Running from Infects was usually a bad idea, for a couple of reasons.
Reason number uno was that the ones with cybernetically enhanced skeletons could outrun you every time. Fortunately, this town hadn’t been Infected that long, so most of them weren’t that far along in the process to have those particular upgrades yet.
But reason two was more problematic. Reason two was the virus, the big cyberdemon hive-mind infesting the neural implants of every single Infect in the world. If one saw you, they all saw you, and every one of them within a thirty mile radius would be at a dead run in your direction, just raring to rip your appendages off.
That meant that the five Infects running right on the tail of him and Alice had buddies that would be dropping in at any moment, and it could be from any point of the compass.
Decker ran with his handgun out, trying to gauge the distance between them and the running footsteps behind them. The Infects weren’t gaining on them, but they didn’t seem to be falling too much behind, either. He and Alice had to find cover soon, or they’d be cut off.
They were almost past the residential area. Just ahead, on the right side of the street, was a library or something. Not an option—too many places for things to come through. Just across the street from that was a post-office. Solid brown brick building—no windows. That would have to work.
“Post office,” he said to Alice, and made a beeline for it.
Ahead of them, four or five cars swerved into view on the street and straightened out toward them, engines roaring. Out of the corner of his eye, Decker saw another cluster of Infects emerging from behind the library. Good thing they hadn’t gone that way.
“Language,” Alice said, as they came to a shuffling stop in front of the glass door.
He reached out and swung it open, then pushed her through in front of him. “I wasn’t cussing,”
“You were about to. Profusely.”
“I think I’m a little entitled right now.” Decker turned around and stood in the gap of the door, propping it open with his shoulder as he aimed his handgun at the nearest group of Infects. White shorts guy was in the front, the tails of his flannel shirt flapping behind him, green cybernetic eyes glowing in his expressionless face.
Most people would tell you that a pistol was just about the worst weapon to fight Infects with. And usually this was true, for something that fired only one bullet at a time. But this was a .44 magnum with EMP modifications he’d made himself, and the miniature cybernetic-frying slugs it fired would ruin an Infect’s day very quickly.
He put a slug right between the eyes of White shorts guy. The Infect’s head snapped back, and his feet flew out in front of him. The EMP’s shockwave rippled out with a tiny crack before he hit the ground, and the four other Infects jolted, jerked, and toppled over as their neural implants sizzled away.
Decker slammed the door and bolted the lock. The door was glass, but it would keep the Infects out for at least a little while. The virus didn’t like destroying its own property.
He turned around, just in time to see an Infect lunge from the side and get blasted by Alice’s shotgun. It crumpled onto the tile floor.
Decker stepped up by Alice, scanning the rest of the room over the barrel of his gun. The Infect had come from their right, a long hallway lined with postal boxes. Nothing else down there. Ahead of them was the main part of the building. The room was divided by wall-to-wall counters, and behind those, the inner workings of the post office, with neatly stacked cardboard boxes, and several thin dividing walls keeping them from seeing all the way to the back.
Plenty places back there for Infects to hide, but if there had been any, they’d have been jumping those counters before now. Still, he didn’t like it. He jogged toward the counters, put one hand on the glossy wooden top, and vaulted over.
A quick scrutiny found the rest of the room empty. There was one back door, metal, already locked from the inside. No telling how many Infects were already on the other side, waiting.
He headed back to Alice. His chest burned, and as the cold adrenaline of the moments before began to falter, he realized how hard his heart was hammering in his ears. A tremor started in the muscles of his arms, working down into his hands, and he clenched his teeth, willing it to stop.
Surrounded. He’d been in this situation before. But he’d promised himself it wouldn’t happen again. He’d thought he was being smart and safe, with the cloaking and everything, and it was just supposed to be an easy in-and-out assignment, grab an Infect, yank out his implants, take them back to Firewall One.
They’d gotten stupid, was the problem. Back before the cloakers, before they could just walk into one of these cities like a couple of honeymooners, they’d been sharp. They would never have gotten pinned like this.
Alice was speaking into their two-way radio, gun tucked under her arm. “Yes. Understood.” The radio beeped as her thumb came off the button. She looked at Deck. “I just told them our status. They’ll send some people, but the nearest mercs are hours away.”
“You okay?” Deck asked.
“Well, I’ll never pet a puppy again.” She popped a new shell into her shotgun, topping off the 14-shot magazine. “That was creepy.”
“We’ll have to tell Firewall when we get back. Infect dogs, that’s new.”
“Does that mean the Infects are going out and finding animals now, and upgrading them?” Her eyebrows wrinkled, frowning. “I don’t like it. It’s too much like… I don’t know, an organized plan or something. It’s too sentient. It’s weird, Deck.”
“Freaking virus,” Decker muttered. Everything it did was weird. Taking over these cities and then using its Infects to rebuild it like this—turn-of-the-century small-town stuff, with post offices and street signs and flowerboxes.
“We need to get some implants harvested. Maybe Firewall can find a clue in there about what’s going on.”
“I seriously doubt we’re going to have time for that.” Decker shot a look at the door. A whole crowd of Infects stood outside, staring through the glass. They hadn’t been infected that long—a couple even still had their hair. He wasn’t used to seeing that, and it made his skin crawl. Usually, their harvesting assignments took them into cities that had been infected since the beginning of the virus. For this one, it had been just weeks—only since the San Antonio Firewall had gone down.
But right now, that virus was probably calculating the cost of waiting around for Deck and Alice to come running out, between breaking the door down and coming to them. They were running out of time.
“How many grenades do you have?” he asked.
“Two. And I’ve been itching to throw them at something for weeks.” She smiled sweetly and suddenly. “Deck, the silver lining. We get to throw our grenades now.”
“Well, I got three of those silver linings.” He looked back at the door. “You think between yours and mine, we can beat the suckers back long enough to get to one of those cars?”
She shrugged. “As long as the Infects were kind enough to leave the keys in the ignition for you.”
“Best case scenario, Infects don’t keep track of their keys. Worst case, you hold them off while I hot-wire it.”
“Best thing we’ve got so far. What are you thinking, one of us smashes a hole in the door and one of us tosses a grenade through?”
“You’ve got the shotgun, you do the hole-smashing.” Decker reached into his jacket and pulled one of the fist-sized rod-shaped EMP grenades out of the pocket he’d made in the lining. “If you don’t mind.”
“But I want to throw grenades. Lots and lots of…” She trailed off, staring at the door. Her eyebrows went up. “Hey Deck. Take a look.”
He turned. The Infects were shifting, moving away from the door. There had to be forty or fifty of them out there, and the crowd was parting down the middle, as if they’d been choreographed.
They stopped moving, and a narrow pathway ran between them from the door to the street. A man in a black turtleneck sweater stood on the sidewalk, hands in his pockets, looking at them through the glass. His skin was Infect-grey, but then he nodded, almost like a greeting, and Decker could have sworn that he smiled.
Infects didn’t smile. Or nod. What was going on.
Decker shot a look at Alice. She was staring at the Infect as if she’d been zapped into paralysis. She gripped her shotgun close to her chest, white-knuckled.
“Hey,” he said.
“Oh no,” she said. It came out almost like a moan. “Oh no, Deck.”
Fear jabbed him in the chest. “Alice, what is that?”
The Infect, or whatever he was, started walking toward them, between the silent rows of other Infects. His hands were still in his pockets.
Alice turned and bolted toward the back of the post office.
Decker whirled, running after her. “Alice!”
“Run,” she gasped, and scrambled over the counters into the back room.
Decker jumped the counters for the second time, spitting curses. There were probably Infects still guarding the back door. Alice knew that.
But she’d rather face them then the guy in the turtleneck, and that scared Decker.
Alice crashed through the door, her shotgun swinging crazily on its strap behind her. Decker cleared it just on her heels.
They were in a tiny concrete lot behind the post office. A chain-link fence, a few dumpsters, and about seven Infects.
The nearest one looked up as they burst through the door. Alice ran toward him, head down. Decker’s pistol came up reflexively, and he put three slugs in the Infect’s torso. Too many. His heart was hammering in his trigger finger.
The Infect went down, but the six others, scattered throughout the lot, didn’t seem to take notice. They didn’t even look at Alice as she sprinted across the lot, toward the gate that led out toward the street.
For some reason, that didn’t do anything to quench the panic blazing through his nerves.
He caught up with Alice as she rattled the gate open and ran onto the sidewalk. “Alice, tell me what’s going on.”
She stopped running, and looked at him. Her eyes were wide, too white around the edges. “I think I’m going crazy.”
“What?” His voice came hoarse, almost yelling at her. “What are you talking about?”
She looked past him, and her mouth came open. She jerked away, scrabbling at her shotgun.
Decker whirled. The Infect in the turtleneck was running across the concrete lot toward them, way too fast. He leaped the eight-foot-tall fence in a blur of black and grey.
Decker didn’t really think, just threw the grenade still in his hand. The black rod wobbled through the air in an arc, and hit the fence just as the Infect landed.
The crack of the shockwave tore the air. The Infect jumped like a man shot in the back, and fell to the concrete, writhing. So did the three other Infects closest to the blast.
Alice grabbed Decker’s arm, as if to steady herself, and a sob rattled out of her throat. They stood still for a moment, watching the Infect as its shaking subsided and it lay still, facedown on the sidewalk.
“Crying out loud,” said Deck, and his voice trembled a little. He found Alice’s hand with his free one and squeezed. “You okay, kiddo?”
Her voice shook. “Let’s get out of here.”
Decker dug another grenade out of his jacket as they ran around to the front of the post office. The crowd of Infects stood where they had a few minutes ago, in two clumps on either side of the door. Decker didn’t like it, but he wouldn’t complain about it either. He kept one eye on them as he ran to a little red two-door parked in the middle of the street.
The car dinged at him as he opened the driver’s side door and climbed in. The keys were still in the ignition. Lucky them. His fingers trembled as he cranked the ignition a little too hard, making the engine screech.
Alice opened the passenger side door and slid in. Her face was white, and she didn’t look at him. Her fingers wrapped around that cross necklace again.
Decker set the pistol in the middle console of the car and shut his door. “Hey.”
Her mouth twitched. “I’m sorry, Deck. I lost it.”
“You want to tell me what happened, back there?” he asked.
“He knew me,” she murmured, almost to herself.
“That Infect? You knew him?”
“I killed him,” she said, and turned to look at him. Big eyes, scared, like a little girl too terrified to ask for help. He’d never seen her eyes like that before.
She pulled her door shut.
A split-second later, it flung back open. Alice screamed, and then something yanked her out of the car, into the street. She hit the concrete and bounced, head flopping.
Decker screamed and scrambled out of his seat toward the passenger door. Then he was staring into a gray face, colorless eyes, black wires lacing under dead skin like varicose veins. Black turtleneck. Bloodless lips bent into a smile.
Decker scrambled for his gun in the console.
A hand flashed out, metal fingertips dug into his shoulder, jerked him out the door. His scream cut short as he hit the street and skidded, the back of his head cracking against concrete.
He gasped, blinking away stars. Then a foot crashed down on his chest, pinning him to the ground. Something popped, and pain seared through his side. The Infect peered down at him, no longer smiling.
Decker wheezed and scrabbled at his jacket. He had one more grenade somewhere in there, didn’t he—?
The Infect flicked one hand, as if shaking away drops of water. With a rasp, two metal blades swished out from his wrist.
He could feel the grenade through his jacket lining, but his fingers felt wooden and he couldn’t get them into the pocket.
The Infect knelt, and punched the blades into Decker’s chest.
Ice ripped through him, and he screamed again.
The Infect pulled away his foot and walked over him. Decker fought the fog descending around his mind and rolled to his stomach, gasping as numbness squeezed his lungs. He could see Alice, lying on her back a few steps away. Moving, feebly. Her shotgun lay under her, and she was trying to pull it around. The Infect strode toward her.
Decker’s hand groped out, stretching toward her. He tried to pull his legs back under himself but only one responded.
The Infect stepped over her, turned around, knelt down, and grabbed her wrist. Its mouth moved, and through the roar of his own heart pounding, Decker thought he heard a calm, flat voice speaking.
He growled through his teeth at his helplessness. He had to do something. The car, if he could get to the car, his gun.
He got his other knee under him, somehow, and pushed into a kneeling position. He wobbled, and looked back at the car. Not that far. Please, his mind screamed to his body. Please work. Please just get me there.
He got himself turned around and crawled forward. Gulped air. His lungs were shrinking. Blood seared his mouth.
Behind him, he heard Alice saying something, spitting words. The thing was keeping her alive, talking to her. If it could just keep doing that, if it could just stay there long enough for him to get to his gun…
He dragged himself up into the passenger side, clawing at the door handle, worming up into the seat somehow. The console was empty.
Must have fallen to the floor. He couldn’t feel his legs anymore. Decker looked down in the floorboards. No gun.
He looked up and back just in time to see the Infect stab Alice in the chest, twice.
Her head went back, eyes bulging. The Infect stood up, lifting her into the air. Her heels dangled a foot off the ground.
Deck punched the dashboard, straining to scream through vocal chords that had gone silent. He slapped and kicked at the car in front of him, shouting No with every muscle in his body.
The Infect threw Alice. Her body flew in a flat arc as if she’d been weightless, crashed into the sidewalk and lay motionless. The Infect looked at her, and put its hands in its pockets.
Deck scrabbled over the middle console, fell into the driver’s seat. His head hit the window of the driver’s door. He grabbed for the wheel, squeezing it with both hands.
Alice was dead.
Gathering all his strength, he stomped the gas pedal with his foot. He couldn’t feel it go down, but the car bucked and lurched forward, squealing toward the Infect.
It turned and looked at him, expressionless. Then the front end of the vehicle slammed into it, and it flipped over, kicked air, hit the windshield, disappeared from view.
The car kept going, shooting down the street, and Decker’s hands dropped of the steering wheel. He couldn’t take his foot off the gas pedal, and didn’t really care. Everything was fading around him, disappearing quietly into a warm, deepening redness.
He shot past the house with the window boxes, and as his head sank back and everything faded out, he caught a glimpse of that little dog still standing in the backyard, watching him.
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