They were preceded by an enigmatic race known as the Precursors. With the aid of two human guides, Chakas and Morning Riser, Bornstellar visits a ring island where they find a cryptum—a Forerunner stasis vessel. Inside is the Didact, who after recovering from his hibernation, conscripts Bornstellar, Chakas, and Riser on an interstellar quest given to him by the Librarian. Bornstellar learns that the Forerunners fought a war with humankind 10, years prior.
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A long time ago, I was a living, breathing human being. I went mad. I served my enemies. They became my only friends. You have asked me to tell you about that time. Since you are the true Reclaimers, I must obey. Are you recording? Because my memory is failing rapidly. The book begins with an ONI science team interrogating a damaged Forerunner monitor , believed to be a duplicate of a previously encountered device, questioning it about the Didact and the ancient relations between Forerunners and humans.
The monitor, revealing that it was once a human named Chakas , then proceeds to tell the story of its origins through a series of flashbacks. None of the human characters in the present-day segments are identified by name and are only referred to by their titles.
At first, the monitor describes his childhood and youth as Chakas, and how he met his companion Riser. After the Didact, Bornstellar and the two humans are captured by the Master Builder at Janjur Qom , Chakas is separated from the others and is put into stasis. He is found by a human girl named Vinnevra , who has been sent to the crash site by her grandfather, Gamelpar. However, the Master Builder took control of the ring and began to use the humans in his experiments on the Flood.
Many humans were seen to be immune to the Flood, prompting the Master Builder to bring in more humans from Earth in order to retrieve the ancient records stored in their genetic material in hopes of finding the secret to this supposed immunity. Vinnevra takes Chakas to see Gamelpar, who explains that he was originally from Earth and, like Chakas, also holds an "old spirit" within him. The old man also explains the history of the humans on the installation, and reveals that he has once been taken to what the humans call the Palace of Pain ; a term used by the People for the Flood research facilities on the installation.
However, it instead takes them near one of the "Palaces of Pain", where the group witness numerous humans following their geas walking into the structure whilst being observed by the Primordial , supposedly the last Precursor. The three then decide to move in the opposite direction. Coming across the shores of a large lake, the three stumble upon a collapsing human city, in which Gamelpar and Chakas see a proto-Gravemind locked in a Forerunner cell.
After crossing the lake, the three are found by a Lifeworker named Genemender Folder of Fortune , several Denisovans , and a large ape. Strangely, Genemender and the humans cast off no smell and the insects are not interested in them. After being fed by Genemender and sent to sleep, Chakas awakens to see Riser, who warns him not to trust the Lifeworker and the other humans.
Genemender then takes Chakas to a laboratory and explains what has occurred regarding the history of the Flood , the Halo Array , the devastation of Janjur Qom , and the battle of the Capital. Genemender is eventually forced to reveal that he and the humans in his compound are not actually alive, but archived personalities manifesting as life-like hard light holograms.
The monitor wants to do this to Gamelpar, who is dying, but Gamelpar rejects him and has Chakas accompany him in his final moments. Before dying, Gamelpar has Chakas promise to watch over Vinnevra. The systems in the area then power down, leaving Chakas, Riser, Vinnevra, and the ape, whose name is revealed to be Mara by Riser, who can communicate with her, to continue their journey.
Riser then tells Chakas how he found them. During the battle over the Forerunner Capital, Riser and the Forerunners that were holding him crashed on Installation One of the Forerunners, who was locked up by the others due to him being on the opposing side of the small civil war caused by the Master Builder, told the others that Riser was valuable due to his geas, and thus the others protected him as they moved out.
After a while of traveling over a desert infested with Flood biomass , the group was covered in Flood spores , killing the Forerunners but not Riser, who continued traveling until he stumbled upon Chakas. Chakas and Riser then allow their spirits to converse with one another. Chakas, Riser, and all of the other humans from Earth are gathered and have their imprinted ancestral personalities removed and implanted into monitors.
Mendicant Bias promises them revenge on the Forerunners; however, they must first save the Halo from colliding with a planet , due to the ring being on a destructive course as a security measure should it fall under enemy control.
The plan is for the Halo to position itself in such a way that the planet will pass through the Halo, which will suffer heavy damage but will survive. As the Halo moves towards the planet, Chakas is connected to the Silent Cartographer in order to interface with the Halo and help coordinate its movements.
A fleet led by the Bornstellar Didact then appears, and the Didact uses a failsafe code to disable Mendicant Bias. The Didact then enters the Cartographer and commands that the Halo be saved by moving it to an Ark installation for repairs.
To successfully move through a portal , however, the Halo must shed a large portion of its constituent structure, thus reducing its diameter from 30, kilometers to 10, kilometers. Though heavily damaged, the Halo survives and moves through the portal.
The ensuing conversation reveals that the Primordial is actually a Gravemind, and that more Precursors may have survived their war with the Forerunners. The Didact claims that war happened because the Precursors resented any who might take up the Mantle , but the Primordial explains that the Forerunners had been deemed unfit for the Mantle. The Primordial asserts that "there is no difference" between the Flood and the Precursors, although it does not reveal the precise nature of their relationship.
It also reveals that no human was ever truly immune to the Flood, but the Flood can choose whether to infect or not infect. Back at present day, the ONI researchers reluctantly accept that the monitor telling the story is actually Guilty Spark , the monitor of Installation In the final segment of the story, Guilty Spark briefly explains what happened after he had become a monitor; he reveals that the Ecumene Council was reinstated and the debates on new strategies against the Flood renewed under the direction of the Didact.
He then explains to the crew that he desires to resume his quest to find the Librarian and retrieve the old spirits of Riser and Vinnevra.
Asserting that the Librarian is actually alive, he puts the crew to sleep and has the ship proceed to her location. Spoilers end here.
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