Rick Dial had everything going for him. He was smart and was the star quarterback at his school with a football scholarship to Syracuse in the fall. His younger brother looked up to him as his hero and his parents loved each other.
Suddenly everything changed. His father abandoned the family for a former girlfriend, leaving only a brief note of explanation. A car accident left 18-year-old Rick unable to walk. After four months, he could hobble around on crutches but seldom left the house. Instead, he played video games all day in his bedroom.
At his mother's insistence and after months of remaining indoors, Rick goes outside for some fresh air. A woman who identifies herself as Miss Ferris and a huge hulk named Juliet Seven accost him. Juliet Seven immediately jabs a syringe into Rick's neck, and everything goes dark.
When he wakes, Rick finds himself in complete darkness. He meets Commander Jonathan Mars, a hologram, who is the director of the MindWar Project. They're in an underground facility not far from Rick's home. Through the use of more holograms, Mars demonstrates the danger that menaces the United States. A Russian named Kurodar is waging a MindWar.
Kurodar is a crazed genius intent on bringing down America. With his brain surgically wired into a computer, he is able to dream into existence a digital Realm in which he can create anything his imagination desires. His goal is to disrupt, then destroy, major systems in the United States. He plans to bring the country to utter ruin, killing millions of people. Mars shows Rick a hologram of Kurodar and the Axis Assembly, leaders of every tyranny on the planet who support the development of Kurodar's project. Mars says that because Rick holds world records in video games and has experience as a star quarterback, he is exactly the person needed to save the country from Kurodar.
Mars explains that a scientist (who the reader later learns is Rick's dad, code-named the Traveler) created a program that could put a digital analogue of Rick into the Realm where he can spy on Kurodar's secrets and locate weaknesses. It is something like being in a video game, Rick suggests, and Mars agrees — but it's not a game. He gets only one life. Whatever happens to Rick's body in the Realm happens to Rick's body in real life. If he should overstay his allotted time there, his mind will disintegrate, and his body will be forever in a vegetative state. With that, Mars disappears.
Rick retrieves his crutches and heads down a hall and into an enormous room full of electronic equipment with flashing lights and meters. On the far wall, he sees what looks like a glass coffin, Miss Ferris and Juliet Seven standing next to it. Miss Ferris explains that the glass box is the portal into the MindWar. Rick returns home to consider what he's been asked to do and finally decides to do it.
On his first trip into the Realm, Rick is given an hour to survey the layout. He is excited to find he has no weakness or pain in his legs and that he is as athletic as he was before the accident. He meets Favian and Mariel, neither of whom can remember how their spirits got there. Sprite-like Favian sparkles and flashes from place to place as he moves. He thinks of himself as a fearful person, yet he helps Rick fight and kill an enormous spider-snake (a guardian-bot).
Mariel is a beautiful young woman formed from mercury-like water. She rises up only when called. She helps Rick by arming him with a sword and covers him in a mercury-like substance, his suit of armor. Favian and Mariel draw energy from nearby portals, but each successive use of energy only makes them weaker, and they tell Rick they are dying. Rick, they believe, will be the one who can rescue them before they die. Mariel says he is a hero. They tell Rick about the fortress Kurodar is building and the Golden City that is the heart of the control center. Then Rick departs through the portal back to real time.
When Rick goes home to get some sleep, a gunman breaks into his room and asks Rick where his dad is. He threatens to kill him, his mother and brother if Rick isn't truthful. The gunman and Rick grapple, but Juliet Seven and Miss Ferris show up just as the gunman flees the room. Juliet Seven knocks him out. Rick meets later with Miss Ferris and Juliet Seven and demands to know what's really going on, but they can't tell him. He begins to wonder if his father's disappearance, his accident and the MindWar are connected.
Rick is allocated 75 minutes on his second visit to the Realm. He agrees with Favian's idea to use the spider-snake's underground tunnels to reach the fortress and to avoid being seen by the dragon creatures of the air — guard-bots of the fortress are more powerful than the spider-snake. Just as they reach the end of the tunnel and have the fortress in view, guard-bot dragons attack.
Mariel throws up a metallic wall of water to shield Rick from the first dragon's attack. Then she gives him his armor coating and his sword, and he fights the next onslaught of guard-bots. After he knocks one down with his sword, he realizes only four minutes remain, and he must get to the portal. He decides to mount the dragon as it recovers and use it to fly to the portal. His idea works, but before he reaches the portal, legions of fortress guard-bots shoot down the dragon, and it lands with a thud. With only seconds left, Rick recovers and heads for the portal, but a security guard-bot blocks his path. They engage swords, and the guard's sword strikes Rick's shoulder.
With his time up, he feels himself dissolve. He wills himself into the portal and wakes up screaming in real time. Medical personnel rush to get him to the infirmary as his blood covers his arm. Rick can't remember who or where he is. Those around him think his mind is gone. Then everything goes dark for Rick. He wakes in pain in the medical wing of the underground facility, more determined than ever to return to the Realm and save Favian and Mariel.
Rick's third immersion in the Realm is the most dangerous. Though he barely survived 75 minutes the last time, Miss Ferris tells Rick he has 90 minutes this time and that he must get inside the fortress. Rick arrives in the Realm and reaches the cellar of the fortress by using the moat's drainpipes. Mariel helps him along the way, giving him his armor and sword as before. She tells him that his power lies in his spirit, and if he doesn't give in to fear or despair, he will be able to defeat the enemy. He battles his way in, eventually accessing the control center.
While Rick has been making his way toward the control center, Kurodar has taken control of seven aircraft, including the one being used to transport the Traveler — Rick's dad — to a new secure location. Kurodar threatens to bring down all the planes, killing thousands, if the Traveler doesn't agree to provide the equations to the only program that can destroy the Realm.
From the control center, Rick is able to view events unfolding on the plane his dad is on; and he realizes that everything he previously thought about his dad was untrue. His dad is really a hero. He makes his way to the generator room and has to fight off the lead demon-like security-bot, Reza. He uses the electricity of the generator to knock out Reza. Then he kills the security-bot with his sword.
Next he uses his sword to deflect the energy from the generator onto the control panel and at last completely disables it. Kurodar is finished in the Realm, pilot-control returns to the seven aircraft, and the fortress begins to fall apart. Rick, about to run out of time, miraculously escapes and races to the portal. He tells Mariel that he will return for her and Favian and leaves her with an energy pod from Miss Ferris that will buy them more time until they can be rescued.
Though his previous trip to the Realm nearly killed him, Rick's mind returns after three days in real time. Mars visits him as a hologram and tells him that they've won the battle, but the MindWar continues. Kurodar is asking the Axis Assembly for more money to fund another, bigger attack. Rick returns home to recover and works hard to strengthen his body. A month later, his family is reunited. As Rick exits the limo to greet his dad, he walks toward him without using crutches. His family will live in a compound specially constructed to protect them.