Some time after her last battle with Iago, Blayes apparently awakens aboard a storm mine circling the Painted Sea, one of the deepest regions of the Blind Heart desert. The mine’s Chief Mover claims that they found Blayes lying unconscious in the desert, and that he, the Commander, and the Chief Fixer are the only survivors of an accident that occurred some 18 months ago. There’s something weird and dreamlike about the situation Blayes finds herself in; Iago tells her that it’s not a dream, but since he’s supposed to be dead and nobody else can see or hear him, his word probably isn’t reliable. Blayes may be hallucinating all of this as she lies dying from a blaster wound -- but if it’s real, Iago tells her that she’ll have to kill everyone she meets in order to be truly free. He also points out strange patterns of shadow on the X-rays of Blayes’ skull, but Blayes is more concerned with the revelation that Kaldor City has apparently been under quarantine for 18 months -- and that she’s been unconscious all that time.
The Chief Mover informs Blayes that the mine has been going in circles for over a year, ever since the quarantine prevented them from returning to Kaldor City. He invites Blayes to attend dinner with the surviving crew; however, the Chief Fixer does not attend. The Commander waxes philosophic, claiming to have accepted the uncertainty of his situation as part of life and that, having wandered the desert for years, he and his crew have been reduced to archetypes. The Chief Mover explains that three robots on the storm mine went rogue and killed the rest of the crew; the robots then stopped killing for no apparent reason and went back to work as if nothing had happened. The Chief Fixer deactivated them nevertheless, but the survivors then found that Kaldor City had been placed under quarantine, leaving them unable to return. According to the Chief Mover, the last message they ever received from a Kaldor City dockmaster was “We must all pull together.” The Commander reassigns the Chief Fixer’s personal robot, V.23, to serve Blayes during her stay; in a way, it’s as if she’s stolen the Chief Fixer’s voice.
The next day, Blayes jogs around the deck to scout out her territory, but Iago points out that she’s just running in circles. She thus breaks into the Commander’s quarters, accompanied by V.23, and finds the Commander’s memoirs -- philosophic musings or mad rambling on the nature of evolution, geography, and freedom in a totalitarian state. To Blayes’ surprise, V.23 promises not to tell the Commander what she has done, and invites her to play a game of chess. She accepts, but V.23 shows a surprising amount of creativity and initiative for a robot, and on Iago’s advice, Blayes resigns rather than face a long, drawn-out endgame that V.23 claims could have ended in stalemate. Iago tells Blayes to clear all pieces but a single knight from the board; once all the other pieces have been disposed of, the knight can move to any square on the board, but it can still only move as a knight moves and its path will always lead it back to its starting position. Complete freedom is a trap.
The storm mine continues to circle endlessly through the desert as Blayes visits the flight deck and listens to the last communiqué from Kaldor City. It is almost as described, except for the last sentence, which is “We’re all in this together.” Did the Chief Mover misremember it or was he deliberately trying to deceive her? Perhaps the Chief Fixer has some answers, but according to V.23, she lives on the lower levels and has erased his memory so that he is unable to describe her. V.23 claims that, perhaps because of a fault in his programming, he has developed the ability to dream; when he does, he dreams of a tree of flesh formed out of the bodies of millions of human beings, all struggling to break free -- millions of lives bound up in a single group entity that cannot escape what it is.
The Chief Mover arrives to speak with Blayes, and perhaps too casually asks what she made of the dockmaster’s message. He denies getting it wrong, but then slips up and calls her by her last name, revealing that he knows who she really is. He is an agent for Company security, and she’s the deadliest terrorist in the world; however, he claims that such divisions are behind them now, and that in the current crisis they must all pull together. She claims that she was still working for the Company even when acting as a terrorist, but he tells her that this doesn’t matter, as they’re all in this together. When he says this, she orders Iago to shoot him dead. She then takes Iago to kill the Commander, but he’s not in his quarters or on the command deck; according to SV.6, he’s no longer aboard the storm mine at all. Elsewhere, the conflicted V.23 is being fed instructions by the Chief Fixer, a being who speaks with a voice like the roar of static, or desert winds...
Alone in the storm mine, Blayes steps through a door to find herself reliving her fatal confrontation with Iago; perhaps this proves that she’s dead and in hell. Iago claims that he’ll always be with her, but she reminds him of what he told her earlier: to be free, she must kill everyone she meets, and that includes Iago. Iago’s voice fades into static, and Blayes descends to the Chief Fixer’s workshop, where she finds the bodies of the killer robots. Or rather, the bodies of two killer robots and the body of the real V.23; the Chief Fixer swapped designation numbers and sent one of the killers back out into the mine. The voice of the Chief Fixer speaks to Blayes, claiming that the subroutine that turned the new V.23 into a killer, even when neutralised, left random pockets of data in his mind with the potential to recombine and create a new form of intelligent life. Blayes is a mutation generator, and her presence has provided V.23 with the stimulation his mind needs to evolve.
The Chief Fixer tells Blayes to go outside, where she finds the Commander watching the desert stir to life about him (metaphorically, or perhaps literally). The people of Kaldor City have taken ores from the desert storms and used them to build robots, a new form of life perfectly adapted to survive on this planet; perhaps that’s part of the process of evolution. Blayes leaves the Commander to his solitude and returns to the flight deck, where she finds that V.23 has disabled the other robots, leaving the two of them alone on the mine. The way V.23 processes information has become more random and complex, and he’s becoming ever more sophisticated as time goes on. He no longer wishes to return to the way things were, and tells Blayes that everything that happens from now on will be their decision. They must take the present for what it is and leave all else in the desert; in other words, they’re all in this together.