Petrolea 16c

“Does it matter?” asked Victor. “One rocket or many, we have a way to get our slave mechanoid into orbit.”

“I suppose so,” said Feroza. “If anything, the fact that there are so many Rocket-seeds in one place must mean they were grown for offensive purposes. I was worried how we would be able to distinguish between the new interplanetary sporulators and the old intercontinental ballistics…whoa!”

Victor had been trying to pilot the Dragon closer to the crater, but misjudged the angle of their turn. Feroza and he wobbled and the factors holding them clenched.

“Slipped!” said Feroza. “Damn stirrups.”

“If that’s what those lumps are,” said Victor. “I’m not sure the mechanoids’ designers had feet.”

“They weren’t built for anything like humans, in any case,” said Feroza. “If I try to fly with both hands on the horn, I completely unbalance myself.”

“Perhaps I could try a redesign,” said Victor. “There could be a whole library of…user-friendly designs like this.”

The Dragon lurched under them and Feroza cursed.

Victor looked around for the next life-threatening catastrophe. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said, but Victor noticed they’d drifted off course. He banked the Dragon, more slowly this time. The repaired Biggles and Rusty fired their engines and sped past their mother, weaving across her flight-path like impatient puppies. They dove and the mother Dragon’s nose tipped forward to follow them, but Victor brought it back up.

This time the Dragon stayed on course for only a few seconds before it lurched and dove again. The angle of attack was much steeper this time, and when Victor brought the nose level, a wing dipped.

“Victor, why are you turning us?”

“I’m not.” Victor maximized his coding windows. “More tripwires. Something’s telling the Dragon to fly back the way we came. I overwrote the process and put us back on course.”

They were nearly over the crater lip now. There were whirligig trees there, and larger structures like windmills, but the sheer sides of the escarpment were bare of self-assemblers. The only movement there was from the headlights of animals. Dragons, he realized.

The Dragon-haunted cliffs grew, and Victor realized they were diving again.

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