Decker dreamed about Alice.
She lay on the concrete, face smeared with blood. Her eyes strained up at him as the Infect’s blade plunged into her chest.
And then he realized that it was him standing over her, and it was his own arm that lashed down, stabbing her again. Her body jerked. Disbelief stared out of her eyes, a soundless why, and he wanted to tell her that it was just a dream. None of this was real.
But he didn’t stop, his arm kept punching down and down again, shredding her jacket, stabbing over and over. He wanted to look away, but his neck was fused, his eyes were locked on Alice and her fear and her pleading.
And the scream surged in his brain, the one that hadn’t stopped ever since he’d woken up in the Firewall. Only now nothing was muffling it, and it rose to a crescendo until he could feel it in his teeth and nerves and bones.
He kept stabbing.
Decker woke on his back, choking for air like a drowning man coming to surface. He lay on hard concrete that radiated chill into his tailbone and shoulders, but his face baked like someone was holding it to an oven.
He thrashed upright, panting. He could see the dark smudge of his blanket lying a few feet away. On the other side of the room lay a bigger smudge that snored like Shonda.
That’s right. They’d stopped for the night in a broken-down building just off the highway. A gas station or something.
He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head to clear it. The echo of his dream still vibrated in his spine.
A finger tapped his shoulder. He twisted and grabbed a skinny arm. The owner yelped. “It’s me, Deck, it’s me!”
Deck let go. Tyler knelt down by him, rubbing his wrist. His face was a white smudge in the gloom. “Man,” he said in a hoarse half-whisper, “I thought you were gonna try to snap my elbow there. You awake?”
Decker crossed his legs and leaned forward, putting his hands on the cold floor and breathing in. “Where’s Rosin?”
“He’s outside on watch. He just relieved you like half an hour ago. Sheez, man, what kind of dreams you been having?”
A laugh rattled Decker’s throat. “I need a lot more of that medicine, Ty.”
“Bigger dose? Can’t do it, man, it’s like a super precise thing, you can’t mess with it or it messes with you.” Tyler brushed off a section of floor and sat down, stretching his legs out in front of him. “Hey look, Deck, can I talk to you? Like, if I say this thing and you don’t like it, you’re not gonna punch my throat or anything?” His voice was strained, a little shaky, but with an edge of determination.
“Yeah, sorry about the thing back in the jeep.” Decker wiped his hand over his face, wicking away sweat. “By the way.”
“It’s fine. You’re fine. But, like—” Tyler blew out a sigh, and lowered his voice further. “I’m worried about you. And it’s not because I think you’re gonna screw up this mission or anything. I’m on your side, you know that?”
Decker didn’t answer. Somewhere in the building, a lonely bug rattled and then was quiet.
“You know, I wouldn’t have made it through training if it wasn’t for you,” Tyler said.
Decker stared ahead at the darkness. The jolt of his dream was wearing off, the familiar numb encroaching back on his mind. Tyler’s words faded in importance, just vowels and consonants, random sounds dissipating into the air.
“You were the only person in the whole Firewall who cared whether I got my guts pulled out by Infects or not. Well, you and then Alice. You guys cared even when I didn’t. It kept me alive, you know that?” Tyler paused. “And seeing you like this now, every day, man–it scares the crap out of me. Like, am I even making sense here?”
Decker ran his tongue over his lips. Man, they were dry. “So… what’d you say about not being able to give me a bigger dose?”
Tyler sat still for a second, then shoved to his feet. “Go to sleep, Deck. Sleep your freaking brains out.”
“Water pump,” Shonda said, slamming the jeep’s hood down.
Rosin kicked the front tire and swore. “Thought it had new parts put in before we left.”
“They did. It’s a new pump. Still broke.” Shonda shrugged and crouched by her toolbox, listlessly turning over a rusty assortment of wrenches, screwdrivers, pipes, and fittings.
Decker leaned against the busted-out doorframe of the gas station. “Guessing you don’t have a replacement pump in that thing.”
“If it was a hose, I could patch it.” She heaved herself to her feet and nudged the toolbox with her boot, rattling the metal innards. “I got nothing.”
Decker looked back into the gas station, where Tyler sat cross-legged on the floor, staring at a tattered three-fold map. “How close is Vale?”
Tyler shook his head. “Not close enough. We weren’t supposed to hit Vale until tomorrow evening, man.”
There were a lot of towns, communes, and ramshackle villages set up outside the Firewall. Some were militant cults run by warlords with delusions of an empire. Some were peace-loving, Jesus-praying scavengers who just wanted to live some semblance of normal lives. But they all had one thing in common—they were Downgrades. People who, as a general rule, didn’t want to have anything to do with StratosCorp, the Firewalls, or any of their own people who hired themselves out to the other side of the fence.
Vale was one of the few Firewall-friendly towns. A handy hub for Downgrade mercs traveling through the west side of the States to stop and get supplies, rest, booze, and a little red-light entertainment.
“What’s the nearest town?” Decker asked, although he had a pretty good idea.
“Um, well…” Tyler frowned at the map. “There’s Bowzerville about four miles off, but, like—”
“You know how fast and hard they’d kill us in Bowzerville?” Rosin walked toward the gas station, his face flushed and streaked with sweat. “I’d rather go get on a group-hug with some Infects. At least then you’d die quickly.”
Decker arched his back against the door frame, stretching. “They don’t like Firewallers, but last I heard they don’t kill them.”
“Maybe not usually.” Rosin stopped in front of Decker and put his hands on his belt. “But there are some people there who would know Shonda and me. We’ve done some stuff that wouldn’t exactly boost our popularity there. And you, buddy—” He flashed a hard-edged grin. “Lamar and Jenny, they’re still the bosses there, right? Think they wouldn’t want to pull your insides outside of your skin?”
“Bowzerville’s a big place.” Decker leaned his head back against the door frame, looking past Rosin, across the highway. On the other side, another building sagged, a concrete monstrosity long since gutted by scavengers. The wreckage of what looked like an array of billboards lay between it and the road. Probably had been a casino or something.
“Yes it is, Deck. Any point there?” Rosin peered closer, eyebrows raised.
Decker chuckled through his nose. Rosin still seemed to think he was in sort of tripped-out walking coma or something. “We get in, we get our supplies, we go back out. Long as we don’t wear cute little matching Firewall jumpsuits, we’ll be fine. Probably.”
Shonda chortled. Rosin shot her a withering look, and then turned back to Decker. “Probably? Can you give that to me in a pie chart?”
“Way I see it, we need a new pump, or a new mode of transportation. By the time we walk all the way to Vale–I’m not great with numbers, but I’m estimating we’ve lost a buttload of time.” Decker shrugged. “If you’ve got a better idea than Bowzerville, I’m willing to listen.”
Rosin’s lips went tight. He raked his hands through his hair, then turned around and stalked back to the jeep.
Tyler stepped up next to Decker, folding up the map. “So, like—who’s Lamar and Jenny?”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re not going to meet them,” Decker said.
Something moved in the building across the highway, in the crumbling gap that used to be a set of double doors. A critter, maybe. Or a person. Or people. He squinted, trying to see better.
“I feel like maybe I should know if—”
Decker held up a hand, hushing Tyler. He pushed his other hand into his jacket, brushing the handle of his pistol.
Somebody stepped out of the opening. Dark clothes, a grey splotch of face. The figure took one hand out of its pocket and waved.
For a split second, Decker was back in his dream, looking into Alice’s bloodless face, striking over and over. Nausea rippled up from his gut, gagging him.
He snapped back to the scene in front of him, just in time to see the Infect walking backward, disappearing in the gloom inside the building. That’s who it was, the Infect. No mistaking it this time, it was right there in front of him.
Decker shoved off the door frame and sprinted toward the highway.
Rosin and Tyler were yelling at him; he ignored them and kept running, toward the place where the Infect had disappeared. He crossed the highway and unholstered his pistol, and his thoughts came cold and quiet, one at a time, like marbles dropping into water.
He’d go in there. Face that thing down. Shoot the freaky dead bastard in his face, as many times as it took to make sure it wasn’t getting back up. And then he could walk away and it’d be over.
He dodged around the wreckage of felled billboards, and the stripped-down carcass of a pickup truck. Up a short incline of dead grass, up to the door the Infect had gone through.
Decker stopped in front of the empty metal door frames, twisted and crooked against the darkness of the building’s interior. He waited for a moment, breathing even and measured until his heartbeat settled. Then he stepped through the opening, moving slowly and letting his vision adjust to the dark.
His pulse pounded in his temples. He kept his gun out, the tip of his index finger tickling the trigger. Some distant, detached part of him wondered at how calm he felt.
He stood in some kind of lobby. A thin layer of sand covered the floors. The lobby opened up into a much larger room, empty and stripped of everything, even the light fixtures. Not many places to hide.
Two pairs of boots tromped behind him.
“Decker?” Rosin did not sound happy. “For crying out loud, man.”
Decker ignored him, continuing further into the room. There were a couple of smaller rooms off of this one, maybe the Infect had gone in there.
“I swear, it’s like my boss is a five-year-old.” Exasperation cracked in Rosin’s voice. “Seriously, Decker, talk to me.”
“There’s an Infect in here,” Decker said. “Keep talking if you want to die.”
“Just one Infect? Out here? And what is he, hiding? So help me, Shonda, I’m gonna shoot him in the leg right now.”
Shonda chuckled. She never quite grasped the gravity of a situation.
Decker paused, eyeing a high doorway ahead that led into another room. Could be the Infect was on the other side, just waiting for him to come on through. He couldn’t just go barging in.
Then, outside the building, a scream rang out, snapping off in a choke.
Decker turned. Rosin and Shonda stood in the lobby, staring at him. Just Rosin and Shonda.
Rosin gasped a curse, whirled, and ran back outside. Shonda followed, and Decker passed her on the way out.
Tyler lay on his stomach in the middle of the highway. Blood pooled around him, almost black on the dusty asphalt. A strange stick-like object lay a few yards from him, and Decker had to stare at it for a second before he realized it was the upper half of an arm.
Rosin shouted something and dropped to his knees by Tyler. Decker walked toward the body, scanning their surroundings for signs of movement. It couldn’t be far, but where was it hiding?
Tyler moved then, in slow motion like a wounded beetle, rolling onto his side. His right arm ended in a stump at the elbow. Blood-soaked shreds of sleeve hid the wound. He blinked, as if the sunlight hurt his eyes. Then he curled his legs underneath him and tucked his face into the asphalt like a kid going to sleep.
Decker pulled his belt off, and dropped to one knee in the blood puddling around Tyler. “Shonda, grab his med kit out of the jeep. Keep your gun handy. Before you come back, turn the jeep on.”
“The pump’s broke—it’s gonna overheat,” she said.
“That’s what we want. We’ve got to cauterize this arm. Do it. Rosin, you just keep an eye out.” Decker made a loop with his belt and wrapped it around Tyler’s upper arm, just above the stump, and cinched it tight. With his finger and thumb he pulled back the strips of shirt hiding the wound, and frowned. It wasn’t sliced, it was torn—twisted right off. Harder to deal with.
“The hell—the hell does that kinda thing?” Rosin turned slowly above them, rifle up. “Tyler gonna make it?”
Decker shook his head. “He’s going to have to make it until we can walk him to Bowzerville.”
He looked up, straining to catch sight of the Infect. Hills, dust, dead grass, rubble, all the way to the horizon on either side. Nothing else moving.
He swore quietly and bent back over Tyler.
Liked this chapter? Have feedback? Leave a comment below, or critique this installment on Google Docs.