A young man named Mark wakes up in a shelter in the mountains. He feels a little chilly, which he takes to be a good sign in a world ravaged by heat. He wakes up his companion, an older man, now retired from the military, named Alec. Alec and Mark banter for a bit. Mark needs to find a girl named Trina as soon as possible. He finds her up by the stream, reading a book she has salvaged from the library. Mark and Trina seem to be romantically interested in each other. They walk back down to the Central Shack of their camp together. They run into Lana, who was under Alec’s command before the sun flares came down onto the earth. The people in this camp together had run away together after the sun flares, with most of their family and possessions destroyed. They meet up with their other friends Darnell, the Toad, and Misty, three teenagers.
Suddenly, the sound of engines can be heard overhead: it is a Berg. This is the first time Mark has seen a Berg since the apocalyptic arrival of the Flares. The Berg is landing near their village, and most of the inhabitants of the village are all going towards it. People are starting to think that it must be here to rescue them. Alec notes that this Berg is missing the lettering that is usually on most Bergs. The Berg hatch opens, and five people wearing one-piece protective suits emerge. They point tubes in gun-fashion at the villagers. Mark falls into a trance, watching the strangers, even as Alec screams and pushes through people to move away. A shot is fired from the tubes. Darnell is hit with a dart, and collapses. Mark snaps out of his trance; commotion and craziness break out. The darts keep raining on them. Mark and his friends drag Darnell away and they try to escape to their Shack. Mark sees Alec at the shack, who motions for the younger boy to come and help him shoot back at the Berg. Alec gives Mark a pistol, and also uses a grappling hook weapon to harness the Berg. Using that, Alec manages to climb aboard the Berg, and even defeat some of the personnel. Alec tells Mark to fire the second grappling hook, which Mark does. However, in this process, the Berg starts to ascend, taking the dangling Mark with it. Mark struggles to hit the green button on the device, which will retract him back towards Alec, who is by the grappling hook on the Berg. Finally, after a narrow miss with the tops of the forest trees, Mark gets himself to safety on the Berg.
Alec and Mark search for a way out of the room in which they now find themselves. Mark hands Alec a sledgehammer he finds amidst the junk in the room. Alec tries to break open a door, and Mark finds boxes that he thinks will be a help. Then he finds out that these boxes are biohazards, and that the raining darts contained a highly contagious virus. Mark tells Alec about this, and they are both perplexed. Alec breaks through the door and they pursue the sound of footsteps down the hall. They go up to the cockpit, and just before entering they are attacked by the man whom they heard down the hallway. Alec overcomes the man, while Mark tells the pilot, a woman, to turn the Berg around. Then the man on the ground tells the woman to take the craft down, and the pilot crashes the Berg. Mark had noted that both of them had very dead-looking eyes. As Mark fades to unconsciousness, he remembers how everything started for him in a tunnel.
In a flashback, Mark is coming home from school on a subway-like transportation. It is the weekend and he is excited to relax. He and Trina are next-door neighbors. He has a huge crush on Trina, but so does every other boy in the school. He and Trina are bantering on the train when the power suddenly goes out. All the other passengers angrily pry open the exit doors and hop outside. Mark and Trina, left behind, finally follow as well. They are running in the opposite direction of the mob when they hear screams. Trina says they have to go see if they can help. When they reach the entrance to the station platform, they see burned, bleeding, and dead people everywhere. An impossible heat fills the space. Mark and Trina run back in the opposite direction.
Back in real time, Alec is waking up Mark. They are outside of the crashed Berg, and rummage through it for supplies. They find a “Workpad,” a device with lots of information on it, similar to a computer. The Workpad contains the past logs of the Berg’s flights. Alec and Mark take the workpad and hike back to their village. It takes them two nights and more. When they get back to the village, it reeks of death. At least twenty bodies are piled up in a rain shelter space. There is a lot of blood on the bodies. Everyone in the village is holed up in their own shelters, and have been since the morning of the Berg’s arrival. Alec and Mark run into Trina, who takes them first to a shelter, where Darnell has barricaded himself and asked his friends to board him up. Instead of dying like the others, who died soon after the darts, Darnell had survived and gone crazy. Mark goes up to the boards to try to communicate with his friend, but Darnell, bloody and crazed, does not respond. Darnell keeps complaining about his head. As Mark turns away, Darnell knocks his head against the door until he dies. Saddened, Mark, Trina, and Alec return to the Shack to meet up with Lana, the Toad, and Misty. They are packing to get away. They are going to head for the headquarters that the Workpad had revealed. However, just as they are about to leave, Misty begins to fall ill. She tells them to leave her behind, but the Toad, her best friend, insists on staying with her. The rest of the group begins to journey. However, it soon becomes dark and they have to rest. Mark dreams again of his flashbacks. He remembers himself and Trina running through the tunnels, being followed by some large man. While hiding from their pursuer, they are cornered by three criminals who want their food, and more. However, just as they are about to be attacked, their original pursuer saves them. The pursuer introduces himself as Alec.
The book begins with Teresa and Thomas about to say goodbye as Thomas prepares to enter the Maze; this is a point of transition. The actual story begins when Mark wakes up with the cold, “something he hadn’t done in a long time” (8). The sun flares have devastated the earth with heat, and yet the story begins on a note of cold. The story begins on a note of change. Something is different about today, and Mark is about to discover what that is. He is intent on having a very good day, and hurriedly brings Trina back to base camp. Feeling good about this, Mark even tells Trina that “Today is going to be a perfect, perfect day” (12). However, the devastation that is about to follow is foreshadowed in what happens right after Mark’s words: “the waters of the stream continued to rush by, as if his words meant nothing” (12).
Instead of a perfect day, change does come – but in the form of destruction. Mark and his friends hear engines in the sky, and when the aircraft comes into view, the first thing that is off is that this aircraft does not have any markers on it. Mark is frozen to the spot and does not take action until his friend Darnell is struck by a dart from the Berg, and falls down, bleeding. At this point at the beginning of the story, Mark is still immature and more hesitant about taking action, but this, too, is about to change. As Mark and his friends take Darnell to safety, they think about how random this all is. “Makes no sense,” Mark says (25); Trina asks why they are letting these people doing what they are doing. In many ways, the introduction of this virus which is about to be called the “Flare” itself, is reminiscent of the way the sun flares just randomly came down—and also from the sky.
Mark and Alec bravely make their way onto the departing Berg, even though Mark has to get dragged through the air. This crazy, impulsive action opens Mark’s eyes up to his own physical strength and courage. When Mark finds the container for the virus, he immediately panics; he even hears “the rising alarm in his own voice and was ashamed of it” (36). Alec tells him to “calm down, boy” (36)—these words could almost be construed as condescending, if Alec and Mark were not such close friends and comrades. This is a testament to a certain kind of masculinity that Alec and Mark subscribe to—they have to be brave and calm, and not panic. It is a very traditional concept of masculinity.
Just before the Berg crashes, Mark is thrown to the floor and the control panels. He feels pain and slowly fades from consciousness into a “dark, endless tunnel” (40). At this, Mark sarcastically thinks: “A tunnel, how appropriate”—since that was where his memories about the sun flares first begin. This ushers the story into the first of Mark’s flashbacks and memories. The concept of the tunnel as a transition is again relevant here: not only does the “tunnel” image shuttle readers into Mark’s past, but the literal tunnel from his past also provides a safe transition from him and Trina into the new, post-apocalyptic world. If they had not been underground, they would have died, roasted from the flares.
Mark and Alec make their way back to the village, only to see that things there are worse than ever. Darnell, self-imprisoned in a shack, is dying and bleeding. The symptoms of the virus—heavy bleeding—were supposed to cause instant death, but instead it has prolonged itself in Darnell’s case, and the terrifying appearance of the blood coming from the openings in Darnell’s face and head are almost indicative of the coming symptoms. The coming symptoms are the insanity that the virus also brings about. The virus works in the head, first, slowly “bleeding out” the sanity of the afflicted individual. Although Mark cares for Darnell and it hurts him to see his friend, his first thought is still for Trina. Trina is Mark’s every reason to keep going, and he would rather the victim have been Darnell than Trina.