Firebird is a military pilot assigned to a risky venture to capture a Federate world outpost. Because she is a wastling, she is considered expendable. Leading her tagwing fighter group, she is captured by Federate colonel Brennen Caldwell, a telepath who senses something special about her. She attempts honorable suicide by poison for her failure, but Caldwell thwarts her medically. Under duress, her military knowledge is used by Caldwell to save the Federate outpost. Firebird begins to see the dishonorable tactics of her people for what they are.
Caldwell, in addition to being the most powerful Ehretan telepath of his generation, is also heir to religious prophecies among his people, and the most senior telepath in a government that mistrusts them for their abilities. Caldwell is promoted to general for his victory in the Veroh battle, as well as his diplomacy with the captured Firebird. In her, he sensed a strong possibility of connaturality, a deep personality congruity that is essential for telepaths to be married. As he has strong convictions against marrying outside his faith, and being barred from proselytizing, much of the book revolves around Caldwell trying to bridge the gap to Firebird by demonstrating the goodness of his spirit to her, offering life and hope to one who believed herself as good as dead.
Following Netaia's failure on Veroh, Firebird's sister Carradee ascends the throne after their mother is forced to honorable suicide. She favors a conciliatory posture with the Federacy. Their other sister, Phoena, secretly plots the overthrow of Federate occupation along with members of the nobility, by secretly building an ecological weapon of great power. After several political and military dangers are overcome by Caldwell and Firebird, they ignore his orders and carry out a special ops mission to destroy Phoena's research lab. During the climactic battle, when Caldwell has been incapacitated and his telepathic powers are not available, Firebird casts her faith to the Great Speaker who sung the universe into existence, and strengthened by this, overcomes great odds to successfully neutralize the weapon.
Brennen and Firebird are married and at the beginning of the second book, Fusion Fire, Firebird is carrying twin boys.
Firebird and Brennen are attacked in the middle of the night by someone with telepathic powers, thus of Ehretan heritage. As Sentinels (telepaths aligned with the Federacy) follow a strict moral and ethical code regarding their powers, it is assumed that the Shuhr are behind it. This assumption is strengthened when Caldwell's brother's family is found murdered in their beds—the Shuhr are attempting again, for the third time in three generations, to wipe out the bloodline associated with the old religious prophecy. The aftermath of the attack reveals Firebird's pregnancy, which they had kept secret for months. The Shuhr assassins are keenly interested, and the Netaian nobility is largely shocked by the thought of a wastling producing offspring, though the news is received warmly by Queen Carradee.
Firebird continues her study of Netaian political simulations, hoping to stave off societal collapse of her dysfunctional homeworld. She also studies her new religion and telepathy, having accidentally discovered that the Angelo bloodline carried Ehretan genes (and hence Ehretan powers). Attempting the turn, the most basic mental gesture, repeatedly ends in frustration and failure. Using a suicide attack on a city to distract Caldwell, another attack on her life, by a minor Sentinel officer coopted by the Shuhr, prompts her to success for the first time—but the experience is unlike any telepath has experienced before, killing the assassin who was in contact with her mind at the time and leaving her in deep shock. A second successful turn, during labor, nearly kills her as well. As this uncontrolled ability threatens any telepath that might be near her, she is quarantined—even from her newborn sons.
Meanwhile, Phoena Angelo continues to chafe while Netaia is under Federate occupation, and her latest scheme involves asking the Shuhr for assistance. However, they mentally dominate her and reduce her to an unwitting pawn, using her as a source for exploring the lost Ehretan gene sequences, as well as pillaging the material wealth of Netaia.
Phoena's foppish husband, Tel Tellai, humbles himself by asking Caldwell's assistance in rescuing her, despite the impossible odds. Ongoing diplomatic and military developments force the issue of Phoena's rescue, but Caldwell finally accepts the mission only after a divine vision. Using new technology to amplify his mental abilities, he sets out to infiltrate the Shuhr homeworld of Three Zed in a rescue attempt. He finds Phoena, but is captured. She is tortured to death while the Shuhr enjoyed her psychic screams of pain, at last realizing she'd been played for the fool, and only Brennen is there to mourn her passing. The Shuhr leaders extract DNA samples from him for their cloning efforts, and try to force secrets from him. To thwart them, Caldwell gives himself amnesia blocks.
Tel, exposed to non-Netaian ideas for the first time, begins to doubt Phoena's character and motives, though he remains fiercely devoted to her. He also comes to a healthy respect for Caldwell, and the Sentinels and Federacy in general. When Ellet Kinsman, a Sentinel officer and Firebird's romantic rival for Caldwell's affections, shows her how she can pursue and rescue Brennen, Firebird (also after divine guidance) seizes the chance, and takes the matured Tel was her copilot.
On Netaia, Queen Carradee's rule and reforms are seen as ineffectual and even harmful to the ruling class, who force her to abdicate after her chambers are bombed, almost resulting in the death of Prince Consort Daithi Drake-Angelo. Carradee and Daithi are welcomed to Hesed House, the Sentinel retreat, and Daithi is given better medical care than is available on Netaia. As he begins to recover, the two of them also begin to see the Federacy, especially the gentle faith of the Sentinels, in a new light.
Upon arrival at Three Zed, Firebird and Tel are discovered, but she is allowed to free Caldwell before they are both captured again. Tel remains in the shuttle, and is mentally incapacitated by the monitoring Shuhr. Caldwell is a wreck, having faced physical and psychic torture for days, and his self-imposed amnesia has progressed to the point where he cannot even remember who Firebird is. Moreover, his mental powers are chemically blocked. Confronting the most powerful Shuhr telepaths together, Firebird manages her painful turn, and Caldwell latches on to it to jumpstart his own powers temporarily. The fusion of their two epsilon carriers together is more powerful than anyone has experienced before, and they triumph before Firebird faints. Through amnesia and phobia, Caldwell hauls Firebird to the spacecraft, where Tel's mostly untested piloting abilities get them away safely.
Upon their return and Caldwell's psi-healing, the Federacy discovers the Shuhr were developing their own psi-amplification and fusion technologies, which would have allowed them to dominate every world in that arm of the galaxy.
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