Decker needed sleep. Being unconscious a few times in the last seventy-two hours technically didn’t count.
It was a good thing he didn’t have a smoother ride. The rusty old motorcycle he’d found under a blanket in the back of the gaming hall rattled him to his spine and kept his eyelids from drooping.
He pushed the old bike faster than was really safe on the cracked, cratered highway. The old motor screamed in agony, and the sound raked his raw nerves.
He set his jaw and kept going. He was lucky to have the bike–in the mass exodus, the people of Vale stripped the town of just about anything that had wheels and rolled.
His brain wanted to retreat into the back of his skull, hide for a while and let his body go into autopilot, but he forced it active. He had to be sharp right now, couldn’t just drudge unthinking through a haze, like he had been. Not if he wanted to live long enough to get some answers.
The whole thing with the Crims, it didn’t figure. They were the most powerful Downgrade faction, and the most outspoken in their hatred for the Firewalls and everything StratosCorp, but up to now that hadn’t really extended past the occasional raid on a party of Downgrade mercs. Attacking a Firewall itself–it should be a logistic impossibility. Even with their fanatical polygamy laws and reproduction rites, there was no way they had enough manpower to take on a stronghold of Stratos without crippling themselves.
Then again, it had to be a pretty formidable force to send Vale running.
Maybe the thing about them going after Firewall Zero was a rumor. Could even be a strategic lie spread by the Crims themselves. As barbaric as they were, they were cunning enough for that.
Rumor or not, maybe he could use it to his advantage. If Zero was really up to the kind of shenanigans he’d been told of, they’d be inclined to keep a close eye on a Downgrade from a different Firewall. The rumor of a Crim invasion could at least make for a distraction.
The sun slid down the sky in front of him, a constant yellow smudge on his vision. It turned red, hit the horizon, and the desert began giving out to sparse grass and trees that became progressively leafier the longer he drove. Also came the leftovers of civilization before the virus–shells of cars, trucks, every now and then the wreckage of some big flying vehicle, uglying up the emerging green.
Tall, angular silhouettes became visible against the sunset, skinny man-made mountains in the distance. Firewall Zero was definitely prettier from a distance.
And then the bike choked, gagged, and coasted to a sputtering stop.
Decker staggered off the vehicle, and it fell sideways in the middle of the highway. He growled a curse, started to swing a vicious kick at the stupid thing, but the cramps in his thighs stopped him before he could break a toe.
He put his hands on his knees and stretched like an old man, wincing as his muscles screeched in protest.
Too bad the bike ran on gas, not bad luck. Nothing else to do–he started walking.
The sun disappeared, and an almost-full moon cast a bone-colored hue on the broken highway. Man, he hurt. Had to keep moving–if he sat down to rest, his muscles would probably turn to concrete and he’d be stuck.
Several thousand paces later, the distant rattle of a motor faded out of the darkness. Twin pinpricks of light appeared ahead of him, then slanted down and disappeared behind a hill.
Decker hustled off the road, found a truck carcass to hide behind. Chances were, the Firewall had seen him and was coming to sniff him out. No sense taking chances, though.
The sound rolled closer, and the headlights blazed into view, much closer. The vehicle stopped about fifty yards from Decker and waited, motor idling. Dust rose foggy through the headlights.
Doors opened on either side of the truck and two men carrying big guns got out, coming to stand silhouetted in front of the truck.
“Alright, get over here,” one of the men said.
Decker stood up slowly, raising his hands above his head. “Hey, fellas.”
They snapped their guns to their shoulders. One kept his trained on Decker while the other stepped closer, careful not to step in his buddy’s line of sight. “You got a gun on you?”
“Shotgun on my back,” Decker said.
The man drew closer, and Decker could make out a scraggly beard. The man flicked on his rifle’s flashlight and reached one hand out for Decker’s face. “No quick movements.”
Decker held still as a coarse thumb and forefinger pinched his eyelid and rolled it up. The flashlight blazed into his brain, searching for the Downgrade tattoo on the inside of his eyelid.
“Yep. He’s one of us.” The guy with the beard released Decker’s eyelid and stepped back. “You look like crap, buddy. Want a ride?”
Decker nodded and stepped past him toward the vehicle. “Appreciate it.”
The guy with the beard was named Gar.
“Yeah, of course we know about the Crims,” he said from the passenger seat. “You can’t move an army like that around and not get noticed by folks.”
“How’s Zero taking the news?” Decker asked.
“What, you mean are they worried?” Gar chuckled. “Nah. You ask me, those crazies aren’t coming anywhere near the Firewall. Burn a few towns, maybe. Bury some poor guys alive and take their women. Even if he’s a shacking lunatic, Morelan Crim’s a smart man. He knows he can’t take on Stratos head-to-head.”
Decker shrugged. “Like you said, he’s smart. I’m just saying, what if he has an edge Stratos doesn’t know about?”
Gar twisted around in his seat to look at Decker. “You’re sounding like you know something.”
Decker smiled. “I know a lot of things.”
In the dim light of the cab, the man’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly were you sent for, anyway? Man wrecks a junk bike thirty miles out and keeps walking, it’s got to be some kind of urgent.”
“Classified,” Decker said.
“Load of crap,” Gar said. “Look, if there’s something bad coming our way, you’d tell a brother, right?”
Decker shook his head. “Sorry, buddy. Not until I’ve made my report.”
The man swiveled back around. “Have it your way. But guys like us, we’re all we’ve got. We can’t stand together, might as well just shoot our own brains out right here.”
“Guy speaks the truth,” said the man driving. Decker hadn’t caught his name. “A little unity ain’t a bad thing. Solidarity, right, brother?”
“Never saw much use for it, myself,” Decker said.
After that, they drove in silence. It was a welcome change–he needed to think.
Back to the briefing they’d given him sixty seconds to memorize, the morning before he’d headed out. Four lines of text on a glowing screen. It felt like fifty years ago, and with all the chemical shenanigans that had happened in his brain since then, he was a little surprised he still remembered it.
Our mole is an Updater named Dio 11.
Stationed in the southern quadrant of the Zero headquarters.
He has information on the illegal militant projects Zero is involved in. During our last communication he showed a reluctance to continue cooperation.
Find him and persuade him to debrief you further.
An Updater. Dealing with that wouldn’t be easy.
Another bridge to cross later. They topped a hill, and the lights from the first Firewall fence glazed white into the windshield. Soon he’d have to deal with the prying eyes of a rogue Firewall, especially if they figured out where he was from and who’d sent him.
The first fence was much like the one outside Vale, tight chain-link, crowned with razor-wire. They stopped outside the gate. Flashlights bobbed toward them, and the driver rolled down the windshield.
Mutters were exchanged, and then the men outside backed away. A motor sprung to life, and the gate clacked open. They drove through.
Half a mile in, they came to the second fence–grey metal rising up about thirty feet. Along the top, silhouetted against white searchlights, the spidery auto-cannons sat silent and ready for action.
Also at intervals along the top of the wall, harder to see if you weren’t looking for them, were the antennae sending out the lifeblood signal of the Firewall–the invisible pulse that pushed away the virus and spelled momentary, tenuous safety for everyone inside that wall.
Gar flicked a button on the dashboard. “Rudolph and Gar, requesting entry. We’ve picked up the Downgrade, he’s clean. We’ll be taking him straight in.”
“Stand by for the scan,” a voice monotoned from the radio.
Decker breathed deep and even. Scanners from the wall would be probing the truck right now, tasting the thermal imagery inside, the biological footprints of every occupant.
His plan for the next few minutes kind of rode on the assumption that this would be the only scan for a while.
“You’re good,” the radio said. “Take him in.”
Soundlessly, the gate began rotating open in front of them.
“Hold just one second,” Decker said. “You’re right, you guys deserve to know what’s going on.”
They turned around, and he already had his shotgun up.
Both men blinked at him, then at his weapon. Silent moments ground by. He could see the wheels behind their skulls cranking, calculating moves.
“Don’t,” he said. “Or I’ll blow you away. Don’t want to. Just doing what I have to.”
Gar stared at the shotgun. “Come on, brother, you think you can get away with this?”
“Gar, knock your buddy out.” Decker gestured with his gun. “Clean and fast, please.”
Gar mumbled a protest. Rudolph swore.
“Now,” Decker snapped.
Gar gave Rudolph an apologetic look and slammed the butt of his gun into his temple. Rudolph’s head kicked back, and he went limp.
In the next movement, Gar threw an elbow toward the shotgun barrel. Decker was ready for him, ducked out of the way and rammed the side of his gun into Gar’s face.
Gar recoiled with a yelp. Decker hit him again, and he slumped sideways against the truck’s dashboard.
The whole thing was taking too long. Decker squeezed into the front seat. They were big guys, and by the time he’d rolled them over into the back seat, he was sweating out of every pore.
He borrowed Gar’s knife from his leg sheath, cut their shirts into strips, and wound them into makeshift ropes. By the time he had them trussed and gagged, Rudolph’s eyes had flickered open, glaring bloodshot poison at him.
Decker shrugged sympathetically, slid into the driver’s seat, and urged the truck forward through the gate.
The easy part was over. Now he had to hunt an Updater.
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