The United States is dead and the DEMOCRATIC UNITY killed it. The new republic, a shining example of true democracy, has inherited the continent but is satisfied to rule just the East Coast, leaving the savages and the strangely altered plants to growl over the bones of a once proud nation. Free healthcare, guaranteed employment, frequent plebiscites and ThiZ (the recreational drug of any really civilized society) create history’s finest Utopia. The Unity mandates that all workers retire at 40, avoiding the fatigue and error that might confound a society based on innovation, vigor and youth. The CORE computer implants, moreover, guarantee that each citizen is supervised for his own and the Unity’s welfare.
MALILA CHIU, at 17 years old, is a veteran security officer on the rise, famous for her cunning and bravery in (simulated) battle. Her career prospects look rosy until SUNPRAIRIE goes dark … again. Pointless vandalism, in the far distant outlands, threatens to de-rail her career and Malila does what she must in order to stay on top. Unfortunately, her boss, VIVALAGENTE SUAREZ aided by EUSTACE JOURDAINE, think otherwise. Caught in her own trap, a demoted Malila faces denunciation and Sapping, rendering her a brain-dead soldier. Her one alternative is to fix the mess by entering the outlands, in person.
The repairs are going well until she is captured by JESSE JOHNSONE, a nightmare of an outlander: impossibly old, barbaric, brutal, and disdainful of all things civilized. Humiliating Malila even more, Jesse removes her first implant, preventing her rescue. Her electronic cerebral servant, Edie (Educational Device) although disabled, seems to surface at intervals of crisis.
Despite attacks from slavers, Malila’s attempts at escape, his own rapidly deteriorating health, and daunting weather, the old man delivers her to the Colony … and disappears now that Malila has come to trust him. Interrogated by XAVIER DELAROSA while she winters over at the farm of SALLY and MOSES STEWERT, Malila is seduced by the cunning wiles of their newborn son, ETHAN, a type of human she had previously never seen.
During the next four months, Malila learns the truth of her time with Jesse, the realities of outland life and motherhood from Sally and much about the world outside the Unity. When a returned and recovered Jesse confesses his love for her, she misunderstands and rejects him, just in time to be recaptured by Jourdaine, killing Delarosa and wounding Moses in the process.
Back in the Unity, her best friend HECATE JONES has come to a similar enlightenment about the illusions of the Unity after her lover commits suicide rather than be denounced.
Jourdaine has retrieved Malila for use as a stalking horse in a power struggle against General Suarez, his commander. Malila is lionized for her survival, helping Jourdaine to realize his goal. Only after Jourdaine is successful, does he appreciate how the outlands have changed Malila. Concluding she is now a liability, Jourdaine decides she must go through Alpha Drover, a no-win exercise, rendering her a morally compromised minion of the senior staff.
Malila, reunited with Edie since her return and helped by her experiences in the outlands, is able to perceive the nested illusions, her apparent dilemma and her authentic choices. Escaping the virtual maze of the CORE simulation, Malila exits her illusions, and plans to disable her remaining implant. Her computer simulated entity, Edie tells her that such an action will kill her, Edie, but still urges Malila to do so. After losing Edie, disabling her last implant, and faking her own suicide, Malila starts on a trip that should lead her back to the Outlands.