Nineteen Years Before the Virus
The third time Decker shot a Stratos enforcer was the hardest.
The first time, he’d been looking down a rifle scope, aiming at a black helmet in a window. He exhaled, pressed the trigger, and the helmet quivered and dropped out of sight. Tob had patted his shoulder once, a firm gesture of approval, and that was it.
The second time, it was right after an enforcer threw him into a wall and came pouncing after him way faster than a human was supposed to move. Later they told him that he’d put six or seven bullets into the enforcer at close range, but he wouldn’t be alive today if one hadn’t punched through a weak portion of the enforcer’s neck armor.
And then six minutes ago, it had been right after all the enforcers in the room were supposed to be dead from the EMP blast, but there was one who wasn’t. He was trying to sit up against the wall, past the bodies of the others. Moving slow and jerkily, like a wounded beetle, he’d pulled his helmet off, and his tinted eyes were huge and pupil-less in his white face.
Decker’s muscles reacted with the smooth memory of hours and days of training—his feet planted, his sidearm came up as his finger slid over the trigger.
The enforcer’s face didn’t change, but he flung a hand out, fingers splayed, as if begging Decker to reconsider.
It bothered him now, squatting in the dimness, and he wasn’t entirely sure why. Going up against enforcers was one of the scariest things you could do as a Downgrade—if you absolutely had to kill one, you did it fast and you did it for sure. If you hit one and it wasn’t dead, you wouldn’t be getting a second chance. And you sure didn’t regret it afterwards.
Not that he was regretting now. He just kept thinking about that outstretched hand. Just an involuntary thing, or some kind of desperate plea?
Sitting a few yards away, Lamar cleared his throat. “Something wrong?”
Shoot. Decker shook his head. “Nah. Room’s a little creepy.”
Lamar chuckled. “And for some people, this is just life. That’s what’s creepy, my friend.”
Decker resisted the urge to look behind him again, at the rows of Stratos citizens reclining on cots, serene vegetables whose minds ran around in some kind of virtual dimension, unaware that their bodies shared a room with four dead enforcers and three outlaw cultists. Ceiling lights glowed a barely-awake orange, just enough to keep the dark from choking you.
Right after he’d shot the enforcer, he and Lamar had hit each citizen with a mild sedative, to make sure none of them would be waking up to this discovery until much later. If Preston had been here, he would probably have ordered a bigger dose, nothing violent enough to directly counteract Tob’s orders, but something to ensure that the sleepers never woke up again. Preston didn’t really see citizens any different than enforcers.
But then, Preston wasn’t here yet.
In front of them, gently silhouetted against the giant window that took up the entire north wall of the room, the Bastard sat with his legs crossed, his back straight as a ramrod. Somewhere in the Grid, he was working his magic to ensure that the virtual copies he’d made of the enforcers’ consciousnesses kept up appearances for the all-seeing eye of Stratos. They couldn’t know their men were dead, not yet.
Beyond the Bastard and the glass of the window the city loomed, murky shapes of towers with the occasional pinprick of a light. The city seemed deserted even in the daytime, but at night it was completely dead, nothing moving except for the enforcer squads, or the odd Stratos employee. And the outlaws.
In a few minutes, though, the city was going to light up like an enforcer’s jacked-up brain.
A cold bead of sweat ran down his side and he shifted on his ankles just enough to keep the extremities awake. He didn’t like these pauses, the waiting and silence that stretched long enough for the nerves to set in, that gave you time to think about things like an Enforcer staring at you with black expressionless eyes while you gunned him down.
You were supposed to just turn that off. Tob always talked about finding that place in your brain that was all awareness, but no thinking, and just sit there until it was time to move again. That’s what Lamar was doing right now, probably with that weird smile he got when he was meditating or playing his mandolin.
Decker had turned his own brain inside out looking for that place. He was pretty sure he didn’t have one.
The Bastard’s shoulders relaxed an inch, and he put his hands on his back, stretching. His legs unfolded and he stood up, then turned around.
“Well, that’s that,” he said. “For all appearances these enforcers are still very much alive and capable of shooting down defenseless people with the best of them.”
Decker stood up. Lamar followed suit.
“How much longer?” Decker asked.
“Seven minutes, maybe,” the Bastard said. “Not more than that. It can’t be much more than that, or we are screwed, friends.” He said it calmly, with a half-smile in his voice, the way he said everything. Like he was remarking on what lovely carpet this room had, where it wasn’t all blood-splattered.
The man’s real name was James, or something like that. But when he’d made the decision to disappear into the underground, jailbreak his cerebrals and use them as a weapon against Stratos, he had to accept the title that was thrust onto men who did that. He was just the Bastard, Tob’s deadliest weapon and most valuable asset.
“Preston’s squad should be here,” Lamar said, a layer of unease in his voice.
Decker shot another look out at the huge mass of city, and felt the same prick of unease. Once Stratos realized that their covert strike had been counter-struck, it was going to take a lot more than three guys to hold this position. For once, it’d be really nice to see Preston.
The big glass doors at the far right of the room swung in and a multitude of footsteps sounded out, muffled by the carpet. Decker rotated to face them, his finger light on the trigger.
Tob strode in front of a squad of outlaws, thick arms swinging. “Preston took a bullet. He’s alive, but he can’t move. Is the Bastard ready to go?”
The Bastard nodded. Tob pulled to a halt. About fifteen men and women stopped behind them. Jenny was one of them, her eyes glittering in her dark face. She made a point of not looking at Lamar—he might be her brother, but familial bonds weren’t something you took into the field.
The one time Decker slipped and called Tob “Grandpa” in front of the outlaws, the old man ordered Preston to hit him somewhere soft. Decker had never used that title again, even in private. He doubted Tob cared.
“Decker and Jenny. You’re coming with me and the Bastard. The rest of you will hold this position. Good?” Tob swept the room with his gaze. The outlaws nodded, murmured yessirs.
Tob locked eyes with Decker briefly, jerked his head for him to follow, and rotated on his heel. Jenny followed. Decker waited for the Bastard to fall in, then took up the rear. Relief settled in his gut. Moving again, this was good.
He and Lamar exchanged a glance, and Lamar’s eyebrows raised, just slightly, a message clear as if he’d spoken. Stay alive out there. And take care of my sister, or I’ll break your collarbones.
They bumped shoulders, and Decker walked on.
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