Just before they reached Bowzerville, Decker made Shonda wrap the rifle, shotgun, and spare ammo in a blanket and bury them in a shallow trench.
Rosin was loud in his disagreement. “If whatever tore Ty’s arm off shows up again, I want my firepower pointed at it, not in a hole in the ground.”
Tyler sobbed something unintelligible and tried to sit up. Decker pushed him back down. “If it shows up, you’re going to need an EMP, not a gun.”
“Maybe so, but a gun would also come handy for when we walk into that town and Lamar and Jenny send the cavalry after us.”
“You walk in there with a rifle on your shoulder, you boost the likelihood of the cavalry coming by about two hundred percent.” Decker stood up and kicked more sand over the trench, then gave Rosin a hard look. “If you can’t hide it on you, we’re leaving it here.”
Bowzerville’s main gate was a rusty behemoth of a truck with some sort of cannon mounted in its bed, parked in a place where the sagging razor-wire fence gapped. Decker, Shonda, and Rosin half-carried Tyler up to the truck, and Decker told the two grizzled, gun-toting gentlemen that they’d crashed their jeep.
The gatekeepers asked them a few questions—where are you from, where you going, got any spare smokes, brother?—then pulled the truck to the side and let them through.
After the fence, you waded through a quarter-mile of decomposing garbage before you reached the town proper. Pre-virus, it had been some kind of StratosCorp desert prison camp for those guilty of not wanting Stratos hardware in their brains and bodies. Now, twenty-one years later, the three-mile stretch of crumbling concrete clusterdomes was home-sweet-home to many of those same people.
Bowzerville didn’t have well-trained military, a strategic location, or impenetrable defenses. What it did have was the best scavenging team in the area, and a willingness to pimp itself to anyone higher in the food chain. They ran around collecting resources for the bigger, scarier colonies, which allowed those colonies more spare time to do the things they liked doing, such as trying to burn each other to the ground. Bowzerville didn’t have much for itself, but its people got to exist in relative peace and security, as long as they worked their butts off and kept their heads down.
It was the kind of place where three strangers could come staggering into town, holding up a mostly-unconscious, one-armed man, and no one would look twice.
Tyler’s head bobbed as they dragged him down the sand-and-gravel street, Decker on one side, Rosin on the other, and Shonda walking behind, lifting up on his belt. His skin had gone the color of a dead lizard’s belly, but he was still breathing, thanks to Decker’s tourniquet and a very hot jeep engine.
Twilight seeped into the air, darkening the streets. Various makeshift lamps hung from poles and the sides of the larger domes. Probably came on at night, but someone hadn’t switched them on yet. Men and women in coveralls and grime-smudged faces hurried past, faces blurred in the gloom. An old man with crooked shoulders paused to stare at them, one hand picking spasmodically at his left earlobe.
“Our buddy’s hurt,” Decker said. “Anywhere we can get a room to rest him in?”
The old man kept staring and picking. Finally he spoke. “Tell you for two eagles.”
Decker braced his feet and dug into his jacket with his free hand, fishing out two jaded, uneven metal discs. Eagles—currency of the Downgrade realm. Some of them were stamped with snakes’ heads, some with caricatures of some random colony leader, and some were just blank. Decker had never seen any that actually had anything to do with an eagle.
He held them out, and the old man reached out the hand that wasn’t fiddling with his ear, clawed them into his palm, and started to shuffle away.
“Hey,” Rosin snapped. “You walk away, I’m gonna rip that ear right off your head.”
The old man stopped and looked around, then pointed at a nearby dome that didn’t look big enough for a motel. Then he turned and walked away with a speed very different from his old-man walk from before. Rosin snarled.
“Can’t hurt to check it out,” Decker said. He shifted Tyler’s weight on his shoulder and started forward, dragging the others along.
The crawling was starting again, under his skin, and the sensation that something in his brain was coming awake that shouldn’t. He tried to ignore it, just focus on the rusty, patched metal door in the dome in front of them. One step at a time. Once they got Tyler settled, he could pull out the meds and shoot himself up. Probably wasn’t supposed to be doing that, but the medic of the group was currently missing a limb and making hurt-puppy noises.
They reached the door, and he slammed the toe of his boot into it a couple of times. A pause, and then it squeaked open, just a crack.
“Guy told us this was the place to get a room,” Decker said.
The door opened a little bit more, and an eye peeked through the crack at them. “Rooms are just for the night. You hafta be gone in the morning.”
“Perfect,” Decker said.
“Long as we’re clear there.” The door opened all the way. A short young guy with thinning hair flipped his hand for them to enter, then turned and walked back into the dim interior of the dome.
They squeezed through the door. On the inside, a couple of rugs—one square and purple, one rectangular and brown, both ratty and covered in blotchy stains—tried to cover a cracked tile floor. On one side of the room, a wooden table held a collection of dishes streaked with old food, and a single bare-bulb lamp. A privacy curtain hung from a rope strung across the other side of the room, but it was pulled back halfway, revealing a couple of cots covered in rumpled clothes.
“Not much room in here,” Decker said.
The man crossed to the wall and grabbed a ring of three keys off of a wall hook. “I have a few of the places on this street. You’ll be in number…” he held the key ring close to his face and squinted. “Thirty-seven.” He wiggled one of the keys off and looked up at Decker. “Long as you have ten eagles in advance.”
Decker nodded. “We can do that.”
The man held the key up, and looked at Tyler, eyebrows raised. “He hurt?”
“He looks like he’s missing an arm.”
“Looks like it because he is.”
“Bummer.” The man looked unimpressed. “Twelve eagles. You gotta pay more for sick boarders, especially if they’re gonna be hollering and waking up neighbors.”
Decker handed over the money. The man tossed it in his palm, then pocketed it and held out the key. “Thirty-seven. Don’t go in thirty-five by accident, the seven and five are easy to mix up on the signs, but a guy named Lotus owns thirty-five, and he’ll make you pay for the night if you so much as open the shaggin’ door.”
“Thanks for the tip.” Decker got Tyler turned around, and they went back out into the street.
They found thirty-seven, opened it with the key, and got inside. It looked pretty much like the landlord’s dome, except without rugs to cover the missing tiles.
They got Tyler onto one of the cots. His eyes were closed, and a greasy sheen of sweat shone on his face. Decker put two fingers on his throat, checking his pulse. Under his clammy skin, a pitiful, almost imperceptible throb.
“I’m going to need that med kit,” he said over his shoulder to Shonda. He’d need to take care of Tyler before he could get his own drugs down.
There was a short silence. “Med kit?” Shonda asked.
“The med kit. Kit with the medical supplies.” Decker straightened and turned to face Shonda. She looked at him, a pucker of unease in her mouth. He stared at her. “You got it. I told you to grab it.”
“Didn’t have room. I had my hands full with my shotgun and the food supplies, and the water filter, and that kid’s belt.” She shrugged. “I yelled at you, I said Hey, I’m not gonna be able to get all—”
Decker looked at Rosin. Rosin shook his head, eyes narrowed. “We were in a hurry. I was just busy lugging my half of Ty and trying to keep an eye out for whatever got him.”
The crawling was intensifying. Decker resisted the urge to scratch his arms. “We’ve got a man who just had his arm torn off, and you guys left our medical supplies.”
“Are you sure you’re not thinking about the other man, who’s gotta have a needle in his arm every five hours?” The corner of Rosin’s mouth twitched up. “How long’s it been, Deck, pretty close to that? You may be about to go cold turkey, my friend.”
Decker rubbed his face. Chills romped through his spine. He could feel the numbness slipping, like a melting rubber mask. Behind it, something was screaming.
He dropped his hands. “I’m going back to the jeep. You two, stay here.”
“What? No.” Rosin sidestepped, in between Decker and the door. “It’s dark. That’s a bad idea, boss.”
He knew it was. He started forward, pushing past Rosin.
Rosin backpedaled, grabbing his shoulders and bringing him to a stop. “You stop. Look.” He glared into Decker’s face, eyes narrowing. “Hyrand put you in charge of this group, no matter how much I don’t like it. What’s more important, we’re down one man, and if you go out there to run around with whatever made us that way, there’s a good chance we’re gonna be down another. Okay? So can we talk like grownups and come to a halfway-decent decision here?”
Decker shrugged Rosin’s hands off his shoulders. “If you’ve got a suggestion, I’ll hear it.”
“Thanks very much. Your vote of confidence is appreciated.” Rosin grinned like he’d been kicked in the shins and was trying to look happy about it. “Okay. Every minute we spend in this town is another chance that the wrong people are going to find out we’re here, but right now we don’t have much of a choice. Alls I know is, I’m not moving from this room. So here’s what you need to do, and remember this is just a suggestion from your lowly subordinate—” he pointed at the door. “Go find a bar or something, and pick up some booze for Ty. Maybe some water too, if you can get some. And pick up some Shangra for yourself.”
“Shangra,” Decker said.
“Yeah, last time I was here, everybody made it and everybody did it. It’s cheap and easy to pick up. But I do happen to know that it shares a couple of staple ingredients with that glorified stuff you’ve been shooting your arm with.” Rosin shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe it can get you by until the morning. It’s the best idea I got. Call me Doctor Rosin.”
Decker’s jaw tightened. That idea only sounded slightly less terrible than walking back into a desert at night, where a smiling Infect might be waiting for him. It was something, though.
He looked over at Shonda. “We either need to steal a water pump, or steal a car.”
She nodded, grinning. “Either one. I can do it.”
“Great.” Decker stood still for a moment, then turned and went back out into the street to find some drugs.
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