According to the computers that provided a rudimentary translation between
English and the strings of ultrasonic pulses via which the aliens communicated,
the Taloids called it a river. And, indeed, its functions were comparable to
those of a river: it flowed through the forest, attracting and sustaining life;
it brought nutrients down from distant sources; and it carried away the debris,
detritus, and wastes that were inevitable products of life in action.
In reality, the "river" was an immense conveyor line rolling
through miles of machines and assembly stations, all thumping, whining, pounding,
and buzzing on either side beneath an overhanging canopy of power lines, data
cables, ducting, and pipes. The river came from more thinly mechanized regions,
forming gradually out of the mergings of lesser transfer lines serving local
materials-processing centers and clusters of parts-making machines. Farther
down it broadened, fed by incoming tributaries bringing ever more complex subassemblies
and recycled parts. These flowed onward to fabrication centers lower down, which
included the assembly sites for the peculiar machine "animals" and,
at a number of specialized locations, for the Taloids themselves. And finally,
everything that had not been utilizedcomponents rejected by the sorting
machines; substandard assemblies; unwanted pieces and parts picked up by the
roving scavenger machineswas consumed in reduction furnaces and recovered
as elementary materials for reprocessing.
The waste and inefficiency were enormous. In some places masses of jammed
and defunct machinery stood in idle decay, partly dismantled by scavengers.
Piles of nuts, bolts, strands of wire, cuttings and stampings covered the ground
everywhere like a layer of forest humus. Entire lines of design died out, while
others appeared in their place. But amid it all, as with the carbon-chemistry
variety of life that had taken possession of distant Earth, the common thread
that bound them all together as descendants from the same remote ancestral event
managed somehow to sustain itself and endure.
It was like trying to find your way through a General Motors plant in
diving gear with the lights out, Dave Crookes thought, perspiring and cursing
inside his dome-helmeted extravehicular suit as he clambered over a gap in a
line of pumping stations thick with hydraulic couplings. The Taloid in the leadknown
as Franklin among the Terranswaited a couple of paces ahead, while Armitage,
the military escort assigned to the party, held aside a web of cables hanging
like vines from the supports of a rotor housing dimly outlined in the gloom
above. The party included an escort more as a matter of form than from any real
need for protection against anything. And the troopers were always happy to
get away from the base and see something new outside.
The beam from Crookes's flashlamp revealed pipes running across concrete
foundations ahead, with steel pillars and a construction going upward. To the
left of the construction, cables radiated away from an arrangement of protruding
columns of stacked disks that looked like the insulators of a power transformer.
On the right, a pile of scrap overflowed from a recessed space beneath the concrete
foundation. A spindly six-legged machine that had been rooting with its tapered
snout around the base of the pile scampered away into the darkness.
"Watch yourself above, to the right," Armitage's voice warned
through the speaker in Crookes's helmet.
There was a piece of pipe sticking out with a valve on the end. "I
see it," Crookes acknowledged.
The voice of Leon Keyhoe, the signals specialist accompanying Crookes,
came over the circuit. "How much farther is this tower? This is getting
to be like an obstacle course across Osaka." Keyhoe had put on weight during
the voyage out from Earth aboard the Orion, and he sounded breathless even in
Titan's low gravity. Being cooped up in the base at "Genoa" for most
of the time since the ship's departure hadn't helped matters.
"By my reckoning we should be practically there," Crookes answered.
"Men!" Amy Rhodes exclaimed as she followed Crookes over
the wall of hydraulics couplings. "Just no spirit of adventure, that's
your problem. No wonder it took thousands of years for Earth to get explored."
Deigning to step down, she jumped the four feet from the top casing to the steel
mesh plates covering the ice below.
Crookes turned away to resume following Armitage and Franklin. Behind
Rhodes, Keyhoe heaved himself up and paused to wheeze for a moment before lowering
himself down the other side of the obstacle. He was followed by "Charlie
Chan," the Taloid bringing up the rear, so called on account of the golden
hue of his metal hands and the facial parts not covered by his rough black hat
and clothes of what looked like tire tread and woven wire.
The closest they had been able to land the flyer had been about half a
mile back, among the remains of some kind of derelict construction beside the
main conveyor line that ran through the area. The flyer's two-man NASO crew
and the party's other military escort had remained to guard the craftnecessary,
since certain types of Titan's metal-searching animals had developed a liking
for Terran alloyswhile the scientific party continued the rest of the
way on foot.
The "tower" was in fact little more than a protuberance of girder
frames capped by a circular platform, standing thirty feet or so above the general
level of the structures in the vicinity. What made it interesting to communications
engineers like Crookes and Keyhoe were the shapes on top that pictures from
low-flying reconnaissance drones had revealed, suggestive of communications
antennas. The pictures were low-resolution infrared, however, which made positive
identification difficult, and no actual transmissions had been detected. Hence,
the only way to find out for sure what the shapes were had been to go there
If the whole Titan scene was indeed the result of some vast, alien, self-replicating
industrial operation gone wrong, as supposed, it seemed likely that it would
originally have used radio communication. A number of scattered and intermittent
transmission sources existed, seeming to support such a conjecture, and some
of the Taloids possessed what appeared to be a residual reception capability
by which they could, on occasion, "hear" the transmissions. Traditionally,
these latter were considered by the Taloids to by mystics who interpreted voices
from the deity.
The prevalent opinion among the Terran scientists was that radio had formed
the primary means of communication early on in the alien project buy had become
impracticable for some reason after the whole scheme messed up. So the system
had reverted to the backup communication modes that the aliens would surely
have provided if the had been any kind of engineers at all, and the isolated
signals still being picked up were simply a remnant of something that was in
the process of dying out. Thus, the scientists, reasoned, there ought to be
"fossil" radio facilities, recognizable in form but no longer functional,
such as antennas, like vestigial limbs, still being built in the way they had
always been but no longer capable of doing anything. Verification of the prediction
would go a long way toward advancing the theory. Hence the expedition to the
"tower" in the part of Titan that the Terrans called Genoa.