In a bleak future, NightRacer, an Earth campaign veteran, decides to unlock his erased memories. What he remembers, changes everything.
(note: this is chapter 3 from a serialized novel, previous chapter here – link)
It was a bottle of local stuff, known as Johnnie SkyWalker. And it was gold label, whatever the hell that meant in this place. On Earth, a gold label Johnnie Walker was a nice prize, if you were lucky to scavenge one. They used to pull straws every Friday. Losers had to go to the nearby towns and find “meds.” There was virtually no good beer left, and wine was for scientists, but liquor was all theirs. Sometimes they’d find half a bottle, and sometimes they’d run into a place full of good stuff. A couple of times their scouts found survivors hiding in shelters loaded with “meds.” Other times, scouts left and never came back.
After a minute or two, NightRacer realized he was staring at the bottle without blinking. Hypnotized by liquor? No, not him. He stepped forward and grabbed the bottle by the neck. The glass was cold. Drink it or break it, damn it! Just stop staring, Racer thought.
He ripped the seal with his teeth and sniffed it. Damn, it smelled good! Just one sip, part of him thought. Not more than one, the other part insisted. Racer took a gulp and relished the feel of its warmth spreading through his body.
He never considered himself an alcoholic, but in the last days of Earth, all the workers—men, women, and children—had drowned their sorrows. They quietly suffered in the morning, worked like crazy all day long, and spent their money on Jolts. And then they drank themselves to a stupor again in the evening.
He remembered the Danube outpost. It was an evening late in the fall, too late for the spores. They found survivors in a cellar, and those guys had a shitload of booze with them. He was barely walking when the siren blared. A cloud of spores was coming from the northwest. They ran to the trucks, only to find them disabled. By the time they came back, all their tents were cut to ribbons, and all the trailers’ windows were smashed. The survivors were Talkers. He grabbed his emergency backpack, put his boots on in a hurry, and took off. Two others ran with him. The rest stayed behind, hiding in emergency tents. The three of them ran for nine miles, the last half in a cold drizzle. Even after getting pneumonia, they were the lucky ones. That night, Talkers snatched all the rest of their friends.
NightRacer took another gulp, and then another one. It wasn’t too bad for a local brew. Was this really made on NAZ? Racer thought, and he let the numbness take over his body, stirring memories of long forgotten events. He remembered Nick, a giant digger who could drink half of a bottle in one gulp. Where was he from? Who cares! In those days they were all Earthlings. Because of that guy, they’d had to introduce Designated Drinking Receptacles, or DDRs. Everybody had a DDR according to their age and rank. They let Nick use a bigger mug, but it was still better than letting him drink straight from the bottle.
Racer leaned on the doorframe and let the dink flavor trigger another flood of memories.
Something moved fast in his peripheral vision, and Racer’s hand shifted toward his gun. The thing moved again, just as fast, and the old fighter let his instincts take over. His knees bent slightly, his hand pulled the gun, his hip pushed forward, driving his shoulder, elbow, and then his arm, and ended the almost spasmodic movement in fixing the gun on the target with the finger laid on the trigger. Before squeezing it, Racer recognized the perpetrator. It was a cockroach.
A roach, here, now?
One millisecond later, the cockroach looked into the gun muzzle and beeped.
Racer thought, an electronic device? He hesitated to shoot. So tiny?
As if answering Racer’s thoughts, the roach spun belly in an instant and, from its abdomen, squirted a cloud of fine dust into the air. Racer jumped back, his gun still pointing in the direction of the device, finger tensed on the trigger. The cloud flattened, rippled twice, and turned into a skinny, ephemeral screen with rugged edges, braced by an invisible field. The screen flickered with colors and produced an image with some heavy compression artifacts.
The signal must be long distance from space, Racer thought.
A familiar face showed on the screen. It was StormRider, a lazy recruit Racer had mentored in Europe, only to see him getting promoted fast and becoming his boss. The roach shined a red beam into the Racer’s left eye. He knew he was being recorded.
“Hey! What’s up, Racer?” StormRider said in a fake upbeat tone.
“It’s been a long time, General Rider.”
“Too long, if you ask me, old buddy. Too long. Did my gizmo scare you?”
Buddy? Racer thought.
“What, this little thing? No. I was wondering who was going to greet me from a roaches butt.” Racer watched the guy on the screen struggling to put on an expression of amusement.
“You kept your great sense of humor, I see.”
“How is the life in Heavens?” Racer asked.
“Not too bad, not too bad. Moving around a lot, fighting the green bastards from up here. How are you doing?”
“Trying to keep it together,” Racer said bluntly.
“Your daughter, now. Yes, I heard. Bad news travels fast. Did I hear right? Did you just resign your commission?”
“The news does travel fast, General.” A little too fast. “What’s up with the SkyWalker thing? Did you leave it here?” And if you did, how in the hell did you know I’d be here?
“Oh, that? Yeah. A little souvenir. Nothing to worry about. A small token of appreciation, if you wish. Hey, remember Europe? How we used to scout for meds? Those were the good times, yeah.”
We? You never went anywhere. Somebody else always brought it to you. “Here’s to old times!” Racer said and took another gulp from the bottle.
“Here, here!” the general answered. He raised a glass on the other end.
“Anyway,” StormRider said, waving away the previous topics. “I heard Gardener is in the vicinity. I just wanted to tell you, keep away from that guy. He’s bad news. But you already know that. So…enjoy the fire water, old friend, and if you have a report, send it directly to me.”
Gardener? Is he still alive? “If and when I have one, I’ll think about it, General. Racer out.” He deliberately avoided making a promise.
The screen flickered off and then collapsed in a heap of metal dust. Racer put his thumb on the roach’s belly and pressed. At first the tough little body refused to collapse, but after an additional effort, something snapped inside it and the red light went off.
This whole thing stank. Racer took another gulp. What was he doing, playing buddies with that guy?
The liquor was getting to him, and Racer’s decisions were becoming more irrational. He removed his thumb from the hard shell, and smashed the roach violently with the bottle, breaking the glass and spilling the remaining liquor.
“Have a drink, buddy!” Racer said. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
With an unsteady stride, he walked through the building and checked all the rooms. There were no addicts inside. He exited and took a couple of steps back from the building. Then he shot a pyro charge through the door. In a minute, the building was on fire. The piles of trash burned like kindling, and then the ruins themselves were engulfed.
“What the hell is wrong with you, man?” KeyStroke yelled in his Com.
“Everything is under control, Stroke. Go home!” Racer sneered.
“What exactly are you doing there?”
“I’m talking to it…to them. Sending them my love.”
“To them? Well, stop shooting! You could kill somebody, them.”
Racer flipped his middle finger toward the east—Stroke’s direction—and sat on the sidewalk across the street from the building, watching the fire send into the sky one wave of fireflies after another.
If any untouched people were left around, they would know Racer was there.
His com chimed. Somebody was asking for permission to speak. “NightRacer, this is EnforcerOne. Are you okay? I can see a large fire in Providence.” It was the voice of a young woman he didn’t know.
“Everything is under control, Enforcer. I started the fire.”
“I see. I have some food and water for you. Where do you want to meet?”
“At the bar. Okay, I’m kidding. At the library. The former library. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
The caller’s nickname was obviously a temporary handle. Whoever sent him supplies didn’t trust NightRacer with their personnel’s real nicknames.
When the flaming house collapsed, he remembered the name of the restaurant—Fisherman Rick’s. It was a seafood place they visited a couple of times. The owner used to serve grilled shrimp and some nice homebrewed beer.
A car was parked in front of the library, a vehicle of novel design, sleek and strong, with robotic arms tucked under its body. It had a Phoenix logo on it, a symbol he hadn’t seen in a very long time. Behind it, stacked neatly, were a few plastic containers with food and water. Waiting outside was a young uniformed woman in her early twenties. She came closer when he approached and stood at attention when he greeted her.
She couldn’t have been more than a couple of years older than Hellen.
“Colonel NightRacer, I’m very pleased to meet you, sir. I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Call me Racer,” he said. “Nice to meet you too, EnforcerOne…if that’s your real name.”
“It’s a temporary handle,” she said, and she smiled.
They shook hands. Enforcer’s hand was small, but she had a strong grip and held Racer’s hand just a fraction of a second too long for him register it. There was something about her that was out of place in this creepy town. Her uniform was too clean, her gaze too soft, and she looked a little too tall for her age. Born in space, maybe.
“Are you from the base? I don’t think I’ve seen you there.”
“No, I’m from…another team.”
“First time in a touched town?” Racer asked.
“Yeah, and it’s…well…creepy.”
She wasn’t exaggerating. He could sense she wasn’t comfortable. “Ever seen an addict?”
“Not in the real life, sir, no. Only in simulations.”
“No field experience?”
“This is my first mission in a touched town, but it’s a good exercise for me,” she said, with a fake enthusiasm in her voice.
Before Racer got to his next question, she stopped him with a request in an official tone of voice. “Sir, I need to reprogram your com device, would you please step into my vehicle so I can proceed?”
“Sure, Enforcer.” She was playing some role now, and he politely played along.
She held the passenger door open for him, and Racer got into the seat. The interior was impressive. The computer alone was probably more powerful than any of the old machines they had at the base. EnforcerOne got in her seat and opened an app on her screen.
Racer saw her judiciously sniffing the air, probably sensing the alcohol on his breath. Still, she didn’t say anything.
“Sir, do you have any communication devices on you?” she asked in the same official, flat tone of voice.
“I have a standard implant for short distance.”
“Good. I’ll take care of that,” she said and turned on a dampening field.
Her computer was showing one more com on the passenger side. “There is one more com device somewhere. Design…” She waited for the search results, and he sensed a little surprise in her voice when they came up. “Design unknown! It’s probably in your backpack, sir.”
KeyStroke, that bastard! Racer thought.
“Colonel, would you please open the door and set your backpack outside.” There was confidence in her voice, and he followed her instructions.
“That’s funny,” she said after reading his again. “The device is still here.”
Racer sighed, took off his boots, and placed them outside. His socks didn’t smell too good, but the com symbol in the app’s secure area vanished.
“Hell-o!” he said with a smile. “This looks like one of KeyStroke’s stunts. I swear, he’s a resourceful fellow, but doesn’t have one dash of ethics.”
“Can I see those boots, sir?” she said, confident again.
He fetched them. Enforcer pulled out her gun and changed its settings, then put his boots on the floor and shot at them from a short distance. Something popped quietly.
“A directional EMP zapper,” said Racer. “Wow! Is that a standard issue now?”
“For the Phoenix team? Yes,” the young woman said, and Racer saw a little smile forming at the corners of her mouth. “You never know what that nasty Grass will throw at you.”
Racer suppressed his own smile. The Phoenix team always cared more about fighting other people than fighting the Grass.
After checking her computer again, Enforcer opened Racer’s com and pulled out the battery. She put the dead device and the battery on the dashboard, in front of her and looked him in the eyes.
Checking my reactions, Racer thought.
“Sir, Gardener sends you his regards.”
So, he was alive. “Gardener…is he…how is he doing these days?”
“General Gardener is doing fine. He’s in the vicinity, by the way, and wants to talk to you.”
In the vicinity? Not in orbit? In Providence?
She turned on a conference app. On the screen was Gardener, an older Gardener, but his eyes were still full of energy. He used to oversee Earth Security, but he was court-martialed after the Great Disaster. One time, Gardener sent a platoon to save Julie and Racer from a storm so massive that their emergency tent was completely covered in spores. Half of the men sent to fetch them refused to go back that night and walked into the grass.
“NightRacer, it’s great to see you again, son.”
“The pleasure is all mine, General. How can I help you?”
“I’m here to collect.”
“I was afraid you’d say that. What do you need?”
“Come back alive, Racer. That’s all. I don’t want another scorched planet, and I don’t want dead heroes. Shoot, pillage, set junk on fire, do your stuff, and then talk to your missus and come back.”
Before Racer could say anything, the connection ended. Now something was bothering him. Gardener’s screen had the official logo on it. StormRider’s had not. The roach, the screen, the bottle—it was all a private affair. On the other hand, EnforcerOne was driving a car bearing the Phoenix logo, a thing that would not be permitted on the base.
She must be from somewhere else, Racer thought. How did she know I requested supplies?
Enforcer was quiet. She launched a few apps on her computer, running diagnostics on the com and selecting upgrades. While Racer’s device was being patched, she looked at him for a second, like she was remembering something. “Sir, were you on Earth when, you know, it happened?”
“It, as in the Great Disaster? Yes. I was contracting for your boss then.” He pointed to the screen on which they’d watched Gardener.
“We call it the Great Verdict now,” she said. “It’s the PC term. Did you cast your vote?”
“Did you vote to nuke it?”
“I don’t know, honestly. Maybe. I was very angry at that moment. We were losing Earth. Julie and I…Julie is my wife, my former wife—”
“We decided to chemically erase our memories after that vote so we wouldn’t feel guilty for voting one way or another. Did you ever see Earth?”
“No, I grew up on Mars. I only saw it on the net, in movies, and in the sky.”
“I still remember it like I left yesterday. When it was scorched, I felt like my soul was burning.”
He lowered the car window a little to look out and get some air. It was drizzling outside.
“I have a letter for you, Colonel NightRacer. It’s from Julie.”
Enforcer reached into a pocket, pulled out a paper envelope, and handed it to him. Racer was probably looking quite shocked, because she felt like she had to explain. “Your wife handwrote this letter before you two wiped out your memories. Please don’t read it in places where the satellites can peek at it.”
He looked carefully into the young Martian’s eyes. A paper letter? Did she read it? he wondered. What was so important in that letter that Gardener had kept it secret until now?
He opened the envelope. It was Julie’s handwriting, there was no doubt about it, and for a moment it felt like he’d seen it before—like he knew what was in it. It said, “I love you, and I want you to do something very important for me. Trust our child. Trust him.”
Him? “I thought Julie was pregnant when she wrote this,” he mumbled.
“Yes, she was, and you both knew that she was pregnant with a daughter.”
She read it, Racer thought. “Do you know why she wrote this?”
“No, and I don’t think you should ask too many questions either, sir.”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Before I leave, I need to show you one more thing,” Enforcer said, and she started the car.
“What is it?”
“It’s a…some kind of an anomaly. You didn’t know about it. The maps were programmed to hide it. You’ll see it for yourself in a couple of minutes.”
They travelled south. The car drove Martian style on empty streets, barely skirting the piles of trash. Martian driving was a little bit too reckless for Racer’s liking. Martians were used to large roads and didn’t care about finesse.
After barely avoiding the empty bus, they got to Fifth Street and raced to the end. At the edge of the town, two caretakers stood on the sidewalk like a couple of sad butlers, waiting for their masters to arrive. EnforcerOne slammed on the breaks hard again, then anxiously turned all the car’s cameras toward the caretakers, shooting video and snapping pictures.
“This is so cool!” Her voice was trembling with excitement. “My friends are not going to believe this. Real caretakers! And they’re looking at us, practically interacting with us.”
A Phoenix kid who’d never seen a caretaker? Who are these people?
The next one to be surprised was Racer. At the end of the street, behind the caretakers, stood a garden, a real garden on a planet swallowed by the Devil’s Grass. He opened the car door and ran out in his socks, his liquor buzz instantly vanishing. What he heard was the chirping of birds and crickets, and some buzzing that sounded like a bee.
While Racer stood in the middle of the street in his socks, his mouth agape in awe, EnforcerOne made a U-turn and handed him his backpack and boots. There was a sparkle of amusement, or maybe curiosity in her eyes. She laughed. “You look like a kid in the candy store, Colonel. I’ve got to go. See you around!”
Racer nodded but didn’t bother answering. He was fascinated by the look of the giant moon hanging above the trees.
He heard the car accelerating wildly on Fifth. Then came the screeching of tires, and then she was gone.