The first section of Dawn is called “Womb.” It opens with Lilith Iyapo, who has been living in isolated confinement. She has been Awakened from a deep sleep. She knows that this is not the first time that she has been Awakened. She remembers that she is twenty-six years old, she had a husband and child who died in a car crash, and that there was a deadly war that wiped out most of the human race. Lilith has no idea who her captors are or what they want from her. Normally, her captors ask her questions from somewhere in the ceiling, and she never sees them. During this Awakening, she realizes that there is a shadowy figure with her in her room. She soon discovers that it is an alien being with tentacles all over its body. This alien tells her that it is a man and his name is Jdhaya. He is there in order for Lilith to acclimate to his presence so that he can bring her out of her cell. Outside of her room is a giant alien ship built out of living material. The aliens, who refer to themselves as the Oankali, exist in a symbiotic relationship with the ship.
Jdhaya tells Lilith that she has been sleeping on this ship for almost two hundred and fifty years. They have several other humans in isolated confinement. Lilith has been awakened because she has work to do—it will be her job to wake the other humans and prepare them to return to Earth. In the two hundred fifty years since humans have left Earth, Earth has rejuvenated. The vegetation has grown and those animals which did not go extinct in the war have repopulated. Once Lilith is able to get used to Jdhaya, he brings her out of her cell. Lilith asks Jdhaya what the Oankali want from the human race. He tells her that the Oankali are traders and they expect to trade genetic material with the humans. Lilith realizes that the Oankali have now truly continued the human extinction that the war began. The future humans will be human-Oankali hybrids and it will be her job to bring them into existence. Lilith is disgusted at this thought and tells Jdhaya that she wishes they just left her to die on Earth. He tells her that if she wants to she can touch him and he will sting her with his tentacles so that she dies. However, she cannot take this opportunity—she still has an instinct to live.
In the second section, “Family,” Lilith lives with Jdhaya and his family as she learns more about the Oankali. Upon arriving in Jdhaya's home, she eats a meal with the rest of Jdhaya's family, which include Jdhaya's mates, Kahguyaht (ooloi) and Tediin (female), and their child, Nikanj (ooloi). The ooloi are a third gender. The Oankali and Lilith eat a meal of human food which prompts Lilith to question why it is not poisonous to the Oankali. Kahguyaht responds that the ooloi have studied humans and learned how not to get poisoned by human food; the same does not go for Lilith, who has to be careful about what she eats aboard the Oankali ship. Lilith begins wondering if there are Oankali who can still be poisoned by human food, which makes Kahguyaht suspicious of her. Later, Kahguyaht takes Lilith to see Sharad, a child who was placed in Lilith's room while she was still enduring solitary confinement. Sharad is sleeping in a plant that keeps him young and healthy. Lilith knows this is how the Oankali stored her body between each of her Awakenings. Kahguyaht takes Lilith back home and puts her in the care of Nikanj, its child. Nikanj shows Lilith off to its friends, who have never seen a human before. They poke and prod her until she gets tired. Kahguyaht tells Lilith that she and Nikanj can learn from each other.
Lilith asks Nikanj for writing tools so she can learn the Oankali language more quickly and gets frustrated when it refuses. She decides to wander away from Nikanj and does this multiple times. One day, she hears two Oankali speaking about a human, Fukumoto. She decides that she wants to find Fukumoto and speak with him. She leaves Jdhaya's neighborhood, Kaal, and sets off for Tiej, Fukumoto's neighborhood. By the time she gets to Tiej, however, she is lost and cannot find her way. She sits down for a rest and has two oranges as a snack. Previously, she had buried the remains of her food in the ground and the ship had reabsorbed them. In Tiej, however, the soil rejects Lilith's food remains and starts bubbling dangerously. A group of Oankali, including Kahguyaht, surround her. Kahguyaht fixes the situation and reveals to Lilith that it had been tracking her all day. When it returns home, it argues at length with Nikanj. Lilith thinks that it is angry at her, but in fact it is angry at Nikanj. Kahguyaht wants Nikanj to perform a surgery on Lilith that would alter her brain chemistry and improve her memory, but Nikanj does not want to perform this procedure without Lilith's consent. Kahguyaht wants Nikanj to get it over with. Since the beginning of "Family," Nikanj has been maturing into adulthood and its sensory organs, which all mature ooloi have, are growing out. Soon, it will have to mate and will have no choice as to when Lilith has the surgery. Lilith initially does not want this procedure and tells Nikanj that she does not want the Oankali to change her any more than they already have. Nikanj tells Lilith that either she can give her consent to Nikanj to do it or Kahguyaht will surprise her with it at a later date. Lilith does not want to be surprised by Kahguyaht so she finally consents to the surgery in the middle of the night. Nikanj performs it right then and there.
When Lilith wakes up, she cannot tell any difference. Nikanj soon enters the room and she asks what the procedure did to her. Nikanj responds that they have been speaking in Oankali; Lilith is shocked and pleased at her new fluency in the Oankali language. Nikanj asks Lilith if she will help it with its upcoming metamorphosis into sexual maturity. Lilith agrees and Nikanj is relieved. It also tells Lilith that it will help her find an English-speaking human for her to talk to. A few days later, Kahguyaht takes Lilith to see Paul Titus. Paul Titus was a fifteen-year-old American when the war began. After the Oankali saved him, he decided that he wanted to stay on the ship rather than return to Earth. He has been living on the ship for decades and has not seen another human in that time. Lilith and Paul have a pleasant conversation at first, but things turn sour when Paul starts making sexual advances. Paul tells Lilith that the Oankali have used his DNA to reproduce with other humans aboard the ship and that he technically has over 70 kids that he has never met. He suggests that they make a child the "natural" way together in a protest against the Oankali's abuse of human life. Lilith, knowing that the Oankali are watching them, tells Paul that she does not want to put on a show. Paul becomes more aggressive when Lilith turns him down. She fights back against him but he is able to remove her jacket. Lilith asks Paul not to do this and tells him to think about whether the Oankali have used his sperm to impregnate his mother or sister. Paul becomes even more aggressive at this thought and kicks Lilith in the head, causing her to black out.
Lilith awakes with Nikanj back at home. Nikanj tells Lilith that it had no clue that Paul would act that way but also reveals to her that Paul's Oankali family had told him that he would be allowed to mate with her. For now, Paul has been put back in deep sleep and will be kept there for at least a year. Lilith's body hurts all over and Nikanj induces sleep in her so that he can heal her injuries. When Lilith wakes again, Nikanj tells her that she can now open walls within their home. This means that she can move between rooms, serve herself food, and leave their home whenever she wishes. Then, Nikanj lays on the bed and begins to vibrate as if it were in pain. It tells her that its metamorphosis into sexual maturity has begun. It will take several months for its sensory arms to grow out; while they grow, it will be in a deep sleep and unable to move. Lilith fulfills her word and takes care of Nikanj during this process by feeding and watching over it. A few days later, Nikanj's mates, Ahajas and Dichaan, bring Nikanj and Lilith to their home. Lilith is apprehensive at the thought of leaving Jdhaya, Tediin, and Kahguyaht's home, where she has begun to feel safe. At Ahajas and Dichaan's home, she spends most of her time at Nikanj's side, watching over it. Kahguyaht is a frequent visitor. To Lilith's surprise, during one of these visits Kahguyaht brings her writing materials and several books to read. Evidently, Lilith has proved herself to Nikanj's ooloi parent. Kahguyaht tells Lilith that at first it opposed the idea of the Oankali choosing Lilith to perform her coming role to "raise" other humans and prepare them to return to Earth. However, it can now see that Lilith is a good choice for the job. Lilith tells Kahguyaht that the humans she Awakens will never accept her and that the Oankali clearly do not understand humans. Kahguyaht replies that Lilith has never understood Oankali and never will.
"Nursery" begins one year after the events of "Family." Lilith has spent that past year living in a part of the Oankali ship that was built to simulate the Amazon rainforest. She had been tasked with learning about survival so that she could teach a group of humans that she Awakens. We also learn over the course of "Nursery" that the Oankali have made several other modifications to Lilith—they have improved her strength and her healing capabilities. In the first pages of "Nursery," Lilith is alone in a large room. Contained in the room are 80 sleeping humans in suspended animation. Lilith knows a lot about these individuals because the Oankali have provided her with dossiers of information about each person. Lilith has been tasked with Awakening forty of these humans; they will not be allowed to leave this room until she has done so. Lilith is careful about who she plans to Awaken: she wants to choose humans who will not be a threat to her and is also looking for potential allies. The first person she Awakens, Tate Marah, takes the news that they are aboard an alien ship surprisingly well. She quickly becomes part of Lilith's team and helps Lilith with the following Awakenings. After Tate, Lilith Awakens two more women: Celine and Leah. Once Celine and Leah are settled, she Awakens two men: Curt, who used to be a policeman, and Joseph, who will soon become Lilith's mate. Curt and Celine quickly become a couple. There are tensions between Curt and Lilith, as Curt cannot believe that they are aboard an alien ship and distrusts Lilith's authority.
Lilith continues Awakening humans at a steady rate—two people every two to three days. As more people are Awakened, the tensions inside of the room grow. In particular, many humans start sending their aggression towards Lilith. Some see her as working for the Oankali while others accuse her of not being human. Lilith has a group of people on her side, including Tate, Leah, and Joseph. Nevertheless, she and Joseph are worried about their safety. One day, a woman named Jean gets angry about the fact that there is no meat to eat. She attacks Lilith, but Lilith quickly knocks her out because of her improved strength. After making sure that Jean is okay, Lilith leaves the main hall to go to her own private room. Joseph finds her there and expresses concern about Lilith's safety. He and Lilith express their feelings for each other. Lilith tells Joseph that she can take care of herself; besides, there is not much she can do to change the situation they are in. While they are talking, Nikanj enters. Joseph is terrified at the sight of Nikanj but recovers faster than any other human. Nikanj tells Joseph that any human who causes harm or kills another person will never be allowed to leave the ship. Lilith is the only person who is exempt from this rule, because she knows the Oankali and their mission. It then offers to give Joseph abilities that will protect him against the others—namely, an increased healing ability. Joseph initially refuses because he is disgusted at the thought of having to touch Nikanj. However, after Nikanj shows him what it will look like by wrapping a tentacle around Lilith's neck, Joseph gives in. He falls unconscious and Nikanj lays down with him on the bed. While it performs the procedure, it encourages Lilith to assert her authority as a leader. Then, it invites her to join them in bed. Through Nikanj, Lilith and Joseph have an ecstatic sexual experience.
Lilith emerges from her room to feed the others. They are hostile towards her and express anger that she is the only person able to access food. Peter suggests that the Oankali devised it this way to keep the others from hurting Lilith, their "jailer." Lilith warns them that if they hurt her, they will all be put back into suspended animation and forced to go through all of this again with someone else. After dinner, Lilith goes to her room to get Joseph, who is awake but refuses to talk to her. She explains to Joseph that what happened with Nikanj is just a "neurosensory illusion" (168). Joseph asks why she lets Nikanj touch her and she responds that she enjoys those experiences. Joseph says that he will never let Nikanj touch her again and urges Lilith to do the same. Lilith tells Joseph to stop deceiving himself and leaves the room.
Lilith and the others Awaken ten new people. A few days later, a group of men led by Peter seize Lilith and hold her down while they steal food from the pantry. One of the men, Derrick, climbs into the pantry before it is fully closed and disappears. Once she is released, Lilith opens the pantry to demonstrate that Derrick has probably been taken by the Oankali and put back into suspended animation. Lilith goes back to her room to speak to Joseph, Tate, and Gabriel. Gabriel warns Lilith that she is losing the others' favor. They encourage Lilith to speak to the Oankali and try to convince them to prove their existence to the other humans. Lilith tries to talk to the Oankali, but they refuse to answer her calls. Lilith understands that the Oankali will not intervene unless her life is in immediate danger. She proceeds by trying to bring others into her group and uses only her allies to Awaken ten more people, so that Curt's group is immediately seen as "troublemakers" (176). One day, a new woman, Alison, is grabbed by Peter and Gregory, who intend to sexually assault her. The two groups surround Peter and Gregory so that no one can move. As a result, the humans are in a stand-off. Lilith uses her strength to throw the men off of Alison and they are badly hurt. Joseph asks Lilith to ask the Oankali to help Peter and Gregory. Ahajas responds and says that they will not provide help; the men are not too badly injured and they can be left in pain to think about their actions. Tate, Joseph, and Gabriel are suspicious of Lilith after they hear her communicate with Ahajas. Alison asks Lilith if she is really human, and Lilith responds that this all would be easier if she is not. Lilith announces to everyone that they will Awaken ten more people tomorrow, and the boundaries between the two groups shift as people pick sides between Lilith and Peter.
A few days later, their dinner is drugged, causing all of the humans to feel calm. Oankali enter the room, and the humans react with muted fear. Those who panic or try to fight the Oankali are immediately put to sleep. The ooloi choose heterosexual human pairs, and Kahguyaht approaches Tate and Gabriel. When Nikanj approaches Joseph and Lilith, it tells them that Gabriel may not survive this process because he will resist mating with Kahguyaht. Nikanj offers to let Lilith and Joseph explore the ship. Before they do so, however, they mate with Nikanj despite Joseph's protests. The rest of the humans stay drugged for several days. Those who are able to acclimate to the Oankali presence are weaned off the drugs sooner. When Peter is weaned off the drugs, he attacks his ooloi. The ooloi responds by shocking him with his tentacles, and Peter is killed. The ooloi is distraught and closes in on itself; its Oankali mates come to take it away. Jean, Peter's mate, refuses to be with any humans other than her ooloi and its mates, and she leaves with them. Joseph tells Lilith that Peter was right to fight back; at least "'he died human'" (196). Lilith responds that on Earth they will be able to change things, but Joseph wonders if they will even want to do so by then. He says, "'what will we be, I wonder? Not human. Not anymore'" (196).
The Training Floor
In "The Training Floor," the humans have been brought to a forest aboard the Oankali ship that resembles a forest you would find on Earth so closely that many are convinced they have actually made it home. The group has become more cohesive, and everyone—besides Curt and Gabriel—are off the Oankali drugs. Lilith has a conversation with Nikanj in which she learns that the Oankali will take dissenters back to Earth with everyone else because every human life is too precious to lose. When the Oankali give them tools, Lilith asks Curt to please cooperate and assimilate into the group. He does not answer her, but Gabriel tells Lilith that he suspects Curt will lash out in the same way that Peter did. Lilith teaches the humans survival skills, such as building shelter. Soon, they are growing their own crops. One day, a man and a woman disappear into the forest with weapons and do not return. The Oankali decide not to look for them, despite the fact that their mated ooloi is in intense discomfort. As the days pass, more and more people wander out into the forest. One day, Tate approaches Lilith and tells her that Curt and Celene have left. She invites Lilith to join a group of four people that are leaving the next morning. Lilith tells Tate that she and Joseph will meet them under the breadnut tree the next morning. Joseph finds Lilith and convinces her that they should go.
The next morning, Lilith and Joseph wait beneath the breadnut tree for a while before Gabe, Tate, and others arrive. Lilith knows that they were waiting to see whether she had ratted them out or if Oankali were following her. They start off on their journey, but the atmosphere is tense. Lilith is adamant that they are on a ship and that the Oankali are not coming after them. She argues that people leaving camp to live on their own is actually the Oankali's final test, as they are seeing how well the humans would fare back on Earth. However, even has Lilith has doubts as they keep walking—the environment around them is incredibly lifelike and complex. Eventually, Lilith says that they should set up shelter for the night and start building a boat. Gabriel pushes back a bit against Lilith's authority but eventually agrees. They build a shelter and eat a meal together. People in relationships, including Lilith and Joseph, are finding it repulsive to touch each other. The next day, Curt and the others find the newcomers' camp. Curt hits Lilith on the head with a machete, leaving her unconscious. When she wakes up, they have abandoned her at the camp. She is worried about Joseph and decides to go back to the original camp to enlist Oankali help. Before she can do so, however, a group of ooloi emerge from the river, including Nikanj and Kahguyaht. They lead Lilith towards the group, where they also come across Joseph's dead body. Curt had seen that Joseph was healing suspiciously quickly from his injury and decided that Joseph was not human. He attacked Joseph with an axe. Nikanj said it was it and Lilith's fault that it happened. It also said that Curt did not mean to kill anybody; he was just confused and upset. Nikanj offers to have Joseph's body transported to the Earth so that he can be buried there. Lilith agrees. Nikanj wraps a sensory arm around Lilith's neck; at first, she refuses to share with it. However, it tells her that it simply wants to feel what she feels. She tells it that she wants the same, and Nikanj shares some of its feelings with Lilith.
The ooloi and Lilith arrive at Curt's camp, where the humans are gathered in an angry mass. Fighting breaks out between the ooloi and the humans. A man injures an ooloi, and the ooloi retaliates by stinging the man and the woman who helped him. Curt is the last man standing, but eventually, Kahguyaht disarms him. Nikanj falls to the ground, and Lilith sees that its left sensory arm has been almost completely severed. Kahguyaht tells Lilith that she needs to get undressed and hold Nikanj's arm in place. Lilith does so. Ahajas and Dichaan take care of Lilith as she does this, feeding her and giving her sips of water as the hours pass. Eventually, Nikanj's wound is merely a flesh wound. Llilith and Nikanj return to the settlement, where Lilith is met with hostility for choosing the Oankali over the humans. Lilith responds with her own hostility towards those who just stood aside while Curt killed Joseph. Gabriel and Lilith get into a fight, causing Tate's friendship with Lilith to end. Lilith spends a lot of time on her own, working on her survival skills. One day, she realizes that she no longer feels repulsed by men and asks Nikanj if it is trying to get her to mate with someone else again. Nikanj tells her that it is her choice. Later, Lilith spends the day by herself and finds Nikanj sitting alone at the settlement. The rest of the humans had been taken back to Earth while she was still in the woods. Nikanj tells Lilith that they still have work to do on the ship and will go to Earth at a later date. It also reveals to Lilith that she is pregnant with Joseph's baby. It is a half-human, half-Oankali hybrid that, according to Nikanj, will be better than either species. Nikanj also tells Lilith that the humans are infertile and will be unable to reproduce without Oankali intervention. Lilith is disgusted at the thought of something not human growing inside her. She resolves herself to Awakening a new group of humans and never being a true part of them. She will do what she did with this first group: tell them to "Learn and run!" (248). She hopes that a few humans will break through, perhaps fertile humans, and humanity will have a chance.