In 963, it is one year after World War III has blanketed the Northern Hemisphere with atomic radiation. In Melbourne, Australia, supplies of nearly every import are short. No one drives private cars, though the electric trains are running. Australia has plenty of coal.
In the year following the war, Lt. Peter Holms of the Australian Navy gets an assignment, his first in seven months. He is to join an American nuclear submarine, The Scorpion, on a run to the Northern Hemisphere. They will analyze the rate at which the radiation is spreading and try to find out why a station near Seattle is still sending out gibberish in Morse code. Peter, being mechanically inclined, has designed trailers for his bicycle and his wife, Mary's. They can also take their toddler, Jennifer, with them in a trailer.
Commander Dwight Towers, a Connecticut native, seems lonely so far from home. Peter decides to entertain his new boss with a party – something Australians have been warned could bring forth emotions that would be hard to deal with. The commander has lost his wife and two children in the war. At the party, the commander meets Moira Davidson, who has become a hard drinker since the war. She is one of the few who says openly that there's no future, so why plan for it, care for your health or invest work in projects that will never be completed? Moira faces what none of the others will – the radiation is gradually spreading southward, and within less than a year it will be over Australia.
We learn that Peter and Mary are removing stumps from their yard to put in a larger garden for next spring. Commander Towers talks about his wife and children as if he expects to see them the following fall. For most people, the idea that the world may become uninhabitable for human beings brings on a powerful denial.
As the crew prepares for its voyage north, Moira and Dwight become closer. During a sailboat race, Moira contrives to have the top of her bikini come off, an apparent accident. She sees clearly that Towers will remain faithful to his wife – even though she has been dead for more than a year.
Through conversations and the ship's log, we learn that the war began with a war between Israel and the Arab states. Russia, and NATO are drawn in, and then China. In order to preserve the cities and industries of their enemies, the countries relied heavily on cobalt bombs, which maximize radiation and minimize blast. Within a week, the air in the Northern Hemisphere was lethal to all humans.
Another Australian on the voyage is J.S. Osborne, a nuclear scientist who will monitor the radiation and test a theory that states that the radiation is dissipating, and the most southern parts of Australia may be spared.
With a high probability that he will be dead soon, Osborne has realized his boyhood dream – he owns a Ferrari racing car. He can drive it because it uses a mixture of nitroglycerine, not gasoline. And, strangely enough, some racing enthusiasts can get fuel – including gasoline – and they will be holding a Grand Prix race, for which Osborne hopes to qualify.
But first, the submarine journey. They remain submerged for nearly a month to avoid the surface radioactivity. Their periscope shows cities and towns in the most northern parts of Australia looking perfectly normal, except that there are no people alive. In one town, a dog barks at them.
When they reach Seattle, a crew member who lived near there explains the electricity that is driving the radio station – Seattle gets its power from falling water, which could continue to be generated without human intervention. The sub surfaces to allow Osborne, wearing a protective suit, to check the radio station. The crewman who lives near Seattle slips out of the sub and swims to shore. He refuses to return, even though he will be dead within days. Towers says he can understand the desire to die near home, even if it is much sooner.
Osborne finds that a coke bottle, resting on a windowsill, taps the Morse code key when the wind blows the shutters against it. That explains the signals.
They return with bad news. The radiation is not dissipating, and the citizens of Melbourne can expect to die of radiation sickness no later than September. Still, Peter and Mary prepare for the following spring's garden, Moira's father, a rancher, works to keep his fences mended, and even Moira begins a secretarial training course knowing she won't ever work in the field. She helps Dwight pick out a bracelet for his wife and gifts for his kids for his homecoming. Moira's father, meanwhile, grumbles when he learns that rabbits are less susceptible to radiation and could survive for up to a year after the people are gone.
The heats for the Grand Prix are intense, and Osborne - inexperienced and over cautious - qualifies mainly because most of his opponents are injured or killed in accidents. The organizers have grudgingly moved the race up to August, never acknowledging the reason for the change.
Pharmacies are beginning to distribute, free of charge, red boxes containing a quick-acting poison. Radiation sickness is a horrible death, and the government is distributing a way to avoid it. Mary is horrified at the though of using it on her baby; Peter keeps their supply hidden.
This report prepared by David Gordon