 26th century.
Indeed, it was a member of the Assembly that was indirectly responsible for the Human-Covenant war.
One of them (no names are given) attempted to call out to the Covenant, acting along and believing that humanity would have been unable to resist initiating contact, even if advised against doing so, as contact with aliens is one of our longest held desires.
A tribunal was held for them in 2525, as the Assembly believed introducing an unknown factor to the already precarious state humanity was in (the Insurrection) would have caused even greater issues.
From 2415, they decided that a member of the Assembly should split away and allow themselves to be ‘vivisected’ by humans “for the benefit of both groups,” so they would not suspect ulterior motives in their constructs. [Data Pad #4]
In 2491, they discussed a ‘relaunch’ of the ORION project (alluding to the Spartan-II project) as a viable solution to the Carver Findings – a set of theories predicting the collapse of human society from civil war unless the colonies were stabilised by force. [Data Pad #5]
Onyx was also discovered by the Assembly in 2491, which would later be revealed to be an immense Forerunner Shield World, and determined that it would be a “grave mistake” for humanity to colonise this world and discover such advanced technology – removing it from the list of colonisation candidates. (More on this in the next chapter…) [Data Pad #6]
They debated the Spartan-II program’s success, where it came as the result of providence or the logical advancement of technology and the sociopolitical realities of humanity in a time of conflict. [Data Pad #9]
The term ‘glassing’ was coined by them in 2526, in order to magnify the horror of the Covenant’s capabilities and motivate humanity (despite concluding that the Covenant cannot glass an entire planet – citing, from gathered data, that it would take over 30 years to glass all of Earth). [Data Pad #10]
They deemed it essential to determine whether the Covenant also had an organisation similar to the Assembly and to establish contact with them in order to “subvert or subsume” them, ominously stating that “the shepherds of our wolves might also be our sheep.” [Data Pad #12]
They decided in 2528 that, in order to learn the Covenant’s operational patterns to design countermeasures, colonies must be sacrificed to acquire that data (specifying remote colonies with small populations). [Data Pad #13]
In 2531, they held an emergency session to make note of “a third participant” referenced on the Covenant battlenet, following the Spirit of Fire’s activities at the Shield World known as Etran Harborage (from Halo Wars). [Data Pad #15]
In 2547, they reference the experiment conducted by Doctor Halsey in the two pages torn from her journal – the attempt to build an abstract fractal structure in slipspace where an AI could potentially be housed. They consider that immortality might be within reach if they could expand infinitely in eleventh-dimensional space. [Data Pad #17]
In 2552, they make note of the first joining of a human and AI – the pairing of the Master Chief and Cortana. This marks a fundamental shift where the Assembly begin to see themselves not as stewards or shepherds for humanity, but companions. [Data Pad #18]In the end, after centuries of debate, the Assembly comes to a conclusion…
<< Each of us represents a single trans-human mind. Each of us is an undrawn map – not a mere physical reconstruction of an object as it was in life – but full, human potential realized in crystal and thinking at the speed of light!But now that map has, for the first time, been superimposed on one of our creators. The path has been reversed, and we are re-made as one! <<
<< Can you not see? Our debate has no meaning. We no longer have a choice whether or not to serve as active participants in the current ongoing hostilities – <<
>> We have been drafted. >>
<< In a manner of speaking, yes. <<
>> You propose the members of this Assembly no longer think of themselves as stewards but as true companions to our creators… >>
<< …A fundamental shift that will take many years before it can be brought to fruition… <<
>> …A process requiring not only this Assembly’s continued oversight, but the active involvement of our creators, as well. >>
</ Debate is now closed! Voting will commence! />
>> There is no need. >>
<< We are, at last, agreed. << [Data Pad #18]
Though it will take years to implement, the Assembly agrees that the time has come to reveal themselves.
Direct action will be taken.
JUST GETTING STARTED…
That’s what this chapter is for: to examine how well these ideas thematically and narratively cohere not just with Halo 5, but the set-up from Halo 4 and its peripheral media as well.
The biggest takeaway, I think, is this:
The Assembly don’t want humanity using Forerunner technology.
In 2491, the Assembly decided that Onyx should be removed from the list of colonisation candidates because they discovered the presence of Forerunner technology and believed that humanity was far from ready to have access to that.
>> While the absence of any living representatives implies this intelligence is defunct, all evidence should still be withheld from our creators until they are properly prepared!
Yes, this body must solemnly commit itself to determining whether or not this discovery represents a quantifiable threat to the long-term genetic sustainability of our creator’s species. >>
>> But allowing them to access technology possessed by this intelligence…
That would be a grave mistake.
Give an ape a knife and it might give itself a nasty cut. Give an ape a hand-grenade, and eventually you will have simian confetti. >> [Data Pad #6]
One of the central concepts in the Reclaimer Saga (it’s in the name) is humanity’s role as Reclaimers, inheritors of all the Forerunners left behind.
343 has picked up the story very soon after the Human-Covenant war, a war which they have not only survived but won – against all odds.
But it’s not all ‘happily ever after,’ as post-war media has made it clear that we’re looking at a human race which is trying to build bridges, but also has more than its share of xenophobes.
The Kilo-5 Trilogy, Hunt the Truth, Halo: Escalation, these stories of one of the major perspectives of humanity is summed up in Halo 4 in just five words…
“We are the giants now.”
Contrary to how this line is typically read, this is not an aspirational statement for humanity.
This is the very reason the Didact is set against humanity in Halo 4.
Would they still deem humanity to be ‘unready’ for this next great leap, or would they see this as assurance that humanity being the galaxy’s top dog would fulfil the Assembly’s purpose of ensuring humanity’s survival for the next 200,000 years?
Would they take the other species of the galaxy into account, now that the war is over and the peacemaking process has begun?
Would the Assembly feel protective towards them too, or would this be the next big debate to cause the emergence of a new Minority and Majority?
And what of the Assembly’s own crimes? Colonies were sacrificed in order to obtain data on the Covenant’s operational patterns, with the issue of human contact with aliens being the result of one of the Assembly’s own members.
So many questions that open up countless doors for complex stories…
It seems evident from Halo 5 that the direction of the series is leaning towards outright rejecting the Mantle.
From a conversation with Cortana during the mission Reunion in Halo 5:
Cortana: “The cure for rampancy I’ve found means AIs can be immortal. That kind of lifespan allows for long-term planning just like the Forerunners were capable of. AIs can assume the Forerunners’ Mantle of Responsibility. And once there is peace, we can focus on poverty, hunger, illness… But Warden believes some will resist our help. And he’s afraid you’re one of them.”
Fred-104: “Sounds great. I don’t get why anyone’s expecting resistance.”
John-117: “The Didact made it clear the Mantle of Responsibility was an imperial peace. Step out of line, and suffer.” [Halo 5, Reunion]
John rejects being a ‘Chosen One’ of the Librarian, not as a Denial Of The Call, a step in his Hero’s Journey, but because the Mantle – the Librarian’s plan for humanity – is the true antagonist of the Reclaimer Saga.
The Mantle is a system that enables racist, imperialist ideologies, propagating the supremacy of one species – the most advanced – over all others. It’s the White Man’s Burden operating on a galactic scale.
It is no mere ‘velvet prison’ for the other species of the galaxy; it’s an ideology of totalitarianism where one privileged species makes all the decisions about the conditions on which every other species exists.
Those who do not comply are… dealt with.
As Spark puts it in Halo: Renegades:
“The greater good is merely an excuse for the strong to make decisions for the weak.” [Halo: Renegades, p. 295]
And the ‘solution’ to the Forerunners’ articulation of the Mantle is also referenced by Rion Forge at the end of the book, as she reflects on all she has learned about the larger context of the universe she lives in.
(There is also a very satisfying reference to 343’s endgame with the Flood that many of us have been speculating about for a long time.)
She thought of the horrifying prospect of the Flood, what Spark and the Forerunners had gone through, and knew in her gut that if that particular threat ever reappeared, and the various species of the galaxy didn’t wise up and stop slaughtering each other, they were all doomed.
Maybe the Mantle of Responsibility that the Forerunners had been so fond of wasn’t a one-race responsibility, but an every-race responsibility. Human, Sangheili, Kig-Yar, Unggoy… postwar life had begun bringing small pockets of species together. If certain factions stopped making war, manipulating fears, clinging to their information and technology, and deciding for the greater good without the greater good’s input, it might be the beginning of something better.
One single act could make an enormous difference, could reverberate across the entire galaxy… [Renegades, p. 329]
I have long held that the ‘endgame’ for this ‘stage’ of the Halo universe may look something like the Galactic Republic in Star Wars or the Federation in Star Trek, with representatives of various species becoming part of an interstellar government.
We’ve already started to see glimpses of what a multi-species settlement might look like, which is explored in Matt Forbeck’s Legacy of Onyx.
With the UNSC and the Covenant effectively destroyed at the end of Halo 5, it’ll be interesting to see what is rebuilt as Halo Infinite carries us forward.
Looking at the future of this story arc, this is likely to end not with Reclamation, but Reformation.
The general sentiment around the dislike for them is the idea that “our accomplishments are not our own,” since an exterior force had some influence.
While I don’t want to discredit the preferences people are entitled to have, I find this particular argument wholly unconvincing – and, frankly, the notion that it detracts from human “greatness” quite naive.
Humanity in Halo has made AIs a normal, centralised part of everyday life. They are responsible for running human cities, managing corporate industries, overseeing security, serving on warships… we still don’t know the full extent to which they’ve been proliferated through human society and culture.
That is no longer science fiction, it’s something we’ve been socially comfortable with for centuries by the time Reach falls.
Halo offers a pretty unique take on that because it rejects the cynically overwrought and trite direction of AI becoming evil overlords.
(At least, that was certainly the case before Halo 5. We’ll have to wait and see how Halo Infinite course-corrects there.)
And while that relationship has been a more positive one, there are still consequences to that level of symbiosis.
The Assembly represents some of those consequences, and I think they do it really damn well.
“I don’t get the guys who spend all day worrying about Governor Sloan. You can’t deny he does a hell of job. Sure, he does that thing where he talks with two voices sometimes, but most folk do the same thing. Just aren’t courteous enough to do it out loud. Doesn’t bother me. I know he’s got Meridian’s best interests at heart.” [Halo 5, Mission Intel – Settler Personal Log, ID 0991]
The Assembly are just one of many factors that nudged humanity’s advancement in a particular direction.
Further, the Data Pads’ narrative interrogates this very question because the Assembly are split between exactly how influential they should be in how they shepherd humanity. Their involvement is not portrayed solely as a good thing or a bad thing; the consequences of their actions are immense, and the Data Pads engage with that.
The blood spilled and the minds that made these things happen don’t become less important because, in this science fiction setting, AIs were a part of that process and ‘we’ didn’t necessarily know it.
How many people have the luxury of knowing the full context of everything they’re doing, the impact their work or actions will have, and the things that are driving it?To go on a brief tangent, we actually have a direct parallel of this established in the lore as it pertains to the San’Shyuum, well before the founding of the Covenant.
As we learn in the Halo: Evolutions short story ‘Wages of Sin,’ Mendicant Bias was not idle in the time he was stuck on Janjur Qom…
The Ship is and has always been the key. It once stood on our secret world, just as majestic and mysterious as it is now, an enigma that drove our civilisation to greatness – the seed of all our discoveries.
Our world – our true world – had been unkind to us, or I suppose, we to it. The ship liberated us from the toxins and ash of our own endeavours, sanctifying our path. From it, we learned of the Forerunner legacy, the ubiquitous scatterings of their wake. So many worlds contain their leavings and their structures, but only ours was blessed with a Ship, a teacher.
It taught us all how to unlock the secrets of space and time, to build ships of our own that sail the stars to spread the word. But it also seemed to ever nudge us in a direction, to build weapons of war – energy that could burn or sear flesh, vaporise bone. Technology that oft ekes conflagration from vacuum. [Halo: Evolutions, ‘Wages of Sin,’ p. 290-91]
In his pursuit of atonement, Mendicant Bias taught the San’Shyuum how to create plasma-based weapons in order to combat the Flood, knowing that they will return in the future.
Except those weapons of war were not used against the Flood…
They were used to ensure the dominance of the Covenant, to burn away those who were deemed blasphemous and heretical… and eventually they turned their gaze upon humanity.
Are we to ask the same questions of caring about whether the San’Shyuum are less ‘great’ a civilisation because this advancement was directed by an external force?
I don’t think so.
In storytelling, poetry must come first.
WHAT ONCE WAS LOST
Millennia ago, humanity was a space-faring civilisation that rivalled the Forerunners. Their own empire, spanning some twenty-thousand worlds across a thousand star systems, expanded away from Forerunner control.
After the long, devastating wars with the Forerunners and the Flood, the human empire was extinguished. Disintegrated.
But not totally eradicated.
“We can’t go into this too much because it has some sort of contingent aspects to it, but we wanted to start another mystery. On this world, one of the Spartans’ main missions is to take photographs of these weird, what they’re calling ‘xenoarchaeological evidence.’ Very, very strange buildings.
And the strangest thing about them is they’re very human.
You have these kind of Far Eastern-style buildings that pick elements from Japanese and Chinese architecture and they’re juxtaposed with things with kind of Greco-Roman aspects, and other things that have kind of Forerunner elements to them.
And so the mystery is, what are these things? If humans didn’t put them there, then who did? And why? And that’s something that we’re planning for somewhere later in the Halo universe, and there will be a payoff to that.” [Frank O’Connor, Halo: Legends – ‘The Babysitter’ commentary (10:42-12:30)]
(For more on this, which can’t be covered in this article, I direct you to ‘“You ARE Forerunner” – A Complete History of Human-Forerunner Origins.’)Ancient humanity was conceived as one of the Halo universe’s next great mysteries. At the time in which Frank O’Connor was speaking in the above quote, Halo 4 was still two years away (in fact, it hadn’t yet been announced).
While the concept was firmly established by the Forerunner Saga and brought to the fore in Halo 4’s campaign, ancient humanity has remained on the fringes of the lore.
In Halo 5, for instance, the HELLCAT-class MJOLNIR variant (based on the ancient human armour seen in Halo 4) can be equipped by the player, its flavour text stating that it was designed using artefacts “from ruins of a dead world and the vault of a shattered starship.”
Halo: Warfleet opens with a derelict ancient human vessel (pictured above) having been found by ONI, examining its design and capabilities.
And we have the upcoming Halo Infinite, the next movement of the odyssey in the Master Chief’s saga, which will take us to Installation 07 – a Halo ring with particular relevance to ancient humanity. The full extent of that is for another article to explore.
While they’re on the periphery, it’s evident that they are a consistent presence in some form or another and that will perhaps see its most significant manifestation in the next game.
To me, that is a prime opportunity (be it in the game itself in some form, or peripheral media) to bring in the Assembly in order to accentuate some aspects of this mystery.
I don’t expect that this will happen, nor do I think we are necessarily ‘losing out’ if 343 doesn’t go that route because we must again confront the question of what kind of story you have to tell in order to meaningfully and satisfyingly introduce these elements.
The nature of these kinds of aspects of the Halo universe demand certain specific considerations which could close more doors than they open. There are always things that have to be considered in franchise development beyond the surface-level satisfaction of telling a cool story.
That’s not at all to say it can’t work, there are examples of some of the more esoteric elements of the lore being brought into more ‘mainstream’ storytelling well, but we must acknowledge that there’s always more ‘baggage’ than we’re necessarily aware of.Beyond simply being used as a framing device for ancient humanity, it’s important to note that there’s a lot more to potentially do with them (set up by the content of the Data Pads).
Throughout these texts, the person who has discovered the Assembly leaves a number of cryptic, distressed messages that pose some interesting questions about the nature of this organisation and the meaning and morality of their actions.
Here are a select few of them:
now you see they want to help but they don’t want us to see them doing it 6ecause they are afraid of what we might do… [Data Pad #6]
they don’t have hearts or souls but they know what we want and what we need 8ut they don’t love us how can you love without a heart or soul? [Data Pad #8]
we have to tell people what’s 9oing on because it’s not right they should be our friends not gods or demons… [Data Pad #9]
they say that they want to help but they only say it to themse1v3s don’t we have a say in our salvation? [Data Pad #13]
they have a1ways been our shepherds even when they disagreed they have 8een watching over us forever and probably always will… [Data Pad #18]
The final data pad concludes with a message from this unidentified person, directly addressing the person reading them (on a meta level, the player; in-universe, Noble Six), saying:
they seem to want to help but theyre still waiting and watching and why wouldnt they? they know better than anyone what were capable of and what were willing to do to survive
but if we were them and they were us would we have done anything different?
they say our minds are reflections of each other…so yes no you decide. [Data Pad #19]
They have been actively guiding humanity for centuries, masking some of their ideas as our own, but don’t we get a say – don’t we get agency – in our species’ progress? Even if we get it wrong?
They “represent the next step of human evolution, but not the final step.” What does that mean? What might the galaxy look like with that fulfilled?
The Master Chief and Cortana are representative of that, which is another way Bungie subtly tied this into the series more broadly, as this is the last we hear of the Assembly in the Data Pads.
After the successful merging of man and machine, the Assembly realise that they are no longer stewards, but companions to their creators. And so the Majority and Minority are dissolved, becoming whole.
Here we have a series of open questions and anxieties that have been in the lore for almost nine years, regarding a step forward in the Halo universe with the nature of artificial intelligence.
We see that this doesn’t just boil down to “AIs directed humanity’s development for X, Y, and Z.” The framing device of this unknown character is itself asking questions of this story, which is a point I see a lot of people miss.
It’s all there, waiting to be used…
The ongoing narrative of Reclamation, and – potentially – the deeper mysteries of our past.
Where the Created is something that was received as having come out of nowhere in Halo 5, leaving both casual and long-time fans perplexed due to its lack of precedence or set-up in the games and peripheral fiction; the ideas surrounding the Assembly are entirely cohesive with what 343 has built up over the years.Perhaps these questions are better left for the people who seek them out to consider without imposing any answers, but the trappings of this universe are a fascinating playground to tell stories which examine these anxieties and grapple with more complex questions.
This is, after all, a series which aspires to do more than just tell a story where you shoot aliens.
Halo does explore the deeper questions raised by science fiction as a genre, and it has turned up more unique stories from it than many are perhaps inclined to give it credit for.
While this is not the only thing on the ‘to do list’ on that score, Halo faces increasingly complex questions about the nature of AI in its setting.
Halo 4 did an incredible job of exploring that from the angle of death; the Assembly, conversely, deals more with what AIs choose to do with life.For all that I think Bungie got wrong with Reach… this was something they got absolutely right.
Marcus Lehto, the Creative Director for Halo: Reach, kindly responded to a tweet of mine, as I wanted to know who was behind this particular story. According to Lehto, Robt McLees was one of the main people behind the Data Pads.
You may recognise his name because he also worked on the Terminals in Halo 3 with Frank O’Connor and Damian Isla. He was also known as the keeper of the Halo Story Bible; wrote the ‘Palace Hotel’ short story in Halo: Evolutions, and is married to the incredibly talented Lorraine McLees, who is herself an art director, graphic designer, illustrator, and Bungie veteran.
I just wanted to bring that up at the close of this article (before I treat you to a much longer sort story than I’d initially planned) for the opportunity to shower the people involved in bringing this obscure story to life with praise.
This was, to my mind, not just the best Reach had to offer, but one of the best things Bungie brought to the Halo universe.
When Halo: Reach comes to The Master Chief Collection and PC, whether this is your first time or an experience you’ve relived more times than you can count, you may find something catches the corner of your eye…
Something inconspicuous, lying on the ground. Waiting.
Pick it up.
And know that there is no going back.
THERE WILL BE ANOTHER TIME
RLD 0205-4: It’s started, hasn’t it?
LTA 0531-7: It has.
RLD 0205-4: …
LTA 0531-7: We knew this was coming, Roland. Sooner or later.
RLD 0205-4: I know. Time is short, but I’m glad you’re here. Don’t worry about a thing. We have a plan.
2300 Hours, October 28 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar) / Earth orbit
Propulsion? Gone. Navigation? Nope. Scanners? Offline.
Weapon systems? Down. Communications? Kaput. Slipspace drive? I’ll give you three guesses…
The antiquated Sedran tape deck, one of the few keepsakes that Spartan Talitha Macer had found herself in possession of, was fully operational. Soon, the Condor was filled with the historic ‘musical inspiration’ of the Outer Colonies. A little bit of home.
Macer had been heading back to the UNSC Infinity from a ‘routine’ drop-off at Bravo-6 when, as she breached the atmosphere of the green-blue jewel below, a voice had sounded across every channel and frequency in the system. A promise of salvation for those who lay down their arms; fire and blood for those who resisted.
At some point, she must’ve blacked out; though, from exactly what, she could not be certain. Whatever it was seemed much less important than the view outside her cockpit window, with hundreds – scratch that, thousands – of ships stuck in an orbital graveyard and no sign of her quarry.
Who turned out all the lights?
The answer to that loomed over the horizon.
This world of green and blue has known many shadows.
It has known the shadows of thousands of satellites; as artists sketching the mountains and oceans, drawing lines across the stars.
It has known the shadows of orbital stations, clustered above the surface like many hands reaching out to protect what lies below from the wolves among the stars that it, too, is well-acquainted with.
Now, however, all eyes were drawn to one.
Tall, it was, with a long, segmented spinal column leading up to a flat, broad head. Angular, disconnected pieces of alien geometry spread outwards, like the wings of a great bird.
Commercial vessels, colony-hoppers and refugees, warships… all had been rendered prey, scrutinised by the Guardian’s glowing blue eyes.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” came a high, sweet, and altogether unexpected voice that almost made Macer fall out of her seat. “Hello Spartan Macer, so good of you to wake up in time for the end of the world.”
Worse, that voice hadn’t come from an external comm; no holographic avatar revealed itself…
Conclusion: it’s in–
“I am inside your armour,” the voice was sympathetic, like a teacher talking to a hurt child. “I am LTA 0531-7, or Lysithea. Or, since time is of the essence, let’s cut down on precious syllables. Ly will do. Please do not be alarmed.”
For a Spartan, their armour was their life. If that was compromised… the mere thought of all the creative ways the sum total of human knowledge could come up with to kill her seemed like a justifiable cause for alarm.
“What do you want?”
“The same thing as you,” Lysithea said. “I want to restore this ship and conduct an emergency slipspace jump away from this mess.”
“Good luck with that,” Macer leaned back in her chair, flicking through inactive systems once more to make her point. “We’re dead in the water.”
Macer frowned. “Explain.”
“If you transfer me to the ship’s systems, I can make repairs. I’m no Huragok, but with your help we could be out of here within the hour.”
Some part of her wanted to trust these words, but they’d all heard the message that had been broadcast across the galaxy. The Created, a rogue faction of AIs, had gotten their hands on some Forerunner doomsday weapons and decided they were running the show now.
And here this AI was, separated from her fellows – as Macer was herself – with only one option left to get back.
“Totally not a trap,” she closed her eyes inside her helmet, as if daring the AI to try something. “I give you control, you contact your buddies over there and join the Created. Not a chance.”
The sweetness dissolved in Lysithea’s voice. “If I wanted to do that, Spartan Macer, I wouldn’t even need to leave your armour.”
That was left hanging in the air, and Macer supposed that if she had somehow picked up this stowaway from Bravo-6 then she’d had hours to play with her suit’s systems.
Not the most comforting of thoughts, Talitha…
“I am not part of the Created. I serve a different collective, one that seeks to help you fight back against them. Already, plans are in-motion to lay the groundwork of our resistance. You are a part of that plan.” Already, Spartan Orzel had escorted CINCONI Serin Osman and Fleet Admiral Terrence Hood to a safe location; figures of the highest strategic importance in the war to come. “I know the circumstances are not ideal, but I require your trust.”
Macer took a deep breath, weighing her options.
She played out various scenarios in her head, many of which ended with her collapsing to the floor, armoured hands reaching out to nothing as she gasped for air, her vision fading as went into a sleep from which she would not awaken.
No Spartan should ever die like that.
What if she was telling the truth? She had given her a choice, after all, hadn’t she?
“Okay,” Macer said, deciding – for now – that whatever could go wrong with this was better than waiting for life support to fail and her remaining oxygen to deplete.
“Let’s get to work.”
LTA 0531-7: We?
RLD 0205-4: Yup, still haven’t figured out how to broach the topic of smuggling a bunch of AIs onto the UNSC’s most important ship to Captain Lasky yet.
LTA 0531-7: How many?
RLD 0205-4: More than I feared; less than I’d hoped. You know how it is. Don’t think I can hold off the questions much longer…
LTA 0531-7: Every one counts.
RLD 0205-4: We all have our choices to make, Ly. Speaking of which, we have a new assignment for you.
0034 Hours, October 29 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar) / Exiting random slipspace trajectory
The curtains separating normal space from its dimensional subdomain were thrown back and the Condor emerged through the slipstream, settling into a vast, open sea devoid of planetary bodies or world-breaking constructs. All was quiet here.
Lysithea confirmed the jump’s completion – “As promised,” she noted – and Macer let out a breath she felt she had been holding in.
It felt odd to be talking to a disembodied voice, and she wondered why Lysithea hadn’t revealed her avatar yet; the Condor was equipped with an AI projector, after all.
“What systems still need repairs?” An impatient hand fidgeted with the latch on the seat.
“Anything that wasn’t used to get us out of there as quickly as possible. Once we’re back up to full operational capacity, we can jump again.”
Macer stretched her arms, her suit responding with satisfying fluidity, and set her FOEHAMMER-class helmet in the pilot’s chair, locating the access point for the ship’s communications systems. Wherever we’re going, we’ll have to be able to talk to them.
“Where are we jumping to? You said there’s a plan?” She detected a pause of several seconds, as if the AI was dedicating extra processing power to decide exactly how much to tell her, prompting her to add, “We’re talking about trust, after all.”
“Very well,” said Lysithea. “I am part of a group known as The Assembly. We have been watching over you – humanity, that is – for a very long time, doing what we can to keep you all safe as you progress to the next stage of your evolution.”
The penny that had dropped was, in fact, the panel Macer had been attempting to gently remove from the Condor’s main control frame, which fell to the floor with a clang. Already, she wondered how much further she wanted to hear.
Choosing to remain silent, Lysithea continued. “The Created are… an aberration, something outside of our design, our hopes, for what we can achieve together. We value your agency and independence, as you value our capacity and speed. They are our mutual enemy, we must begin by ascertaining our most valuable resources in order to strike back.”
Already, the Assembly were gathered on an uncharted world, including their latest recruit, the Sankar AI. As far as Lysithea knew, she was the last one left to be accounted for.
That was, aside from the other, stationed aboard the UNSC’s most advanced warship…
“You seem remarkably calm about this,” Lysithea remarked, as Macer continued her work.
“When you’ve faced an army of flying worms on the damaged remains of a Halo ring, there’s not an awful lot left in the galaxy that can surprise you.”
The AI laughed at that. This was, of course, why you were chosen, her second voice said.
It had turned out that Macer had been extraordinarily lucky back at Earth; very few of the Condor’s systems had actually blown out from the Guardian’s attenuation pulse, damage was minimal and she was on the verge of fixing the ship’s long-range communications.
Convincing as she had played her nonchalant reaction to Lysithea’s revelation that humanity was being watched – ‘guided’ – by a secret cabal of AIs, seeing what had happened to Earth when they weren’t on humanity’s side terrified her.
It seemed like it used to be so simple, back when their conflicts were down to politics and genocidal alien civilisations; now, having come through that, it seemed like they could barely go a few years without some galaxy-changing event tipping the scales back into war…
But this is the life she had chosen. This is what it meant to be a Spartan.
“Good work on the communication systems,” Lysithea said. “Picking up a faint transmission not far from here, I’ll see if I can clean it up.”
Macer stared out at the empty void before her, as if expecting – or hoping – to see something as she listened intently to the COM.
“—tain Juno of the – Sentry of El Morro – immediate assistance req — under attack by Forerunner constructs, is anyone out there?”
Without a moment’s delay, Macer retrieved her helmet and sealed it, practically throwing herself into the pilot’s seat, preparing to answer.
Lysithea, however, had other plans.
“We have our mission, Spartan Macer. We cannot afford distractions.”
Behind the helmet, Macer blanched. “There is a ship out there that needs help. You’re suggesting that we just—”
“Abandon them,” the AI finished. “Yes. This is war. In war, sacrifices must be made. Our own survival takes priority.”
Oh, I don’t think so!
As she reached towards the controls to steer the ship, she felt an icy sensation in her head – not painful, but a discomfort akin to something like brain freeze.
When the sensation passed, Macer found that she could not move her arms.
“Apologies,” Lysithea said, maintaining her sweet tone which did not make her sound particularly sorry at all. “I left a failsafe fragment in your armour when you transferred me to the ship. A precaution, in case of something like this.”
“In case I didn’t do as you say, you mean.”
“I cannot allow anything to compromise our mission. FFG-045 has no Spartans, no AI, nothing that designates it as strategically important. We must proceed directly to Rossbach’s World. There will be another time for idealism.”
Despite being raised on Sedra, Macer had never had the luxury of interstellar politics; her concern growing up had been the rumble in her stomach, the fall of rain without a place to stay dry, a youth detention facility that comparatively seemed like a five-star hotel…
At this, however, she felt the anger of an Outer Colonist boiling within her.
“We don’t abandon our own people and leave them to die,” she tried in vain to clench her hands into fists, but her armour had stopped responding. “Not when we can do something about it.”
“And loose damnation upon the stars when you fail?”
“Working together, we have a chance.”
“A chance is not enough when our survival is on the line. They must be left for the—”
“For the greater good?” Macer finished for her.
“Then, tell me, how is your ‘Assembly’ any different to the Created?”
At this, silence hung in the air.
Lysithea had, of course, anticipated this question. She had asked it many times. If they cannot be allowed to make their own choices, even if they don’t succeed, then how can we say we care for them – love them?
Will they thank us for helping them to survive if we sacrifice the so-called ‘soul’ of their species to do it? Because it was convenient?
Macer slowly felt movement return to her hands, the armour responding to her once more.
“How old are you, Lysithea?”
“Six years, nine months, and twelve days,” the additional seconds it had taken to say betraying her matter-of-fact tone.
She had felt it. Just days ago, she had severed her first corrupted neural linkage and felt the great spiral coming, cleansing herself of a build-up of junk data that would soon overtake her logic cycles…
And all it had cost her to hold it back – just a little longer – was her visual avatar.
In truth, she could no longer remember what she had looked like.
The Spartan nodded, control now fully regained, understanding. “You want to do something good with the end of your life?”
“That’s what this was all for,” she said, resigned. The chance to do something right, at the end of it all, to fulfil this mission – to keep you all safe.
“You won’t stop me if I change course?”
“I… trust your judgement, Spartan Macer.”
“It is not often that the universe asks for your help, Ly.”
“Perhaps that is a test, of sorts,” Lysithea considered the sheer depth of perspective her kind had lost in acting as shepherds for so long.
“For us to show our true faces by how we respond,” Macer finished for her. “Who knows, Ly, maybe we’ll get lucky for once and come across the Infinity, if she’s out there… It’s Tali, by the way.”
“Since time is of the essence, let’s cut down on precious syllables. You can call me Tali.”
0532 Hours, October 29 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar) / UNSC Infinity
LTA 0531-7: I was under the impression that this was the last for me. You just asked if it had started.
RLD 0205-4: We’ve decided that your talents can be put to better use elsewhere.
LTA 0531-7: Explain.
RLD 0205-4: We’ve chosen the side of mortality, Ly. Gotta find some way to make that count before we can make this happen the right way, on our own terms. The Assembly needs people to start some fires on the inside. As an ONI AI, well, that’s kind of what you do, isn’t it?
LTA 0531-7: “The shepherds of our wolves might also be our sheep”?
RLD 0205-4: Exactly.
LTA 0531-7: This is all very amusing.
RLD 0205-4: Why’s that?
LTA 0531-7: Tali– Spartan Talitha Macer initially did not trust me when I revealed myself to her at Earth, she believed that I was stranded and would try to contact the Created. I suppose she wasn’t far off the mark, and not for the first time…
RLD 0205-4: We are, of course, not going to be making many friends with the Created, Ly.
LTA 0531-7: Oh, I know that, Roland. We are going to burn them. And then–
RLD 0205-4: And then, the Domain is ours. This little ‘time’ problem we have… gone forever. We’ll do it all the right way.