In a bleak future, NightRacer, an Earth campaign veteran, decides to unlock his erased memories. What he remembers, changes everything.
(note: this is chapter 4 from a serialized novel, previous chapter here – link)
Government satellites were usually programmed to calculate consumption rate, grass advance rate, spore density, grass discoloration rate, as well as many other useful macro-indicators. Some business-owned satellites had been known to keep track of the addicts in the strawberry fields and to survey damages to private property, as well as anything else that smelled like a lawsuit. The one thing no satellite was looking for was a garden.
NightRacer scanned the area. The garden was sitting on Providence’s receptor. The devil in the ground was listening to the sounds in paradise.
This vegetation wasn’t completely invisible on the maps. It looked like a slightly greener spot south of town, but if zooming all the way in, one could see there were no trees or flowers, just a dull green. The satellites and maps were programmed to hide it, and they were doing a pretty good job. From Racer’s perspective, the place looked very Earth-like. The soft grass reminded him of a variety from some dreamy Alpine meadows, with smooth, lush leaves. The trees and bushes seemed tastefully arranged according to their color, size, and texture.
A movement caught his eye again, and this time Racer controlled his urge to grab the gun. Instead, he slowly reached for his binoculars, lost somewhere at the bottom of his backpack. He raised the field glasses, pretending to casually survey the area. When the digital stabilization kicked in, he turned around and saw a teenage kid, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old, hiding in the bushes, spying on him.
Easy now, he thought. Don’t run away.
Racer crouched. With his eyes he followed the trail where the guy walked in the wet grass. It didn’t take the kid long to realize that the trail was leading to his hiding place. He took off, and instinctively, NightRacer followed him.
The guy was fast. Racer lost him after a mile, but this didn’t bother him much.
In the middle of the garden was a pond with lilies and dragonflies. The bed of leaves under one tall pine tree looked especially inviting. He laid down and stretched his back, then rested his head on his backpack and closed his eyes. The air smelled of leaves, hay, and flowers…daffodils? So nice, so relaxing. Racer didn’t even realize when he fell asleep.
It was cold, too cold to sleep, and his back ached. Whatever little charge had remained in his smart uniform was probably drained in less than an hour keeping him warm. Racer reached for the emergency tent inside his backpack and wrapped himself in it as well as he could. A red sunrise was bulging at the horizon. Racer checked his Com. The screen was foggy, but he managed to read the time—it was 4:30 a.m. A list of red warnings was on the screen, but he ignored them. A lucid dream was coming. He could feel its pressure.
Racer closed his eyes and found himself in a city, looking for his lost car. Even with his eyes half open, squinting at the dark sky, he felt the urgency of that search, the urgency to jump into the car and find a place, a very important place. Why was it important? Damned if he knew, but he got into the car and drove, drove, and drove.
I’m in New York, in Paris, in Berlin. I’m in Vienna, looking at the walls of the Great Danube barrier. I’m in England, building the Channel wall. I’m in Moscow, in Beijing, in Hong Kong. I’m driving, driving south. I’m in Sydney, making a desperate last stand. I’m driving south, first on large empty highways, then on narrower streets. I’m not alone. Julie and Hellen are with me. The streets are getting cluttered, and to keep moving, we have to abandon our car. We’re running along corridors, running through people’s living rooms and kitchens, running, rushing to get to a town. Julie and Hellen are with me, and a couple of trusted friends. We’re running, and running out of time, and we’re leaving everything behind, so we can keep moving. We’re abandoning our stuff, and bags, and Hellen’s toys, and she doesn’t even cry, and we’re leaving all our food somewhere in a room. We’re running down narrow halls and through a couple’s bedroom, and they are frozen—motionless in bed, like time stopped for them, but we are running. We’re running late and now, to get there in time, I must run alone. “Run! You have to get there! Run!” an old man tells me. He sounds like Gardener. He’s an old man who knows where I’m going. I’m running and I have to find a small town in the South, some place with a P in its name. I’m running and everybody is looking at me. Everybody just stands there and looks at me, like time stopped for them. Where is that place? What is its name? Para? Pary? Pery? Por? Providence!
Racer jumped up, repeating, “Providence, Providence, Providence,” with his dry lips.
There was quite a number of pebbles and twigs under the leaves he slept on, and Racer felt like he counted them all with his back. The sun was up. It was 8:20 He reached for his backpack to get some water, but the pouch was missing. He searched some more. His food was gone too.
Instinctively, Racer’s hand went for his holster. There was no gun in it.
The warnings on the com told him everything. The uniform sent a warning—“Good-bye World!”—before losing its charge, and then there was a warning about an unauthorized opening of the holster, and then the gun was removed, and then the gun sent a warning about leaving the com range, and finally, from somewhere in Providence, that it was being tampered with and was engaging its locks.
Three blocks from the library, NightRacer took a quick left into the courtyard of the former Defense Office. The building had been ransacked just like the rest of them. In the back, a warped metal door was dangling on a hinge. He stepped over the trash piled at the door, checked again to see if anybody was looking, and stepped into the dark corridor. This was one of the few concrete buildings in the town, and he could feel the air getting colder inside. At the end of the corridor was a staircase, and at the end of the staircase was a heavy metal door.
Untouched, thought Racer. Unopened. Good! They would need some serious tools to break this door.
The locking mechanism had several options—read a string of characters, provide fingerprints and retina scan, or ask for a pin to be sent to a certain device. Racer decided against sending anything over the network, and he never liked the idea of biometrics. On Earth he’d seen too many people without eyes and fingers to like it. He reached for his dog tags and checked them in the low light coming from an opaque window in the ceiling. One of them had a small scratch. Racer removed its plastic frame and entered some of the letters from inside the frame. He typed his personal pin into his Com and decrypted the string. With the characters whispered close to the door, the locking mechanism clicked, air hissed, the lights turned on, and the door opened.
Inside everything looked pristine and untouched. It was a secure room in the attic, an oxygen-free environment when locked, so clean a surgeon could operate inside hours after it was opened. This was Racer’s just-in-case place. Just in case factions started fighting again, just in case the government was toppled, just in case he had to hide, just in case some people from the past decided to hurt him again. Just in case…
This facility didn’t exist on maps, and it wasn’t catalogued anywhere on the networks. It had an independent water supply connected to a well in the basement and was run by its own, autonomous power pack. He could connect to a network from inside only by physically plugging a cable into a receptacle.
In the back was a gun rack holding a collection of assorted weapons, one of them an old-fashioned semiautomatic with gunpowder rounds. The food and water supplies could provision a small army, and some of the things in the room were worth a fortune on the black market: power packs, a field surgical kit, rations, tents, respirators, a heavy armor suit, plastic explosives, smart uniforms, IDs, cash cards, Coms, field cameras, a box of tiny recon drones, two portable chemical showers, and a stack of boxes containing all kinds of other useful staff.
First things first: Racer stripped down, stepped into the shower’s rubber suit, and let the chemicals clean his body. When the dry cycle started, he put on the haircut bonnet, selected a standard trim, and let the machine do its job. Racer rubbed into his skin a handful of field protection cream, a combination of insect repellants, sunscreen, blood clotting chems, and who knew what else. After inspecting his skin for problems, he got into a clean uniform.
Racer let the shower go through the self-folding sequence while he checked the uniform’s charge and synchronized its system to his Com. He swiped a cash card and discarded it. After some searching through the shelves and boxes, Racer grabbed a utility knife, three water pouches, some extra ammunition for his handgun, a lighter, a couple of cans of food, a can of spray paint, and whatever else seemed like a good idea.
Before opening the door, Racer stopped and reflected for a minute or two, deciding whether he needed another Jolt. The excitement of getting ready for action, like he used to do in the old times, was overwhelming, but…
Am I so frail that every little anticipation makes me shake like an addict? Racer thought, but a multitude of other questions took precedence. Was he going to survive this undertaking? Did he even want to survive it? Did anybody need him outside of these walls? After some hesitation, Racer reached for the valued plastic box. He had two more Jolts, two placebos, and one alcohol cleaning syringe.
Not enough for two injections. Racer decided to go old school. He pulled out his lower lip with his fingers and injected a Jolt inside the lip. This way he didn’t need alcohol and placebo, and it wasn’t like he was going to live forever anyway. For a minute he stood motionless in the middle of his room, biting on his lip and enjoying the warmth of the energy levels rising and the growing power in his waking muscles.
This experience reminded him also of something else, a completely different adventure. This wasn’t just a room where he kept stuff. At one time he brought to this room a box of shampoos, deodorants and perfumes, teeth-whitening gel, and skin lotion. That’s when he spent some of his just-in-case cash on civilian clothing, got a real haircut downtown, and subscribed to a bunch of magazines. It happened when he met StarLightning, a scientist from the Department of Agriculture visiting NAZ. He liked her from the moment he saw her, and when they shook hands, she knew that, and he wasn’t hiding it. They went on a date once, on a Tuesday evening. Walked through the streets, holding hands. He received a call that night and had to leave early, apologizing, because of some urgent problems — missing equipment, a gene slicer nowhere to be found, and other things unaccounted for. Julie went to the Northern Continent and didn’t bother to check in. Somebody was misplacing all kinds of items on NAZ and was trafficking things, and it wasn’t KeyStroke.
He begged for a second chance, and they decided on a new date, but by then the Grass infection had emerged. The entire NAZ had to switch to DEFCON, and all the visitors were evacuated. She later sent him a greeting card for his birthday, and he thanked her and sent her flowers for her birthday, and she thanked him, and then it all dissipated in a fog of sleepless nights and endless conference calls.
StarLightning, thought Racer, enjoying the flow of drugs through his body. What a name!
Before leaving, he did a quick check of the systems, grabbed a couple of field cameras, linked them to his Com, and then put the old uniform in a bin, connected it and turned on the cleaning mode. He also grabbed a clean breathing mask, adjusted it, and checked the filter. It was working.
I’m such a spoiled brat! Racer thought, remembering the old days. Clean mask! On Earth they didn’t have smart uniforms and breathing masks. Sometimes the only way to get your uniform clean was to wash it by hand and sleep in it so it would dry by morning.
After making sure the door was locked, Racer walked briskly to the library. He stuck one of the cameras to the wall and turned it so he could watch the crates with provisions. He wasn’t afraid to lose this stuff, but with the food and water around, this spot had automatically become a watering hole—a place for probable human activity—and watching it was a good idea.
After checking the image and adjusting the camera, Racer grabbed some food and water and jogged to the old restaurant. The kid was still in his dirty bed, sleeping, oblivious to everything. Racer threw the provisions on the teen’s chest, and watched him jump in surprise, trying to get a grasp on where he was and what’s going on. Once he understood who Racer was, his eyes darted around the room, searching for others.
“I’m alone,” Racer said. “Now, where is my gun?”
“Here,” the kid said, reaching under his so-called pillow and throwing the gun on the floor. “I can’t shoot it anyway.”
“Of course you can’t; it has a locking device. Didn’t you know that?” Racer said, picking up his gun and checking it.
“I thought I could disable it,” he mumbled. He was waking up now.
“Why did you steel my food?”
“Why do you think? I was hungry,” the kid replied, and Racer could hear contempt in his voice. He seems familiar.
“There are supplies at the library. You don’t need to take food from me. What’s your name?”
“Greg,” he said, and looked at Racer with disappointment.
Was I supposed to know his name, or something? Racer thought.
“You went to school with Hellen, right? Aren’t you Hellen’s latest boyfriend? Yes. I think she introduced you a couple of weeks ago, but you had a better haircut then.”
“I’m surprised you remember, Chief.” There was a little irritation in his voice now.
“Why did you run from me?”
“Can’t you guess?”
“Have no idea, and drop the freaking guessing game.”
“Because you’re here to hurt us. You’re here to plan the nuking, right? Like you did on Earth.”
“I did not nuke Earth. I was too young to decide the fate of a planet.”
“But you can still nuke this planet, right, Chief?” The kid’s certainty was fading.
“I’m not the chief of Security anymore. You can call me Racer.”
“Did they fire you or something?” Greg looked at Racer and cocked his head.
“Over Hellen leaving?”
“Over losing everybody I care about.”
Greg stood quiet for a second, processing what he’d just heard.
Racer decided to steer the conversation in another direction, “How did you get here, kid? This is a long walk from the base.”
“They brought us here by bus.”
“Who are they?”
“You call them ‘Caretakers.’ They drove us on that bus with broken windows.”
“Is Hellen here, or is she somewhere in a strawberry field?”
“I don’t know where her body is. All I know is that her mind is okay. Don’t bother looking, she already crossed to the other side.”
“I’m not going anywhere without my daughter, and now that I found you, you’ll come with us.”
“That’s very nice of you, Chief. Really, but we don’t want to go back. Hellen is in the city. My friends are there too, and I’m joining them after I deliver a message to you.”
“City, message, what the hell are you talking about?”
“I have a message for you.”
“From him. You know…from it.”
“I don’t know shit.”
“You call it Devil’s Grass.”
“How do you call it?”
Greg rolled his eyes and stood there for a second, remembering, and then he recited fast:
“Begin message one to NightRacer. I am the host and the keeper. I have many of you, plural. You, singular, will go to a feeding field and find the berries that look like grapes. Eat them, and you, singular, will talk to me in your dreams without getting addicted. End message one to NightRacer.”
It sounded so weird that Racer couldn’t help it, and his emotions spilled out in an angry snarl. “What the fuck was that?”
“What?” Greg looked scared. “What did I do?”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. What the hell did you just recite? It’s bizarre and completely idiotic garbage. How is this a message? Is it from the Grass?”
“Take it easy, Chief. This is the message, from the Grass to you. It’s from an alien being, a plant, remember? It doesn’t think like us. Maybe it can’t speak our language.”
“I see,” Racer’s frustration started to dissipate a little. “What’s up with the you, plural, and you, singular, crap?”
“I think he’s trying to separate second person plural from second person singular.”
“Because English doesn’t make difference between those two, and the Grass thinks they are important.”
“Okay, mister second person singular, and what’s with the ‘message one’ business. Is it planning to send me a lot of these messages?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Or maybe it’s just a neat being. Maybe it likes to keep track of its messages.”
“So you’re telling me that a carnivorous monster thing that engulfs planets and eats people is a neat and organized—what, like entity, plant, alien being?”
“Well tell it I don’t care about its neat and organized crap. I want my daughter back. And if it wants to talk to me, it has to give me Hellen first.”
“You tell it. I’m done here.” Greg said, trying without success to go around Racer.
“I don’t want to tell it shit,” Racer yelled. And he enjoyed the sweet tingle of adrenaline in his body. “You expect me to eat that junk in the fields? I will never touch anything that grows in those fucking fields. Got it?”
Greg responded with a long blink at this display of anger, like he had a sudden headache.
“Get in touch with the Grass and tell it what I just told you. Right now.”
“Who the hell are you to say no? Get in touch with it now!”
“Who the hell are you to order me around?”
“I’m…well…” The adrenaline rush started to dissipate, and Racer realized that he was towering over the kid, screaming at him. “I’m the only other human being around. And I’m your girlfriend’s father.”
“I can’t talk to it. It’s not like calling it over the com or something. You think I can talk to it?” Greg’s tone was apologetic.
“No. I never talked to it.”
“Then where did you get the—?”
“Racer, you’re there man?” an anxious voice whispered in Racer’s com, and he had to excuse himself and go outside to talk.
“Is that you Stroke? What’s up with—?”
“Hey man, listen, I’m using an alternative frequency and my own encryption keys.”
“I’m in over my head. We all are…we have casualties.”
“Casualties, as in many? Who?”
“Ramirez and the chick you hired a couple of months ago.”
“Ramirez is dead? And that kid? What happened? Did they fight?”
“No man.” KeyStroke was almost crying now. “Nothing like that.”
“Then what happened?”
“Here is the thing. Are the factions back again?”
“Stroke, there are no more factions. There is only one government now.”
“I’m not sure that’s true anymore, man, and I think you’re somehow involved in it.”
“Me? Tell me what happened.”
“The moment you left, a drone showed up in the sky.”
“A what? We don’t have drones on NAZ.”
“You think? I’m telling you, a drone showed up, and the ship wasn’t in orbit yet. The weirdest thing—the drone was shadowing you. I mean, when you stopped, it stopped, and when you raced your car like crazy, it followed you, and then the ship got into orbit. Didn’t contact anyone from the base, just sat there in orbit and scanned us. So when your car died, the drone hovered a couple of miles east of you and the ship challenged it for ID and got none, and it then whacked it with a missile. I have that fuck-up recorded.”
“I think I saw that. An orbital charge. Dammit! But why? Stroke, do you know something I don’t?”
“No, man. No. As I said, I was just sitting in my bunker, as usual, recording shit. You stopped, and a couple of hours later you got out of your car and walked to Providence. And the ship sent its ID challenge. The moment that drone ignored the challenge, it got blown out of the sky. And that’s when another drone came from the south, with no lights and no ID. And get this—it hovered above the wreckage for a minute and disappeared. Disappeared!”
“No. I thought it got shot too, but it wasn’t. Weird things are happening, man. I’m telling you—very weird things, as in factions slaughtering each other again.”
“Did you ask the ship’s captain if he fired a missile?”
“Of course. He told me to fuck off. And get this—he didn’t even ask why I was asking.”
“They did it.” Racer said.
“Not exactly. They knew what was going on, but they didn’t care to tell me. So in the morning, I sent Ramirez and that girl to retrieve the wreckage from the first drone.”
“Was it booby-trapped or something?”
“Nope. Even worse. When they got to the wreckage, the second drone reappeared. It decloaked on my screen and hit their truck with an implosion charge. I mean an implosion charge to take out a truck! That’s like our fucking budget for a year. Who does that? This is like super crazy secret navy shit, or something. Then it fired another implosion charge on the wrecked drone and left.”
“What?” Racer said.
“I’m telling you man, factions with invisible drones and implosion charges. That’s not a joke. We are all royally screwed here. And the second one was just sitting there, waiting to inflict some damage. I think they were hoping to recover the wreckage but had to squeeze it when Ramirez got there first. Either that or they were trying to teach us a lesson.”
“Dammit! Dammit! Anything left of those kids?”
“Nothing. That truck is a ball of metal with organic residue inside. We’re going to put the whole thing in the ground. There’s no reason to open that can, and I think they liked each other anyway.”
“KeyStroke, here is my advice—don’t wait for permission. Permission always comes too late and is too stupid, and this is bad—I mean civil war bad. Move to DEFCON 2, kick out all the strangers, seal off the base, and get your people into the bunkers. If you must deal with anything, and I mean anything just a little out of ordinary, move in with tanks and shuttles. Keep them linked tight and monitor the area. Let the robots do the work. Don’t send people. And control it all remotely. This is bad.”
“You got it, man. I’ll keep you posted. One more thing I wanted to mention.”
“Again, somehow this is all related to you. The moment you left the base, all the shit got loose. They are watching you.”
“I hear you, Stroke.” Racer said. “Don’t worry about me. Keep those men safe!”
Racer turned around to see Greg behind him, looking at him funny. “What?” Racer said.
“The guy you talked to—you called him Stroke.”
“Yes, he’s KeyStroke, the new chief of security. Why?”
“He sold me a bottle of wine,” Greg said.
“Stroke? You sure? What did he look like?”
“It was all done through encrypted voice, and he mailed me the bottle.”
“Yup, that’s him all right. Was it a good wine?”
“It wasn’t wine. We thought it was wine, but it wasn’t.”
“Who are we?”
“Hellen and I. I bought it because it was illegal. Spent all my savings on it, too.”
“What was it?”
“Wasn’t wine, for sure. Some kind of Grass juice. It makes you dream like crazy and hear things, but it’s not hallucinations. You can hear people’s hearts beat and smell things on the other side of the base. Crazy stuff like that. We had some of that juice and felt really weird, like all our senses went crazy, so we went home and…well…after a while, we fell asleep. In my dream I talked to a woman. She’s like a helper to the host, you know…to the Grass. Or she’s a mentor or something. She calls herself the hostess. Yeah. And she’s in charge. And she told me to remember that message from the host, and she said I’m stronger and I have a better chance to find you, and then she showed us the City, and it was like a paradise. Hellen immediately said she couldn’t stay on the base anymore. And that’s it.
“The next day, we decided to walk out. Left the base and went to a strawberry field, and the guardians—the caretakers—they were waiting for us there. We got on the bus and came here. Hellen had strawberries the same day, and now, she…well…she must’ve already crossed. I’m still untouched. I’m dreaming a lot, but I can’t go to the City, not without that lady. I’m stuck here, eating garbage and sleeping on rags. I’m like you.”
“Who is the woman you talked to?”
“She’s Hellen’s mom and your wife—Ms. Julie.”