In the 22nd century, the Earth’s surface has become unstable due to climate change and overpopulation. More and more people spend their lives in the tunnels cut into the Earth. The tunnels, like a huge ant colony, crisscross the world. A latticework that includes trams and flying maglevs, businesses and residences, public services and schools. People have cybernetic implants to let them interact with the internet and each other, no matter what language they grew up with. Robots frequent the world, doing menial tasks like service jobs, repair jobs, or surveillance jobs. Some people cannot find jobs, and live off the UN Basic Wage, walking the tunnels in search of things to do.
The story begins with Anna, a Wager, wandering the tunnels. She has the vague idea of getting to Britain, and basically finds herself walking from Albuquerque to Bristol. When she finally ascends from the tunnels, she finds herself in a suburb of Bristol at night, when more people are coming out to the relative “cool” of the night air. She joins a rowdy group that goes to a pub that promises the best synth beer and synth meat. As the night progresses, the group is joined by more rowdy people. As their drunkenness grows, their rowdiness tips over into some far more dangerous.
The fight spills out into the street, and Anna finds herself swept up in it. The fight climaxes in a nearby wooded area, and someone whips out a knife. Another person grabs a tree branch. Meant for the knife-wielder, Anna receives the branch, sharply, across her forehead, and goes down into the dirt. She doesn’t remember anything else.
The first responders arrive to break up the fight and tend to the wounded. An EMT gets to Anna just in time to see the odd insects crawling along her face. With horror, the EMT watches as two insects enter the wound on Anna’s forehead. Anna wakes up then – or seems to. The EMT cannot get her to respond, and calls over her supervisor. Then Anna talks, but it is very strained, as if she is not saying it. Looking at no one, with an inhumane voice, Anna says: “Colonies. Die. Need. Help. We. Give.”
All of this, of course, is being recorded and streamed to headquarters via the EMTs’ implants.
After croaking out those words, Anna’s eyes close, and the insects slither back out of her wound – and just sit there, in full view of the cameras, almost like they want to be seen and recognized.
With a shaky hand, the EMT tests Anna’s pulse and pronounces her dead. But the EMT doesn’t touch the insects.
Then, main story is about three scientists: an entomologist, a linguist, and a dialoguist (basically a communication specialist trained to bring different peoples together). These three individuals are tasked to discover what is going on with the insects. While a UN classified secret, the knowledge of it is spreading – especially as more and more people, on the brink of death, are used as conduits by the insects with the same message.
The people of the world grow scared. Some fear the insects mean to take over the human race. Others want to destroy all the tunnels as a penance to the insects. Others want to unleash a horrendous insecticide – basically nanites programmed to kill all small things. The scientists race against the clock to find out what this newly evolved species of insects wants and how both species can work together to save the planet and all life on it.