Before the virus, with a virtual reality of infinite opportunity available for anyone with enough of a brain to stick an implant in, not many places in actual reality held much charm.
Pre-virus Zero was Stratos’s attempt at remedying that. For those who could afford it, the city was a real-world playground with almost as much possibility as the Grid.
Almost was only Almost, though, and the city never really took off. Until the virus, when there was a sudden demand for places to herd all the people who didn’t want to be cyborg zombies.
Now, it was quite the boomtown.
You wouldn’t know it at first glance, though. Decker crept the truck down a thin street of the civilian sector. No one out here except for the guards in white skinsuits and eyeless helmets, their limbs huge and misproportioned by combat cybernetics. They stood motionless, except to wave him on, and he nodded to them.
They would have all been notified that this vehicle had clearance. Any scanning of their own would quickly have him busted, but hopefully they wouldn’t do that.
On either side of the street rose the tremendous, arched structures where the inhabitants of Zero spent their lives. High above the streets, tubelike walkways connected the buildings. You could travel all the way across the Firewall without ever looking at the sky, or the horizon, and being reminded of the bigness of the world and all the things in it that wanted to slurp your soul like a noodle.
Miles ahead, the three Stratos towers rose above the murky light of the city and disappeared in the night sky.
Decker parked the truck in a side street on the fringe of the civilian sector, out of sight of the guards. Turned around and checked Rudolph and Gar. They were wiggling, grunting, but he’d done a good job with the ropes.
“Look, guys,” he said. “This probably wasn’t what you wanted to be doing with your evening, I know. Sorry. I don’t have time to explain, but Stratos screwed me over, and it’s only a matter of time before they do the same to you. If you get free before anyone finds you, do yourselves a favor and find a new job.”
They squinted at him and growled through their gags.
He opened the door, started to slide out, and then looked back over the seat. “And if we ever meet again, I’ll let you have one free punch.”
Decker got out and stood for a moment by the door, holding the shotgun. He felt a little naked, leaving it behind. But he couldn’t walk into the middle of Stratos with a shotgun on his back, so naked it was. The gun went under the seat of the truck.
And then Decker left the civilian sector, dwarfing himself against the three massive towers as he walked toward them.
In the base of the middle tower, a door slid open and five white-suited figures strode out toward him. One man walked a little ahead, shiny-bald and unnaturally pale, but without the creepy helmet and stretched-out limbs of the others.
Decker stopped. The soldiers lined up in front of him, and the leader stepped forward. His eyes glinted with changing color, a hint of retinal implants.
“Where are the men who brought you in?” he asked, one hand on his holstered sidearm.
“They had to turn around,” Decker said. “Needed on outside reconnaissance. Something about the Crims, I’m not sure.”
The officer’s eyes narrowed. “Check his ID.”
One of the soldiers stepped forward and reached for his eyelid. Decker held still. The white helmet stared into his face for a moment and then turned back around.”Four-thirty-three-zero,” the soldier’s voice fuzzed. “Decker.”
“Decker.” The officer nodded. “You’re kind of big news, for a Downgrade. What brings you to Zero?”
Decker pursed his lips. “What’s your clearance, officer?”
“Enough for anything you’ve got.” The officer cocked an eyebrow. “Report.”
Decker paused a moment. “You’ve got a dirty Updater.”
The officer’s face didn’t change. “Go on.”
“Firewall One’s been keeping an eye on him for a while,” Decker said. “His name’s Dio 11. Somehow the Crims got to him–he’s with them.”
The officer nodded as if he wasn’t that surprised. “We’ve been keeping tabs on him, too. But if you’re suggesting that a cult from outside is communicating with the most secure portion of the Firewall, you’d better have some evidence, soldier.”
“Hey, I’m just a merc.” Decker shrugged. “I’m only here to mop up the situation. But here’s the thing, when he gets the go-ahead from outside, this Updater is going to tear a big hole in the Firewall, and this place is going to be one big Infect town.”
The officer blinked. Kept his face stoic, but if he hadn’t already been fish-belly white, his face might have paled. “Why haven’t we heard about this?”
“We don’t know how many people are involved.” Decker allowed a grim edge into his voice. “If the Crims got to an Updater, they could have gotten anywhere.”
“I’ll send some men to take him out,” the officer said.
“Can’t do that,” Decker said. “He’s made himself into a failsafe. If he dies, the Firewall goes down. And if he gets spooked, it goes down. That’s why I’m here. I know how to deal with him.”
The officer stared at Decker for a moment. “I’d like to speak to Firewall One before I let you in.”
“Be my guest,” Decker said. “Talk to Hyrand. Might want to be quick about it, though.”
The officer turned and walked a few paces away, bringing one hand to his ear. The four soldiers stood ready, watching Decker through their featureless helmets. He nodded to them conversationally.
It was a long shot. Hopefully, Hyrand didn’t have any reason to believe that business wasn’t proceeding as usual. Best-case scenario, he was moderately impressed by Decker’s resourcefulness and played along with the story.
Worst-case scenario could be just about anything, but was pretty much guaranteed to end with him getting shot a whole bunch of times.
The officer lowered his hand and walked back, his mouth a small pale line. He stopped in front of Decker, and nodded curtly. “You check out. Two of my men will show you where you’re going. You have level-four clearance inside the building, they’ll fit you with a wristlet as soon as you’re inside.”
He raised his hand, and two of the soldiers stepped forward.
“Appreciated,” Decker said.
“Hyrand asked me to pass along a message,” the officer said, and the skin under his left eyebrow twitched. “He says to keep in mind how much depends on you, Mr. Decker.”
“Absolutely.” Decker touched his cap to the officer, then raised his eyebrows at the two soldiers. “So, boys, we ready?”
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