In a bleak future, NightRacer, an Earth campaign veteran, decides to unlock his erased memories. What he remembers, changes everything.
(note: this is chapter 6 from a serialized novel, previous chapter here – link)
Greg helped him find a room more or less shielded from the elements in one of the nearby houses, and he tore some carpet from the floor to make a bed.
Before Racer even touched the floor, he was dreaming. The images were vivid, in bright colors, and were coming fast. He was running along a busy road, but it was an odd kind of running, because he was moving fast, but he wasn’t really feeling his legs. It was more like flying. There were a lot of cars on the side of the road, new and old models, some recently parked, some stuck forever, and there were many people around—exchanging, selling, and buying stuff. He tried to get some details about the things they were trading but couldn’t. After a crazy race along the street, he finally remembered why he was there. He was assisting a woman who was doing something important. She was an important person in this place—like a mayor, or a judge, or something like that.
Remembering this detail helped him slow down. He wasn’t just walking with her, he realized, he was supposed to help her. They crossed a wide plaza and headed toward a nearby building that looked like a railway station. They stepped into a large hall, full of people. While the woman talked to some of the folks, he waited. After a while, people started to leave, one by one.
Racer studied the woman he was helping. She looked a lot like his wife, Julie, but she was younger somehow, and more energetic. During the last few years, Julie had started to age fast. She was skinny and looked tired, and then she suddenly gained a lot of weight. This was a different Julie.
“I see you woke up, Racer,” she said, and the world slowed down even more.
This is not a dream, he thought. Careful. Something is really odd here. Then Racer had another idea. He wondered if the Grass could hear his thoughts.
“Who are you?” he said.
“Don’t you recognize me, Colonel NightRacer?”
“You look a little like Julie, and you talk like her, but who are you really?”
“I’m Julie’s mind, to be correct.”
“Her mind? You must be…Prove it!”
“When we first talked to each other, you steered your truck with your knees.”
“This only proves that you had access to Julie’s memories.”
“I should’ve guessed. You came here to be stubborn and difficult.”
“And this surprises you?”
“Not a bit. Now, why are you here?”
“I’m here to get Hellen back.”
“That was true yesterday. Today it’s only partially true.” Julie said, and she stepped closer to him, or maybe she just slid forward. It was a very quick step.
“What do you mean?”
“Today you want to see Hellen, and you want to talk to me. Tell me it’s not so.”
“It’s not so. I came here to talk to Julie, if she’s still…real…or her mind is. You—I think you’re Devil’s Grass pretending to be Julie.”
“And you’re the same stubborn ass I always knew, Racer!” she said, taking a step back. “How the fuck can I prove it to you? Make myself look skeletal and paranoid? Or obese and scared? Is that it? Is that what you want? How can I prove it to you when you already made up your mind? You wouldn’t believe anything I say.”
Now that sounds more like my wife, Racer thought. “There is nothing you can say to convince me. You had access to her memories,” he said.
“How about personality, emotions? What about attitudes? Is that something you can just copy from somebody’s memory?”
“Don’t know. I’m not a scientist.”
“Of course you are. You may not have a degree, but you were always studying something and always talked to me about my research and yours. In case you don’t remember, your ponies were the only species to successfully live on Grass.”
“I stumbled onto a solution. That doesn’t make me a scientist.”
“Bullshit! You were always a scientist, even when you were drinking your head off in those trenches. You have the expertise and the knowledge to qualify as a scientist. That’s all that matters.”
“All right, all right. You know I don’t like to argue.”
“Argue? No. You don’t like to lose an argument. That’s different.”
“Okay. I don’t like to lose. Tell me something that only Julie would know.”
She thought deeply for a minute, then her face brightened. “Want to know what’s in the memories we wiped out after the vote?”
“How would I know if the recalled memories are true? Maybe they’re some new memories implanted by you…by the Grass.”
“You’ll know. Memories can’t be erased, they can only be hidden, and each memory has links and associations with other intact memories. Once I tell you how, you’ll recover the blocked memories, and they will make perfect sense.”
I’ll need to be very careful. I could reveal something I shouldn’t, Racer thought. “Do you have access to my memories now?” he said.
“No. You’ll need to eat strawberries for that and then wait for the Host to map your mind and create a body for you here. Right now, you’re talking to me using words and some visual, nonverbal clues. It’s not very different from a com session. I can only know what you’re telling me.” Suddenly there was a mischievous smile on her face. “Wait, are you afraid I’ll find some of your secrets?”
Julie laughed. “Racer, I know all your secrets. You have a secret room in Providence. It’s in an attic, and it’s soundproof, so I can’t hear what you’re doing in there.”
“I’m taking showers, if you’re so curious, and cleaning my uniforms.”
“Did you ever bring a woman there?”
“That’s none of your fucking business!”
“You’re right, it’s none of my fucking business,” Julie said. “Who am I, just a silly girl you impressed once with your diving skills.” She was talking fast now, spitting her words. “Do you want to know another secret? I know who brought the Grass to this planet.”
“To NAZ? Who?”
“Because you told me to. You and Gardener. We were working with Gardener’s Phoenix team and he convinced me to infect this planet. Happy now?”
Damn, this is my wife! Racer thought.
“So it’s my fault?”
“Not entirely. I kind of volunteered too.”
Not her, Racer thought. He looked her in the eyes. “Wow! That was honest.”
What am I looking for? He thought. This is all virtual. She can change her expression as she pleases.
“Didn’t expect this confession? Okay, so I’m not the old Julie you know. I changed a little after all this experience,” Julie said, a little embarrassed. “We wanted a copy of the Grass that we could trust—our copy—and I volunteered to bring it here. I let the earth Grass impregnate my mind with its DNA. It put a copy of the seed deep in my mind—to be more precise, in my visual memories—a place where nobody would look for it. Then we wiped out our regular memories, and the seed remained hidden. One day on NAZ, after Hellen’s fifteenth birthday, I received a message from Gardener with an image in it. I’m guessing it was a key that brought the seed memory to the surface. I woke up next morning with an urgent need to model some genetic code. I’m sure you remember how I was wandering around the base those days, pale and sick. Oh, maybe not. You didn’t care. You were too busy. I struggled for months, afraid to do it and tempted to get rid of the burden, and then one night I went to a lab on the northern continent and modeled it. Later I made a living strand.
“When I finished it, I had an incredible rush. I was happy, and I was laughing and crying and shaking like an addict, and I couldn’t tell anybody. I was high for almost a week after that, knowing all that time what I’d created, not knowing why, not giving a damn about the consequences, and hiding it from you—yes from you—because you were the chief of security and this is what you were working to prevent, and I was working against you.
“The first creature to get consumed by my son was a deer, and then a bear started to roam the area, and my boy took his body too. My body was the third. It was a gamble. I wasn’t sure if it could host a human mind, but I was afraid to feed him more wild animals, not knowing what that would do to him.”
“Why do you keep referring to this thing as a he?”
“Oh, it’s a boy. I have no doubt about it. He likes to explore things and shows very little compassion. Tell me this’s not what you boys do.”
“What about Hellen?”
“What about her? She’s here.” Julie was winding down now, catching her breath after the long speech.
“Did you infect her too?”
“Not me. I didn’t want her here. One of your buddies probably did that just to drive you nuts. They knew you’d blow a gasket and were hoping you’d nuke the place.”
Without even realizing it, they fell into their old habit of exchanging information in small, meaningful bursts.
“No. Don’t think so. This is his project, and you’re one of his assets. Somebody else. These people were trying to piss you off.”
“Maybe. Think people bearing gifts.”
“Gifts, as in SkyWalker bottles? What do you know about the delivery?”
“Not much. Male, a little over two hundred pounds, generic boots, a little heavy on his step, could’ve been wearing armor or a heavy suit. He was flying a shuttle with a very quiet engine, probably some new model. Efficient fellow. Arrived in the evening, after the moonset, stood outside for a few minutes, probably did some scanning, unloaded stuff, used a com to text, didn’t say a word, and left.”
“No. Strong. Fat people don’t walk like this.”
“Steady walking?” Racer asked.
“Yes. Not a station rat. The guy is used to gravity.”
“Somebody from the base?”
“Doubt it. You don’t have this kind of shuttle on the base.”
Both of them stood there for a minute, thinking.
“I want to talk to Hellen.”
“Of course! I almost forgot.” Julie waved her hand toward some people in the distance. A worker turned around. It was Hellen. She ran toward him, moving remarkably fast, and covered the distance between them in half the time Racer would have expected.
Racer looked at Julie, searching for an answer.
“Surprised? Don’t be. It’s not a real distance, and she’s not really running,” Julie said.
“These tricks are scary. That person was some worker a second ago, and now it’s Hellen. How do I know that’s really her?”
“We are in a virtual world, Dad!” said Hellen. “We can do whatever we want here!” She gave him a big hug. It felt almost real, but something was missing. He couldn’t smell her hair, and only her shoulders and her hands were touching him. It felt more like an emotion than a true hug.
“Hellen, are you okay? I’m here to take you home.”
She let go of him and looked away. “Dad, I can’t leave! And I don’t want to.”
“Baby, they’re planning to nuke this planet.”
“You wouldn’t do that!” said Hellen.
“It’s not my decision. I resigned.”
“You did?” Hellen’s tone of voice didn’t suggest any regret.
“Nobody is going to nuke us,” Julie said. “Gardener will keep us safe. This is an important project. We’re safe.”
This startled Racer. “You talked to Gardener? Where is he?”
“He’s here. His people have a base in the mountains. They’re visiting me every day. They talk to me; I talk to them. It’s a slow process, but it’s all we have now.”
“Is all this one of his crazy projects?”
Julie nodded. “I wouldn’t call it crazy, but yes. Gardener is behind this, and we are too. You just don’t remember it yet.”
“Me?” Racer said. “We really need to talk, but I need to talk to my daughter first.” He turned to Hellen, “How did you get here? I mean who infected you?”
“Dad, please don’t get angry.”
“I’m not getting angry, but this is very important. Who infected you? Was it somebody from the base?”
“No. And I wasn’t infected by someone. You know…I screwed up. We went to a Grass juice party, and it happened.”
“They have parties like that on the base?”
“Not really. It’s nothing like that,” Hellen said. “It was a very special party, a secret one, only for VIPs. Greg paid some shady character for security passes. We sneaked in and saw the VIPs having some special wine, and I kind of suggested…I guess Greg wanted to impress me or something. He bought one of those bottles from his contact. Only, it wasn’t wine, and, well…”
“What party was that? When did it happen?” Racer asked.
“A couple of weeks ago, when you were gone. It was for the some very high-level politicians, or something.”
“Why didn’t I know about it?” Racer asked Julie.
“Because you’re too honest and too direct,” Julie said. “You would’ve arrested those VIPs or killed them as talkers. You were supposed to be invited to a similar party in a month, but Greg turned out to be a little too good at getting stuff.”
“Damn!” This was all Racer could say.
“Dad, I want you to do something—I mean not to do something.” Hellen said, and she blushed.
Racer looked at her cheeks. The blush color was a little off. It’s simulated, he thought. “What is it?”
“Please don’t go to the strawberry field outside the town.”
“Just don’t. And if you happen to get there and see a fresh…you know…like grave, please don’t look inside.”
“Is your body in there?”
“I…it…it expired yesterday. I don’t want you to see it like that. And don’t let Greg see it either.”
“My God, Hellen, how could you do this?”
“I guess it was a stupid decision, but after you have that juice and you find the truth, and you see the City and the happy people, you can’t stay away from it.”
“Did you even try?”
“I tried. But after I saw the people in here…they’re partying every day. You know the base is like a prison. And the stations are too. And all the people are mean, and after you see the City you can’t go back.”
“Greg seems to be doing okay. He’s a little miserable and hungry, but he’s okay.”
“Well, he’s different. He’s tougher, and he’s better adapted to the gravity world.”
“Do you at least like that boy?”
Hellen hesitated for a second. Then she seemed to suddenly remember something. Racer knew that trick a little too well. She hugged him, kissed him on the cheek and said, “Dad, I have to go. There’s a big event in the City. I promised somebody I’d come. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” he said mechanically.
Racer looked in the direction she went. At the horizon was a great city engulfed in dancing lights.
He looked at Julie and saw that she wasn’t very happy either.
“She’s blending in well,” she said. “A little too well.”
“Does that boy know she already forgot him?” Racer asked.
“Don’t know. I hope he’s more intelligent than he looks—or sounds. If not, we’ll have to tell him before he decides to throw his body away.”
“Dammit,” Racer said. “Station kids.”
“Let’s walk,” Julie said, inviting him to go with her.
Racer turned around and saw a door behind him. She led the way. Behind the door was a garden—a copy of the other garden, judging by the pond with lilies. They walked in silence for a while.
A gust of wind touched Racer’s skin, and he looked at Julie. She smiled. The leaves on the virtual trees looked very real and even smelled right. “How come Hellen’s hair didn’t smell but the flowers in this garden smell?” he asked.
“She’s new here, and she’s still working on her image. I’ll have to teach her how to add smells to her image. I made this garden, and I had enough time to add details.”
“What about the garden in real life?”
“The garden above?”
“Is that what you call it?”
“Yes. For some reason, I can’t ignore the fact that I exist in some roots under the surface. Anyway, as below so above. That garden is another little project of mine. I’m trying to replicate this garden on the surface.”
“Are those trees real?” Racer asked.
“Yes and no. If you’d test their DNA, you’d find it’s very close to a real tree DNA, but there are some small impurities. The Grass is an amazing being. It could modify the DNA of its limbs to mimic other plants. From what I understand, it wasn’t initially designed to be a weapon. It was artificially bred by some crazy race to be aggressive, but first it was a living host for virtual realities and a tool to make environments on the surface.”
“We happened? We, humans, discovered how to travel faster than light a little too soon for our intelligence level, and we started grabbing planets. I think somebody out there got mad and gave us the Grass.”
“Like some ant bait,” Racer said. “You sprinkle some sweet bait, the ants carry it into the anthill, the colony has a great party, and then everybody dies.”
“Yup,” Julie said. “We were acting like pests.”
“So what do we do now?” Racer asked.
“Learn to survive, apologize, and stop annoying the others.”
“Learn to survive,” Racer said. “Of course. Fight if you can, but never stop learning.”
“Do you remember a guy called Pluto?” Julie asked after some reflection time.
“A bold guy with freakishly blond eyebrows? Pluto. What about him?”
“Pluto was a drug addict and an alcoholic, and he smoked all kinds of weird stuff. He used to eat strawberry and walk away, because his brain wouldn’t map properly. And then he’d come and talk to us.”
“Pluto? I remember his eyebrows, but that’s pretty much it. Was that his real name?”
“A nickname. He flew to Pluto on a mission once or something.”
They walked for a few more minutes, enjoying the garden. Racer was trying to remember things, and Julie didn’t want to spoil it for him.
Finally, Racer gave up trying to remember, “Damn! I hate this. I know there’s a sea of fish out there, but the boat comes back empty.”
Julie just walked quietly.
“Julie,” he said after trying and failing again, “how did we vote?”
“Even if I told you, you wouldn’t remember, but you’re asking the right question.”
“Our vote is a key to remembering?”
“Yes, partially—as one link in a chain of memories. Do you want to remember the whole thing?”
“I do,” he said after a hesitation.
“Here’s how it works. There are two parts to the process. First you need to read my letter, and you already did that. That marked the end of the period you’re trying to remember. Then there’s a link at the beginning, which is marked by a phrase, like a password. Repeating it will help you mark the beginning and to remember some details.
“There are some details about the Earth Grass that only two of us know. Well, maybe Gardener knows them too, but you’ll never find them mentioned in any files. This is our secret. It’s like a secret door. If you find it, you’ll get to a room, which is how we voted, and when you enter that room, you’ll find another door. Open that second door, and you’ll remember everything. But you can’t go straight to the vote. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Tell me the password,” Racer said.
“God is good and Devil is evil,” Julie said, and then she repeated it and carefully spelled it.
It was cold, thought Racer. We were on a train, in a dream. We walked off the train and told this password to…a guy…and he led us to…a door. “We had to tell it to a…a security guard? He led us…to a theater or a stage?”
“The Earth Grass had a weird personality. He liked shows.”
“Like theater shows?”
“Yes, but not our kind of theater. His kind. He didn’t care much about human art. He had his kind of shows, with raw emotions and had a hidden in-between place where his trusted guests would go to get a thrill. The Grass would sometimes watch and sometimes play in these shows. He was famished for human emotions.”
“How do you know this? I mean did we find out about this?”
“Pluto told us. Actually, he was sent to tell us about these shows, and he brought us grapes and instructed us about how to get to the secret place.”
“We had grapes on Earth?”
“We did. First time it was in Europe, in Andorra. Phoenix people had a dreaming trailer with medical and research equipment hidden in the woods. The Earth Grass had divided its souls in two main realms—Heaven for good people and hell for criminals. The shows were held in a kind of a purgatory, and they were by invitation only. If you were invited, you had to take a train to a secret station and say the pass phrase.”
“I think I had a dream like that once. It was cold, and we watched a very scary something.” Racer suddenly saw Pluto drinking and talking fast. They were in a trailer.
“As talkers, we had access only to the purgatory—nowhere else,” Julie said. “It was a hidden place, an exception, like this garden.”
“We were talkers? Except you already…Am I still a talker?”
“You are, Racer. Once you know the truth, you’re a talker.”
“Dammit! I used to kill talkers. Why did we go to that place?”
“We wanted to, and Gardener sent us. We were there to start the negotiations.”
“I don’t remember that part. I mean, I remember something, but it’s like somebody else’s memory, not mine.”
“Let’s see if you remember this: the spectators would get into a dark crowded room to watch a live show—violence, sex, horror, or war. Most often it was a gory mixture of them all. During the performance, a patch of light detached the stage from the spectators, and some of the guests would get sucked into the action, and things would get really weird. When we were there, a young couple stepped onto the stage and instantly they were pilots, flying bombers in some futuristic alien war. We were all crowded around them, watching their every move, listening to every word, but they were so much absorbed in the action that they couldn’t even see us, and the Grass was an evil angel, flying, destroying their planes, spreading death.”
Suddenly, a wave of emotion overcame him. Racer remembered the smell and the sweat of the excited spectators huddled in a small room. He felt the desperation of the pilots—bombing, shooting, and getting crushed. The memories expanded, and he was there again, living it, and then the door opened. It was like he fell into some bubbling water. He felt the rush of thousands of blocked memories unfurling, rising like bubbles and falling into their place, linking themselves to other memories, like a foam, some of them already in place and some of them still searching for the right place, probing the branches.
Some memories came in small fragments and some came in bigger chunks. He remembered voting. They were waiting in line at the station to get to the voting booth. Nobody cared about any rules. There were multiple lines. People were shouting at each other and fighting, some of those who voted would get out and tell others how they voted, and people would throw things at them, and the fights would erupt. And then Racer and Julie pushed their way in and got into the voting booths. The computer was full of graffiti and all kinds of stickers, and they logged in and…and then all the rest of his memories washed over him like a flood.
Hello, Pluto, what’s up?
The Grass. He wants to talk to you.
Traitor! You should be killed.
Come on, man. Are you winning this war?
Is it ready to talk?
Eat grapes. You won’t get addicted.
Sir, requesting permission to investigate.
Tell no one. This is top secret.
This is strange. You’re in my dreams.
And you’re in mine.
It’s cold in here. Where is this train going?
To the in-between station.
That security guard. He’s waiting for us.
God is good; Devil is evil.
Go through this door. He’s waiting for you.
Hello, friends. Join our show!
“Yes!” Racer screamed. “Yes!”
He had to do something about his excitement and the torrent of memories that overtook him, so he walked to an oak tree, leaned on it for a minute, hugged it, and then walked back. The tree seemed very real, even when he got really close to it. And it smelled like oak.
“I think I opened the door,” he said when he came back.
“I think you did, Racer.”
“I remembered how we voted—saw it in real color too. You were wearing a scientist’s overalls, and I had on a new uniform. People were fighting, crying. It was a mess.”
“We just found out that I was pregnant.”
“Guns were not allowed on the station, so I was carrying a baseball bat. Just in case. To protect you from crazy people. An old-fashion wooden baseball bat.”
“And we voted against it,” Julie said.
“Yes, of course we did. We knew what the Grass was. We knew it had billions of minds trapped in its world. Oh, God! We killed them all. Do you think any of them survived?”
“There is a chance, although a very slim one. The Grass could have grown some database nodes deep under the mountains or under the ocean, but if he did, he saved a small number of them. He could probably keep some of them frozen, so to speak, to save energy. If we want to save them, we should start feeding the grass, so he can get some energy.”
“Our relatives, our friends. Some of them could still be there.”
“Yes, although I’m guessing the ones who survived are the once who offered it the wildest entertainment.”
“You think the scientists were deleted?”
“Could be,” Julie said. “I don’t remember it caring much about science.”
“Maybe it cares now, when the resources are scarce and somebody needs to come up with solutions.”
“Or maybe it kept the politicians.” Julie smiled.
“That would be interesting.”
The recalled memories brought with them a lot of repressed emotions, and Racer was now trying to handle them all. Were these real or false? Implanted memories?
“You know what? How do I know these are real memories?” Racer said.
“You still think I’m trying to trick you?” Julie asked.
“I don’t know. You have access to my mind.”
“I don’t control you. If the memories make sense, it means they found their old connections. A memory without connections will feel different.”
“So you didn’t create any connections?”
“I told you, Racer, a hundred times—I can’t. And even if I could, I wouldn’t.”
“You’re sure? You used to have a lot of ideas about what I should do and how.”
“Well, I have a world to take care of now. I’m not into micromanaging anymore.”
Julie looked up, cocking her head, like she was listening to something. “Somebody is driving to Providence from the base,” she said.
“I can hear somebody coming.”
She opened a door that suddenly appeared behind a tree, and they entered a large room with maps projected on a translucent layer. Julie zoomed in, then scrolled with her finger in the air, and one of the maps moved. She zoomed in again on the road to the base. All they could see were four moving points—four wheels on a road. Lines of characters were scrolling in a column on the screen, and Racer tried to read some of them. They were mostly technical terms—lengths, widths, speed, pressure, tire specs.
“It’s a truck.” Julie said. ”One driver, no passengers.”
“A truck? Can you tell by the wheels? Who would be leaving the base now?”
“Judging by the tire pressure, the driver is a heavy person.”
“It must be KeyStroke.”
“He’ll be here in an hour.”
“We still have some time.”
“Maybe,” Julie said, “but time down here is moving slower than up there on the outside.”
“We’re in slow motion?”
“You could say that—compared to the outside world, of course. Tell me something, NightRacer. Do you trust me?”
“I see. Anyway, let’s wait a few minutes. I think I know where he’s going.”
“Going to Greg’s place?”
“Yes, he probably saw you coming in and out of that building, but he doesn’t know where you are now. The satellites were out when the horses arrived.”
“Why would they be out?”
“Because whoever is flying those drones was trying to kill you quietly, darling, and they were hoping to make it look like and accident.”
“I see.” Racer said. “So he doesn’t know where I am right now.”
“Or, I think he came to see Greg.”