Petrolea 13a

The column of exhaust rose into the gray Petrolean sky. Like a harpoon thrown into a dark, upside-down sea, the gleaming needle at the white tip of that cloud broke through the pall of smoke over the badlands where Xanadu Base had once stood. Feroza stood atop the back of the Leviathan and watched the Rocket-seed pierce the heavens.

Interesting. There were no Bergs near the site of Xanadu Base, but perhaps human pollution had stretched farther than she assumed. Stressed, the factors had built themselves an escape capsule and blasted off, hoping to find better pastures. Feroza wished them luck.

Other mechanoid life was not so picky. Gazing out past the air paddles that fringed the Leviathan, Feroza could zoom in on the cracked ground around them. The clear-cut land was a broken jigsaw of grays and glossy blacks, pin-pricked with the red lights of scavengers signaling to each other. The humans had not allowed themselves to be destroyed without inflicting massive casualties upon the land, but already Petrolea was growing back.

Prophets swung their stilt-like legs over the wreckage of the human’s vehicles, stabbing down at hopping battalions of Bounders, fat with all the hydrocarbons they could pump out of the habitat’s holding tanks. Flightless juvenile Leviathans, only the size of passenger trains, humped their way between the weedy furrows dug by earthmoving equipment. The gutted hollows and scraped flats had already developed a fuzz of self-assembler growth.

If Victor’s theory was right, Feroza was observing at work the unseen hand of the original designers of the mechanoids’ Van Neumann ancestors. Colonize empty land. Mine raw materials and convert them into tools you can use to mine more raw materials. Destroy what stands in your way.

From such a perspective, what difference was there between the creatures she had dedicated herself to protecting and her fellow humans? Ecosystem or economy, forest or factory, in the end everything came down to selfish self-replication. Eat and breed or be eaten so that others can breed.

And here was Feroza, connected to the net of life as she stood in her crudely camouflaged suit, a bonesteel spear in one hand and a string of butchered mechanoids in the other: the successful hunter taking food back to her mate.

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