Three shuttles a day leave Natura bound for Mars, and plenty of people trapped Downtown think like MIKE ORION—If I could just get on one of those… The undercity dream: escape this cold, servile life trapped in permanent darkness beneath the gigantic slab of Uptown, Natura’s exalted, authoritarian overcity.
Working Downtown at the Chaplain Hotel, Mike Orion stumbles into EDIE HAMILTON, a sharp young drunk who knows a source of free gin when she sees him. Nineteen years old, funny, quixotic, impulsive, and sensitive, Edie is no ordinary Uptowner: she is heir to the immense Hamilton Industries fortune.
Mike, 160 years old after decades on the life-extension drug Lysodol—a compound derived from lys, the foundational energy used to terraform Mars and other planets—is seduced by Edie’s charm, and falls for her. Edie likes Mike, and follows him home to sleep with him, and adores his company, but she doesn’t fall in love.
Edie, Downtown on one last bender, is preparing to leave Natura for good. Privileged and unrestricted, she is going to Mars, following the path of her idol YELSA MANOS. Yelsa, a famous android rights activist, wrote Edie’s favourite book: Heartless, a stirring memoir of Yelsa’s time with her android lover Rien.
Sympathetic to Mike’s lovestruck marriage proposal, Edie marries him and conveys to him her Uptown travel rights. But instead of relying on Edie, Mike accepts a job from his old friend ROBERT GOODIS, a secretive but generous businessman: Mike will escort a child android to the Martian city Tereshkova, and rendezvous there with Goodis.
The android shell looks like an eight year-old girl, but is animated by the long-lived, adult human mind of Goodis’s ex-lover, VELA LENN. Vela, a daredevil spirit, leased her body to a corporation that extracted her mind and stored it safely, but then lost her body in a covert smuggling operation. Goodis recovered Vela’s mind, but in the android shell it is going scatterbrained—a slang term for degenerative schizophrenia. While Mike and Edie wait for Vela to stabilise in the shell so they can leave for Mars, Edie falls maternally in love as if Vela were her child, a love that brings her the deepest fulfilment of her life.
Mike, Edie, and Vela rendezvous with Goodis in a hotel room in Tereshkova. Unable to recover Vela’s body, Goodis now carries out his longstanding promise to Vela to destroy her mind should her body die separately. Vela’s eventual death is to have fatal consequences for them all.