Petrolea 1c

Back, First

Outlined in the slick grays of sonar imaging, the fat cylindrical trunks of the Tanker Trees bulked in the background, each mechanical “plant” a self-assembling 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 in 2004. Cryovolcanoes capped with forests. Iron trees spreading windmill leaves over plains of methane snow. Robotic predators wading through lakes of liquid methane, buzz-saw mouths agape. The impossible mass of a Leviathan in flight. The fiery battles of mating Dragons.

The entire ecosystem had evolved, apparently, to condense Titan’s hydrocarbon-rich atmosphere into petrochemicals. Why shouldn’t humans step in and claim those resources?

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.”

Victor had lost focus, given her the chance to make one of her speeches. He knew how she’d look on the cameras that 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,” he said, “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 didn’t parse that sentence. Anyway his patience was gone. “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. These pattered against the bumper of the harvester and stuck there, sprouted antennae and scuttling legs, and revealed themselves as miniature 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.


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