In the days before Decker’s accident, a stroll through one of the Firewalls was sort of dismal and depressing. Oblong, gray windowless buildings, cafeterias and schools were indistinguishable from factories and entertainment modules if you didn’t have the cerebral cybernetics to feed you info.
People shuffled down the sidewalks–old people, teens with multicolored hair and the bare minimum of clothing, people with strangely-colored eyes and odd facial structures that betrayed extensive cybernetic work. All of them with the blank, dead-faced expression of people trying to forget that their existence as breathing, thinking, living people depended on a handful of Updaters and an invisible hundred square miles of wireless data.
Decker had to admit that when it came to scenery, the Infect cities were quite a bit cheerier.
The streets were for the exclusive use of official Firewall vehicles, like the motorcycle sidecar he rode in now, one hand on top of his head to keep his tweed cap from blowing off.
The thin metal floor of the sidecar rattled under his skinny rear, and he shifted, trying to get into a position that didn’t jar his tailbone. Needed more meat on his butt. Everywhere, really. He wasn’t exactly in peak physical condition, but Hyrand didn’t seem at all worried about his ability to lead this special assignment, so apparently it was okay.
Other than being an emaciated wreck, he was great. He looked at all the grey of the Firewall and felt absolutely nothing. No unbearable itch to get a new assignment and just get out where he didn’t have to look at all this. No longing to have Alice sitting next to him, making everything just a bit less bleak. They were just lumps of buildings, and pedestrians, and the stone-faced Firewall officer driving the motorcycle next to him. In the numbness that blanketed his system, they meant zilch.
They whizzed around a couple of turns, then lurched to a stop in front of a building a little bigger than the others, with a single, expansive metal door.
The StratosCorp West headquarters. The giant disembodied pulsing heart pumping lifeblood to every Firewall in the western hemisphere. The home and living hell of the only people more important than the Downgrades—the Updaters. Poor suckers.
The driver muttered into the tiny radio clipped on the lapel of his jacket. A few seconds, and then a faraway motor hummed to life and the door dragged upward, revealing a wide garage, brightly lit, lined with identical motorcycles.
The driver parked in the only gap, killed the motor, and stepped off as the door chugged back down behind them. Without a word or look at Decker, he began walking to the center of the garage, where a large square section of metal-studded floor indicated a lift.
Decker clambered out of the sidecar and jogged to catch up with the driver. He was barely on the lift when it began sinking downward.
They passed several floors, the open platform alternately filling with light and plunging into murk. The driver stood on the other side of the lift. He had some sort of ocular cybernetics that covered his eyes with a shade filter, and in the shadows they looked like two black holes on either side of his nose.
“You remind me of my friend Brian,” Decker said. “Great guy.”
The driver didn’t respond.
The lift slowed as it entered a more dimly-lit room, sunk level with the floor, and stopped. A hallway stretched out straight in front of them, dirty green walls illuminated by pale ceiling bulbs. A young Asian guy with a black leather jacket a size too big and a sad attempt at a chin beard walked toward them, fidgeting with his belt buckle.
Decker stepped off the lift. It started back up, taking the friendly motorcycle guy with it.
“Hey, Deck. Hi.” The Asian kid flashed a grin. He was wearing his jacket open over his bare chest. Really needed to have a little more muscle going if he was going to do that. “Good to see you, man.”
“Tyler, hey.” Decker kept walking past Tyler, who jumped to keep up. “You the welcoming committee or guard dog?”
Tyler gave a forced chuckle.. “They just told me to wait behind and bring you to the briefing when you got here.”
Tyler was one of the newest Downgrades at the Firewall. Decker had helped with his training. Decker had sorta liked the kid, if he remembered right.
“Who’s they?” Decker said.
“Um, Mr. Hyrand. And Shonda.” Tyler paused. “And, uh, Rosin.”
Rosin was a good merc, one of the best. He hadn’t liked Alice, and one day he’d been drunk and tried to rough her up. She’d broken his thumb. Then he went after her with a gun, and Decker had broken his other thumb. And his collarbone. And about every bone in his right foot.
After that, he didn’t like Decker either.
Decker nodded. “Okay. So it’s going to be you, me, Shonda, and Rosin on this one?”
“Yeah. Um.” Tyler had to half-jog to keep up with him. “You know, man, Rosin’s really chilled out a lot lately. Like, really.”
“I believe you. I’m sure he wants to hug my neck and catch up on old times.”
Tyler made a miserable attempt at a laugh. “Yeah, well, you know. It’s all business, right? All good and stuff.”
They walked in silence for a couple minutes, broken only by the squeaking of Tyler’s shoes. The sound scratched the numbness coating Decker’s nerves like an insistent fingernail on glass.
“Hey, and Deck? I’m… man, I’m sorry about Alice. She was… I mean, like, I know how you…” Tyler’s voice trailed off, and he cleared his throat. “You doing okay, man?”
“Yep.” Decker kept walking. One foot after the other. Try to ignore the squeaking.
“Okay. Good. That’s good.”
They walked in silence, passing a bunch of identical, unlabeled doors. It took a lot of practice to navigate these halls as a Downgrade. Decker was surprised at how easily it all came back to him.
And then the hallway ended in front of a large metal door. Hidden sensors beeped and the door slid to the side, revealing a richly-stained wooden door with an old-fashioned knob.
George Hyrand had one thing in common with the Infects—he liked old stuff.
Tyler jogged ahead and swung it open, standing aside to let Decker through. Decker brushed past him, into Hyrand’s office.
Last time he’d been here, he’d been a twenty-something wannabe merc with a bad attitude and a really bad ponytail. The place hadn’t changed much. Wall-to-wall shag carpet covered the floor, dampening the squeak of Tyler’s shoe. Bookshelves lined the walls, except for the back wall, which was a giant fish tank. It would take a very close observer to see that the little bug-eyed, swimming creatures inside were robotic.
In front of the fish tank stood a replica of an old wooden desk. Behind that, George Hyrand sat enthroned in his wheelchair, staring at Decker, slowly shifting his jaw back and forth. Fused to the ground on either side of him were Brian and the other guy, looking at the ceiling above Decker’s head.
In front of the desk stood the rest of the gang. Shonda, a big-boned woman with greasy dark skin and a vacant half-smile. She stood almost a head taller than the guy next to her, a wiry man with hair that looked like it was chiseled out of milk chocolate and a glare suggesting he had not, as Tyler had said, chilled out.
“Hey, Shonda.” Decker nodded at the woman. She blinked and kept grinning. He looked at the other guy. “Hello Rosin.”
“Hi, Decker.” Rosin nodded, pursing his lips. He wore a pointy goatee that, while not achieving the sculptured masterpiece of his hair, came pretty close. Right now he looked like he might want to impale Decker on it.
“Your hair looks nice,” Decker said.
“Thanks.” Rosin grinned humorlessly. “It’s nice to be able to comb it again. I’ll tell ya what, working opposable thumbs are the greatest. Never take them for granted, my friend.”
Tyler chuckled nervously.
Hyrand cleared his throat, and the saggy skin around his throat quivered. “If we’re done with the reunion, I’d like to get down to briefing you all now.”
Rosin didn’t remove his glare from Decker’s face. “Go ahead, Mr. Hyrand.”
Hyrand interlocked pudgy fingers on his desk. “I don’t have to tell any of you that any information you are about to receive is completely classified. If I hear any of you have started talking in your sleep, I will have you dumped in the nearest Infect city, along with anyone you’ve come within five feet of in the last week. Everyone clear on that?”
Nods and muttered assent passed around the room.
“Now.” Hyrand gave each Downgrade a long stare. “The virus is evolving faster. Our Updaters are having a harder time keeping up with it. Lately it has given us a few… unpleasant surprises.” He rocked his jaw again, as if searching for words. “Quite recently, our Updaters have run into some quite conclusive evidence that we are dealing with an intelligence that either is, or has become, sentient.”
Silence fell across the room. Decker thought of the Infect that had stabbed him. Maybe Hyrand gave that story more credibility than he’d let on.
A sentient virus, though. Even though his numbed emotions didn’t react to the idea, the logical, calculating side of his brain knew that wasn’t a good thing.
“I guess you all understand the gravity,” Hyrand said. “We can’t keep holding our ground. We’ve lost three Firewalls since the virus hit the StratosGrid, but pretty soon we won’t be able to keep up, and we’re going to start losing a lot more than that.” He tapped a finger on the desk. “We can’t keep stalemating this thing. We have to kill it.”
“So that’s what we’re doing?” Rosin asked. “Killing the virus?”
Hyrand didn’t look at Rosin. “Several years ago, Firewall Zero was given the responsibility of developing a secret weapon to combat the virus. Lately, we have been given reason to believe that they haven’t been quite honest in their reports.” His eyes narrowed, almost disappearing in the folds of his face. “They’ve been holding back information about the status of the project. They have also begun an unauthorized project of their own, of a highly militant nature. Obviously this concerns us.”
He paused, as if waiting for interjections. None came. He nodded, pleased. “You will have two assignments. Your first is to travel to Firewall Zero, extract the secret weapon, and bring it back to Firewall One, where we can continue its development under more immediate supervision. Next, you will destroy all progress on their military project. And you will do it in a way that ensures they will not be proceeding in the future.” His mouth thinned. “You’re going to mess them up very badly.”
Shonda giggled, a high-pitched sound that sounded out-of-place in her large frame, and next to the seriousness of what Hyrand had just said.
Decker slid his hands into his pockets. “This all sounds pretty vague to me. If I’m going to be in charge, I’d like a few more details.”
In Decker’s peripheral vision, Rosin stiffened. Decker kept his eyes glued on Hyrand.
Hyrand’s eyes flicked over to him. “The vagueness is intentional, Decker. We’ll be in contact throughout the assignment, and you’ll get the details when you need them. Anyone else see something they don’t like and want to talk about it?”
Silence, and then Rosin raised a hand. “Just a question. Why’s Ty here?” He gave Tyler a placating nod. “Nothing against you, buddy. Just, you know, wondering.”
Tyler shifted from one foot to the other, grinning uncomfortably.
“Mr. Decker is currently in recovery from his injuries, and he is on a somewhat complex regimen of medication. Tyler has medical training that qualifies him to administer them.” Hyrand’s mouth thinned again in one of his not-smiles. “And his history with Decker shows that he is probably one of the mercs least likely to try to kill him through an intentional mis-dosage.”
“Thanks. Good to know. But on that note, Mr. Hyrand.” Rosin stepped forward. “I’d like to make a suggestion that Mr. Decker is maybe not capable of leading this assignment. And maybe not capable of being on it.”
“Is that so.” The gravel in Hyrand’s voice grew coarser. “You have the floor, Rosin.”
“Just look at him.” Rosin turned toward Decker. “He looks like he just got out of a prison camp. And he’s stoned out of his mind.” A tiny sneer bent his mouth. “I hear it’s because he can’t handle losing his girlfriend.”
Decker knew that normal him would want to step forward and break Rosin apart. He could, too. Even in this condition.
But he didn’t want to. He didn’t need to. It was all fine.
“Decker’s mind is just fine,” Hyrand said. “And I disagree. He is completely capable of leading this assignment. Thank you for your thoughts, Rosin, but I hope you’re done now.”
Rosin’s eyes smouldered, but he nodded and looked away.
“You’ll all head out of the Firewall tomorrow morning at six-AM,” Hyrand said. “Be ready. That’s all for now.”
Rosin turned and stalked out. Shonda grinned at Decker and followed, her arms swinging lazily.
Decker and Tyler walked out together. They navigated the halls in silence until they reached the lift. Shonda and Rosin had just taken it up, so they had a bit of a wait.
“Well, you know. At least we won’t be walking into a bunch of Infects.” Tyler attempted a flippant laugh, rubbing his thumbs on his belt buckle. “Man, am I getting sick of that. Yeah. This’ll be great.”
Decker shot him a look. “Hey, Ty. Free tip.”
Tyler looked at him eagerly. “Yeah?”
“Lose the beard.”
Tyler’s face fell. “But this one chick I met last week, she said it really made my face look—”
“She lied. The kind of girls you hang around do that a lot.”
Decker gave a shrug of sympathy, leaned his shoulder against the wall, and waited for the lift.
Enjoyed this chapter? Have feedback? Leave a comment below, or critique this chapter on Google Docs.