By the time the lights of Vale blinked into view on the horizon, Decker was dripping sweat and shivering like a newborn rat in the back seat of the truck.
He kept his pistol up—Rosin griped at him at first, saying he was going to shoot somebody in the back of the head, but he couldn’t let himself relax. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw it floating in front of him–dead skin, dark veins, smiling lips as it stabbed down.
He wanted to be ready when it showed up for real.
And it was that thought, the idea of shooting that thing’s face as many times as his shaking finger could pull the trigger, that saved him from the pain. God, the pain. Not the rawness and bruises he’d gotten from Jenny, or even the physical sickness of the withdrawal, it was the scorching, crushing agony in his mind, the dark thing that had finally shaken off the numbness and was screaming.
It was terror, it was rage, it was Alice, it was a gibbering, swirling storm of a hundred other things, and now there was nothing in the way. Nothing to keep him from being sucked in. Nothing except the sharp metal edge of the trigger rubbing a blister on his finger.
Rosin swatted Shonda on the shoulder. “Stop the truck.”
The vehicle hitched to a standstill, and the engine coughed quiet. The one working headlight strained to carve a faint slice of orange light out of the darkness ahead, illuminating maybe fifty feet of highway. This close to the city, the worst crevices in the road had been filled with gravel and garbage.
Decker dragged himself upright, gnawing on his tongue to focus through the shrieking of his own brain. “Why’d we stop?” His mouth was wood.
“It’s too quiet. Vale’s never quiet, it goes ninety-to-one all night.” Rosin leaned forward, balancing his rifle on his knees.
Part of Decker wanted to scream at them for stopping. He couldn’t stand to be motionless right now. They had to keep rolling toward something.
But he ground his teeth and forced himself to listen.
The string of lights, maybe a mile away, shone white pinpricks in the darkness ahead. Silence of the desert night filtered between skitterings and croaks of a thousand invisible bugs, the popping of the engine as it cooled. But no muted pulsing of music drifting from where the lights were. No muttering of distant nightlife. Vale was totally quiet.
“That’s not right,” Rosin said. “It shouldn’t be like that. What do you think, what’s going on?” He glanced over his shoulder at Decker and scowled. “Look at you, I don’t even know why I’m asking.”
Decker forced his spine straight. “Because I’m still in charge.” He growled acid into the words, but it was probably counteracted by the sweating and shaking. “Let’s keep driving.”
“What? No.” Rosin’s eyebrows lifted in disbelief. “You don’t see the red flag here?”
“We don’t have time for red flags.” Decker swallowed. “We’ll be slow and careful. But let’s go.”
One thing Vale had going for it was a great fence.
Sanctioned and funded by the Firewalls, the fifty-foot reinforced wire fence would have withstood the impact of several large trucks. It was constantly manned by well-armed militia, who only let you through the gate if you asked nicely. And let them hold your guns until you were ready to leave.
Except for now, when the gate was wide open and totally abandoned.
Glaring white lights mounted along the top of the fence illuminated the thick wire weave like a black spiderweb. The gate gaped, letting the road pass into the city unchallenged. Along the base of the fence, and into the first row of buildings, nothing moved or breathed.
Rosin swore in a hushed voice, like a prayer. Shonda eased the truck forward, and it crept through the open gate into Vale.
Reds, purples, and oranges spilled out of the doors and windows of brothels, bars, and gaming halls, turning the gravel street a muddy cacophony of neon.
Decker gulped down nausea and swiveled back and forth, aiming into the buildings, but nothing human-shaped moved in the windows. No pounding music, drunken laughter, scuffling of half-hearted brawls.
“Hey, hey. Stop.” Rosin jabbed the end of his rifle at a door a few yards ahead of them, backlit a greenish-yellow. A dark man-shaped shadow sprawled across the threshold. Looked like a man, lying on his back with his head toward the street.
Shonda halted the truck. Rosin slid out, shooting glances up and down the street. He gestured with his gun toward the limp body. “I’m gonna see if that one’s alive. Keep me covered.”
Rosin stalked toward the prone man. Decker grabbed the back of the seat and pulled himself toward the passenger door opening. “Stay in the truck, Shonda,” he said, his words slurring like a drunk.
She didn’t try to stop him.
His boots hit the gravel, and his left knee buckled. Decker grabbed the doorframe of the jeep and wheezed through his teeth.
One step, two steps, three steps. Agony danced in his joints, and nausea beat on his core like a bad drummer.
He limped closer. Rosin already crouched by the man, who lay on his back, shirtless in the sick-green glow through the door. His enormous gut sagged to one side.
Didn’t appear to be breathing, but it was hard to tell in the muddy light. Past him, through the door opening, several gambling tables were visible. A dark, ragged stain began near one of the tables and ended underneath the fat guy.
“Still alive,” Rosin said, and slapped the man’s face.
A tiny wheeze escaped the man’s nostrils. Rosin slapped him again. His eyelids dragged open, and he moaned.
“Hey, what happened here?” Rosin snapped.
The man coughed. “Still not dead. Sheez. How long is this gonna take?” He chuckled, liquid rattling in his throat.
“Long as it takes to answer my question,” Rosin said. “Why’s everybody gone?”
The man grunted, and his face contorted. “The Crims. They… they’re coming this way. More than we’ve ever seen. Our militia… they left first. Just ran and left us.”
The Crims. Decker knew that name should mean something to him. A militant anti-Stratos cult, or something. His brain, he couldn’t think straight.
“This was my place,” the guy continued, voice taut and rattling. “A couple of my regulars… they decided it’d be a good time to stab me in the back… all the commotion.” He chuckled again. “Wouldn’t you know it.”
“Hey.” Rosin grabbed the man’s chin and forced his head off the ground. “I don’t care, okay? The Crims, how do you know they’re coming?”
“They started moving yesterday… a shacking… army,” the man grunted. “Word is they’re headed right through us… headed to Firewall Zero. Take ’em out.”
Rosin swore and released the chin. “Firewall Zero. Wouldn’t you know it.”
He stood up and walked back toward the truck, muttering viciously. Decker lowered to his knees, staring at the fat man lying there, bleeding out.
“Just wanna die… before they get here.” The man turned his head, studying Decker through bleary eyes. “You look about as screwed as me, stranger.”
Decker just shivered and held the man’s gaze. Something about his eyes, those foggy eyes filled with the certainty of death, calmed Decker’s thoughts. Made the screaming falter, just for a moment.
“But you’re a hell of a lot more scared than me,” the man said, and his white lips tried to smile.
Gravel crunched behind Decker. “Decker, put your gun on the ground,” Rosin said.
Decker wondered if he’d heard right. He put his hand down, to try to lift to his feet.
“Don’t move,” Rosin snarled. “Gun down.“
Shick-shick. Shonda’s shotgun.
The fat guy closed his eyes and started laughing, high-pitched and breathy.
Decker inhaled deep and laid his pistol down, and slowly raised his hands away. “What are you doing, Rosin?”
“Just what you’ve forced me to, Deck.” Rosin chuckled hoarsely. “God knows I hate your guts, but for crying out loud, I never wanted this.”
Decker staggered to his feet and turned around. Shonda and Rosin stood shoulder to shoulder, guns leveled. Rosin–mouth pale, nostrils dilated. Shonda, with confusion in her eyes, but determination in her jutting chin.
“We planned for this,” Rosin said. “A while back. A last resort.” He adjusted his grip on the rifle, and his eyes narrowed. “There’s something I know that you don’t, Deck, wanna hear?”
“Yeah, tell him,” Shonda said.
“There was a rumor going around, while you were in the ward,” Rosin said. “Smith–remember him? He started it. And then they called him up to headquarters and nobody saw him again.”
“I’m listening,” Decker said.
“Smith said you weren’t ever supposed to make it out of that Infect pad alive.” Rosin’s teeth glinted in a joyless grin. “You were supposed to die right next to Alice. How valuable does that make you feel, boss?”
Ice flashed through Decker’s veins. He opened his mouth to say something, deny it maybe, but the scream in his mind crashed like a tsunami. He felt the searing pain in his abdomen, those claws that had punched right through him to the concrete.
“And so how do you think I felt, when they told me I’d been handpicked, the best of the best, to go on this shady assignment with a guy who the Firewall had wanted dead just a few months ago?” Rosin’s smile bent into a sneer. “See why I haven’t been just the sunniest, these last few weeks? I tried to tell myself I was just imagining things, the Firewall wasn’t sending me on some kind of crazy suicide mission. But too many things have gone sideways. And this thing with the Crims, it’s too much.” He shook his head. “Sorry, Deck. You’re a time-bomb, and they strapped us right onto you.”
Decker couldn’t think. He looked down the murky barrels of the guns trained on him, and thought of Alice, and George Hyrand with his flat smile.
He’d been so stupid, not to see it. He’d been a dead man ever since he’d woken up in that hospital ward.
Why had they stopped him when he’d tried to kill himself, back at the Firewall? Why was he out here?
Frustration ripped through him, because he was going to die right here, shot by his own team, and those unanswered questions would float with him into dark eternity.
A sound like a tearing sock came from behind him, accompanied by a hoarse gasp. Rosin and Shonda recoiled, looking with horror at something just beyond him.
There was no thinking, Decker just spun around and dropped to one knee, and grabbed his pistol. The fat guy stared upward with dead eyes bulging, a new stain slick on his throat. A lanky shadow was just disappearing into the room beyond him.
Decker swiveled on his knee, back to face the others, bringing his pistol up. Their guns cracked and shot cut the air around him, but they weren’t firing at him.
Decker put the sights on Rosin’s chest and pulled the trigger. Dead center mass.
Rosin’s spine went rigid. He jolted backward, tripped on nothing, and landed on his back.
Shonda ran backward, screaming, bringing her shotgun to bear on Decker. Something streaked from the side, hurdled Rosin’s body, slammed into her. She toppled over, and as she hit the street her shotgun fired into the air.
The figure unfolded from her body, and a bloody blade retracted into its clenched fist.
The Infect smiled, and its colorless mouth moved to shape clumsy words.
“Just us now.”
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