Behind the Firewall, there was at least the pretense of a stern attitude toward recreational drug use. Supposedly most non-Stratos-sanctioned drugs could damage the functionality of your neural implants, so for the general citizen the practice was frowned upon.
However, there was always some high-up Stratos official who didn’t mind risking his hardware for a chemical-induced respite from the bleakness of everyday Firewall life. Back in the early days of Decker’s career as a Firewall merc, he’d made quite a few runs to Downgrade colonies, where narcotics were as common to everyday life as alcohol. And probably less likely to spontaneously combust in your intestinal tract.
Here in the local tavern, the drugs were listed right below the drinks on the menu that was painted in block letters on the wall behind the bar. The only way you’d know they weren’t booze were the cheesy names and exorbitant prices.
No stools in front of the bar. Patrons leaned on it while they ordered. Decker stood, back rigid, and resisted the urge to rub his face with both hands. He wondered if his skin was visibly twitching. Everything in his vision was too focused, sharp outlines that grew sharper as he looked, razors and needles in his visual cortex.
He swore under his breath. If this didn’t work, he was going to break more than Rosin’s thumbs.
A tall girl behind the bar looked at him expectantly, picking at a piece of dried something on the bar with her thumbnail. Her hair was buzzed down to her scalp, and a flock of bird tattoos migrated from the top of her head and down the right side of her face.
He licked his lips with a dry tongue. “Shangra.”
She nodded. “In your drink?”
“You want just the Shangra, or you want me to put it in some whiskey or something? Some people like it that way, a little more discreet like that.” She eyed him with a smirk. “Looks like you’re a little past caring, though.”
“Whiskey would be fine,” he said. “And when I leave I’m going to need to take some of your cheapest booze with me.”
“Long as you got something to put it in. And the Eagles to pay for it. Gonna be seventeen, mister.”
He gave her the money and one of the metal water flasks they’d already emptied. She set the flask on the counter and dropped the Eagles into something under the bar. Then came back up with a bottle, a small tumbler, and a metal can. She pinched some grey powder from the can into the tumbler, then poured the whiskey over it and gave it a stir with a spoon.
She slid the tumbler across the counter. “Go find a table and enjoy. Before you leave, come by and get the rest of your stuff. Might want to write yourself a reminder, because if you walk out of here without it, it’s not my job to chase you down.”
Decker took the tumbler and turned to face the rest of the room. The tavern was the biggest clusterdome in this part of the city. From the outside it looked like a mass of giant frog eggs. On the inside, lamps strung from the ceiling cast spotty yellow light over a haphazard gauntlet of tables and milling men and women who were already impressively drunk at nine in the evening. Some sat quietly with their drinks and attempted normal conversation, some reeled from table to table interrupting them, and one man was serenading a ragged stuffed gopher that was mounted on the wall in a desperate attempt at decor.
Decker found an empty table in the back, where he could keep the corner of his eye on the rest of the room. His hand shook a little as he raised the tumbler, trying not to inhale, and downed the stuff in two swigs.
He set his jaw and blinked as it scorched its way down. The bad alcohol couldn’t hide a strange, chalky aftertaste, and a nagging feeling he’d just done something really stupid.
It hit a few seconds later. The room started glowing, and the razor-hard outlines that had hurt his eyes a minute ago went soft and fuzzy, following the objects they belonged to like lethargic shadows. He shot a look over at the bartender girl, and her tattoo seemed much closer than across the room, a flock of birds flapping in his face like moths around a light.
He winced away, waving his hand at them, and then realized he was swatting empty air. Freaky. He wondered what else was in that Shangra stuff.
But then the familiar numbness settled through him again, soothing away the twitch under his skin. Quieting the buzz in his head. He was calm again, in control. It felt amazing, in a blank, unfeeling kind of way.
“What’s your name?” asked a giant mouth on the other side of the table.
Decker pulled back, blinking. The mouth bent into a red half-smile. He wrenched his focus back, and then the mouth was smaller, and belonged to the face of a skinny teenage girl with a ponytail and long eyelashes. She sat opposite him, one leg crossed over the other, sandaled foot bobbing slowly up and down.
“Looks like Cindy gave you some good stuff,” the girl said, and grinned. “What’s your name, do you remember?”
“My name’s Decker,” he said. His voice sounded distant, and for a second he wondered if he’d said it, or just thought it.
“That’s a tough name. You look like a tough guy.” She blinked, slowly, and then her eyelashes were huge in Decker’s vision, so close he could see the segments that made up each lash. It made his face itch. “So what are you in Bowzerville for, Decker?” asked one of the eyelashes.
“I had to help a guy,” Decker said.
“Aw, that’s nice of you. You seem nice, Decker. Are you going to ask my name, now I know yours?”
“What’s your name?” he asked, although it didn’t seem that important. Maybe if he hadn’t answered, she would have taken a hint and just left.
The girl was normal-sized again. “My name’s Kaitlyn,” she said. “You can call me Kaity if you want.”
The name made him sit a little straighter. That name, there was something special about that name. He remembered… Yeah, it was something Alice had said. One time.
Kaitlyn’s mouth moved again, but this time it was Alice’s low, sort of husky voice. “Just one sister,” she said, because he’d asked her if she had any family, “and I don’t know where she is now. She’d be sixteen now. Her name’s Kaitlyn.”
He stared at the girl across the table, thoughts snapping together and breaking apart in the same instant. Kaitlyn, was this Alice’s sister Kaitlyn? She was just about the right age, sixteen, maybe seventeen. It was her, it had to be.
“Kaitlyn,” he said.
“That’s it. Kaity fits me better though, don’t you think?”
Wait. She couldn’t be Alice’s sister. Alice had told him about her sister five years ago, soon after they’d met. Her Kaitlyn would be twenty-one. This girl was too young. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking.
“So how about it, Decker, you looking for something fun to do with your night?” Kaitlyn was saying. “Or do you just wanna stare at my forehead some more?”
It took a few seconds for her words to click in his brain, and then it all made sense. No other reason for a young girl to strike up a conversation with a man his age, in a bar, this late at night. He frowned. “How old are you?”
“I dunno. How old are you?” She smiled and leaned forward on her elbows. “Look, you may have all night to sit here and make up your mind, but I don’t, so if I don’t hear from you in like fifteen seconds I’ll just be finding another table. And that’d be a bummer, because I like your chin. You have a really nice chin, Decker.”
Her face went large in his vision, eyes half-lidded, teasing mouth slanted, a hint of freckles around the bridge of her nose. And underneath it, magnified along with everything else, there was a flicker of fear. She was scared of something.
On a whim, he looked up, scanning the room. Out of the blurry, moving figures, there was a man who stood out, a guy sitting alone at a table on the opposite side of the room, watching them. He was tall and hulking, bald on the top, long hair in the back. A scraggly beard hid his mouth.
Decker cleared his throat. “You have a friend back there?”
Kaitlyn’s smile went flat. “That was fifteen seconds. See you, Decker.”
She started to rise. Decker reached out and caught her arm, and she froze. Her eyes widened in a flinch, the kind born from long habit.
A strange, cold anger needled through the numbness. “Tell me about the guy with the beard.”
“He’s the guy who’s going to come put his foot through your teeth if you don’t let go of me,” she hissed.
“Business not so good tonight?” Decker asked. He looked at the guy with the beard. The man was watching them closely, and had his hands on the table like he was about to get up. “I don’t know if it matters to that random guy over there, but he doesn’t look happy with me.”
“He’s not.” Her glare burned in her voice. “I’m warning you, you better drop the arm.”
Decker let go. “Stay here a minute.” Without looking back, he rose and pushed his way through the tables and drunks, toward the bearded man. The man settled back in the chair and waited, his eyes never leaving Decker’s face.
Decker stopped in front of the man’s table and looked down. “So. She says her name’s Kaitlyn.”
“Pretty name, ain’t it?” The man’s tongue bulged in his cheek.
“It’s kinda pretty,” Decker said. “Listen, I’ve got something special in mind, and I don’t mind paying extra.”
The man nodded slowly. “I’m listening.”
Decker let his mouth crook into a grin. “Not something I’m real comfortable with discussing in public. You wanna step outside?”
The man looked around, then back at Decker. “Not really. Speak quiet if you want.”
Decker reached into his jacket pocket and scooped out a handful of eagles, holding them out for the man to look at. “I’m a private man. And like I said, I don’t mind paying extra.”
The man’s eyes narrowed, and he shrugged. “Okay. Sure.”
Decker turned and walked back through the bar. In his peripheral vision, he could see the man following. He didn’t feel high. He was focused, a tight bundle of cold decision. Even if he didn’t know exactly what that decision was.
He found the answer to that question a few moments later, when the man stepped into the street behind him, and he swiveled and whipped the side of his arm into the man’s throat.
The man staggered backward, clawing at his throat. His eyes bulged in the dim light of a street lamp. Decker grabbed him by the shirt, dragged him upright, and hit him across the jaw. He toppled. Decker followed him down and hit him again.
At some point as he beat the man his surroundings faded and he saw Alice sitting on the hood of a car, squinting at the horizon as she told him that she had a sister named Kaitlyn, but she didn’t know where she was.
When the vision cleared, he was standing on the other side of the street with three men pinning his arms to his sides, and a crowd had gathered around the limp body sprawled facedown just outside the tavern.
“Is he dead?” Decker asked.
They didn’t answer, just wheeled him around and dragged him in the opposite direction. They wouldn’t let him go back for his flask, with the alcohol that was supposed to be for Tyler.
He tasted salt and thought it might be blood, and then he realized his eyes and cheeks were wet. Tears. Odd, he thought. Or maybe just another trick of the drug.
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