The novel begins by stating that soon, it will be too hot. Dr. Kerans stands on the balcony of the Ritz hotel and watches the sun (which is now an ellipse in the sky) rise over the giant trees that grow on the roofs of department stores across the lagoon. Kerans starts to sweat in the heat. He usually wakes at 5:00am to do several hours of work before the heat becomes intolerable. This morning, however, he dawdled in his air-conditioned hotel suite and busied himself with small tasks until now, when Colonel Riggs normally passes the hotel in his patrol boat. Riggs is often ready to chat and drink for an hour, but today he's late.
Dr. Kerans's observation of the lagoon and the surrounding landscape give the impression that the natural world is entirely overtaking the built, human one. However, humans aren't entirely done fighting. Kerans and the rest of his platoon have developed techniques for surviving in a hostile environment. For instance, Kerans has air conditioning strong enough to keep up with the intense temperatures outside.
Kerans wonders if he should try to contact Riggs, but remembers that his radio is buried under a stack of books and has a dead battery. The narrator notes that Riggs is aware that Kerans is trying to sever links with the military base by refusing to use the radio, and that Riggs accepts and tolerates this.
At this point, Kerans is caught between wanting to care for and engage with others at the base and wanting to be isolated. Notably, his attempts to isolate himself are generally passive attempts (like letting his radio die) rather than active ones; he's not trying very hard—yet.
On the balcony, Kerans watches a thermal storm whip across the lagoon. When it passes, Kerans tells himself that staying in was smart, as he can avoid the increasingly frequent storms. The narrator says that Kerans actually didn't go in to work today because he accepts that there's little to do: mapping the changing flora and fauna is pointless, as all the species have evolved precisely as hypothesized 20 years ago. Furthermore, the unit has reason to believe that nobody at Camp Byrd, a city in northern Greenland, reads their reports. To test this, Dr. Bodkin, Kerans’s assistant, had sent a report with an "eyewitness description" of a giant lizard that looked shockingly like a Pelycosaur, an early reptile. Had anyone read the report, Camp Byrd would have sent ecologists to the base, but Bodkin received only a signal of acknowledgement.
This passage establishes that, in the apocalyptic world of the novel, humans like Kerans are on the verge of giving up completely on the enterprise of human civilization: Kerans has stopped working because he doesn’t believe there’s any point. Nature has already won. The fact that his joke report about the Pelycosaur went undetected confirms, in his mind, that nobody else truly believes that the scientific work he is doing is worthwhile, either—perhaps because others have also ceased to believe in a future for mankind on earth. Nevertheless, the people around Kerans continue to insist, throughout the novel, on keeping up pretenses and going through the motions—even if they’re pointless.
Kerans wonders what European city he's even in. The narrator explains that at the end of the month, Colonel Riggs and the rest of the unit will finish surveying the city and tow their testing station north. Kerans can barely believe it. He's privately satisfied that he'll be the last guest at the Ritz. Kerans loves the lavish furnishings at the hotel and lives in a suite that was originally designed for a Milanese financier. The air-conditioning still works and the financier left in a rush, leaving behind handsome clothes and a fully stocked bar.
When Kerans wonders where he is, it shows again that he's disconnecting. In this case, he's disconnecting specifically from the past by not bothering to use what's at this point a very old name (i.e., London). However, this contrasts with Kerans's love of the Ritz hotel, something that's old and importantly, named. For Kerans, the recent past is something to visit, enjoy, and then leave, not something to remember or hold onto.
A giant mosquito darts across Kerans’s field of vision, heralding the coming heat of the day. Kerans finds the early morning light beautiful. He likes the juxtaposition of the Triassic-era vegetation with the remaining buildings of the 20th century breaking the water. Kerans hears a diesel engine in the distance and reluctantly goes inside to shave. Chemicals in the water have bleached Kerans’s beard snowy white, though he's only 40. He's tan with leathery, sunken skin as a result of the new strains of malaria. As he shaves, Kerans thinks that he's more relaxed and detached than he's ever been.
The changes the world is experiencing are also taking a toll on Kerans—in the form of his bleached hair, malaria, and the sunburn which will make him more susceptible to skin cancer. Nevertheless, he seems to have grown fond of his surroundings, even taking pleasure in the sight of a city overgrown with mutant vegetation.
Kerans selects a silk shirt and pressed slacks from the financier's wardrobe and seals his room behind him. He reaches the landing dock in time to meet Colonel Riggs’s cutter (a type of boat). Riggs greets Kerans and asks him to take the day off from the testing station to help him with a job. Kerans says that he's already taken the day off. Riggs technically supervises Kerans and Dr. Bodkin, but after working together for three years, Riggs lets the scientists do their work as they please.
Again, the luxury of the Ritz makes it a kind of playhouse for Kerans. He can play at being a part of the past without actually having to care about preserving it. This attitude about the past will in many ways free Kerans later in the book to look forward to the future, even if at this point he gives little indication that he cares much about the future.
Riggs regularly calls on Kerans to help evacuate the last people who inhabit Europe's drowned cities. Kerans is also a medical doctor, and his skills are often required in these evacuations. Kerans finds Riggs to be intelligent, sympathetic, and funny, though he has never told Riggs about the joke Pelycosaur. As Sergeant Macready ties up the cutter, Kerans smells the stench from the lagoon and thinks that it's little more than a swamp from this vantage point. Kerans invites Riggs to his room for a drink.
The natural landscape is far more appealing when viewed from a luxurious, air-conditioned interior, which suggests that this eye-level view of the lagoon is probably a more accurate one. The hotel suite masks the lagoon's unsavory qualities and makes it easier to ignore that the world is a hostile, dangerous place for people.
When the men reach Kerans’s room, Riggs asks if there are any vacancies at the Ritz. Kerans deadpans that Riggs should check with the Hilton. The narrator explains that although Kerans finds Riggs pleasant, he tries to see little of him. In general, Kerans tries to not speak to anyone, and most of the other members of the unit follow the same protocol. Riggs is the only one who seems sociable. Kerans thinks that the withdrawal and isolation in the crew reminds him of how animals behave when they're about to go through a major metamorphosis. Kerans wonders how he's changing. He believes his isolation means that he's instinctively preparing himself for a new environment.
Going forward, it's important to keep in mind how friendly and engaged Riggs is in comparison to everyone else. For now, he doesn't seem nearly as caught up in his own thoughts as Kerans is, and instead is more engaged with the real, tangible world outside. When Kerans thinks of his own isolation as being a way of preparing himself for a metamorphosis, it suggests in turn that the highly engaged and attentive Riggs may not adapt to the new environment.
As Kerans gives Riggs a drink, Riggs asks Kerans if he ever listens to his radio. Kerans insists that there's no point, since they already know what's going to happen for the next three million years. Riggs says that's not true, and says that it came through that in three days, the unit is leaving for Camp Byrd permanently. Riggs continues that Russian and American units are also being recalled, and temperatures at the equator are nearly 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Noticing Kerans’s expression, Riggs asks Kerans if he's not glad to leave, and asks if Kerans secretly wants to stay behind. Kerans refills his glass and thinks that he's been surviving here by rejecting normal systems of time.
Kerans's comment that he already knows what's going to happen is an early suggestion that he views time as something cyclical: the earth will do again what it did during the Triassic period, and he knows what will happen because it's happened before. Riggs, however, disrupts Kerans’s assumption that everything will continue as predicted when he announces the unit is being moved north. He seems to already suspect that Kerans is detaching himself from the enterprise of human civilization.
Kerans collects himself and says that he simply didn't think they'd be leaving so soon, and he prefers the finery of the Ritz to Camp Byrd. Kerans realizes what Riggs needs help with. Riggs explains that "she" (Beatrice) is refusing to leave and doesn't realize that once this unit leaves, there won't be anyone else to save her. Kerans smiles and agrees that Beatrice can be difficult. He says that she lives on many levels and will behave like she's insane until the levels synchronize.
Beatrice seems to be clinging to her past life in London, willfully blind to the fact that it's not going to exist much longer. Beatrice is characterized throughout the novel as being somewhat out of touch with reality, but Kerans’s claim that she’s essentially insane is also consistent with a more general attitude toward women at the time Ballard was writing—as Riggs and Kerans speak about Beatrice as though she’s hysterical.
Kerans and Riggs head downstairs and board the cutter. Riggs mutters that the work they've been doing is absurd, and that much of Europe is a "confounded zoo." He continues that Beatrice will be truly insane if she stays, and asks Kerans how he's sleeping these days. Kerans is perplexed. He says he sleeps soundly, and Riggs turns his attention to Macready.
Even Riggs accepts that planning for the future in these drowned cities specifically is a fool's errand, which gives Kerans's assessment (that the cities are zoos) more weight. At least in the south, nature is undoubtedly winning this war.