Decker lay paralyzed for an infinity of moments as Alice’s face lingered on his sight like a sunspot.
He’d seen her, though, he kept thinking, over and over. She’d been standing right there. Right there.
Then he heard someone screaming, a hoarse wordless cry, and it jolted him out of his thoughts and off his back in an arm-swinging scramble.
Warmth dripped into his eyes, a dark glop on his vision. Decker wiped it away, swaying in a crouch, and the back of his hand came away streaked with blood that glistened black under the lights.
And then beyond his dark-smeared knuckles, a figure sprinted out of the tower, shoes skidding on broken glass. The kid, the weapon.
Decker reached out, shouting something he wasn’t quite sure of through the ringing in his ears. Lyan stopped, caught his balance, stared at him for a split-second then spun and ran in the other direction.
Decker cursed, wobbling on his legs. Then he remembered the Infects, and he looked over his shoulder.
The horde was on him. Two white faces stood out in the swarm, a man with a skinny neck and a huge adam’s apple, and a snub-nosed teenage girl. And then the faces blurred around him, rushing past.
Past him. Not even looking at him. Decker stood frozen, every second expecting a crush of bodies bringing him down, tearing into his soft spots with emotionless precision.
But then the mob was past. A soft breeze tickled his face. A few straggling Infects ran from the city still, aimed for something beyond him.
Decker turned back. The Infect swarm surged away from him, toward something black that zipped along the concrete. It skirted them, slingshotting back toward the city.
It swept past him with a growl of engine. A couple of motorcycles, dark helmets, and between them, Lyan.
It plunged toward the buildings of the residential district, followed by the swarm. More Infects sprinted out to meet it, but it sliced around them and disappeared into the city.
Decker stood staring for a second. Somebody had just snatched up the weapon. Right under the nose of every Infect in Firewall Zero.
Right under his nose. Decker released his breath, and gagged as his stomach muscles relaxed.
A cacophony of motors roared, and an assorted mob of vehicles squealed across the concrete toward the city in the fading wake of the motorcycles. The virus really wanted that kid. More badly than it wanted Decker dead, which was an advantage he needed to jump on.
Decker ran for the city. It looked like the entire hive was tailing those bikes—if he timed it right, he could slip out through them and disappear.
And then once he got to safety, he could bewail the fact that his entire plan had gone to crap.
He reached the outer periphery of buildings and slipped into a side street. His right shoulder almost scraping the side of the alley, he half-walked, half-jogged in the direction of the Firewall entrance, rifle at the ready. White area lights flooded the streets, but left a tiny fringe of shadow along the base of the buildings, just wide enough to walk in. Better than nothing.
Something moved up ahead and he fell into a crouch. Two Infects walked into the street a few building-lengths ahead of him and stood alert, their profiles sharp in the artificial light.
Decker watched for a few moments, rubbing his thumb on the stock of his gun. There was a side street just ahead of him—he took a step forward, and waited. They didn’t look toward him.
He crept forward, reached the intersection, and craned his neck around the wall. The street looked clear. Decker shot a last look at the Infects and stepped sideways until they were gone from view, then made his way down the side street.
He’d almost reached the next main street when he heard the low, swelling rumble. A chorus of engines. Decker swore under his breath. The Infects were returning—he hadn’t been fast enough. He thought about running, but then the rumble was too close, and he flattened himself against the shadowed side of a building, clutching his rifle to his chest.
A caravan of trucks rolled down the main street, about thirty yards away. All painted black, some bristling with mounted guns. Decker frowned. These weren’t the Infects who had left the city.
Men walked along with the trucks, casting skinny shadows and walking with the long, lazy stride of guys who didn’t have a zombie virus in their brains. They carried guns and wore padded combat armor. Most had dark fabric wrapped around the lower halves of their faces.
The Crims. That complicated things.
Muffled laughter and husky murmurs drifted from the caravan as it wound through the street. They weren’t even trying to be quiet, just marching into a brand new Infectville, woohoo. And apparently the virus was okay with that, because it was letting them.
Were the Crims working with the virus? That was a twist.
He didn’t have time to think about it, though, because the longer he sat with his back against the wall, the smaller chance he had of getting out of the Firewall with all internal organs intact.
In the beds of some of the trucks, figures huddled—he caught glimpses of white faces, bound wrists. Prisoners from the colonies they’d raided on their way. Women. Soon to be unwilling contributors to the next generation of little Crims.
It was terrible, but there was nothing he could do. Decker breathed slowly, started to step backward.
And then another prisoner truck passed, and among the slumped group of bodies he saw a face he recognized, just for an instant. A thin face, scared eyes, that terrible chin beard that had remained despite Decker’s best advice.
Tyler. Tied up, but very much alive.
The truck rumbled out of view, but not before he recognized another face in the same truck bed. Kaity, the girl from Bowzerville sat next to Tyler, glaring holes in the air. And then they were both gone.
Decker stared, frozen. It had to be a hallucination, his sleep-deprived, withdrawal-fried brain taking liberties again. First Alice, now them.
But if he wasn’t just seeing things, then the only two people he owed anything in this world had shown up at the worst possible time.
Decker whispered a curse. He was having enough trouble with his own escape right now. There was nothing he could do. He couldn’t really be sure it had been Tyler and Kaity, anyway. But he couldn’t seem to goad his legs into movement, to continue on in his grand escape.
A boot scuffed behind him, and adrenaline jolted through his gut. He started to whirl, but a voice stopped him.
“Move and you’re dead. Drop your gun.”
Decker squeezed his eyes shut, mentally kicking himself. He’d zoned out. Lost focus.
He could maybe drop the guy behind him, if he was fast. The thought sparked through his brain, then fizzled out. A blanket of exhaustion dragged over his limbs. What was the use—he’d shoot this guy, and the whole Firewall would be all over him.
He opened his hands, and the rifle clattered to the ground.
Decker turned, slowly, hands raised. Two Crims stood a few yards away, guns trained on him. Their eyes stared, unreadable, over the cloth masks.
If they were going to shoot him, it would have happened already—Crims didn’t have any use for enemy males. Why would they be changing their habits now?
Maybe for the same reason Tyler had been trussed up in that prisoner truck, if it had really been him and not a chin-bearded mirage.
An exhausted chuckle cracked out of his throat. Maybe he’d be seeing Ty again, after all.
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