Bernice Summerfield is 21 years old, on the run from Spacefleet, and in need of convincing qualifications to support her claim to be an archaeologist. Her false resumé manages to land her a job as the assistant field director to a dig on the planet Jaiwan; once there, she intends to use pirated software to steal the chief archaeologist's personal database, thus gaining all the knowledge she'll need to carry off her bluff in the future. Professor Mariela Ankola quickly sees through Benny's cover story once she arrives, however -- and nevertheless gives her a chance to prove herself, promising to grant her genuine credentials if she handles the dig's administration and leaves the Professor free to do genuine archaeology. Benny finds that she can't bring herself to hack the Professor's PDA, and thus claims that she's lost her own -- and the Professor hands hers over without hesitation even before Benny can go into the sob story she's prepared. Benny is completely unprepared for these acts of kindness, which net the Professor a completely loyal assistant field director.
The other archaeologists include digger Pilar Hidalgo; a site surveyor from the planet Shantak, Simone Agani; the stunningly beautiful Heidi Maputo; and Heidi's lover, Chayana Lopeti. "Chay" tells Benny which animals are edible and which are poisonous; the potfish are tasty, the buttonmonsters are tasty but dangerous, and the potfish spiders that nest in abandoned potfish pots are dangerous and toxic. Chay also tells her about the sentient terraforming machines, Pinky and Perky, who were supposed to lay out a straight railway and roadway across the planet's major continent; according to legend, the two AIs got bored, fell in love, and started sharing subroutines and building creative city layouts and scenic routes for each other. They eventually got into a fight and split up, and since their "bodies" were gigantic earthmoving machines, they had to be shut down for the colonists' safety. So Chay claims.
The archaeologists are using surplus military equipment to investigate the possibility that Jaiwan was once home to a now-extinct civilisation. The first artefact was found by Shawnee, a 13-year-old girl from the village of Kondeeo, who has become fascinated by the work the archaeologists are doing. The archaeologists find bones in a midden, evidence that the natives were carnivorous, but their work is delayed when Benny forgets to cover the Continuous Active Recording units during a storm and a lightning strikes blows them out. While trying to get replacements, Benny is contacted by corrupt county authorities who are looking for bribes to prevent them from shutting down the dig on spurious ecological grounds. Heidi offers to use her family connections to solve this problem.
Unable to get replacement CARs, Benny improvises by ordering cheap potfish guns, which the locals use to tag empty pots; this prevents overfishing, which can result in too many empty pots in one place and thus a dangerous swarm of potfish spiders. Shawnee's fellow schoolchildren visit the dig on a field trip, and Benny hands out the potfish guns, telling the children to tag anything they find interesting. This results in the discovery of an artefact that looks like part of a jet engine, which is far more advanced than any of the other artefacts the archaeologists have found. Benny then sees the layout of bones in the midden from a different angle, and realises that a large animal like a giant frog was buried here, possibly ritually. Later, closer analysis determines that the animal was non-sentient, perhaps a beast of burden; however, it's a significant enough find for the Professor to promise that Benny's role in the discovery will earn her a legitimate master's degree in archaeology.
Benny has her friends scour Jaiwan's planetary database for things that an AI might have missed, and Simone finds what could be artificial structures in the sub-arctic boreal forest. At the site, they find the frozen remains of a potfish spider, and Benny is shocked to learn just how large the dangerous animals are. The fact that a tropical animal froze to death in the sub-arctic suggests that the planet suffered a dramatic climate change, perhaps due to an extinction event. Simone then finds a third site in the desert, but while double-checking, Benny -- who has already noted that Simone's body language suggests past military experience -- realises that Simone has been using classified military data to make her finds. When she tells the Professor, she learns that Simone, Heidi and Chay are all military officers on secondment to the dig. Benny tries to make a run for it, but is caught by General Elsa Lafayette, the woman in charge of military operations in the Jaiwanese system; fortunately, Lafayette was a good friend of Benny's parents and assures the young woman that she won't turn her in for desertion. The young archaeologists volunteered for the army to protect their home colonies from the advancing enemy, and as they're too young to have really lived yet -- and aren't likely to make it back from the front -- they've been given life-affirming work to do before they get deployed.
Benny returns to the dig, where she learns that Simone's military specialty is placing ground target beacons for orbital strikes, and that Heidi is Chay's superior, which means that their relationship should be a no-no. The discovery of the planet's extinction event and the reminder of the brutal enemy her people face gets Benny pondering the nature of existence, and when she discusses the Professor's Goddess with her, the Professor tells Benny to live louder, drunker, braver and more loving. Benny thus takes it very badly when the Professor then dies in her sleep that very night. Pilar admits to Benny that the Professor had encountered lethal toxins while excavating an industrial site on the planet Cray -- and before dying, she put everything in place to ensure a smooth transition when Benny takes over the dig. Benny realises that the Professor was grooming her as a successor and vows to live up to the potential the Professor had seen in her. To this end, she visits Shawnee's father, who accepts her claim that archaeology is a noble profession and agrees to let her hire Shawnee as her assistant.
The desert site turns out to contain an amphitheatre for gladiatorial fights; this site, and the original, are designated as part of the "Alpha Culture." At the original site, Shawnee finds a hatchway leading into a chamber containing hibernation tubes -- one of which contains the mummified body of a giant potfish spider. The non-sentient potfish spiders may be the degenerate descendants of a formerly sapient species, which would have serious implications for the human colony if true. Before going public with this potentially devastating news, Benny insists upon seeing a potfish spider in its native habitat, underwater in the swamp; but she isn't prepared for its ferocity and speed, and it takes her foot off before she manages to escape. She is forced to wear a prosthetic while waiting for the doctors to grow her a replacement. However, while underwater, she's found further evidence of alien artefacts, and when the archaeologists drain that part of the swamp they find evidence that the original natives of Jaiwan fought a war some 10,000 years ago. A local reporter named Lola then arrives at the site to interview Benny, who tries to remain non-committal but is eventually forced to concede that Jaiwan's native animals may be descended from a sapient species. If true, then the Hibernation Clause in the Protocols of Colonisation (as insisted upon by the Earth Reptiles) means that the human colony on this planet is illegal.
For her 22nd birthday, Benny gets a new foot and the news that her friends are being deployed to the front lines of the war. Before leaving, Chay reports his findings: the mummified potfish spider was probably sapient, but the current-day version that attacked Benny only uses about 30 percent of its available brainpower. His theory is that modern potfish spiders are the descendents of a genetically engineered servitor class, possibly a warrior caste. The next morning, Benny's friends go off to war, and she knows they're unlikely to return.
A month later, the new surveyor, Danzig, finds a report buried in the planetary database, indicating that the colony engineers found and built over what may have been a native tunnel system near what is now the town of Rembrandt. Benny takes Shawnee to investigate, and while dining out at a café, they notice a man and woman with bad haircuts glaring angrily at them. The next day, Benny rents climbing equipment and hires a guide, Holgon, to take her and Shawnee to the tunnel system -- which turns out to be the remains of an underground bunker. The evidence suggests that the natives were building a rocket, possibly to escape the extinction event that wiped out their civilisation... and that the bunker was attacked and destroyed before the rocket could launch.
An explosion breaches the reservoir, causing millions of tons of water to flood through the tunnels. Benny and Shawnee survive, but when the water washes over the buttonmonster cocoons scattered throughout the bunker, the buttonmonsters within awaken from hibernation. Benny and Shawnee are nearly torn to pieces, but at the last moment, a squad of soldiers arrive and destroy the buttonmonsters. Heidi, Chay and Simone have returned to Jaiwan at the head of the First Regiment of Combat Archaeologists, with orders to determine whether the Hibernation Clause applies on Jaiwan and evacuate the human colonists if necessary. They realised something was wrong when they found Holgon dead outside with a bullet wound to the head, and Benny realises that the bunker was deliberately flooded to kill her and Shawnee. Rather less urgently, she also realises that the buttonmonster cocoons were dropped into the bunker during the original attack, and that the buttonmonsters themselves are -- or are the descendants of -- genetically engineered organic weapons.
The attempt on Benny's life was just one instance of civil unrest being stirred up by media reports -- specifically, Lola's -- about the possibility that the human colonists will be forcibly evicted due to the Hibernation Clause. Realising that Lola is attracted to her, Benny arranges to give her another interview, which results in her being invited to discuss matters with the President and his representative, Sunan Paramita. That night, a riot breaks out in the capital city of Crystal Peak, and Benny, stuck on her hotel balcony with her friends and Lola, drinks champagne for the first time in her life. The next day, after the riots have died down, she meets with the President and it is made clear that the situation would be considerably less tense if only the government could speak with sentient representatives of the original Jaiwanese.
While pondering her next move, Benny listens to one of Shawnee's folk tales, which inspires her to look under the planet's sea -- and there, her friends find an artificial structure designed to survive the extinction event. Lola accompanies the team, who need a Jaiwanese observer to ensure that this isn't seen as part of a conspiracy or cover-up. The team breaks into the structure, and find its internal architecture very straight and regular, unlike the free-flowing Alpha Culture sites... which implies that this was built by the faction responsible for attacking and destroying the bunker under Rembrandt.
While exploring the base, Benny accidentally breaks a counterweight and traps herself and Lola in its inner hub. The hibernation chambers begin to activate, but then shut down; the intrusion has triggered a fail-safe, but power reserves are low and priority is being given to the chambers at the core. This means that the hibernating spiders on the base's periphery are going to die, which supports the architecture's implication that this culture regards even the pets of high-status individuals as being of higher priority than low-caste individuals. Benny and Lola are then captured by three soldier-caste spiders, but the spiders take them prisoner without killing them. Benny advises Heidi not to come running to the rescue for the moment, lest first contact go disastrously wrong. An elderly spider arrives to investigate the intrusion, and Benny runs through first-contact protocols with her translation software. Fortunately, the spiders also have translation software -- in an organic "datapad," a genetically engineered wide-mouth frog similar to the much larger version found at the original dig near Kondeeo -- and first contact is made smoothly. The elderly spider, whose name translates to Woke Up One Morning Feeling Fine, seems to accept the situation as it stands, and requests time to consult the others of its kind before entering into negotiations with the human colonists.
General Lafayette seems in favour of peaceful contact, but Benny suspects that she has ulterior motives for wanting an alliance with fast-breeding genetic engineers who live underwater and are thus hard-wired to think in terms of three-dimensional combat. Benny also has concerns about the fact that they appear to be dealing with the Omega faction of spiders, the ones who deliberately prevented the Alpha Culture from escaping the extinction event. Her worries grow deeper when word comes back that tomb robbers have been striking Alpha Culture archaeological sites and obliterating all trace of them before leaving; this may simply be to destroy evidence of their activities, but what's odd is that some of the targeted sites hadn't even been located by the archaeologists yet. Benny visits the colony's south-eastern spaceport, Jop, hoping to find evidence that the stolen artefacts are being smuggled off-world. This involves visiting the local pubs and drinking heavily with the ships' cargo loaders, and while stumbling away from one such pub, she wanders into a large warehouse and discovers that the legendary earth-moving AIs, Pinky and Perky, are in fact stored inside.
Returning empty-handed from Jop, Benny spots the bad-haircut couple from Rembrandt on the same train, and breaks into the baggage car, where she finds unmarked crates containing unregistered Spider artefacts. She steals an artefact that looks like a data storage device, but trips an alarm in doing so, and is attacked and shot at by the Bad Haircuts. Fortunately, they are fanatic amateurs, and are no match for her military training; she successfully overpowers them and turns them over to the authorities. However, the authorities are being led by Sunan Paramita, who confiscates the stolen artefacts on behalf of the newly-formed Bureau of Antiquities. Benny notes a surreptitious look passing between Paramita and the Bad Haircuts, and thus decides not to turn over the artefact she "reclaimed."
Benny subsequently isn't surprised when her team's format request to examine the new finds is turned down, and she thus translates the contents of the data pad on her own. The pad confirms her worst suspicions and more besides; not only did the Omega spiders deliberately destroy the Alpha faction's survival bunkers before the extinction event, they caused the event themselves by using their newly-developed space program to divert an asteroid and crash it into the planet. The Alpha faction was a federation of co-operating cultures, and the Omega faction -- who call themselves the Laughing People, or The Way Of Life That Works -- wanted them gone. The rest is a simple matter of deduction; the Bad Haircut couple must have tried to kill Benny in Rembrandt to prevent her from unearthing evidence of a pre-colonial culture, and the fact that they now appear to be in league with government officials and with tomb robbers who are destroying all evidence of the Alpha culture suggests that the Omega spiders have struck a surreptitious deal with the human colonists...
Benny is profoundly offended by the injustice occurring here, but she can do nothing without living specimens from the Alpha culture to make their case -- and Paramita's bureau is now blocking her and her team from conducting legitimate archaeological work. Benny tries to find out more by flirting with Lola, and even spends the night in her apartment, although she does not tell her friends exactly what happened and gets upset when they press her for details. All she learns is that an "independent" team of observers has arrived on the planet, and that Lafayette knew about it and didn't inform the First Combat Archaeologists. The observer team then go public, announcing that since the human colonists are inhabiting only parts of the planet that the Spiders find uninhabitable, the Laughing People have agreed to share the planet with the colonists. Only Benny and the Combat Archaeologists know that the cost of the deal is the ethnic cleansing of the Alpha Culture from Jaiwan's pre-colonial history.
Benny visits the Laughing People to find out what she's up against, and Woke Up One Morning Feeling Fine gives her a tour of the compound. As if in passing, he tells her that his people's name for her is "Fools Rush In," and Benny realises that she's being allowed to see that the spiders are breeding a new generation of soldiers. Benny thus visits Shawnee's father and advises him that it might be wise to take advantage of the excellent fishing further north while she visits her old dig. When she begins to resume excavating the site, she is arrested for trespassing by Paramita and a squad of government troops, but once they've been lured out into the open, the First Combat Archaeologists emerge from hiding and ambush them. Benny has worked out that the only Alpha spiders who could have survived the Omega attacks would be the ones who acted in a manner that the Omega spiders could never have predicted -- for example, burying their hibernation chambers beneath a sacred burial site, such as the midden at this dig. She is correct, and manages to retrieve two intact hibernation capsules before the Omega spiders attack. Benny and most of the Combat Archaeologists make it out alive, but Chay is killed when the spiders detonate a ten-kiloton nuke over the site. Heidi survives, but not in spirit.
The surviving Combat Archaeologists go into hiding while Benny contacts Lola and asks for a ride into Jop. Shawnee arrives with Lola, who unfortunately seems a bit too interested in finding out where Benny's friends have taken the surviving Alpha spiders -- and when they hit a police roadblock outside Jop, Lola pulls a gun on Benny, ordering her to surrender to the rightful government of the colony. More hurt by this betrayal than she expected, Benny runs the roadblock, crashes the car and flees with Shawnee to the warehouse where Pinky the earthmover is stored. Paramita and the government troops pursue them, but Benny manages to locate the AI's core intelligence, which was removed from the earthmoving machine and stored on a physical drive. Lola is waiting for them in Pinky's control room, but when she turns her gun on Shawnee to force Benny to surrender, Benny instead shoots and kills Lola. This is the first time she has ever killed someone. Paramita arrives and threatens to toss a fragmentation grenade into the room, but Benny pulls herself together and uploads Pinky's intelligence back into "her" machine body before he can do so. Benny's plan was to tell Pinky that her boyfriend Perky's work was under threat, but Pinky can think much more quickly than an organic brain can, and has downloaded the planet's media and worked out the truth in the time it takes Benny to introduce herself. Nevertheless, she agrees to rescue the Combat Archaeologists and help to force a stand-off until the Alpha spiders thaw out and present their case to the relevant authorities.
This marks the end of Benny's tenure on Jaiwan. Shawnee wants her to stay, but Benny has too many bad memories of Jaiwan now; she killed Lola, Lafayette is on her way to the front and will probably never return, and Heidi will never be the same after Chay's death. On the other hand, Pilar has agreed to take on Shawnee as his apprentice, and has given Benny a certificate accrediting her as a Master of Archaeology from the University of Jaiwan. Benny learned a lot from the Professor in the short time they knew each other, and decides to carry on the Professor's tradition by writing her own journals. It is now January of 2562, and Benny sets off for Earth, vowing to be louder, drunker, braver and more loving. She'll start with the first two and see how it goes.