In a bleak future, NightRacer, an Earth campaign veteran, decides to unlock his erased memories. What he remembers, changes everything.
(note: this is chapter 2 from a serialized novel, previous chapter here – link)
Racer slowed to a walk before entering Providence. The cool night was almost over, and a bleak sunrise revealed an abandoned town of long, sharp shadows.
The first thing that struck anyone entering a touched town was the creepy silence. This town was no different. There were no crickets chirping, no dogs barking, no birds singing, and there were absolutely no lights. As he wove his way through the debris, grit and glass and rubble crunching under his boots, he saw that, like always, all the doors and windows were broken, and every object that could be lifted off the ground was trashed on the streets. Addicts had long since reconfigured things in their own way, and not all of it made sense. Most of the roofs were busted, and long vines threaded through the cracks from inside, making sure that the damage was permanent. The trees were dead, the manholes on the streets were uncovered, and long stalks—like bamboo shoots—peaked up through them. Everything smelled like rotting meat.
The wind changed direction, and he had to put on his respirator mask to escape the offending smell of decay. Racer couldn’t see it from there, but in the middle of every touched city, there was a giant sinkhole. People called a town’s sinkhole the maw. Scientists wasted years examining these holes, calling them “critical access ports,” but Racer took them for what they really were—garbage dumps.
Every maw was attended by a pair of caretakers, usually two old males, who tossed the bodies of the dead—people and animals—into the sinkholes. Caretakers were also in charge of breaking windows and busting roofs. One thing that always intrigued Racer about these fellows was that they never looked happy. Regular addicts had perpetual smirks on their faces, as if always dwelling on some inexplicably funny thought or another, but the caretakers always look gloomy and reserved, as if they knew some unspeakable secret. Maybe they did.
Closer to the center of the town, he spotted the old city council building and the library. There used to be a farmer’s market next to the library every Saturday. It was quite popular. He smiled at the memory of people coming to Providence from everywhere—even from some other stations—to get fresh produce.
He stood for a moment and did a slow three-sixty through his memories. On market day, Racer, Julie, and Hellen usually arrived late and parked as close to the library as they could find a space. They’d stop at the ice cream cafe at the corner of Main Street and Sydney. Julie used to get green tea ice cream. He preferred vanilla, and Hellen would always get a random combination of scoops, as long as they contained some kind of chocolate.
He stepped over to the dry fountain. Coins on the bottom had bled rust into the now dry mud. Racer looked closer. Some of them could’ve been theirs. They used to buy what they called fountain silver from an old man at the gate. All the coins had funny pictures on them, like The King of Earth, or Flying Pigs, or scenes from Earth fairy tales.
“Throw one in the fountain and you’ll come back!” The old man used to say.
Racer looked at the devastation around, again getting the eerie feeling that he was being watched. Seemed like the old fool had gotten it right. He did come back.
The memories brought back a certain craving for something he’d resisted for many years—Jolts—a combination of vitamins, caffeine, happy pills, and all kinds of neurotransmitter precursors that delivered a nice thunderbolt of energy. This was an Earth cut-rate medicine for keeping workers and soldiers active and smiling. Racer had a couple old Jolts in his backpack—a just-in-case stash he kept buried in a flowerpot for many years. His fingers and toes were already tingling with excitement when he reached for the worn-out plastic box.
Racer turned away from the rising moon and took a quick inventory of his stuff. He had three Jolts, two alcohol capsules, and three salty water cleaners, marked with the word “Placebo.” Ideally he would’ve used two placebos with one alcohol cleaner, but now, with limited supplies, he would had to improvise. He rolled up his left sleeve and located the bioplastic chamber implanted into his arm. Then he carefully opened both valves and injected the alcohol into the chamber. He paused. Some of the cleaning solution was getting into his bloodstream, and a fine warmth was coursing through his body. Racer was supposed to use the placebo immediately to dislocate the alcohol, but he felt he needn’t hurry. Slowly, he injected the salty water into the chamber and pushed the cleaner out through the other valve, watching the beads of alcohol run on his arm. He hadn’t used the chamber for many years and was supposed to clean it again, but he decided to save the other placebo cleaner for later.
The Jolt was just as good as he remembered, maybe even better after a long break. Mixed with a little extra alcohol, it put him in a euphoric state, gradually waking up each and every one of his muscles, spreading the tingling sensation through his veins, and melting away the pain in his body. Racer dropped the syringe on the ground and stared at the last bleak stars for a while.
His com buzzed and displayed an urgent message in private mode. With no glasses, and with his fingers still numb from the drugs, Racer switched to private screen mode and checked his text messages. Somebody, user unknown from location unknown, had sent him a note, “Hide those syringes. Now!” A part of Racer’s brain, too busy enjoying the bliss, thought about ignoring it. But another part, despite the drugs, knew he had to act.
A quick scan of the area around the fountain showed a web of very thin roots with intricate connections. A deeper scan showed a web of thicker roots supporting the thin layer. A receptor! Racer pulled out his gun, changed the setting to high impact, and shot twice into the ground, “inadvertently” disintegrating the used syringes in the process.
“Smile, you’re on camera!” KeyStroke’s obnoxious voice broke through without any warning. “What the hell are you doing, old man?” Stroke never warned—or asked for permission to speak.
Racer holstered his gun. “Expressing my opinion. What’s it to you?”
“Oh, do whatever you’ve got to do, man. Don’t stop on my account.”
“I promise you, I won’t. Who else is there with you?”
“Some new personnel we just got here, and the scientists from the moon lab may be tagging along, and a couple of guys from a certain ship that arrived maybe last night, maybe today, time unknown, and whose name shall not be spoken. Actually, it’s classified. So, your show is quite popular.”
“Tell the scientists to perform a detailed scan of this area. Providence may be sitting on top of a receptor.” Racer spoke through his mask. Spectators or no spectators, he wasn’t going to take his mask off.
“Wow. Had no idea. Good thing you’re there to scan and shit.”
“Glad you approve and shit. My scans show a very thin web down here. Very thin. It may be a large nervous formation.”
“Cool! So, are you poking it with your gun?”
“We’re having a little chat, yes.”
“If you ask me, what it needs is a little nuking.”
“You don’t say.”
“So you agree? Then what I need, man, is your signature on the analysis, and we’re ready to go.”
He is rushing things, Racer thought. That’s not his style. Something’s funny here. “Hey, KeyStroke, while we’re all here, tell me. Are you monitoring my vital signs? Are you recording? Do you have your deception analysis on?”
“Of course. You know me. I always follow the rules.”
“Good. Am I still the Chief of New Arizona’s Security?”
“Officially? Right now?”
“Yes or no?”
“Yes. You are AWOL, but you’re still in charge.”
“Well, I’m resigning now from this position and from the Security Forces. You’re in charge.”
There was a little pause at the other end as Stroke fiddled with the keyboard, entering the data into the system and waiting for the response.
“Acknowledged. The computer confirms NightRacer’s resignation. The passwords and the encryption keys have been changed. Wow, that was fast! You’re a free man, Racer.” There was a relief in Stroke’s voice.
“And one more thing, Captain,” Racer said.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“If I don’t come back, you’ve got my signature. As a civilian consultant, of course. Nuke the bastard.”
“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!”
Here it is again, Racer thought. That exaggerated tone and addressing me as sir. He seems a little too eager. “No, thank you!”
“Do you need anything, man?” Stroke’s voice felt different again. Was that anxiety?
“Some food and water, if possible.”
“Will do. And don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything else. We’ll be in the area.”
“Thank you, Chief.”
NightRacer ripped the insignia off of his uniform—an eagle—and tossed it into the dead fountain’s mud.
There are no eagles on NAZ anyway, he thought.
He started with the building closest to the street. The doors were wide open, but not in the inviting way. There was an addict in a room upstairs—an old man hiding in a corner, a farmer, judging by the look of his hands. Racer got on his knees to check the man’s face. The guy was smiling. The addicts were supposed to be left alone. They didn’t do well away from their strawberry fields. On his way out, NightRacer stopped to look at a great and very dusty chandelier in the living room. Outside, he found a stick, dipped it in mud, and marked the walls with a big X.
A few blocks down the street, he found the art school. Stacks of musical instruments ruined by weather were blocking the street, but for some reason they were separated from the heaps of paintings and sculptures. It was gloomy inside, but there was a certain silent energy in the classrooms, as if some tiny fragments of music were still embedded in the walls. He found in the basement a small theater with ripped curtains and a trapdoor gaping in the middle of the stage. There was nothing underneath that stage but dust and old cases.
The next two buildings were just as hopeless. He found another dirty and reeking addict sleeping on the floor of one. Racer had seen thousands of them in Paris, sleeping everywhere—in subway stations, in museums, on the streets—all of them smirking, all of them dirty and smelly. None of them ever looked him in the eyes. Rich and poor, fat and skinny, in business suits and pajamas, men, women, and children, their minds gone, their souls lost, slept like cattle on the floor, waiting for their turn to roam the strawberry fields. The ones recently touched were sometimes holding hands, or they slept hugging their children. Terminal addicts were always alone, sealed in their detached worlds, staring into the void and smiling.
He rummaged for a few more hours through the wrecked neighborhoods. A swollen piano was abandoned on the street. With all the wooden parts warped, and with strings hanging, the thing seemed to be in pain.
There was an old gym in the next house, with the odor of human sweat still ingrained in the wooden benches. A broken door in the back led to a passageway. From there, Racer wondered into a kitchen with no ceiling and a heap of cracked dishes on the floor. The remains of some old food, dried from age and exposure, were scattered on the shelves.
In the alley, he stepped on a fresh pile of leaves. How had they gotten there?
By the time Racer got to Sydney Street, it was time for a break. An old bus was left in the middle of an intersection with its doors opened and windows broken. A gust of wind swept through the street. He stopped to check the weather. Every town in the world had a Sydney Street, and every populated planet had a town called Providence. While Racer sat in front of an abandoned coffee shop remembering the old days, a swift downpour washed the dead town of its sins, smells, and spores. He took his respirator off.
The next building looked like a restaurant. Inside Racer instantly felt the signs of human habitation — a faint smell of food and unwashed clothes, and something else human. Sweat? Yes, definitely sweat. Behind the bar, he spotted a bed made from dirty rags. Except addicts didn’t sleep in beds. His eyes darted around, checking for other clues—there were empty water pouches in a corner, a few opened cans in a cardboard box, and candy wrappers on the floor. He examined the cans. One of them had a half of a bean stuck to its bottom. He sniffed it—still fresh, probably opened no more than twelve hours ago. He checked the entryway. The broken windows were sheltered from the rain and spores. Somebody slept and ate behind that bar, hiding from the spores. Somebody young, who liked candy. That somebody was probably listening to the winds in the darkness of night.
On one of the walls, he saw a crude crayon picture of a tree and a moon. His heart rate suddenly increased. A tree? In the Devil’s Prairie? Who would draw such a thing? A child? Untouched? Was it Hellen? Did she hide in here, looking into the dark, listening to the winds?
Racer checked around and found a crayon on the floor. He drew a stick person on the wall, and wrote, “Hellen, I’m here.” He signed it, “Dad.”
A couple of blocks south, he walked into a shabby grocery store. It seemed like a place where somebody would get food, water, and candy. The shelves were bare, except for a couple of paper bags. He checked the next room. As soon as he stepped into the doorway, he froze.
There it was. It.
What would you call a thing that can instantly bring back all your memories? Happy, sad, crazy, shamefully memories, and some others you didn’t even know you had.
What would you call something that makes you remember all your friends’ faces and names, living and lost, all in one enormous jumble of images, sounds, smells, and emotions?
What if it was in a liquor bottle? Would you open it? Would you smash it, or would you turn around and bail? Racer chose to do nothing.