The Expert System's Champion (Expert System #2) by Adrian Tchaikovsky




Prologue


The Sister Colony: Part One

SEVENTY-TWO HOURS AWAKE and Bain wanted to crash. Lena Dal came in just as the drugs were wearing off, complaining about the sampling drones. “Gone! Another one gone!”

He lay there in his pod. Just another five minutes. Except it wouldn’t be five minutes. Five hours, five days. It felt as though he could sleep five weeks and still not iron the kinks out. But there weren’t enough shoulders to share the load of the new colony. Everyone was pharma’d to the eyeballs to keep them going. It started because the days here were two hours too short, to go with the years being eighty of those days too long. Two hours short; you’d think it would be easy enough to adapt to, but nobody had. Give me a thirty-six-hour cycle and I reckon I could have lived with it, Bain told himself, but just two hours too few in the day . . . He’d never settled. And now Lena came stomping in, banging on his lid, just as he was about to have himself put under. “I know you’re not gone yet. Bain, we have to talk.”

Half an hour later and he was back on the fizzy cocktail that kept them going there, all twenty-eight of them doing the work of fifty people, trying to keep the sister expedition going with practically zero support from the ship. He was back in the ready room of the main dome, out on the shore of an alien sea. Seven of the others were sleeping, lucky them. The rest were in the various lab modules fighting the toxic biochemistry of the planet, trying to find a way to square the circle with poor, abused Earth biology. And then there was Lena, and him.

“We can’t get anywhere without samples.” Because when Lena said, We need to talk, she meant she needed to talk, to tell Bain what they all knew. “I can’t get samples if the damn things keep eating my drones. I need escorts. Armed escorts. Drive off the locals.”

“Don’t call them locals.” Bain’s voice sounded like it had died, just a raspy croak. “Just one particularly aggressive species. Which is why I don’t want to risk—”

“They’re just molluscs, Bain.”

“They’re not molluscs, they just look like—”

“A few of us in environment suits, with guns.”

“You’re volunteering, are you?” Too tired to be politic.

“Yes, I am,” Lena confirmed. “I will personally go out there with a hammer and crack open the next shellfish to try anything. Bain, we are . . . besieged.”

“You’re being—”

“There are dozens of the things within our immediate area!”

He felt sick. Not at the thought of marauding not-molluscs, because even though they had a taste for drones, for some inexplicable reason, it wasn’t as though the lumbering things had proved a threat, really. Sick because of the decisions hanging over him that he’d been resolutely refusing to make.

“I think we need to move site,” he said weakly, knowing what her response would be.

“No! Bain, the coast is the only place where we’ve found any give in the biology! You’ve seen the reports from the ship. It’s all poison out there, utterly incompatible with Earth life. But the saltwater biomes, they’re flexible. There’s a convergence there.”

“There are giant molluscs that eat our samplers.” He waited for her to parrot his own not molluscs back at him, but she didn’t. Abruptly half the fight had gone from her and she was looking away, to where the curved side of the dome met the hard plastic of the floor.

“They don’t eat them,” she said. Innocent enough except there was a big indigestible lump of words she wasn’t quite vomiting up. Under the circumstances, and because he was so strung he couldn’t think, he just let the silence hang.

“They . . .” And she was just as worn down by the long shifts and the drugs. We can’t keep going. We should abandon this doomed venture and go back to the ship. Except Bain had heard what sort of measures the lead science team over there were considering and . . . unthinkable. Just unthinkable. There must be another way, a path that preserves us as human.

He realised he was crying. He couldn’t stop it, and it didn’t even engage with him consciously. It was just something his body was doing. Lena looked on dully. We did all the groundwork, some scientist part of him was wailing, outraged at an unfair universe. They had known there was a biosphere here they could work with, all the right elements. Oxygen, carbon, plenty of water. Life, recognisably the building blocks of life. It was supposed to be paradise, ripe for colonising. Except apparently you could have every familiar Earth element and put them together in a way utterly inimical to anything from Earth. The world rejected them from their arrival, and continued to do so, moment by moment. They couldn’t eat it without being poisoned. They couldn’t touch it without potentially fatal allergic reactions to everything. And they were here, now. It wasn’t a return trip. Hundreds of would-be colonists, come light years from home, just to plant a flag in a planet that murdered them by its very nature.