In a bleak future, NightRacer, an Earth campaign veteran, decides to unlock his erased memories. What he remembers, changes everything.
(note: this is chapter 13 from a serialized novel, previous chapter here – link)
“Ta-da!” EnforcerOne said, pulling the curtain that separated the Infantry Personnel Rocket form the other equipment in one of the lateral caves. The coffin was exactly what the name implied—a long and narrow claustrophobic space inside a rocket. All it had inside was a harness, a Spartan control board, and a tiny screen.
“That’s an ugly way to die,” Racer said.
“A naked mole-rat ugly, from the southern continent, sir,” Enforcer said. “You ever fly in one of these?”
“I did, unfortunately,” Racer said.
“On one of the planets, during the factions’ wars. We lost that world, but not to factions.”
“Did you land well?”
“Almost. Let’s just say there’s a rusting antiaircraft system somewhere with a flying coffin in its guts.”
“Not fun. Did you eject?” Enforcer asked.
“I ejected just in time.”
“Were there a lot of big rocks on that planet?”
“More than we could ever hit.”
“In Providence all you have to fear is trash and old chairs. This is going to be great.”
“Thanks for cheering me up FireBreather, but I can’t land in Providence. They could see me and shoot down the coffin. I’ll have to crash in some field and then gallop a couple of miles to the ruins.”
“Are you sure you’re strong enough to run? Why can’t those guys just hide? Why do you have to go there?”
“They’re bringing a personnel carrier. No matter how well they hide, without a military grade bunker they’ll be hunted down and killed.”
“They can jump in the maw and hide in the stomach. That’s a tunnel at least a mile long.”
“Will that stomach protect them from pyro charges?”
“No,” Enforcer said, sighing. “It’s just a bunch of roots and bones.”
“Well, I may know a hidden room somewhere in Providence, with a nice stash of guns and explosives. Can you contact Greg?”
“We could ask Ms. Julie to tell a caretaker to talk to him.”
“Pony express. Tell him to give me a com ID where I can send him a code to open that door.”
“Do you want him to fight?”
“No, even with all the guns in there I doubt he can fight a team with a carrier. Maybe Stroke can disable the carrier remotely, but if they’re smart, they turned off the networking and went silent. And attacking a military vehicle would be illegal.”
“Can you fight them?”
“I could, but I have a better idea. I’ll harass their asses.”
“Is that your plan? You want to annoy them?”
“If I can be mean enough to these people, they’ll say enough stupid things to prove that they’re breaking the law. That will persuade the captain in orbit to show them how the laser works.”
“What if they jam the communications?”
“Oh, they will, but they don’t know Julie is listening. The captain can get a message from your team, so we got one advantage at least, but that will take time.”
“Is it legal to use audio recorded by the Grass?”
“Probably not. I need to think this over.”
“Sir,” Enforcer said, looking him in the eye, checking his sincerity again.
“You resigned your commission, right? You’re a civilian. What do they want from you?”
“They think because I made that stupid promise to implicitly support nuking if I die, they have an opportunity to kill me and blame it on the Grass. What they don’t realize is that killing a crazy veteran is not that simple. Providence is a no-man’s-land. Have you ever heard about the Wild West?”
“No,” she said, without even trying to remember.
“Well, that’s something that used to be a long time ago. It’s like a world without rules—no computers, no backup, no gimmicks. For anything you do, you have one shot, and whoever is stronger or smarter wins. That’s one definition, at least. Now, Earth veterans are the only ones who know how to fight in no-man’s-land. I’m guessing there’s another veteran down there, and I’m going to fight that son of a bitch. Damn it, I’ve waited for this for a long time.”
“Martians know how to fight too, sir. Can we help?”
“Yes, you guys are just as tough, but not as cruel as we earthlings used to be. I know: go get a team of good shooters and go to Providence.”
“What kind of weapons should we take?” Enforcer asked.
NightRacer smiled. “You don’t need big guns, only cameras. Get a team of good video shooters and record every image and sound I make when I talk to those guys, because if they’re going to jam all the signals, they’ll feel confident enough to show off. And one more thing.”
“What is it?”
“Keep in touch with your ship, but tell them to stay away from Providence until we have some proof. This veteran is going to keep track of the ship’s movements and will not say anything if he suspects they’re being watched.”
“Got it, Colonel!”
“Thanks, FireBreather. Take care.”
Racer took a big gulp from the Grass juice bottle, gave Enforcer a big hug, stepped into the flying coffin, and closed the lid. The system had already started, waiting for his command.
“Hello, old friend,” Racer said, trying to fit better in the small space. “System ready?”
“Well, what are you waiting for? Go!”
The slingshot hurled the rocket high above the mountains, and Racer’s lungs felt for a moment like they were sliding into his pants. Then the deceleration took over and he was floating inside the coffin. A fraction of second before completely losing its velocity, the coffin’s jet engines kicked in. Racer got another round of lungs in his pants, and then the speed stabilized. On the screen, NAZ prairie and the maze of canyons unraveled in all their beauty.
A flashback took Racer to the skies of New China, or NewCin as they used to call it. The sky was full of the government’s coffins, and the two warring factions all but forgot about their fight, concentrating on taking the coffins down. Racer was a captain then, and his team was taking heavy losses. There wasn’t enough space for landing on the ground, and he ordered them to shoot all the rockets, point their coffins at the enemy’s antiaircraft sites, and eject. The strong wind took their parachutes back a couple of miles, and they had to run back through the burned grass, mud, and slime created by other coffins. Their combined attack managed to destroy the antiaircraft installations, and the operation was a success. The factions were dismantled. By the end of the year, the planet was lost to the Devil’s Grass.
His com rang, and Racer answered.
“How is your flight, sir?” Enforcer asked.
“Couldn’t be better. It’s nice and cozy in here.”
“Do you need anything, like coffee or a muffin?”
“Some extra leg room would help. They built these things for a medium height earthling, and I feel a little cramped.”
“Good thing they didn’t outsource the production to Martians. You’d have enough leg room but wouldn’t be able to breathe. And it would have only one big acceleration pedal—no breaks.”
“I’m thinking to change my nickname to CoffinFlyer after this. It has a ring to it.”
“How about BunnyHopper, sir? Or BunnyHopper-CoffinFlyer, with a dash. Colonel BunnyHopper-CoffinFlyer? Sounds like a good handle.”
“Keep mocking me, young lady, and I’ll turn this thing around.”
“Sorry, sir! I already forgot what I said. Enjoy you flight, Colonel.”
Racer selected a landing area on the map—close enough to a road, but still far enough so nobody could see the coffin from the highway. He had weapons at his disposal, a salvo of three small and lazy rockets, but he wasn’t going to use them. A lucky shot could damage the carrier and delay the security team, but this would only encourage them to call for additional tanks and shuttles, and he could kill somebody in that vehicle.
He could also fly around Providence, come from behind the carrier and shoot the rockets into a building, creating the impression that the intruders took a shot, but that little ruse would not hold for more than an hour, and he could kill somebody in Providence.
No killing, bloody earthling. Stick to the plan, Racer thought.
Just before the landing, the juice got to him big time, and Racer felt like the jet engines were attached directly to his feet and he was soaring above the fields like he was strapped into a giant bunny suit. Instinctively, he tried to spread his arms, but the confined space of the coffin stopped him.
In another minute, the soaring was gone and the ground was coming at him fast on the screen. Racer felt like he was going to plow into the ground head first.
“Ready for landing, old friend?” Racer asked to make sure the coffin’s system was still in control.
“Ready, sir. All the system are working fine.”
“Do you need help with choosing a landing strip?”
“No, sir. I have everything under control,” the coffin’s computer answered.
“Are you sure there are no big rocks in the way?”
“I checked again, sir, and there are no big rocks in the way.”
“How long before we land?”
“We are starting the landing procedure right now.”
Thrusters roared and slowed down the rocket, parachutes deployed, and the landing equipment started excreting strings of slime.
The belly of the rocket touched the ground and slid on the thick chemical foam, but it hit something at one moment and produced a soul-wrenching screech.
Hold it, hold it together! Racer thought as his hand hovered above the Eject button.
Ejecting at that moment could have meant a broken leg or worse. The parachute may not deploy properly before he hit the ground. He’d seen guys who ejected after landing, but they did it to avoid hitting a wall or a boulder in their way. Most of them ended up with broken bones and ugly scars.
Finally, the thrusters kicked in, and the thing slowed down. It stopped in a pile of slime and foam, and the lid popped, making his heart stop for a second.
Racer emerged from the coffin shaking and sat on the ground to catch his breath. He’d practically hyperventilated in the last moments of landing.
“Did you land well?” said Julie. “I can hear you breathing hard.”
“I almost passed out,” Racer said. “Remind me to never drink the freaking juice and fly.”
“Remember kids, never drink and fly. This message is brought to you by NightRacer,” Julie said, and then she added, “They’re almost in town.”
“Do you know where Greg and Stroke are?”
“Greg is in your secret room, probably browsing through your porn collection, panties container, or whatever other souvenirs you got in there. Stroke is driving in town right now.”
“Okay, wish me luck. Record my discussion with the security team, if you can. I’m going to beat the truth out of them if I need to.”
Racer could smell the portable shower chemicals and gun oil from the other side of the town. The door to the secret room was ajar, and Greg was sitting in the middle of the room, wearing a new and clean uniform, sporting a short haircut, and eating soup from a can. The portable shower was slowly folding itself in a corner.
“Damn it, kid, why did you do that?” Racer yelled.
“What? I was hungry.”
“I’m not talking about the food.”
“The shower? Okay, so I took a shower. I was filthy!”
“And the haircut? Damn it! This was not a good time. I need you to look like an addict—dirty, smiling, and retarded. How did you know how to turn on the shower? And how did you know how to link your uniform to your com?”
“I lived on Mars. I know how to do this kind of thing.”
“Okay, big Martian, run outside and dive into some trash. Get a coat or some baggy clothes and a hat. Roll in some dirt if you can, you need to look dirty.”
“I’ll turn on the uniform’s camouflage. I’ll set it to dirty.”
“Not dirty enough. You need to smell like a homeless person. And where did you learn to play with the uniform’s camouflage?”
“It’s not computer science!”
“You know, for a seventeen years old, kid, you know too much. Do you know how to use one of those guns?” Racer said, pointing at the gun rack.
“I guess,” Greg said, “You just load them, point in the right direction and—”
“Forget it!” Racer said. “Go roll in some mud.”
“Why can’t I wait in here, in this room?”
“They’ll find you, and if they see guns on their system, we’re both toast.”
“It seems like a secure enough place.”
“Your DNA is all over the town, and it leads here, and the doors have been opened for what, fifteen—twenty minutes already? They’ll find you, and when they detect weapons inside they’ll blast the whole building, no questions asked. Go roll in some dirt. Take some water with you and make mud. Also, pee on something and wipe it on you, you need to smell like an addict, not like a goddamned cadet.”
There was a lot of noise outside, and it took Racer an effort to separate human sounds from the noise of falling leafs, wind, and an entire collection of flapping plastic bags and broken things. He finally managed to control it, and he concentrated in one direction, distinguishing the noise of an engine and the footsteps of four or five people. Somebody tripped. Not a lot of talking was going on. Somebody gulped water from a pouch. Somebody else spat on the sidewalk. An old pony ran away, avoiding people with guns. Racer could swear he heard their hearts beat faster as they approached the plaza at Sydney Street. They were scared.
Racer and Greg took a few shortcuts through the back alleys and ran toward the restaurant. This wasn’t easy. NightRacer’s legs seemed longer, and the air felt unusually fresh in his lungs.
Greg did a so-so job at getting dirty by putting on a coat that reeked of urine.
“What now? Are we going to fight?” Greg asked.
“I’m going to change the gun’s settings so you can shoot it. Do you know how to smile like and addict?”
“I can’t shoot. I think I’m supposed to be peaceful or something.”
“Did the Grass specifically instruct you not to shoot guns? Yes, no? Are you ready to die for nothing? I don’t want you to shoot anybody. If they decide you’re a talker, pull out the gun and shoot it in the air. That will convince them you’re normal.”
“What about Stroke?”
“What about him?”
“He left earlier on his truck. I guess he chickened out.”
“He’s still this planet’s chief of security. He’ll be okay,” Racer said.
They reprogrammed the gun in a hurry as they walked toward the plaza. The caretakers emerged from another street, sad as usual, but looking ready for action. With them was KeyStroke, walking kind of wobbly.
“What are they doing now?” Hellen asked.
“Comparing dicks,” Julie said, and she immediately regretted saying it.
Hellen looked surprised, and one of her eyebrows went way up. She seemed a little amused, but mostly startled.
“Oh, honey,” said Julie, trying to change the topic. “They’re posturing—threatening, dancing around, trying to intimidate each other. That kind of stuff.”
“Who’s intimidating who?”
“Can’t tell, but your father is stepping into the middle. He’s going to do his thing now. Knowing him, I’d say he’s probably talking in a scary voice and flashing his gun while trying to stare some boys to death.”
“How can you tell it’s him?”
Julie zoomed in on the footsteps. “Weight, steps, stride. Your dad walks like a cat when he’s confrontational. See how he’s moving carefully, stepping from heel to toe? I watched him walk around the town for the last few days, and whenever he feels threatened, he starts walking like that.”
“Well, can we help him?”
“He knows what he’s doing. Trust me, those boys don’t have a chance in hell. If he doesn’t shoot them, he’ll bite their heads off. Your dad is like that. He likes to play with his food. Besides, I’m monitoring the surroundings, and he can still hear me. If anything weird happens, I’ll let him know.”
“What’s that?” Hellen asked, pointing at the sitting man.
“That’s somebody sitting on the ground. What you see is actually his butt, his breathing and his heartbeat. Probably your boyfriend’s behind. Ex-boyfriend?”
“How can you tell?”
“Skinny butt, long legs, also his heart is beating fast. He’s either very scared or excited or both.”
“More like excited. Has he ever been in a gun fight before?” Julie asked. Hellen didn’t bother to answer.
A set of heavy steps followed Racer and got really close to him.
“Who’s that?” Hellen asked.
“That, my mademoiselle, must be your big admirer, KeyStroke.”
“He didn’t look that big when he was here.”
“I know. In his mind he’s still skinny.”
“What’s going on? What does he want from Dad?”
Julie turned the voice listener way up and concentrated the receptor on KeyStroke’s area. They were whispering. She pulled a whisper filter from a box and threw it on the top of the stack. Keystroke was talking slowly, his words slurred.
“All these years,” Stroke said.
“What? Now?” Racer replied.
“I can’t wait,” Keystroke said. “In a few minutes I may be gone.”
“Not what I expected,” Hellen said.
Julie looked at her again. Her eyebrow went up. “Is he transferring his mind?”
“Yes, we’re doing an emergency transfer.”
“Can that damage him?”
“Only if we don’t transfer everything.” Julie said. “They better not start shooting before that.”
“I wish you knew how to delete some of his screwed up personality.”
“I know, honey. I know. I mean I don’t know how” said Julie. “Maybe one day he’ll teach us how to do that.”
There were four of the guards on foot and another one in the carrier. All of them had guns. They were wearing new uniforms, and new breathing masks, and they had extra batteries and water pouches. Still, NightRacer recognized some of them by their eyes.
A week ago they would’ve died for me. Now they are here to kill me.
“Who’s in charge here?” Racer asked in his commanding voice. They didn’t answer, but he caught a younger one glancing rapidly at the guy behind them.
“You!” Racer said, pointing at the leader with his left hand, right hand on the holster. “Who sent you? Who gave you orders?”
“You’re a civilian now, Racer. So shut the hell up!” The guy responded.
“Do I know you? You look familiar.”
“The name’s DesertWind,” the man said. “You don’t know me. All you need to know, is that I’m the new security chief here.”
“The hell you are, Desert!” Racer turned slightly to the right so he could target the guy without waiving his arm too much. “KeyStroke is in charge. I recognize your handle. You fought in the Middle East?”
“Screw you!” the new chief answered in a flat voice. “Are you a talker? Are you playing for the Grass now?”
This guy is going to be a problem. Racer thought.
“Have you ever been to an infected planet, son? Have you ever seen a talker shoot a gun—particularly shoot you in your freaking head?” Racer relaxed his legs and knees, pretending he was getting ready to drop, trying to get the chief nervous. They watched him change his posture, and he could hear the old guy breathe harder now.
At this moment, somebody tapped on Racer’s shoulder, and that almost gave him a heart attack. Behind him was KeyStroke, smiling like an idiot.
“What?” Racer asked him, without taking his eyes from the leader.
“I need to tell you something,” Keystroke whispered. His breath smelled of sweet fruit.
“It can’t wait. I wanted to tell you that I’m staying here,” Stroke said, and Racer saw it in his eyes—he went to the fields and ate strawberries. NightRacer ignored his argument with DesertWind for a second and turned around.
“I had to tell you this,” Stroke said. “I don’t know how long I can last. In a few hours or a few minutes, I may be gone.”
“Why did you do that, Stroke?”
“I had to. I can’t go back to the station. All these years I was fighting it, this yearning…Should’ve walked a long time ago.”
“It’s okay,” Racer whispered. “It’s okay. Go sit beside Greg, I have some important business to attend to.”
Racer turned around just in time to see the new chief only a couple of steps from him, breathing heavily through his mask, and raising his gun.
Their plan wasn’t working. Greg sat slowly and stared at his feet, smiling like an addict, while NightRacer was flushing out their leader. Except the leader wasn’t stupid. Racer had an empty holster, and Greg had the gun in his back pocket. They couldn’t bring anything new, because the carrier would have detected an unexpected weapon and sounded an alarm.
I’m going to do it! Greg thought. I’ve got to do it!
From the first exchange, Racer had nabbed the leader. He was a new person, hiding quietly behind Eddie, a fellow Greg knew from high school. Eddie graduated last year.
Greg was supposed to wait until the leader bragged that he was breaking the law, but the guy was careful. Secretive and careful.
While Racer and the new guy were arguing, Greg moved his hand behind his back and slowly reached for the gun. Racer was growling like an animal now, asking questions, demanding answers, and all the time pretending he had something in his holster.
Greg had to adjust his body a little to prepare. His heart was racing. He was repeating his plan in his mind again and again: The leader goes first, then another one, and then another one if required. Then Greg barked the command, “Don’t move!”
I’m going to shoot some people, he thought. They won’t die of course, the gun is on Stun, but still…I need to give orders in a low growling voice, like Racer.
“I’m the new security chief here,” The leader said, taking a small step forward.
“The hell you are!” Racer said, pretending he was handling his gun. “Who are you?”
“Screw you!” The new guy said. “Are you a talker now?”
No, my friend, Greg thought. You’re mistaken. I’m the talker, and the joker, and the shooter.
At this moment, KeyStroke stumbled forward and touched Racer’s shoulder.
It’s time. It’s time, thought Greg. The leader goes first, then another one, and then another one if required. I’m going to save Racer. I’m going to shoot some people. Finally…
I am growing, KeyStroke thought. I am growing like a blade of grass in a field. My new body is a blade of grass. There are people in the plaza, arguing, yelling at each other. All these years. Racer is here, and Greg, and the caretakers. I think I’m supposed to call them guardians now. I need to tell Racer about this. I’m not going back. I found it. All these years. I am growing like a blade of grass in the field.
“Racer, I need to tell you something,” he said.
“I’m staying here. I don’t know how long I can last. In a few hours or minutes I may be…” Like a blade of grass…
Racer looked at him with sad eyes. “Why did you do that, son?”
“I had to. I can’t go back to the station. All these years.”
“It’s okay, Stroke. It’s okay.”
I am growing, thought KeyStroke
While Racer and Stroke were talking, Greg saw the new chief step quietly forward and raise his gun. Instinctively, before the chief managed to point his weapon at Racer, Greg kicked his hand hard and saw the gun fly. With the gun still in the air, Greg pointed his own weapon at the chief’s head in one quick motion, screaming on the top of his lungs, “Don’t move!” It sounded a little hysterical, but it was too late to do anything about that.
It’ll do. It’ll have to do, Greg thought.
It was a good moment, oh yes! Letting his instincts do the job broke some kind of barriers that had been slowing Greg down. The newfound freedom made everything look crisp and clear. Things were falling into place. The adrenaline was coursing through Greg’s body, making him feel strong and making his movements fluid. Greg stepped ahead and found himself copying Racer’s feline movement—from the heel to toe, outside to inside, feeling the dirt under his feet, and the ground’s energy underneath him, available to tap into. The initial agitation was gone. He had everybody’s attention and he was controlling the crowd.
“Don’t anybody fucking move, or I’ll blow his head off!” Greg said, this time a little slower and with more confidence. He realized his voice had changed. It had that growling tone he just heard in Racer’s voice. It felt good!
Greg made sure he had the chief’s full attention and locked eyes with him. The guy was scared. His right arm was limp. It was probably hurting from the kick.
“Get your com out,” Greg barked at him, gesturing a little with this gun. He watched the guy trying to open his com with the left hand. “Eddie, come here. Help him open his com,” Greg ordered, and Eddie complied.
“Now, check the Defense records for MartianSparrow, undercover name Greg. Can you find it?”
Eddie was handling the com, repeatedly tapping some buttons on the screen. “One second, one second. I found it, but the file won’t open. It says classified.”
“Let him hold the com.” Greg waived his gun to the chief. “Grab his index finger and use it to browse.” The guy held the com and let it synchronize with his heartbeat while Eddie grabbed the chief’s finger, trying to use it as a stylus.
“Can you open it now?” said Greg.
“Nope, still locked,” Eddie said. “He doesn’t have clearance to access it,” Eddie said and looked at Greg with curiosity.
“No need,” Greg said, lowering the gun and suddenly ignoring the new chief. The leader has been neutralized, and Greg could address the rest of the guards knowing that they would listen.
“I learned all I needed to learn: this guy is a nobody—a fucking nobody! He doesn’t even have a clearance to read my file.” Greg took off his dirty coat, revealing the clean new uniform he was wearing. He stuck the gun in his pocket and said, “Lower your guns, fellows. I’m MartianSparrow, aka Greg, an InterPlan Defense contractor. I’m sorry you had to find this out, but I need you to work with me on this one.”
Nobody said anything. The guards’ reactions ranged from confused to curious to scared.
Greg used a com clipped to his belt to send a short message, and a Phoenix car rolled out from behind a corner. Two young and rather tall Martian Enforcers came out with their guns drawn and got behind NightRacer. Greg turned with his back to the disgraced chief, faced Racer and spoke in an official tone. “NightRacer, you are under arrest for working with the enemy known as Devil’s Grass. You have the right to remain silent.”
What? I’m under arrest? Thought Racer. Is he really undercover? I’ve never seen an undercover talker. I think he put a little emphasis on the word ‘have’ when he said ‘You have the right.’ He is telling me to shut up.
Trying to play along, and to cover all his bases, Racer let some of his frustration out, “You little weasel! I brought you food and water and you arrest me?”
“Shut up!” Greg said.
“Were you under cover when you slept with my daughter, too?”
“Shut up, old man!” Greg said in a condescending tone, and Racer wondered whether or not this attitude was fake. “Shut the hell up, and get in that car!”
One of the Enforcers put his hand on his shoulder and led him. As Racer was escorted into the car, the new chief finally shook himself out of his stupor and started asking questions. “Wait a second, who are you? Who the hell are you? InterPlan can’t interfere in a planet’s internal affairs! I’m the chief of security here!”
“You’re a piece of shit!” Greg said. He spat on the dusty shoes of the disgraced veteran and sat beside Racer in the back seat of the car. “The chief of security is KeyStroke. Check your records, idiot.”
While the guy was checking his Com with one hand, the car drove away, leaving behind a cloud of dust.
“That was good. Are you really under cover?” Racer asked when they got out of Providence.
“That’s classified,” Greg said and returned his gun to him.
“You little weasel!” Racer said, and he was preparing to go on a new tirade, when his com beeped.
“NightRacer, buddy, we need to talk!” said the voice of StormRider.
Racer opened his com and looked at the screen. “I can’t right now. I’m being arrested.”
“Oh. And who’s arresting you, if I may?”
“You may not,” Greg said into the com.
“MartianSparrow, is that you?” StormRider asked mockingly. “Forgive me, my very young friend, but I happen to know a MartianSparrow, the real, and the only MartianSparrow there is. He’s a guy in his sixties, and I met him personally on Mars after the Earth campaign.”
“Well, it must’ve been another MartianSparrow,” Greg said, in a slightly tense voice.
“Racer, old friend. I think you’re being taken for a ride. Literally. We need to talk. You and me,” StormRider said.
“I can’t,” Racer said. “I’m a civilian held by armed guys.”
“Oh, don’t worry about those kids,” StormRider said. “I’ve seen performances before, know perfectly well what a con is. But again, we need to talk. You and me, buddy. Let’s meet away from all this circus and technology. In the prairie, like in the good old time. No technology, no backup, no gimmicks. I’m sending you the coordinates.”