The Immortality Option
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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 utilized—components rejected by the sorting machines; substandard assemblies; unwanted pieces and parts picked up by the roving scavenger machines—was 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 lead—known as Franklin among the Terrans—waited 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 craft—necessary, since certain types of Titan's metal-searching animals had developed a liking for Terran alloys—while 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 and look.

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.

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