and the Basin Rider Rendezvous
by Steven C. Levi
part 1 of 2
Cerebrus was a classic tale of what was wrong with the 21st century. It was the saga of greed and rebellion, scoundrels and saints, and a lot of people in the middle just trying to keep the rajyx from the door.
Cerebrus was so close to Earth that it had been discovered in the early 1900’s by astronomers using telescopes. A small planet with no redeeming scientific oddities, it was cataloged with a number, labeled as a “dead” planet and forgotten. There it remained, in the dustbin of astronomical archives for almost one hundred years. Then it reappeared for the basest of reasons: greed.
And the greed factor was not that deeply hidden. In the intervening century, the population of the world had more than doubled. The strong, centralized governments of the Soviet Union and China had vanished, leaving in their wakes thousands of provinces and quasi-independent countries that had tried to buy their way into the future.
Selling what natural resources they had, they stripped their land bare for a handful of dollars while their priceless natural resources flooded into Japan, the United States and the European Community. By 2025, the Fourth World, as it was called, was populated with nothing more than agricultural peons, while the first three worlds had a standard of living that would have boggled the mind of their grandparents.
But with the increase standard of living came two insurmountable problems. First, the breadth and depth of technological advance was so great that shortages of strategic minerals were commonplace. In fact, shortages were so pronounced that recycling became such a high-profit industry that bands of mercenaries would tunnel into landfills on which cities had been built, searching for whatever metal they could find. But still the demand for the metals rose and with it, the price.
Second, the population explosion coupled with the turning of millions of square miles into agricultural belts, changed the weather patterns of Earth and condemned thousands of species of animals to extinction. With food shortages looming, there came a colossal standoff between the forces of industry and those of the environmentalism. Industry needed the natural resources and agricultural products to sustain economic growth and jobs. The environmentalists saw the business community of the world as being so greedy it would fill its pockets this decade without regard for what would happen in the next.
A compromise of sorts was reached when it was agreed that the spread of agricultural development would be stopped. This would stop the decimation of what natural environment was left. In exchange, any industry wishing to supplement its stockpile of natural resources from planets other than Earth would be allowed to operate that portion of their portfolio tax-free for fifty years. No company could claim any planet, no matter how small, but the company was free to exploit the environs as it saw fit as long as it was no inhabited by any life forms.
The success of the compromise stunned even the most seasoned of diplomats. Within a matter of months, space exploration had exploded into a high-tech boom industry. Like the gold rushes of a century before, every means of transportation was employed to get mineral and petroleum exploration people onto planets to rape-and-run on a scale unknown in human history.
Ancient space ships in junk yards were salvaged and refitted for passenger service. Launching pads and communication complexes virtually erupted from vacant land, and so many geostationary satellites appeared overhead that the United Nations had to meet in special session to restrict the further launching of satellites and dole out the use of the ports of those already in orbit.
Far and away the leader in the race to rape-and-run was the European Community’s giant English Petroleum, a privately-owned company that was interested in anything that would make a profit. Petroleum was its primary interest on Earth, but no one knew what opportunities would arise when their mineral people landed on an unknown planet.
For the purposes of their tax status, English Petroleum listed itself as a petroleum company so it could cling some of its Earth-bound expenses to the tax-free status of its space exploration deductions. In space exploration, English Petroleum found an accounting nirvana. It could slough billions of its Earth-related profits into the tax-free space-related category, even if it never found a drop of oil. All it had to do to receive the tax-free status was to sustain a colony.
So the accountants and engineers plumbed the archives for suitable planets to keep its tax-free status. They had to be close enough to Earth to be easy to supply and far away enough to avoid the meddling of the United Nations. Thus was Cerebrus rediscovered and a colony established. Then the unexpected happened: after an initial visit, the English Petroleum geologist predicted that there was a good chance there was oil in quantities great enough to be economic, even considering the oil was 18 months travel from Earth.
But the bad news was that there were life forms on Cerebrus.
And there were Basin Riders.
* * *
“You’ve been reading too much science fiction,” snapped Bandersnatch George as he jammed a hunk of rabbit onto the end of his pike and drove the other end of the metal rod into the brownish-yellow hardpan of the sulfur plain. “I’ll bet you grew up reading about little green men an’ space ships and all them weird stories they published back in the 90’s.”
“Well...” The kid scratched a week of peach fuzz on his chin and then ran his fingers through his dust-filled hair.
“Listen, Kid. You want to know what’s real? Look out there. From those snow-capped Sulfur Mountains to the Gelatin Sea, that’s all real. That targor over there is real too. This planet is real. You’ve got to stop thinking that this is some kind of a science fiction place. It isn’t. This is Cerebrus, a hot, dusty planet. We’ve got winter and summer just like on Earth. We’ve got days and nights just like on Earth — they’re just a bit shorter.”
The kid was obviously not happy with the reality of Cerebrus. “This place might as well be Earth. I expected something different when I signed on to come here. Like alien life-forms.”
George laughed pleasantly. “This planet’s got alien life-forms.’” He slowly rotated the spike, the flames from the camp fire blistering the meat from raw to well-done. “What do you think that targor is?”
“No. I meant like people. Alien life-forms you could talk to. A targor is kind of a hairy horse with claws, a bear you can ride.”
“A targor can talk. It just doesn’t speak in a language you and I understand. I wouldn’t go calling a targor a ‘hairy horse’ either. They’re a hell of a lot smarter than horses. Almost as smart as us humans. They communicate among themselves and build shelters with those claws, two or three high even, with running water no less — drinking water in, black water out. We’ve got fourth-world people with less civilization than that.”
The kid shrugged his shoulders and George gave a shrill whistle. The targor sleeping at the edge of the fire’s glow snapped alert, its eyes hidden behind a thick mop of fur homing in on the sizzling meat.
“Come on,” George waved and the targor sprang to its four feet and padded forward. As the animal moved, it walked like a bear, bending its front paws forward, rather than back as would a horse. And it certainly ate more like a bear than a horse.
There was only one thing the targor feared, George knew, and that was fire. While scientists didn’t know for sure why, it was assumed the fear had to do with the fact that the targor’s body hair was supposedly flammable. This conclusion seemed strange considering that Cerebrus had more than its fair share of volcanoes. More than likely it was because the targor couldn’t control man’s oldest invention. A human could start and stop a fire at will; the targor couldn’t.
Had it been 150 years earlier, George would have been called a cowboy or, more appropriately, a drifter. He looked like a cowboy. It was almost as if he had stepped out of a snapshot in one of the enhanced history book where the photographs were holographed and combined with others to give a truer image and depth of field. It wasn’t a true picture in the sense that the scene shown had ever occurred. Rather, it was a collection of historical images that existed on film and had been combined to give a single, in-focus, striking, historical image.
More appropriately, George would have been the perfect long rider. He wore a dark duster that fell to the top of his boots to keep the yellow-brown sulfur dust off his clothes and equipment and he wore a red bandana around his neck which he used to cover his face when he was astride the targor. A rabbit-leather hat covered his thinning hair and he had a pair of sun-and-sand goggles which hung loosely from a rawhide cord around his neck.
The only difference in appearance between George and a cowboy was that George didn’t pack iron. There was no reason to be carrying a weapon on Cerebrus. The only carnivores here were the targors, and they liked humans.
But there was a great deal of difference between what George did and the cowboy of two centuries before. He was a wildcatter, a free-lance petroleum engineer looking for oil. When he found oil, he made a claim and then sold it to the highest bidder. He’d been on seven planets and each one just as English Petroleum was moving in. He sold his claims for a modest profit and then moved on.
In spite of the fact that he sold petroleum claims to English Petroleum, everyone at English Petroleum thought he was a Basin Rider, an on-site mineral geologist. The Riders lived solitary lives in the planet’s interior, far from the colonies, searching for minerals. They were suspicious of everyone with whom they came in contact, and for good reason. Most of the people with whom they came in contact worked for English Petroleum.
Basin Riders were, to English Petroleum, were the bane of the universe. This was because of the marked difference between the oil and mineral companies. Oil companies wanted to find oil and extract it out of the ground as rapidly as possible and then move on to another find. What happened to the soil and environment was of no concern to them. After the oil was gone, the oil companies left.
On the other hand, the mineral companies needed a stable environment. They could not just plunge a drill bit into a copper deposit and suck out all the copper. Even with the most sophisticated ore removal systems, it would take decades to deplete the find. Ruining the environment made the mineral extraction process nearly impossible. The miners needed the grass and shrubs to hold the soil together so the wind wouldn’t turn the mine into a dust bowl.
When oil companies and Basin Riders met, it was bad news for the oil companies. The Basin Riders would use their own communications network to report to their companies what English Petroleum was doing. The best situation for English Petroleum was a planet with no environment. For the Basin Riders, exactly the opposite was true.
When English Petroleum and Basin Riders met, the consequences were not pleasant. Though never stated as official policy, once it was proven that someone was a Basin Rider, an open season on that individual was declared. A bounty was unofficially announced and no-questions-asked payments made. Unfortunately for English Petroleum, Basin Riders were not the kind of men who could be bushwhacked, and many more bounty hunters disappeared than Basin Riders.
George knew that quite a few people at English Petroleum believed he may very well have been a Basin Rider, and he didn’t discourage such thoughts. He kept saying he was a traveling wildcatter, but the Reptisoids in the main office in London were sure he was a Basin Rider. George liked it that way. It gave him a perverse thrill to know that someone somewhere was thinking about him, even if the thoughts weren’t the kindest.
Nightfall on Cerebrus was abrupt. With a rotation twice that of Earth, there were no lingering, lengthy sunsets. When the sun set — or what everyone on Cerebrus called the sun — the dark side of the spinning planet went jet black immediately. Near the saw-toothed Sulfur Mountains, night came even sooner because the spine of the range cut the daylight by a good forty minutes. Once the sun dropped behind the 30,000-foot crest of mountain peaks, inky black shadows, quite literally, sprinted across the canyon floor, filling the valley with darkness.
“Toss some more of that wood on the fire. I’m not going to sit in the dark just because the targor doesn’t like fire.”
The kid shuffled about in the dark. “Aren’t you afraid someone will see the fire?”
“Hell, no. I’m not a Basin Rider. Why should I care if anyone sees the fire?”
“Aren’t there a lot of Basin Riders out here? Have you ever seen any?”
“See ‘em all the time. They’re skittish. Stay away from the main trails — and big fires like this one. They ride targors out in bush.”
“Why don’t they use trucks? They could move faster.”
George snorted as he felt through his saddlebags for some salt. In the darkness, he could hear the targor gently gnawing on the hunk of meat.
“No vehicle’s any good out here.” George leaned back against a sulfur boulder, careful not to put too much weight on it. “No gas stations to keep those trucks going. Once the pipelines go in there will be, someday, but not today. Until then, the only thing you can ride across the sulfur plains is a targor.”
The sulfur flats weren’t really pure sulfur, though they looked that way. Actually, there was quite a bit of what could be called “soil” mixed with the sulfur, enough to support grasses where water was close to the surface. Scrub grew everywhere else, its root networks digging deep for the elusive elixir of life. There were some sulfur dunes but, for the most part, the sulfur plain appeared more like the Nevada desert with the only difference being that the color of the soil on Cerebrus was a brown-yellow — and the dust tasted like sulfur.
“I saw some tread scars back about two hours ago,” the kid said breaking the silence. “That means—”
“...nothing,” George finished the sentence. “Using a vehicle of any kind out here, even those new-fangled solar-powered jobs, is out of the question. One bit of trouble and you die unless you know how to live off the land and where to find water. It would be a long walk back through this heat. No, a vehicle is only as good as long as it has fuel and oil and water.”
“How about a plane?”
“Some of those old bush planes might make it, but why use a plane? What’s out here? Just a couple dozen wildcatters, a few Basin Riders and every once in a while, some of those Reptisoid, English Petroleum environmental people. You know, snake people.”
“You don’t seem to like English Petroleum very much; and you’re a wildcatter. You’re in the oil business.”
George took a deep breath and looked across the fire. For the hundredth time since he found the kid wandering around apparently lost he looked at the holes in the kid’s shirt where the English Petroleum identification badge usually was. The kid’s damn lucky I found him before a Basin Rider did, George thought. Then he answered the kid. “I don’t like English Petroleum at all. They did a terrible job on Earth, polluting the environment to find oil.”
“They were only doing what everyone else was doing.”
“No. They were doing it better. As long as they weren’t in England, they didn’t care what happened. Remember that oil spill in Prudhoe Bay in 1998? There was petroleum goo four feet deep spread over 200 square miles. All English Petroleum said was that they were sorry.”
“Well, they were.”
“The only thing they were sorry about was that anyone made a stink about it. Now look what they’re doing to Cerebrus.”
“What’s wrong with what’s going on here?”
“What’s wrong with it?! When were you born? You don’t know what’s wrong with going to a planet and deliberately killing every living thing there?”
“English Petroleum is only killing those animals it can’t find and transport out.”
“Wake up.” George waved a chunk of flaming rabbit on the spike before dropping it on the kid’s plate. “Where do you think this rabbit came from? Do you think it jumped all the way from Australia? You think this little critter stowed away on a cargo skyrider? Then there are the shrews, hares, lemming, mice, voles and all those other plant-eaters. Those were brought here to eliminate the habitat.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Look. What does the rabbit eat? What do the mice and rabbits and voles eat? They eat anything green, right? Heat and cold don’t brother them, right? The only natural predators here are the targor and there aren’t that many of them at all.”
“Well, there’s plenty of food for everything.”
“Are you kidding?! Two years ago you could walk from the Celsius Divide to Sulfur Mountains and not see anything but grasslands and green brush. Look at it today. Those Earth animals are eating this land to dirt.”
“Well, if that’s true, then the animals would be eating themselves out of house and home. It would be real stupid for a company to spend a lot of money to cargo in Earth animals that would eat themselves to starvation.”
The kid couldn’t see it but Bandersnatch George was shaking his head in disgust in the darkness.
Copyright © 2006 by Steven C. Levi