Petrolea 16d

“She doesn’t want to cross into that crater,” said Feroza.

“It’s nothing ‘she’ wants. The tripwire programming rides the Dragon as much as we do.” Victor coded as cleverly and efficiently as he could, setting up macros to run macros to delete or overwrite or counteract the alien instructions. But the tripwires kept popping up the Dragon’s flight was becoming more erratic.

Worse, Victor’s interface was turning buggy. He would enter changes and confirm them only to see them vanish. There was a noticeable and growing lag between command and response. “This is like the old internet,” he said, “what the hell is wrong with my handshake gauntlet?”

“What on earth could all those other Dragons be doing in the cliffs?” said Feroza, as if to herself. “A nest? No. So many large predators couldn’t hope to survive in such a small area. Like the Leviathans we saw moving toward Xanadu Base before…oh hell.”

There was nothing wrong with Victor’s gauntlet. The distributed processor net in his suit was orders of magnitude more powerful than anything in the Dragon’s hardware. And yet it was the Dragon’s programs that outstripped Victor’s. It was as if everything he did was two steps too late. As if all his information was one step too old…

“Turn around,” said Feroza. “Turn us around, Victor, they’re waiting for us.”

“Impossible” said Victor. “The slave factors can’t have tripwire programs installed in them. We built the first generation from the ground–ow!”

Feroza had just turned around and rapped on his bubble helmet. And when Victor’s startled eyes focused past his coding window and looked out his visor, he saw the other Dragons.

The giant metal creatures were watching their flight, spreading their wings, scrambling like jets around a military installation.

“Land us,” Feroza ordered.

“I–Feroza, I’m losing my slave factors. If I get us on the ground, I won’t be able to get us off it again. I won’t even be able to tell the factors to let go of us.”

“So tell your slave factors to let go now,” she said. “We’re landing.”

Victor wanted to protest and argue, to tell Feroza that all problems couldn’t be solved by jumping off of them at high altitude. But damn him if he was going to let her jump alone this time.

The factors released their grip. The Dragon, free of Victor’s interference, swerved out from under them. Feroza lost her grip on the joystick, and she and Victor popped off its back.

Victor flung out his arms, reached for Feroza.

But her hands avoided his. A smile on her face, the biologist spread her arms wide in the air. Before the onrushing squadron of enemy Dragons.

They didn’t have a chance to attack. The Dragonlets got to her first.

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