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Read the Third Chapter of System Collapse by Martha Wells

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Read the Third Chapter of System Collapse by Martha Wells

Book Seven of The Murderbot Diaries: Following the events in Network Effect, the Barish-Estranza corporation has sent rescue ships to a newly-colonized planet in peril, as well as additional SecUnits.

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Published on November 6, 2023

Am I making it worse? I think I’m making it worse…

Everyone’s favorite lethal SecUnit is back in System Collapse, the next installment in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series—out from Tordotcom Publishing on November 14th. Read the third chapter below—and if you missed the first chapter, you can catch up here!

Am I making it worse? I think I’m making it worse.

Following the events in Network Effect, the Barish-Estranza corporation has sent rescue ships to a newly-colonized planet in peril, as well as additional SecUnits. But if there’s an ethical corporation out there, Murderbot has yet to find it, and if Barish-Estranza can’t have the planet, they’re sure as hell not leaving without something. If that something just happens to be an entire colony of humans, well, a free workforce is a decent runner-up prize.

But there’s something wrong with Murderbot; it isn’t running within normal operational parameters. ART’s crew and the humans from Preservation are doing everything they can to protect the colonists, but with Barish-Estranza’s SecUnit-heavy persuasion teams, they’re going to have to hope Murderbot figures out what’s wrong with itself, and fast!

Yeah, this plan is… not going to work.


 

 

Chapter Three

So there was a fight at that point. Not a fight, a discussion. Whatever, agitated humans figuring out what to do.

Karime still had to continue with the original purpose of her meeting, trying to get the colonists to at least agree in principle to the idea of letting the University evacuate them to keep them from getting dumped into Barish-Estranza labor camps. Seth, Martyn, and Kaede were part of the argument/discussion—call it the argucussion—with Mensah and Pin-Lee on the comm from the Preservation responder. So Thiago and Turi and Overse had stopped working on what they were doing and tagged in to Mission One to give Karime advice and look things up if she needed it. Matteo and Arada were still working on medical upgrades. I backburnered all those feeds, though I kept a channel open with Three, who was still doing a good job of sitting there with Karime and not screwing anything up.

I wasn’t doing a good job of standing here, because my current three humans had just volunteered to go check out the new probably-not-apocryphal colony site. “We’re in a good position to get there without Barish-Estranza noticing,” Tarik said. Ratthi and Iris had already pulled the shuttle’s supply and equipment manifest into our team sub-feed and were going over it.

On the comm, Mensah said, “It’s not a bad idea.” I couldn’t pull video from the responder right now, but ART was supplying camera views from its galley, and I could see Mensah on the floating display surface there. Someone had pulled up the operation timetable in the general team feed, where Iris had just updated the completion of her team’s task with the routers. Mensah added, “And they’ve finished the last router. They have time for it, if they’re willing to go.”

“We can’t comm the colonists first and ask for a visit,” Martyn said again from ART’s lounge. “I don’t like that.”

“I don’t like that, either,” Kaede agreed. “We all know how dangerous cold contacts can be. But it’s not as if they’re refusing to answer. They may have no idea what the situation is here.”

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System Collapse
System Collapse

System Collapse

ART was rotating through displays of all its data on the terraforming engines. It could “see” the engines by assembling a picture using the raw data from its scans, and it actually looked enough like a visual image to fool human vision, except that the topography around it was mostly extrapolated and sketched in. The amount of signal noise the engines were emitting blocked everything else out, so they were the only things the scan could pick up—this was the blackout zone the colonists had talked about. We could send in pathfinders but they wouldn’t be able to use their scans, either, so they would have to visually record and then return to a point where they could send ART their data. Barish-Estranza was trying to keep an eye on everything we did, obviously, but planets being large, that was impossible, just like it was impossible for us to know everything they were doing. If they did spot ART’s pathfinders entering the blackout zone, we could say we were gathering data on the status of the terraforming engines. But if we sent pathfinders into the blackout zone that then came out and delivered reports, and then we sent a shuttle in, that would tell B-E that we had found something worth looking at in person. Better to send a shuttle with the pathfinders, and log it as an evaluation of the terraforming engines.

I could have said all that, but ART was already doing it. Seth, who had been pacing the lounge with the heel of one hand pressed to his forehead in a way that seemed to indicate that he was having almost as great a time as I was, said, “Iris, see if they’re actually out there, make contact at your discretion, agreed?”

“Agreed.” Iris looked from Tarik to Ratthi, getting various signals of agreement. She said, “SecUnit?” and I realized she was looking at me, too.

I said, “Sure.” Because they were going anyway. It was a bad idea to let them go alone.

Iris and Tarik turned to Ratthi, who did a good job of pretending this didn’t worry him, and said, “Great! Let’s go.”

I caught a private message Seth sent to Iris, a quick Be careful, honey. And from Martyn, And keep us updated as best you can! And watch out for the weather up there!

She replied to both, Yes, Dad. Of course, Dad and added a smile image.

I called in ScoutDrones1, 2, and 3 from where they were patrolling our perimeter as we headed down the rocky hillside and back through the tree-flora to the shuttle.

(Okay, the drones. Another thing I hate about this planet is that I lost all but five of my drones. I was already operating with a reduced number because they got left behind when ART kidnapped me and Amena, and everything that happened here had left me with only five. One I had sent to keep an eye on Three before I knew I needed to come down here, one I had left onboard ART because I needed to keep one safe, I didn’t want to lose them all. So I only had three drones with me, and try making a perimeter with that, that’s why the stupid Barish-Estranza team and their stupid SecUnit had walked right up on me and I had no fucking idea.)

Mensah tapped my private feed and said, If you’re not all right with this, you don’t have to go. Tarik has a security specialty, or we could send Three if you think it’s ready.

Tarik is a human, and a first contact with isolated colonists is not the way I want to find out that Three is not ready to interact unsupervised with humans I give a shit about. I replied, I’m fine.

Because privacy is just a hypothetical concept to ART, it broke in and said, I’m downloading to my ops drone stored in the shuttle.

Good, Mensah said, Thank you, Perihelion. And it was good. If the mission turned out to be boring, we could watch media together.

I saw I had four private messages waiting from Arada, Amena, Overse, and Pin-Lee. I can’t do that right now. Pretending I’m fine for Mensah was hard enough. I forwarded the messages to her and said, Can you tell them I’m fine? I hate this. It’s not like I permanently lost an appendage or something.

There was a pause while she checked her queue. I’ll tell them you’re fine and that you just need a little space. Good luck.

***

In the team feed, ART said, ETA is 1.03 minutes. Comm/ feed blackout point approaching.

I stopped the episode and sat up. I had been watching a lot of Sanctuary Moon lately, but ART had wanted to go back to a show that we had watched that was popular with the humans on Mihira. It was semi-historical, about early humans leaving their original system for the first time. I’d seen documentary-style series about this before, but this one mixed parts that were realistic with fun stuff like space battles and rescuing people and space monsters and throwing asteroids at planets. (That last part is actually realistic too but if you try they will send a bunch of gunships to fuck you up.) Anyway, it was a good show though I hadn’t told ART that.

We had been flying over a mountain range with lots of craggy peaks and cliffs and it would be a relief to get past it. Even though this was one of ART’s long-range shuttles, not a company hopper constructed and maintained by the lowest bidder. It had actual working safety/emergency equipment (besides me) and behind the seating compartment were tiny secondary cabins with bunks, a small MedUnit, a small galley, plus cargo and lab sample storage space. It also had an actual shower in the restroom unit. But still, a small metal container filled with mushy humans hurtling over spiky rocks for long periods agitates my threat assessment module. There were so many ways to crash and die in mountain ranges, it was also making my stupid risk assessment randomly alert.

“Acknowledged, Peri,” Tarik said. He and Iris were up in the cockpit, which could be sealed off from the rest of the compartment by a hatch, but it was open now so they could talk to Ratthi who was sitting up in the front row. They still had their environmental suits on as per safety protocol but had let the helmets fold back. Iris had her curly puff of hair tied up in a headband/scarf thing.

Tarik was in the pilot’s seat even though ART had a bot pilot active in the guidance system right now. Even under bot pilot control, there should always be a human or SecUnit at the controls. Preferably a human or SecUnit who actually knows how to use the controls. (Considering how many contracts I had been on where this was not the case, it’s amazing I’m still here in (mostly) one piece.)

I don’t have a module for flying a shuttle, so it’s not like I could do anything if the humans and/or ART suddenly lost control or there was a catastrophic mechanical failure. (And that just pissed me off. I should have a fucking shuttle piloting module for emergencies. What if all the humans are incapacitated and the SecUnit is the only one who can get them back to the baseship/station/whatever in a shuttle? It’s a more likely scenario than a rogue SecUnit using one to crash into a transport or a mining installation. Believe me, there are a lot more efficient ways of taking out both.)

Iris had gotten up and was looking out the port next to Ratthi’s seat. They were chatting and pointing out evidence of groundwater and vegetation, signs that the terraforming was working. It was one of the things that really sucked about the alien contamination.

From the previous assessments that ART’s crew had done via pathfinder, Adamantine had at least paid for a process that wouldn’t leave the planet trashed if the terraforming engines had to be shut down, unlike GrayCris at Milu. Back on Preservation, the last newsfeed report I had seen about that clusterfuck said that GoodNightLander Independent had taken the planet over as salvage and was trying to untrash it.

Of course I hadn’t seen any newsfeeds since we left for our survey. Huh, I wonder if there had been a news report about our kidnapping. Mensah hadn’t been as interesting to journalists since she ended her term as planetary leader, but Amena was one of her kids and having a kid be dramatically kidnapped during a space battle was probably a big deal, at least on Preservation. (It wasn’t infrequent in my media, but it was one of those things where real life didn’t live up to expectations raised by fiction.) Especially if the journalists realized Mensah’s rogue SecUnit had been involved. If the newsfeeds got interested, was there a way for them to find out that ART was the kidnapper? If they started investigating the University’s lost colony operations, that could be really bad in a lot of really bad ways for a lot of humans, augmented humans, bots, heavily armed judgmental machine intelligences pretending to be ordinary transports, and whatever and whoever else the University had working for it.

Great, something else to worry about. Getting attached to an additional group of humans was always going to be complicated, but. Ugh, I wish I felt like I was prepared for complication. Or prepared for anything.

Redacted

Mensah and the responder had left Preservation Station within an hour of the attack on our survey vessel, as soon as they had found the location data buoy ART had deployed on the way into the wormhole, so she and the crew wouldn’t have any updated newsfeed data. Depending on where the newly arrived Barish-Estranza explorer had embarked from, they might have missed any recent news, too. (The as-yet-hypothetical report would originate from Preservation and take multiple cycles to circulate from station to station, planet to planet—unless we were lucky and Senior Indah had been able to keep it quiet under the Ongoing Investigations rule. Which I absolutely was not counting on.)

(Right, okay, Preservation Station Security is not as shitty at what they do as I originally thought when I first ended up there, but what they do is still mostly accident first response and maintaining safety systems and checking for hazardous cargo violations, and I could think of at least five of them who would blab to everyone in range about the kidnapping with no clue it might make things worse before Senior Indah had a chance to tell them to shut the fuck up. No, six.)

Whatever, we wouldn’t have hard data until the University sent their response vessel, if then. I would just factor the possibility into the projected long-term threat assessment and increase my anxiety levels by the commensurate amount. ART, define commensurate.

It’s a synonym of proportionate. ART’s drone rose up out of the back row behind me and unfolded a lot of spiny arm extensions. The handoff hadn’t occurred yet, but we were almost to the blackout point, forty-two seconds to go.

The drone was a thin oval platform fifteen centimeters in width with a lot of folded-up armatures tucked up against it that were supposed to be helpful in planetary exploration or contact missions and, knowing ART, who knew what they actually did. It added, That was a mission-critical query?

That wasn’t actually a question, so I didn’t answer it. Yes, that’s ART in the drone, and ART flying the shuttle as a bot pilot, and ART monitoring operations with Three back at the colony site, and ART working on repairing its drive, and ART maintaining standard transport functions, and ART following the Barish-Estranza ships with its sensors hoping they’ll do something to justify fucking with them (they started it, as it would point out), and ART currently arguing with Seth about his selection of a high-carb protein for his meal break and threatening to inform Martyn and Iris about it. Most transport bots have to be able to distribute their awareness to some extent, but ART is more complicated than that.

(I had uploaded myself into a bot pilot’s control interface once during a viral attack, and had consequently hard-crashed myself and had to rebuild my memory table from scratch. If I didn’t have human neural tissue also storing archival data, I would have been fucked. (So it did one thing right for once.) If I were uploaded to the entirety of ART’s architecture, I would probably last a few painful seconds at most.)

(That’s why we had to code 2.0 for the viral attack on the contaminated Barish-Estranza explorer.)

(If 2.0 were still here, I probably wouldn’t redacted.)

Each one of ART’s partitions is a little different, depending on its function. For example, ART-drone is not currently protecting a shipful of its important humans, so it’s less likely to blow things up and ask questions later.

Tarik was counting aloud to the blackout point. On the team feed, ART said, Handoff initiated. Good luck.

“Acknowledged. Thanks, Peri,” Iris said, smiling. “Be careful up there. See you soon.”

On my private feed, ART said, Take care of them. And yourself. Before I could come up with a reply, my awareness of ART, its cameras, its feed and comm, the humans working and talking to each other on ART, or using the comm to talk to Mensah and the other humans on the Preservation responder, dropped away. I had expected it to be immediate, but the voices and signals gradually lost volume, fading into an echo, then into nothing.

Threat assessment spiked hard, then dropped back, and for once risk assessment was actually right. Even though it was planned and expected and we had resources like the pathfinders, losing comm and feed contact with your baseship is never going to be a zero-consequence operation.

I still had our shuttle feed, but even with three humans and my three whole drones and our pathfinder escort, it was weirdly isolated. ART-drone was already active, but the sense of it in the feed was much smaller. It said, This process is unnecessarily dramatic.

Absently poking the planetary data in her feed, Iris said, “Honey, you’re the one who comes up with the processes.”

“Is that… weird, that Perihelion does this?” Ratthi asked. He had turned around in his seat to look at ART-drone.

“Everything about this job is weird,” Tarik told him from the cockpit.

Especially Perihelion’s high tolerance for certain members of its crew, ART-drone said. It added, Iris, put your safety restraint on, no one wants to scrape you off the interior port.

Yes, ART-drone is still ART, even though it’s talking about itself in the third person.

Its download was up to date so I didn’t have to restart the episode we had been watching. I restarted where we left off as the shuttle flew farther into the blackout zone.

***

When the terraforming engines came into visual range, the shuttle started a slow descent. I pulled the camera views. I caught pings from ART’s pathfinders that had followed us in. These weren’t the armed ones, these were the ones that had actually been doing their real jobs, wandering around making terrain and signal maps of various parts of the planet, concentrating on the areas around the colony sites, until now. They had been dropping on and off the feed since we entered the blackout zone, but were close enough to the shuttle at this point to resume limited contact. That was good, since we knew the terraforming engines were interfering with comm into and out of the blackout zone, but had speculated that at close enough range, our team comm and feed traffic would still work. Unfortunately, from what I was picking up from the shuttle, its scans and the pathfinders’ scans were still borked.

ART-drone told the pathfinders to drop into formation behind us, since they couldn’t do any mapping at the moment.

As the mountains fell away, we flew over a plain that might have been tundra, but without the terrain scans there was no annotated map data showing up in the feed. The shuttle’s forward cameras were focused on the terraforming engines, which were a pretty big thing to focus on.

The structure was partially buried in the plain and formed a giant mound with skeletal metal towers, round things, and big tubes and whatever along its top ridge. And when I say it was big, I mean really big. Like the size of the Preservation colony ship big, if it had a lot more pointy parts and tubes and was embedded in the dirt on a planet.

The terraforming engines would have been built by the initial Adamantine team, long before the colonists arrived. The individual parts would be sort of like a transport module, with each one capable of subspace propulsion. They had been towed here through the wormhole, then released into the system where they would have flown the rest of the way to the planet and landed under their own power. Traveling with the engine modules would be a human and bot crew that specialized in terraforming assembly and installation, who would have connected everything up and gotten it started. At least, that’s what the Adamantine brochure I’d downloaded from the drop box control station had said.

(That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. You can imagine what happens when you get your terraforming engines built and assembled by the lowest bidder.)

The shuttle slowed and moved into a circular pattern around the engine mound, keeping out of the danger zone which was cordoned off by floating marker buoys beeping staticky warnings to our comm and feed. There were a lot of blank spots in their cordon where they must have broken down over the years. Or been hit by meteors, taken out by extreme weather incidents, or accidentally winged by aircraft. There’s a lot of things that can happen in forty planetary years.

I didn’t know what any of the terraforming equipment did, except it affected the atmosphere, so it would have to be a safe distance from any air bubble the colonists might have established for habitation in this area. Except that the pathfinders still couldn’t find any sign of an air bubble on visual search.

The humans had noticed that, too. Ratthi was saying, “What are we thinking? That they really did find, or build, an underground habitat in a Pre-CR artificial cave system?”

Iris flicked through the reports the mission teams had assembled so far on the colony’s development. “We know they had the construction equipment. It may have seemed like a better option than a surface settlement, considering how close they are to the terraformer and the weather up here.”

Ratthi was dubious. “Even knowing about the alien contamination at the main site?”

Iris’s brow was furrowed, like the conclusions she was drawing troubled her. She said, “I was hoping the part about finding a Pre-CR dig was apocryphal, something the colonists came up with to make the stories about the splinter group who went off to live at the pole more interesting.”

Ratthi thought that over. “It would make sense, with an elaborate Pre-CR structure always within sight of the main colony, to make up legends about another even stranger one somewhere else. And the rugged band of adventurers, or alternately, the scary weird people, who went to live in it.”

Iris’s mouth made a tighter line. “It’s better than being honest about the fact that you had a split within your community bad enough to send a group looking for another home as far away as possible.” She shook her head and sighed a little. “It would be nice to know why it happened. It might help the colonists become more cohesive about moving toward an evacuation if we had a better understanding of their history.”

“You can’t do therapy on a whole colony,” Tarik said, “no matter how much they need it.”

“But if the story is true and they did find a Pre-CR site up here,” Ratthi added, “it makes the whole thing that much more mystifying.”

It should be reassuring that humans don’t get what other humans are thinking, either, but it just highlights how fucked up human neural tissue can be.

Ratthi waved a hand beside his head, like he was shooing away the idea. “We should stop speculating with no data. It’s much more likely that they’re living in an Adamantine-era structure created by the original terraforming crew, or that they built one themselves with the digging equipment that was left behind.”

Tarik was impatiently cycling through the long-range camera displays. “Speaking of data, I’m not seeing any indications of any kind of habitation—no roads, no structures, nothing. Peri, I don’t suppose a miracle happened and the terraformer stopped interfering with your pathfinder scan?”

Miracles are unlikely. ART-drone put the annotated pre-mission chart we had made into the team feed and on visual on the shuttle’s floating display surfaces. The chart basically said there were three probable reasons why we hadn’t noticed a secondary colony/habitation site on this continent earlier during ART’s initial scans of the planet: (1) the colonists here had deliberately meant for their power output and signal activity to be concealed by the massive interference broadcast by the terraforming engines’ normal operation; (2) the colonists put their site where they wanted to put it and didn’t consider the fact that they would be concealed by the terraforming interference because the other colonists knew where they were so the subject had just never come up; (3) they were all dead, due to the alien contamination or some other cause, and there was no power output or signal activity to detect. ART-drone added, As noted previously, limited signal traffic from pathfinders and the warning buoys is still possible. The humans here should be able to detect our comm pings at this close range. So they may be dead, their equipment may be damaged, or they may be deliberately ignoring us in an effort to stay concealed.

Ratthi frowned at the big patchy blanks in the incoming survey data. “We have no idea how much they know about what happened in the main colony area, either. They could be ignoring us because they’re too afraid to answer.”

ART-drone said, That would demonstrate a more developed sense of survival than we have previously encountered here.

“Benefit of the doubt, Peri,” Iris said. “I’m going to record an explanation of who we are and why we’re attempting to contact them and put it on broadcast.”

Since shuttle and pathfinder scans were useless, a search for human habitation would have to be visual. Video recording wasn’t affected by the terraforming interference, but since this was a shuttle and not a specialized survey vehicle, there was no search-and-interpretation package for visual data, only for scan data, because no one thought they’d ever need it.

ART-drone had already given me full access to all the feeds off the shuttle and had opened a new joint processing space for us. I pulled all the visual terrain data from the shuttle cameras and got it formatted for queries. ART-drone saw what I was filling our shared space with and sent me a list of topographical features and disruptions that might indicate human surface or subsurface activity. That saved a lot of time. I started running the comparison in ART-drone’s processing space.

Tarik curved the shuttle away from the terraforming engines and put it into a holding pattern while Iris got her broadcast recorded and sent. The humans talked about what to do next while Iris and Ratthi pulled up the original survey data to look at again. Or what we had left of it, since the original Adamantine files had been intentionally corrupted in what was possibly an attempt to protect the colony from the hostile corporate takeover that had destroyed the corporation. While they were scrolling through the data, Tarik said, “Does SecUnit want to weigh in on this?”

I had ScoutDrone3 up on the ceiling of the compartment, and it watched Ratthi glance back at me. I don’t know what he saw; my face felt normal. But Ratthi has watched me work on a lot of stuff, and I guess there was something about me that told him I was busy. (It was a big search, not something I could have done without ART-drone’s input and extra space. Plus it generated a shit-ton of false positives that I had to pull and study individually before I could dismiss them. (Example 243602–639a: no, that’s not a human-built structure, it’s just a weird rock.) This was not the kind of process I could do in background, even with ART’s help.) Ratthi said, “It’s working on something now.”

Three seconds later I hit a result. I still needed to finish the rest of the search to look for other indications, but the timing on this was too perfect to resist. I paused the process, said, “I’ve got a possible landing area on visual,” and sent it into the team feed and to the display surface.

To the northwest of the terraforming engines’ mound, a couple of kilometers out of the danger zone, was a section of ground, dust-covered but clearly too flat to be natural. Dirt had drifted up to disguise the edges, but what was visible indicated an octagonal shape. Also, it was about the right size for a couple of the colony aircraft to land and sit next to each other without pushing safety requirements. (The main colony had three left of the original set of air vehicles, and a few built-from-scratch models. The originals looked like early, half-assed versions of the company’s hoppers, with scratched and fading paint in the Adamantine brand colors. I could see why there wouldn’t be a lot of visiting back and forth, even if the two groups had been friendly; I wouldn’t have wanted to fly across a planet in one of those things, either.)

Ratthi expanded the display surface across the upper portion of the front port. Iris studied the image, nodding. “Okay, that’s got to be it. Good job, SecUnit.”

Tarik said, “Huh.” Ratthi sent me a glyph of a Preservation party sparkler exploding.

I didn’t say anything. (I know I get pissed off when humans don’t acknowledge my work, but why is too much acknowledgment also upsetting? Sentience sucks.)

On our private feed connection, Ratthi said, How are you doing back there?

I am absolutely fine, I told him.

Tarik took the shuttle out of its holding pattern and brought it around for a better visual sweep of the target area. I restarted the visual search process and ART-drone narrowed our query to the area around the rocky hills near the landing pad. I eliminated more false positives as Ratthi and Iris studied the live camera view of the potential landing site. Tarik pointed out, “It’s about equidistant from the hills and the terraformer.”

Ratthi was biting his lip, which meant he was thinking. “If there was any kind of a road, we’d be able to see it from above. Of course, a very light ground vehicle wouldn’t make much impact.”

“They had to bring heavy supplies in here at some point.” Iris squinted and used her feed to magnify the images of the ground around the pad.

Tarik was frowning. “Digging equipment, because even if they had a tunnel network to start with, they must have had to modify it. And you can tell this place has been changed by intense weather patterns. A bad storm could have wiped out any aboveground equipment, roads, quarries, maybe even the whole colony site.” His eyebrows were doing things that made him look angry, but from his tone and the read that threat assessment was getting off his body language, he was just concentrating. I knew from media that humans sometimes had the same problem with lack of control of their faces that I did. Like, obviously it wasn’t my unique problem or a unique problem for constructs in general, and possibly paranoia made me worry about it a lot more than necessary. But it was still weird to see it in action. Tarik added, “Uh, why is there a drone in my face?”

“Ignore it,” Ratthi said. “There would be pitting and warping on the barrier around the terraforming engines if there had been a colony-eating storm here at any point, even with the structure’s heavy shielding. Also a close look at the weathering on the surrounding rock formations would tell us a lot if the sensors were operational.” He waved his hands. “This is very frustrating! And all our geological evaluation software is back at home in Preservation space on our survey vessel.”

“There should be some in our archive, but I doubt it would work without functioning scanners. We need to get down there and do some surface exploration.” Iris glanced back at ART-drone. “What do you say, Peri?”

I say without functioning sensors you can’t determine whether the ground is stable enough to land the shuttle, ART-drone said. Also, the flat area may not be a landing pad, but the roof of an underground habitat.

Ratthi winced at the thought. “Not the most diplomatic of introductions to this group, landing on their habitat without permission.”

“So we land on flat ground somewhere, the area looks stable,” Tarik said. He’s not stupid. I think he was trying to annoy ART-drone, but I poked Ratthi on our private feed connection with a video file.

“What?” Ratthi said aloud, distracted by the autoplay images. “Oh, SecUnit wants me to mention the time I was almost eaten by fauna that came up underneath our aircraft on an inadequately mapped ground survey.”

“Point taken,” Iris said, though she hadn’t given any sign that she had ever actually considered doing what Tarik suggested and I thought that might be her way of indicating that Tarik and Ratthi should both shut up while she was thinking. She rummaged in the equipment bag on the seat next to her. “A ground sensor might do it, if we can get it close to the surface so the interference won’t—”

“I’ll do it.” I released my safety restraint and stood up. My drone had caught Tarik and Ratthi both taking a breath to say something and I knew what it was going to be. They were going to volunteer to go down to the surface and check for landing stability. And right after I had made Ratthi talk about almost being eaten, too. Iris must have agreed because she handed me the portable ground sensor as I crossed the compartment. I stepped over to the main cabin hatch and said, “You can let me out now.”

Now Tarik looked alarmed. “Whoa, whoa, hold on! We’re still more than twenty meters above the ground. Let me get us just a little closer.”

On our private feed, ART-drone said, If you open that hatch now I will turn this thing around and go home.

I pulled archival footage from a recent documentary about a failed planetary survey from a non-corporate polity. (Back on Preservation Station, Pin-Lee and I had discovered a shared interest in disaster evaluation via watching “true life” documentaries where terrible shit happens, and she had sent me this clip.) In this sequence a subsurface hostile fauna takes down an aircraft at forty meters. I sent it into the team feed.

Tarik yelled, “What the—What the fuck was that?”

Raising his voice to talk over Tarik, Ratthi said, “I understand your concern, SecUnit, but you are not jumping out at this height!”

Iris yelled over both of them, “People! Calm down! We have soft-drop packs in the emergency locker. SecUnit can use one.” She had large yelling capacity for a human her size. I had the feeling it came in handy.

The locker was right next to the hatch. I opened it and ART-drone had already told the inventory system to rotate the soft-drop packs to the front. I pulled one out and said, “I knew that.”

I did not know that. But whatever, I was fine either way.

I pulled up the hood of my environmental suit and let it secure the face mask. The temperature and air quality outside were impossible for humans without environmental suits and it wouldn’t have been much fun for me, either. I ordered ScoutDrones1 and 2 to get in my side pockets. The wind might be too high for them to be much use, but it would be stupid not to bring some just in case. Ratthi said, “Just be careful, all right? You can get eaten, too!”

I have guns in my arms, Ratthi, I said on our private connection. That is literally the whole point of me. Plus I still had the projectile weapon, clamped to my environmental suit’s harness in the back. It didn’t have the capacity to handle an ag-bot, but there shouldn’t be any large roaming alien-contaminated bots here. There really shouldn’t be. If there were… yeah, don’t think about that.

The soft-drop pack’s instructional feed told me how to fasten it to my environmental suit. I got it attached and ART-drone finally cycled the lock for me.

I stepped in and let the inner hatch close. Inside the cabin, Iris asked, “So what is it with worrying about humans getting eaten all the time?” While Ratthi tried to explain, the outer hatch slid open and I gripped the safety handle and leaned out for a look.

Tarik had put the shuttle into hover mode, activating an air barrier over the lock to protect against the high winds. (ART has such nice equipment; in a company shuttle I would probably have fallen out already.) The wind would interfere with the soft-drop a little but not enough to fling me into any rocks, and the terraforming engines were too far away to be a factor. I aimed for the pad and stepped out into the air.

The soft-drop controlled my fall and I landed lightly on my feet. I didn’t even have to mitigate the impact with a fall and roll. I set the ground sensor down on the pad. It detected natural terrain, switched out of dormant mode, and booted itself.

The cloud cover was thicker here, obscuring the sun and making the daylight gray. Dust blew across the site from the south, toward the line of rocky hills approximately two kilometers away. My scan was just as fucked as the shuttle’s and the pathfinders’, but visual was good, and the faceplate kept the fine dust from obscuring my vision. There was just nothing to see.

In the other direction, the plain was open and mostly flat, except for some low mounds closer to the high metal shields around the base of the terraforming engines. Those mounds looked human-made, but were so close to the shield that they were probably only artifacts from the initial construction. It would be stupid to build a habitat so close to the engines. I’m not even sure putting one here under a roof that looked like a landing pad was a great idea. Any Pre–Corporation Rim structure that had already been here, buried or not, this close to the build site would have been discovered by Adamantine during the initial engine installation. Not that they would put it on the survey or anything.

Could Adamantine have found a Pre-CR underground structure that it had intended to repurpose, that only some of the colonists knew about? Maybe just the ones who had been involved with the initial installation? One of the things Corian had told Karime was that colony history lore said at least some of the separatists had been part of the terraforming crew. Vi had also told her that census records for that point in the colony’s development were currently inaccessible due to the alien virus issue. (A lot of older data had been locked out of the active system to hopefully keep it safe, which was useless, since that wasn’t how the virus was transferred, which they didn’t know then, but anyway. Their systems colony-wide were completely shit-creeked and I don’t know who was going to fix it except it sure as hell wasn’t me.) So there was no way to know how many humans had actually left the main colony to come here.

Adamantine had leaned toward new permanent structures that could be repurposed as the colony grew, like the surface dock for the drop shaft, which could have been just a rough utilitarian cargo off-loader, and instead was a nice building with lots of space for storage and workshops and offices, designed to eventually become a commercial entry point for the colony, built solid enough to shelter a large portion of the population in a bad weather event. The drop box’s arrival and departure even had its own theme music. It was a great design. Except for the whole alien contamination thing.

If Adamantine had wanted a habitat up here, they would have made it a nice structure that could be expanded later for education or tourism or something. Which meant it would have been in the foothills, not down here close to the engines. Except why would Adamantine want a structure here at all, in a blackout zone?

Unless they had a compelling reason to need a more secure colony site. Like if they had some kind of warning of the hostile corporate takeover that had eventually destroyed them. Maybe these separatists had been following secret Adamantine directives to look for a new site near the engines to build a habitat.

That made sense, actually, on a lot of different levels. (Mark save-for-later: Did Adamantine direct a select group of colonists to build an emergency habitat up here? Because the blackout zone would hide them from scanners and/or because the terraforming engines were an expensive asset too essential for an invading corporation to bomb? Or both? Then the colonists had lost contact with Adamantine and changed their mission parameters.)

(If you think it sounds like I’m trying to talk myself out of the idea that there’s another buried Pre-CR structure up here, you’re right.)

ART-drone said, Your performance reliability level had a .05 percent spike.

ART has been monitoring me due to redacted. Which is a whole thing, I don’t know, I don’t want to talk about it.

The ground sensor had started to send readings into my feed, and I told ART-drone, I had an idea, and sent it the save-for-later tagged info.

ART-drone said, Interesting.

It was humoring me again.

Sensor results = a large volume of solid material with the chemical composition matching the dirt and rocks in this area. So no hidden underground habitat here, at least, not that I was really expecting one. But we were right about the pad. It was the same composition as the artificial stone in the surface dock and the other Adamantine-constructed structures at the main colony site. Which meant this landing zone was definitely Adamantine-era, not Pre– Corporation Rim. Which we probably knew anyway, but you know, science.

Also it was a relief. If there was a hidden Pre-CR structure up here, I wasn’t standing on it.

I’d given ART-drone access to my eyes so it had been looking at the terrain with me, and it said, There was only a twenty-two percent chance that the separatist colonists would construct an underground installation this close to the terraforming engines.

They might want to, if they were very, very stupid, I told it. But they wouldn’t be able to get a company bond on it. We didn’t know if Adamantine had contracted for safety bonds on its colony. That info would have been in the destroyed records that we only had fragments of. And I wasn’t sure how common safety bonds had been forty-plus corporate standard years ago, or how the presence of Pre-CR structures would affect the price. ART could probably find it in its historical data if I could construct a good query.

Or, you know, if there were safety bonds, or any kind of guarantor bond, it would be a reason to conceal the existence of additional Pre-CR structures that might be associated with past alien contamination incidents.

I don’t know, I’m kind of all over the place right now.

You’re stalling, ART-drone said.

I am not. I can stand here and be useless without any ulterior motives, thanks.

My drone on the shuttle heard Tarik say, “Are we going to get a report any time soon?”

The drone watched as Ratthi’s face did a thing and his voice went a little tight. He said, “When there’s something to report.”

“Since when did you become a micro-manager, Tarik,” Iris added, in what definitely wasn’t a question. She was smiling a little, and I’m pretty sure she was bantering at him, but it could also be a hint for him to leave me alone.

Tarik held up one hand. “I was just asking.”

ART-drone said, And I am asking if you are critiquing my administration of this mission?

Yes, because ART loves to be critiqued.

Tarik obviously knew that, too. “Hey, hey, I was just curious about what was happening, that’s all! I am absolutely not critiquing anybody!”

The thing about Tarik was that he was new and had only been with the crew for the previous three hundred and eighty-seven corporate standard day cycles. So everybody fucked with him constantly.

At least while they were fucking with Tarik nobody was noticing that I actually hadn’t made a report yet and was in fact just standing there. Well, obviously, ART-drone had noticed. And Ratthi had noticed or he wouldn’t have shut Tarik down in an un-Ratthi-like way. Iris had probably noticed, too.

Get it together, Murderbot.

I sent the ground sensor’s report into the team feed. While the humans poked at it and also came to the conclusion that there was nothing under the pad, I tried to think what to do next.

Okay, even if you’re using low-gravity movers to transport your heavy digging equipment or building supplies, there should still be some sign of a road between here and the habitat, wherever it was. As far as we knew, the separatist colonists weren’t hiding when they came up here; the other colonists knew where they went. They would have built a road, or a walkway or something. It was here somewhere, even if it was buried under the dust.

Or something.

I pulled some video of the digging equipment I had seen stored in the deep excavation under the Pre–Corporation Rim colony structure when the Targets had stuck me down there to get contaminated. I had been more occupied with leaving than with taking archival footage of aging construction equipment, but while there had been some wheeled vehicles, most had been the kind that can float a little distance above the ground. Which made sense in a developing colony where you would need to build your infrastructure as you went along. But it would also use a lot of power. There were more efficient ways to move those vehicles.

I picked up the ground sensor, which beeped angrily because I wasn’t supposed to move it without switching it to dormant mode, but it was too late now. I went to the buried edge of the pad and set it down again. It went through its cycle, found rock again, and I moved it two meters around the edge of the pad to scan the next section. My limited range scan for metal or energy sources would be really helpful, but every time I tried I still got static. In our private feed, I could tell a lot of ART-drone’s attention was on the shuttle scanners, still trying to get a clear scan of the hills where the buried habitat probably was, hoping the closer range would give us some workable data.

On the team feed, Ratthi asked, Can we come down and help you, SecUnit?

No, I told him. He hadn’t asked me what I was doing, probably because he was afraid I didn’t know. Which, valid, but this time I actually did know. I continued around the edge, because if I was right, the first one would be directly attached to the pad. If it wasn’t here, I was going to look incredibly fucking stupid and the humans were going to assume because of redacted I—

Oh, here it is. Metal composition, buried under accumulated dust, dirt, and rock fragments. On the team feed, I said, There’s a rail here. The kind of powered rail that floating equipment pads will attach to so they can be moved more efficiently. It wasn’t powered up now, just so much inert metal. Up in the shuttle, the humans were excited, thinking we could follow it all the way to the hidden habitat.

Then with the ground sensor, I followed it for ten meters before it hit the rim of a buried hatchway.

 

Excerpted from System Collapse, copyright © 2023 by Martha Wells.

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