Petrolea 11f

“Selfless? Pucha, Feroza, this is not good. It is not noble! Normal creatures don’t just dive into death like, like…” like you, he wanted to say. Why was he such a coward? He would lose her to this horrible world, one way or another.

Feroza sighed. “‘Selfless’ was shorthand, Victor, like ‘love.’ I meant that they do not behave in ways that would be selected for if they were the sole carriers of their genetic information.”

“They’re stupid, in other words.”

“They can hardly be stupid if they are nothing but machines, Victor.”

“But the machines might be used stupidly.”

“What? By with a handshake gauntlet? Someone like you?” Feroza went on before he could protest. “Or, ha, better yet, the aliens that created them have returned to wreak vengeance upon us sinful apes, have they?” She gestured at the line of food marching into the Dragon’s maw. “If the mechanoids were being remote-controlled, I would expect them to respond to us more intelligently.”

“Maybe this is an automatic thing,” said Victor. “Like a security system.”

“A security system that covers the whole planet?” said Feroza. “That hijacked the normal functions of thousands of mechanoids and piloted them here?”

Victor thought about that. “Huh,” he said. “Yes. Some kind of…what’s the word? Trap? Tripwire? Some kind of hidden program that recognizes when the aliens’ mine is being tampered with.”

“Well of course you see programming in all of this,” said Feroza, wiggling a bit of her camouflage. “You’re a programmer.”

“And you want to see instinct in all of this,” said Victor. “But think about how the Dragon attacked you. She was under the grip of the tripwire program. I saw it happen, Feroza. And then you go and trust her again…”

Feroza looked up at the hitch in his voice. “It isn’t a matter of trust. Dragons are nothing but animals, pulled this way and that by their urges and impulses.” She looked down. “I was simply…limited in my understanding of those impulses.”

“Yeah? Well, what about now?”

Feroza spread her hands to indicate their camouflage. Their human outlines were almost gone under the weird spoofing the factors had welded onto their suits. And yes, the parasites were dispersing, or at least settling down to eat the corpses of their fellow mechanoids. The red light dimmed as the huge feeding tube above uncurled and dropped out of sight beyond the curve of the Leviathan’s shell.

They were safe.

“What do we do now?” said Victor. “We have no radio. No way to contact the orbital station and tell them we’re still alive. No way to go home.”

Feroza took his hand. “The Dragon is right there. She can take us home.”

Alarms went off in Victor’s helmet. Low oxygen. He had lost too much air when the cannonball thing attacked him. That would explain the auditory hallucinations. “We can’t go home, I said.”

“We have the aerie,” Feroza said, “Our pleasure dome. Come on.” She pulled him toward the Dragon.

“No,” said Victor. “No.” He took his hand back. “I can’t.”

Message windows flashed up in her visor. “Oh, your oxygen. You can use my spare canister, while we–“

“No!”

The Dragon looked around at them almost as if it had heard Victor’s shout.

“We were only supposed to stay there one night,” he said. “We were supposed to come home. To be home now. Xanadu Base. I’m not leaving.”

“And you accused me of being suicidal?” Feroza advanced on him. “You’re not thinking clearly. I’ll put you on that Dragon myself.”

“I won’t let you!” Victor swung his arms at the beast. “Go! Go away! We are not your children!”

And as if the Dragon had heard him, it left.

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