REHO: A Science Fiction Thriller (The Hegemon Wars) (2 page)

BOOK: REHO: A Science Fiction Thriller (The Hegemon Wars)
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The door to Rec Space 15 hissed open. Reho had no way of knowing how many occupants were here. He could have asked the boys how many travelers had come through, but somehow it just didn’t seem important. Not as important as the smell of the basketball’s rubber and talking—even just for a brief minute—to someone he wouldn’t end up having to hurt.

***

The room was simple: a worn, two-cushioned brown sofa left over from the OldWorld doubled as a bed. A square table with a wooden chair pressed against the opposite wall. A single bulb cast a soft yellow light across the room. There were no windows. One wall had once been painted over with a light blue. He could see the graffiti beneath it: an airbrushed
A
followed by some indecipherable markings and a four foot skull. Reho guessed it had been a detailed piece of art before being covered up.

Inside Rec Space 15, the air was clean. Filtered. Reho could tell the difference. Even though the radiated atmosphere never affected him, something about clean air still made him feel more alive. It had been six days since he’d enjoyed such a simple pleasure. Even so, the air couldn’t compare to that in his home community, Virginia Bloc 4E. He recalled running through the pastures as a kid. Although the area had suffered from the Blast almost a century before, the radiation was minimal, and the early community members had reformed the land. With few limitations, the community thrived as it had before the Blast.

Reho activated the panel on the shower door. “Please insert smartcard for options.”

Reho set it for cold. Few pleasures existed in the Blastlands.

“Six points required. Do you accept?”

Reho pressed the green
yes
button.

The water sprayed down. A timer at the top of the shower displayed 3:59. Less than four minutes to shower away a week’s filth.

The cold water revived Reho. His parched, black hair and blistered skin drank in the liquid as it hydrated his body. The watered hammered down on his thick, scarred shoulders and survival-hardened chest. He dispensed what was left of the soap across his chest and back, the scar on his shoulder reminding him of where he’d been had come from. An indention the size of his index finger now remained where the warbeast’s claw had once entered. He felt the stubble on his face, prompting him to shave before the water ran out.

The constant headache he’d had since disarming and crushing the two knock-down-drag-outs dissipated under the running water. His thoughts escaped to the mountains. The showers there had been ice cold. And the view was like nothing else in Usona. Reho thought back to the Western Coast and the desolate, half-submerged city of what an OldWorld map had labeled Los Angeles. The water of the ocean had been equally as cold. Now he just longed for the Eastern Coast, for home.

Reho accessed the entertainment panel from the table by the sofa. A red
X
was placed next to some options, showing that the feature was no longer accessible:
Films
,
X
. Reho had hoped to watch a movie, an instant escape, as OldWorld movies reminded people of what life had been like before the Blast. Reho pressed
Music
. Most of the names and bands he’d seen before; some he had even heard.

After deducting three points, the music played.
He closed his eyes, his head resting on the arm of the sofa. He wouldn’t even bother undoing the bed. He lay naked as the music faded and he dreamed.

***

The dream was familiar. It was one of several that returned to him, always at unexpected times. His dreams had always felt real, as though they were moments he’d already lived or perhaps would live at some point in the future. Jen had once said they were of the future or maybe of another life. She had read books about civilizations before the Blasts that believed such things.

In this dream, he woke from a fetal position. Sand shifted beneath him as stood. Fresh blood poured from somewhere on his body but he could never find the wound. It formed a puddle around his feet, mixing with the sand. The tide was too far away to wash the mess out to sea. Behind him a fire raged. With his back to the ocean, he could see a city-sized, foreign military compound burning. A mountain had exploded, sending a mushroom-shaped cloud into the atmosphere above it. The flames rose higher than he could see. The scene was familiar enough. Once he had ventured off the beach, but each time he became lost in the jungle.

Now he looked out onto the ocean; a ship sat far away. He raised his hands and waved.
Can they see me?
The ship shrank from view. Rain poured as he waited on the beach, the dried blood running off his body as the rain persisted. The ocean’s angry waves crashed against the beach, driving Reho farther back. He could still see the ship through the storm. It grew closer as the storm pushed wind and rain onto the beach, stinging his eyes. The boat was coming back.

Reho felt something crash against his legs. An umbrella
.
As the water receded, Reho saw two other objects: a full-faced rubber gas mask with the canister missing and a dark, corked bottle. Reho snatched up the items and retreated farther inland. He put down the umbrella, a five-foot OldWorld style that looked as though the span would be at least six feet in diameter if it were opened. The gas mask was strange enough; he checked inside it for a name or company but found nothing. The dark bottle was void except for a single item wedged in near the neck. Reho yanked on the cork and retrieved a piece of paper. It read:
Kingdom . . .
The second word had been smeared.

An aggressive wave returned, covering his waist and retreating with the other items. A mammoth rock pushed up from under the beach. Reho fell back, barely avoiding the rising ground. It rose thirty feet above ground level. The tide returned and swept him under. Disoriented and panicking to find the bottle, he pushed farther out to sea.

The storm howled and something—
a human voice?—
rose above the winds and thunder. Reho lifted himself off the beach and ran to the jungle. As he ran, the voice returned. Its sound was unnatural, like a wild animal trying to talk, but its words were clear as it repeated:

 

The stone, once dropped, wants to move toward the center of the earth.

The stone, once dropped, wants to move toward the center of the earth.

The stone, once . . .

***

Reho woke, his sweat-drenched body shaking in the cold room. He pushed the dream to the back of his mind and adjusted the thermostat, then selected a peanut butter sandwich from the vending machine in the room. He ordered a few extra sandwiches and stuffed them into his pack. At an inflated cost of nineteen points, he would have enough calories to make it the rest of the way. Points were never an issue for Reho. He had more than he could spend from his winnings at the races in Red Denver. After eating, he stretched again and returned to the sofa.

Chapter 2

Reho woke. This
time, the room was warm, and he felt rested. The LED lights running along the ceiling flashed red, signifying that time was up. The audio alarm must have been broken. The ceiling’s speakers, which had played music before, now emitted only a faint buzz. Reho checked his Casio: 5:38. He’d slept six hours. Fragments of his second dream filled his mind, but it was nothing like the one he’d had when he first slept. He recalled the boys bouncing the ball, except it wasn’t a ball, but the squashed, bloodied head of a knock-down-drag-out he’d killed in the Blastlands years before.

The event had haunted him since. The traveler had approached Reho for food only to stab him while he slept. Reho had offered some dried meat and a canteen of liquids. The old man had stayed with him for three days during his trek to the Great Lakes. The night before they reached OldWorld Chicago, the traveler pushed a military knife, standard nine inches, into Reho’s upper back while he slept. Awakened by the pain and confused, Reho had ripped the knife out and slashed the man’s neck with enough force to cut through the flesh and break bone. The aged man’s head had fallen to the side. Reho shook the images from his mind.

He stood and stretched his body, feeling well rested for the first time in weeks. He activated the panel near the door and pushed the flashing red button. The LED ceased to flash, and a display came on without an automated voice.

Insert smartcard to clear balance. Current Balance: 63 points
.

Outside, the sun rose in the east. The wind blew, tossing a wad of dried, knotted weeds across the street. The boys were nowhere in sight. Reho ate one of the peanut butter sandwiches as he left Traveler’s Rest Stop. His mind drifted to the boys and old woman, as he wondered if servicemen would ever bother returning here. The place had become a dead spot. Traveling the Blastlands was only for those willing to kill or be killed. He’d seen his share of dead servicemen, their vehicles either burned or driven until the fuel was exhausted. Once the fuel was gone, the vehicles sat as lifeless as their occupants, left to waste away in the Blastlands.

***

The ground darkened as he moved closer to the coast. The light, dusty terrain that characterized the Blastlands slowly faded to a blacker soil. From time to time, sparse pockets of life emerged: a sunflower stood alone, its shadow cast across the otherwise barren ground. Ahead, maybe a mile farther east, he saw an ocean of green grass.

Reho drank the last liquid from his canteen. He spotted Virginia Bloc’s western wall. Its high, chain-link fences, topped with rusted barbed wire and unoccupied guard towers every quarter mile, told him he was home. The nearest entrance lay a few miles to the south. Judging by the empty guard towers and pervasive stillness, it would be more convenient and would provoke fewer questions if he just jumped the fence. The town was at peace; the guard towers hadn’t been occupied since before he was born.

The twelve-foot-high fence ran like an endless wall in both directions. Reho’s eyes followed it. There was no one around. Few people lived this far outside of town. The closest occupied buildings were the textiles, and they lay a mile farther inland. He didn’t want to draw any unwanted attention. After six years absent, most wouldn’t recognize him; then again, thinking of his aunt and uncle, he hoped some might. Reho crouched, one palm planted on the ground as he launched high into the air. He landed with practiced ease on the other side of the fence, knees and back bent. He covered his head as he made his way home.

It was nearly dark. Most workers would be near the port, drinking off their hard day’s labor. A soft light would fill the homes soon, and children would be spotted through the windows as they played Hegemon Versus Humans in their living rooms. Reho missed the world being smaller. As endless as Usona seemed, other communities continued in isolation and decline for decades. Civilization would never reemerge as it had before the Blasts until trade could expand. The Hegemon may have kept to themselves in Omega, but they’d also kept alive the fear of their return, especially for those living in Usona.

Reho passed only one couple as he made his way to his childhood home. With arms wrapped around each other for support, their giggles and expletive-rich outbursts told Reho they’d put their daily labors far behind them as they staggered home, unaware that 4E’s killer had come home.

***

Reho approached the same door he had closed six years before. He imagined his uncle leaving work at the tannery, headed to one of the bars at the docks. He hoped his aunt would be in her rocking chair, carving widgets or quilting a new blanket for someone in the area. Her carvings brought in just as many points as his uncle’s job in the tanneries. She was one of the few skilled people in town who could make parts from wood for various machines in the city. She could replicate any broken cog, nut, or plate that could be substituted with hardened wood, a process that involved chemicals turning the wood into a new metal-like material. It wasn’t as strong as the original steel, but it worked.

Reho knocked. No answer. He knocked again. Still nothing.

He tried the lock. Walking to the windows, he looked in. The inside of the house reminded him of homes scattered in the Blastlands—still standing, unoccupied, and left as ruins of another time.

He spotted the table, rocking chair, mantel, and sofa. The OldWorld television and electronics were gone. He walked around to the back of the house and tried the knob.

The basketball goal, its net rotted, still hung above the unnecessary garage door. No one in 4E owned a vehicle except those who raced. So many childhood years had been spent focused on that metal-rimmed goal. He had once been challenged to make twenty consecutive shots from fifty feet away. The prize: a deck of Bicycle playing cards. After the twentieth shot, he kept aiming and making them. The full moon had forced hi
m to stop. The neighborhood kid—
Charlie! That was his name
—stopped count at 174.

Reho slammed his shoulder against the door. The frame cracked, breaking the lock. The house was quiet. Reho walked through the kitchen. He opened a cabinet and found it empty. The sink trapped a few dishes, appearing to have sat in their shallow bath for weeks. The living room was foreign.
How long had it been abandoned?

The pictures were gone. White squares marked where they’d once hung, celebrating a family market by its share of tragedies and victories.

The short hallway leading to the bedrooms reminded him of the prison hall in Red Denver. Doors lined the passageway, each caging its own hopeless life behind it. The door to his bedroom opened reluctantly, as if tape was being peeled from some stubborn surface. Everything sat exactly as it had the morning he’d left for the races, abandoned like the rest of the home but untouched. A lone picture of his parents sat on his dresser, his mother smiling, her countenance drowning in his father’s eyes. The photo had been taken outside the music club RT where she’d worked as a waitress until the abduction. They’d listened to bands from all over the world. Some were drifters, looking to make a few points playing songs that they’d written about faraway places. Others revived the music from before the Blasts. Electric guitars and drums recreating the sounds trapped on cassettes, CDs and vinyl records.

Reho stepped into their bedroom, a room frozen in time. The closet door was ajar. His uncle’s clothes were missing, while his aunt’s remained untouched. Reho sat on his aunt’s side of the bed, its mattress worn, sinking below the frame. Her nightstand, a poorly refurbished piece of furniture that he’d once broken when he was nine, still showed its scar.

He and another neighborhood kid, a girl named Vaness, had been left alone. He couldn’t remember why, maybe his aunt was sick, but they were alone and playing Hegemon Versus Humans—a simple game that often lasted all day, keeping score and paying out with something the other wanted. The object was to try and pin the enemy to the ground and tap three times on their forehead. He’d never lost at the game and never played with his full effort. He’d chased her into his aunt’s room and pinned her on the bed. After tapping three times, she kicked. Her foot caught him by surprise, sending him off the bed and into the nightstand. His arm had bled, but that hadn’t been what worried him. The table lay on its side, a corner of its wooden square top broken.

Panicked, he had bonded it back on with some of his aunt’s work glue and left the room. Vaness had told him that his aunt would never know it had broken. And in a way, she was right. He’d been sure his aunt noticed, but she’d never asked or scolded him for it.

The scar remained, but his aunt was gone. On top of the nightstand, a note awaited. He recognized his uncle’s handwriting, barely legible, but clear enough to anyone who had worked with him at the tannery.

The note was brief.

 

My Dear Liz,

Being alone was not meant for some men. When you left, I left with you. I fear I will die alone in this home. I have cleaned my rifle so many times now that it scares me. For several weeks, my mind has drifted, imagining what it would be like to drop a shell into its chamber.
And pulling
… I miss our boy. I just regret that he doesn’t know to miss you. I would give anything to see us together again, maybe at the gasolines like we once enjoyed before he left. To not be family is hell. Death took you, and I desire for it to take me. Perhaps these last years have hastened my steps as I follow you into the beyond.

 

Reho reread the note. Six years of wandering. Six years of numbing his emotions as he learned to survive as a freak, alone on a ruined continent. His body might have evolved, making him physically superior to any man he’d ever met, but his emotions hadn’t. He felt nine again. His aunt was dead and maybe even his uncle.

Reho crashed his hand down onto his lap and took a deep breath. She had died. Her health had always been poor; the radiation effects passed down by her parents genetically had been the cause of her underdeveloped legs. By the time she turned seven, they’d stopped growing, and she was dependent on a wheelchair from that point on. She’d been intelligent and skilled with her hands, but she’d lived a hard life, one that kept her from having her own children. But she had Reho.

There was nothing here for him. He needed to know about his uncle.

He headed for the closest place that would feel like home. Drenfi would know something about his aunt and uncle. The thought of seeing his old friend again extinguished some of the pain. If Reho had been Virginia Bloc’s best racer, then Drenfi had been its best mechanic and Oscar its best manager. Everything Reho knew about racing and betting he had learned not from his uncle but from Oscar, knowledge that had made him dangerously wealthy in Red Denver.

***

“I figured you would’ve blown your face off by now, working in this drat shop,” Reho said, watching Drenfi work under the hood of a gasoline truck. It must have belonged to someone from 3E, Virginia Bloc’s wealthier community.

A tall, greasy man dressed in blue mechanic overalls and holding a fistful of tools jerked up from under to hood. “What the frak?” He turned around too fast for his oversized midsection and knocked several tools into the truck’s engine. He steadied himself and let another
frak
fly. Reho smirked. The overgrown kid had a limited vocabulary, but he knew how to use those few words well.

Reho gave him a moment, trying not to laugh at him. Drenfi kept his distance, his eyes wide.

“No blastin’ way,” Drenfi said. “For blast’s sake, a ghost!” If Reho had been a ghost, he had nothing to fear.

Drenfi took a step toward Reho. His expression converged into a montage of fear, surprise, and confusion.

“It’s me, Drenfi, Reho.” He took a few steps toward him, setting his bag and rifle in the back of the ’57 Chevy. “Who’s radiated enough to let you work on something this expensive?”

As if the light had finally turned on, the confused look transformed into a smile. Three hundred pounds of Drenfi crashed against Reho, clasping him tight. Drenfi lifted him several feet into the air, squeezing him as he had after each victory at the races.

“You lurker! Where have you been?” Drenfi asked, forgetting Reho’s question. His eyes were filled with wild excitement. He was a full foot taller than Reho, his face gruff, always supporting a long, scraggly beard to hide the few teeth that remained in his mouth. And, as always, he smelled of hard shine.

Reho scanned the room, remembering the years of his life spent there. “Out west mostly. Where’s Oscar?”

The excitement retreated from Drenfi’s face. He fetched a bottle from a nearby table and poured its contents into two dirty glasses. He grabbed both, finishing one as he handed the other to Reho.

Drenfi refilled his glass and gazed off into the distance. “He left a few years ago. The races are not as profitable. Well nuke! You made them profitable for us. A manager and a grease monkey are only two-thirds of a winning team. You do any racing out west?”

Reho looked away and ran his hand over the truck. “No.” Reho paused. “I’m looking for my uncle.”

“He doesn’t come around here anymore,” Drenfi replied. “He use
d to visit years ago, asking Oscar and me if we’d heard from you. But he hasn’t done that since your aunt gave up the ghost.”

He looked at Drenfi. “How did she die?”

Drenfi sat at the table and filled his glass again. “Some kind of complication with an organ or somethin’.” He straightened up and stuck a finger in the air. “Which reminds me.” He dug through a pile of items on the floor next to the table until he found what he was looking for: a wooden gun.

BOOK: REHO: A Science Fiction Thriller (The Hegemon Wars)
12.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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