If Decker had gotten his way, he’d have died before they took him back to Firewall One. Or shortly afterward, when it was just mind-crushing pain in between drug-laced hallucinations. Or when the pain subsided to a point where the painkillers actually worked, and they told him how they’d found him—in the wreckage of a car about a quarter-mile out of the Infect city. How they’d pulled him out and taken what was left of him back. Only him.
And then he should have died a few weeks later, when the nurse took a bathroom break and he managed to drag himself out of bed and amp his painkillers up to a lethal dose.
Unfortunately, the nurse was a fast pooper. And very perceptive of little things like flashing red lights.
Suicide happened every day behind the Firewalls. There were always the people who just couldn’t handle the fact that there was only a team of engineers and an invisible barrier of computer code between them and a wirelessly-transmitted virus that wanted to squeeze into their cybernetic implants, fry their brains, and turn their bodies into mindless killer drones.
These were the people you found dead on their own bathroom floor next to an empty pill bottle. An opt-out.
For the average Firewall citizen, this was a completely normal happenstance, and as long as the number of the people opting out didn’t exceed the number of people living and have babies, the authorities didn’t really see any reason for drastic preventative measures.
If you were a Downgrade merc, though, it was a different story. People without cybernetic implants were rare. Those who were okay with selling their talents to the Firewall were even rarer. An endangered species. Killing a Downgrade was the unforgiveable sin. Attempted suicide, if you were a Downgrade, was the next worst thing.
The padded cell they had him in now was a really nice blue color. It wasn’t that much bigger than the mattress he slept on—just enough to accommodate the little can of a toilet.
The best thing about solitary confinement, though, were the drugs. Between all the painkillers and a sprinkling of antidepressants they’d started pumping him with after his Great Escape attempt, Decker pretty much floated in a big cloud of glorious numbness.
It was great.
When he stared at the ceiling and saw Alice’s face, dead-eyed and streaked with blood, he didn’t feel any different about it than he did about the blue walls, or the tiny toilet. No pain.
In a dull, unthinking sort of way, he knew that it wasn’t really true—he did feel, somewhere behind the chemicals sludging through his bloodstream. He could sense it like the dim pressure of a migraine buried under an unhealthy amount of aspirin.
And that’s why he prayed, with any trace of actual thought he could conjure, that they didn’t stop the drugs.
At some point, something changed. He opened his eyes—he might have been sleeping, he didn’t really remember—and it was like something clicked in his brain.
Wow, he thought, I need to pee. The thought was clear and tangible in his mind. No brain fog.
For a split-second, he felt a tiny nudge of concern. Had they stopped the meds?
But it was only a nudge, something that would have been fear, but was buried under too much chemical crap to manifest. The numb was still there. Nothing to worry about.
He got up, used the toilet. He was wearing soft green shorts that went past his knees, he noticed for the first time, and nothing else. The cell wasn’t really meant to stand in—he had to stoop.
Before he was through with his business, the door to his cell slid open behind him. Decker finished, flushed with the flimsy floor pedal, and turned around.
The door was like something you’d see in a spaceship. A tiny rectangular hatch with an airlock that only opened when the nurse came in to inject him with protein solutions or drugs.
It wasn’t the nurse this time. George Hyrand waited outside the cell, dressed in an impeccable suit that matched the sleek black and chrome of his wheelchair. His enormous bulk almost filled the hatch opening, but Decker could see two bodyguards standing behind him, sporting white vests and compact EMP rods strapped prominently on their belts.
“You look awful,” Hyrand said. His voice sounded like he looked—big, heavy, saggy.
The sight of Hyrand was enough to give most Downgrades—or anyone in Firewall One—an instant attitude adjustment. Not that Hyrand sightings were that common. Actually, him being here, in the door of this cell, was either an immense honor, or more likely, something to be really terrified about.
Decker felt neither. He squatted and flopped back on the mattress, lacing his fingers together over his chest and staring at the ceiling.
“We changed your medication this morning. You might have noticed. I see you’re using the toilet now, I’m sure the nurse will appreciate that.”
“Figured she deserved some kind of a break.” The loudness of his own voice startled him a little.
“Everybody’s moving on, these days, aren’t they.”
A packet the size of a couch pillow landed on Decker’s chest. He squinted down his nose at it.
“Brought you some clothes,” Hyrand said. “When you’re finished getting into them, Brian will escort you to lunch. I’m treating.”
Decker turned his head to look at Hyrand. The man nodded at the packet. “Put the clothes on, Decker. If you want some food that’s not from a tube in your arm, be there in ten.”
Hyrand slapped a meaty hand over the joystick on his wheelchair arm, swiveled himself around, and rolled away. One of his bodyguards followed. The other stepped into the cell door opening and looked at Decker, eyebrows raising expectantly.
Decker grabbed the packet and pulled himself up to sit on the edge of the mattress. He rubbed his face, and whiskers prickled under his fingers. Maybe the first decent beard he’d had in his life, with a little trimming.
He looked up at the guy–Brian, apparently. “Guess I’m done with time-out now?”
“You’re supposed to put on the clothes.”
“Right. Good talk.” Decker unzipped the packet. “And you’re supposed to watch me while I do that, I guess.”
Brian’s expression didn’t change. “That’s right.”
“My sympathies,” Decker said, and got busy changing.
It was ground meat of some kind, and spinach salad and potatoes. He should have been hungry, and it should have been delicious, since he hadn’t eaten solid food in however long, but everything on the gray plastic tray tasted like soggy paper. He didn’t know if it was another side-effect of the drugs, or if the food really did just taste like paper.
He ate it anyway. The cotton shirt and jeans that would have mostly fit him a few months ago hung on him like a dead sloth, and he needed the calories.
Across the little circular cafeteria table, Hyrand watched him from colorless eyes that were almost hidden in the saggy folds of his face. The sags failed to hide the faded white scars cris-crossing his temples and reaching up into the gray stubble of his hair, where the best surgeons in the world had sliced out his cerebrals just in time for him to not get zombified by the virus. Decker doubted that the surgeons had been so fortunate.
The cafeteria was empty, unoccupied tables littered around the long, oval-shaped room like mushrooms. When George Hyrand wanted privacy, he got it even if it meant that every Downgrade in the merc station missed lunch.
“How is it?” Hyrand asked.
“Well, you can chew it,” Decker said through a mouthful of potato. A piece fell from the corner of his mouth onto the table. He grabbed it and stuffed it back. “You gonna let your guys get some? Brian looks sort of peaky.”
“I’m fine, boss,” Brian said from behind Decker. The other guy, standing at Hyrand’s shoulder, didn’t shift expression.
“They’re fine,” Hyrand said. He massaged his left hand in his right one. “You’ve had us worried for a while, you know that?”
“Sorry,” Decker said.
“Men snap. It happens. But you—” Hyrand squinted, which pretty much did make his eyes disappear. “I would have never thought it from you. It was unexpected, you know?”
“Yeah, well.” Decker forced a smile. “These days we all expect the unexpected.”
“True,” Hyrand said. He pursed his lips and blew out. “Which is why I didn’t right away dismiss your story about the Super-Infect.”
Decker felt another nudge in his psyche, a smothered scream of—something. Horror, fear. Couldn’t feel it, so it didn’t matter. He shoveled another plastic spoonful of potato. “When you say it like that it just sounds silly.”
“None of the other mercs have reported anything out of the ordinary in any of their runs. Infects as usual.”
“So you’re saying my brain made it up.”
“Your brain went through a lot of shock seven months ago. No offense.”
So that’s how long it had been. “None taken.” He chewed and swallowed. “Did you put off everybody’s lunch and bring me down here just to tell me there’s no Super-Infect?”
“I thought it might be reassuring.” Hyrand’s mouth went flat, which was the closest to a smile it ever got. Nothing in Hyrand’s face ever went upward. “Since I’m about to get you back in the field.”
“I thought I was in solitary confinement.”
“You were. How do you feel right now?”
He didn’t feel anything. “Fantastic.”
“Good.” Hyrand shifted on his enormous rear, and a twitch of pain crossed his face. “I want you for a special assignment. No update-scavenging, no Infect hunting. It’s harder than that. And quite classified.”
Decker ran a tongue over his teeth and stared at his plate. “I’m not in the best shape right now. Maybe you should get somebody else.”
“You’re the one I need. See—” Hyrand pushed his fists forward on the table. “I need someone who can lead a team. And I also need someone who can make… certain hard decisions. The problem is, the people I have who can lead aren’t really the type to make these decisions. And the people who wouldn’t have a problem with these decisions, they’re not exactly leader material.”
Decker looked up at Hyrand. “What kind of decisions are we talking about, boss?”
Hyrand looked at him for a moment, impassive, and then did the almost-smile thing again. “How much did Alice know about you, Decker? How much did you tell her?”
“How much did I tell her about what,” Decker said, voice flat and calm, but underneath the numb he could feel something else nudging, a little harder this time.
“Certain hard decisions that were made, quite a while ago.”
The nudge turned to a sharp pinch, hard enough to worry him. His jaw tightened. “I’d like to go back to solitary.”
“I’m sure you would. The meds, am I right? Tend to take a lot of the motivation out of a man.” Hyrand’s eyes were hard. “You know we could take those away. If they were a problem.”
“Sounds a lot like a threat to me.” Decker kept his voice level, but the prick of fear that had made it through the shield of medication was growing. His hands twitched, and he discreetly slipped them under the table.
“I’m just a man who knows what needs to be done, and does it.” Hyrand lifted his shoulders in a heavy shrug. “We’re a rare breed, aren’t we?”
Decker shifted in his seat. Instantly, the warning pressure of Brian’s EMP rod was against his right temple. An EMP wouldn’t do any good against a Downgrade, but a good old-fashioned whack with the rod would definitely leave a mark.
Hyrand’s eyebrows, what were left of them, lifted. “You have an answer for me?”
He didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to work for Hyrand again. Right now, all he wanted to do was go back to his cell and curl up on the mattress and sink back into the numbness.
But if he didn’t do this,the numbness would be going away. Completely. And he definitely couldn’t handle that. Yes, he was a coward. But he couldn’t do that again.
He lifted his head and grinned at Hyrand. “You’re the boss.”
Hyrand’s mouth thinned, and he nodded. “Yes I am.”
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