Decker woke up gasping.
Dry air crashed into his lungs and sunlight into his eyes, twin tidal waves overwhelming his senses. He gagged and retched into the ground.
Nothing came out. His mouth felt it’d been dried with a heat lamp, and his throat stuck to itself when he tried to swallow.
Decker’s sight swam back into focus. He lay on his side, and gravel dug into his cheek. The street stretched out in front of him, tilting sideways in his vision like everything else.
And in front of him lay a body in a black turtleneck, with a head that was mostly gone.
He remembered. The Infect looking up at him, lips moving silently. How he had put the shotgun to its head, cold adrenaline hammering through his bloodstream. Pulled the trigger.
Even then he hadn’t believed it was dead, he’d wanted to shoot until there was nothing left, absolutely no way it could get back up. But he must have passed out.
Now, looking at the thing just a few feet away, he didn’t really feel anything. No triumph. No anger. He just thought about his eyelids starting to slide shut again, and how good that felt. How great it would be just to sleep.
His eyes closed. Something whispered in the back of his brain that it wasn’t a good idea, that he had to get up. He had to find water, or he’d never move again.
Part of him wanted to swat the annoying whisper like a gnat. Never move again, that sounded like the best plan he’d heard in his life.
Water, though. His eyes grated open. Dryness permeated him–his throat, mouth, every pore of his skin. He thought about water, and somehow pushed himself to his knees.
His head whirled. Pain pounded behind his eyes. Decker grit his teeth and stood. His hand still wrapped around the handle of the shotgun, fingers locked and unwilling to let go.
He lurched down the street, weaving back and forth like a drunkard. Somewhere in his mind, there were calm, intelligent thoughts outlining a plan for survival, for finding water, but they were locked behind a cloud of confusion and thirst and he couldn’t get to them.
They must have been guiding him, though, because somehow he ended up behind all the buildings, all the huts and lean-tos, in a bare, sandy area. A giant cage made of black wire enclosed a row of seven metal spigots.
He stared at the place for a few minutes, and then slow realization filtered through his mind. The wells.
Decker limped closer. A heavy black chain kept the gate closed, fastened by a padlock. Decker grabbed the gate and rattled it. Then he remembered the shotgun in his other hand. He raised it, arm shaking with the strain, and blasted the lock to garbage.
He tore away the chain, shoved the gate in, and stumbled toward the closest spigot. There was a lever on top, sticking out to the side–he threw his weight against it. It gave a little, but no water.
Decker hooked his arm around the lever and leaned back, pulling in the opposite direction. Metal squealed. The lever gave, and Decker went over backwards, sprawling in a cloud of dust. The spigot choked, belched, and splashed water over his boots.
He worked himself around, got his face under the water. It blinded him, lukewarm for a split second before it turned cold. He gasped and it got in his mouth, choking him and stabbing his molars with pain.
Then he swallowed, and the water melted away the knot of dryness twisting his throat, and seared a line of ice from his jaw to his breastbone to his belly.
He gulped then, and his throat couldn’t swallow fast enough. It hurt, but oh man he was thirsty. Small sips, said the calm, detached voice in his brain, or you’ll end up killing yourself, moron.
He couldn’t do small sips. So he flung his face sideways, cheek to the mud, letting the water drench his hair and neck.
Two minutes, he counted, and then turned his face back up and drank again, smaller gulps, more controlled.
He did that several more times, drinking and stopping. And then he just lay there in the water as it splashed mud over his neck and puddled around his body. Wasteful. But there wasn’t anybody but him to need it anymore.
Finally, he dragged himself away, his stomach heavy with water, and lifted himself up on his hands and knee. He stared at the ground, panting. Rivulets of water trickled from his face and hair and made dark strings on the dry earth.
The first thought that shot into his head was confusion.
He’d been dying. Why, in the name of all sweet things, had he stopped?
He could have shut his eyes. Endured the pain for just a little longer, until it faded into nothing. Wasn’t Nothing what he’d wanted, really, ever since Alice died?
Then he remembered.
You were supposed to die, Rosin had said. Whatever had happened out there, that day, had the Firewall known about it? Had they orchestrated it?
His throat tightened, and he breathed a little harder, digging his fingers into the dirt. He needed to know. And the only other witness was lying a quarter of a mile away, surrounded by its own brain matter.
Exhaustion took his breath away, bent his elbows. He couldn’t stop. Not yet.
Not until he had answers better than Rosin’s vague hints. And he couldn’t just go skipping back to Firewall One and expect George Hyrand to give him those answers with a smile and shoulder pat. Especially after the spectacular crapfest this assignment had turned into.
The assignment. A chuckle rattled his chest. He hadn’t really thought about that in a while. Nabbing some kind of secret weapon from Firewall Zero. Punishing Firewall Zero–messing them up, as Hyrand had so delicately put it. Had it been real? Or was it all just another trap?
The way things had gone so far, evidence was highly in favor of the trap option. Or maybe the secret weapon was real, and he and his team were disposable goods, primed for death as soon as they’d taken care of business.
Either way, a trip to Zero might be enlightening. That, or get him killed for good.
He waited for resolve to fill him, push strength back into his limbs, but nothing came except a growing knot in his stomach, and a nagging sensation that he was forgetting something important.
The Crims. Oh yeah.
If the dying guy last night was to be believed, anyone trying to get to Firewall Zero would have to race a cultist army. Couldn’t imagine they were too far off. He’d have to get going.
Decker stood. His legs quivered, but held. He blinked against the nausea as it crawled his ribcage, reminding him of the fix he hadn’t had. That wasn’t going away any time soon.
He started back toward main street. Hopefully the good people of Vale had left him a few things he could scavenge. He needed food, something to hold water in, fuel for the truck. Ammo, if there was any to be scrounged. He thought for a moment of trying to find some more Shangra, or something close to it, but no. He needed to be in his right mind for this. Even if his right mind was shifting around in his skull like a squirming kid.
Decker winced. It was going to be a long trip.
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