An army of Daleks from the Seriphia Galaxy has invaded the Milky Way, and has conquered and enslaved countless worlds. Susan Mendes, a human slave from Vega 6, has been allowed to travel across the Dalek Empire spreading a message of hope -- because as long as the Dalek slaves believe in a better future, they'll work harder and more efficiently for the Daleks. Thanks to the so-called Angel of Mercy, the Daleks don't have to waste any effort quelling rebellions on their slave worlds, and can instead concentrate all of their military force on the front lines, beating the Earth Alliance in battle after battle. Commander Agnes Landen believes that to win the war, the EA will have to face the Daleks on their own terms, and her people have thus developed the ultimate cybernetic battle spacesuit for a division of soldiers to be known as Spacers. The Spacers have the technology to fight the Daleks on equal terms; now the EA just needs to find people exceptional enough to wear the suits and lead the Spacers into battle. They need fearless heroes, and Commander Landen will be in charge of finding them. Or making them.
The planet Talis Minor has avoided the war so far, and the few colonists are more concerned with the struggle to stay alive on the inhospitable world. Salus Kade and his best friend Egan Fisk are taking wild risks to catch the last of the season's baktos, atmosphere-skimming spaceborne animals that are migrating to Talis Major for the rest of the year; but it's really Kade who's taking the risks, and Fisk is just along for the ride. Kade catches his bakto by bouncing his ship off the atmosphere, and recites a short prayer of respect for the animal he's about to kill -- but as they net the animal, an interplanetary battle ship enters the planet's atmosphere, heading straight for the colony Hometown. Kade and Fisk are aware of the war but have never seen a Dalek, and, worried, they return home to find out if the war has come to them. Moments after stepping out of their ship, they are captured by a mechanical figure, and the furious Kade orders what he thinks is a Dalek to back off and leave his planet alone. But the figure raises its visor, laughing at the two hicks who mistook him for a Dalek; he is Sergeant Kennedy of the Earth Alliance's Eight Army, Third Battalion of Spacers.
Kade is reunited with his wife Lajitta and their young daughter, but it may not be for long; the Spacers are here on a recruitment drive. Kennedy tries to convince the hostile colonists that the Daleks could and will wipe out this defenceless colony without a moment's hesitation, but the colonists have no interest in the war and no love for the Earth Alliance, which has always ignored them as they struggled to survive on this planet. Kade acts as the crowd's spokesman in telling the Spacers to go back where they came from -- but as he'd feared, the Spacers won't take no for an answer. When the colonists refuse to enlist willingly, Kennedy thus announces that all able-bodied men and women of legal fighting age will be conscripted by force. Colonel Harris Baxter quietly warns Kade that the Alliance can't afford to let the Daleks gain any more slaves, and Kade realises that the Spacers have Hometown surrounded. He reluctantly gives the order to surrender, knowing that the Spacers will wipe out his people if they cause any trouble.
All conscripts are forced into the Earth Alliance recruitment ship in chains, while the old, young and infirm are left behind with a few able-bodied colonists to take care of them. But as the EA ship leaves the atmosphere and the "recruits" are unchained, a Dalek scouting vessel arrives in orbit, having detected the presence of the EA ship. The Daleks shoot down the warship and head down to investigate the colony, intending to enslave or kill any humans they find. The EA ship tumbles into the atmosphere as Baxter dies of his injuries, cursing Commander Landen and her insane ideas as he does so. Kennedy orders all Spacers to abandon ship, even if it means leaving their new "recruits" behind -- but Kade fights his way to the ship's controls, and before the Spacers can flee for their lives, he bounces the EA warship off the atmosphere just as he did with his bakto-catcher and brings it down for a landing.
When the Dalek ship descends, the remaining colonists try to evacuate to the caves, only to be surrounded by Daleks who order the humans to surrender and exterminate anyone who protests. At the last moment, Kade and the Spacers arrive and open fire on the Daleks. Kade is again reunited with his wife and daughter, but the Spacers' weapons aren't as effective against the Daleks as advertised, and Kennedy is forced to admit that his squad was given unfinished model suits in order to look good during the recruitment drive. Kade, who has already surrendered once today and doesn't intend to make that mistake again, orders Fisk to lead the retreat to the nearby cave systems; once all the survivors are inside, they blow up the entrance, and try to make their way underground through miles of caves to another exit. But Kade has never met the Daleks before, and he hasn't yet learned that they never give up. After days of marching underground through pitch darkness, the humans finally reach their destination... but the Daleks are waiting for them, and before they can emerge onto the surface, the Daleks blow the roof off the cave and descend, firing.
In the heat of battle, Kade simply goes berserk, firing wildly at the Daleks with no thought for anything else -- not even the lives of his wife and child. But he's outnumbered and outgunned, and the Daleks are going to win this battle... or so it seems until human reinforcements in fully armed Spacer suits attack the Daleks from behind, taking them by surprise and wiping them out. The reinforcements are led by Commander Agnes Landen, who claims to have picked up the warship's distress signal by chance after turning off-course to dodge a meteor storm. She apologises to Kade for the recruitment squad's heavy-handed tactics, and offers to supply his people with medical aid and shielding equipment if they want it. Kade, still furious, points out that the Daleks now know Talis Minor is here, which never would have happened if not for the arrival of the recruitment squad. Landen catches Kade off guard by conceding the point, but while she appears perfectly willing to let him stay on this planet if he so chooses, he already knows that it's too late. The Daleks will be back, and this colony simply can't defend itself. And although Kade doesn't acknowledge it himself, Landen can tell that he felt a thrill of victory when he landed the warship intact and led the Spacers against the Daleks. She doesn't press the issue, however, and simply tells Kade that she needs heroes like him -- and then walks away, leaving him to make up his own mind.
This is how Kade and Fisk end up enlisted as Spacers. Kade is eventually promoted to Lieutenant -- over Kennedy, who bears no malice towards the new leader of the so-called Maniac Squad. One day, Kade and Fisk sit on a beach on Kedru 7, looking out to sea and pondering the events that led them here. Everyone knows that a big battle with the Daleks is coming, but it keeps getting postponed as the strategists wait for the optimum moment to strike. Landen herself, now promoted to General, arrives on Kedru 7, but she gives few details of her mission to General Croft, although he's bursting with questions about the battle plans, the rumours of something called "Dead Hand," and the personal interest that Landen has taken in Kade's development. The base goes to embarkation standby, but Landen allows Kade to return to the civilian quarters to see his wife and daughter before going into battle, telling Croft that after losing two sons and a daughter to the Daleks in the first years of the war, nurturing Kade into a soldier has made her feel somewhat like a mother again.
Kade has very little time to enjoy being with Lajitta and their daughter before the alarms sound for embarkation, but he promises his worried wife that he'll always return as long as she's waiting for him. He then joins the rest of his squad, and the EA fleet launches from Kedru 7. On the mission control platform, General Landen retires to her quarters to observe events in private -- and to go over secret security reports on the Dead Hand. Once she's read them, she has the computer transmit attack vectors to all the ships in the fleet, and waits, watching carefully to see how Kade will respond to what happens. Kade has ordered his squad to don their Spacer suits well in advance, just in case something happens -- a wise precaution, as when he joins the pilots on the flight deck, he's shocked to see the sheer size of the approaching Dalek fleet. But as the fleets prepare to engage, Kade's ship veers off course, away from the main fleet and towards a small ship protected by a squad of Daleks on trans-solar discs. This is the Dead Hand, and when the Daleks on board detect the approaching ship and fire their primary weapon, Kade's ship suddenly loses all power, including backups and auxiliary sources. As the Spacer ship begins to tumble out of control, defenceless, the Daleks on the Dead Hand power up their neutronic batteries and open fire...