NightRacer got up with a deep pain in his joints—the pain he used to call “death sucking on his bones.” Sleeping on the floor in a house with no doors or windows would do that to you.
He stretched for a few minutes, listening to his back and neck crack. When he felt that his muscles were loose, Racer tried a few of his old moves. He drew the gun like he used to do it on Earth. In those days there were live rounds everywhere—in abandoned houses, on the streets, in stores, on military bases. The Grass didn’t care about the bullets, so everybody was saving them for people. Diggers always had a few boxes of rounds close to their booze, and after getting drunk in the evenings, they shot everything that would take a bullet—bottles, cans, trees, paper targets on balloons, toys, remote controlled cars, and a small army of robotic manikins programmed to smile. Racer was for some time the second-fastest shooter in Europe, and he would’ve happily settled for second place if the fastest guy didn’t decide to throw his gun into a lake one day and walk into the Grass.
Soon the calming weight of the gun in his hand—or maybe the alcohol syringe and some painkillers in his backpack—subdued Racer’s pain.
His knees felt rusty and were still a little slow at bending, and he had a little pain in his kidneys, but otherwise, his body seemed to remember the drill. He drew and imagined blasting the wall in front of him. It felt good.
Close to Greg’s place, Racer switched to the hunter’s step—rolling his feet from heel to toe and from outside to inside. That’s how you step like a predator. That way you could always sprint, and if you step on a leaf, the sound feels like it’s coming from the wrong direction, confusing those who listen for such noises.
Stroke seemed completely oblivious to his arrival. Long years on the stations had dulled his instincts. Racer appeared quietly in the door and performed a quick visual inspection of the room. Everything looked as it had in the simulation. “What are you doing here, KeyStroke?” he asked. Stroke didn’t exactly jump in surprise, but he did seem a little startled.
“Racer, hey! What’s up man?”
“Let me ask you again. What are you doing here, Chief? Why did you leave the base?”
“I’m here because I need you, man. Please don’t get addicted to that shit. Please!”
There was actually some sincere begging in Stroke’s voice, and Racer recognized that something serious was going on. KeyStroke was never sincere. He knew how to fake sincerity, but his acting was never good. Now he seemed genuinely worried.
“So, how come you started caring about people, Stroke?”
“He doesn’t care about you, just about your daughter,” Greg said with a sneer.
“Shut up, chump!” Stroke said.
“Let me ask you again,” said Racer. “Why are you here, Stroke?”
“Listen, man, you can’t get addicted here. I’m begging you, Racer. If you start smiling like a retard tomorrow, or one of those drones takes you out, I’ll have to grant you your last wish, and I can’t do that.”
“My last wish?”
“You don’t remember? You know what, man, you’re an old fart. You said, and I quote, ‘If I don’t come back, nuke the bastard.’ Were you drunk?”
“I said that?”
“Of course you did! Wait. You injected yourself with alcohol and let it absorb, right? Oh, my God! I should’ve known that. Man, I swear, sometimes you just run around waving your gun and screaming. You don’t remember your last wish, the one you pronounced in front of all those scientist and officers, the one I have on record? Were just blabbering, or what? Were you on drugs? Oh, I remember. You were. Racer, I swear, you’re freaking crazier than I thought.”
“Slow down, Stroke. I said it, and I can take it back. It was true yesterday, but it isn’t today. To tell you the truth, I now believe that we shouldn’t nuke this planet.”
“Man, they’ll never trust you—not after you had those grapes in front of a hundred cameras. Your word is shit now.”
“Calm down, Chief. I can get you a legal statement. Ironclad, deception verified, no doubts. But why are you so winded about this?”
“Racer, listen man, I can’t leave this planet, no freaking way. It shouldn’t be nuked. You understand? I can’t survive on a shitty station. I’m too bloated. I’ll die there.” Stroke sounded more and more desperate, like he was pleading for his life.
“What are you talking about, Stroke? The stations are now designed for all kinds of people—tall kids born in space, guys like you—”
“Not for guys like me! There is nobody like me anymore. They all died. Only two of us were left, and the other one killed himself two days ago. I’m the very last original station kid in the whole freaking world. Listen, Racer, you can’t die here. You have to come with me to the base, where I can protect you.” Stroke was getting up and was talking fast, like he had a plan. He was shifting to face Racer, but his right hand, instead of pushing off the floor as it was naturally supposed to be doing, was getting suspiciously close to his holster, stuck somewhere between two layers of fat.
“Keep your right hand where I can see it, Stroke!” Racer said, slowly relaxing his knees, getting them ready for the drop, the little body twitch that makes the gun pop out. He followed KeyStroke’s line of sight and saw him looking at his knees. The guy knew what was going to happen.
“Hey, man, what are you talking about? Racer, listen, do I have to remind you that you’re a civilian now? Who gave you the right to threaten me?” Stroke was changing the tone and trying to spread some confusion. His right hand was now on the floor, but his left hand was doing something funny, like he was scratching his belly or trying to open a fold in his shirt.
“Stop that!” Racer said.
“Stop what?” Stroke’s left arm relaxed, like he’d found what he was looking for. They were looking each other in the eyes now, Racer standing in the doorway and Stroke on one knee on the floor. Greg seemed to be saying something, but his words felt muffled to them.
Julie is watching this on her simulation now, Racer thought, and he smiled inwardly.
When KeyStroke’s arm moved, Racer dropped, pulled his gun, and thrust it in the direction of the target like a dagger, all in one fluid motion, like he was back on Earth. By the time a small gun barrel poked from underneath Stroke’s shirt, Racer’s index finger was already squeezing the trigger.
Racer always kept his gun’s default on Stun, Widespread, and he got Stroke right in his soft middle. The smart uniform and the guy’s fat must’ve absorbed a hell of a lot of energy, because Stroke didn’t get paralyzed instantly, as he was supposed to. His gun discharged a fraction of a second later, getting Racer in his right side.
“I got you too, fucker!” Stroke hissed. The stun was smart and designed not to impair any muscles above the neck. With a little effort someone hit with a smart stun could speak, even if all his or her body was numb.
Racer tried to feel his right hand, but it was limp. He grabbed the gun with his left hand, changed the setting to Kill, stepped to the pile of motionless fat that was KeyStroke, and put the gun to his head.
“Shoot! Come on, fucker, shoot!” Stroke hissed. “What are you, scared? We are all in the Grass country now. I’m dead, you’re dead, and the fucker over there is dead too!”
“You infected Hellen. Why?” Racer roared, bending to look into fat guy’s eyes.
“I didn’t infect her. Juice doesn’t make you an addict. They had a crazy night and that’s it. That fucker is still alive,” Stroke said, pointing with his eyes in Greg’s direction.
“Why did you sell them that bottle?” Racer asked.
“So I could hear her having sex. I wanted to hear her moan and scream. You happy now? Shoot, you damned Earthling. Shoot! You’re good at this, I know. You killed hundreds on Earth or sent them to walk in the Grass. Isn’t that all you Earth savages do—kill each other and anyone you don’t like? Doesn’t matter how many times I helped you and how much stuff I moved for you, you’re always ready to kill me. I smuggled those weapons for you and explosives and all the other illegal stuff. Hell, this uniform you’re wearing is from those supplies, isn’t it? And they’re investigating me now. That’s a capital offence. Smuggling weapons is a capital offence! So I’m already dead, no matter what. You just need to squeeze that fucking trigger.”
Racer quietly pushed the gun’s safety into the on position and turned the gun to hide that. Then he put his index finger on the trigger, making sure Stroke saw that, and put the gun to the guy’s sweating forehead. Talking slowly, Racer tapped the end of his gun barrel on KeyStroke’s forehead every time he felt something needed to be stressed.
“You remember how I found you, you fat pile of shit? They already spaced two of your fat friends and were trying to stuff you in an air lock, but you were too big. You remember that? You remember what I did? I pulled out this gun, and I killed those guys. I saved your ass. I committed a crime, a capital offence right there, to save you. A bloody Earth savage put his life on the line for you, buddy. That’s right. You promised to help me then and you did, so stop complaining.”
“I promised and I delivered. We’re even now. I gave you all the information I had on the factions, and you wiped out all their leaders. You used my in-between servers to spy on your enemies, and you killed them all. And you’re a hero now, and I’m going to die.”
“Factions were a cancer and needed to get wiped out,” Racer said, and he was relieved when Stroke didn’t reply. He won the argument, but this victory somehow didn’t make him happy. He counted slowly from ten to one, breathing deep, getting hold of his anger, and letting it dissipate.
“So why did you sell Hellen that juice?” Racer asked again.
“I’m a trader. That’s what I do when I don’t slave for you. I trade.”
“Well, fuck you!” Racer said, and he whipped Stroke hard on the face with his gun. He spat on the floor and rubbed the sweat off by whipping his gun of his pants. Then he holstered the gun, turned around, and stepped back to the door. When he looked back, Greg’s mouth was still open. He was shocked to witness this raw display of Earth customs, and he was looking at Racer and Stroke with a wild curiosity, expecting them probably to do some other random crazy things—a killer from an old world and a bloated station kid engaged in a shooting match and acting on pure instinct.
“You know what, kid?” Racer told Greg, waking him up from his trance. “Go get some grapes. It’s time for this pile of shit to take a trip to the City.”
“My backpack,” KeyStroke hissed.
Greg carefully opened Stroke’s backpack like he was expecting to find a bomb there. Instead, he found a bottle of wine. “What do you know, he brought his own drink to the party.”
“Let me have a sip, talker,” Stroke said. “I want to take a trip to your freaking City.”
Racer stuck the gun in his left pocket, grabbed the bottle, and pulled the cork out with his teeth. He let Stroke have a few gulps and handed the bottle back to Greg. He carefully examined the cork, sniffed it, nibbled on it a little, and sniffed it again. It was some high quality stuff. It was either made out of real cork tree or a very good replica cooked in some sophisticated lab. Still, this didn’t answer any questions. Racer grabbed the bottle back from Greg and examined it carefully. The glass was generic, with no hidden holograms. The label was made of real paper, with a nice collection of codes and HoloIDs but no mention of a name or the origin or producer.
“No name or producer code?” KeyStroke whispered. “Glad you spotted that. That’s government made for government consumption only. Unless you have access to a set of very special keys to decipher those IDs, you’ll never find where it was made or by whom.”
“Where was it made?” Racer asked.
“I’m guessing right here, in your own back yard,” Stroke said.
Racer had to look him in the eyes to make sure he was telling the truth. He wasn’t bluffing.
Car brakes screeched outside, and by the sound of them alone, Racer knew exactly who was driving.
“Your girlfriend is here,” KeyStroke said with a tortured smile, not looking at anyone.
It didn’t take too long for EnforcerOne to show up and grab Racer by the sleeve. “Colonel, can I have word with you, sir?”
“What’s going on, Enforcer?” Racer asked, trying to block the door to the room.
“General Gardener needs to see you immediately.”
“Can’t he call?”
“Calls are not secure, sir. There is this situation. You need to come and see him right now. He told me to tell you that, you know, it’s an order,” she said, a little embarrassed to tell him exactly what Gardener said.
“An order? Doesn’t he know I resigned?”
“He knows, but he said it is, uh…Sir, what’s this?” she asked, pointing at Racer’s limp right arm. “Are you injured?”
“No, not really. Just a little…hunting accident.”
“Oh, that’s no fun. I’ll take care of that for you,” Enforcer said on a cheerful tone. She run to her car, ignoring all of Racer’s protests. A moment later she rushed back in with an opened first aid kit and a patch in her hand.
“General Gardener said if I can’t convince you I should stun you with my gun and to drag your sorry ass to him. Uh, his words, not mine. As she spoke, she applied the patch to his neck. “I said I would never, never do that to Colonel Racer. Stun you with my gun. So I had to apply this instead.”
At that point, Racer realized something was wrong with the patch. An unpleasant warmth spread fast through his left side. The patch was numbing the rest of his functioning muscles. He tried clumsily to get his gun out of the pocket, but she tugged on his sleeve quietly, preventing him from moving his arm while looking him in the eyes. Soon he was fully tranquilized and tumbled to the ground. Enforcer made a small effort to hold his head, just barely preventing Racer from hitting it on the sidewalk, but otherwise she didn’t bother to help him find a more comfortable position.
“Greg, come here and help me,” she yelled. “Move it!”
KeyStroke hissed back laughing, “She got you, Colonel. Didn’t she? A little girl from Mars just dropped an Earth campaign veteran. Those Martian tricksters. How did she get you, Racer? Did she offer you cookies?”
Greg poked his head out of the door and looked at her. “What?”
“Help me, dammit!” EnforcerOne barked at him.
“Why should I?” Greg answered, surprised she was bossing him around.
“Because drones are coming for his ass,” she said pointing at Racer. “Do you want him dead?”
“Do I care?” Greg said, but reluctantly he helped her stuff Racer in the back of her car.
Racer looked at them work together and bicker like an old couple. He asked Greg in a loud whisper, “You know her?”
“No, I don’t know her,” Greg answered, but his reaction was clearly a little off. He was not telling the whole truth. He wasn’t exactly lying, but wasn’t telling the truth either.
“I hear drones!” KeyStroke yelled. “Lots of them! Get him the hell out of here.”
The juice got to him, thought Racer. That was too fast. He must’ve had some on his way here.
“Is he okay?” Enforcer asked.
Greg mumbled, “The fatso? He’ll be fine,” and he slammed the car door. In another half a second EnforcerOne was speeding through the deserted streets of Providence, dodging piles of garbage.
Sprawled awkwardly on the backseat, Racer couldn’t see much. He managed to see a few fragments of broken roofs threaded with vines, and then it was just sky—bluish-green NAZ sky with darkening clouds.
They were going fast along a bumpy country road when Enforcer stepped hard on the brakes and the car stopped, tossing Racer to the floor. The view changed. They were under a camouflaged tent now. The door opened. Some young men pulled Racer out by his legs, then unceremoniously threw him into the passenger seat of another car.
“Where is your com, sir? Where is it?” EnforcerOne was yelling, reaching for his belt and sticking her hands in his pockets. After a quick search, she found the com and threw it in the back of the other car. She then jumped into the driver’s seat, somehow managed to find and buckle Racer’s seat belt, ignored hers, and took off like a crazy woman, turning left on a road leading to the canyons. A number of other cars raced in all directions from under the tent. The car Racer and EnforcerOne had originally been in was on the move again too. Smart move, Racer thought. It must be controlled remotely.
“What’s going on?” he asked, speaking through the gaps in his teeth. “Why are we changing cars?”
“There are a bunch drones on your ass, and we’re trying to fool them.”
“We? Who are we?”
“EnforcerOne, EnforcerFive, Six, Nine, and so on. A total of fourteen people. All risking their lives for you.”
“Drones in New Arizona? You’re kidding me. Who launched the drones?”
“Oh, come on, Colonel! You’re not fooling anybody.”
“I’ve been the chief of security of this planet for at least five years. There are no drones here.” He was eager to hear what she had to say to that.
“You know about the drones, sir. Stroke told you.”
“How do you know?”
She just sighed and ignored his question.
“You’re right, I know there are drones, but who’s launching them?” Racer asked again.
“Our enemies. And yours, obviously.”
“I used to monitor the whole planet. I was in charge of the—”
“Were you in charge of the restricted areas?”
“No. Is something going on in those areas?”
“Well, nothing important was going on until you left the base, and then all of a sudden our lives became a whole lot more interesting.”
“You’re from the restricted area?”
“Could they be launched from orbit?”
“No, not from orbit, sir. We control everything above the planet. It’s from here somewhere. Could be from the canyons, could be from the mountains, could be from the ocean somewhere.”
“So you’re saying somebody has a secret base here? Like a faction? Why didn’t I see it on the satellites?”
“Not one base, sir. Two. Our team has one and somebody else has one. The satellites just don’t show them—not both of them. And you’re not the only one to have missed the other base. We missed it too.”
“Who are we? What team are you talking about?”
“Gardener’s team. Phoenix, of course. You were one of us once.”
“You know that Phoenix is a faction, right? For the record, I was never a faction member, only a Phoenix contractor. Who are the others?”
“I don’t know. Some other factions. Enemies. And we’ve never seen so much activity.”
“You said you control the space. How did they manage to get here?”
“Either they’re very good—and then we’re all in big trouble—or they built their base around the same time we did, five or six years ago.”
“Factions again. Does this happen on other planets?”
“Yes, but usually the bases are smaller.”
“So why is this planet special?”
“I don’t know. Because you’re here and Ms. Julie. You’ll have to ask Gardener, sir.”
They were going faster and faster, and according to the navigation screen, they were getting close to a canyon—the one twice as large as Earth’s Grand Canyon. Racer checked the mirrors. Their car was deploying wings and a couple of jet engines.
Enforcer sounded a little nervous when she spoke next. “Hold on, Colonel. We’re going to fly.”
“Did you ever do this before? Fly a car?”
“Only in a simulation,” she said.
Sensing the fear in her voice, he believed her.
They didn’t exactly plunge into the void, but they didn’t soar into the sky either. It was more like an awkward falling of an injured bird, combined with the sputter of the jet engines.
“I think you’re doing just fine,” Racer said as he watch her face contort. She was afraid to step on it. “Give it a little gas, Enforcer. Let’s see what this baby can do,” Racer said in his most reckless tone. He saw that she instantly liked the idea.
“Hell yeah. Let’s do it!” Enforcer said nervously, and she pushed the power deep into to the red. The car stabilized, and the maneuverability increased. She got her confidence back. “Woo-hoo! Let’s fly!”
On the bottom of the canyon, a dark stream was rushing toward the ocean. Racer was now regaining more control of his left side, and after a short struggle, he managed to sit straight in the seat. “Good, we’re flying. What’s next?”
Enforcer checked the navigation. “After thirty-something miles, we’re taking a left.”
“A left turn at Albuquerque?”
“Never mind. A quote from an old Earth cartoon. When you’re lost, you’re supposed to say, ‘I should’ve taken a left turn at Albuquerque.’ I used to watch that—”
“Alert!” the car’s navsys suddenly roared. “Enemy targeting the vehicle. Engaging countermeasures.”
Enforcer’s fingers went white from squeezing the steering wheel. There was a commotion. The antimissile system launched two dozen flares at different altitudes, then it shot out a long cloud of chaff—metal dust and foil strips—above the canyon. Enforcer slowed down and got low—very low. She was almost touching the ground, and then she manually shot a larger missile from under the car. In a split second she turned around and got into a landing position, hiding under the cloud of metal chaff.
“This is not good for our engines, but who cares? This vehicle is toast. There’s a cave here. We’ll hide inside it for some time.”
The jet engines coughed a few times from breathing in the dust and foil, and then they died. Their car had a slightly bumpy landing after all the wheels touched the ground and continued to hop over rocks and ditches for another half a mile while the wings and the tail were folding. By the time they reached the cave entrance, the vehicle had folded all its appendages and looked like a regular car again. They backed up into the dark opening of the cave until the rear bumper ran noisily into some rocks or dirt. Enforcer armed the remaining missiles and turned them toward the entrance.
“Is this what they teach you nowadays at the academy?” Racer asked.
“You mean backing up into walls like that?” Enforcer said.
“No, evading drones.”
“Falling into large ditches, flying, evading drones, shooting flares, and backing up in the dark—all this I learned right now, while running for my dear life, sir. I guess fear is the best trainer.”
“That missile, it went the wrong way,” Racer said. “I’m guessing it was supposed to fool the drones?”
“Yes, it will show a decoy image and broadcast a fake Mayday signal while limping for as long as possible like it’s a damaged car. When the drone catches up with it, it will disintegrate into a hundred small missiles, engaging the enemy from multiple angles. If any drones made the mistake of following the decoy, there’s no chance they’ll survive, but this will also be the last time this happens. The drones are learning.”
“Aren’t they fully automated?”
“They’re automated. You can tell that by the way they’re behaving, but somebody must be analyzing their tactics every time they lose another battle. If it’s a person they’ll learn fast. But if it’s and AI, we may still have a chance. Let’s hope it’s a computer. What’s really scary is that they’re making larger batches every time. When three drones were herding horses, we easily shot them down. The next time we faced six, and it wasn’t that easy getting them.”
“When did the six attack?”
“When KeyStroke left the base. They were moving toward Providence from all over the globe. We intercepted most over the oceans and prairies. Now it seems like there are nine of them. We got only a couple before I dropped you. Sorry about that, by the way.”
“And you have no idea where their base is?”
“Nope. Could be this cave. Could be a mountain range. Could be under water. The drones can show up anywhere on this side of the planet, like they appear out of thin air.”
“Damn! These guys are not kidding.”
“I don’t think they have a sense of humor.”
They turned all the systems down, except for the camouflage system and the weapons, and EnforcerOne linked them to a remote. After testing the connection, they built in front of the car a small wall out of stones and dirt, and covered the car with an additional camouflage tent. Now, a casual scan of the entrance, even form a short distance, would’ve shown only dirt and rocks. There was also the issue of the car tracks they left on the grass, but the settling dust covered them pretty well. A human eye could’ve recognized the pattern, but a drone may not be so smart.
Enforcer located the emergency pack and found a couple of self-heating cans of soup. They got in the car, folded the seats and laid down, sipping hot liquid from the cans.
It was a quiet, almost intimate moment, and Racer expected Enforcer to try to get something out of him, like a promise, a secret, or a sign of a weakness. That’s what he’d do if he were her.
Instead, she asked him, “Colonel Racer, how did you meet Julie?”
Maybe she is not as cunning as she seems, Racer thought.
“Believe it or not, the first time I met my future wife, I tried to impress her by driving a car with my knees.”
Enforcer tilted her head slightly to look at him, encouraging him to continue.
“I was a sergeant then,” Racer said.
“You were a sergeant? I thought you went to an academy.”
“I was at West Point when the Grass swallowed the Americas. It hit us hard, and we had no idea how to fight it. One general rolled out a tank brigade, expecting to find little men hiding in the Grass. We dropped bombs, dug trenches, and sprayed the fields with all kinds of chemicals. Bottom line—it was attacking us from underground, and we weren’t prepared for that kind of war. By the time we realized it, both American continents were lost. That’s when they put us on planes and flew us to Greenland, and from there to Spain, and from there to Belgium. On our flight to Europe, some guys were still holding shovels in their hands. We got to Brussels with only the shirts on our backs. Europeans didn’t know what to do with us, and their military was as useless as ours. Their bureaucracy didn’t have enough imagination to make use of our skills. The officers were sent to work for the UN, but they had no plans for the cadets, so we were given the rank of sergeant and sent to patrol the borders. I was assigned to drive a young American scientist, Julie. Scientists didn’t have handles at that time, so I was calling her Ms. Julie. She seemed very distant at first—even kind of arrogant. She would never discuss anything with me except the itinerary and the weather. She thought I was some unemployed guy they got from an agency. One day I was very hungry, and she shared a sandwich with me. I drove with one hand, ate with another, and read my mail on my smart glasses. She laughed, and that gave me an idea. I bet her one bottle of good Cabernet that I could drive, eat, navigate the web, and check my mail all at once without slowing down. She accepted the wager. We got on a highway. I turned on the cruise control, drove with my knees, ate with one hand, searched the web with another, and read my mail on my glasses. It was nothing. I’d done that before many times. She laughed again, tried it herself, and then asked me where I was from. And that’s how we met. I told her I was born in Montreal and grew up in Dallas. Then I asked her where she was from. It turned out she was from Las Cruces. That’s, like, an eight-hour drive. Anyway, we were almost neighbors. We started talking, and we enjoyed each other’s company, and that’s how it all started.”
“Just a second, Colonel,” Enforcer said. She found a field camera and ran out to install it outside the cave.
When she came back, they had some more soup.
“Well, how did you get to NAZ?” Racer asked.
“My parents were preppers, survivalists, and had the wits to leave Earth before the infection. My mother was pregnant with me when they left. They sold their house and land and all their supplies they didn’t need: guns, ammo, and everything. Then they bought two tickets and a container space on a freighter and moved to Pavonis Mons. The whole prepper community was on the move. They knew what was coming.”
“Are your parent still on Mars?”
“They died in the skylight crash in Pavonis City. I was at school that day, and they told me and a few other kids to go to the principal’s office. First we thought we were in trouble, and then we started getting calls and videos, and then all the airlocks initiated the emergency shutdown, and we had to get in our suits. It was a mess.”
“How did they know to leave Earth before the infection?”
“There were articles on preppers’ sites about an imminent attack on Earth after we started colonizing other planets. One scientist was saying those planets were taken, that we couldn’t just use them and expect no retaliation. He used to say, ‘Mars is ours, Moon is ours, but those planets from other systems are not.’ Everybody thought he was crazy—everybody but preppers. I don’t know why they believed him, but seems like they did the right thing. Many stayed—dug in or moved to islands—but the hardcore families all moved to Mars. We lived in the Pavonis lava tubes with another couple thousand colonists. When Earth got infected, they were having council meetings almost every day, preparing to bring in refugees, arguing, and fighting. During one of the meetings, the skylight collapsed, killing all those who were for bringing refugees from Earth. We knew it was sabotage, but there was nothing we could do. I had a choice to live in the city, but I remembered what my mother used to say—that during a war the safest place was in the military, so I joined the Phoenix team.”
“You aren’t afraid of hiding in a cave right now?”
“I don’t mind caves. I know that stupid skylight didn’t just collapse and kill my parents. It was people who sabotaged it.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Here are some lava tube skylights that survived tens of thousands of Marsquakes and meteor bombardment for hundreds of thousands of years, and then one day Earth is dying, and the thing collapses just when some colonists decide to bring in refugees?”
“Do you think somebody didn’t want more humans on Mars?”
“I think they were trying to kill more people on Earth.”
“I see. How many could’ve lived there?”
“We had five or six empty tubes, and they just finished building a tunnel digging machine. My parents said there were plans to build a couple of new cities under the skylights. The new structures could’ve easily accommodated hundreds of thousands of refugees.”
“Hundreds of thousands?”
“We had plenty of space in there, and the oxygen levels were growing every day. With the kind of resources the space stations were getting, we could’ve housed a million.”
Racer kept quiet for a few minutes, thinking of the ramifications of those facts. Was it true, or just an exaggeration? Was it a coincidence? And how did he miss this information?
EnforcerOne looked at him, wondering if she should interrupt his thoughts. Then she asked, “Do you think the woman you met yesterday was Ms. Julie, and I mean the real Ms. Julie, not just an artificially intelligent model of her mind?”
“How would I know?”
“You would’ve recognized the changes, I guess. You know her better than anyone. Was that your wife?”
“I’m not sure. The woman I remember during the last few years of our marriage was very distant and crazy—almost irrational. After years of endless fighting, I concentrated on my work and preferred to avoid her. The person I met yesterday wasn’t the Julie I knew. This was a sane and logical woman, more like a Julie I knew met long ago on Earth—younger but wiser somehow, softer, and less…less geeky, I guess. How did you know I met her?”
“We have observers in the City. They keep an eye on what’s going on in there. They reported seeing you with her on the plaza. This the first time we have access to a Devil’s Grass world, so we’re gathering as much intelligence on the life inside there as we can. Do you think the Grass is pretending to be her?”
“I don’t know. I mean, yes. This virtual Julie, she thinks like my wife. She is softer, and nicer, but she thinks like Julie.” After some thought, he added, “I think you have to be human to impersonate a human. If you could infiltrate an ant colony, do you think you could impersonate an ant?”
“Maybe some simple ant, but if it was an intelligent insect, it would be hard. They probably think and behave in a completely different way from us.”
“That’s what I mean, an intelligent one—one with personality, and quirks, and little habits, and with great ideas,” Racer said. Then he remembered something. “Wait, did you scan for receptors under the canyon?”
“You think Ms. Julie is listening to us right now?”
“Want to find out?”
They got out of the car and scanned the floor with Enforcer’s com, making sure not to emit any radio signal, but there were no roots under the cave.
“That’s funny,” Racer said. “If there are no roots here, how come there are patches of grass on the canyon floor?”
“There are some tunnels running under the canyon, but they’re all perpendicular.”
“How do you know?”
“We helped the grass spread in regular patterns. Our team has a laser-mechanical digger for narrow tunnels. Half the planet is covered in our tunnels, some of them heavily reinforced, so the grass can use them to survive a nuclear attack.”
“Why didn’t I know anything about this?” Racer said, exasperated. “In the last few days, I found out I don’t know anything about my planet. And I was supposed to be in charge here.”
“I think you were also supposed to be kept in the dark, sir, so we could deceive the enemy. Gardener expected him to intercept all your communications.”
“The enemy? Which faction?”
“I don’t know much,” Enforcer said, suddenly whispering. “But from what I could guess, it’s not just any faction, it’s a faction allied with an alien race.”
“A human faction working with aliens?” Is she pulling my leg?
“Promise not to tell Gardener I told you?” Enforcer asked, still whispering.
“Okay, I promise.” He whispered back.
“It’s not the Devil’s Grass that’s our enemy. From what we know, the Grass is just a bio-computer. Our real enemy is a humanoid alien race working with one of the factions.”
“Humanoid?” Racer whispered back.
“Yes, sir. We’re guessing they’re like us, but we’ve never seen one, only their drones and some micro machines.”
“What, like insects?”
“Yes, I heard you saw one.”