In a bleak future, NightRacer, an Earth campaign veteran, decides to unlock his erased memories. What he remembers, changes everything.
(note: this is chapter 14 from a serialized novel, previous chapter here – link)
“Where is that? Where the hell is that?” somebody was shouting.
“I found it!” somebody else answered.
“So, where is it?” the first person asked, and then added, “Sir, this is not good!”
Racer heard Gardener asking, “Where is it?”
“In a strawberry field,” answered somebody form his crew.
“Racer, did you hear that?” Gardener asked.
“Yup, I heard it,” Racer said. He was looking at Gardener on the car’s computer screen. “Why there?”
“He’s going to play on your emotions. You daughter’s body is probably in that field. He’ll make you dig it up.”
“I see,” said Racer. That was all he could say for the moment. A wave of hatred overtook him and paralyzed his thoughts for a second, but he made an effort and gradually regained control over his actions.
“I’m coming too, son,” Gardener said. “I have to talk to this guy. Call him and conference me in on the call.”
“Call StormRider, override the response waiting!” Racer said the moment his com showed a connection. He ignored formalities. “Rider, you son of a bitch! You want to talk to me at my daughter’s grave? You want to talk? Well, let’s talk!”
“Hey, wait a second, buddy!” StormRider said. “I see you got my coordinates. How did—?”
“General StormRider, old friend, can you hear me? General Gardener here. Change of plans, I’m coming too. We need to talk.”
“Who invited you?” Rider said.
“I invited myself, of course! You know perfectly well why, and I know your condition—no technology, no backup. Leave your com and all your devices in the car. Leave the car far away. Walk a mile for a change.”
He’s challenging Rider, making him feel adversarial, Racer thought.
“You want it? You’ve got it!” There was a clear irritation in Rider’s voice. “No technology. We’ll talk face to face, like the old times. I’m coming alone. Keep your kids away from that field, and send those video cameras home too.”
“Done! We’ll meet you there in an hour,” Gardener said.
“Two hours. I need time to reposition,” Rider said.
He’s not on NAZ? Racer thought. No, he’s here. He just needs time to talk to his boss.
NightRacer and Gardener walked to the site in silence. It was still hot, but the sun wasn’t burning too much. A light breeze was stirring the grass, and a dust devil was moving across the strawberry field. Before reaching the destination, Gardener gave him a piece of bread dipped in grass wine.
“Am I absolved of my sins?” Racer said.
“You are, son,” said Gardener. “It’s not much, but it’ll have to do. Listen to his breath, check his eyes just in case, and if you can hear his heart, listen to his heart beat. You think he’ll keep his word and leave his gismos in the car?”
“Who, Rider? Probably not. Can Julie hear us here?” Racer said.
“In this field? Absolutely.”
The com chimed when they reached the GPS coordinates. There was a grave a couple of feet from where they sat down. The thorn branch was still in the ground, but the grave was covered with dirt.
Is Hellen’s body in there? Racer thought.
When the wine kicked in and their perception widened, NightRacer saw a man walking in the grass a couple of miles to the north. He turned halfway and whispered to Gardener, “Here he comes!”
Julie’s was saying something, but Racer could barely hear her. He pretended to stand up to stretch, turned away, and said, “A little louder, Julie. It’s windy here and I can’t hear you.”
“Be careful, you two. The guy seems too heavy. He’s either carrying something or this is one of those clones you were talking about.”
“Shit!” Gardener said. “If he attacks us, we can’t do anything. Those things are strong. Find a stone or a stick or something.”
“General Gardener, sir! This is KeyStroke,” Stroke said in a disciplined voice.
“Go ahead,” Gardener replied.
“I might have found something here, like a defense feature. Permission to try it in case he attacks?”
“What is it?” Gardener asked. “Is it a weapon?”
“Not a weapon sir, more like a feature that I could adjust. It could build some charge in the grass and zap something. If that thing has electrical parts it may be vulnerable to a charge.”
Gardener looked at NightRacer, “What do you think?”
“Right now I’ll take anything,” Racer said. “Prepare your zapper, Stroke. Do it quietly if you can. We don’t want to scare him before we know what he’s singing.”
“Don’t know about him, but his car is very busy swapping data with a network, and I mean tons of data,” KeyStroke said.
“So, Rider, you don’t have any devices on you. Right?” Racer said when Rider arrived.
“Nothing,” StormRider replied with no discernable emotion. “I’m clean.”
“What’s that in your hand?”
“Use it and lose it,” Gardener said.
“You two are clean,” StormRider said, after pointing his scanner at them and checking the results on a small screen. He then dropped the scanner on the ground and stepped on it, breaking it.
“You don’t mind if I search you, do you?” Racer said, and he stepped forward.
“Man, why do you hate me so much, Racer?” Rider said, raising his arms, preparing to get searched. What did I ever do to you?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Racer said and laid a hand on Rider’s neck. The skin seemed natural, but a little too tanned for a man working in an office, and that was wrong unless Rider was stationed on a planet, but he said himself that he’d been on stations for many years. His muscles also felt way too toned, too strong for a station rat.
“You working out, Rider?” Racer said.
“Yes. Thank you. Does it surprise you? I happen to respect myself.”
“That’s funny, because you looked chubbier on video.”
“Were you drinking when you talked to me? Or were you on drugs? I forgot.”
“Shut the hell up,” Racer said. He went back to his place by Hellen’s grave.
“What? You’re angry because I sent you a bottle of liquor? Because I wanted you to remember the good old time with a friend of mine?”
“Is that what you call those days?” Racer said, but he did that only to annoy Rider. Actually, those were good times, he thought.
“Or are you angry because I was being promoted faster than you in the old days? Jealousy, is that it? Well I joined a faction and you didn’t, that’s why I was promoted faster, okay? I know you trained me and then I became your boss, but tell me something. Did I ever disrespect you when I was in charge, Racer?”
“So why do you hate me?”
“I don’t. I just don’t trust you that much.”
“Because we’re meeting in a strawberry field, and I know who or what is in that grave,” Racer said, pointing at Hellen’s grave, eyeing it indirectly, hoping the body was well covered and didn’t show under the dirt.
“So, you know what’s in there, and you continue to work for this traitor?”
“You mean Gardener? How did he betrayed you? By starting a dialogue with this thing…this being…the Grass? I would’ve done the same, if I could.”
“But you didn’t, Racer. You didn’t sneak behind humans’ backs. You didn’t betray your race. You didn’t infect New Arizona with Grass, killing thousands of people, including your wife and your daughter. You and me, pal. We didn’t cut corners. We fought, and we worked, and we dug those trenches, and we built those walls, and we kept our people alive. That’s why people respect us. That’s why they see you as a hero and him as a traitor.”
“Racer, I’m a little old,” Gardener said. “Could you just punch this sack of shit in the face for me? Hit him right in the mouth, ‘cause he’s talking too much. Say, Rider, where did your faction find all that fancy technology you recently acquired? Was it in the trenches you dug?”
“We searched for it,” Rider said. “When things went tough, we sent ships to search for technology and we found it.”
“Is that right? So we needed technology, and you just went out there and looked for it, and there it was! Is that right?”
“Absolutely. We knew what the solution was, and we worked to get results. Is that so difficult to accept?”
“How many places did you search, if it’s not a secret? Two, three, three hundred?”
“We had intelligence,” Rider said.
“Intelligence?” Gardener said. “And this intelligence of yours doesn’t have anything to do with a certain alien race of humanoids?” A crackling noise swept through the grass.
“What?” Rider seemed confused.
“I said…” Gardener started, but StormRider seemed to be talking to himself.
“What? Where are you? I can’t hear you! What’s going on?”
“Sorry guys, I was playing with the electromagnetic features,” KeyStroke told Racer and Gardener. “I think this disconnected him from whatever network he was talking to.”
Gardener turned his back to the confused Rider and said, “Are you kidding me? He can blow up at any moment. Zap him, Stroke! Zap him now!”
A stronger electrical charge run along the perimeter of the strawberry field again, but nothing happened.
“We have a problem,” Stroke said. Then, after a few seconds of silence, he added, “The strawberry vines don’t accept the charge. Only the Grass can hold it. I think this took his car offline. It’s not broadcasting anymore. I think you should leave fast.”
“Racer, we have to get out of here,” Gardener said, grabbing NightRacer by the sleeve. “Now!”
Slowly StormRider sat on the ground, his ears cupped with this hands, saying something in a really low voice.
“Too late,” Racer said. “If he blows up now, we can’t outrun the explosion.” He leaned lower and listened closely to the Rider’s voice. The words were slurred.
“Come on. Let’s move,” Gardener yelled one more time.
But Racer got on his knees and got even closer to Rider’s face. “What are you saying?”
Finally, Rider looked him in the face and said in a clear voice, “I don’t want to die!”
“You don’t need to die, Rider. Nobody needs to die. What happened?”
“I got disconnected. My car has a problem. I got disconnected, and—”
“You got disconnected from what?”
Rider was still a little confused, and he repeated the same thing a couple of times, and then he said again, “I don’t want to die.”
“You’re not dying. What’s going on, man?” Finally Racer got to the scared guy.
“This is a cloned body. I was sharing my consciousness. I got disconnected, and I became an individual. And now…I don’t want to die.”
“You were sharing your consciousness? With whom?”
“With myself. I mean, with Rider. This is a cloned body, stronger, faster, designed for battle. It had no conscious mind when I connected to it. It was sharing his consciousness with my real me, the chubby Rider you saw on video, but when I got disconnected I became an individual, and now I have to die…” This was still confusing, but Racer and Gardener got the idea.
“Your original is somewhere in orbit, right?” Racer said.
“On a moon, actually. He didn’t want to come. This body was supposed to come here, talk to you, and if you don’t cooperate, to blow up, killing you. But when I got disconnected, the copy of his consciousness remained. I separated from the original, and I’m now an individual. It was only for a few seconds. It’s easy to die when the minds are connected. You blow the copy up and feel nothing, but when your consciousness separates, even for a second, you become a person, and dying is not easy anymore.”
“Rider, listen to me. This is important,” Gardener said.
“Sorry, I’m not Rider, I’m somebody else,” the guy responded.
“Okay, Rider’s clone, New Person,” Gardener said. “Listen to me. Do you have an explosive charge on you?”
“Can you remove it?”
“It’s embedded in the short-distance com in my head.”
“Can you remove it?”
“With your help, I can.”
“Racer, help him remove the charge. We have a lot of things to do now,” Gardener said and he stepped away, but then he immediately returned. “One more thing, New Person. Are there any spies on my team?”
“No, you’re good. You have a good team, General.”
“Good to know.” Gardener turned around. “Julie and KeyStroke, here is what I need. Tell my kids to bring a small group with a shuttle to extract us, then tell the remaining team to get here and protect this area. There’s going to be an explosion immediately after we leave, so nobody should get close to the strawberry field. Tell them to watch for drones, horses, humans and anything else that moves, and tell them to delete this area form any surveillance.”
With shaking hands, Racer used his utility knife to extract the com from the clone’s head. The implant looked just the same, although it could’ve been a little larger than usual, but Racer knew it had enough explosive to wipe out this whole field.
Gardener brought a stick and stuck it into the dirt. “It had to explode a couple of feet above the ground to seem credible.”
“Are you going to blow it up close to my daughter’s grave?” Racer asked.
Gardener thought for a second. “You’re right. We didn’t have to talk on top of the grave. Still, it has to be credible. Sooner or later the satellites will start covering this area, and they’ll investigate the hole and the explosion pattern.” He took the stick ten or fifteen steps farther and stuck it back into the ground. Then he took the charge and carefully attached it to the top of the stick.
“Now what do we do?”
“Now we run like hell,” the clone said. “I delayed it for a minute with a loop in its trigger routine, but only for one minute.”
“Run!” Gardener shouted, and after a short confusion about which way to go, they took off toward Providence.
Racer counted in his head. One Mississippi, two Mississippi…
With the Juice still in his bloodstream, the ground felt like it was shifting under NightRacer’s feet, and he couldn’t get complete control of his legs. It felt like he was running on stilts. He looked back. The clone was behind him, and the damn thing looked just as strong as when he started.
Nine Mississippi, ten Mississippi…
Breathing heavily, Racer reached in his side pocket and retrieved the last Jolt syringe. With no regard for manners or secrecy, he jammed the needle into his neck and squeezed. In another couple of steps, he felt a rush of energy and sped ahead on the drug wings.
Eighteen Mississippi, nineteen Mississippi…
Racer reached Gardener, who was already sluggish. He was preparing to help the old man by dragging him by the arm, but before he even reached for the hand, the clone grabbed Gardener and threw him onto his shoulders like he was lifting a child.
Thirty-one Mississippi, thirty-two Mississippi…
Breathing became hard again. “There! There!” Racer managed to say, gasping, pointing to a hole in the ground. He plunged headfirst into the hole, Gardener followed, and the clone fell on top of them.
Forty–three Mississippi, forty–four Mississippi.
“It’s going to blow!” Racer managed to say.
“Not yet,” the clone answered.
At that moment, Racer realized he was laying on top of a big and sweaty body. He looked to the left, then to the right, and saw the round face of somebody he knew. It was KeyStroke, and he was smiling like an idiot.
Forty–eight Mississippi, forty–nine Mississippi.
Before NightRacer knew it, Rider’s clone had grabbed the obese body and slid under it, and then lifted it with his knees and one arm. Then he pulled Racer and Gardener underneath with the other.
Fifty–two Mississippi, fifty–three—
A giant explosion ripped through the air and momentarily sucked the oxygen out of it. They held their breath for almost a minute, and then the smart uniforms detected the danger and made some fresh oxygen from the chemicals in the seams. That gave them another breath or two. Racer was on the verge of blacking out when fresh oxygen finally rushed back into the air. The obese body was still breathing, but it was limp on top of them, and KeyStroke’s lips were making an effort to say something.
“Old man needs air,” the clone said, and he pushed Stroke outside of his grave and jumped after it. Then he pulled Gardener out. While Rider’s clone gave Gardener some rescue breathing, Racer concentrated on KeyStroke. His back was severely burned and it was saying something, but it sounded slurred and made no sense.
“Ee-el e-e!” Stroke’s body said.
“I don’t understand. What he’s saying?” Racer shouted, afraid he wasn’t hearing it well.
“He wants you to kill him,” the clone said patiently.
“He’s in pain, and he doesn’t need that body anymore.”
“How should I kill him?”
“You’re a cold blooded killer from Earth, aren’t you?” The clone asked. “You should know how.”
“He’s big, I can’t beat him to death,” Racer said.
“Give me your knife,” the clone said. “Give me the knife you used to pull the charge, and take care of the General here.”
Racer handed over his utility knife, and immediately, without ceremony, the clone slit Stroke’s throat. “This should do it. This body is dead now.”
Racer stood there shocked, not knowing what to say, looking at the body of his friend and rival. A man who’d helped him and had lived in a bunker because he was too afraid of ridicule to live a normal life. The young man had loved his daughter, but had been too desperate to say it.
“I know this is painful for you humans,” the clone said between breaths into Gardener’s mouth. “But I think you guys are too attached to your bodies. I’m a clone, and I see my body as a machine—a biological system, but a machine nonetheless.”
Gardener’s old body shook, contorted, and Gardener finally took a breath on his own.
“And here’s another machine that just restarted,” the clone said. He was looking at something. Then he stood, reached for Racer’s neck, and withdrew the forgotten syringe. “Wow! You used this to get your second wind?”
Racer looked at the syringe. It was his last placebo, the salted water cleaning solution. He searched in his pocket and found the last Jolt still in there.
In the distance, a shuttle was approaching, and Racer heard Stroke’s voice in his head. “Thanks for helping me, man! And thanks for letting him do the dirty job.”
From the northwest, a shuttle was coming. Two tanks were attached to its base. As it came closer, it slowed down and released the tanks onto the ground. Then it landed and opened its cargo compartment.
Oh, I remember this place, Racer thought.
While the pilots concentrated on flying the shuttle, and with nobody around, Racer sat closer to the clone. “So, what should we call you?”
“Second Rider, Clone, New Person? I don’t know. Use a generic name. I don’t care.”
“So…did you ever talk to the Trappers?” Racer asked.
“You call them Trappers. We call them Visitors,” he answered.
“Where are they from?”
“Everywhere in the galaxy. They seem to live on many planets, including planets we took without asking. They don’t have a civilization like ours—don’t need one. One family could live on one planet, and another one a hundred light-years away. They live very long lives and don’t bother having too many children. When a body expires, they just clone another one, like this one.”
“Why do they hate us?” Gardener asked.
“What’s not to hate? I wouldn’t say they hate us per se, more like they’re scared of us, and I mean, really scared. To them, we’re like locust, or the barbarians. We take over planets and we farm the hell out of them. We squeeze food out of them—and metals and all kinds of goods—and then we leave. In the same timeframe in which they would create one family, millions of humans will procreate and fight and die like animals fighting for resources. This doesn’t make us very popular. And we’re aggressive—very aggressive. But you already know that.”
“So they decided to exterminate us?” Gardener said. “Trap us in a virtual reality and then send us to our ancestors?”
“Not exactly. I think they’re planning to educate us, teach us to be nice, bring us to a higher level of intelligence or something. You said you were surprised we found technology on our first expedition. We were too. This technology was sitting there for thousands of years, untouched, and here we came and got it. We were led to it. There are all kinds of ways to influence a group of simple minded beings like us. Put some info in our databases, plant a suggestion in somebody’s mind, buy votes, and change attitudes. They could even have joined the crew of a ship. We don’t know. I know they sometimes infiltrate our stations. The only problem is that they can’t communicate like us. They don’t understand our nonverbal cues, our power plays, and our endless contextual meanings.”
“Did they give us the Grass?” Gardener asked.
“I don’t know. Could be, or we could’ve just stumbled on it like some drunken idiots. Well, I guess the chances are low that we just stumbled on it. Now that I just said what I said, it’s quite possible.”
“They gave us the Grass. We know it,” Gardener said. “The NAZ Grass said they took it from another race, bred an aggressive species, and then gave it to us. They also helped us—so to speak— with a number of disasters. The supervolcano, the caves accident on Mars, exploding stations, and then they gave us technology for Eden. Oh, they’ve been guiding us for some time now.”
“I don’t know about volcanos and caves, but I know they are behind the Eden project,” the clone said.
“They want us on one station so they can take us all out,” Gardener said.
“No, no. I think you’re mistaken,” the clone said.
“How come?” Gardener was a little surprised at that reaction.
“From what I heard, they think our lack of good virtual reality environments is keeping us in the dark ages. They told us that once we learn how to interact virtually, our mentality will change. When we first found that alien technology, our scientists didn’t know what to make of it. Everything was so integrated, it seemed like one big chunk of matter that was performing all kinds of things. So this is how I understand it. In an advanced society, nobody works alone. We know how to collaborate on our projects, but we’re doing it in a slow and painful manner. One scientist writes an article, then another one reads it and validates the results, and then he writes an answer in a few months, and so on. Then engineers get a project, and each one builds one part. When the parts are connected, they’re limited by the connections and the power requirements and the space restrictions and all kinds of other factors. In our interactions, everywhere—in science, technology, personal stuff—we limit ourselves because we lack trust. Every time somebody makes public a new scientific discovery, the others have to check the trustworthiness of the statement. This is slowing us down big time. Instead of moving forward, we’re wasting time checking each other’s results.
“When a group of people works together in a virtual reality, they can combine their minds. Bring a couple of scientists and engineers together, let them combine their minds, and you can build a completely integrated device, made in one piece. Bring a hundred scientists and a hundred engineers together, and they can build a spaceship—with no separate parts—so reliable that it never breaks and can regenerate if it’s damaged. So, you see, they don’t want us to disappear, they just want us to grow up.”
“Why do we have to use their technology for the Eden project?” Gardener asked.
“We can’t build it our own. We learned how to use theirs, but we still don’t understand its functionality.”
“So they could have built a back door into the system?” Racer asked.
“Knowing them? I guess…no, I’m pretty sure they have one.”
“That sucks,” Racer said.
“I think I should arrange another meeting with our people,” Gardener said.
Racer nodded. “I think you should.”
“EnforcerOne, meet our new ally,” Gardener said. “His name is…eh. Let’s call him Enforcer…” he looked at the clone. “Pick a number between thirty and one hundred.”
“I don’t know,” Rider’s clone answered.
“Thirty-one,” Racer said.
“His name is EnforcerThirtyOne. And this guy’s name,” Gardener said, pointing to Racer, “is going to be EnforcerThirtyTwo. You’ll know why in a couple of minutes. Now we’ll need somebody to document an explosion site. Do you have a good candidate for this?”
“I’ll do it,” EnforcerOne said.
“Send somebody else. I need you to prepare a press release. Use your com to record this: Today at approximately X hours—and insert the right time there—three of the finest officers of the interplanetary forces lost their lives in an incident on New Arizona. General StormRider, Colonel NightRacer, and Captain KeyStroke were killed in an explosion while investigating the activities of some unknown hostiles. StormRider and NightRacer were both veterans of the Earth campaign, and KeyStroke was one of the original station kids. General Gardener was wounded but survived and is now recovering in a field hospital on NAZ. The Phoenix team secured the location of the incident and is conducting an investigation.
“Add all the additional fluff and release it an hour or two after the explosion. Don’t send it to everybody, just the usual, but make sure that some of the trusted bloggers get a leaked copy. Any questions?”
“No questions, sir. Actually, I may have a warning, or a suggestion, or something like that.”
“I think we’re about to have a slight confusion here and find those ponies running around the field eating strawberries in an hour or two.”
Gardener stopped and looked at her for a long second. “You’re one shrewd young lady, aren’t you?”
“I’m learning from the best, sir,” she said with a smile.
“Get that confusion going, then.”