It is August 1994 in a United Nations colony on Mars where families get rations of water for their home use from a canal, including neighboring families the Bohlens and the Steiners. Jack Bohlen, a repairman, receives a call from his father in New York City saying that he wants to come to Mars to research a real estate deal. Jack copters out to a job and sees along the way Lewistown, the second most successful colony on Mars—the one for the Water Workers’ union people who control the canals. The most successful colony is New Israel.
Arnie Kott, head of the Water Workers’ union, enjoys the luxury of a steam bath while discussing with his minions some land in the F.D.R. Mountains. He also complains about the UN demands that he improve the wages of the Bleekmen, the indigenous Martian tribe, who are used as laborers in the mines. Beside a New York Times newspaper ad for prospective colonists for Mars, touting the opportunities for those who have only a bachelor’s degree and thus cannot get a job on Earth, Arnie sees an article about the Colonial Safety Committee on Mars that irritates him, especially since his ex-wife is on the committee. On his way to see her, his helicopter pilot gets a message asking for aid for some stranded Bleekmen. Jack hears the same emergency call and is the first to arrive and give food and water to the Bleekmen who reward him with a water witch. Arnie’s pilot also provides water even though Arnie protests because he does not consider Bleekmen to be people.
Norbert Steiner, who runs a black-market food operation, goes to Camp Ben-Gurion, a home for “anomalous children,” where his son Manfred is a resident. Having an autistic son is considered shameful, but he can talk to Anne Esterhazy, who also has a child at Camp B-G. She tells him about a bill under consideration at the UN that would kill the anomalous children in an effort “to keep the race pure.” Although at first horrified by the news, Norbert wonders if such action might be best for children like his son who cannot communicate. The institute’s psychiatrist, Dr. Milton Glaub, tells Norbert about a new theory that looks at how autism speeds up time and the possibility of being able to communicate with autistic children if they were able to slow down sights and sounds. Norbert dismisses Milton’s ideas as idealistic nonsense. He then goes to a bar where the owner rants about how the freaks like those at Camp B-G should be destroyed. Norbert reveals that his son lives at the camp, and the bar owner becomes angry that Norbert never told him before. In despair from all this conflict, Norbert suddenly decides to kill himself and steps in front of a bus.
UN policemen come to the Steiner home to tell the family that Norbert has died. Silvia babysits the four Steiner girls and learns of the existence of Manfred. Arnie learns about Norbert’s death when he and Anne have lunch together. She then tells him of the possible closure of Camp B-G, and even though he and Anne have a son there, he thinks it is better for Mars not to have a place like Camp B-G. Milton hears about Norbert’s suicide, and the implication that he might have said something to drive Norbert to it makes Milton worry about his position. Silvia calls Jack to tell him about Norbert and to ask him to come home early because she is caring for the girls. However, Mr. Yee will not let Jack go and sends him to a job at the Public School.
Jack is unnerved by the Public School. As he repairs one of the mechanical teachers, he speculates about the function of the Public School within the society on Mars and how people with autism and schizophrenia are feared and rejected. Jack then recalls his own bout with schizophrenia back on Earth. Right before he left for Mars, Jack hallucinated that his boss was a machine and that everything around him was lifeless and mechanical. It was then he realized he was sick and needed help. Jack thinks now that the reason the Teaching Machines make him so uncomfortable is that they remind him of this hallucination.
Arnie calls Yee and specifically requests that Jack come to repair his encoder device. He thinks about rumors that the UN is buying up some of the F.D.R. Mountains and how they will become very valuable. He needs to know what part of the mountains, so he begins wondering if there might be a precognitive schizophrenic living at Camp B-G who would be able to tell him. An aide tells Arnie to ask Milton. Meanwhile, Otto Zitte sits in a storage shed in the F.D.R. Mountains where Norbert keeps the black-market food. He wonders where Norbert is and why it is taking him so long to return. He thinks about how he ended up working for Norbert after he lost his union membership and failed at his own black-market business. Jack arrives at Arnie’s and meets Doreen Anderton, to whom Jack is instantly attracted. Arnie invites Jack to go with him and Doreen to meet Milton for drinks. Arnie explains that he needs to find a precognitive schizophrenic, and Jack reveals that he is himself a schizophrenic. Arnie wants to know if Jack can see the future, but Jack says he cannot. Arnie does not believe him.
On his way to meet Arnie, Milton muses about how much money he will make when he is on Arnie’s payroll. He assumes Arnie must need his services to deal with an onset of schizophrenia, and he is excited about the large opportunity this presents. Then he learns that Arnie wants to know if he has an advanced schizophrenic at Camp B-G. Milton tells them about Manfred. Arnie becomes convinced that if Jack can build a machine that can communicate with this child, then Manfred will be able to tell them the future. Arnie puts Jack on his payroll, but not Milton. Sitting at the table, Jack begins to have a schizophrenic episode. Doreen notices and takes him away. As they walk, Doreen tells Jack that her brother is schizophrenic, and Jack confides to Doreen about the nature of his visions. He decides to take the job with Arnie, and he vows to keep fighting off his schizophrenia. Later that night, Arnie decides to start up his own black-market food business now that Steiner is gone. Jack considers calling Doreen. He decides against it, but then Doreen calls to ask him over. She assures Jack that she will tell Arnie, who will not object. So Jack goes.
Leo Bohlen arrives on Mars. As they spend some family time, Leo asks Jack about his relationship with Silvia and his mental state. He can tell Jack is withdrawn. He wants Jack to go in on the land deal with him, but Jack is not interested. Leo confronts Jack about his affair with Doreen, but Jack says he has everything under control. Silvia, in her drug-induced haze before sleep, wonders why Jack has changed recently and why he is distant from her. Meanwhile, Manfred has a terrifying vision of meat-eating birds and large, wet worms. He tries to run, but the steps give way underneath his feet. He starts to fly up, but the birds eat his head off. He is then standing on a bridge over a sea where sharks try to attack him. He is then strangled with a loop of shark teeth that cuts off his head. He is trapped in a decaying world without a voice. At Arnie’s, Doreen is told about a land speculator who...