In the midst of political turmoil, the Graxis system is a haven of conservation, funded by the Union and overseen by the Graxis Wardens. New recruit Kaymee Arnod has just arrived in orbit around Graxis Major, and since high technology is restricted in this system, she is dropped out of the spaceship with only a suit and its retro-jets to protect her as she free-falls to the planet’s surface. It’s going to take almost an hour for her to reach her destination, which is plenty of time for her to reconsider this posting; she’s been drifting through her life without direction until now, and only applied for this job because her grandparents were Wardens and her father thought it would be a save haven away from the turmoil of the galaxy. But as Kaymee descends, something jets through the air past her at great speed, and the turbulence knocks Kaymee off course, forcing the suit to trigger its retro-jets prematurely.
The Chief Warden, Frey Saxton, and her second-in-command, Culver, are quietly observing the native primates when something jets by overhead, frightening away the primitive creatures. Saxton, assuming that this was the new recruit coming down on the wrong trajectory, orders Warden Telligan to look for the new arrival. Unable to locate her on the ground, Telligan requests that the base’s medic, Harley, scout out the area in the hover-jet. Elsewhere, Kaymee has crashed down in the woods and suffered a mild concussion -- and as the suit’s systems have shut down, she is unable to move when something comes snuffling around her and begins to examine her injured leg.
Saxton and Culver return to the Wardens’ shack, where Saxton, despite her gruff exterior, is privately pleased to find that her fellow wardens have arranged a surprise birthday party for her. She takes the opportunity to thank them for all the hard work they’ve put into maintaining the natural ecology of the Graxis system, possibly the most peaceful and unspoiled sector of the troubled galaxy. Harley then calls in to report that he’s spotted something, but his signal breaks up as he descends. Unable to contact the shack, Harley lands and proceeds on foot, expecting to find the injured Kaymee -- but instead, he finds something entirely different. Some distance away, Kaymee hears what sounds like a laser blast and a scream, and whoever was tending to her leg rushes off in a panic as Kaymee passes out.
Telligan finds Kaymee and takes her back to the shack, where the Wardens are bewildered by the makeshift leaf bandage around her leg. The local primates aren’t supposed to be intelligent enough to do such a thing, but the bandage doesn’t look like something Harley would make, and besides, Harley is missing. When Kaymee revives, she’s concussed and disoriented, and unable to answer Saxton’s questions to her satisfaction; however, when pressed, she does recall hearing a shot and a scream. Upset, Saxton leaves to organise the search for Harley, and Culver apologises to Kaymee for Saxton’s behaviour. There have been no deaths under Saxton’s command in her five years as chief of the Wardens -- yet...
Elsewhere, Giorgi Selestru briefs a man named Galanar on the Siy Tarkov situation. Tarkov was sent off years ago on what the Galactic Union Council believed would be a wild goose chase, and on his way back, Tarkov became one of the first to encounter the virulent plague known as NFS, or Neurotransmitter Failure Syndrome, which is currently spreading unchecked throughout the Border Worlds. Selestru has heard Tarkov’s distress call, which warns of a galactic threat posed by a race called the Daleks -- but he’s also heard a transmission from the Scalani system which implies that the Daleks are working with human scientists to find a cure for the NFS plague. Despite Selestru’s fears, the Galactic Union has forbidden him from taking any premature action -- and that’s why Selestru wants Galanar to find out, unofficially, what the Daleks are doing.
Tarkov is in isolation, undergoing treatment for NFS; there is no cure, but the medics can prevent the symptoms from getting any worse. Placing himself in cryogenic suspension halted the progress of the systems, but he was apparently the only one aboard his ship to survive, and he’s still suffering from recurrent tinnitus and is having difficulty speaking. Selestru speaks with him, calming him down, and though distressed by his condition, Tarkov is aware that falling into self-pity will be of no help. He tells Selestru everything he learned on Velyshaa, but is stunned when Selestru reveals that there’s no way to confirm his story. Siy’s distress call went undetected for 20 years, and in that time, his ship drifted almost all the way through the Galactic Union. Nobody’s sure who eventually found him; his cryo-pod was passed on from ship to ship before ending up here, and the Crusader is long gone, presumably scavenged for spare parts. The only way to prove Siy’s claims about the Daleks is to send another expedition to Velyshaa, but it now lies in a politically inaccessible sector of the galaxy. Even before Siy left, there was unrest between the Union and the Border Worlds, who felt that the centralised bureaucracy didn’t understand conditions out on the frontier. This unrest has only been exacerbated by the NFS plague -- and since Velyshaa lies beyond the Border Worlds, it’s impossible for anyone from the Union to get there.
But on Velyshaa, the elderly Saloran Hardew is about to receive visitors...
On Graxis Major, the Wardens eventually find Harley -- or what’s left of him. It appears that his body has been incinerated, but there’s no way of telling how this happened without a post-mortem. Since Harley was the only available medic, Saxton tries to call out for help, but is unable to reach her superiors in the Galactic Union and must go to the Border Worlds Confederation Cabinet. Their representative, Provost Carneill, tells Saxton that under the current political climate, no Union security personnel are allowed within Border Worlds territory unless they’re providing medical aid to NFS victims. Saxton insists that an investigation team be sent to investigate a possible hostile alien incursion, but the signal begins to break up, and Carneill hastily signs off, fobbing Saxton off with vague promises. Culver realises that the signal broke up in exactly the same way when Harley made his last report, and Saxton orders the technician Sergic to scan the communication logs for any other recent outbreaks of interference -- while she tries to figure out what Carneill is up to.
She does not yet know it, but Carneill is working with the Daleks, who have promised to help find a cure for the NFS plague and dismiss all other considerations as irrelevant. The Daleks dismiss the death of the Warden on Graxis Major as an “unfortunate accident,” brought about when the man tried to interfere with the Daleks’ tectonic analysis. Carneill does understand Saxton’s position, but the Daleks’ work has begun and must be allowed to proceed, lest the plague kill billions more.
On Graxis Major, Kaymee approaches Saxton to apologise for the fuss she’s caused -- and Saxton learns for the first time that Kaymee nearly collided with something while descending, further evidence that they’re no longer alone on the planet. Culver and Telligan then report in; they’ve been searching for traces of the unknown radiation they detected near Harley’s body, along with Warden Davin, and they’ve found a dead primate near what looks like a drill head. Saxton advises them to proceed with caution, but as they emerge from their vehicle, the same radio interference breaks up their signal. In the clearing, something emerges from the trees and fires on the Wardens, killing Davin and forcing Culver and Telligan back into their vehicle. The Wardens have never encountered a Dalek before, and assume their attacker to be some kind of robot. Desperate, they crash their vehicle into their attacker, damaging it so badly that it explodes and damages the Wardens’ own vehicle.
The radio interference cuts off at the very moment that the attacker is destroyed. Culver and Telligan are rescued and returned to the shack, where Kaymee tries to give them medical care as best she can. Saxton examines the remains of the “robot” and discovers that it’s actually an organic being -- and ground ranger units throughout the area begin to report finding more drill heads and more dead primates. Kaymee theorises that the primates, which seem peaceful around the Wardens, became agitated by the new arrivals, attacked them, and were killed for it. Meanwhile, Sergic picks up a strange transmission which Kaymee identifies as a deep-space recognition signal.
A cruiser enters the edge of the system, and though it’s out of range for some time, it eventually turns out to be Carneill, who is on his way to Graxis Major with an investigation team. He refuses to let Saxton speak to the team, telling her only to prepare a full report for them. He also refuses to contact the Galactic Union, claiming that they no longer have any authority in the Border Worlds. When Kaymee tries to join in the discussion, Carneill reprimands Saxton for letting a trainee listen in on such a sensitive conversation and signs off, insisting that the NFS plague must remain the Border Worlds’ primary concern. Kaymee and Saxton both agree that there’s something suspicious about Carneill’s behaviour; but then, Saxton also knows that Kaymee is more than she appears, and that her late grandparents were respected Graxis Wardens. As Saxton asks Kaymee why she signed up to become a Warden, Kaymee notices one of the primates snuffling about nearby, and recognises the sound. Though it seems impossible, it must have been one of the primates that bandaged her leg.
Sergic reports that the interference has returned, even though its original source has apparently been destroyed. He is no longer able to raise any other planets, either in the system or beyond; Graxis Major has been cut off from the rest of the galaxy just as Carneill’s ship comes in to land. Though suspicious, Culver has no grounds to turn Carneill away; however, he does advise Sergic to direct the Provost’s ship to land on the far side of Ledge Valley. On their way to meet the Provost, Culver discusses the situation with Saxton, and by the time the Wardens arrive at the landing site, tensions are high. Unfortunately, their fears are justified. As soon as Carneill steps out of his ship, he announces that the Border Worlds have exercised emergency powers and rescinded the Galactic Union’s claim to the Graxis system -- and when the “investigation team” emerges, Culver and Saxton instantly recognise them as more of the same creatures that killed Davin and presumably the others. They claim to be acting on behalf of the Border Worlds, but whatever their true intentions, the Graxis system is now under Dalek jurisdiction...