Petrolea 17a

Chapter 17

“Fold your arms,” Feroza told Victor, “before Biggles and Rusty have a chance to bite them off.”

Following her own advice violated every instinct Feroza had. Falling monkeys splayed their limbs, trying to snag branches and use air resistance to slow their fall, but the makers and masters of the Petrolean mechanoids had descended from anything like monkeys.

If those ancient aliens’ ancestors had had trees to climb, perhaps they had done so with coils of their bodies, or with tentacles or some other organ Feroza could not, now, imagine. Certainly, though, the shape they presented when in free-fall, the silhouette they had branded onto the brains of their mechanical children, was the rod.

Feroza became a rod. A toy soldier standing to attention. Or rather, tipping forward as gravity tugged on her top-heavy environment suit. Victor’s face passed above her horizon, and Feroza’s vision was full of the whirling depths of the jungle below, the lead-colored cones of the Rocket-seeds, and the black silhouettes of the oncoming Dragons. Their burning headlights.

Were there other calderas like this one scattered across the surface of Titan? Other clutches of rocket eggs with their own guardian Dragons? Was this a localized reaction of the Petrolean defense system, or a planet-wide call to arms? If the latter, Victor and she had most likely just triggered the very sporulation they had tried to prevent.

“Feroza!” Victor’s voice came in her suit radio. “Biggles has got me.”

“Hold still,” said Feroza. “Trust him. Trust me.” And metal scraped along her back.

Warning lights pulsed against the approaching headlights of the enemy Dragons. Rusty was coiling around her, squeezing and ablating her much-abused environment suit. But the little Dragon was much-abused as well, with a good third of his chassis rebuilt under Feroza’s careful ministrations.

And what of Rusty’s mind? On the leash of his designed tripwire programs, the little mechanoid should have bitten Feroza in half for violating the sanctity of the crater. At very least, he should have flown away.

But Feroza had seen how a Dragon’s naturally evolved behavior, if strong enough, could circumvent the wishes of its ancestral programming. Evidently, Rusty could feel gratitude, or at least reciprocal altruism.

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