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By the second decade of the twenty-first century the nations of Earth, while as prone as ever to the localized squabblings that would probably be a part of the human scene for as long as humanity endured, had receded from the specter of global doomsday that had tied up entire industries of creative talent and stifled vision for over fifty years. After a period of indecision while governments absorbed the new realities and former defense-satiated contractors searched for a new direction, the leading-edge technologies that the years of confrontation had stimulated became the driving force of a revitalized, multinational space program.

An early object for further investigation was Titan, the giant moon of Saturn, perpetually cloaked in high-altitude clouds of red-brown nitrogenous oxides. The first probe to attempt a surface survey was the European Dauphin, which arrived in 2018. Data acquired previously from astronomical observations and the probes sent to the outer planets in the 1970s suggested surface conditions close to the triple point of methane, raising the intriguing possibility that it might exist as a gas in the atmosphere and in its liquid and solid phases on the surface, thus playing a role comparable to that of water on Earth. Some scientists speculated that the hidden surface of Titan could consist of methane oceans and water-ice continents covered by nitrogenous hydrocarbon soil precipitated from the upper atmosphere, with methane rain falling from methane clouds formed below the aerosol blanket. It was even possible that radioactive heat released in the interior might maintain reservoirs of water that could escape to the surface as ice "lava" and perhaps provide a fluid substrate for mountain building and other tectonic processes.

And, indeed, radar mapping by the Dauphin orbiter revealed vast oceans, islands, continents, and mountains below the all-enveloping clouds, the details of which were published and caused widespread excitement. The public account, however, left out the highly reflective objects—suggestive of huge metallic constructions—which in some cases extended for miles, along with the glimpses of strange machines transmitted back by the Dauphin's short-lived surface landers.

The Europeans shared their knowledge of what was presumed to be an advanced alien culture only with the Americans, who at that time were alone in possessing a large, long-range craft in a sufficiently advanced stage of development to follow up on the discovery. This was the pulsed-fusion-driven Orion, the development of which had been partly funded by a private consortium centered on the General Space Enterprises Corporation (GSEC) specifically for manned exploration of the outer planets. Launched, crewed, and managed operationally by the newly formed North Atlantic Space Organization (NASO), the Orion mission to Titan departed two years later.

In addition to NASO personnel, the mission included scientists from a wide range of disciplines, linguists and psychologists because of the prospect of encountering some form of intelligence, and a force selected from elite American, British, and French military units to afford a measure of protection, since the probable reaction and disposition of that intelligence were unknown. In this age of mass culture the GSEC directors were mindful that any future policy toward Titan that they might consider beneficial to their interests would need strong public support to be viable. Accordingly, at their instigation, the mission also included a major celebrity from a field that the antiscience reaction of recent times had endowed with significant public influence, which GSEC hoped to be able to exploit to its advantage: the super-"psychic," Karl Zambendorf. Along with him went the team of assistants that accompanied him everywhere.

What the mission found on Titan was more astonishing than anything that even the most fanciful interpreters of the Dauphin data had imagined. Below the cloud cover, Titan was inhabited by a living, evolving biosphere of machines. Sprawling tangles of self-reproducing industrial technology proliferating out of control extended across huge tracts of the surface. And roaming around this mechanical "jungle" were various kinds of freely mobile machines that apparently formed part of a weird yet apparently functional ecology.

The only explanation the bemused Terran scientists could conceive was that it had all somehow mutated from an automated, self-replicating industrial complex set in motion by some alien culture long before. What alien culture? Where were they now? What had gone wrong? Why Titan? Nobody had answers.

But perhaps the most amazing find of all was that this unique form of life had evolved its own bizarre brand of intelligence. The scientists dubbed the beings the Taloids, after an artificially created bronze man in Greek mythology. They were an upright, bipedal species of self-aware robot that wore clothes, tamed and reared mechanical "animals," grew their houses from pseudo-vegetable cultures, and worshiped a mythical nonmachine machine maker, which they reasoned must have created the first life. They saw the miles of proliferating machinery as "forests" and quarried ice to build their cities. As nearly as could be approximated, the Taloid culture was comparable in its level of progress to Europe's at the time of the Renaissance; accordingly, the Terrans dubbed the Taloids' geographic political groupings after the medieval Italian city-states.

In terms of advancement and productive potential, the technology running wild all over Titan surpassed anything that existed on Earth. The backers of the Orion mission quickly realized that whoever could gain control of that potential would cease to have any effective competition on Earth, commercially or politically. Therefore, just when the Taloids were beginning to challenge the old feudal tyrannies and experiment with more liberal ways of governing their affairs, the mission's GSEC-backed leaders adopted an interventionist policy aimed at keeping the traditional rulers in power as local puppets to run the intended neocolony.

Public opinion back on Earth was misled by distorted accounts of what was going on, and for a while the future of the Taloids looked bleak. But then, more by accident than through any deliberate design, Zambendorf and his crew became the instigators of a new "religion" that swept through the Taloid nations, causing them to throw out the old, authoritarian powers and their teachings, and hence to reject the intervention of the powers from Earth that were trying to prop up the old system.

The resulting exposures became the subject of an international scandal, causing GSEC to be relieved of its control and NASO to assume full command of the Titan mission. The GSEC representatives and associates left ignominiously with the Orion when the time came for it to return to Earth. Zambendorf and his team, however, remained as part of the mixed complement of NASO personnel, scientists, and a small military detachment left behind to carry on the work at Titan until the arrival of the newly completed Japanese ship Shirasagi, due five months after the Orion's departure.



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