His car died somewhere between the old defense base and the small town of Providence. He stared at the warning lights on the dashboard, watching them fade away, listening to the growing silence, and clinging instinctively to the security of the cabin. The fuel pack was completely drained after a week of endless driving—not a drop of energy left in its veins. He’d been driving furiously, taking side roads, back roads, country roads, just barely avoiding rocks and ditches, and always aiming for someplace beyond the horizon.
Scans were not getting any results. He would steer for twenty hours or so, then switch to auto-drive, scan until falling sleep, wake up and scan again, drive, scan, sleep, hands clenching the steering wheel, eyes on the road, mind hypnotized by the flow of the undulating grass, an army of little green blades stabbing at the sky. After days of this unending view, he slipped into a semiconscious state, sailing carelessly through a fog of spores, warning messages, and old memories, driving against the wind, scanning, sleeping, driving, scanning again, refusing to stop, and the hell with everything else.
When the stream of messages got maddening, he turned off the speech system and kept driving, trying to squeeze the remaining fuel to the last drop—to get out of it as many miles as possible.
He could only guess his location and had no idea what the day of the week it was. Judging by the sun, he was driving west and it was evening. New Arizona, or NAZ as it was commonly known among colonists, wasn’t too different from Earth. Days were a little shorter, the sun was a little redder (with only a smudge of bloodshot), and the dark rain clouds seemed to have an extra shade of green in them. Everything else was the same—rocks, wind, dust, rain, and a wasteful expanse of sky.
When the car’s engine finally stopped late at night, NightRacer passed out from the exhaustion. He slept with his head on the steering wheel, drowning in sweat, and he had a dream, or it could’ve been an old memory, or it could’ve been both.
The official theory is that you can’t see yourself dead in a dream. It’s just not possible. People can’t see themselves dead. Contrary to this theory, Racer saw himself dead in a dream once, when he was only three years old. He dreamed that he was in his parents’ old house, and somewhere in the back, he found a door to a hidden room, and inside he saw a space no bigger that a closet that was full of thin, gray mold. The fungus covered the walls and the floor and the ceiling, and suddenly it was so tall that it looked like a forest, and it grabbed him. Then he saw himself standing in that room, dead, completely covered in mold, even his face and his eyes, and there was no more space for the fungus to grow, and it was eating itself, and it was dying.
Long time ago, NightRacer forced himself to disremember this dream. Now it had returned.
He was still dreaming, but he was also awake, and he wondered at the changes in the landscape. All over the place, the dark green fields were turning gray. The tide was turning. After years of expanding and killing everything in its path, the Devil’s Prairie was finally folding back.
NightRacer got out of the car and plucked a blade of grass—a hooker. It had a tiny implement at the end, like a hook, for clinging, and a pouch of spores in the middle, like it was pregnant. He rubbed the blade’s soft part between his fingers. It had a sweet aroma, and it felt moist and squishy—and more fragile than usual. It felt like the fungus from his dreams, and he threw the slimy bead away and wiped off his fingers in disgust.
Something had been bothering NightRacer for a long time, and now it finally surfaced. He was AWOL, and that complicated his plans. According to his estimations, he hadn’t crossed the limit, which meant he wasn’t yet a deserter, but it was just a guess. His com had been off for some time, and he could have missed the warnings.
It was far past midnight, and a half moon was rising over the horizon. In another hour, they would see him from the moon lab in their telescopes, running face recognition, checking the databases, and wondering if he’d been touched.
Racer checked his position on the com. There weren’t any other people around. He scanned for living things and found none. There were no warm bodies close by—no mammals and no birds. He was alone in a field, and yet he had the strangest sensation that he was being watched. Racer gathered the remaining food and water pouches and left on foot. When he touched his car to say good-bye, it was still radiating heat.
On the top of the hill, he stopped to look around. The wind was stirring waves in the grass, and it was cold and smelling like rain. To the north, the horizon was drowning in dark clouds. To the southeast, in the moonlight, he could see the ruins of Providence.
There was a feeling of emptiness in him—a feeling that he used to have a shot at the future but no longer did. He stopped to search his thoughts and realized, sensing a void inside, that his daughter was gone. He tried to chase the dreadful feeling away to no avail. There was no doubt, Hellen was no more. While he dreamt of dying, some invisible link between them had been severed, and she slipped into the night.
The cold wind brought him back, and Racer managed to subdue the pain. Everything seemed clear now. With all the little details and worries in his life suddenly ending their chatter, he felt at peace and cleared his mind. His rage recognized its target, and he found a new resolve. I will destroy this monster, NightRacer thought.
At that moment and in that place, looking at the brewing storms on the horizon, for the first time in many decades Racer felt alive again, but not young and optimistic, and certainly not reckless either. He’d lost everything he cared about, and all he wanted now was to settle a score. Revenge, pure and simple, or maybe it was called retribution—he couldn’t really tell.
His com chimed to warn him about the spores. Racer checked the map. There was still a chance to avoid the clouds. The respirator and the emergency tent could give him some protection, but only for a couple of hours. Spores were nasty, and strong winds could keep them airborne for weeks. He scanned the area for living things again, then for other coms. Nothing.
Following an old Earth habit, Racer scanned the ground. The root mass was normal, but the density seemed to be increasing as he got closer to the town.
“Com, find me a safe route please,” he said.
“Right away, sir,” it replied.
A falling star ripped the sky to the north and flared up briefly before dying. It reminded him of an orbit charge, from the faction war time. The sky seemed more alive than the ground. Somewhere up there, a swarm of satellites was picking his signal, exchanging data to find him a safe route, and to report his position to the base.
“Thank you Com.”
“Don’t mention it.”
His situation was bad, but not critical. If he could move fast, he could reach Providence and find shelter there. Racer zoomed out on the map. Heavy clouds of spores were moving in from all over the place. He hadn’t seen this much activity in over a year, and the timing was odd. The first clouds appeared after he left the base, and the spore blizzard was now in full swing pretty much everywhere, except here.
I know what you want, he thought.
He checked the map one more time, tightened his backpack’s straps, and sprinted toward Providence, measuring his stride, singing a simple but oh so calming tune:
Breathe in, breathe in; Breathe out, breathe out.
Breathe in, breathe in; Breathe out, breathe out.
Breathe in, breathe in; Breathe out, breathe out.
Long inhale; Long exhale.
The exercise reminded him of his academy days on Earth. He’d been eighteen and eager to fight. In the academy, he learned to race cars, fly shuttles, and shoot guns, but when they finally faced the enemy, the only skill he needed was taking off quickly and running like hell. He was always a good runner, and he survived.
I wonder if they’re watching me now, Racer thought.
He was going uphill, enjoying the little pain in his muscles, when a loud voice reached to him over the com. “NightRacer, this is KeyStroke. Are you okay? I lost your car’s signal.”
Shit! In the car, he blocked all the incoming messages, but for the standalone com, he forgot to set up a rule. He had to slow down now.
He checked his com. It was an open channel, and KeyStroke had already said too much.
“Stroke, before you blab something important on this open channel,” he said, catching his breath, “Did you get the go-ahead for this chat?”
“It’s cool, man. I’ve got all the authorizations and everything. Permission to switch to secure?”
The com popped up a message, prompting him to switch to a secure channel.
“I’m checking on your position, Racer. You’re close to a heavily tainted area.”
“I know. Did you give me this corridor?”
“How? You must be joking! Not me. Maybe it is bringing you in.”
He stopped to drink some water, and then he checked his com again. “Give me another estimate on the winds.” The winds were changing, but the road to Providence was still clear.
“Stroke, I seem to be late for an appointment. Can you wait a minute? I’ll get back to you after I find some shelter.”
KeyStroke didn’t call him without a reason, and he could use some time to think. There were a number of issues to worry about now—Stroke, his AWOL situation, the winds, the “invite” to Providence…He could handle his second in command, but this corridor-to-unknown business took him entirely by surprise.
Maybe I’m not the only one looking for a fight, he thought.
He’d seen it once before, on Earth, a large area clear of spores in the middle of a storm. It required a special type of spore with long tendrils—like skinny snowflakes—to keep an area clean. They were shot like pellets into the air and floated down, spinning and grabbing the smaller spores with their hooks. The result was a snow-like ash. It takes the grass some time to grow those special spores too. It’s never a random event. He seemed to have a vague memory of following a corridor like this before. There were two of them, going to a meeting—he and his wife.
Without KeyStroke’s annoyance, he returned to the calming pace of running.
“One more thing, Racer.”
Really? “Go ahead.”
“I need to ask you something important.”
“You know I’m just following the protocol, and stuff—”
“I know that. I’ve done it myself a couple of times.”
“Okay, here is comes…” KeyStroke was silent for a second.
“Don’t hesitate, son. You should not hesitate when asking the question.”
“I know, sir. I know. Colonel NightRacer, are you an addict? Did it touch you?”
“Sir, you are AWOL. Why did you leave the base without letting anyone know?”
“My turn to ask questions, Captain. Are you a parent?”
“No, Sir. But this is not relevant now.”
“It is very relevant, especially now. When you’re a parent, and your child walks out into the Devil’s Grass, you have to find her and get her back. I left because Hellen is my daughter, and this supersedes all the protocols in the world.”
Again there was silence for a moment on the other end. “I got it,” KeyStroke finally said. “I got it, sir.”
“Good, I’ll talk to you when I reach Providence. Racer out.”
It was only five or six miles to the buildings now, but what’s a few miles on a paved road at night to a sixty-year-old whose nickname had been NightRacer since the time he was a cadet on Earth?