Petrolea 16b

“Merciful God but the ancient aliens had terrible taste in architecture,” said Feroza. “Unless you want to take credit for that post-modern monstrosity.”

“No,” said Victor. “It must be more tripwire programming. A reaction to an oxygen environment.”

“And we know that there is still an oxygen environment inside the space station,” mused Feroza. “I wonder if some similar inflorescence is being built above us right now. If any of the original crew turned their life boat around and returned to it…”

“…they’d be eaten,” said Victor. “At least if they return before I get my Radio Tick into orbit.”

“There!”

Victor’s eyes twitched up, but this time Feroza did not tempt Mr. Biggles or Rusty with an outstretched arm.

“‘There’ what?”

“Is it working?” she asked. “Did I share my map with you? Ah. No. I see.”

The map blipped on in Victor’s visor. South and east of their flight-path lay the edge of a crater. In real life, the shell of the extinct cryovolcano was a curving sheet of rock erupting from the jungle like the curtain wall of a European castle, but on the map it was just a graphite-colored circle. A green dot pulsed within the circle.

Victor entered commands to the Dragon, and map and reality merged as they gained altitude. The volcano wall curved into the distance, became the lip of a gray bowl. And there a smooth cone protruded above the fractal branches of the pinwheel trees like a firecracker in a salad.

A string of firecrackers.

“Are those more Rocket-seeds?” Victor could see four of them, spaced evenly around the first. And beyond them, even more.

“This whole crater is full of them,” said Feroza. “A rocket…nursery? A spore capsule?”

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