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.
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, carbonized 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. Hope was as 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 curse in front of a lady.
“What?” said Dr. Merchant. “Get down, you fool, before–“
Victor held up his trembling 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.
The parasites’ code burrowed into its electronic nervous system, and the Dragon froze.