This story opens with the main character riding a bus on her way back home. It is cold and raining outside and she is mending stockings. She is quickly pulled into a conversation with a fellow passenger reading the newspaper. The narrator is named Belle and her husband is Simon.
The passenger tells her of a new continent rising from the ocean as a result of various tectonic forces. The melting of the polar ice caps as a result of global warming has led to rising sea levels, which have put the island of Manhattan underwater. This is viewed as an omen of other, increasingly negative things to come.
The bus she is riding breaks down, and while waiting, she and the passenger continue their conversation. They wait for rescue to arrive in the form of a second bus, but help never comes. She then decides to take alternative modes of transportation including hitchhiking and then several local buses and trains.
After arriving at home, she learns that the city is still in the midst of a blackout. She searches her home for matches and a candle to generate some light. Once she finds matches, she strikes one and notices that a man is lying in her bed.
At first, she believes he is a stranger, and she becomes afraid. After surveying his face and body for a time though, she realizes that the man is her husband. He has just returned from a stint in an educational work camp.
Even though she calls him her husband, the government has outlawed legal marriage. The two of them lay in bed, exhausted. The room is once again pitch black and they say nothing to each other. The darkness is then interrupted by a series of passing lights. These lights make the two think about all of the cosmic forces at work. They think about the universe and about nature. They reflect on man’s place in the universe. Lastly, they imagine a greater world and a brighter future. Simon is putting together an experiment that could free the people from energy rationing and dependence on the government.
The story's events take place in the future in the city of Portland. Massive earthquakes, power outages, dire pollution, and the control of a desperate, authoritarian government besiege Portland. In this future, capitalism has so exhausted workers and resources that everything has ground to a halt, and daily life is characterized by chronic stoppages and power shortages.
People are afraid that the world is headed towards disaster because the coastline is sinking under the combined effects of global warming, acid rain, continental shift, and the giant bursts of earthquake and volcanic activity occurring in the Atlantic and on the Pacific Ocean floor.
To manage people's fears and frustrations and to veil their own inability to cope, the government has resorted to authoritarian rule. People are arrested, imprisoned, and tortured without trial. Their apartments are bugged in the effort to seek out and destroy critics and dissenters. Childbearing has also been deemed illegal because it produces more consumers of scarce resources such as food and electricity.
As her physical environment falls to ruin around her, the story's protagonist is consoled by the thought of a new civilization arising from the old - one in which humans live in harmony with their fellow creatures and the natural environment.
These people, including the narrator, are intent on preserving the dream of a better world rather than the exploitative and unsustainable one of late capitalism. Le Guin's story is a reminder of the human capacity to keep dreaming of better worlds no matter how grim the actual situation.