They got out of the truck in the Core 3 bunker, and rode a lift seventeen floors up.
Morelan stood next to Decker, hands folded in front of his belt buckle, staring calmly at the silver wall of the lift. Decker wondered if there was an ounce of worry going through the guy’s mind, with the shenanigans he’d just pulled.
He had to admit that his own heart rate was spiking just a little. And that surprised him. He was actually nervous about dying sometime in the next few minutes.
Fearing death. When had that started happening again?
A soft beep came from the lift, and the wall sank away. They were on a balcony overlooking a high-ceilinged, empty control room. Holographic screens flickered in the soft dimness.
Morelan stepped off the lift platform and walked toward a set of stairs that led down to the control room. Decker followed him.
They exited the stairs and crossed the room to a large, high-security-looking door. Four Crim soldiers sat on benches on either side of the door. They’d removed their masks—all of them were younger guys with close-cropped hair and deep circles under their eyes.
“You boys look like you missed naptime,” Decker said.
They stared at him.
“Some of my men find it hard to sleep in this place,” Morelan said, and stepped forward to key the door. “Not everyone is completely comfortable with our… ally situation.”
Decker nodded in sympathy. He remembered what it was like to sleep in a place surrounded by Infects. He doubted that would be easy even if the virus was on your side all of a sudden.
The door opened, and Decker followed Morelan into a well-lit room with no furniture. And the gang was all there.
In almost the same positions he’d seen them on the surveillance screen in Morelan’s underground room. Tyler, an unsure grin flickering on his face. Kaity, eyebrows slightly raised, mouth flat.
Lamar and Jenny didn’t move, but their eyes burned tunnels in the air.
Tyler shuffled to his feet a little awkwardly, as if his missing forearm threw him off-balance. “Hey there, Deck.”
“Good to see you, Tyler.” Decker put his hands in his pockets. “You okay?”
“I’m great, man.” He shrugged. “I mean, my arm’s off. But other than that, you know.”
“Glad to hear it,” Decker said.
An awkward silence stretched the room. Morelan stood behind Decker, silent.
Tyler cleared his throat. “Um, this is Kaity. I mean, I guess you guys already met–I wasn’t awake for that part. She helped me escape when the Crims came through.” He chuckled, a little forced. “Before we got captured. By the Crims.”
She’d helped Tyler, like he’d asked her to. Decker met Kaity’s gaze. Her face didn’t move. “Yeah, we’re acquainted,” Decker said.
The door opened, and a brisk set of footsteps came in. Decker’s back stiffened.
“Everybody’s met everybody? Fantastic.” A tall figure came into view on Decker’s right, rubbing his hands together.
Decker turned to study the newcomer. It was the powerfully-built frame of a man with white hair and craggy features. Probably would have been considered good-looking by some people’s standards, if he didn’t have the milky eyes and gray skin of a dead person.
Or in this case, an Infect. But he’d never seen an Infect quite this chatty.
“Weedly, I’m guessing,” he said.
“Yes!” The Infect grinned like a kid who’d gotten picked for extra dessert. “The guy gets a prize. And Decker, my man, you have no idea how happy I am to meet you, finally. This is way more exciting for me than it is for you, believe me.”
Weedly’s facial expressions were animated, but didn’t touch his eyes—like somebody had forgotten to turn on the upper half of his face. It was unsettling.
Decker nodded. “I believe you.”
“And oh boy, this room—” Weedly turned in a semi-circle, arms outstretched, rubbing his thumbs and fingers together. “This room has some chemistry, doesn’t it? Tension. It’s like a ticking time-bomb of awesome.” He pointed at everyone in turn. “You are all amazing little snowflakes, and I love you. Do you know what it’s been like, hanging out with this guy for the last few months?”
Weedly changed the direction of his point, stabbing a thin, colorless finger at Morelan.
“Take a good look, everybody,” Weedly said. “This is what boring looks like. Unexciting and stupid. If you want me to keep you around long-term, your job is easy—just don’t be like him. Okay?”
Morelan’s gaze shifted to the finger, a few inches away from his nose, but his face didn’t change from its almost-smiling, half-lidded expression.
“But enough about that guy,” Weedly continued. “Let’s talk about this guy.” He swiveled again, reaching out and grabbing Decker by the shoulder.
Weedly’s voice was light and airy, but his grip was a little too hard to be playful. Or maybe that was just Decker’s imagination. He swallowed and focused on breathing, keeping his shoulders relaxed and loose.
“This guy,” Weedly repeated, chuckling. “You could make a movie about him. Maybe I’ll do that, when I get some spare time. The Un-die-able Man, I’d call it. You know how many times he should have croaked, over the last twenty years?”
The fingers were tightening, digging harder into his shoulder. Surely he couldn’t be imagining that. Decker found a spot on the opposite wall, to the left of Lamar’s head, and stared hard at it.
“George Hyrand tries to kill him. Weird freaky cyber-zombies try to kill him. Jenny here, she ties him to a freaking bomb-car and tries to kill him. And every time, he lands on his feet.” Weedly’s grin was stretched to its limit. “How does he do it?”
“Depends,” Lamar said softly. “Sometimes by betraying everyone who ever cared about him.”
Jenny cackled. Decker’s stomach twinged, like the pain of an old wound. He kept his stare fixed on the wall.
“Okay, okay, interesting theory,” Weedly said. “Not really digging the negative tone, though, man. Can you rephrase, maybe, is there a nicer way of putting that?”
“No,” Lamar said.
Decker’s jaw tightened. “Lamar, what you think happened, it’s not the whole story.”
“Here’s what I know happened.” Lamar’s voice stayed low and calm. “I saw my mother and my little brother shot in the street. I saw people we grew up with get stabbed in the back while they tried to climb over a barricade. You didn’t see that, Decker, because you were driving away with the man who gave those orders.”
“Awesome. Wonderful stuff,” Weedly said. “Talk it out, guys. Detox those bad vibes.”
Decker dragged his gaze over to Lamar. The man stood, arms crossed, shoulders hunched, eyes smoldering.
“You going to deny all this, Decker? Because for me and Jenny, that is the whole story.”
A heavy, sick feeling swirled in Decker’s gut, like echoes of withdrawal. The air in the room was crushing in on him, along with Weedly’s grip on his shoulder. He had a sudden, gut-wrenching wish for his old meds, the shot in his arm to send numbness flowing through his consciousness.
Some sort of denial to answer Lamar’s challenge rose up out of his chest, but it stuck in his throat, powdery and insincere. It wasn’t real, it wasn’t true. There was nothing to be said here.
Bitter heat snapped through him and he threw up his arm, knocking Weedly’s hand off his shoulder.
The room froze. Decker locked eyes with Weedly. The virus’s face had gone still, the unblinking deadness of an Infect.
Decker’s throat felt like sandpaper. “Stop,” he rasped. “Whatever you’re doing, whatever crap you’re trying to pull here. I’ve had enough. I can’t work with these people.”
Weedly’s lips pursed, slowly. “Okay. Why?”
“It should be obvious.” Decker swallowed. “This isn’t a good idea.”
“Huh.” Weedly turned to face the rest of the room. “Mr. Decker has an error in his thinking. Anyone want to tell me what it is?” He raised a hand halfway. “Anyone?”
The room was silent. Tyler paled.
“No one? Okay.” Weedly smiled, suddenly. “Mr. Decker said that an idea I had was not a good one. What he should have said is that it is a good idea. It’s a wonderful idea. Rule number one: Any idea I have is automatically the best idea. Remember that, people.”
Weedly reached out and put his hand back on Decker’s shoulder, and patted. Slowly, his hand rising and falling with mechanical deliberation. “Decker, man, you get too worked up. But you’ve been through a lot these last few days, so I forgive you.”
Decker found the place on the wall again, and fixed his eyes to it. A bead of sweat dripped into his left eyebrow.
“Decker is the mastermind of this team. He is Ringleader Extraordinaire,” Weedly said. “And I am the mysterious, darkly handsome client who has hired him to break into a place and steal a thing. It will go like clockwork, with everyone doing exactly what Decker says.” He leaned closer to Decker, sliding his arm around Decker’s shoulders conspiratorially. “You know why they’re going to do exactly what you say?”
Decker didn’t look at Weedly. The virus’s pale face hovered on his peripheral vision, and a thick odor filled his nostrils, a sick-sweet smell of decay. He shallowed his breathing.
“I don’t threaten. Threats are hurtful and uncool. What I like to do is motivate.” With his free hand, Weedly gestured around the room. “Everybody has a different something-or-other that gets them pumped up and ready to be a team player. And everybody here has a different reason for following you to the ends of the earth.” He chuckled. “Even if they hate your guts.”
Decker’s gaze detached from the wall and drifted across the room. Tyler was staring at his lap. Kaity had turned her head so that only her profile was visible, lips flattened and angled down at the corner.
Jenny’s stare of hatred had intensified, if that was possible.
“You didn’t threaten anyone?” Decker asked quietly.
“Motivation, Deck. I know about this stuff, I took an evening one time and read every freaking leadership manual that’s ever been written in the history of time. The people in this room have been transformed from selfish, autonomous individualists into team players. Everybody working toward the same goal, for different reasons.”
Decker looked at Weedly. “I’m curious. What’s my reason?”
Weedly smiled. “For leading my A-team on a daring heist into the heart of Firewall One? Come on, man, that one is so easy.”
He patted Decker’s shoulder again, then swiveled on his heel and strode past Morelan toward the door. “But enough chit-chat. A-team, please follow your mysterious client into the briefing room. We’re about to get groovy.”
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