Petrolea 1b

Back, First

Victor slowed the harvester, crunching over whatever metallic weeds had self-assembled 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’s 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…

Al-Waheed cleared his throat. “Maybe switch on your sonar?”

“Uh, right.” That was another finicky eye-menu. The software was designed for command by wrist-mounted keyboard, but 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 the 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?”

He bristled. “The resources we extract with these harvesters, they 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 it! Why do 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.

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