It shows an alien humanoid world passing the phase of Middle-Ages. But in the common greyness of that society the Church suddenly arises, crushing progressively thinking people. The main hero, Earth observer don Rumata, struggles for their lives, although steadily losing his humanity. The title refers to Rumata's perception of his own position and possibilities within this society.
This first episode is very symbolic and therefore important for the book as a whole. The road stands for the history that can only go one way and if one tries moving back, in the end, one stumbles across a skeleton with a gun.
The actual story begins when don Rumata (Anton) visits the Drunken Den, a rally point for progressors working in the Lands Beyond the Strait (Запроливье), and tells his two colleagues that a new Prime Minister of Arkanar, don Reba, has started an official policy against literacy and apparently tries to establish a fascist police state. Don Goog and don Kondor are not convinced by his argumentation therefore they pay little attention to don Reba considering him simply a cunning politician who tries to protect his domain from a collapse.
Upon returning back to his house in Arkanar (which is also the name of the capital of Arkanar Kingdom), don Rumata decides to concentrate on finding Dr. Budah who disappeared under suspicious circumstances somewhere in Arkanar. Rumata suspects that don Reba's special task force, "grey troopers", whose objective is finding and killing all scientists and simply literate people, is responsible for this. Needless to say, that don Rumata secretly opposes the "grey troops" and rescues their captives at any cost.
In order to locate Budah, don Rumata visits Vaga the Wheel, the head of local organized crime, who agrees to lend a helping hand in the search for him, and when he returns home, his servants tell him that an unknown girl awaits him. This is Kira, Rumata's secret lover and a daughter of a merchant whose elder son is a "grey trooper". Kira tells Rumata that she no longer can live with her family because she hates their lifestyle and pleads to take her as a servant - for free. Rumata immediately agrees and appoints her his estate manager.
In the same evening, don Rumata visits a soiree arranged by don Reba's concubine, dona Okana, who tries to seduce him (since he is rumored to be the greatest playboy beyond the Strait) but fails - Rumata is revolted by the medieval standards of hygiene - and Rumata returns home. There he meets yet another acquaintance - baron Pampa - who is his only local friend and who persuades him to go to the nearest tavern to have some drinks. After a bloodless (psychological) victory over some "grey troopers", Pampa offers to celebrate it, so when they return home in the morning both are blind drunk. Avoiding Kira's attention, Rumata manages to take some kasparamid and is back in shape since he must attend a royal breakfast in the same morning.
In the palace, he manages to see the King Pits VI, who has damaged his knee, and tells him that don Reba, apparently, has taken the only doctor who can help heal it in custody - Dr. Budah. Reba appears to be extremely pleased with Rumata's sagacity and promises to call for Budah immediately. Intrigued Rumata secretly follows don Reba to his office and manages to eavesdrop his conversation with Vaga the Wheel himself - however, the two speak in some thieves' cant and Rumata doesn't understand a word. During the breakfast Rumata gets to know that dona Okana was arrested and executed earlier this night, but this doesn't interest him even a little bit since he awaits Budah's appearance. The great healer disappoints Rumata and the King by prescribing some disgusting and inefficient potion to the latter.
However, Rumata confirms that Budah is alive and returns home to prepare for the night watch since as a member of Imperial Guard his duty is to keep watch over the King's only son and successor's bedroom in this night. Despite having a very bad feeling about this, he attends the watch and waits for what will follow. Deep at night, panic breaks out when King Pits VI is found dead, poisoned by Budah (or, to be more precise, by don Reba) and the "grey troopers" storm the palace to kill the Prince. Rumata tries to protect him but fails and being quickly overwhelmed by the vast masses of attackers falls unconscious.
In the morning, when Rumata regains consciousness, the city and the country is overtaken by the elite knights of the Holy Order who arrived there "to protect the population from the marauding criminals and anarchy". Don Reba, who is now the Bishop of Arkanar, turns out to have been their agent all along and offers Rumata cooperation after providing evidence that Rumata is not what he says he is (the true don Rumata died prior to Anton's arrival on Arkanar). Rumata agrees to stop actively resisting Reba in exchange for true Budah's freedom (since the man he saw during the royal breakfast was an impostor).
Back at home he finds one of his most devoted servant dead, killed by Vaga's bandits, but Kira is unscathed. After having a short rest, he returns to the state prison (where Budah is held) and helps the healer to come out of it. On the way up, he realizes that baron Pampa was captured by the monk knights, too, and gets him out as well. After a short conversation, Pampa steals a horse and rides back to his castle to protect it from the invaders. Rumata takes Budah home.
What follows is evidently the intended moral and theosophical crux of the book. During conversation between Kira, Budah and Rumata, they argue about the ways in which a "god" could fix the crumbling civilization - with Rumata posing as an advocate for god's policy of non-intervention.
Budah suggests several ways of making the world right, from feeding the hungry and protecting the weak, to interfering in the politics of the ruling class, and finally proposes to completely "remoralize" the entire population of the planet by erasing and replacing conscience of the mankind. Rumata replies that this would be tantamount to replacing one mankind with another.
"Then Budah said quietly:
- Then, oh god, erase us from the face of the earth and recreate us perfect... or better yet, leave us alone and let us walk this road by ourselves...
- My heart runs over with pity - slowly answered Rumata. - I cannot do that.
And then he saw Kira's eyes. She was looking at him with horror and hope."
Shortly afterwards he is secretly visited by Arata the Hunchback, a permanent rebel, who asks him once again to lend him Earth's power (Arata is aware of Rumata's true origin) to crush the ruling class once and for all. Rumata refuses saying that this is senseless and Arata leaves with a short warning that in war, a half-friend is a half-enemy but the progressor pays no attention to that.
Don Rumata once again visits the Drunken Den where his colleagues admit that he was right all along about Reba and that Reba had to be stopped long before the coup d'état. But now it's too late to do anything but hope for the best and rescue everyone they can - like Budah, who is also taken to the Den in order to transport him out of former Arkanar Kingdom, now Arkanar Episcopacy of Holy Order. In the end of the meeting, don Kondor advices Rumata either to get less attached to Kira or bring her to Earth, since she is now his weak spot.
However, the warning comes too late and at the same night Kira is shot dead from a distance by an unidentified arbalester. Rumata, who witnessed the murder but couldn't do anything, is convinced that Reba sent the assassins to put him under pressure and leaves his house to storm the palace.
At this point, it becomes obvious that the whole story has been narrated by Pavel (Anton's childhood friend also known as don Goog) to Anna, who is now eager to know what happened next. Pavel replies that no one really knows what happened next but when Rumata's house was set on fire, progressors dropped soporific charges on Arkanar and removed unconscious Anton from the city. On his way to Reba's residence he has allegedly killed dozens of people, including don Reba himself.
Now, after some time passed since the incident, Pavel has brought Anna to their home station so that she can visit Anton and, may be, ease his newly obtained insularity. Anton is indeed pleased to see his childhood friend again, but it is hard for Anna to restrain her sudden fear of this man.