by Mark Anthony Brennan
The guy below me was really moving. He was kicking up a trail of dust as he sped across the desert floor. Close to 200 kilometers an hour, I figured.
As I gained on him from behind I had to maintain an altitude of about 15 meters to stay clear of the dust cloud.
Grounders, I thought sourly. What's with them anyway?
My wife always asks me to avoid them. Just turn a blind eye, she says. Who would know? It's certainly tempting because confrontations with grounders are always volatile. But I'm a patrol cop - when I'm cruising the air lanes it's not my job to look the other way.
When I finally got ahead of the dust trail, and was sitting directly above the grounder's vehicle, I slowed down to match his speed. Then I gently lowered my vehicle until it was just a meter off the ground. I was almost at eye level with the grounder racing along beside me.
The two vehicles were almost the same size but that's where all similarities ended. Mine was a state-of-the-art police air cruiser, fully equipped with the latest in traffic patrol technology. His was an antique - a turn-of-the-century automobile.
The grounder looked over at me with a snarl on his face. His face was red in a drunken glow. He yelled something at me as he rolled down his window and hurled a liquor bottle in my direction.
Of course the outer repulse field was on, so the bottle smashed harmlessly in mid-air before it came within 2 meters of my cruiser.
That's it, I fumed. This party's over.
I aimed an energy blast in the grounder's direction which would render him immediately unconscious. At the same time I lifted the cruiser up a few meters. It's a good thing I did because as he slumped over the steering wheel the driver sent the car veering sharply off to the left. He would have hit me if I hadn't moved.
The energy pulse also stalled the grounder's motor but the car still spun out in a wide circle before finally coming to rest in a billowing cloud of dust.
Using the pulse is normally considered a drastic measure but I don't believe in taking chances with grounders. In my job I see all kinds of perps - drug dealers, slave traders, arms smugglers, you name it. But it's the grounders who are the most unpredictable. They have no consideration or respect for anything - including themselves. And that's what makes them dangerous to a cop on patrol.
As I got out of my cruiser the sun was just starting to set. The mountains surrounding the flat desert basin were bathed in a ruddy glow. Spots like this had been popular with grounders ever since automobiles were outlawed and the old highways torn up.
The grounder's car was a Japanese sports car - probably a 1998 or 1999 model. For the life of me I just cannot understand the attraction to these ground vehicles. They were outlawed primarily for environmental reasons but they were also death traps. I guess it's just part of their rebellious nature, but in my opinion grounders have to be out of their minds to race around in those things.
The stench of alcohol swept over me as I opened the car door. The guy must have drank most of that bottle before chucking it at me.
Alcohol is another thing I can't understand. Although I'm a cop, I'm no saint. I've tried a few recreational drugs and have even gotten high on electronic inserts on occasion. But alcohol? That stuff is just poison - it'll kill you. And you don't even get high - you just get disoriented and dizzy.
It took some effort but I finally managed to haul the grounder out of his vehicle and stuffed him into the back seat of my cruiser. He was tough and wiry but fortunately not a very big man. I estimated his body age at about 70 years.
The sun had set and we were skimming over the surface of the desert in the failing light by the time the old man came around.
"What the..." he grunted as he sat up. "Where...Oh. Ah, shit."
The back seat was surrounded by a repulse field to contain suspects. The old grounder must have been in a few police cruisers in his time because he knew better than to even try struggling.
"You OK, sir?" I asked politely from the front seat.
"Fuck you," the old guy spat back. "Where's my car?"
"Back where you left it, sir. It'll be picked up tomorrow and properly disposed of."
"Nazis," muttered the old man.
As I flew the cruiser I could check on the grounder without turning around because there was a small video monitor in the dash displaying a view of the back seat.
"Are there any more of you out here, sir?" I asked.
"What do you mean?" he sneered, slurring his words. "People like me? Old folks?"
"I didn't mean that," I replied with a sigh. It's hard to maintain a professional attitude when you're talking to a drunk. "Are there any other _"
"Yeah, yeah, I know," he interjected "Grounders. You're looking for grounders."
"Well?" I asked.
"Why don't you leave us alone?" the old guy snapped. "It's bad enough that we're eternally old. Why can't we have fun? All we're doing is racing. What harm is it doing anyone?"
"You're a danger to yourselves, sir. It's our duty to _"
"I know," he hissed, cutting me off again. "To preserve life at all costs. Tell me, how old are you?"
I knew he wasn't asking me my body age, which was 25 years.
"My chrono is 62 years."
"Christ, man. You should look like me by now. But instead you're ... forever young."
In the monitor I could see that he was staring out of the window. He seemed wistful.
"Say," he said thickly after a few minutes of silence, "do you have a cigarette?" He shook his head. "What am I saying? Asking you for a smoke. Not exactly P.C. is it?"
"Well, it really isn't good for you."
"Like I need you to tell me that." The old man sounded more lucid now. "You know, I've had friends who've taken the easy way. But it's not right."
The old guy looked into the camera above the back seat. It was unnerving to have him staring directly at me from the dash monitor.
"Do you *remember* God? Of course you don't. When you're immortal there's no place for Him is there?"
I kept quiet, realizing that the old grounder needed to get a few things off his chest.
"Look at you, mister upstanding, life-is-so-precious, policeman. You're 62 years old and you don't know shit." From the monitor he was sneering at me in disgust. "You'll never know what it's like to be old. Christ, I've been old since before you were born."
He sat back, slumping slightly in his seat.
"Some great invention that was! The wonder drug of all time, they said. Sure. It stops the aging the process, so if you're young you stay young.
"But what a cruel joke on us," he continued bitterly. "It doesn't *reverse* the aging process. If you're old, you stay old. Forever."
At that moment I noticed a movement in the corner of my eye. Looking down I could see a dust trail etched across the flats. It was another grounder.
"Leave him alone, you bastard!" yelled the old guy as I swooped down towards the speeding automobile.
The car was travelling parallel to a large rocky outcropping. Ignoring the protests from the back seat, I dropped down to about 2 or 3 meters and then swung the cruiser around, heading directly towards the oncoming car. The rocks whizzed by on our left.
It was my intention to force him to stop. But instead of slowing down the car suddenly spun to its right. Perhaps the driver intended to do a U-turn, but at that speed the vehicle just flipped.
I watched in horror as the car bounced high into the air, rolling over sideways. After three flips the vehicle slammed full force into the rocks. Almost instantly there was a powerful explosion.
Being only fifty meters away from the car, and closing in fast, the cruiser was shaken like a rag-doll. A huge ball of fire engulfed us and there was debris flying everywhere. Had we not been wrapped in the protective cocoon of the repulse field we'd have been blown apart.
"Holy shit!" I yelled as I struggled to regain control of the cruiser.
The car must have had a ton of extra gasoline on board to blow up like that.
As the dust began to settle I could see that only a burning piece of the chassis was left of the automobile. The rest was strewn over an area of several hundred square meters.
"Goodbye, Charlie," came a soft voice from the back seat.
Looking in the monitor I could see that there were tears streaming down the old guy's face.
"I'm sorry, sir," I said in an attempt to console him. "Was he a friend of yours?"
"You stupid fucker," sputtered the old man. "I'm not crying for Charlie. He's the lucky one!"
I shook my head in exasperation.
Crazy, mixed-up grounders, I remember thinking at the time, will we ever understand them?
The experience that day really got to me. It's not that it's made me more apprehensive of these people. If anything, I'd have to say that the opposite is true. No, it's just that it's made me worry that next time I'll hesitate - that I'll question where my duty lies. I'm a patrol cop - there's no room for hesitation out here. That's how you get yourself killed.
I've put in for a transfer. We've been saying for years that we live too far away from family. My brother works the air lanes way up in the north-west sector. Up there in the mountains - sounds like a good life. Oh sure, they get their fair share of drug traffickers, but all that Jim seems to complain about is those damn hang-gliders.
Dealing with hang-gliders? I mean, come on. How tough can that be?
Story copyright © 1999/2000 by Mark Anthony Brennan <email@example.com>
Artwork "Wasabi!" copyright © 1999/2000 by Romeo Esparrago <firstname.lastname@example.org>