Overall, the prisoner treatment wasn’t too bad. They only hit Decker once; in the ribs, and not terribly hard. Still hurt like crazy, with all the bruising he had down there, but they couldn’t have known about that.
Other than that, it was the typical bag-over-the-head thing. They tied his hands and shoved him into the back seat of a vehicle where he sat with a gun barrel digging into an unbruised section of his ribs. They drove for a while. Decker inhaled mildew from the inside of the canvas bag.
They were going to a whole lot of trouble to bring in one beat-up merc. He needed to think it through, put pieces together and try to figure out why. Stay one step ahead of them.
But he was tired. His whole body pulsed dull, exhausted pain. Thinking was like wading through mud, every thought coming slowly and with massive effort. So he leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and let his mind go limp.
The vehicle hitched to a stop. The prodded him out the other side of the car. His boots hit dirt, and rough hands guided him forward. He heard a few low mutters, and then the hands hauled him up into what felt like the bed of a truck. His shin hit the tailgate, and he grunted pain through his teeth.
They pushed him down on his stomach in the truck bed. With the broken hum of a zipper, rough fabric encased him, tight around his shoulders.
A spark of alarm pierced his tired brain. They couldn’t just put a bag over his head, they had to zip his whole body into one?
With meaty thuds, a couple of stiff, cold objects landed on either side of him, about as long as he was. Then one landed on top of him, whuffing the air out of his lungs. Something dug right between his shoulder blades, and it felt suspiciously like a human chin.
The truck took off. Through the bag, the metal vibrated Decker’s battered body, lighting up all his sorest places in agony. Decker gritted his teeth and strained his neck, trying to lift his face away from the worst of the battering.
After a while, the truck sloped downward, and the rumble of its engine changed, loud and echoing. They were in some kind of tunnel.
Then the truck braked, sending Decker and his piggyback sliding forward. The engine coughed silent. Truck doors opened; slammed, boots clopped, and then someone dragged Decker out from under his friend with the sharp chin.
The zipper squealed, and they pulled him out of the body bag. Then he was out of the truck, walking between two guys with very firm grips on his elbows. They stopped once for the hiss of a sliding door, and led him into a room filled with a faint hum. A fluorescent light, sounded like.
They pushed him into a chair, then yanked the bag off his head and dropped it in his lap.
He sat in a square room with bare walls. An empty wheeled bed stood opposite him—it looked like it’d been stolen from a med bay somewhere, complete with an IV stand. Without making eye contact, the two Crims turned and left the room through a door that sealed behind them with a definitive woosh-click. Magnetic lock, probably.
The light hummed. His hands ached, tied too tight in his lap. He stretched his fingers out, trying to coax a little more blood into them.
The door opened, and a tall man wearing black padded leathers strode into the room. Limp grey hair fell around a thin, almost emaciated face that seemed out-of-place on his powerful frame. Dark eyes bored into Decker with an intensity that would crush any staring contest.
Decker looked back, waiting.
“My name is Morelan Crim,” the man said.
Morelan Crim. That was a name that struck fear into the hearts and bladders of grown men. It made you think of brutal raids that struck without warning, masked warriors who buried or burned men alive and carried off their women. Rumors of sick fertility rituals giving birth to mutant children who grew twice as fast, to better fill the ranks of the Crim army.
Decker nodded. “Hi.”
“My apologies for the rough treatment on your way here,” Morelan said. “We had a very short window of time in which to act.”
“I think a dead guy was cuddling me,” Decker said.
“Also necessary.” Morelan waved a thin-fingered hand. “You may understand better in a moment.”
Again the door slid open, and the two Crims re-entered, waddling under the weight of a sickly-brown body bag they held between them. They carried it to the wheeled bed, set it down, and unzipped it.
Inside the canvas shell, a familiar pale face looked upward, eyes closed. Lyan, the secret-weapon kid.
Despite himself, Decker breathed an exclamation.
“He’s not dead,” Morelan said.
One of the Crims turned the boy’s forearm up, and the other pushed the IV needle into the sheet-white skin with the slow concentration of a trained doctor.
“Only in a highly-controlled coma. He’s in a place where we would like him to stay for quite some time.” Morelan folded his hands in front of him, long fingers intertwining.
Decker looked at the man, and recognition clicked. Not his face, the black leathers. “You were one of the guys who grabbed him.”
Morelan gave the hint of a nod. “I don’t ask my family to go into places where I would not. It’s one of the philosophies of mine that isn’t mentioned in the legends and bedtime stories.”
“Yeah, I never heard that one.” Decker paused. “Okay, though, I’m confused. It sure looked like the Crims were in cahoots with the virus when you all drove in, but now I’m getting the impression you’re doing some weird double-crossing here.”
“It’s a little confusing, yes.” The corners of Morelan’s mouth twitched up for a split-second. “Here are the basic facts, Mr. Decker. I am a somewhat reluctant ally of the virus, who currently controls everything inside this Firewall. Everything except this room, and a few which are adjacent. He does not know about this room, he does not know that you are here, and he does not realize that the boy he is after is only about twenty feet underneath his new city.”
Decker nodded, turning the man’s words over in his mind. “That’s not a very comfortable idea.”
“It’s not an ideal situation,” Morelan said. “But then, no situation is ideal. You either turn it to your advantage, or it kills you. You know this, or you wouldn’t be alive.”
The Crims finished taping the IV tube to Lyan’s forearm, then turned to Morelan, eyebrows raised over their scarf-masks.
Morelan inclined his head. “Thank you, boys. That will be all for the moment.”
They turned and left the room. A bluish fluid dripped through the clear IV tube toward Lyan’s limp wrist.
“So,” Decker said, “How do you know my name?”
“The virus told me,” Morelan said. “Weedly, he calls himself. He’s very charming. He has very specific plans for you.”
“I thought you said he didn’t know I was here.”
“Weedly has received a report that you escaped from the Firewall, but that we have men closing in on you. He is expecting you to be delivered within the next three hours, which we will be punctual in doing.”
The hum of the light was beginning to grate on Decker, awakening rawness through his nerves. A trickle of sweat ran down his spine. “So you snuck me in under a bunch of corpses, why?”
Morelan stepped up to him and snapped a small knife out of a leg sheath, then bent forward and slipped the blade between Decker’s wrists, under the cords. “To debrief you.” His fingers gripped cold around Decker’s fists, holding them steady while he sawed the knife through the bonds. They fell away, and Morelan straightened. “The virus wants you to do a job for him. I want you to do it, but with my interests in mind.”
Decker stretched his hands. Blood pounded back into his fingertips, sharp and searing. “Generally when I get to pick my bosses, I prefer there to be at least one decent option.”
Morelan smiled, close-lipped. He folded his knife closed and slipped it back into the sheath. “Whatever you’ve heard about me, I can promise you that having me for a boss is much preferable to working for my friend Weedly.”
The man turned and walked for the door, gesturing with two fingers for Decker to follow.
They stepped out into an unlit corridor, and the door shut behind them. Decker blinked, trying to force his eyes to adjust to the sudden blackness, but Morelan kept walking. Decker followed the sound of the man’s boots.
A little ways down, a red light flashed, turned to green, and another door slid open. Decker followed Morelan’s silhouette into a dim room lined with holographic screens.
Morelan stopped in front of one and flicked his fingers through the pale white square. “Mr. Decker, meet your team. Some familiar faces, perhaps.”
The screen looked down on a group of people huddled in a bare room. Tyler sat with his back against the wall, with his eyes closed and shoulders slumped. His left hand lay limp in his lap, and his right arm ended in a white-bandaged stump. Kaity knelt next to him, feet tucked under her, staring at the ground.
He had seen them, out there in the street. Whatever else his brain was hallucinating these days, Kaity and Tyler were real. He couldn’t restrain a small twinge of relief.
And then he looked at the other two people in the screen, and stiffened.
Lamar stood straight against the wall. Dark, impassive, looking into space as if counting air molecules.
Jenni sat with her legs folded, leaning forward. They had her in some kind of straightjacket that bound her arms across her chest. She stared into the camera, teeth bared, like she wanted to punch her face through and bite the throat of whoever was on the other side.
Decker pointed at the screen. “At least two of those people tried to blow me up just a couple of days ago.”
“Apparently that’s irrelevant,” Morelan said. “This is your team. Weedly was very specific.”
“It’s a bad idea. I really can’t stress this enough,” Decker said. “Those people hate me.”
“I know.” Morelan turned, and the light from the screen cut deep shadows into his face. “I also know why. If it had been me in their place, and you had turned up on my doorstep so conveniently, I would have done much more than tie you to a bomb.”
Well, that was a conversation-killer. Decker swallowed, and tried to sound unconcerned. “Somebody’s been talking about me.”
“I know more about your history than anyone, Mr. Decker.” Morelan smiled wanly. “Everyone except the virus. You don’t have to go to any trouble hiding your former life from either of us.”
The bruises on Decker’s abdomen throbbed, and he winced. “That’s a weight off.”
Morelan turned back to the screen. “This isn’t the team I would assemble, either. Even besides the pre-existing tension, I’m dealing with serious physical handicaps, lack of training, and at least one very unstable operative.” His lips pursed, and he shook his head slowly. “But this is the situation.”
They stood for a moment in the pale wash of the screen, and then Morelan cleared his throat. “We’re running out of time. Are you working for me, or for the virus?”
He didn’t want to work for anyone. He wanted to get on a motorcycle and drive in a straight line that left it all behind, the Firewall, the Crims, Weedly, Alice.
“You haven’t said what’ll happen if I don’t do either,” Decker said.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t even have to come to that,” Morelan said. “If you are indecisive, Weedly has asked me to begin killing your friends in front of you.” He sniffed. “Interesting—from what I knew of you, I would have picked a different leverage. But Weedly seems to think it will be effective.”
His eyes ached in the glow of the screen. Decker closed them. “Say I decided to work for you.”
“I want complete transparency.” Decker opened his eyes and met the other man’s gaze with iron. “I don’t want a briefing that I find out in a few days is a load of crap. I will not be your pawn, I will not be your suicide bomber. If you can’t guarantee me that, then it’s no deal, and that leverage can go to hell.”
Morelan nodded. “Understandable.” He reached out, and flicked away the screen. They stood in darkness. “I think you’ll find that I’m a little more honest than your previous employers. Provided that your answer is a yes.”
Decker clenched and unclenched his right hand. “Consider it a reluctant yes, Mr. Crim.”
“Excellent,” Morelan said. “You’ll get a full briefing tomorrow. Now, let’s go reunite you with your team.”
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