The story is set in the near future, where a chance invention allows people to experience virtual reality without the need for costly hardware — a seconds long movie drives a person into a sort of psychosis, forcing one's subconsciousness to perceive a simple 3D game as real world. Soon after the invention, Microsoft and IBM build a virtual city on the Internet called "Deeptown" (named so after the street name for VR — the Deep), which anyone is free to log on and enter. The painted world becomes a second home for millions people — but some of them 'sink', i.e. forget to return in the reality until dying of dehydration. Only a small group of people calling themselves divers are capable to leave the Deep at will — gods of the virtual world, they help those who sink and are the best hackers, working on pure intuition.
Philosophy of Deeptown — freedom for all, in all forms — is so attractive for the main hero Leonid, that he considers himself the citizen of the Deeptown the first place, and only then the citizen of his country. When a being from the other world joins Deeptown, Leonid's dreams of freedom encounter pressure of official and unofficial powers of Deeptown.
The second book brings more questions: Leonid realizes that Divers are phagocytes of the world of Deep... and the Deep, the thing he is serving for, is no more an abstract idea of freedom, but whatever it is, it exhibits freedom of will and the sudden flashes of arising artificial intelligence, which in the end leads to the higher level of interactions between Leonid and the Deep.
The third book is a short story originally published online. It features two endings and is told from a point-of-view of a young female MVD operative. She is sent to a virtual prison to ensure that no inmate can escape into Deeptown. Instead, she stumbles upon a secret government project aimed at making divers out of prisoners. Leonid is only mentioned (briefly) twice in the story by other characters.
Realizing that the program effectively fooled its users into thinking that whatever virtual environment they were viewing was as real as the world around them. Furthermore, the environment did not have to be particularly elaborate. Even if the graphics were crude, human subconscious would fill in details and sensations that would enhance the realism. However, they were drawbacks. Because the illusion was so convincing, people who used the Deep program were unable to leave it. Just as that guy needed to finish the game in order to break the illusion, the Deep users needed specially designed exit points that would provided subconscious triggers that facilitated the exit.
The leading computer companies quickly ceased upon Dibenko's invention to create a cartoonish virtual city that came to be known as Deeptown. Because of the low-tech nature of its graphics, it became available to anyone who had a computer and a dial-up connection. Deeptown gained instant popularity, drawing people from all walks of life and all parts the world. It offered freedom from real-world constraints, which became a style of life and religion of many.
But a vast majority of people are unable to leave the Deeptown at will — their subconsciousness prevents them from it. They need free communication with their operational systems which was mostly forbidden, or in most cases proper exit terminals. Along with Deeptown, Deep timers were developed to limit the duration of user's stay, because in the worst-case scenario people became so consumed by Deep illusion that they competely lost awareness that Deeptown was not the real world, and were effectively trapped in the Deep until they died from dehydration. Once the time passed, the timer would deactivate the Deep program. However, it didn't solve the problem, as many users managed to switch off their timers.
Around this time, the first Divers emerged, people able to break illusion of the Deep program. This allowed them to help those who were trapped in Deeptown, since they could exit the Deeptown instantly and call for help. This ability also freed them from physical constraints other users were bound by, allowing to perform seemingly impossible feats, survive otherwise crippling injuries and change avatars within seconds. In addition to that, Divers were able to see flaws in Deeptown's programming codes (usually in the form of holes). Thanks to those abilities, Divers found employment as in-house rescuers, corporate saboteurs and security consultants, among others.
As their numbers grew, Divers began to organize. They created a Code of Divers, which established a set of principles that guided their behavior. Along with other things, it held up the right to privacy as a fundamental right of all Divers. Another important principle was the prohibition against using their abilities to harm their fellow Divers. If a Diver violated any aspect of the Code, he had to submit to a hearing conducted by the rest of the Diver community and abide by whatever penalty they would decide on. Further violations would incur progressively harsher penalties.
By the time the events of the book began, Divers were a strange, but accepted part of Deeptown society. Their powers were subject of speculation by the rest of Deeptown community, which is only furthered by Divers' penchant for secrecy.
The first novel is told from the first-person perspective and is told by a diver living in a run-down apartment in St. Petersburg. Like most divers, he has to maintain his identity secret, as divers are a prized commodity. They are able to overcome obstacles that can stop even elite hackers. The diver first demonstrates his ability by walking across a string suspended above a chasm, something no normal human is capable of doing, by leaving the deep and walking across by looking at the monitor (it is much easier, as there is no wind or fear of falling). He is soon located by a strange Man Without a Face and offered a job: he must go into a popular virtual game called the "Labyrinth of Death" to complete a task two other divers started but never completed. In return, he will get Order of Permissiveness that grants its bearer right to do everything he wants within Deeptown.
The "Labyrinth of Death" is a massive multiplayer game based on Doom, where the players must battle monsters, zombies, and each other through large levels of a post-alien-invasion city to reach the end. As told by the director of the company that owns and runs the game, the diver must rescue a trapped player, who disabled his exit timer, before his real world body dies of dehydration or starvation. Adopting the nickname Gunslinger (from a Stephen King eponymous novel), the diver goes on a rampage through the "Labyrinth", using his diver ability to return to his own body and use standard keyboard and mouse controls to quickly dispatch enemies. Eventually, the other human players stop crossing his path, as rumors of his skill quickly spread throughout the game. After setting a record on the number of levels beat in a short time, the diver (Gunslinger) saves and leaves the "Labyrinth" only to encounter about a hundred angry players in the exit lobby. All of them are waiting for Gunslinger, but nobody recognizes him without his mask and gear. As he is leaving the lobby, the director of the company calls out and congratulates him on his record. The diver runs out, followed by the angry mob of players, and manages to duck into the nearest "building" - a virtual brothel. There, he looks through the catalog and, to his surprise, sees a near-perfect image of his operating system (rendered as a woman). He goes to the "room" where she is and asks her if he can call her Vicka (the same name he calls his computer). She agrees (after all, it's his fantasy), and they start talking about random things.
The diver feels tired and falls asleep in her bed. When they wake up, he asks if he can see her again, to which she initially replies by warning him not to fall in love with a virtual image, as the person wearing it can be completely different. Vika then gives up and tells him to ask for her the next time he comes. The diver returns to the "Labyrinth" and manages to reach the trapped player. Initially, Gunslinger is frustrated when the player refuses to reveal his name or address (real-life location) but is amazed when he finds out that the "Jinx" (as the director called the player) is a crack shot and should have been able to beat the level without a problem. However, as the pair is nearing the exit, they are ambushed by a large group of monsters, and the Jinx is killed. While Gunslinger is trying to figure out what is going on, the two divers employed by the company show up and tell him that something about Jinx makes him unable to continue. One of them even killed the player 13 times within a 5 minute limit, which should have automatically kicked Jinx out but did not. The two divers ask Gunslinger to give them 6 hours to try to get Jinx to the end of the level, after which Gunslinger can return and try again. He agrees and leaves to the exit lobby, where a dozen players are waiting for him. Instead of attacking him, they offer him a deal: Gunslinger stops killing other players, and the players do not attack him or the Jinx. If a player breaks the deal, then Gunslinger is allowed to kill him or her.
To seal the deal, they go to the BFG9000 - a bar near the "Labyrinth." After several virtual drinks, the diver goes back to the brothel and asks for Vicka. He finds her room, and she invites him to the brothel's restaurant. There the diver meets the Mage, a hacker employed by the brothel to provide their server with excellent security. Vicka gets upset when one of her regular clients (who keeps accusing the virtual prostitutes of being the scum of society) arrives and asks the diver to take her to his favorite place. He takes her to a bar/restaurant he frequents and asks for a private room. The room looks like a beautiful forest. After unsuccessfully attempting to make love to Vicka (her timer kicks her out), the diver goes back to the "Labyrinth". The company's divers tell him that they believe that Jinx is only pretending to be in trouble and that they plan to give up their attempts to get him out. The diver, however, has other ideas. After one more unsuccessful attempt, he leaves the game and travels to "Al Kabar" - the pharmaceutical company he robbed at the beginning of the novel. The company's spokesperson informs him that they are aware of Jinx and suspect that he is the next stage in human evolution - a person able to enter the virtual world without the aid of a computer or a phone line. They also tell him that the owner of "Labyrinth" will reach a similar conclusion soon. That is when "Al Kabar" will move in to snatch Jinx to find out what makes him tick. Determined to save Jinx at all costs, the diver logs off and contacts his hacker friend Maniac. He asks him for a virus he could smuggle through "Labyrinth" security.
Maniac is hesitant but he upgrades the diver's Gunslinger character with his latest "Warlock 9000" virus, which is designed to look like a belt. As the diver is re-entering the "Labyrinth", the two companies make their moves to grab Jinx. The two "Labyrinth" divers attempt to stop him, but he uses the Warlock as a whip and attacks them (as seen on the book cover). The attack also opens a vortex-like hole in the program, allowing the diver and Jinx to slip out of the "Labyrinth" server. With the companies and Man with no Face in hot pursuit, he drags Jinx into the brothel and asks Vicka for protection. Just then, the Deeptown police commissioner makes a PA-like announcement, accusing the diver who looks like Gunslinger of using an illegal virus to attack a company. Vicka, upon finding out that he is a diver, lashes out at him but quickly calms down and admits that she is one too. The brothel comes under a massive attack from "Labyrinth" and "Al Kabar" security forces, backed by Deeptown police and Man with no Face. The Mage's defenses manage to put up a fight but are crumbling. The diver, Jinx, and Vicka jump out the window of her room into a virtual landscape she created before the brothel server shuts down, leaving them stranded in the landscape. The diver then tells Vicka what he thinks Jinx really is - a non-corporeal entity from another world who can only interact with humans through Deeptown. Jinx neither confirms nor denies his true nature, only says that he has been travelling for many years through silence. Vicka is skeptical and insists that Jinx is simply a devious hacker playing a game with everybody.
They travel for several days through the landscape before finding out that the diver's use of the Warlock virus somehow linked Vicka's landscape with an RPG server, where fantasy fans play in a Lord of the Rings-like world. They find out that the game server plays out a war between King Legolas's elves and an alliance of orcs and dwarves. They leave Jinx (who is wounded from "Labyrinth") by a road and log off to rest and come back as fantasy characters. While the diver is eating, the Maniac shows up and cleans up his computer, erasing all trace of Warlock and the Gunslinger persona. He then helps the diver design a fantasy character for him - a human healer Elenium (by the name of the tranquiliser). The diver returns to the fantasy server and finds that Vicka is now a male elf archer. They go back to Jinx and try to get him back into Deeptown but are intercepted by Man with no Face and several armed goons. Another diver shows up and attacks the goons looking like a big wolf.
As the three are escaping to the streets of Deeptown, Man with no Face manages to attack the wolf with several powerful viruses. Vicka and Jinx manage to escape, but the diver gets attacked with a perpetual deep-program. Even his diver's mantra cannot help him escape the swirling images that keep his subconsciousness in VR. As he is "walking" through the dream-like world, Jinx appears and tells him that only the diver has the power to escape it. The diver then reverses his mantra and embraces the deep. As he "wakes up" in Deeptown, he realizes that the virtual world has changed for him. He can now see things as they are (shapes and colors) and can move through programs at will. On the way to his Deeptown house, he encounters Man with no Face, who is surprised that the diver escaped his trap. They sit down and talk about Jinx. Man with no Face is convinced that Jinx is a projection from the future. The diver knows that Man with no Face is really the hacker who created the original deep-program. Man with no Face believes that his creation of the program was no accident. He believes Deeptown was a creation from the future and wishes to know more about it. The diver realizes that his companion is stalling and jumps directly to his Deeptown house to find it surrounded by the two companies' security forces and the police. They open fire on him, but he sends out a virtual wave that erases all the shooters. He then threatens the commissioner, the spokespersons of the companies, and Man with no Face that he can make their lives very unpleasant unless they leave him and Jinx alone. He returns to his house and tells Jinx that he must leave this world. Jinx opens a virtual portal and leaves.
The diver takes Vicka and they fly through the Deeptown sky, kissing. At the same time, the diver uses his new abilities to remove all trace that he was ever online. He wipes his computer, his internet provider's logs, and everything else related to him. They then agree to meet in real life. Vicka asks him to wait at the train station with a flower. As the diver logs off, he remembers that he forgot to pay his phone bill - his phone has been disconnected for three hours. He was in Deeptown all on his own. When he finally arrives to the train station, he waits for Vicka. She approaches him from behind and, as he turns around, he is relieves to find out that she looks exactly the same as her virtual persona (as does he).