“Welcome home.” Feroza did not straighten from her crouch, but continued to crawl, keeping her body in the serpentine position forced upon her by the shape of their tunnel-airlock.
“Feroza, get back,” Victor whispered. “Stay still until I’ve got slave factors into her.”
But the mother Dragon was already stretching her neck out to give Feroza her own nutritional ablution.
“There is no need. My camouflage works,” Feroza said, rubbing her hands over the Dragon’s snout. “But why are you here, I wonder?”
Her eye caught movement on the ground. One of the Dragonlets came chugging around the curve of the hut.
“They’re looking for more food, I’m sure,” Victor said. “Like cats coming back to the woman who gave them scraps. Or tigers.” He made shooing noises at the baby, which snapped at his fingers.
“Stop teasing the Dragons, Victor,” said Feroza walking around their habitat. “I wonder if the other baby is here.”
“What does it matter?” broadcast Victor. “As soon as I get my bugs back in these creatures, they’re all flying back to their aerie. And if you won’t help me defeat Petrolea, you can fly back with them.”
“Don’t tempt me,” said Feroza. “And stop talking about defeating Petrolea. You don’t defeat an ancient alarm system. You avoid tripping it. If humans just stay away from this place, everything will be fine.”
That only got him swearing in child-friendly Spanish again. Victor was too emotional to listen to her, which was fine because suddenly Feroza had more important things to do than to listen to him. She had found the second Dragonlet.
The little heap of metal lay on the carapace when the mother must have dropped it. It heaved with labored breathing, much too small, and entirely the wrong color.
Feroza’s first, human-centric thought was skin condition. But there were no metal-eating fungi on Petrolea, no viruses that might give a mechanoid the pox. Feroza could see no parasite factors crawling on the Dragonlet’s mottled, brownish armor. What could cause those rotten patches? They were like mange or bread mold or…
“It’s rust.” Feroza backed away as if she might catch the same infection, but of course that was impossible. This was no infection, but oxidation.