In a bleak future, NightRacer, an Earth campaign veteran, decides to unlock his erased memories. What he remembers, changes everything.
(note: this is chapter 12 from a serialized novel, previous chapter here – link)
The room started warping around Racer.
“What’s going on?” he managed to say, and then everything went to black and white and turned upside down.
“Colonel, wake up!” somebody was saying, shaking him. A strong smell of medicine was coming from somewhere.
“What? What’s going on?” Racer said. He opened his eyes and saw a skinny young man. “Who are you?”
“I’m Seventeen, EnforcerSeventeen. Sir, we’re evacuating the facility. You have to come with me.”
“Where is EnforcerOne? I mean, where is FireBreather?” Racer asked slurring the words.
“She’s with another team. You have to come with me. We’re under attack and have to evacuate this facility,” the guy said.
Racer looked for his gun and com. “Where’s my gun?” he asked.
“They put it in an armory, probably. We need to move!” Seventeen said.
“Wait, I need my gun!” Racer said, opening all the drawers he could find. “And my com, and my uniform.”
“I’ll find you a uniform, sir, but I can’t get you a gun right now. We need to evacuate!”
Racer assessed the situation: he had a pair of shorts on him, and there were some slippers on the floor. The uniform problem was easy to solve: Racer grabbed a sheet from a bed and in one quick motion wrapped it around himself like a toga, then he stepped into the slippers—which turned out to be a little small—and followed Seventeen.
This is like a drill in boot camp, but with slippers, Racer thought, running carefully, trying not to step on the sheet. “Which way?”
They run through a corridor, then through another, and finally got to a garage with some trucks and wide military busses. The noise was deafening. The cars were getting out in a more or less orderly way, but there was a lot of chaos, people were screaming in their coms, and on top of that, a high pitch siren was driving everybody crazy.
“This way,” Seventeen yelled, pointing to a sturdy looking communication vehicle. “Get in the bus and buckle up, sir. We’re moving out in three minutes.”
Inside were two sleepy Martian kids, one maybe fourteen or fifteen and the other a little older, strapped into their seats. They looked a little scared, but the expression on their faces changed to surprise when they saw an old guy wrapped in a sheet. The noise subsided when the door closed.
Racer sat down and leaned toward one of the passengers. “What’s going on?”
“We’re being attacked by the drones from orbit,” the guy said in a frightened voice, pointing to the sky. “They’ve already destroyed the moon station!”
“How many drones are there?” Racer asked, looking for his seat buckle.
“We don’t know. A lot! We received the orders to scatter.”
Racer looked out the window. People were running and giving orders, but overall the evacuation process was moving on.
Seventeen came in and sat in the driver’s seat. He was talking in his com. “Yes. Yes. Acknowledged!” he said, and he stepped awkwardly on the gas. The vehicle jerked forward, and everybody grabbed something, trying to steady themselves. Then Seventeen stepped hard on the brakes. Then he did it again. After a few lurches and hard stops, they finally managed to get out of the garage and onto the road. Racer’s young neighbor leaned toward him and whispered, “He is not what you’d call an experienced driver.”
Racer smiled at the guy. “What do you have in there?” he asked, pointing at the door leading to the other side of the bus.
“Food, water, supplies. Survival stuff, in case we need to camp in the grass. Feel free to go and look if you need something.”
In the back there were boxes with uniforms, but none of them was a good match for the Earth man. After trying a few tunics, Racer gave up: they were all too long and too narrow in the shoulders. He found, instead, a pair of pants that more or less fit him in the middle. He put them on, then cuffed their wide bottoms.
I’m either too old or too alien here, Racer thought.
In the boxes with food and water, Racer found some coffee and crackers. He looked out the back window and saw that the bus had a trailer—some kind of communication equipment, probably an emitter, judging by the plugs and symbols on the sides. Racer took a couple of coffee bottles from the box and went back. The other passengers were asleep, and he left some coffee in their cup holders for when they got up. The bus was on autodrive and Seventeen was texting something on his com.
“Coffee?” Racer asked.
“Thank you, sir,” the driver answered, taking a bottle.
“Where are we going?”
Seventeen displayed a map with their itinerary on the console—sixty two miles to the southwest, then another sixteen south. They’d hide in a small canyon and wait for instructions.
“What’s up with the drones?” Racer asked.
“We were ready for a fight in the atmosphere,” Seventeen said. “But they got into orbit instead. A couple of them flew to the moon and wrecked the stations there. The scientists barely managed to escape. The drones are positioning for an attack on Earth Mountain now. Don’t know any details.”
“Is the defense base safe?”
“Don’t know, sir, but I heard they’re only interested in us.”
“Do you need help with anything?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“I’ll be in the back. Need to find a pair of boots.” Racer said. Seventeen nodded, but didn’t answer. He was too busy typing something on his com.
Racer was rummaging through the boxes, looking for boots, when Seventeen burst through the door. “Sir, General Gardener wants you on a conference call. It’s urgent.”
“I’m wearing a bed sheet,” Racer said in protest, but then he realized this wasn’t a good moment. “Okay, do you have a camera I can use in here?”
“I’ll patch you through,” Seventeen said, pointing to a camera on a wall.
There were five or six people on the call. Racer tried to narrow the visual to his face, but it was set to automatically reset the angle every now and then, and after a few tries he gave up.
“And the guy wearing…what seems like a nicely crafted bed sheet, is Colonel NightRacer, our contractor,” Gardener said.
“Hi! Please ignore the…thing,” Racer said. “Imagine I’m at my vacation home right now, or something.”
“Everybody knows NightRacer, I’m guessing?” Gardener asked the audience.
“I’ve only met his avatar,” somebody said and the screen showed a guy in a ship captain’s uniform. He had bushy eyebrows and a headful of thick dark hair, and he seemed like a strong, maybe slightly stubborn individual.
“Nice to meet you in person, Captain,” Racer said. “Sorry for my casual suit here, but I’m taking a trip right now.”
“Enjoy it!” the captain said.
“NightRacer, you already know Chief of Security KeyStroke.
“Stroke,” Racer said.
“And this avatar is standing for John, the scientist from the City, who can join us audio only,” Gardener said. The avatar had a generic face, realistic enough, but there was something with its eyes. They weren’t blinking.
“And this avatar is standing for Julie. She’s also here in audio only.”
“Racer,” Julie said, nodding. “What are you wearing?”
“A toga. What are you wearing?” Racer said.
“Nothing,” Julie said.
“Ah. Nice to know.”
“I also have on this conference some of my Enforcer guys,” said Gardener. “They’re here to learn, so let’s leave them alone for now. Okay, people, here’s the deal. We’re being attacked by drones, and they could inflict some serious damage if they decide to subject us to orbital bombardment. And that’s exactly what they seem to be doing. Those of you who are evacuating Earth Mountain base right now, please keep radio silence and connect only over narrow band laser.”
“One second, General,” said Racer. “Coms should be off too, right?”
“Absolutely, all coms should be off. If you can pull out the battery too, it’s even better.”
“I’ll be right back!” Racer said and stormed out of the back room in his toga and slippers.
“Seventeen! Shut off your com right now,” he said.
EnforcerSeventeen looked at him with surprise.
“We have drones in the air, shut off your devices before they freaking vacuum us,” Racer screamed again. “Now!”
“Sorry, but how do you think you’re connected to the conference?” Seventeen said.
“You’re broadcasting a signal? Shut it off!”
“I can’t. Gardener insisted on getting you in the conference.”
“He ordered you to broadcast a signal?”
“He didn’t say I can’t use the equipment.”
“Shut it down right now.”
“Okay, okay, you don’t need to scream like that,” Seventeen mumbled, and he started working on the computer.
“Wait,” Racer screamed again. “We can’t just cut it off. Can you patch the signal through the trailer?”
“I could, but that would mean we’d have to stop and acquire a direct link to it”
“Do it now. Link to the trailer with a narrow beam and continue broadcasting the conference call from the trailer.”
“You know what? I’m sorry, but who are you, sir? Passengers are supposed to—”
“Damn it, I need a gun,” said Racer.
He sprinted back, his toga swaying, hoping to find a gun, but then he hesitated.
I can’t believe I have to get to this level, Racer thought. He pinged Gardener, inviting him to a private chat. “General, I’m sorry but your geeks are too soft. We’re broadcasting radio signals. I need to get control of this bus, and I need a freaking gun.”
“Call the driver,” Gardener said.
Racer opened the door and screamed again, “Seventeen, get your ass in here right now.”
The young guy peaked inside. “What?”
“EnforcerSeventeen,” said Gardener. “NightRacer is your direct superior now. Let him drive and make all the tactical decisions. I want you to learn from him. Also, please help him with communications and logistics. This is your unique opportunity to learn from an Earth veteran.”
“Understood, General,” Seventeen said, a little disappointed.
“One more thing, son,” Gardener said.
“Did you take the colonel’s gun?”
“Not me, General. The hospital requires all the guns to be stored, and the colonel has access to all the uniforms we have, and—”
“Seventeen,” Gardener said in a parental tone. “You’re one of my trusted people. Remember when we discussed the cultural differences between the planets?”
“Yes, sir, I remember.”
“You Martians care about your uniforms, because the uniform is like a pressure suit. It keeps you alive. We Earthlings care about our weapons. Do you know why?”
“Because we’re bloody savages?” Racer said.
“That too,” Gardener said with a smile. “But mostly because of some old military traditions. On Earth, soldiers used to sleep and eat with their long guns at their sides.”
“That’s weird,” Seventeen said.
“I know, and I agree, but we don’t judge traditions. We respect them.”
“Understood, sir,” Seventeen said.
“Okay, buddy, sorry about this,” said Racer, this time in a friendly tone. “Give me control of the bus.”
Still in his toga, Racer walked to the driver’s seat and took over the bus. “Please make sure all the coms are off,” he said, but Seventeen was too busy configuring the trailer equipment. Racer let him work and quietly collected the com devices from the sleeping kids, turning them off and pulling out their batteries.
When they got a connection, Racer unhooked the trailer and let it ride off the road. They stopped a couple of miles farther to the east, behind a bolder. They deployed the bus’s camouflage and established a narrow band link to the trailer.
“Give me a link to the conference, please,” he said to Enforcer.
“Everything okay there?” Gardener asked when they got connected again.
“Let’s see how long it takes the drones to spot a stationary broadcasting target,” Racer said. They stood quiet for a few seconds, as if waiting for the trailer to be targeted immediately, but nothing happened and the conversation resumed.
“We have seven drones in orbit right now, with satellites in tow. We’re expecting them to use the satellites as projectiles against the Earth Mountain.”
“Do you know if any other locations are in danger?” Racer asked.
“Providence and the Security base? They are safe. These drones were ordered to destroy us, and they’re following their orders.”
“Understood,” Racer said, but before he even finished the word, the screen went blank.
A mile away the trailer imploded with a quiet “oomph” and abruptly transformed into a ball of metal and rubber.
“What’s going on?” Seventeen asked.
“They took out the trailer,” Racer said, displaying the image of the imploded trailer on the screen.
“But there was no explosion.”
“There was an implosion. The drones seem to enjoy using implosion charges to take out equipment,” Racer said.
“Goddess of Earth! That could’ve been us,” Seventeen said. He looked at the other two kids who were up and were peaking at the screen from behind him. Nobody said anything.
“Can you connect directly to the mountain base from here?”
“We’ll have a connection, but we need to move. We’re behind the schedule already.”
“One problem at a time.”
Seventeen switched to the bus’s laser equipment and got a connection.
“Still wearing your toga, son?” Gardener asked when they got reconnected.
“It has its advantages,” Racer said. “They missed me again.”
“Thanks for detecting the security threat, Colonel,” One of Gardener’s Enforcers said. “You were right: not everybody turned off their coms. While you were out, two of our vehicles got shot.”
“Glad I could help. EnforcerSeventeen here gave me a hand,” Racer said, hoping to mend fences.
“Now let’s get back to our problem,” Gardener said. “We are dealing with a technologically superior adversary. These drones are probably alien, but they’re working for one of our factions, one that NightRacer missed.”
“Which one?” Racer asked.
“Tech Pioneers, or as we all like to call them pawns,” John the engineer said.
“Pawns. Yes, they survived,” Racer said. “Those are some tricky sons of the bitches.”
“No argument here. Tricky indeed,” Gardener said. “Our intelligence shows that they’re in cahoots with the Trappers, the true owners of Eden.”
“General, we’ll do everything we can to shoot those devils down,” the captain said.
“Thank you, that’s very nice of you, Captain. I just want to mention that these drones are learning fast. Last time we fooled them with chaff and decoys, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re now prepared to use the same techniques against us. We shot at them from orbit with lasers and rockets, and if we try to shoot them again, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ll have some countermeasures in place.”
“They also know how to hunt old men hopping in bunny suits,” Julie said.
Racer nodded. “Maybe, but they know squat about bed sheets.”
“Captain, did you print that bunker buster we asked for?” KeyStroke asked.
“Sorry, Chief, I would’ve loved to do that, but my system wouldn’t allow me to just print a bomb. I need authorizations, and I need procedures,” the captain replied.
“What if we find a creative way to solve this problem?” Stroke asked.
“How creative?” the captain said.
“First, let’s say Phoenix team requests some time and resources to print some equipment. Would that be possible?”
“Then, let’s assume you find a problem with one of your nukes and send it for repairs to, let’s say, the Defense base.”
“That’s going to be a little bit more complicated, but I guess we can do that too,” the captain said.
“And finally, let’s say that your ship is requested to take one of the Phoenix’s shuttles to a certain island.”
“Then we have all we need. General Gardener requests access to a printer, you send a nuke to the base using our shuttle, we print the bunker buster parts, then we assemble the bomb on the shuttle while you give us a ride to the island, and we drop it. Boom!”
“How do you know it’s on that island?” the captain said.
“I calculated the trajectory of the launched drones and found their starting point.”
“My engineers tried the same thing, and came up with nothing. Are you saying that you’re smarter than my engineers?”
“Quite possible, No offence, but did your engineers use the AI to calculate the trajectories?”
“Then yes, I’m smarter than them. I used my own human brain to make the calculations. I looked at the trajectories of the capsules after they released the drones, and at the air vortexes created close to ground by the launched capsules.”
“Why can’t our AIs think of that?” the captain asked.
“Because this is twisted,” John the scientist answered. “You need a human mind to find devious solutions.”
“He’s right,” KeyStroke said. “Computers are too decent to think like us.”
“What about the drones?” the captain asked. “How did they learn to use satellites as projectiles?”
“Alien race, advanced computers, or a rather, let say simple person analyzing their failures,” John said.
“AIs most likely,” Stroke said. “A person would have learned faster, and we keep outsmarting them. What we need is to outsmart them one more time, while we keep printing, and then destroy that wasp nest. Let’s just hope they don’t synchronize their activities with some super-brain somewhere.”
“Let’s see what we are dealing with here.” Gardener said. “Captain, you fought pawns before, am I correct?”
“Yes, and it was super-scary. They shot once and we all took off like a flock of scared birds.”
“What happened?” Gardener asked.
“They confronted us close to a new system we were targeting for colonization. We were on a mission and had terraforming ships waiting for our signal. Pawns told us to leave. We shot one of their com drones to show our fire power. They told us which ship would get hit and advised us to evacuate all the personnel. We laughed, but the ship captain ordered everybody to suit up, just in case, and get in the escape pods. It turned out to be a good idea. Pawns shot a projectile at Mach twenty-something from some kind of rail gun. It hit the ship’s hull, made a tiny entry hole and bloomed inside the vessel. We don’t really have a word for this thing. The engineers told me it’s not a real explosion: the projectile breaks into nice geometrical pieces, the fragments disperse and smash everything inside. It’s like a giant flower blooming.”
“We later managed to intercept one of their smaller ships. Human error—they were overconfident and negligent. So they missed us. One of our robots silently drilled a hole in their hull and killed everybody inside with a radiation flare. We found one of those charges onboard. Only one. Our scientists x-rayed it and scanned it, and then tried to take it apart. It was one big chunk of metal with no parts. But inside, at the molecular level, it had all kinds of perfectly shaped layers. Those molecular layers divided it into three inverse cones and bunches of what looked like balls, cones, and needles. When those three cones hit the hull and then each other, they spread the smaller pieces inside the ship at different angles and at different speeds. The effect is devastating.”
“Molecular level layers? They’re probably using some strong magnetic fields to create those,” John said.
“Could be,” Keystroke said. “It’s also possible that, while printing, they spray metal with nanobots programmed to interconnect and create layers.”
“In any case, this is way out of our league,” John said.
“Can we simulate this in one of the labs?” Julie asked. “Both magnetic fields and nanobots?”
“We can try,” John said. “Simulations are easy.”
“Racer, why don’t you tell the nice people here about your encounter with a certain tiny insect in the town of Providence,” Gardener said.
“Well I guess some of you saw me entering a certain grocery store in Providence,” Racer said.
“The one you set on fire?” Julie asked.
“Exactly. I came in and I found a bottle of SkyWalker on a counter, waiting for me. Gift or bate, I’m still not sure which, but it was some good stuff. While I was fooling around with that bottle, I saw a roach.”
“Fooling around as in…?” the captain said.
“As in drinking from it.”
“Damn, why don’t they send me gifts like that?” the captain said.
“I sent you a bottle once, Captain. Didn’t you like it?” Gardener said.
“As I said, on a shelf I saw a roach,” Racer said. “I pulled my gun and it beeped, then flipped over and squirted a cloud of dust out of its behind.”
“That must’ve been some Skywalker,” Stroke said, smiling, but Racer ignored him.
“The dust particles created a screen, and the roach shined a tiny red beam into one of my eyes. On the screen I saw a certain general, a pawn of course, whom I knew from Earth when he was a lieutenant. We had a talk and he tried to persuade me to send my report to him. I didn’t make any promises, and that was it. The screen collapsed, and the roach jumped back on its legs.”
“Did it self-destruct by any chance?” John asked.
“No, I hit it with the bottle and then set the store on fire.”
“Were you drunk?” Julie asked.
“A little, but I knew what I was doing.”
“Damn, man,” said Stroke. “Why didn’t you put it in your pocket or something? Do you know how much we could’ve learned from it?”
“Actually that would’ve been very dangerous,” John said. “I’ve seen what the pawns do when their secrets are in danger. I was working for a security company a couple of years ago in the Sol system. We were providing security for a conference. Pretty basic stuff. Virtual realities and human culture or something, but we were told to use all the bells and whistles in terms of security: deep scans, detailed searches on the Net, all those kinds of personality checks. Very strict rules.
“And then one of our guest’s history raised a flag. He was okay but didn’t quite fit in. His body scans were acceptable, but he was a little too strong for a scientist. You know how there’s a certain weight per height, per muscular mass ratio for different occupations on different planets? Well, for his planet, he had the ratio of an athlete, not a scientist. His presentation was good, his stories all checked out, but there were a number of his public life events we couldn’t corroborate. Once he arrived from a distant system a little bit too fast, another time he was recorded in two separate places at the same time. Small things like that. So we invited him to our office for a talk. The moment he shook hands with our chief, he blew up, and he took half of the conference hall with him and a good part of our team. I was lucky to be in another building at the time. His scans showed a regular size com implant, which worked just fine, and the last frame of the video showed his head exploding, which means the charge was in the implant. They had enough space to fit a com in a small thing like that and pack a shitload of explosives on top. I’m surprised the roach didn’t explode when you smashed it. I can’t even guess what happened. Maybe it got damaged, maybe it wasn’t supposed to explode, or maybe it melted, and it disintegrated a few seconds after you hit it. You just don’t know.”
“That was a clone,” Gardener said. “The guy that exploded in the building was a clone. They have clones that can blow up, and they use them for assassinations and other things like that.”
“They kill their own people? Can’t they deploy a drone or something?” Julie asked.
“From what we’ve seen so far, they prefer to use people,” John said. “I’m guessing for them this is cost effective, and a person can always reach deeper behind the defenses. Judging by the video recordings of the way guy behaved, he didn’t even know what he was. He woke up in the morning probably, thinking about his presentation, had a coffee, read the news, and then went to talk to some security people and—boom! Somebody blew him up remotely.”
“That’s human consciousness saved and then transferred,” Julie said. “What the host does with strawberry and mind mapping these people—or aliens or whatever they are—they do it with computers.”
“Somebody told me once he saw a picture of a storage facility with hundreds of cloned bodies in boxes waiting to be transferred a mind,” Gardener said. “I thought he was crazy.”
“Spooky!” KeyStroke said.
“I went to one of those VR conferences once.” Julie said. “The pawns were obsessed with virtual realities. Their idea was that in the future all the people will live only in VRs and will organize themselves into casts. They said our brains will adapt, and those from working casts will be born with skills for production. Those form the service class will be born with the instinct to serve. And a small political cast with leadership skills will rule them into a bright future. In other words—slavery.”
There was a long silence, then KeyStroke said, “Goddess bitch!”
Nobody cared about this breach of etiquette, but Racer felt like he needed to say something. “Watch your language, Stroke. There are young people on the call.”
“Sorry, man,” KeyStroke said, shaking his head. “That’s just…that’s just mind blowing.” No one bothered to comment on the fact that the chief of security was apologizing to a civilian.
“Chief KeyStroke, here is some good news,” said the captain. “We have your nuke parts. What’s next?”
“And we have the 3-D models for the bunker buster,” one of the Enforcers said. “We can start printing whenever you’re ready.”
“Let me see them,” said Stroke. “Send me a lower res version.” Stroke opened them and examined them for a moment. “Damn, these are very good designs. You guys really know how to build a bomb. Wow, you parents must be proud.”
“Their parents were killed on Mars,” Gardener said. “Sorry if I’m too blunt, but this is the truth. A guy walked into a bar, I know it sounds like a bad joke, but that’s exactly what happened. A guy walked into a bar at the edge of the Pavonis city and blew himself up. The dome collapsed and killed a lot of good Martian people trying to save Earth.”
“Sir, the drones have all the satellites in tow,” somebody said. “They’re moving into position.”
Gardener turned around to see something a young person was showing him.
“Okay, they’re positioning to attack,” he said, and he turned to face the camera.
“Are they going to throw satellites at us?” Julie said.
“Precisely!” KeyStroke answered.
“How?” Julie said.
“Well, they’re going to carefully calculate the orbit—I’m pretty sure they already have the coordinates—and then launch.” KeyStroke stopped his explanation. “Hey! I see…how. That makes a lot of sense. Without the satellites there is no Global Positioning System.”
Gardener turned around again. “Any satellites left in orbit?”
“No sir,” the young Martian answered.
“How are they going to calculate the precise position?” Gardener asked.
“We have a few ground towers broadcasting GPS positions,” KeyStroke said.
“And do you have control over those towers?” Julie asked.
“As a matter of fact…” KeyStroke said, and he forgot to end his sentence. He was too preoccupied calculating something on his com. Finally he said, “Captain, would you mind asking a couple of your engineers and scientists to verify this data for me?”
“What is it?” the captain asked.
“A small error we have to introduce into the GPS signal.”
The captain didn’t answer. He forwarded the message then stood there either ashamed or embarrassed, looking at the results. “NightRacer, we need to talk.”
“Is his bus in the way?” Stroke asked.
“Let him move it right now, then,” Gardener said. “Don’t waste more time, Captain.”
“Racer, here’s the thing. You had to stop and talk to us, and we can’t change that. After adding that error to the GPS, drones are going to think Earth Mountain is the place where you’re standing right now. To put it mildly, it’s going to rain thousands of liquid metal bullets down on you.”
“Sorry, man,” KeyStroke said. “There’s nothing we can do about this. A little bit to the north, and Providence will get wiped out. A little bit to the west and the base is getting clobbered. And we have another small town to the east. You’ll need to move as fast as possible and hide in that canyon over there. The good news is that there’s still some time, but you’ll have to race like crazy and dive under the falling debris so that—”
“Got it. Captain, please put some chaff between the satellites and the drones when you have an opportunity. I need to use the radar. Racer over!”
NightRacer jumped into the driver’s seat, losing one of his slippers, and stepped barefoot on the gas pedal, making the bus take off in a sudden jump, throwing the Martian kids to the floor along with all the unsecured objects.
“Sorry about that!” Racer said. “We’re going to race to the canyon, and I need you guys to help me.”
“What needs to be done?” Seventeen asked, getting in a seat and buckling up in a hurry.
“What kind of safety features does this bus have?”
“Standard,” Seventeen said. “Airbags and foam.”
“Can you get into the system and increase the amount of the foam?” Racer said.
“I guess it’s possible. Are we going to crash?”
“Here’s my plan, guys,” Racer said, and he looked back at the three young men. “Let me know if you have any objections.”
“We’re listening,” one of them said.
“First things first. I’m NightRacer. What are your names?”
“The young guys looked at each other with a little hesitation.”
“They’re Twenty-Four and Twenty-Five, but we call them Tom and Jerry,” Seventeen said. “Because their real names are Thomas and Jerry.”
“Makes a lot of sense,” Racer said, driving like a maniac, Martian style. He was trying to keep an eye on the road while looking at the kids behind him in the rear-view mirror. “Why don’t you guys come here where I can see you, and we can talk?”
They came to the front of the bus. One of them, the smallest one, sat on the dashboard. “I’m Jerry.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Tom,” the other guy said.
“You too, Tom,” Racer said. They were looking at him with curiosity and anxiety. “We’re going to get to the canyon, but we don’t have time to look for a road down. So I think we should take the shortest way down and crash into the canyon.”
“Can we survive a crash like that?” Jerry asked.
“We have to,” Racer said. “I need you to brainstorm this one with me, guys. How do we crash and still live to tell the tale? We have airbags and foam.”
“We could put on our body armor,” Seventeen said.
“Good! Do we have body armor on the bus?” Racer said.
“We’ve got armor,” Tom said.
“What if we…? No,” Jerry said.
Seventeen looked at him. “What?”
“No idea is stupid,” Racer said. “What is it?”
“What if we extend our vehicle’s robotic arms and land on them, like you fall on your hands?” Jerry said.
“We have robotic arms on this bus?” Racer said, accelerating even faster on the empty road.
“Yes,” Tom said. “We also have two machine guns on the roof. We can use them too.”
“With real bullets?” Racer asked.
“Real Earth bullets, sir,” Tom said. “Lead and steel.”
“Perfect. Do we have enough ammunition?”
“Who’s going to control the robotic arms?”
“I’ll give it a try,” Jerry said.
“Listen, I need you to put on your body armor first, then get in your char, buckle up and give me two hands, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean, sir.”
“We’re going to take a shortcut to the canyon right here,” Racer said, pointing to a place on the map. “There may be some rocks on the ground and I’ll have to go around them, fast. I need you to use those arms as pivots when we need to turn fast. When we fall into the canyon, bend those elbows and punch the ground as hard as you can.”
“Tom, are you ready to shoot some machine guns today?”
“Yes, sir!” Tom answered with a lot of enthusiasm.
“Give ’em hell! When we’re ready to jump, make sure there are no rocks in front of us. If you see one on the edge, kill it. Also, while we’re falling down into that big ditch, try to put as much lead as possible into the place we’re going to land on. We don’t want anything hard there when land. Go put your body armor on.”
“Seventeen, I need you to do two things. First, start that radar and configure it to look at the sky for any large objects. After that, please gather some essentials—uniforms, blankets, food—in a box, and put them right here besides me, where they can’t hit anybody. Two, throw out of the vehicle everything that’s behind us and is not secured. If that equipment crashes on us from behind, no airbags, no foam, and no body armor will save us.”
“Yes, sir. Do you want me to find you a uniform?”
“There’s no time. Do you think some of that body armor will fit me?”
“I’m sure I can find something for you,” Seventeen said.
There were four big boulders in their way and Racer drove around them as fast as the bus could go. Jerry did a good job of using the robotic arms to keep the vehicle from losing its balance. In the rear-view mirror, Racer saw Seventeen throwing boxes and pieces of equipment out the back door.
“At a speed like this, a smaller vehicle with slightly longer arms could simply flip over those rocks and land on its wheels,” Jerry shouted from his seat.
“Good idea!” Racer said. “You could jump over fences like that, too.”
There was a cloud of burning metal coming for them from the sky, and Racer was driving like a maniac straight for it. “We’re going to make it. We’re going to make it,” Racer kept saying to himself. “Tom, start shooting at that cloud.”
“Why, sir? We can’t change its trajectory,” Tom said.
“If we can lose even a pound of our ammunition we have a better chance. Don’t worry. They can’t shoot back.” Racer immediately regretted saying that. Like a lightning bolt, something hit the back of the bus, leaving a giant crater behind them, maiming their right arm, and opening a gap in the right side.
“What does the crater look like?” Racer screamed, trying to be heard over the noise made by the air gushing through the broken right side of the bus.
“Like a flower!” Seventeen shouted. He shot like a bullet through the back door. “They’re shooting at us with rail guns!”
“Are you okay?” Racer asked.
“Yes, it barely missed me. I think they can see our radar, but they don’t have a solid target and are shooting blind. Also, we just lost our power cells.”
Racer checked the navsys. It switched automatically to the battery power, and they had just enough power for maybe another hundred yards at that acceleration.
“We still have some juice left in the batteries to get there. We’re going to make it!” Racer shrieked. “Tom, start shooting everything in front of us!”
The machine guns turned on, making an infernal noise and leaving a trail of shells on both sides of the vehicle. There was a problem with the right back wheel, and Racer had to raise it to prevent it from slowing them down.
Seventeen sat in his seat, buckled up and yelled at Racer, “Anything else I can do, sir?”
“Pray!” Racer said.
“Tom, Tom, shoot that rock!” Jerry screamed, pointing with the remaining robotic arm at a boulder at the edge of the canyon in front of them.
Tom turned both of his machine guns on the rock and ate it in seconds.
Damn it, those are some good guns, Racer thought, and at that moment, they reached the edge. He accelerated like crazy and turned the bus just a tad to the right so they could use the one remaining arm to soften the fall.
Time seemed to slow during the freefall. The box of supplies was floating in the air. The guns were barking madly, mulching the ground on the bottom of the canyon.
The left arm is late, Racer thought, and he had just enough time to glance in the rear-view mirror and see Jerry’s contorted face as he screamed, “Take this.” In the last possible moment the arm punched the ground with all its force, penetrating the dirt and making the bus hang in the air for a fraction of a second, balancing on the metallic arm.
The machine guns choked, and the airbags kicked in, and they were all enveloped in silence and smelly foam.
In another second, the ground shook from the rain of burning metal drops hitting the prairie, but Racer was too far away to feel it.
He was back in Texas again, driving on the beaches of Corpus Christi. The sun was playing hide and seek with some fluffy white clouds, and the water was amazing. He lowered all the windows and stopped to enjoy the breeze. It was a beautiful September day, and only a handful of tourists was on the beach. A flock of pelicans was surfing the wind, two kids were playing with a dog. The water was amazing. And that song, that song. He stopped the engine and turned the volume up.
La-la-la La-la-la La-la-la-la-la-la
La-la-la-la-la-la La-la-la Corazon…
What was it about that melody and the lyrics in Spanish that he barely understood?
NightRacer took his shoes off and stepped out of the car.
“Sir, sir, can you hear me?” somebody was saying, shaking him. “Can you hear me, sir?”
“Let him rest, Jerry,” somebody else said.
Jerry. That kid, Racer thought. Am I sleeping? Should I wake up?
“But I have something for him.” Jerry said.
NightRacer opened his eyes. He was on a shuttle, it was dark outside, and they were flying.
“Sir, you’re awake?” Jerry asked him.
“Yes, what’s going on?” Racer said, and he realized he had a massive headache.
“The drones are gone. You had a concussion, but you’ll be okay,” Jerry said. Then he turned to the others. “Guys, come here. He’s awake!”
“Nice to see you’re recovering, sir!” Seventeen said. “We were worried.”
“Is everybody okay?” Racer asked.
“I got a fractured arm, but it’s already healing,” Jerry said, laughing. “My left arm.”
“He’s got a war wound. He’s like a veteran. We’re in trouble now,” Tom said. He slapped Jerry on the back, and they all laughed.
“Sir, General Gardener sent you something,” Seventeen said. He put a holstered gun and a small bottle of grape wine on his bed. “He said this will help you. Not the gun, the other thing, sir. Also said he’ll meet you at Julie’s place.”
“Put the gun under my pillow and let me have a sip,” Racer said. His neck hurt, but he managed to lift his head and drink from the bottle. The juice was sweet and also had a metallic taste to it.
“Sir…Colonel NightRacer, we were talking…actually, we were wondering something,” Jerry said.
“What?” Racer said, hearing the emotion in young man’s voice.
“When we were dragging you out of the bus, we had to take off your…well, toga or whatever you call it. You have a lot of scars.”
“Trust me, I’m not proud of many of them. A couple of them I got in the battles, but the rest are from drunken fights.”
“On Earth? Why were people fighting, sir?” Jerry asked.
“Well, I’d like to say it’s complicated, but it was actually very simple. We were losing our planet, the only one we knew, and every one of us had a death wish, but we didn’t have the courage to kill ourselves, so we fought, hoping somebody else would kill us.”
“Do you think we would’ve made it on Earth, our team?” Jerry said.
“The three of you? You would’ve all made generals.”
“How about the four of us, sir?”
“Our team? Me driving, you controlling the robots, Tom the machine guns, and Seventeen the computers? On Earth, with a team like ours, we would’ve won!”
La-la-la La-la-la La-la-la-la-la-la
La-la-la-la-la-la La-la-la Corazon…
What was about that melody? He took his shoes off and stepped out of the car.
Somebody was coming. He heard steps on the sand.
“You keep playing a melody. What is it?” somebody said.
Racer turned around and saw Julie, the young Julie he knew from Europe.
“I was waiting for you to stop,” Julie said. “You were driving around and would stop every now and then, but by the time I got to you, you took off again. What’s that melody you’re playing?”
They stood on the beach, looking at the water.
“I don’t remember, Julie. It’s something from back home. I was is Corpus Christy on the beach when I heard it. It was a beautiful September weekend. Some fragments of that song come back to me every time I think of that beach, but I can’t remember the lyrics. It’s in Spanish anyway.”
“You know you’ve been sleeping for twenty-four hours, right?” Julie said.
“Twenty-four hours? For me it seems like I just fell asleep. I’ve been driving and singing.”
“You’re in Gardener’s hospital, recovering. They said you’ll be a young man again in a day or two. Apparently you haven’t seen a doctor in a long time.”
“I don’t need doctors. Can they wipe off some of my memories?”
“You tried it once. I don’t think that would make you happier,” Julie said.
“How did the drone war end?”
“The ship took the shuttle to the position above the island, and they dropped the bunker buster. And that’s it. You had a commotion, one of the kids broke his arm, and a few vehicles got shot when you were evacuating. They’re having the funerals later today.”
“Did the drones stop fighting?”
“They did. After they lost their connection with the base, they ran to their hiding places in the mountains, trying to disappear, but Gardener’s ship hunted them all down. The captain used regular bullets this time: lead and steel, no lasers. His scientists are happy. They recovered a lot of weaponry and electronics.”
“What about the factory. Did it all melt in the blast?”
“The factory. That’s the weirdest thing. It had compartments designed to sustain a nuclear blast. Some of the parts survived but locked themselves out after the explosion. We have an army of robots working on those walls. From what the video from that place is showing so far, it doesn’t seem at all like something built. It seems more like a living body. It has organs. Some parts were responsible for collecting metal from the minerals, some for transporting it, some were creating nanobots, and some were cleaning the waste. And what’s left is trying to rebuild itself. They had a macro camera pointed at one melted piece for a few hours and when they fast-forwarded the video, that thing was growing.”
“So you have everything under control now?” Racer said.
“More or less. The word is spreading and scientists from all planets are getting on the ships to come and study that thing. Gardener is getting his wine bottles ready.”
“How much longer before I can get up?”
“Another day if you want to be healthy, eight hours if you don’t. I’ll leave you to enjoy the water. And sing. This melody is helping you heal.”
Julie opened a door behind her and stepped out.
“I need to tell you something,” Julie said. “Just don’t freak out, please.”
“What?” Racer said, knowing well what “don’t freak out” usually meant.
“A security team is on its way to Providence. A pro is in charge. They’re texting each other. Nobody’s saying a word. Something bad is going to happen.”
“What kinds of weapons do they have?”
“Don’t know anything about their small arms, but they came on an armored carrier.”
“Let me talk to Gardener,” Racer said.
“You’re not going anywhere, Racer! You haven’t fully recovered, and these people are not going to play with you. They’ll shoot you on sight.”
“I was their chief for many years. They’ll listen to me. Damn it, Julie, they’ll kill those kids if they can’t find me.”
“I’ll tell the caretakers, and they’ll all hide. If you go there, all of you will die.”
“Wake me up now,” Racer shouted. “How do I wake up? Let me go!”
Julie groaned, then opened in her palm a small screen with Racer’s name on it, and she pushed a slider up.
NightRacer woke up in the same hospital bed on the Earth Mountain base, sweating and agitated. His com was on the nightstand nearby. He grabbed it and dialed EnforcerOne, overwriting the response waiting. “Do you have a shuttle?”
Enforcer didn’t answer his first call, and he hit the buzzer.
“What’s going on?” a sleepy voice replied.
“Do you have a shuttle? I need to get to Providence.”
“Colonel? NightRacer? You’re sick, sir. You can’t go anywhere. And we don’t have a shuttle right now. Why do you need it?”
“Stroke and Greg are in danger. I need a mode of transportation. What do you have?”
“A car. But it will take you hours to go around the canyons.”
“Don’t have hours. Anything else?”
“An IPR, Infantry Personnel Rocket?”
“A flying coffin?” Racer said, reaching under his pillow and grabbing his gun. “Oh, damn it, I was hoping to never use one of those. Okay, I’ll take it. And get me some of that wine, please.”