In a bleak future, NightRacer, an Earth campaign veteran, decides to unlock his erased memories. What he remembers, changes everything.
(note: this is chapter 9 from a serialized novel, previous chapter here – link)
“There is no way in hell I’m getting in a bunny suit!” Racer said, pointing at the two oversized backpacks Enforcer pulled out of her car.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we need to get out of here and, well, we need to improvise.”
“And you want me to hop like a bunny, dodging rockets?” Racer asked.
“Like a Grasshopper, sir. These are Grasshopper suits,” Enforcer said, showing him an emblem on the side of a backpack.
“We used to call them bunny suits, but that doesn’t change the issue. Hopping away from rockets and laser beams is not my idea of tactical advantage over invisible drones. What we need is tanks and shuttles, and that ship in orbit targeting this whole area. Fill the canyon with dust or vapors to get a visual on the drone, and pummel that device into a cloud of atoms.”
“Sir, we don’t have tanks. The base has a few, but they don’t even know we exist. We have some shuttles, and the ship will probably help, but they don’t know where we’re hiding.” Enforcer’s face was aglow with enthusiasm. “And this is actually from an exercise we had at the academy last year—to come up with a new solution for avoiding drone attack. My team got second place with the Grasshoppers.”
“What was the winning idea, running fast?”
“The fireworks—you saw it a little earlier. A car drives into a covered area, and ten cars emerge on the other side, driving in different directions. They won because cars can fight back, and that’s a great advantage. Grasshopping is more of a passive solution. You have to get to a safe area. Considering this terrain and our limited time frame, it’s our best option right now.”
“Why can’t we call for an extraction team?”
“Time, sir. Time. Once we reveal our location, we’ll have an hour, maybe an hour and a half to get extracted. In two hours, that drone making factory will spew another batch of aircraft, and they’ll all come to this location. While we’re hiding now from one drone, in another two hours we may be facing a lot of them.”
“Ten, maybe twelve.”
“Twelve? Really? That’s a hell of a printing shop,” Racer said.
“First we had two drones, one of them with cloaking technology, and we shot them down. Next, there were three, smaller, all of them stealthy, herding horses. Then we had six, and we took them down, but the next nine we faced this morning already changed their tactics. I think they can add three more drones every six hours. So, twelve. And they’re a little smarter.”
“I’ll be damned. This is printers printing printers.”
“That’s our assessment too, sir. They have two or three high precision 3D printing machines, which printed a number of lesser accuracy printers, but adequate enough to make some of the low precision parts. If they continue to print printers, we’re going to have a lot of drones.”
“Do you know how much time we have?”
“They didn’t find us in the last four hours, so we got two hours max.”
“Any ideas where the facility may be located?”
“Not a clue. The drones show up at small intervals in very different places.”
“That’s unusual. And you have no idea who’s behind these attacks, right?”
“No, sir, but I can tell you one thing. These people are good at automated war. I bet if you find that facility, it wouldn’t even have a door. It’s probably one big integrated cube, or something.”
The suits reminded Racer of the bunny suits teens used to have in the old times. A light exoskeleton was attached to the knees, legs, and hips, morphing into a set of back straps and shoulder fasteners and ending with a helmet with head support to lighten the stress on the body. A pair of metal-sole boots, worn on top of regular boots, had a spring mechanism to augment the step. A normal jump would thrust a person ten to fifteen meters. A “bunny hop” with both legs would take someone close to thirty meters. You also had a pair of wings attached to your arms, which could automatically deploy and take you a hundred to two hundred meters, depending on your jump and the wind conditions. On landing, a breaking mechanism would harness the energy in the springs and store it in a battery. You had the data on your helmet display. One camera was mounted on the front of the helmet and another on the back. To fly, you had to say “fly” into the helmet’s microphone, and the battery would spin a pair of light propellers on your back, giving you a push up and forward. There were also some redundant controls in the gloves to control the gliding and to change modes. The three basic modes were auto, mostly for running and short hopping; semiauto, for long distance hopping and flying; and freestyle, for those hooked on adrenaline.
Forty years ago, the net was full of videos of crazy dudes hopping freestyle and hitting the ground in all the painful positions. Racer chose to believe, at one moment, that mankind’s flight from Earth caused the stream of bone-breaking videos to stop. Now he found out that Martians were doing it too.
After putting on her exoskeleton, Enforcer stood close to the opening of the cave and tried a few freestyle flips. She was good. Racer looked closer at her face through the helmet’s visor and thought he recognized some feline features he hadn’t noticed before.
“Is that what you young Martians did in your spare time, hop around the canyons?” Racer asked.
“Yup, but we had Martian suits—with longer wings and solar panels.”
“How far can you fly on Mars?”
“A mile—mile and a half on a sunny day.”
“But you weren’t actually hopping, right?”
“No, on Mars it’s called bat flying. Some even flap their wings.”
Before they ventured outside, Racer thought he got a glimpse of that feline look again.
“Sir, do you think they have Grasshopper suits in the virtual reality?” Enforcer asked.
“Which one, Eden or the Devil’s Grass?”
“I’m sure they have it in Eden, but I was wondering about the Grass City.”
“Maybe. I guess you can have anything you want in there, although you probably wouldn’t need all this stuff. You could just grow yourself wings or bunny legs. My daughter showed me a trick with fast running. I thought you knew a lot about the Grass City. Don’t you go there on a regular basis?”
“We do. Every day somebody gets high on grapes and snoops around the Grass’s reality, but you can’t go to the City without a local when you’re dreaming, and the natives lost interest in helping us after a while. Like we’re not cool to them anymore.”
“Yeah, that’s sad. But we’ll get their attention, don’t worry. Let’s concentrate now on getting out of this canyon alive.”
“How are you feeling, sir?” EnforcerOne asked. “I heard after getting zapped, people feel like they have more energy.”
“It feels good, now that the pain and numbness have gone, but I’d hate to see getting zapped as the only remedy for arthritis.”
“I apologize I had to do that.”
“No need to apologize, Enforcer. I was a little angry and stubborn at that time. Was playing with my gun too. Thanks for saving my life. Hope I survive this adventure.”
They took a few long steps to warm up and then started hopping. There was no drone in sight yet. Racer started with a series of zigzags, whooshing among the large rocks, while Enforcer was bouncing off the narrow sides of the canyon, and moving higher with every jump and closer to the surface. Once on top, she turned on the radio. “Home base. Home base. This is FireBreather. Over!”
“So you’re also FireBreather?” Racer asked, trying to cover his heavy breathing.
“It’s a more private kind of code name,” she said. “My old academy handle.”
“What did you have to do to earn that nickname?”
“Shriek in a hot mike while shooting a flamethrower.” She continued to call for help between hops and sentences.
“This is Home Base,” somebody replied, sounding a little surprised. “Are you okay, FireBreather? How is the asset doing? Over.”
“Asset in one piece. We’re hopping in the eastern canyon. Do you see us? Can you spot any drones? Over.”
“You’re hopping? You silly girl! We’re searching for the drones right now. The latest versions came with some crazy tech. Still searching. I can’t see shit! Over.”
“Sir, we’ll have to slow down to see if any drones are on top of us,” Enforcer said, already breathing hard. “If you see anything materialize, do a bunch of random stuff. Okay?”
Racer did a big hop and spread his wings, soaring high. “Roger that, FireBreather.”
She followed him. The air currents in the canyon were erratic, and they were having a hard time staying on course, having to use all the juice for the propellers to avoid hitting the walls.
After a few seconds, a dark shadow covered them, and they dropped down and hid like roaches under the boulders. A rocket whizzed along the canyon, launched without a clear target. It flew a mile or so, then tried to turn around, touched a wall, broke into a wild spin, and exploded. A wave of small shrapnel and debris hit the boulders.
Enforcer ran like a maniac to the top and disappeared over the rim. “Home Base. Home Base. Did you get its location? Over.”
“Negative. We have a shuttle over there, watching, but it missed the drone. Can you make them reveal their location again?”
“Dammit, Base, you’re putting the asset in a very dangerous situation!” Enforcer glided back into the canyon and landed close to Racer. “Sir, give me your hand. Once we lock our hands I’ll be controlling both suits. Give me your hand.”
Racer hopped close to her and they joined hands.
“Hold on to your hat.” Enforcer said.
They did some generic hopping, then stopped and flipped two or three times, tempting the drone to uncloak. Then they bounced hard against the walls to prevent it from acquiring them as a target.
After a couple of more crazy flips, the world started spinning for NightRacer. “Stop it! Stop. I’m getting dizzy. I’m…going…to…black out.”
EnforcerOne stopped her acrobatics and lifted her visor to look at him with incredulity, forgetting for a second where they were. “But, sir, you’re NightRacer—the legendary NightRacer.”
At that moment two rockets launched simultaneously, and in a fraction of a second another one rushed to intercept them. The two drone rockets targeted Enforcer and Racer, while the third one, coming from the shuttle, hit a big boulder, creating a cloud of rocks in the path of the incoming.
“I’m NightRacer, yes, but,” Racer said, shaking the dust off his helmet.
The air buzzed and sizzled for a fraction of a second when a laser beam from the orbit hit the drone squarely in the body, making it swell into a ball of metal and fire.
“But I am old,” Racer added.
For a minute or so, they stood in the giant cloud of dust and smoke that filled the canyon, facing each other, trying to catch their breath. Then Enforcer got hold of Racers hand and took control of his suit. A shuttle came from behind the dust and opened its cargo doors. They jumped, leaning heavily on their wings and propellers and aiming for the open doors. When they landed, the grasshopper boots screeched on the metallic floor, and their wings folded. An air bag popped in front of them and then another one inflated, hitting them from behind and sandwiching them in between. The shuttle took off in a mad rush and dove to the left into the canyons. A left turn at Albuquerque, Racer thought.
They removed their helmets and stood squeezed between the airbags, catching their breath, and listening to the shuttle maneuvering and accelerating, flying fast and low.
“I’m sorry I made you flip like that, sir,” EnforcerOne said.
“Don’t worry. I’m just old, and…well, it happens.”
“I meant to ask you something, sir.”
“Call me Racer.”
“I meant to ask you something, Racer. How did you get your handle—NightRacer? Did you race a lot at night?”
“Something like that. At the academy, they always trusted me with finding the best route when racing.”
“So you have like a space awareness talent?”
“Nothing special. I’ll get lost like anybody else in a new place. I can probably see a little better in the dark, but the real secret of finding your way around is good memory and doing your homework.”
“As in studying the map before you go somewhere. You’d be surprised how many people never check the map before hitting the road.”
“So you became a leader by cheating?”
“By working hard and trusting my instincts. I was probably your age when I learned a truth about true leaders. Did you learn about the supervolcano eruption on Earth?”
She looked at him confused. Kids don’t care about Earth these days, Racer thought.
“So, we had a supervolcano erupt on Earth. People died, and new mountains rose up overnight. The whole planet was drowning in ash. There were tons of ash in the air. That was happening when they introduced tactical cars in the army. Cars were cheap, we had new fuels, and they suddenly realized that every officer could have an armored car, like a little tank or individual personnel carrier or something. And we were racing in those days—racing like crazy in those new cars. I was driving from Chicago to San Antonio—anyway, from one city to another, north to south, in the evening, on a highway. An ash plum was crossing our route. Texas was drowning in dark, dirty ash. Some of the guys drove through New Mexico to avoid it. I went through Dallas and Wako on Highway 35, taking the shortest route. Everybody was going twenty miles an hour, afraid of hitting something.”
He looked at her to see if she was following. It was about cars, and it seemed to keep her interested.
“And suddenly, this small car is coming from behind, and it’s driving like a hundred miles an hour. Well, maybe a little slower—just enough for me to look at the driver. It was a Mexican kid—a young civilian no older than me.”
Enforcer’s looked confused again.
“Mexican. From Mexico. A country on the North American continent. Anyway, so he’s driving maybe eighty or ninety on a highway with zero visibility. And I thought, this guy is either crazy or he doesn’t have much to lose. So first I ignored him, but what really was happening was that this guy was a real leader, and he emerged in a crisis and assumed his position of leadership. A number of cars zipped by, following him. And I realized that if we drive fast, our wireless will get picked by other cars, and everybody would feel encouraged to drive fast. I stepped on it and followed him, and other people followed me, and we created a wireless group, inviting others to step on it. In another hour, hundreds of cars between Dallas and San Antonio were going eighty miles an hour, and the news broke: ‘They’re not slowing down in Texas!’ That day the whole world said we couldn’t give up just because of some ash. People all over the North America got out of their houses and built makeshift barriers to prevent animals from wandering on the roads, and they brought their own equipment and installed bright lights at the railroad intersections, and there were wireless warning systems and sound systems, and people were using flashlights at the intersections to keep the traffic flowing. A couple of companies made a fortune in minutes selling car radars online. Whole new industries started to help cars drive in ash. And all this happened because one Mexican kid stepped on the gas when everybody else was stepping on their brakes. By the time I got to San Antonio, I knew what a real leader was. Too bad I couldn’t find that guy’s name.”
“Did you win the race?”
“I did, and I earned my handle that night. But what really matters is that I learned an important lesson.”
“That’s…” Enforcer said, trying to find her words. “That’s interesting. I think I understand, sir, but I just wanted to tell you—eighty miles per hour is not that fast. Well, maybe in zero visibility it is. Anyway, I got it. I understand why you’re NightRacer and not FrontRacer. A real leader leads when it matters.”
From the base of a mountain, they took an elevator, and a bunch of young and tall people got in with them, all talking in their headsets and coms and all streaming video. Some of the messages that were breaking through the white noise showed excitement and fear, and some others showed emotions Racer couldn’t recognize or didn’t care about. All he was feeling at that moment was the weight of the dust on his shoulders and the pain of fresh blisters in his boots.
“Colonel NightRacer, I’m so glad to meet you, sir!” somebody said and shook his hand. Everybody got quiet. They were streaming video to their friends. “We’re going to see Gardener now, and then you two can rest for a couple of hours.”
The elevator stopped, and he couldn’t even feel it. Only a slight rush in his ears told him that something was happening.
Gardener’s place was a giant glass bubble inside an even bigger cave in a mountain. By its size and appearance, it had to be Earth Mountain. The rocket proof glass structure had a number of airlocks with aperture doors branching to metal doors. A faux wooden floor was raised a couple of inches above the ground, and Racer spotted a complex root structure underneath it.
Gardener, although looking older, was still full of energy. He gave Racer a hug and then shook the dust off his guest’s tunic with a few careful hand motions.
“Racer, my boy, it’s good to see you again. I heard you had some fun in the canyons. Oh, don’t worry, we’ll clean you up.”
“Glad to see you too, sir. Nice place,” Racer said. “Hiding in the sky?”
“A couple more of those damn drones and we’ll be hiding on the orbit.” Gardener said bitterly. “Let’s schedule a meeting for the evening. I think you can use some rest now.”
As Racer was gathering his strength to reply, the whole mountain seemed to shake and from somewhere in its foundation a deep whooshing sound arose.
“Marsquake! I mean NAZquake!” a very skinny youngster yelled from behind a screen. “Multiple accounts coming from all over the planet.”
“Except the bubble is suspended on magnetic cushions,” Gardener said, and they all looked at each other, mystified.
“I know what it said,” Racer said. “I’ll translate.”
“It said something? What did it say?” the skinny guy asked.
Racer looked at him and smiled, “It said, ‘Hello, world!’”
“How in the—” Gardener said, and then he snapped his fingers and looked at Racer. “You’re right, it did say something. How did you know?”
“I know what it said because I think I know who said it.”
“KeyStroke. My former second in command, now chief of the planet.” Racer said. “I left him in Providence with a bottle of grape juice. I’m guessing Julie showed him the labs, and he’s found another way to use the sensors.”
“And how in the world did you know what he was going to say?” Gardener asked.
“He’s a geek!” the skinny guy said. “Of course. He’s a geek, and the first thing he would say would be, ‘Hello, world.’”
“All right,” someone said in a loud voice from under the floor. “I think I narrowed you people down.”
“You have a sensor here in the cave?” Racer asked.
“Of course,” Gardener said. “We have observers in Julie’s world right now, watching her, and she’s listening to us. This way we all trust each other.”
“Hey, Marsquake guy, what’s your name?” Stroke said. “Stomp on the floor, so I can locate you.”
The skinny guy looked at Gardener for a nod of approval, got it, and stomped a few times. Then he said, “I’m Seventeen, EnforcerSeventeen.”
“Okay, Seventeen. I’m KeyStroke.” the sensor said. “Do you have a laser line with the ship in orbit?”
Seventeen looked again at Gardener and got an approval. “Yes,” he said.
Stroke didn’t even wait for his answer. “I need you to get two microphones and a pair of speakers and tape one mike and the speakers to the floor where you stomped. You got me?”
Gardener waved his hand, letting Seventeen follow Stroke’s orders.
KeyStroke was already talking to two other members of the Gardener’s crew. He talked like a machine, dispatching order after order to the small army of geeks he’d just found. “You said the drones seem to show up from the thin air? They’re using a rail gun, stupid. Yes, they are using an advanced rail gun to deploy drones to random positions. The shells open, and the drones fall off. How do I know? I would’ve done the same thing. Give me the trajectories of the falling shells and get in touch with the ship. Tell them to search on my servers for an archive titled ‘Oldies but Goodies.’ The password is ‘to bee or not to bee.’ Bee, as in honey bee, and every last letter capitalized. You got that? You know what a honey bee is? No? Good.
“Once they open the archive, tell them to search for ‘bunker buster.’ I’ll have the coordinates by the time they print the bomb. The file contains a design for a bunker busting nuke. Yo, Seventeen, when you’ve got the mikes and speakers set up, help TwentyFour and Six do the same.”
Soon Stroke’s rambling was confined to the microphones and speakers, and things in the bubble got less agitated. Only a couple of people were talking to Stroke and frantically typing into their computers.
“You’re in good hands now, General,” Racer said. “I’m going to sleep.”
“Do you need anything?” Gardener asked.
“A bottle of fire water.”
“I have something even better for you, Colonel. A bottle of some very special wine,” Gardener said, winking at Racer and gesturing to one of his young assistants to take care of his guest. “I’ll meet you at Julie’s place.”