In the back of the rocking jeep, Decker slouched against the too-short headrest while Tyler swabbed his upturned forearm with a cotton ball.
Shonda drove with one hand, fingers loosely dangled over the wheel, beads of sweat glistening at the ends of her wire-brush hair and on her shoulders. Rosin sat in the front passenger seat, bouncing a compact rifle on one knee. Snatches of his tuneless whistling drifted over the woosh of air through the open cab.
Ahead of them, the highway wound lazily around bloated brown hills, obscured by dusty haze before it reached the horizon.
Tyler held his backpack between his legs and unzipped the front pocket, removing a white plastic case. He set it on the bench seat between them and popped the lid, revealing an assortment of tubes, syringes, needles, and other skin-puncturing tools.
Decker tried to squirm to a more comfortable position on the thin foam seat. He’d been shot up with his last dose right before they left the Firewall, but he was starting to get that weird crawling sensation, like bugs under his skin, and something at the back of his mind was starting to stretch, clumsily shaking out from under the numbness. He needed another.
But on the other hand, Shonda was driving very quickly, and making no effort to avoid the cracks and bumps that pitted the highway, and the idea of having a needle in his arm at this moment was not a fun one.
“I sure hope you’ve got a steady hand,” he said between his teeth.
Tyler pried a syringe out of the case and looked up, wincing apologetically. “It’s gotta be every seven hours. Gonna make it quick as I can.”
He cleaned the needle with a different swab, and popped a tube of a clear solution into the syringe. He took Decker’s forearm with one hand and bent over it, squinting. The syringe hovered over Decker’s pasty-white skin like an indecisive wasp.
“Take your time,” Decker said.
“Sorry! You have tiny veins, man.” Tyler squinted closer, biting his lower lip. “Okay, found it, I think.”
The needle touched down, dimpling Decker’s arm for a moment, then puncturing skin and sliding into the vein.
The right wheel of the jeep took that moment to slam into a particularly large crack in the asphalt. The needle jerked, pain jagged up Decker’s arm, and he swore.
“Sorry, sorry! Sorry.” Tyler scrambled to steady the syringe.
Pain crackled to anger in Decker’s mind, and for one second it seemed like a good idea to toss the kid over the side of the jeep. His vision sparked red. Then it all dissolved away, back into numbness.
Tyler stared at him wide-eyed. Then Decker realized that his arm was outstretched, fingers digging into Tyler’s shoulder, pinning him against the door.
He let go. The syringe was still stuck in his arm, wobbling, and pain pulsed into his shoulder. Decker winced.
He settled back into his seat, holding the syringe steady with one hand. Blood trickled oily between his fingers. “ You want to finish up here?”
Tyler gulped, face pale. “Yeah. Um. I’m really sorry, man.”
“It’s fine, Tyler.”
The kid inched forward and gingerly took the syringe, like it was about to jump out of Decker’s arm and stab him in the throat. He depressed the plunger with his thumb. Decker settled back as the numbness swelled back, drifting through his veins and sweeping away the creepy-crawlies.
“Well that was something.” Rosin had twisted around in his seat, eyebrows raised. “You get enough sleep last night, Decker? Wrong side of bed this morning?”
“I feel great,” Decker said. “You just keep Shonda on the road.”
“Something we need to talk about? ‘Cause it looked to me like our fearless leader got crazy eyes and tried to kill his medic.”
“Shut up, man, it’s all good.” Tyler kept his eyes down. He pulled the needle out of Decker’s arm.
Rosin grinned up at the sky. “Alright. Okay, Tyler, long as you’re okay with that. Sounds good.” He swiveled around and went back to whistling.
Decker closed his eyes. He felt drowsy. Icy-calm. Something on the fringes of his mind told him that he should maybe be concerned about what had just happened, but it didn’t seem important. Part of him wanted to give some kind of apology to Tyler. But there just wasn’t any sorry to back up his Sorry, and it didn’t seem worth the effort. The kid would get over it.
Decker opened his eyes. Tyler’s palm floated in front of his nose, holding two grey pills. “You gotta take these too.”
Decker reached up and pinched the pills out of Tyler’s hand. “What for?”
“They stop the side-effects.” Tyler kept one eye on Decker’s free hand. “Back at the base, you got everything in one shot. I’m not really set up to do that here, so you gotta take it separately.”
Decker eyed the capsules. “What side-effects?”
“Um, nausea can be one. And dizzyness and stuff.” Tyler cleared his throat. “Suicidal tendencies.”
A chuckle hacked out of Decker’s throat. “Thought it was supposed to keep me from wanting to kill myself.”
“Yeah, well.” Tyler grinned sheepishly. “Medicine’s complicated, man.”
Decker cupped the pills into his mouth and swallowed them dry, grimacing as they scraped his throat.
Rosin swiveled around again. “How does it feel to be a sanctioned junkie, Deck?” He leaned closer, eyebrows lifting. “Be honest, am I totally crazy for thinking you shouldn’t even be in this jeep right now, let alone be the one we have to call boss? Seriously, Deck, what are you doing here?”
Decker gave him a thin-lipped smile. “Hyrand moves in mysterious ways, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah, they’re mysterious all right.” Rosin’s voice was light and bantering, but an ugly light smouldered in his eyes. The same look that you saw from a drunk brawler in a bar who was going to find something to hit you over, no matter what. “I don’t know, Deck, I’ve been trying to make sense of this whole thing, and I’m stumped. But I’ll tell you, I think that here pretty soon we’re going to have to do some rough stuff, and you’re not going to be up to it because you’re so freaking wasted. What do you think?”
The burning, unreasonable anger of a few minutes ago was gone, and it wasn’t coming back. What Deck wanted to do was blow the guy off, close his eyes, and maybe try to doze a little.
But they weren’t even twelve hours into the mission, and Rosin was screwing with hierarchy. Couldn’t just ignore that.
He sighed inwardly and tapped Shonda on the back of the head with one finger. “Pull over.”
The jeep jolted to a halt. Decker opened the door and slid out. His boots crunched on the asphalt. He leaned his elbows back on the side of the jeep and arched his back, stretching.
“Hey. Is this a conversation, Deck?” Rosin said behind him. “Do I get to talk to the back of your head now?”
Decker turned slowly, then threw the passenger side door open, grabbed Rosin by the shoulder, and yanked him out.
Rosin landed on his side, sprawling in an explosion of dust. He got to one knee before Decker kicked him in the gut, doubling him into a gasping ball of pain.
Decker drew his pistol and pointed it down at Rosin’s forehead. “I’m listening.”
Rosin unfolded onto his back, his eyes widening as they came into focus on the tip of Decker’s gun. “Whoa, Deck, whoa now. You’re not gonna shoot me.” Pain and fear strained his voice. “That’d be crazy. You’re not that crazy. Shonda, help me here.”
Decker stayed silent, holding the gun straight and steady. He didn’t have to look down the barrel to know that if he pulled the trigger, the slug would hit right between Rosin’s groomed eyebrows.
Out of the corner of his eye, Decker saw Shonda stand in the front seat of the jeep, pointing her shotgun at him. She pumped it.
“What are you doing, Shonda,” he said.
“I’m gonna blow your head off if you shoot Rosin,” she said.
“If you blow my head off, I’ll come up there and shove that thing somewhere you won’t like.” Decker raised his gaze to her. She didn’t lower her gun, but uncertainty flickered through her face. Tyler stared from the back seat, mouth gaping.
Rosin moved. Without looking, Decker twitched his gun to the side and fired a bullet past the man’s head.
Rosin screamed, recoiling. “Nah man, don’t shoot me! Come on!” His eyes strained toward Shonda, white-rimmed and pleading. “Stop him!”
Decker opened his mouth to say the usual things you said when quenching a mutiny. If you have any other concerns, let me know. We good?
But something moved on the edges of his vision, distracting him. For one second he could have sworn he saw a man in a black turtleneck, standing on the road ahead of them. Hands in his pockets.
Decker looked up. It was gone.
He blinked. The roof of his mouth was dry concrete. The road was no longer drawing a ruler-straight line into the hills in front of them, it was warping and twisting like a snake that’d been stepped on.
He reholstered his gun and walked back to the jeep. Behind him, Rosin scuffled to his feet. “You’re crazy, Deck! You’re crazy, you’re stoned, you’re totally haywire.”
Decker opened the door and slid back into the passenger seat. Tyler kept staring at him. Decker ignored the kid and looked at Rosin. “Get in.”
Rosin shook his head, face twisted in rage, the skin around his eyes still white. Pressing a hand into his side, he pulled himself into the passenger seat of the jeep. “Can’t believe I didn’t just shoot myself in the head back at the Firewall. My odds would have been better.”
Shonda shot a worried glance at Rosin and put the jeep back into gear. It rattled over a crater and accelerated with a crunch of tires on sandy asphalt.
Tyler looked away, chewing his bottom lip. Decker settled against the backrest. A ripple of unease prodded the numbness, scratching to be let out.
He should have followed through with Rosin. Backed up the fear with a threat big enough to keep it from exploding into mutinous anger. Why hadn’t he? Why had he just stopped? Because of a hallucination. A daydream.
Hallucination. That’s all it was.
And maybe the worst thing was that after all that had happened in the last seven minutes, he just really didn’t care. In a few seconds, the unease was gone, washed over.
One last stubborn piece lingered for a second, a flat-voiced thought saying c’mon Deck, think about this, you idiot.
But then it was gone, and he was calm, and he just sat and watched the dead brown hills roll by.
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