The novel delves into the history of the Church of Unitology and the origin of the mysterious Black Marker. The novel revolves around geophysicist Michael Altman as he investigates a mysterious signal and uncovers a mysterious alien artifact.
Part One: Puerto Chicxulub
The book opens with a man being attacked by a large creature in a circular chamber. He manages to gain the upper hand briefly by diving between its arms as it charges and tearing open the creature's abdomen. However, the creature incapacitates him, then picks him up and tears him in half, killing him.
The book then shifts to a small town named Chicxulub where a young boy named Chava (nickname for Salvador) who has difficulty getting sleep, walks along the beach to discover a humanoid creature. The creature was emitting a toxic gas and was growing bigger so the boy decided to head back to town and tell the inhabitants. He brings some people back including his mother and they all see with horrific shock the creature on the beach. His mother tells Chava to get the old bruja (Spanish for "witch"). He gets her and brings her back to the beach. The bruja sets a log on fire and tells Chava to burn the creature as it was getting bigger. She also tells him the meaning of the name to the town Chicxulub — "devil's tail." He burns the creature and it dies, leaving behind only its charred skeleton. Not long after, he walks the bruja home but loses track of her due to him hearing whispers and seeing imaginary things. He notices she's gone and heads to her house to see if she went back there by herself. Once there, he walks in and notices blood all over the walls with strange symbols, and finds her dead on her bed with a slit throat that was apparently self-inflicted. He realized she has been dead for quite some time and he runs out of her house after he starts hearing more whispers.
The book then shifts to Michael Altman, a geophysicist, who is working in a field laboratory located in Chicxulub. He along with his partner James Field, discover a gravitational anomaly coming from the center of the crater in Chicxulub. For days they try to figure out exactly what caused the anomaly but to no avail. Altman decides to find out more about the anomaly, unlike Field who already gave up. So he decides to contact fellow scientists around town about the crater. One day, he receives a call from a mysterious man and he tells Altman to meet him at a bar at 8pm that night. Altman thinks it's a prank and decides to go home instead. When he arrives home, he talks with his girlfriend, Ada Chavez, an anthropologist working in Chicxulub, and tells her about his day. She then tells him of all the weird things going on at her workplace. How people around town were talking about a folklore called "tail of the devil" that lies in the center of the crater and how reluctant people were when she questioned more about it. She also says that this town Chicxulub means "devil's tail." He realized there's something more in the crater than just an anomaly. He decides to meet the mysterious man at the bar to hopefully get some answers. Once there, a man named Charles Hammond introduces himself. He told Altman that he was a freelance worker in installations and was recently hired at DredgerCorp, a shady resource retrieval corporation. He says DredgerCorp recently got there to Chicxulub under the radar and while he was working there, he discovered a pulse exactly at the same location of Altman's anomaly. At the center of the crater. He thinks it may be a signal. He asked around to other corporations to see if they were receiving this strange "pulse signal" and they were. He told DredgerCorp and they asked Hammond if he told anyone. He realized that something bigger was going on with DredgerCorp and this "pulse signal." Hammond concludes that he doesn't think that whatever's at the center of the crater is man-made. Altman asks why Hammond came to him. He says because he was asking questions when no one else would. He thinks everyone has been bought except for Altman. After their conversation, Altman leaves and Hammond stays awhile longer drinking, then leaves the bar when he noticed how late it was. While walking the streets he gets a strong headache and keeps hearing whispers. He starts to lose it a little when he is suddenly approached by three men who want to take him in for questioning. He thinks they are going to kill him for talking so he runs. The three men catch up to him and surround him. Hammond pulls out a pocket knife and cuts one of them on the wrist. The whispers and headaches were getting worse and in a state of madness, Hammond slits his own throat. The three men, surprised by this, state that all they wanted to do was take him in for questioning.
Part Two: Confined Spaces
DredgerCorp arrives at the crater and sends a sub down to investigate the site of the anomaly. There, they dig down, and the two pilots, Hennessy and Dantec, become increasingly agitated with severe headaches. Hennessy hallucinates his dead brother, Shane. After digging through the rock to reach the source of the anomaly, "Shane" (or rather the mysterious artefact speaking through him), warns him to stay away from the artefact which "Shane" reveals to be the Black Marker. When Dantec cuts a piece of the Marker using the core extractor, "Shane" is severely hurt and explodes in a burst of blood. Hysterical to the point of insanity, Hennessy cracks, and easily beats Dantec to death (despite him being light built and the latter a seasoned veteran of the moon skirmishes, which was a small scale warfare on the moon over which of the world's countries would be able to harvest the moon's resources). He proceeds to write alien symbols correspondent with the Marker, in the latter's blood, all over the interior of the sub. Since he is insane, he doesn't realize he is running out of oxygen. He runs out of space, so he paints his own naked body with the symbols (see the cover art for a representation). Shane appears again and tells him to warn the world about the dangers of the Black Marker. He makes a vidlog in this state, and broadcasts it from Chicxulub on various different frequencies, such that many members of the public receive bits of it despite heavy static interference, including scientists. Hennessy realizes too late that the Marker was controlling his actions all the time and dies of oxygen starvation. The mission is a failure.
Part Three: The Noose Tightens
With the bits of the vidlog public, scientists piece them together. Since he is very curious and always blows the whistle on people, Altman publishes on the net a compiled version of the video under an alias so that DredgerCorp lackeys will not be able to get to him over it. Worse for DredgerCorp, Altman titles the compiled vidlog to expose the corporation, specifically saying that the vidlog came from a sub digging in the center of the crater. Feeling exposed, DredgerCorp decides the only way to cover up this problem is by doing a press conference that twists the official events to avoid too much damage to their interests, and not revealing the Marker, saying instead that Hennessy had just gone insane while taking the sub on a "test run". When he hears this, Altman at first believes the events, then decides it isn't good enough and suspects more was going on. Knowing it's too big for them now, DredgerCorp call in the military to take over the salvage operation and get the artifact out for examination. Just as he resigns from the extremely stressful affair, Tanner, who had largely managed DredgerCorp's activities and the press conference, slits his own throat while hallucinating that he is actually cutting an aperture to share oxygen, from his space suit, with the deceased Dantec, in a vacuum (despite that sounding like folly even if the circumstances were real) during the moon skirmishes. Markoff, a military colonel, tells DredgerCorp's president Lenny Small about the death of Tanner, and announces that an oceanic research facility is being towed towards the crater and he will direct the operations on board the facility.
The police question Altman over the death of Hammond (see Part Two). Later, Ada and Chava show him the remains of the dead creature seen at the start of the book on the beach, and he is very curious. Altman later crosses the line by requesting the North American Sector Science Foundation to do a full scientific investigation of the crater.
Part Four: The Descent
With the bold idea to request a grant for a full scientific study of the anomaly within the crater, Altman draws the unwanted attention of DredgerCorp and military personnel (these two were apparently in a coalition from the start), who come to find out how much he knows. Markoff and several other men enter Altman's home and questions him. It turns out that Altman knows a little too much for their liking, but they (narrowly) decide he will do as a member of their team. They escort Altman to a waiting helicopter and take him to the floating research complex over the crater. During the flight, he reunites with Ada and his fellow Chicxulub scientists. It turns out that a massive research team has been assembled with just about a scientist from every corner of the planet (he is the geophysicist and Ada the anthropologist in the team).
Altman befriends a submarine pilot called Hendricks who will be sent to recover the sub from DredgerCorp's failed recon mission. His copilot is a drunk called Moresby. Moresby is incompetent and turns out drunk for an inspection, somehow ending up breaking his neck shortly thereafter by falling in a shaft. Altmanis ordered to accompany Hendricks as a copilot and gets used to piloting their sub. Markoff decides it's okay for Altman to be the pilot of the sub during recover efforts. Despite Altman clearing Hendricks as perfectly mentally stable, so they are quite confident the misfortune of the previous sub will not repeat, Hendricks cracks and tries to kill Altman. Altman manages to recover the sunken sub with the decomposing and broken bodies of Hennessy and Dantec within, back to the surface, but several even more interesting things happen. He witnesses and vidlogs a necromorphed fish, tearing apart an ordinary fish. He takes the piece of the Marker contained in the core sampler, for himself. He steals a piece of pinkish matter (see the familiar "weird shit"/habitat changing organism that appears in the other Dead Space titles) from the side of the sub. Altman's fellow scientists examine the pink matter he recovered and Altman privately examines the piece of the Marker, unable to identify the rock or understand what kind of technology could manipulate this sort of matter in this way. Hendricks wakes up, confined in the sickbay and kills a nurse before being shot dead, himself. This disturbs Altman, who had developed a friendship with him.
Part Five: Collapse
Altman works his way through several more copilots during runs with the sub, some of whom try to kill him, and others he has better luck with, such as the psychologist Stevens. The strength of the Marker's signal seems to directly correlate with the timing of the madness kicking in, and Altman believes this means the Marker has mind-control properties. Altman seems the most suitable pilot (much to Markoff's intrigue) because of his resistance to the effects of the Marker madness, probably brought on by his skeptical attitudes and very calm demeanor. Despite another close call in the sub, in which he has to kill a man who was trying to open the hatch to let his deceased father's ghost in, Altman manages to assist in getting the artifact itself up to the research facility, although Markoff's subs do the job, mainly.
A cult of religious momentum had already started to develop around the Marker, and many scientists in the complex either worship the Marker or become insane and commit suicide. Altman becomes very skeptical and quite fearful of this "religious" movement. He is even more freaked out when they describe him as their prophet because he has "seen it". When it has been brought up, the "believers" continue to regard him in this way. Although Altman is intrigued by the Marker, he certainly doesn't adore it in the way the believers (his girlfriend among them) do. People respond (even among the believers themselves) in various different ways to the Marker. Some think they need to study it to discover its secrets, seeing it as somehow made for the elevation of mankind. Others have a much less coherent attitude to it, simply saying it "loves" them and they love it, in truly fanatically religious illogic. His fellow researcher, Field, whom Altman had never liked anyway, seems an even more distasteful person to Altman, now that he regards Altman as his "reluctant prophet". Confrontation arises between the believers and the military personnel, leading to Field getting shot in the foot by Krax (one of Markoff's lackeys), and then Krax shooting their beloved Marker and threatening to continue doing so, to try and subdue the believers. His strategy works.
Using his prophetic authority over the believers to pull some strings, Altman gets a look at the Marker and vidlogs it, just before he becomes part of the 'non-essential personnel' and sent back to a mainland Chicxulub facility where Ada already is. He is sent away to the land facility to be confined so that they (the military) can shut him up. However, when the guards hallucinate and can't keep him getting away, he and Ada get away and head off for Washington D.C, where Altman makes a press conference declaring the military to be guilty of a cover-up of the genuine proof of alien life. With the media all around the world fascinated by his claims, many in awe, others skeptical, of the vidlog showing an immense alien artifact under study, Markoff is enraged and wants to "stamp out" the threat of Altman right away.
Part Six: Hell Unleashed
Markoff's team traces and captures Altman at the historic Watergate Hotel, bringing him back to the facility, where Altman is separated from Ada and tortured at the hands of Krax (who quite possibly kills Ada at this time but doesn't tell Altman, since the possibility she is alive is still a useful way of manipulating him). Altman's torture is interrupted by Stevens, who gets Altman to come and calm the believers down, but Altman just uses this time to investigate more about the Marker and get another look at it, trying to "fix" it by putting the piece back in. Showalter, a German scientist present, tells him that the Marker is like the nautilus in structure: although highly complex, it operates just fine as long as a "compartment" is still active. It turns out that Stevens is a believer and this is the reason he is sympathetic to Altman. The researchers begin to theorize that the Marker is supposed to bring eternal life. It seems inevitable that it is either the ultimate source of hope for humankind or will spell absolute doom and extinction, since it is so immensely powerful and significant.As the tireless research goes on at the facility, a scientist named Grote Guthe hallucinates his grandmother and, exasperated and delirious, injects himself with a genetically unique fluid (which he believed was a sedative to make him stop hallucinating his grandmother) he had just manufactured using the apparent DNA encoded in the structure of the Black Marker. His arm begins to swell and transform. His grandmother's apparition commands him to get into the "dead space" surrounding the Marker to prevent the "Convergence" (first contact with alien life) going further and spelling doom for mankind. However, ignorant soldiers arrive and Krax shoots Guthe in the head. Guthe's dead body is taken away on a stretcher, out of the dead space, and the infection restarts. Under the sheet, it transforms the body an infector.
While making a vidlog to Field, three scientists (Hideki Ishimura among them) watch in horror as the new Infector emerges from the bed and attacks. Ishimura escapes while the two others are killed and transformed into slashers. The necromorphs make their way into the labs where they infect many scientists. The complex soon falls into anarchy. Krax and Markoff are no longer Altman's number one concern. The lower levels are infested with necromorphs. Although most of the complex's personnel are either dead or transformed, a fellow scientist called Harmon is okay as he remains in the dead space under the continued signal of the Marker. Markoff, Krax and a few other people succeed in evacuating, and Altman and his group of survivors get away by using refurbished plasma cutters to cut through the necromorphs, although every survivor in his team end up dead (including Field whose head is strangled off in an elevator shaft) during his trip to a boat.
Altman gets ashore and goes into the mainland facility (presumably to find Ada and alert the mainland facility of the necromorph outbreak on the floating research center, since he assumes the command structure has failed in the disaster and Markoff is probably dead). He is forced to use his plasma cutter to cut a security man's arm off when the facility's personnel turn out to be corrupt lackeys of Markoff who want to take him away. Altman is called by the Marker which creates a hallucination of Ada. He now knows she is dead because the Marker only creates illusions of the dead. With nothing else to live for, and at the behest of Chava who comes to his aid, Chava brings Altman to a hidden cache with various weapons and life-threatening tools. Of all the weapons in the cache, Altman takes a chainsaw (much to Chava's confusion), and goes back to the floating facility over the crater. There, he will try to figure out what the Marker wants and/or how to contain the infection that has broken out, before mankind is doomed.
Part Seven: The End of the World
He reaches the floating facility which is now nearly dark, except for a few eerie emergency lights outside it, Altman manages to contact Harmon and has to swim through the submarine bay of the floating complex to get through underwater doors to avoid massive numbers of Necromorphs prowling the hallways, to reach the Marker safely. He encounters various Necromorphs along the way to the Marker, including something described like a Brute and others described like giant spiders with detachable heads (somewhat like the head that comes from a Divider), as well as something called the "Creeper" which he used a makeshift flamethrower to slow down during his prior escape from the facility. This "Creeper" is described as continuously growing and invincible, and is possibly the seedling of a "Hive Mind" as only one such creature appears to be in the facility.
Harman meets up with and follows behind Altman like a slave, repeatedly saying "Altman be praised" (much to the latter's distaste) while Altman tries to figure out what the Marker is all about. Altman gathers as much research about the Marker as he can and, realizing it is a threat, attempts to sink it and destroy the facility. This distresses Harman, but he doesn't do anything to harm Altman. Altman lies to Harmon telling him that the Marker told him that it needed to rest and be left alone at the bottom of the ocean. Altman succeeds in sinking the artifact and the billion-dollar facility, drowning the infection and releasing the Marker away. It is uncertain what effect this had as the Necromorphs seem just as much of a threat to marine life as to land life; however, land-based organisms such as humans who turned into Necromorphs cannot function underwater due to them being specifically designed to operate on land. Anyway, The Marker would still not have been returned to its original position (unless it happened through sheer luck), leaving one loose end that may possibly be tied up in another entry into the Dead Space universe.
Whatever happened in these respects, it is clear that Harman then assaulted Altman with their boat's anchor and rendered him unconscious. He wakes up under a gloating Markoff, who reveals that he is a believer. He reveals that Krax killed Ada, that Krax is also dead and transformed into a creature, and that Altman must fight this creature armed only with a spoon, while he opens a bottle of champagne. Furthermore, he reveals his dark plan to found a formal religion in Altman's name, which will ready mankind for its ultimate evolution, when a "new" Marker has been made, based on the other one, but is not "broken" (creating monsters rather than granting eternal life) next time, as the previous one was. Markoff says that the Marker is divine because it brings dead flesh back to life, and that it just needs to be done properly because it didn't happen right the first time. He and his inner circle seem convinced that the Marker started all evolution on Earth and is the key to conquering death. A devastated Altman, informed of his girlfriend's death and aware of all the infamy that will be done in his name after his death, suffers from the aforementioned humiliating execution, and Unitology is born of the fabricated larger-than-life accounts about Altman. Unitology's story of Altman as a saint, a martyr and the founder of their religion, all throughout the Dead Space universe, is merely the media spin birthed by Markoff and his fellow conspirators for their own corrupt intentions.
- This is the first recorded encounter of a Necromorph on Earth or being seen on Earth.
- The astrophysicist present at the floating facility (who witnessed firsthand the very first outbreak of the alien infection on humans, in his friend Guthe) is called Hideki Ishimura, whom the Planet Cracker Starship would one day be named in honor of.
- Some familiar names found in other Dead Space media, such as Ramirez, Hammond or Cortez, reoccur in this book's characters, and even though many of these characters actually die in the book, it is still possible that they had children before they died, thus lending credence to a theory that says they are related to characters who came later (chronologically) in the series. However, whether they are truly direct ancestors of the characters in the other media or just excused due to being common names is not certain.
- Chicxulub does not mean tail of the devil, as stated in the novel, but rather flea of a devil. Some reference to a Necromorph as a flea of a devil is made in the novel.
- The name "Marker" is not the word that humans chose to refer to the artifact by. The first "person" to identify it as a "Marker" was Hennessy's hallucination of his brother Shane. The Marker speaks through the hallucinations, so this means that the Marker identified itself by this name, although in what sense it is a "marker" is never clear, although the name seems to suggest it is a kind of "beacon" or "sign".
- In the book, Altman is labeled as a geophysicist, but in Dead Space, he's labeled as an anthropologist. Whether this was a mistake made by the author or just another lie created by Unitology is unknown. A recording from a display inside the Unitologist church in Dead Space 2 corrects this by referring to Michael Altman as a geophysicist at the end of the third chapter.
- Though the book is based almost entirely on Michael Altman, the cover of the book is a picture of the first man to come into contact with the Black Marker, Hennesey. The picture is presumably after he kills and mutilates his co-pilot Dantec and paints the interior of the bathyscape with his blood.
- There is an error in the book; when Tim is talking about the relationship between Tom and their dad, a sentence following why Tom didn't talk to their dad sometimes starts with By instead of But. "Maybe that was part of being the older brother. By maybe it was more than that." Whether this was just a publication error or an error by the author is unknown.
- Altman has a dream in the beginning of the section called The Decent where he dreams he is being chased by a Necromorph. After he removes its limbs, they begin to regenerate. This may actually be the first known encounter with the Ubermorph or some other regenerating Necromorph.
- In the same section, Altman is described wearing some sort of "protective suit" as well as using a weapon that fired saw blades. This may very well reference Isaac's future adventures.