Chapter One - Graylion's Report
phase of our evolution is marked with the actions of particular,
serendipitous male and female anthromorphs who happen to be in the
right place at the right time. This is the essence of scientific
discovery and species development.
You may grind lenses to look into the microscopic universe or giant, extraterrestrial telescopes to peer deep into space but you may be surprised at what you find looking back.
Over a thousand years ago, our history was affected by the anthromorph named Graylion. He was a humanoid who started his career as a Balancer and eventually became something greater.
Here is his story, told in his own words, as he intended for the world to remember.
--Felix Leibert (lynx anthromorph), Chief Historian at Andromeda Database A.D. 4576
* * * * *
My name is Balancer Graylion. I must tell my story now before the Network puts its spin on what happened on Skorsis. I am posting these words on the Hypernet so that colonies throughout the galaxy, including the sad remnants of the Lunar Settlements, will know the truth about the skorites…and why I did what I did.
About six months ago I was ordered by my commanding officer, Captain Iguana, to attend a top secret, top brass meeting of the Hydrodyne Network, our employer. I am indentured as a Balancer for the Network.
Hydrodyne is the provider of the majority of the hydrogen and related technology that is used to oxygenate and hydrate barren planets. The Network is in the business of mining any place found to be rich in fossil fuels and precious metals like gold, zinc and copper. Skorsis was such a planet.
We Balancers spent most our time hunting down the outlaws who interfered with the mining operations. These were mostly the Section 21’s and their ilk. It usually turned out to be a burned-out drill operator who got drunk and killed somebody or trashed a Network excavation site somewhere in the Outer Colonies.
We’d do the basic, no-brainer Acquisition, Tranquilization and Arrest bit. I was good at it and the Network paid me well when I helped them clean up their messes.
Ever since the Synthesis Wars in 4199 most of us Network Balancers were on ATA detail. Before the Interspecial Treaty of the Scutum Arm all of us were Phalanx Leaders in the war.
Network Balancers’ contracts provided that we be brought out of cryosleep only during Mission Assignments. Otherwise, Network time and training would be wasted on the seven-month journey from cold storage in the Terran District to the Skorsis system in the Frontier District. It was a distance of one thousand light years from the Network home world in the Orion Spiral Arm, closer to the center of the Milky Way to where Hydrodyne and other interstellar oligarchies pursued their mining interests.
The Network had projects in several planetary systems in the Scutum Arm, including the Skorsis system and a few more in the Three Kiloparsec Arm. These were what anthromorphs called the Outer Colonies of the Frontier District. The Outer Colonies were the theater for the Synthesis Wars not so long ago.
The Network sought to make mineral-rich planets devoid of life more accessible to releasing their natural wealth. Minimally trained skeleton crews guided monolithic Network galleons, loaded with cargoes of gargantuan oxygenation and hydrolyzation machines.
These machines were set by Network engineers to undertake the arduous, centuries-long process of making airless planets habitable by carbon-based life. Of all the Outer Colonies, the oldest and most developed were the copper mines on Skorsis.
For the last three hundred years the atmosphere generators gave Skorsis air, precipitation, glacial erosion, rivers and oceans where previously there was only desolate, arid desert.
I didn’t learn about the trouble with Balancer Sunwolf until Captain Iguana pulled me out of cold storage for an emergency meeting.
There were four of us in the briefing forum at the Hydrodyne Security Headquarters orbiting Skorsis. I had just revived from cryosleep an hour earlier and I felt like my head was being used as a pile driver at a Hydrodyne mine.
“Thank you for coming, Graylion.”
Captain Iguana offered me a seat at the table. Dressed in Network Security uniform, the Captain was a tall, reptile anthromorph with a looming forbearance. He had a blue tinge to his skin and yellow, ovoid irises. For the last eight years he had been monitoring Skorsis.
“This is Doctor Anaximander, our chief geneticist.”
The Captain gestured to a middle-aged mutant. Instead of limbs, several muscular, red-veined coils extended from his torso where his arms and legs would be.
Dr. Anaximander stretched a prehensile coil holding the remote control for the briefing forum computer. The imaging display was activated and everyone saw a three-dimensional, holographic depiction of the Skorsis system.
Dr. Anaximander nodded to his colleague, a lion anthromorph like me.
“According to Dr. Mbabwe’s research, Woden and Loki failed to establish orbits around their sun during their initial formation. They were ultimately reconstituted by the star, a young, mid-sized, yellow cache of superheated hydrogen. That left Skorsis and a trio of auxiliary moons.”
“Why don’t you continue, Ibis?” offered Dr. Anaximander.
“Ibis Mbabwe is our resident geo-physicist.”
Dr. Mbabwe was a beautiful woman in her late twenties. She took the remote control from her mutant companion.
“Skorsis was the only entity of investigable size in this system. The potential yield and subsequent profit from copper capital was deemed worth colonization by the Network.”
The holographic image changed to a close-up of the surface of Skorsis.
“This is what the planet looked like three hundred years ago.”
I was surprised at the similarity between the untouched planet’s meteor-scarred surface and archival photographs I had seen of the Network home world’s moon before the Lunar Settlements were built.
The outer crust of Skorsis was riddled with gaping fissures several miles long. These great rifts were an indication of millennia of parched stagnation. The planet had some terrain composed of mountains and valleys but they were the result of the constant bombardment of cosmic debris rather than seismic activity or continental plate shifting.
Dr. Mbabwe shook her fur as she continued.
“Along with the atmosphere and precipitation the Network also had a bio-tech team release amino acids in key aquatic locations as oceans and continents became defined. Network research has enabled us to execute the same genetic process in three centuries that takes natural selection six hundred million years to accomplish.
“This has resulted in the rapid emergence of thousands of new Skorian species, predominately ocean flora. The gravity of Skorsis is slightly less than that of our Network home world. Due to this, there have evolved many large vertebrates, some with endoskeletons, others with exoskeletons.”
The briefing forum computer generated a now blue Skorsis with several, vast continents. Superimposed over this image was the limited bio-data and anatomy of a handful of the known xenomorphs indigenous to the awakening planet.
Dr. Mbabwe handed the remote back to Dr. Anaximander.
“You should cover this, Doctor, since natural observation is more down your alley than mine.”
I couldn’t help but marvel at the poise and moxy of this intelligent lion woman.
Dr. Anaximander stretched most of his appendages and cleared his throat.
“Skorsis has copious amounts of marine life that create a food chain centered on the various strains of kelp and fungi. They thrive near the coastlines and in the first twenty or thirty feet of the oceans. There is a proper hierarchy of paramecia and plankton-like organisms.
“The life on land has evolved more recently and we have not yet had time to observe all that this planet has to teach us. Suffice it to say, however, that there are some amphibians and a few fliers and herbivores. The largest of the land fauna is the predator, Xyrix Carapacia.
“The adults of the species can surpass fifteen tons. Although the most visually intimidating, the Xyrix Carapacia is hunted as well.
“And this is why we have brought you here at great Network expense, Balancer Graylion.
“As you know, there are other Network mining projects in systems throughout the Frontier District that received colonization and amino acid dissemination. No sentient xenomorphs ever evolved. This and the speed at which these carapace hunters came to exist out of the primordial, skorian ooze alarms us.
“We need to better understand these super-predators, gather more helpful data and make the appropriate assessment.”
“So I am your reconnaissance,” I said.
“Exactly,” Dr. Anaximander replied.
“Tell us what you can about this skorite mob. Do they pose a threat to our mining interests on Skorsis?”
I was surprised by the words of Dr. Anaximander. I knew that the Network planted or instilled life and habitats on barren planets. I didn’t know their accelerated genetics program was so developed or could work so quickly.
A downward-looking view within the holographic display, recorded from a thermal scanner in orbit, showed a herd of Xyrix Carapacia being hunted. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Dr. Anaximander spoke as we watched.
“The skorite hunters are nomadic social animals that travel in groups of two or three dozen.”
I saw a pack of warm bodies conduct an ambush. They thrived on the shelled mollusks’ bewilderment. I turned to Dr. Anaximander.
“Is this normal? Are these species supposed to evolve to a sentient state? They appear to have organization. How intelligent are they?”
Dr. Anaximander grinned, proud of his creations.
“To be quite frank, Balancer Graylion, I don’t know.”
I was curious.
“You haven’t done an ATA on a Xyrix hunter? I would think the forensic data yielded from dissection would be revealing.”
Captain Iguana was flabbergasted by my questions.
“Yes, well this is where your services are needed, Graylion. We sent Balancer Sunwolf to the surface when one of our peripheral, automated prospecting units was rendered inoperative. Network technology does not fail independently so deliberate sabotage was apparent.
“The Network sent Balancer Sunwolf eleven months ago. He was supposed to rendezvous at the pick-up point with a full, digital dossier on the Xyrix hunters twenty-eight days after insertion.”
The computer generated a map of the southern coastline of Remus, the largest continent, where the Network had the majority of its mining projects stationed.
“A hundred miles down the coast of Remus is our main Network mine site, Tranquility. We have three hundred mutants and families situated there.”
Dr. Anaximander’s brow furrowed with concern.
“Since the Network deposited Balancer Sunwolf on the surface of Skorsis we received neither radio nor Ultra High Frequency transponder signals. His Global Positioning Implant is active. We want you to locate him, complete the reconnaissance on the skorite hunters and get back up here as soon as possible.”
Captain Iguana swiveled in his chair to face me.
“This is a mission with risk, Graylion. That’s why I requested that it be you the Network awakened from cryosleep.
“You knew Balancer Sunwolf. All of us fought together in the Synthesis Wars. Because of the nature of this assignment, the Network has allowed me to offer you, in return for services rendered, release from your indenturement.
“Good luck, Graylion. See you in a few days.”
At last the meeting was over. I prepared to travel to the surface of Skorsis with visions of Dr. Anaximander’s astrophysical and biological machinations swirling in my imagination. What secrets awaited me on the planet below!”
The doctors and the Captain had done their best to create the usual Network ambience of polished decorum. But I am a Balancer and my instincts told me that if I was brought out of cryosleep, there was a reason the Network wanted my expertise and experience on this job instead of some rookie still wet behind the ears from the cloning tank.
I had known Balancer Sunwolf. He was like an older brother to me. Two trimesters ahead of me in the Network Indoctrination process, he was an adept and prodigious Balancer Initiate.
In weapons marksmanship and arrest tactics he was impeccably the best. What could have gone wrong for Sunwolf?
He was someone I would trust with my life. Despite the mysterious nature of these skorites, I intended to bring him back to the Network, no matter the cost.
One thought lingered, tugging at the back of my mind.
What would I do if I succeeded?
The Captain said that upon my return I would be released from my status as an indentured employee of the Balancer elite.
I am Balancer Graylion. My purpose is to serve the Network and thwart all those who would perpetrate its laws. Before the Network we served in the War. What would I do if not what I was Indoctrinated to do and kept in cryosleep to do all these years?
The landing pod was disposable. It carried the bare essentials for the trip to the surface. It was basically a ceramic bubble with a heat shield on the bottom.
Lightning was chased by explosions of thunder. The wind ripped the tall, grassy weeds that surrounded the landing pod.
The sun peeked through the purple and black clouds that galloped across the sky. It descended from the electric storm, a dark, red spheroid of shimmering, undulating fire that curved wide in the distortion of the atmosphere.
The thunderheads released torrents of rain and pebble-sized hail. I felt the wind blast droplets of water and ice onto my body. The Skorian air tasted fresh. Its uncanny purity shamed the filtered and recycled oxygen used in the cramped halls of the Network Security Headquarters.
The plant life was astonishing. In the shallow valley where my pod came to rest the plants that grew everywhere stood twice my height. They had an aquamarine hue.
I decided to ride out the storm in the pod. The relentless rain beat a perpetual, disjointed tattoo on the ceramic hull of the entry craft. I tried to contact Captain Iguana but the lightning kept interfering with my transponder.
I settled for the night in the pod and dreamed while I slept. When I awoke the next morning I had a strange memory that I dreamed the entire planet was alive; the grass, the forests and the fauna. I figured it was my excitement over tracking down Balancer Sunwolf.
I had a visitor. It was one of the skorite hunters. He was a small, exoskeletonous vertebrate possibly four feet tall. I was amazed that such a dense, armored body could move about with such ease. The same size creature on the Network home world would have been unable to move about with such a heavy skeleton. I concluded that the lighter gravity of Skorsis made it possible for this chitinous being to ambulate and penetrate the thick grasses more deftly than I.
On his back and limbs the skorite had orange and red spotting. The rest of his torso, thorax and abdomen were a pale, translucent gray. His face was equine, with a protrusive nose and mouth.
I wondered if this small, stalwart-looking being could be one of the same warm-blooded hunters I saw subdue the terrible Xyrix Carapacia with such cold, strategic skill.
Before I could do anything, the skorite spoke without making a sound.
You are a Balancer. I am called Rhythm. How are you called?
For several moments I could not respond.
“My name is Balancer Graylion. I take it that you know of Balancer Sunwolf and have learned our language. I have never before encountered one who communicates telepathically, without speaking, as you do.”
This has been the way of my people, who you call ‘skorites,’ for the last eight generations. I have come to take you to your companion, Good friend Sunwolf.
The skorite hunter, Rhythm, further explained that he was the first of his species to encounter Sunwolf when he arrived on Skorsis.
The dense grass and bracken of the valley made it difficult to navigate, even when I used my all-purpose, cutting laser. My alien guide took to the task of passing through the fragrant grasses like a duck to water.
Rhythm continued to explain the ways of his people to me as he used his strong forelimbs to act as a wedge, like a cowcatcher on an ancient Network steam locomotive. He made a space in the tightly-grown grass that closed just as quickly behind us, leaving no recognizable evidence of our passage.
I no longer doubted that I was indeed addressing the cunning and scrupulous slayer of the Xyrix.
I asked Rhythm if his species had always preyed on the giant creatures. He answered as we hastened forward.
We have hunted the Xyrix Carapacia and other creatures as far back as the elders can recall. However, we are not nomads. You saw our hunting parties from orbit. We hunt in the plains and the lowlands of the elder planet, Skorsis, but my people live on the mountain.
Soon the terrain changed. As we left the grassy valley we entered a thick, old-growth forest and the land continued to incline upward as we traveled.
As I gazed about I was intrigued. Only a few centuries ago the land was flat, bereft of water, plants and animal life. I marveled at the complex, highly-developed being leading me deeper into the Skorian wilderness. I remembered my question to Anaximander.
“How intelligent are they?”
Now it seemed that I was as much an object of curiosity to the skorite as he was to me.
“How long did it take you to learn our language from Balancer Sunwolf?” I asked.
Good friend Sunwolf no longer calls himself ‘Balancer’ as you do. Perhaps he will explain his reasons for this to you personally once you meet him. To answer your question, it took several days for Good friend Sunwolf to make enough noises for me to put them all together.
If you think of us as the hunters of the Xyrix, then we think of you as the noisy people. How can you ever hunt your prey if you must make such noise among yourselves?
Rhythm paused and became alert. He appeared to be taking in his bearings or possibly receiving a signal inaudible to my ears.
We are nearing the enclave. Soon you will know all that you came here to learn, Balancer Graylion.
As the land rose, the plants changed around us. The valley’s vast swaths of aromatic, skorian grass became colorful fungi and large flowers. Some of the blossoms extended several feet in diameter. Above us, in the canopy, I heard the cries and screeches of the many varieties of fliers. These creatures depended on the height of the twisting, gnarled trees for protection.
We finally approached the enclave. It was based in an opening in the forest where the tree canopy gave way to the sunlight. This was the home of Rhythm and his skorite people.
The enclave was a conglomeration of interconnected cul-de-sacs. It was not fabricated with wood, because to pierce the flesh of a living tree was sacrilege to the skorites. The habitat was constructed with resins expelled from spinnerets on their bodies.
From the outside, the enclave looked like a pyramidic midden heap. Its glossy, membranous outer layer had hardened into a reflective shell after generations of skorites added to its mass and architecture.
Several trails ran different directions from the surrounding forest to gaping portals that led down into the nucleus of the enclave. A bearded, wolf anthromorph stood at the mouth of the nearest portal. It was Balancer Sunwolf.
“Hello, Graylion, it’s been a while. I knew the Network would have someone come looking for me.”
“Are you all right, Sunwolf? What happened?”
“I’m through with the Network. They’re not just in the mining business anymore. The Network home world is dying. With a stagnant, drab society, its only a matter of time before the Network is sending fleets of space freighters loaded with cargoes of mutants preserved in cryosleep to be awakened upon reaching Skorsis and all the other developing systems. This is a constant demand for expansion. The ancients called it Manifest Destiny. Our own species has reached a crucial standstill and it will progress or die.
“The Network needs an economic boost. It needs more colonies and consumers of Network products.”
As Sunwolf spoke my awareness of the enclave and the surrounding forest changed.
The sounds of the fliers and other denizens of Skorsis seemed to get louder and more chaotic yet I could still hear Sunwolf’s voice.
“You see, Rhythm and the other hunters are really adolescents. The elders are stationary and live at the heart of the enclave.”
Sunwolf ignited a shaft of deadwood that had fallen to the forest floor. It was wrapped in coarse, bark fibers that were shed naturally. The interior of the enclave was organic and reflective and was partially transparent. In the light of Sunwolf’s makeshift torch I was sure that I saw veins and capillaries branching within the massive bulk of the walls.
Without the guidance of Rhythm and Sunwolf I would have been quickly lost in the labyrinthine passages and colonnades of the skorite warren.
Although our path took several twists and turns we continued to travel downward.
In the flickering torchlight Sunwolf’s face looked different. When we were Initiates going through the Network Indoctrination process Sunwolf was the most self-assured and confident. In battle simulations he was the fastest to discern xenomorph threat from innocent bystander.
“I came down here on orders, just as you did, Graylion. I guess it took seeing Skorsis firsthand for me to realize that I’m burned out and sick of it all.”
Sunwolf closed his eyes.
“I’m tired of cryosleep. I’m tired of Balancing for the Network and all the ATA’s.”
Sunwolf touched the walls.
“Feel this place. This is the future. It lives and breathes in the accelerated biogenesis of this planet. I don’t want to go back to the Network. I don’t want to be a slave anymore.”
“Slave,” I murmured.
The organically buttressed architecture of the enclave became more solid and large-scale. Multitudes of smaller passageways and vents merged to form wider, naturally fortified, ribbed chambers.
Finally we came to the nucleus of the enclave. It was an egg-shaped ventricle that received a constant flow of air from the surface several hundred yards above. Attached to an umbilicus extending from the center of the ceiling were the elders.
No longer needing to perambulate under the gravity of Skorsis, the elders were a colossal, cohesive, symbiotic entity. I was unable to tell where once central nervous system ended and the next began. I could make out over a dozen bulbous skorite faces in the immense, chitinous body.
They communicated in the same manner as Rhythm, but with a more harmonic, subdued euphony to their collected expressions.
We are the elders. Welcome to our home. We invite you to share the dreaming with us.
At this time, a band of skorite adolescents produced the spleens of half a dozen slain Xyrix Carapacia. The ensconced elders digested the meat and expulsed a psychoactive gel.
Before encountering the skorites it had not once entered my mind to question the directives of the Hydrodyne Corporation and especially Captain Iguana. But the look on Sunwolf’s face possessed a peace I had never known existed. Before meeting the skorites disassociation from the Network was a respite Balancers found only in death. My friend, Sunwolf, had spoken the truth about the emptiness and banality of life in the Network, life as a Balancer. He had a fresher point of view on life than I did.
On the advice of Sunwolf I sampled a dollop of the quivering substance as he and the other skorites did the same. The skorite elders combined their minds to establish a telepathic network, linked to the echolocation signals of hunting groups over all Remus and the other continents of Skorsis.
The enclave was like a low frequency, sonic lighthouse. The entire structure was designed to send and receive messages to skorite hunters and scouts in the most remote regions of the planet.
We merged with a hunting party in the center of the continent of Remus. Unlike the heavily forested, lush mountain environment surrounding the enclave, these skorite hunters traveled the flat lands. The clear, skorian air made it possible to see over fifty miles where distant foothills brought a rim to the plains.
Dark storm clouds gave the atmosphere a palpable, humid density. The grasses were of a similar size to the phylum that I encountered when I first landed on Skorsis. Instead of being an aquamarine color, they were ruddy brown. The aroma of their black and white speckled flowers smelled like the threatening storm.
The skorite hunters watched a foraging horde of the giant predator mollusk, Xyrix Carapacia. They fed on ferret-like critterlings that they plucked from their shallow burrows with their dextrous tentacles.
The leader of the skorite hunters was an adolescent male who resonated a harmonious mindvoice.
Wait, they are still feeding. When they have gorged themselves and are sated we shall move in on the one with the gimpy tentacle.
The proposed victim did not seem hindered by his scarred, severed appendage. He seemed very content as he directed two chittering, squirming critterlings into his snapping mandibles.
When the hunters did attack it was en masse. Their dun and spotted coloring allowed them to virtually disappear in the billowing grasses. Their method of diversion was a piercing, echolocated burst. Although experiencing the scenario through the bodies of the skorites, I could see how it would be impossible to think or run if subjected to such a painful, combined telepathic barrage.
The united hunters were able to quickly subdue and devour the stunned Xyrix, leaving only the empty exoskeleton and the spleen to be brought as a tribute to the elders.
As the skorites feasted they recanted the mindsong, the crux of the dreaming as it was manifested on their adolescent level. The mindsong was echoed by the voices of the other hunters who sang details of their own journeys, hunts, ordeals and tribulations.
I realized that just as the elders included the hunters in the dreaming, so had they incorporated Sunwolf and myself. I felt Sunwolf reaching out to me within the swirling, astral, alien pantheon.
At last you understand. Now you see the vulnerable relationship that dominates the elder planet, Graylion!
If Hydrodyne continues to develop mines in this system, Rhythm’s people don’t have a chance. We’ve got to do something or else the dreaming will be a thing forgotten to the universe.
The Network has the same process working in a myriad of systems.
I had to admit to myself that I found it hard to believe that only three hundred years earlier, all Skorsis was a barren, volcanic wasteland. Could it be just as quickly returned to such an inhospitable state?
I wondered how I could have been so confident in my duties as a Balancer. The thought of conducting a dissection procedure on a skorite seemed inhumane now that I was on their territory, seeing through their eyes.
Suddenly it seemed like we were hovering, invisible within the Network Security Headquarters. The elders were consoling.
Don’t be alarmed. We want to share with you what we have dreamed. Your compatriots are planning many things of which you are ignorant.
Captain Iguana and Doctor Mbabwe sat alone in the darkened briefing forum. They were in the middle of a heated argument. Captain Iguana was angry.
“I don’t want anymore screw-ups. This time I say we revive a real soldier from cryosleep. What have you got from the Synthesis Cadre?”
“Are you serious?”
Doctor Mbabwe was equally frustrated.
“Have you forgotten what happened the last time they activated a cyborg programmed for extinction?”
“How do you think we won the Synthesis Wars?”
“Some of those species are still recovering. Some species were completely obliterated!”
“There is no substitute for cost-effectiveness.”
“You insensitive bully! What about the possibility that Balancer Graylion has run into some unexpected contingency preventing him from reporting? Don’t you think you should give him the benefit of the doubt?”
“I have no doubts. This is insubordination, plain and simple. In the Network, failure to comply with orders is punishable by immediate Acquisition, Tranquilization and Execution.”
Captain Iguana was not swayed by Doctor Mbabwe’s words.
“Computer, begin cryosleep revival program, Cyborg Six.”
In the cold, dark storage cells of the Security Headquarters a convoluted, mutant mind began to dream.
Dr. Mbabwe was upset with Captain Iguana’s murderous intentions.
“I’ve had it with you and your Network. You people never did appreciate or understand the ethical responsibilities inherent in genetic manipulation.”
She left the Network briefing forum and began the necessary preparations to get down to Skorsis.
“Is the world going insane?” she declared aloud. “I’ve got to warn the people down there about the cyborg.”
The elders slowed the dreaming. The multitudes of mindvoices from throughout the planet diminished until we were alone. Sunwolf, the elders, Rhythm, a few other hunters and I remained in the nucleus of the enclave.
Sunwolf said, “Captain Iguana is a madman. I had my doubts about him during the Synthesis Wars. Those were desperate times and a lot of people who had no business in the Network were let in. That was before our Indoctrination, though, wasn’t it, Graylion?”
I was also surprised at the rash nature of the decision of Captain Iguana.
“We’ve got to contact the miners at Tranquility, otherwise they won’t even know what hit them.”
Sunwolf addressed the skorite hunters and the elders.
“We must leave. Graylion and I will travel to the mining colony and warn them about this cyborg. We can leave some weapons here. The utility lasers are quite…”
That won’t be necessary, interrupted the elders. We have our own ways of protecting ourselves. When the time comes, we will be ready.
Rhythm led us out of the enclave and along a mountain trail heading down to the foothills. We traveled for the next five days. By the following morning we could see the coast. Settled within a shallow ravine in the foothills was the mining town, Tranquility.
Rhythm spoke with his mindvoice.
This is as far as I go. The last time I ventured further I was assaulted by one of those digging machines.
The town was built on the delta of two rivers. The roads were bordered by dilapidated shanties made from corrugated tin, wood and adobe. The miners were a hardy lot. Most worked driving large drills from shaft to shaft.
A burly, tattooed miner stopped his vehicle, a device with a long conveyer belt covered with steel scoops.
“You guys look new here. I’d say you’re looking for Burgomeister Chavez. You’ll find her in the Bow and Hammer down this road, first tavern on the left.”
We followed the miner’s advice and entered the rough-looking tavern.
The music was nearly deafening. The band, if you could call it a band, was the most motley group of individuals I’d seen since my Indoctrination. The synth-lute player was a jaguar woman.
The drummer and bassist/vocalist were both dressed lavishly.
I grabbed the arm of one of the waitresses and yelled into her ear.
“We’re looking for Burgomeister Chavez!”
She yelled back.
“You’re looking at her!”
She pointed at the musicians entertaining the crowded tavern.
I didn’t know what to say.
“The bass player, are you serious?”
“No, silly, the synth-lute player.”
I thanked the waitress and approached the Burgomeister after the song finished.
“My name is Graylion. This is Sunwolf. We came here as representatives of the Network. Now we represent someone else, a people that are native to this planet.”
Burgomeister Chavez led us to a more secluded corner of the Bow and Hammer.
“This is a desert wilderness in more ways than one. If it wasn’t for the nightly show, we’d all be bored to death or at each other’s throats half the time.”
Despite her garb, which was reminiscent of the late Renaissance, Burgomeister Chavez seemed like a down-to-earth person.
“Allow me to introduce a man who is my head of security, and a personal friend.”
Across the table from where Sunwolf and I sat was a muscular, Stygian mutant. He was tattooed with a tribal style.
“Caleb,” said the man who extended his hand in greeting.
The stage crew finished arranging and tuning the equipment for the next act, a reggae band.
Caleb stared at us with his three, feline eyes.
“If you’re from the Network then you can explain how our prospecting units have been failing all over our southwestern perimeter. What kind of animal can shatter the magnesium housing on those units?”
Sunwolf explained the territorial needs of the skorite hunters to Caleb.
The music was wonderful. It made me think that despite the differences between we Network mutants and the alien elders, there was more in common than appeared on the surface. The music of the saxophone wailed in a unique way.
“There is the potential for a lasting, peaceful coexistence between the miners and the skorites,” offered Sunwolf.
“Unfortunately our ex-employer is about to introduce a third variable into the mix, a defrosted cyborg from the Synthesis Wars.”
The Stygian Caleb looked confused.
“What does this cyborg have to do with us? Why should we care what happens to those unit-destroying, super bugs? They have been costing us copper.”
“You should care because you share a common environment,” argued Sunwolf. “You miners may have a different origin and story of how you came to be here on Skorsis, but the fact of the matter is that this is your home now. It is yours and theirs.
“Secondly,” continued Sunwolf, “the Synthesis Wars were an ugly time for all of us. The cyborg represents the worst of the internecine genocide of that era. If one of them is reanimated it won’t know that the War is over. To a ruthless cyborg we are all going to be seen as expendable, xenomorph threats to the Hydrodyne Corporation’s expansionist interests. Efficiency and cost-effectiveness are the new gods of the Network home world. Anything that stands in the way of the juggernaut of progress is going to be eradicated.”
“What exactly does this cyborg do that is so worthy of our concern?” demanded Caleb.
“If anyone makes trouble in Tranquility, the Burgomeister throws them in the hoosegow.”
Unfortunately I did know.
“When I was a Phalanx Leader my troops were ordered to respond to a distress call from some godforsaken system in the Scutum Arm. The enemy landed on the newly inhabited planet’s surface and the colonists panicked. They activated a cyborg from their cryotanks. It was a big mistake. By the time my men got down there, nothing was left; no enemy, no Network colonists, just the shriveled husks of the poor, de-liquified souls. It was all that remained after being sucked dry by that cyborg.”
“What can we do, then?” replied the Stygian.
“Shall we just go out like that?”
Caleb did not look ready to acquiesce.
“We can hide in the old mines and fight the thing on our own turf.”
Burgomeister Chavez was kind enough to offer Sunwolf and me sleeping quarters. This was despite the fact that we planned to sleep lightly, if at all.
“There’s plenty of room in the tunnels along the old, depleted copper veins beneath the town.”
In the streets of Tranquility miners and vendors sealed off their homes and booths. The frightened mutants would depend on the expended shafts of the earliest, initial mines that now lay unused and vacant. An intersecting network of lateral and vertical corridors permeated much of the soil under the town and delta.
The agora was a central marketplace in which many businessmen gathered, looking to barter copper for goods or vice versa, all under the watchful eye of Network tithing clerks. It was a bustling conglomeration of tents in the street. They stood from the front of the Bow and Hammer and extended along the rest of the trading district.
Now there was only the occasional, lonely mongrel that rummaged for edible tidbits among the discarded inventory, forgotten in the wake of the already spreading news of the coming cyborg.
Caleb rose and was about to leave the tavern when I was startled to hear a somewhat drunken miner yell.
“It’s a good thing this monster is coming. Maybe it will relieve us hard-working miners from the bureaucrats that have their fingers in every Network pocket from their precious tithes.”
“Is this going to be the second time this month that I have to throw you in the cooler, Gnash? Why don’t you go sleep it off?”
Burgomeister Chavez gathered herself to her fullest possible stature. She pierced the intoxicated, zebra miner with an icy, maternal stare. Caleb stood beside her. Together the tri-optic Stygian and the sometime musician made an intimidating pair.
“What should I care?”
The nonplussed, black and white-striped mutant had equine features. His dilated irises glinted with a belligerence that told me this was not the first time a miner had spoken his mind about what he saw to be unfair Network monopolization of the groundside economy.
“We dig the copper. We breathe in the dust, dirt and toxic drill emissions and then have nowhere to buy food, grog, even the clothes on our backs except from these overpriced rip-offs.”
Gnash brought his face within inches of Caleb’s as he returned his punitive stare.
“The miners have been itching for breathing room from you management leeches. This cyborg is a blessing. When the cyborg is dead there’s going to be a new social order in this town.”
“That’s enough, Gnash. You’re out of control. Don’t make me have you tranquilized.”
I saw that Caleb’s ire was also rising.
“Let me buy everyone a drink and we’ll see if we can come to some sort of an understanding.”
Burgomeister Chavez wrapped her arms around the waists of Caleb and Gnash.
“We’re going to need every able-bodied miner to help take down this monster. There is no time for divisionist revolts. We’ll deal with the issue of our independence from the Corporation after we resolve the priority of survival.”
It was early the next morning as Sunwolf and I were asleep in our corner of the main transport shaft under Tranquility that I was awakened by a familiar embrace.
It was Doctor Mbabwe. I was surprised to see her. I touched her fur to convince myself that she was real.
“Ibis,” I exclaimed, “what are you doing here? You didn’t need to come down to the surface to contact us.”
“Yes, well I didn’t want Captain Iguana or Anaximander to eavesdrop on my transponder signal so I just followed your global positioning implant beacon. Graylion, I came here to warn you of what Captain Iguana is planning…”
“To summon a cyborg from cryosleep,” I interrupted.
Doctor Mbabwe was astounded.
“How did you know? You’ve been incommunicado for the last week.”
I described the abilities of the skorites to Ibis. I told her how the enclave was the communication terminal for their species and allowed them to observe events that transpired anywhere near their elder planet.
I took Doctor Mbabwe’s hand in mine and bestowed it with a kiss.
“I was afraid I might never see you again,” I confessed.
Both of us were smitten by a trembling shockwave emanating from the town above. Sunwolf awoke.
“What was that?”
“Graylion, listen to me. All of us must leave this place. It isn’t safe here. Cyborg Six is already up there in Tranquility.”
Ibis’ tone was fearful and urgent.
“Are we leaving? Good. I was getting tired of this place anyway.”
The miner, Gnash, emerged from the shadows of the transport shaft, laser unit in hand.
Sunwolf said cynically, “Hello, Gnash! I thought you were going to stick around to establish your new social order.”
Another shockwave rumbled through the tunnels. Small fragments of stone and earth knocked loose from the walls.
Gnash clutched his utility laser like a protective talisman.
“Caleb and the Burgomeister are fighting back. I can hear them!”
The miner’s brow was dotted with cold perspiration. He was several shades paler than he was in the Bow and Hammer the night before.
The Burgomeister arrived in the nick of time. Her face and hands were covered with char and ash. Her visage exuded her distress.
“Alas, Caleb insisted that I retreat. Our only chance is to escape through the sluice line that dumps into the delta.”
Gnash led us quickly to the sluice line, where large hoppers would normally drop mineral-rich ore into a canal that flowed through filters to the river junction. All of us were eager swimmers, considering it was our only means to exit Tranquility.
As we rode the current downstream we saw a column of black smoke reaching miles into the sky from its origin over the charred remains of what had been the mining town.
I thought about Captain Iguana. My onetime commanding officer was responsible for the slaughter of the miners. I was forced to admit that the Network home world was run by mutants with the same, monstrous apathy as the Captain but with a thousand times more power and resources at their disposal.
I was a part of it.
* * * * *
So ends Graylion’s Report. After the destruction of both the mutant settlement and the enclave of the skorite hunters, Captain Iguana withdrew all Network influence from the planet and it was deemed unsuitable for future colonization.
Although crushed by the annihilation of his home, Rhythm led his people deep into the continent Remus to become the first of a new brood of elders in an enclave hidden far from alien intrusion.
Sunwolf, Gnash, Burgomeister Chavez, Ibis, Graylion and a handful of others were the only mutant survivors of the massacre at Tranquility. They too sought safety in the vast wilderness of Skorsis. Doctor Ibis Mbabwe and Balancer Graylion founded a race known only as the People of Skorsis.
They taught their children vigilance so that they may one day unite to confront the cyborg that still wanders the ruins of the Network mining colony.
--Felix Liebert, Andromeda Database