Sometime just before sunrise, Decker decided that sleeping strapped to the WalMart sign had been just about the worst idea.
That was okay, because it had been Alice’s idea, and it gave him something to rib her about that was actually her fault, and that didn’t happen very often. It had seemed to have some merit, too—after what happened last week to that one squad in the supposedly abandoned parking garage, you couldn’t help but be a little skittish about the places you usually spent the night.
Maybe waking up with a spine that felt like it had been carefully gone over with a ball peen hammer was preferable to being dismembered in your sleep, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have to be grumpy about it.
He looked over at Alice, trudging next to him in the pasty dimness. She looked even tinier in the dark, chin tucked into her huge bomber’s jacket for warmth, hands buried in the pockets. She walked spry as ever, though, like she’d spent the night sprawled on a memory foam mattress, instead of hanging in a makeshift vertical harness thirty feet in the air.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
Her voice was muffled in her coat. “About eighty years old, in dire need of a back replacement.”
“Dead serious. I think my coccyx is fractured.” She puffed a cloud of frozen breath. “I’m just not being a baby about it.”
“I haven’t said anything.”
“You have grunted thirty-two times, I’ve counted, and they are growing progressively louder and more pitiful. You might want to tone that back a bit, by the way, just for stealth’s sake.”
“Somebody needs her coffee.”
“Somebody said we didn’t need to bring the coffee on this assignment because we’d be in and out and back at the Firewall by last night.”
“I want a boost in morale in five minutes, soldier. Don’t make me take your shotgun.”
She laughed—that breathy sound through her nose. Her eyes always laughed more than she did herself. “Sir yessir.”
The sun was now a yellow semicircle to their left, just tickling the horizon, throwing a golden haze into the air. The gray asphalt of the road under their feet stretched ahead, leading into the town.
Half mile back, the road was split and crumbled, fighting an ever-losing battle against neglect and the elements. Here, and all the way into town, it was new black asphalt, dotted down the middle with bright yellow lines. Better looking than it had ever been before the world went all to pieces.
The town itself was materializing out of the morning air a quarter mile ahead of them, blocky grayscale forms that filled with color and texture as the sun pulled itself further above the horizon.
Pristine. Not a flake of paint missing, not a brick out of place. The perfect vacation spot for all neat freaks and germaphobes. He chuckled at the thought.
“Something funny?” Alice asked. She grabbed at her collarbone and yanked on the strap of her shotgun, pulling it farther up her back. The thing was almost as big as she was. With her petite frame and her mousy face, she could pass for his daughter, although she was about ten years too old for that.
“It’s a cute town,” Decker said.
“It’s ducky. Do you want it? I’ll split it with you. I get the side with the bowling alley.”
She paused. “You about ready to go cloaked?”
He nodded. “We could probably switch ‘em on now.”
Decker reached down to the thin metal bracelet on his left wrist, and flipped the little switch on the side. Just to be safe, he slid the sleeve of his jacket back to check it. All three of the red LED lights blinked. Full charge. They should have enough battery to get them through this assignment.
In fifteen minutes they entered the outskirts. There were a couple of stores—darkened windows, empty parking lots. Then the rows of houses. Two, three story houses. This would have been the side of the town that had the money.
A guy in white shorts and a flannel shirt stood in the front yard of a nearby house, watering the flowers in the windowboxes. On the other side of the street a woman knelt touching up the paint on a mailbox. A couple of cars cruised down the street at an even fifteen miles an hour.
Decker paused across from the nearest house, one foot on the curb. He watched the guy in the shorts. His back was to them, and sun glinted off his bald head as he moved the hose head back and forth in slow, even movements.
Alice stepped up by him. “On second thought, I’ll pass. Somebody else can have this lovely city.”
“Not seeing a bowling alley anywhere?”
“It’s too clean. People couldn’t raise kids in a place like this. Kids have to be able to grow up putting dirt and gravel and stuff in their mouths. That’s how they get healthy immune systems, you know, getting those tiny amounts of bacteria.”
He turned his head to look at her. She was staring ahead with that deadpan, unblinking look she had when she was mostly joking and maybe just a little serious. “You like kids?” he asked.
“They’re nice to have around the neighborhood.” The corner of her mouth cracked upward. Then she nodded forward. “Shall we?”
They checked their bracelets one more time, and started forward, along the sidewalk.
He’d done this countless times, and each time he began a new assignment he thought that maybe he was past the little agitated flicker that began in his stomach, a protestation against the logic of what he was doing, the crazy act of putting one foot in front of the other in a forward direction instead of swiveling on his heel and walking twice as fast the other way.
But just like every time, there it was again. The tiny seed of something that could become panic, if he let it.
He was good at keeping it where it was, holding it back from spreading out in every direction like it wanted to do. When that happened, when you let go like that, that was what got you killed.
He’d never told Alice how much it helped, having her walking next to him into these places. All five feet two inches of her. Even without that cannon of a shotgun she carried, he’d take her over all the other burly, stone-knuckled, trash-talking mercs in the Firewalls.
“Deck,” Alice said. Her arm came up and touched his chest, and they stopped.
He looked at her. She was staring around him, into the yard of the guy with the shorts. Decker followed her gaze.
Something small and furry was coming down the front steps of the house. Behind it, the flap of a doggie door swung lazily back and forth.
“It’s a dog,” Decker said under his breath.
“Why is there a dog, they never have dogs.” Alice’s whisper was strained. “Is it on the grid?”
“If it wasn’t, it’d be dead.” Decker watched the curly-haired, floppy-eared critter as it walked across the yard, stiff-legged, to stand by the guy with the shorts. “That’s new.”
New wasn’t good. The knot in his stomach wormed a little bigger.
“The cloaking works for it too, right?” Alice asked. Slowly, she reached up with one hand and loosened the strap of her shotgun.
“Yeah.” Still watching the dog, Decker reached out with one hand and nudged Alice into a walk again. “Dogs have other ways of sensing things, though.”
“Like what?” She’d obviously never spent much time around animals.
“Like smelling.” Decker walked after her, quickening his pace a tad, straining to feel the direction of the breeze. It was behind them—that was good.
They made it a few yards, and then the breeze shifted, an almost imperceptible flutter on his cheek.
Decker looked around. The dog’s head lifted. Two glowing red eyes stared at them either side of its terrier nose, and a small, metallic growl emanated from its chest. The guy with the shorts lowered his hose, and turned to look at them.
Decker swore and broke into a run. Alice did the same, unslinging her shotgun in a fluid movement as she ran.
A quick look over his shoulder gave Decker a nice view of the shorts guy hurdling the fence in front of his yard and sprinting after them. The woman who’d been painting the mailbox was in full pursuit as well. As Decker and Alice passed one of the cars that had been idling down the street, it stopped—in the corner of his eye Decker saw the front door fly open, and its driver hit the ground running.
Jaw clenched, Decker reached into his jacket and wrapped his fingers around the holster of his handgun.
They’d poked the hive. No hiding from the Infects now.
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