Petrolea chapter 1

It was raining gasoline.

Victor Toledo had his wipers on, but the little squeegee didn’t do much except smear the petrochemicals over the visor of his environment suit.

 

Visibility: 3 meters

Outside temperature: -180 C

Suit batteries: full

O2 tanks: full

Signal strength: excellent

Handshake gauntlet status: stand by

 

Beyond the glowing readouts projected onto the inside of his visor, Victor could just make out the edges of his harvester, mostly defined by the endless churning movement of the caterpillar treads on either side of him. Ahead, beyond the bumper of the huge forestry machine, he could see nothing but falling fuel.

The access road and the jungle beyond were invisible, but every few minutes, the glassy blade of the low-hanging vane of a Windmill tree sliced the curtain of rain. Mechanoids scurried over those vanes on mechanical legs like clockwork spiders. The feral robots froze as the harvester passed, tracking the machine with hungry sensors.

A human figure, clumsy and bulbous in his environment suit, swam out of the rain. Al-Waheed, one of the few biologists who hadn’t joined the strike, planted his feet and stuck up his left hand up to signal Victor. His right arm stuck out in front of him, providing a roost for his tame Punisher. The eagle-sized, helicopter-winged mechanoid hunched in the rain, a heap of dripping iron pinions and glowing red headlights.

“They’re close,” said the biologist over the comms net. Victor didn’t know whether “they” meant the striking scientists and engineers he was supposed to rescue or the Tanker trees those strikers were risking their lives trying to protect. Both, he supposed.

He slowed the harvester, crunching over whatever metallic weeds had self-assembled there since the last time this road had been used.

“Where are their lights?” he asked. “Are the strikers just waiting for us in the dark?”

“Of course, they are,” said Al-Waheed.

Why wasn’t he running this mission? Victor place in the hierarchy had more to do with his driver’s certification than his skills in leadership or wilderness survival, and he’d obviously just asked a stupid question. Why would the strikers keep their lights off? Oh. “Because lights would attract mechanoids?” he asked.

“You got it, boss,” said Al-Waheed. “Even Merchant and her tree-huggers don’t love the critters that much.”

“All right. Switching to global address frequencies.” Victor brought the harvester to a grumbling halt and called up an eye-movement menu in his visor, scrolled through options…

“Maybe,” said Al-Waheed, “switch on your sonar?”

“Uh, right.” That was another finicky eye-menu. The software was designed for command by wrist-mounted keyboard, but of course Victor’s left wrist was occupied by his handshake gauntlet.

“Dr. Merchant, if you’re listening,” Victor raised his voice, as if that might give his signal more power. “Stop this nonsense.”

“Nonsense?” The answering voice was crackly, faint with distance and interference from jungle life, but behavioral biologist’s glossy accent was unmistakable. “You bloody fool, you drove the harvester out here to arrest us?”

She spoke so quickly. Victor concentrated, making sure he understood her and his response was grammatically correct English. “Nobody will arrest you, Dr. Merchant,” he said. “But you and your people are not safe out here.”

“Neither are you,” she said. “Who is this?”

“Victor,” said Victor. “Victor Toledo, I—”

“Damn it, Toledo, why did they send you out here in that thing?”

“I know you oppose the use of the harvester, but the resources we extract with it go into your paychecks as well, you know.” Victor stood, leaning forward, breathing hard as his suit’s software painted his visor with sonar and infrared. “I don’t understand why you protest like this.”

Ah. There they were. The strikers stood hand in hand, in a human chain stretched across the road into the forest. Behind them, outlined in the slick grays of sonar imaging, bulked the fat cylindrical trunks of the Tanker trees, each one a living store of hydrocarbon energy big enough to keep a space station running for a week.

Titan, with its chemical resources, low gravity and outer-system real estate, would have been a tempting target for exploitation even without the famous photos taken by the Huygens probe. Cryovolcanoes capped with forests. Iron trees spreading windmill leaves over plains of methane snow. Robotic predators wading through petrochemical lakes, buzz-saw mouths gaping. The impossible bulk of a Leviathan in flight. The fiery battles of mating Dragons. An entire ecosystem evolved, apparently, from ancient alien mining machinery. Why shouldn’t humans step in and claim the resources those aliens had abandoned?

Now, not even two years since Xanadu had become the first permanent base on Titan, the whole plan was falling apart.

“We’re protesting the wholesale destruction of yet another ecosystem,” said Dr. Merchant. “Now, listen to me, Toledo, you have to turn about and leave right away.”

¡Miércoles! Victor had lost focus, given her the chance to make one of her speeches. He knew how she’d look on the cameras she had undoubtedly set up to document her great statement. The shining heroine making her stand in the gasoline rain, surrounded by hostile jungle and vile corporate shills like Victor.

“Look,” said Victor, “Al-Onazy says he’s going to give you what you want. Caps on harvesting, redrawn logging routes so we don’t disturb the local environment too much. But we must continue harvesting.”

“You are not the only thing harvesting out here, Mr. Toledo.”

Victor lost patience. “Get your people up on my vehicle. Al-Onazy is willing to negotiate, but not—”

Something flashed through the darkness and Al-Waheed shouted, “Gob-swarm!”

The Gob’s arrowhead shape barely had time to register before the flying mechanoid burst into a cloud of thumbnail-sized wafers. The wafers pattered against the bumper of the harvester and stuck there. When they sprouted antennae and scuttling legs, Victor knew them for what they were: a swarm of assembler-dissembler Van Neumann robots. What the biologists called “factors.”

The factors scurried like ants, searching for metals and plastics to carve out and make into more little robots. Surely that chewing noise was in Victor’s imagination, not his earphones.

“If you directed that Gob to attack us, you are putting in danger the lives of yourselves and others,” said Victor into whatever feeds back to Earth’s media-sphere the strikers had running. “Now please—are you going to get rid of that Gob or what?”

“I’m trying, sir.” Al-Waheed’s tame Punisher spread four wings like helicopter rotors and launched itself. Its body shifted, streamlining as the factors that made up its skin and muscles tightened their grip on each other. A device like an eagle-taloned harpoon swung into position.

The Punisher’s helicopter blades sprayed gasoline rain as it fired its claw into the swarm of the Gob’s hungry factors. The little robots scattered, but the talons closed around the behavioral and somatic processors at the swarm’s core. Static swept the comms net as the Punisher hacked into the Hob’s brain, and, as if hypnotized, the factors emerged from their hiding places marched into the open mouthparts of the predator.

The Gob died, but not before Victor saw another squid-like flash, and another. The harvester rang with the impacts of more Gobs. Blobby masses swarmed over the harvester, too many for the Punisher or even Victor’s gauntlets to deal with.

“Stop attacking us!” Victor winced at the shrill register of his voice. There were larger creatures down there now, scuttling up from the mud to gnaw apart his vehicle. Something like a metal caterpillar with Dragonfly wings wrapped around his wrist, but the slave-factors in Victor’s gauntlet severed a couple of the creature’s legs before Victor hurled it away.

“You’re attracting them,” came Merchant’s voice over the electronic death scream of the mechanoid. “Listen to me, Toledo. You must leave immediately before something worse attacks.”

Victor scraped bits caterpillar off his gauntlet, fighting to bring his voice back down. “Are you threatening us, Dr. Merchant?”

“No, you ass. The jungle’s more dangerous than it’s ever been, and we’re a crowd of humans with floodlights making a bloody ruckus in it!”

Certainty trickled down Victor’s back, cold and viscous as crude oil: someone had screwed up here, and it was probably him. His ears pricked, as if that would do any good in his suit. And anyway that vibration wasn’t in his suit pickups; it tunneled up from his feet. A low rumble, almost like the harvester’s engine. Except the harvester wasn’t moving.

They had to get out of here. “The faster you cooperate,” said Victor, “the faster we’re all back safe in Xanadu Base.”

“Safe?” said Merchant, “Were you not listening to me? Have you even looked at my reports? Every week since we’ve been here, the native life has grown steadily more aggressive. Attacks on humans and human artifacts have multiplied exponentially. Give us a week and there will be mechanoids chewing on your executive swivel-chair.”

How stupid was it for Victor to feel hurt? At least he restrained himself from yelling, I don’t have a swivel chair! I’m one of you! Because Victor wasn’t an intrepid field-biologist, he was a programmer, full of theory about how to hack electronic brains, but bereft of practice. He didn’t give a damn about profit margins or the long-term viability of the native ecosystem. He was rated to drive the harvester, and he did what he was told. In this case, that meant, “drive the harvester into the jungle and pick up the protesters before they run out of air or get eaten.” He was the good guy, damn it!

The vibration wasn’t subtle any more. A wave of displaced air washed over the harvester, setting the whole machine swaying like the branches of the Windmill trees in the shadow of a great, descending bulk.

“Leviathan,” said Al-Waheed. “It’s—” he swore in Arabic. “It’s right on top of us, boss.”

“¡Mierda!” Victor almost beat his extremely expensive and important hand-shake gauntlet against the arm-rest of his seat before he forced himself to calm down. “I mean, miércoles.” Not that any of these people cared if he swore in Spanish. God, he wished he was back in Lima.

“Okay,” said Victor. “All right. Reverse the engine.” He reversed the engine. “I’m getting us out of here. Strikers, I, um, order you to climb aboard.”

None of the space-suited figures moved.

“I won’t let you die out here.” Victor stood in his pilot’s seat and waved his arms. “Get those strikers on this harvester before something eats them.”

“Come down off that harvester before the Leviathan eats you,” said Dr. Merchant.

Victor wished he could strangle the woman. But there was absolutely nothing he could do to force the strikers to cooperate, at least nothing he could think of in the time he had before the Leviathan arrived. Victor imagined landing gear extending in the murk above the Windmill trees like the legs of a monstrous crab.

“Dr. Merchant,” he said on her private channel, “Feroza. It isn’t too late to surrender. Save face. Leave under protest. But leave. Get on the harvester, please.”

An intake of breath over the teeth-rattling groan of approaching treads. “Oh, you bloody idiot. You don’t really think we can ride home on that machine, do you? Not now that you’ve attracted something that’s big enough to eat it.”

The rain stopped.

Or, no, Victor realized. The rain was still falling. He could see it at the edges of his headlights’ beams, hear it through his suit’s pickups. It just wasn’t falling on his head.

He looked up.

The giant metal maw gaped wide as it dropped from the dark sky.

The concussion of the Leviathan’s proboscis made when it hit the ground rang through Victor’s suit. The harvester jerked under him. Slewed sideways as it was lifted from the mud.

The vehicle Victor piloted was 16 meters long and 5 tall, 20 tonnes of caterpillar treads, loaders, delimbers, grapplers, and a train of cradles to hold the denuded trunks of the Tanker trees. It should have been too damn big to move anywhere that Victor didn’t want it to go.

The Leviathan was bigger.

The belly of the beast broke the clouds overhead, a whale breaching in reverse. A butterfly that dreamed it was an aircraft carrier. Clouds streaming from air-paddles, the Leviathan plummeted towards them. The jaws on the end of his hose-like trunk clenched around the harvester.

Victor’s visor flashed with warning colors. Temperature readouts spiked. Radiation fluxed. The reactive glass dimmed against the light of the monster’s smelter throat.

Something swooped through the air toward him. Another predator, or maybe some symbiont of the Leviathan homing in on Victor’s radio signals, ready to peel and devour his suit or just swallow him whole and shit out the indigestible water and bone meal…

Talons cinched around his torso, tugged him up and away. Victor stared between his swinging legs at the Leviathan’s maw clamped down on the multi-million-dollar vehicle he had been given to drive.

The braided skin of the proboscis flexed, the teeth at its mouth glowing cherry-red as the furnace inside softening metal for the claws and saws of disassembler mechanoids. Other, larger symbionts scurried down the proboscis. Things like man-sized metal mantis-shrimp unfolded Swiss-army-knife limbs to snatch whatever their brethren left behind.

Victor was swung in a circle and dropped to the ground. The creature that had saved him released its grip and Victor almost fell at the feet of the woman who was its mistress.

“Dr. Merchant.”

Her Punisher perched on her shoulder, rotors folded, talons clenched, sensors extended toward Victor as if waiting for him to make a fool of himself.

“Do you,” he gasped, “have a way out?”

He couldn’t see her expression, but the strike leader pointed back into the jungle in the direction the Victor had come from.

Miércoles,” Victor cursed, lips numb. “You want us to walk home?”

Her voice crackled in his earphones. “No, you fool, we have to run.”

Gobs darted through the air and oozed across machinery and space-suited people alike. Mantis-shrimp mechanoids sliced chunks off the harvester with burning claws. Bloated creatures like giant fleas lapped at spilled fuel. And the Leviathan, with great efficiency, ate the harvester Victor had been so stupid as to drive into the middle of this metal-eating jungle.

Dr. Merchant was right, a thought which probably didn’t give her much comfort as she watched her people fall under diamond-serrated limbs and sun-hot mandibles. And a jet of flame in the sky signified something worse was coming.

“Dragons!” Dr. Merchant yelled. “On the ground!”

Victor hit the mud at the same time as the landing gear of one of the giant, flying predators. The Dragon flamed as its wings tilted, jet engines blasting craters into the mud, its narrow head pointed directly at one of the strikers.

“Punisher, fetch!” Dr. Merchant commanded, and flung out an arm.

The mechanoid launched itself off her back, churning through the rain toward the stricken human. It buzzed between the Dragon and its prey, claw jabbing like the stinger of a giant wasp. Surely that wasn’t natural behavior. How could Dr. Merchant have trained the creature so well without using a handshake gauntlet? Despite himself, despite everything, Victor was impressed.

The Dragon was not. As the Punisher wrapped its claw around the man it had been ordered to save, the Dragon spread its mouthparts and snatched the smaller mechanoid out of the air. It didn’t bother to cut apart the Punisher’s structural elements, just hacked its processes, stole its factors, and sucked dry its reserves of oil and liquid oxygen. The skeleton of metal and plastic splashed into the mud, and the Dragon turned its headlights back toward its human prey.

Even in his restrictive suit, the striker should have been able to escape, but the Dragon pulled back its buzzing, steaming mouthparts and extended the long, black tube of its flamethrower. A little pilot light kindled. Victor’s visor lit up with a new danger symbol.

Oxygen.

Fire bloomed again, igniting the gasoline rain.

When he could see again, the oxygen had burned away, and so had the striker. The Dragon rooted through a mass of bubbling plastic that had been an environment suit, clenching its mandibles in apparent frustration when it found nothing but useless meat inside.

“I’m going to crawl toward the edge of the jungle,” Dr. Merchant said.

Victor’s limbs twitched. Had he just been lying in the mud waiting to be devoured by the damn feral robots? “I didn’t come to Titan to die.” He said, mostly to himself. “¡Dios! I haven’t even had a chance to do…” he stared up at the huge and hungry machines, “…my job.”

The hope was even more painful than the despair. Sharp and hot as the mouthparts of the Dragon’s head, now swinging into position above him.

His body wanted to lie down and roast in that fire. Rolling back to his feet was the most difficult thing Victor had ever had to do.

Victor stood up, and the Dragon’s two headlights swiveled to fix on him. Antennae extended from their housings along the giant predator’s grooved head. Mouthparts opened and liquid oxygen drooled and evaporated.

“Oh.” He said. “Oh miércoles.” Wouldn’t do to say mierda in front of a lady.

“What?” said Dr. Merchant. “Get down, you fool, before—”

Victor held up his arm.

“Handshake,” he said. And his gauntlet went to pieces.

Unlike the biologist, Victor didn’t have a single tame mechanoid clinging to his wrist. He had about a thousand.

The slave factors, each the size and shape of a thumbnail, flaked off his hand and scattered like dropped coins. Even as they fell, they synched with each-other and the transponder in Victor’s suit. Fast as army ants, they crawled up the Dragon’s body, wire legs blurring, stumpy antennae waving, broadcasting to the animal’s native factors that they were friends.

They lied.

The parasites’ code burrowed into its electronic nervous system, and the Dragon froze.

Victor took a tentative step forward, put his hand on the Dragon’s neck. It shivered and bowed as new windows opened on his visor.

“What do you propose we should do now?” Dr. Merchant demanded. “What possible good can it do you to hack a Dragon?”

“Well,” said Toledo, “If my Dragon attacked the others…”

“It would be torn to shreds along with everybody else.” But Dr. Merchant stood beside him, so she must have some confidence in him. Some other plan.

“Yes?” Victor said.

“You fly that thing to Xanadu Base and tell them. Try to mount a rescue if you think it will do any good.”

It wouldn’t. Most of the other Dragons ripped at the remains of the harvester, but Victor could see another of the giant predators slithering toward them on its caterpillar-tread belly.

“Um. I don’t think I can actually tell this thing where to go.” Victor scrambled up the Dragon’s flank anyway, over its folded wings. The beginnings of a plan crystallized under the pressure of his fear. “I’ve never worked with Dragons before, but I’ve worked with Punishers, and the somatic programming is very similar…”

“The emergent behavior is entirely different, however.” Dr. Merchant took his hand and scrambled up after him onto the Dragon’s back. “Look for the reward complex connected to its hunting instinct. That should lead to a command to tell the satiated animal to fly home.”

“Fly home.” Even as he repeated her words, summary of the Dragon’s runtime environment flashed in Victor’s visor. “Got it,” he said, and air-typed commands into the mechanoid’s brain. EndProcess:Feeding.

Instinctive responses cascaded out from that simple instruction. The wings unfolded, angled down for vertical take-off. The jet intakes spun up and the mechanoid’s long neck retracted. Its puffy, feathered outline smoothed out, condensing and stiffening as the factors that made up its body held each other close, preparing for flight.

The other Dragons and various associated monsters did not try to stop Feroza and Victor’s lift-off. Predators and parasites gamboled and capered in the red light that shone from the lights on the Leviathan’s proboscis as it ripped into the vehicle. Most of the other people were gone, fled into the jungle, and Victor hoped they would have enough oxygen to get home. He hoped that he would.

“I’m sorry for what we are about to do to you,” said Doctor Merchant.

Victor wasn’t. He clenched his fist within his gauntlet and the rain vanished into the blur of acceleration.

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