Beggars Ride begins in 2120 in a United States becalmed. The Sleepless have long ago banded together for protection and defense, forming the community "Sanctuary," first in the southwest corner of New York State and then later in their own orbital. In 2092 the Sleepless, led by permanent leader Jennifer Sharifi, attempted to secede from America, but were prevented by a small contingent of their youngest generation. These "SuperBright" Sleepless, led by Jennifer's granddaughter Miranda, underwent such advanced engineering that their thoughts are no longer the same as normal humans. Jennifer was indicted for treason and served 27 years in prison; in the prologue of the novel, she is released.
The Supers, meanwhile, moved to Earth and transformed the social landscape of America. America's political situation at the time had been unstable: 80% of the population, "Livers," were unemployed and supported by a lavish Dole, made possible by cheap cold fusion discovered by Kenzo Yagai sometime before 2008. These "Livers" were supposedly the upper class, enjoying a life of "aristo leisure" and served by the "donkeys," genemod white-collar workers who were voted into power by Livers due to promises of increased prosperity. Due to economic stagnancy and (what turned out to be) constant sabotage by anarchist forces, the infrastructure supporting the Livers, and thus the nation itself, was in grave danger of collapse. Miranda Sharifi changed this by creating the "Change syringe," a slim black injection that rebuilt the human body to be photosynthetic, able to absorb nutrients from any adjacent biological matter (dirt, grass, clothes, etc), and resistant against disease, infection, foreign matter and casual injury. Lying on the ground in the sun for half an hour is sufficient "food" for any Changed individual. The Livers, now autotrophic, were able to cast free of the donkeys and now live in wandering communes, while the donkeys retreated behind their Y-shielded enclaves and likewise turned to a life of leisure.
In the prologue, Jennifer Sharifi evicts her granddaughter from the Sanctuary Orbital; the Supers are later revealed (through use of inter-chapter epistolary e-mails) to have moved to Selene Base on the moon. These e-mails, sent by poor Livers, donkey enclaves and even top researchers, always regard the Change syringes, which the Supers have stopped supplying; neither syringes nor replies are ever sent.
The novel then cuts to Jackson Aranow, M.D., resident of the Manhattan East Enclave. As a doctor in the age of the Change syringe, he is reduced to Changing newborns, dealing with occasional trauma, and death certificates, which he administers now to Harold Winthrop Wayland. He then returns home, where the reader is first introduced to his sister Theresa and ex-wife Cazie Saunders. The two could not be more different. "Tessie" is a pale, fragile girl, unChanged, who suffers from a neurological condition that causes her to feel endangered in the presence of new and unaccustomed stimuli, but refuses to take neuropharmaceuticals; she is writing a book on Leisha Camden, a long-dead Sleepless. Cazie is an explosive, endlessly vital, take-charge woman who comes and goes as she pleases. Her companions underline the vacility of donkey life, while Cazie underlines that, of 90 million eligible voters in the recent presidential election, only 8% bothered. America is ceasing to exist as a political unit. She also reveals that there has been a break-in at a Y-cone plant in Jackson's family business, TenTech (which she owns a third of, due to the divorce), and insists that they investigate on the morrow.
The break-in is actually being orchestrated by a prodigious young data-dipper, Lizzie Francy, now seventeen and very much pregnant, and accompanied by her friend Victoria Turner (Diana, it is revealed later, has legally changed her name). As far as Lizzie is concerned, she owns the world: she's one of the best dippers alive, she has been helping provide for her tribe since Vicki gave her her first computer terminal, she got herself pregnant by some boy because she wanted a baby, and she is about to do the impossible: break into a Y-shielded donkey factory, steal some of their wares, and escape to tell the tale. Though the factory itself has gone haywire (the robots within were improperly programmed and have been destroying products instead of creating them), everything goes according to plan... Except for the escaping part. Restless and locked in, she and Vicki prowl the premises, attempting to find a way out. Jackson and Cazie arrive to confront their worst nightmare: not the insane factory, but rather the fact that a Liver—an unwashed, stupid, uneducated member of the lower classes—was smart enough to dip their factory. On the strength of Vicki's character (and possibly other things; she reminds him alarmingly of Cazie), Jackson refuses to arrest them, and furthermore accompanies Lizzie and Vicki back to the tribe when Lizzie goes into month-early premature labor (the baby is a presentation). He gains points with the tribe by injecting the baby with a Change syringe, which the tribe only had one of. (Jackson personally has three more, plus a stockpile in his home.)
Theresa, in endless search for meaning to her life, visits a bizarre Liver enclave where trios of people inject themselves with a red syringe that forces them to stay in close physical proximity to each other—on pain of death. (The triads also take on a new composite name; one pre-bonded group, Josh Mike and Patty, are later introduced as "Jomp.") The Livers have a holo recording from Miranda Sharifi explaining that this syringe is her next gift to them, building on the Change; this is Theresa's excuse to escape when she decides she doesn't want to be involved. Her next visit is to a convent, which she is ready to submit herself to until the Mother Superior informs her that they use neuropharms to induce religious euphoria in their sisters. Afterwards she gives Jackson's last sixteen syringes to a tribe of Livers: "I need to give somebody something!"
Jennifer Sharifi visits legendary Russian scientist Serge Mikhailovich Strukov, whom she instructs to create a genemod virus that will hardwire agoraphobia, xenophobia and novelty anxiety into the brains of anyone it hits. Researchers have been looking for years for neuropharms that can evade the Cell Cleaner, which destroys any foreign substance in the body, including beneificial analgesics and recreational drugs. What Strukov has found is a virus that changes brain conditions, so that, while the delivering virus is foreign, the conditions it leaves behind are treated as native by the Cell Cleaner. He also reveals that Sanctuary, not Miranda Sharifi, distributed the red bonding syringes and accompanying holo as a means to control Sleepers.
Jackson is contacted by Lizzie with a daring plan. Harold Wayland, Jackson's patient from the first chapter, was an elected official, specifically District Supervisor. Lizzie wants to convince one of the members of her tribe, Shockey Toor, to run for that office. There are a lot more Livers in Willoughby County, Pennsylvania than donkeys, and if all the Livers register, between 11:30 and 11:50 PM on December 31 as an ambush on the donkeys, they can landslide their candidate into office. This is why Lizzie needs Jackson: comlink transmissions can be dipped, so his aircar will help spread the propaganda instead. (Lizzie's son, Dirk, is doing just fine—and, if Lizzie's plan works, will be doing a lot better.) At 00:01 hours on January 1, 2121, 4,082 donkeys and 4,450 Livers have registered to vote.
On April 1, election day, Jackson takes Vicki and Lizzie (sans Dirk) to a nearby camp for some last-minute propaganda; they then vote from Jackson's aircar, and then watch the newsgrids of the Livers lining up to vote. The Livers, who up until this point have been courting fame, are all nervous around the donkey reporters; and the tally of votes shows Serrano's name skyrocketing. Back at the camp, everyone is timid, including Annie Francy and Dirk; they are all, Jackson realizes, acting like Theresa. Somehow, someone has found a way to create a neuropharm that causes fast-acting, non-reversible changes in brain chemistry, in this case inducing fear of novelty. Who could come up with such an innovation, besides Miranda Sharifi?—and how could Serrano have gotten his hands on it?—or, alternately, why would Miranda have wasted it on a tiny election like this? (In fact, it was Sanctuary, testing Strukov's virus to see if it actually works.)
Jackson takes Vicki, Lizzie and Dirk to his home in Manhattan East, where Theresa is just as terrified of Dirk as Dirk is of her. Jackson calls Thurmond Rogers, a lead researcher at neuropharm corporation Kelvin-Castner, to get an investigation going into the exact effects of the drug. Lizzie takes the opportunity to dip Jackson's house OS, and gets a glimpse of what Theresa watches on the newsgrids: endless photos of unChanged infants. She leaves Theresa a personal message, begging her on behalf of the Livers to get Miranda Sharifi to send more Change syringes.
Theresa returns to the triad camp (which has evidently also been infected by Strukov's agoraphobia weapon) to see the Miranda-Sharifi holo; to do so, she must overcome her own inhibitions, which she does by becoming Cazie Saunders. It works remarkably well, though she feels confused about it; she has always denied the use of neuropharms so that she would not lose what it meant to be herself. She takes the holo with her, which she is sure is counterfeit, on a visit to the La Solana compound in New Mexico, where Leisha Camden once lived. There she leaves a message for Miranda Sharifi, as have thousands of supplicants before her, pouring out her heart and soul, her views on self, her views on pain and its necessity as proof of life, her views on the red syringes— And, at the news of these syringes, Miranda Sharifi opens a comlink. The speed of their conversation proves that they are not at Selene, but rather right here at La Solana. She agrees to take action about the red syringes, and also explains why they discontinued the Change syringes:
We made a mistake. We didn't intend—our goal was to make the Livers free of donkey domination. Autotrophic. We didn't know they. . . you. . . would so quickly regress to infantile dependence. And now none of us know what the next step should be, because we can't find the equations to preduct outcomes with any degree of accuracy. ...And now we're trying desperately to find a way out of that chaos, a scientific solution you can synthesize yourselves, without us, the right substance . . . a solution you can control, and won't pervert. But, Theresa, we don't think like you, or react like you, or feel like you.As Theresa departs in her chartered plane, La Solana is destroyed by a thermonuclear weapon. The SuperSleepless are dead... And only Theresa Aranow knows it.
Jackson takes Vicky, Dirk and Shockey to Kelvin-Castner to undergo various tests. K-C makes no reply whatsoever as to how to reverse the condition, spending all its time trying to reverse-engineer it to its own profit. As far as they are concerned, they can always count on Miranda Sharifi to fix their problems for them. TenTech is asked for an investment, and Jackson wearily agrees—it'll help him keep control of the project. Meanwhile, Lizzie (for lack of anything else to do) tries to figure out who attacked her tribe. It takes nearly a month of careful dipping before she breaks into the transmission data... And discovers it points straight at Sanctuary. She needs to tell Dr. Aranow, and with no other recourse, decides to walk to his enclave. Theresa, for her part, is sick with radiation poisoning for months, but her first priority is to struggle out with the news that the SuperSleepless are gone. Jackson won't believe it, though Vicki does: "It's the only motive that makes sense for bombing La Solana without taking credit or making demands." Jackson realizes that, without Miranda Sharifi, the world is poised to fall apart, starting with the agoraphobia weapon, unless he does something about it. He moves into Kelvin-Caster's proprietary labs to ensure a counteragent is created, teaching himself to become a medical researcher in the process.
Lizzie has made it into Manhattan East Enclave, but is immediately apprehended by security. Taking advantage of a lull in activities (as everyone scurries to watch the reports of Sanctuary's destruction), she sends another transmission to Theresa, begging her to get her out. Theresa does, once again by "becoming" Cazie. Lizzie then meets with Jackson at K-C, who instructs her (privately) to data-dip their systems, looking for proof that K-C hasn't spent any time working on the counter-agent. Meanwhile, Vicki moves through the Decon, but doesn't arrive until nearly midnight, having been detained by events pertaining to Theresa.
Theresa is safely back at home, but curious as to herself. She has her nursing 'bot take two separate brain scans, one of Theresa under normal circumstances and one while she is "being" Cazie. Then, as Cazie, she takes the nursing 'bot to a Liver enclave by pretending to be a beggar. Unfortunately, in her unChanged and weak state, this leaves her prone to infection, and she becomes extremely sick. Vicki is the instrument of her salvation, administering the one Change syringe Jackson kept hidden in the hopes that Theresa would one day accept it. Tess, realizing that no Change can change who she is, accepts the syringe and is healed. Vicki later shows Jackson reproductions of the two brain scans (drawn on her breasts, the only way she could sneak them through decon); the "Cazie" scan shows "intense non-somatic activity," the sort associated with "epileptic seizures, religious visions, imaginative delusions," but controlled and channeled through intense concentration.
Lizzie moves through decon herself, once again needing to carry vital information in her head: namely, the proof that K-C has no intention of working on a counter-agent, and that furthermore, their regimen of placating research is tailored specifically to fool Jackson. She has also discovered that the agoraphobia weapon has a 38.7% chance of mutating to the point where it can be transmitted directly through person-to-person contact; even if no more attacks are launched, the weapon can still spread. However, K-C doesn't fall in line until Vicki and Jackson announce, publicly, that there is no more deux ex machina; "The machina broke down," Vicki says, "and the dea is dead." If the humans don't help themselves, no one will.
Someone does. In the epilogue, taking place in November 2128, the reader finds Theresa, now the leader of a semi-religious begging order, teaching the biofeedback techniques she developed to the "inhibited," as they are now called, helping them conquer the fear artificially wired into their brains. Jackson is the second part of the Trojan Horse, providing the technical, holographic and medical equipment the Livers will need to train themselves fully into Theresa's techniques. No one has yet found a reverser, but his lover Vicki calls him with new information: at the Chicago School of Medicine, where the original Sleepless were engineered 125 years ago, the frozen gametes of the SuperSleepless have just arrived, delivered by time-activated 'bot. The debate on what to do with them, Vicki assures us, will be fierce...