In a bleak future, NightRacer, an Earth campaign veteran, decides to unlock his erased memories. What he remembers, changes everything.
(note: this is chapter 5 from a serialized novel, previous chapter here – link)
NightRacer finished searching another forty, maybe fifty houses by evening. Greg watched him from a distance, playing with a com he found. He was sitting on the sidewalk picking his nose when Racer surprised him with a question.
“Why can’t you give me a hand, Romeo?”
Greg ignored him, continuing to dig in his nose.
“You hear me?”
“You won’t find her here, Chief. She’s gone.” Greg said.
“She’s in the City, I already told you.”
“The City. You know—the host’s City.”
Feeling like the kid’s answers were getting more and more cryptic, Racer decided to change the subject. He came closer, looked at Greg’s long and pointy shoes—the latest crazy fashion in space—and kept staring until he was sure the kid noticed it.
“What are you looking at?” Greg finally said.
“Your shoes. You look like a clown. How can you walk in those things?”
Greg looked at his shoes. “What? Everybody wears pointy shoes now.”
“On the station maybe, but not on a planet. Down here pointy shoes say you’re a station rat who can’t walk.”
“I outran you yesterday,” Greg said, and he pulled out a cigar from his breast pocket. From his backpack he pulled a small kitchen blowtorch and started lighting the cigar with it.
“You were just lucky. How old are you, anyway?”
“Seventeen? And Hellen is sixteen and a half. Jeez. And you already smoke?”
“Of course. This body,” Greg said, slapping himself lightly on the cheek, “is not going to live long. So I have to try all the vices. I regret I didn’t try it earlier. They say it takes time to understand it.”
“Isn’t it weird?” Racer said mostly to himself. “Killing yourself at seventeen, or at sixteen and a half.”
“It is.” And then, avoiding Racer’s eyes, he said in a nonchalant tone, “Racer…sir, I think I’ve seen an empty syringe somewhere. Do you happen to know where I can get a Jolt?” The cigar in his hand was still lighted, but he never puffed—not even once.
Racer ignored the question. “And both of you decided to throw your lives away. What a waste! Did you even have sex?”
“You as in singular, or you as in plural?”
“You as in you and my daughter, smartass.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Greg said with a little smirk.
“I could beat it out of you.”
“No, you couldn’t.”
“Lighten up, kid! I’m not trying to make you confess. I know my daughter’s not exactly an angel. It just seems like a complete waste to die without even having had sex once.”
“What if we had? Twice. The second time was after we had that wine or Grass juice or whatever. Damn, that was crazy! Even for her. And she wasn’t exactly…you know…a virgin.”
“Oh? And how would you know the difference between a virgin and a non-virgin?”
“When you’re wearing pointy shoes, you have to know,” Greg said.
At least he has a sense of humor, Racer thought. “Still, how can you walk in those things? Or the glove shoes the station rats wear? Those are just socks with toes.”
“Yeah, those things are funny. It’s sad, I guess, to see all these people getting down to a planet for the first time and walking like they are stepping on broken glass. It’s embarrassing.”
With this change of topic, Racer felt like it was a good moment to ask some important questions. He looked around for something to sit on. “So, you think I won’t find her?”
“Hellen? She is not here, Chief. Her body may be around, but her mind is in the City.”
“Okay, where is this City?”
“Well, here’s the story, Chief—I mean Racer. Have a sit.” Greg pulled two plastic chairs from a pile of broken furniture and offered one to Racer. They sat down, but it felt like something was missing. NightRacer went to the furniture pile and pulled out a few more items, until he found something resembling a table.
After rummaging a little through his backpack, Racer produced two packaged meals. “Beef or chicken?” He asked.
“Is there a difference? Both are made in the same lab.”
Racer threw Greg one of the meals without looking at the label. “I hate chemistry.”
They kept silent for a couple of minutes, concentrating first on initiating the heating process, then on unwrapping the plastic spoon and the thin piece of toast, and then on swallowing the hot meat-tasting stew.
After finishing this procedure, Greg licked and threw away the spoon, and then he carefully wiped the container with his remaining bread.
Martian. Racer thought. That’s a Martian tradition of wiping the plate clean.
Racer broke the silence. “So, where are you from?”
“Born on a ship. After my parents died, lived with my grandparents on NAZ.”
“Where are your grandparents?”
“Retired on a station just before the Grass spread. I sent them a message before walking out. Maybe they’ll decide to join us. It’s better than dying in space.”
It wasn’t a bad story, but nobody was retiring on stations anymore, and the kid looked a little too short and too strong for a guy born in space.
He could outrun me in his pointy shoes, Racer thought. Liar! But instead of confronting Greg, he just nodded and finished his meal.
“So, what do you want to know about the City?” Greg asked.
“Anything that will help me find Hellen.”
“Sorry, I can’t help you with that, but I can help you understand what’s going on here.”
“What’s going on here? Okay. So where is that City?” Racer asked.
“Do you dream a lot? And I mean like vivid, lucid dreams. Have you been dreaming a lot lately?” Greg asked, making indentations on a stick with a pocketknife.
“Incidentally, yes. I had a very vivid dream last night, but I’m worried, so that may be the explanation.”
“Do you have a place you visit in your dreams, like a city, a station, or a base?”
“Is this the City you told me about?” Racer said. “The place in the dreams? Yes, I have a place—actually a number of places I go to. Sidney is one on them, but I don’t particularly enjoy going there.”
“Of course you don’t, because the city is empty, right? And you’re mostly alone, searching for something, or obsessing about something.”
“So? Are you saying that when you eat strawberries you visit that City?”
“No, you don’t just visit it. I mean you go there, but you don’t come back. You move to that City. The juice will let you visit the place, but after you eat the strawberries it’s not a dream anymore. The City is real, and you share it with thousands and thousands of other people. You live there.”
“Have you been to that place?”
“Once, and I saw it many times from a distance. And Hellen told me about it, and Julie.”
“So it’s a dream—a mass hallucination.”
“Why not? Everybody seems to be sharing the same delusion.”
“Well, here is what you—I mean we—are usually wrong about.”
“You said everybody.” Greg smiled, like he’d caught Racer saying some stupid thing.
“And? What? Not everybody is going to that City?”
“You said every and body. See what I mean? Body. Our bodies don’t go there. Only our minds.”
“Your body has to die, so you can go to the Grass City?”
Why I am not surprised? Thought Racer. It’s almost like I knew this already.
He reached for a pouch of water in his backpack and, fidgeting for a moment, ripped its label. Then he put it on the table and spun it a couple of times.
“No brains to hallucinate with?” Racer said. “What is it then, a virtual world?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. If it’s a virtual world, it’s not the kind we know. We’re used to simulated worlds, where you just go for a visit in an immersive suit. You’re in there for an hour or two, shoot, kill, get bored, come back, and go on with living your life. This is different. It’s not a place you visit. It’s your home. They live there, and they eat and sleep and never get bored. Did you ever sleep in a virtual world?”
Racer thought about it for some time, squeezing the soft water pouch. “So you don’t find it stupid to die at the age of seventeen just so you can go to an imaginary world? Do you know how an addict dies?”
“I heard about it.”
“He digs a hole in the strawberry filed under a thorn tree and sleeps in that hole, sometimes a night, sometimes two or three, waiting for the tree to have mercy on him. The branch with the thorn is slowly arching. One night it strikes him in the heart. The caretakers and the roots do the rest. I’ve seen thorns miss addicts’ hearts. I’ve seen bodies incased in roots, still squirming.”
“I heard about it. I’ve never seen it, but I’ll probably experience it myself in a couple of days,” Greg said in a gloomy voice. “The only thought that gives me comfort is that by the time my body digs the hole, my mind will already be in the City.”
“And you really want to die?”
“I don’t want to die, Chief. I just want to go to the City and be happy and never eat garbage again.”
“Why can’t you just return to base, live your normal life here, in this world, and then, when you’re old, come back and live in that City of yours.”
“Because I don’t want to end up somewhere on a space station, and…”
“And live in another virtual reality, my body strapped into a harness, slowly rotting of radiation poisoning or who knows what other shitty station disease.”
“You mean Eden? What do you know about Eden?”
“I know everything about Eden. Everybody knows everything about Eden. That’s the only thing people talk about. Eden is a bad idea!”
“Millions of people, all on one station, with nutrients injected intravenously, robots maintaining the bodies. Really? Humankind on a stick. No backup, no nothing. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. What if an infectious disease strikes, or a fire? How long are robots going to take care of the station? What if somebody hacks them? What if somebody takes over the station? What if a meteorite strikes? What if there’s not enough food for millions? I think this Eden is going to be the end of humanity.”
“Wait a second. Just a second, okay? Not everybody is going to join Eden. First, it’s going to be just a test, and only for volunteers. The scientists are working on it. Later, if anything happens, teams of experts will be taken out of suspended animation and dispatched to solve the problem.”
“How are these experts going to move after years of suspended animation? Are their muscles going to be strong enough? You know, I’d rather trust the Grass than all your scientists. I mean, really, with all your great scientists, how much do you know about the Grass? Did these scientists ever talk to a guardian? Have they ever heard of the City? I seem to know more about this thing than all your scientists put together.”
“So you go back and they’ll offer you a nice job,” Racer said.
“If I go back, they’ll kill me the next day,” Greg answered.
And Racer knew he was right. There were a lot of people up there who made sure nobody said anything about the Grass.
Greg’s eyes darted about for a second. He was looking at something behind Racer. “So you are not here to kill our Host, right?” Greg asked.
“No. First, I can’t kill it myself; I can just put my signature on a proposal. Second, I need to find Hellen first. Also, I’d like to see that City and talk to that person you think is Julie.”
Greg looked again at something behind Racer, and Racer could swear he felt somebody was there, breathing quietly.
That somebody coughed politely, and Racer felt the hair rising on the back of his neck. Instinctively, his right hand went for the gun, and he turned around in a quick movement, making his chair tumble. Behind him stood a caretaker, holding two bunches of grapes in his hands.
“Hi, Paul,” Greg said.
Do they talk? Racer thought. He turned slightly but made sure to keep Paul in his peripheral vision. He whispered to Greg, “Do they talk?”
“Oh, yes,” said Greg in a normal voice. “Paul talks. And hears. And everything. He’s like us. Not an addict or something. Just a regular man, doing his job, and waiting for an invitation to hit the strawberry fields.”
Racer looked back at the caretaker. Paul looked sad, like all caretakers, but there was also an understanding in his eyes.
“Sorry Paul,” Racer mumbled. “Didn’t mean to insult you. It’s just that I’ve seen a number of infected planets—you know, that’s how we call them—and I’ve never heard a…a what do you call it? A guardian talk.”
Paul looked apprehensively at Racer’s gun. While he wasn’t pointing his gun directly at Paul, Racer had the safety off and was holding the weapon in the ready position.
“Sorry,” said Racer again, and he secured his gun.
“No problem, Chief,” Paul said. He had a soft, deep voice. “I talked to Ms. Julie, and she said I should bring you these grapes. She said if you eat these, you’ll be able to talk to her and Hellen. You know, you can talk to Ms. Julie anytime you want. She can hear you. But she can talk to you in your dreams.”
He offered the grapes again. Racer hesitated, but Paul insisted, and Racer knew he couldn’t leave that place without talking to Julie and Hellen—or whatever devil was pretending to be them.
As Racer took the grapes, his com erupted with voices. Above all of them, KeyStroke shouted, “Don’t eat that, man! Just don’t do it. Don’t leave me alone here. Don’t do it!”
KeyStroke’s volume was getting lower and lower. Finally, his signal was gone.
But Gardener’s voice broke through the noise. “NightRacer, my friend, you’re a free man now. You can do whatever is good for you. Remember to come back alive.”
“Well, thanks, Gardener,” Racer said into the com. “Be careful with Stroke. He doesn’t like to be treated like that. I hope you have a good cyber team, because he’ll try to hack your systems.”
“We’re ready for him. And even if he breaks in, all he can find is the authorization for this operation.”
“So you’re back now?”
“Oh, yes. Phoenix is now running the show!”
Racer walked to the center of the town, slowly and carefully measuring each step. He’d just eaten the grapes and was trying to sense the changes in his state of mind.
The remains of the burned store seemed like a good place to stop. He examined the burned building. It looked just as it was supposed to look—just as it had the last time he’s seen it. It was just a pile of charred wood with a pungent smell. Nothing had changed. Yet, it felt like something had changed.
Racer examined the objects around him. The colors seemed the same. The reds and blues in the piles of trash didn’t seem any brighter. Whites were just whites, and blacks were just blacks. Actually, these Providence ruins didn’t have clear shades of white, but all the grays seemed solid gray.
So, what had changed? The sky didn’t seem higher, and the sidewalk was steady. A team of scientists was probably still watching him from the orbit, and the Grass was still listening to his steps from underneath. Why did he call it Grass, and not Devil’s Grass? Did he still hate? Yes, the hate was still there.
He walked to the library, carefully measuring his steps. Was he exceedingly sad? No, he wouldn’t say so. Actually, he was sad, but not more than he was yesterday. Was he unusually happy? No.
The food crates were still in the parking lot. He opened one and reached for a package. Could he still read? Yes. The wrapper said, Cherry Pie. Racer put it back and searched for something different. After some digging in the crates, he found something with bamboo shoots in it. Bamboo was a grass. Could he still eat it? Yes. Did he want to eat it now? No, but he wasn’t hungry.
What had changed?
He walked to the fountain and looked at the coins in the mud. Did they look different than he remembered? No. He looked for the hole he shot in the ground. It was still there.
Nothing had changed.
What would have happened if he’d been offered those grapes yesterday? Would he have shot the caretaker for coming close to him? Maybe. Then, what had changed?
Well, maybe he changed, but it didn’t happen an hour ago. He changed while sleeping in a garden, while feeling watched by them. He felt disconnected. He felt like hiding from them while shooting holes in the ground. He changed while sitting at the table with Greg, while listening to a caretaker speak, and while deciding he wanted to see the City.
In all his years hiding from the spores he’d probably inhaled some of them. Still, he’d never felt the need to see the Devil’s City. Why not? Why now?
“NightRacer! Chief! NightRacer!”
Racer looked back and saw Greg approaching, out of breath, his face bright red.
“What’s going on?”
“NightRacer, mutant horses are coming, hundreds of them. From the west. We need your help.”
“To do what?”
“To protect the garden. If they enter the garden they’ll kill it.”
Kill it? “Who else is there?”
“Me, you, and the guardians.”
“Ms. Julie is tracking them. She needs you.”
Racer sprinted in the direction of the garden. Greg was behind him and was breathing heavily.
Somewhere close to the burned store, the grape juice finally kicked in. Racer had the feeling that his legs were getting longer, and every step was enormous, like he was leaping through the air. The charred remains of the store opened in front of him like a dark hole, and he had to stop to avoid falling into it. Somewhere to the north, Racer heard hooves hitting the ground. The horses were coming. A lot of them.
He tripped and somebody grabbed him from behind, helping him stand straight.
“Are you okay, Chief?”
Before he even saw the caretaker, Racer smelled the guy’s acrid, dirty overalls.
“The grape juice got to you, didn’t it?” the caretaker said.
Barely able to form the words, Racer managed to say, “The bus. Use the bus.”
“That’s actually a good idea, Racer,” the caretaker said, with a little surprise in his voice as he helped Racer walk. The houses looked enormous. There were a lot of smells in the air, and Racer could hear the horses running scared.
The com chimed, and before Racer could answer, EnforcerOne yelled at him (or at least that’s how he heard it), “Colonel NightRacer, you’re in danger, sir. Get into a house and close the door. Mutant horses are heading your way. Lots of them—probably thousands. NightRacer, can you hear me?”
The caretaker was dragging Racer by his right hand, hurrying as fast as he could along the littered street. Racer gripped the com with his left hand and said, “I’m working on it.”
“What? Speak louder.”
Racer shouted, “I’m working on it.”
When they got to the bus, Racer decided not to get into a seat. The seats seemed high and out of balance. Instead, he stretched out on the floor, spreading his arms and legs as wide as he could. He immediately regretted it. When the engine started with a roar, it seemed like the bus floor was going to shred everything to pieces. Racer could feel that engine now with every fiber of his being. Still, through the engine’s noise he could hear the horses coming.
He heard a female voice in his head saying, “Can you hear the drones, NightRacer?”
He concentrated on the sound of hoofs. Behind them, he barely heard engine noise. One or two—maybe three. He couldn’t tell exactly, but there was more than one engine. Racer grabbed his com and yelled, “Get me KeyStroke! Overwrite the response waiting!”
“Connecting,” roared the com.
Before KeyStroke could answer, Racer started yelling, trying to ignore his own loud voice, which was driving him mad. The message was too important to pay attention to details.
“Stroke, there are drones behind the horses. Can you see them?”
“What? Where? We’re checking the satellite video. Oh, wait, I can see them now. I can see them on thermal.”
The caretaker stepped on the brakes and Racer hit something with his shoulder. The back of the bus slid for a couple yards, and then the engine stopped. Racer used the momentum to get up on all fours and get out. The door opened, and he tumbled out of the bus. They were on Fifth, with the bus blocking the access to the garden.
“What about the other street?” Racer asked.
They all looked at him. “You’re whispering. Speak up, Racer!” Greg said.
He screamed, “What about the other street?”
“We have a barricade on Fourth.”
“Show me. Show me that barricade. I want to see it!”
A caretaker helped Racer to get on his feet and half dragged him to the next street. A pile of garbage and broken furniture blocked the street, but it was too small an obstacle for a herd of running horses. The first animals were less than a mile away now.
The sound of the galloping horses was hypnotizing. It reminded Racer of his own running pace, but it was more complex, and it was reverberating in waves. He leaned on the caretaker and said, “Help me shoot my gun.”
“It may be a good idea, NightRacer, but I can’t help you. I’m not allowed to shoot weapons. The Host prohibits it.”
“The damn thing is killing people by the millions, but it won’t allow you to shoot a gun? You just have to hold my hand. Guide it.”
“Sorry, I can’t,” the caretaker said. After a second he added, “But maybe the boy can.”
“Greg! Give us a hand,” Racer screamed at the top of his lungs, realizing the unintended wordplay.
The lead horse was getting close. Racer could hear the galloping hooves moving through the ground in waves. Many of them, like echoes, countless echoes of one gallop. The leader was somewhere in the second or third line, surrounded by younger males. He would give them a direction and they would follow. Every hoof fall was repeated four times, and after every sixty-four steps, a new direction was being set.
“Hold my hand steady so I can shoot at the barricade.”
“Let me,” Greg said, trying to get the gun out of Racer’s hand.
“You can’t. It will not allow you. Hold my hand,” Racer screamed, and the boy complied.
He listened for the next direction, but it seemed too early. The leader needed to get really close to them. Before the last of the sixty-four steps, Racer would make him change the direction.
The first horses were already massing at the barricade, some of them trying to climb over the piled furniture.
It was time for the last direction. Racer counted in his head. Four—eight—twelve—sixteen. Four—eight—twelve—sixteen. Four—eight—twelve—sixteen. And fire!
Racer shot a pyro charge at the garbage under the furniture. It exploded into small fiery pieces and made the leader instinctively pick the next direction to the left. The horses at the barricade shifted and created a buffer between the running mass and the bus on Fifth Street.
The female voice in Racer’s head resurfaced, but only to say one word: “Missiles.”
Racer listened. There was a sound of missiles overlapping on the echoes of the galloping hooves. Somewhere up in the sky, three missiles were moving toward them at a great speed. He could hear their whistling sound and the engines gulping air and fuel fast.
“Down!” Racer said, but nobody listened, or maybe nobody heard him.
They stood and watched the missiles make small loops and then hit something just north of Providence. Three explosions lit the night sky, and the sound of drones disappeared. They waited in the dark for the herd to gallop through. The last horses were bloody and some of them were barely running.
“Poor creatures,” a caretaker said. “Once the grass withers, they will all starve to death.”
“Whose idea was it to create these mutants in the first place?” the other one asked.
“It was mine,” Racer said.
His knees buckled, and he kneeled on the ground. He couldn’t stand anymore, and the voice in his head was getting louder and clearer.
Greg helped NightRacer get to the old restaurant. They stood in front of the building for a minute or two, looking at some crippled horses trying to jump over the heaps of trash on the street.
“Did you really create these horses?” Greg asked.
“It was just an idea, but it’s one of my projects, yes,” Racer said.
“We were trying to find an animal that would eat Grass. We made the horses capable of eating tougher leaves and increased their migratory instincts so they’d always be on the move. They always move, and this prevents them from getting addicted.”
“Oh, they are addicted. The Host probably just can’t map their minds because they never stop running.”
“Is that what happens to the addicts? Their minds get mapped?”
“Don’t quote me. I heard it from Ms. Julie. First their minds get mapped, then it’s copied into the Host’s databases, and then the original mind is wiped out. And then the thorn strikes.”
“So why are the addicts smiling?”
“They can see the City,” Greg said.
“And these poor creatures run forever with an itch they can’t scratch?”
“Poor things,” Racer said.
“If you had another chance, would you create them again?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I hate to see them suffer like that.”
Racer thought for a minute, then looked up, trying to spot a satellite cloud. His senses were very sharp now. He could hear Greg’s heart. He could hear the horses gallop in the night, away from Providence. He could hear the caretakers walking slowly a couple of miles away, one of them dragging a foot.
“You know, Racer, yesterday I thought about killing you,” Greg said, with a note of remorse in his voice.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Your gun didn’t let me.”
“Bummer. And you just quit? You could’ve hit me on the head with a rock.”
“I could’ve. I don’t know. It didn’t seem appropriate, or maybe I was scared. The guardians are not allowed to kill, you know.”
“You’re not a guardian.”
“Yes, I’m not a guardian, but I’m not a regular person either. Not an addict, not a soldier like you. I’m nobody.”
“You’re a talker, kid.”
Greg looked at him with surprise. “A what? Like the ones you’re supposed to shoot on sight?”
“Yes. You didn’t know you were a talker?”
“No, it didn’t cross my mind. Dammit! Did you ever kill a talker?”
“I’ve killed a couple.”
“Did you ever talk to a talker before?”
“Once. There was this team of lawyers of Earth and they were supposed to negotiate with us.”
“Did you kill them?”
“No, we didn’t have this policy in place at the time. When we realized that they were stalling, dragging out the negotiations so the Grass could cross to Europe, we wiped their memories. They left and never came back.”
“Do you think they were allowed into the City?”
“I don’t know about the City, but I know they ate strawberries and died in a few days. We watched them on a satellite feed. One of them didn’t die well. The thorn must’ve missed his heart.” Racer was slurring his words. He was extremely tired, and the dream’s pressure was so powerful that he started to hallucinate.
“Greg,” he said, trying hard to concentrate. “I really need to sleep now. Can you help me get into a house?”