The novel begins with Florence Wechek. She is the manager of Fort Repose's Western Union, and she's the small Florida town's biggest gossip. She has a cat named Sir Percy and two lovebirds named Anthony and Cleo, and she goes about her typical morning routine every day without fail. This morning, as usual, she watches the news, hearing that the Russians have sent another Sputnik satellite into space. She doesn't show much of a reaction to this; instead, she muses about her neighbor, Randy Bragg, who she thinks is a Peeping Tom because sometimes he intently scans all of their street, called River Road, with his glasses on.
Randy has lived alone in his inherited family mansion on an orange tree farm for a while, and having recently failed at a run for office, he has no real job, isn't particularly happy, and drinks a fair amount. He's dated a few women, and is currently seeing one named Lib McGovern. He's a retired military man who served in Korea and Japan. That morning as he eats breakfast his neighbor and maid, Missouri, comes in to clean. Missouri is high-spirited and has a method of waxing the floors by putting rags on her feet and dancing across the room.
A little later Randy receives a telegram from his brother, Mark Bragg, telling Randy to meet him at the nearest Air Force base, McCoy, at noon that day, and that his wife and children, Helen Bragg, Peyton, and Ben Franklin, would be flying into McCoy that night. At the very end, it is signed "Alas, Babylon." This is a code that he and Mark had agreed to use a while back if Mark, an Air Force man living at headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, ever got wind of a nuclear attack coming from the Soviets. Randy knows then that something is gravely wrong, and he prepares to head to McCoy to meet Mark and get the full story.
In the car, Mark listens closely to the news on the radio for signs of something amiss, but hears nothing out of the ordinary from the conflict that had been going on for a while now. He wonders why Mark is so worried. The story cuts back to Florence for a moment, who is with her best friend Alice, hearing about her recent squabble with Kitty Offenhaus, the town undertaker's wife. The conversation then turns to Randy, and Florence urges Alice to come and stay at her house for a while to see how he watches her.
At the Air Force base Randy talks to his friend Paul Hart, a Select Crew Aircraft Commander. Hart explains a little bit more about what's going on; the Air Force is trying to keep most planes off this base since it's a primary target, and they keep ten percent of them in the air at all times because they're safer from a bombing up there than on the ground. They've cleared all civilians and nonessential personnel away from the base, as they don't expect to have much warning before an attack comes.
Mark lands and tells Randy he wants to talk in the car so as not to waste time. Mark explains that right now issue is control of the Mediterranean; for the first time Russia has a powerful fleet in the Med, giving them axes to both Europe and Africa, as well as Turkey in Asia Minor. They're planning something called a T.O.T, or Time-on-Target attack, which means firing multiple nuclear missiles so that they hit their targets—U.S. cities—at exactly the same time. Soviet submarines have begun to appear in large numbers in the Caribbean Sea.
Mark gives Randy a check for 5,000 dollars to use to support his wife and kids when they arrive in Fort Repose late that night. Randy wants to warn some people about what's happening, including Lib McGovern, and Mark gives him permission. He asks Randy to take good care of Helen, who means the world to him, because he knows that Omaha will be a target and he probably won't live past the attack. The brothers bid each other goodbye as Mark gets on a plane back to Omaha, and Randy returns to Fort Repose.
The first two chapters of Alas, Babylon focuses on two things: introducing readers to both the characters and the major conflict. The choice to begin the novel from Florence's point of view is an interesting one; despite nuclear war brewing around her, she is far more concerned with the latest gossip around Fort Repose and her fervid belief that her neighbor, Randy, is spying on her. Florence's point of view reminds readers that most of the people in Fort Repose, like other normal civilians across the country, feel quite distanced from the conflict unfolding at the time. This will make the oncoming terror even more of a shock.
Through Randy's interactions with Paul Hart and his brother Mark, author Pat Frank outlines the conflict facing the globe during this time. This novel takes place at the height of the Cold War, which was basically a nuclear standoff between the democratic USA and communist Soviet Union. Readers in the 21st Century know that the Cold War never actually resulted in an attack, but the fear of one during this novel's writing (which is exactly when its events take place, too) was very real and extremely crippling.
Aside from a general outline of the year (1959-1960), Frank never attaches a specific date to the ensuing war events. This is to suggest that these events could happen anytime; just as the U.S. army is afraid of during the novel, an attack could sneak up without notice. This was an especially important message to Frank's contemporary readers. Just like Randy gets moving right away upon a telegram from his brother, citizens should be ready and equipped for an attack at a moments notice.
Our protagonist Randy's status at the beginning of the novel is important to note as well. He is downtrodden and jobless, having recently lost a run for office. Though he mentions Lib McGovern, it is not clear at this point whether or not he considers her a steady girlfriend, or just someone he sees once in a while. He seems to be developing a drinking problem, and he lives entirely alone in a large house. He seems rather insignificant right now, but this will make the stark juxtaposition between his beginnings and his growth over the course of the novel even more apparent.
Mark, however, seems to have it all together. He has an important job in the military that allows him to be forewarned of impending crisis. He has a wife who he loves and thinks extremely highly of, as well as two children. He's steady and smart even in the face of possible death. He is quite the opposite of his brother in the beginning of the novel, but even so, he completely trusts Randy with his family and their survival. By doing this, he is opening up the floor for Randy to become the hero, and Randy, though certainly anxious, seems up to the challenge.