Decker rode the ponderous lift up, the white-shelled soldiers standing on either side of him. He wondered if they were sweating in their armor, thinking about the Firewall going down. The virus crashing in like a tsunami and squeezing into their minds, and nothing they could do about it.
It wasn’t the worst lie he’d ever told, but it was up there. For getting face-to-face with an Updater, though, it was turning out pretty effective.
The lift stopped. The metal walls surrounding them dropped into the floor, revealing a vast room made of several different levels, with ramps and walkways leading between them.
Activity seethed—people squeezing past each other on the walkways, clicking down short flights of stairs, crammed behind squat metal desks, their faces tense and green in the glow of computers. A miserable existence. Probably the only way to handle it was to keep reminding yourself that at least you weren’t an Updater.
That was a whole new level of miserable. He’d witnessed it once or twice, and he wasn’t really looking forward to seeing it again.
Decker turned to the soldiers. “Thanks, guys. I’ll take it from here.”
“You’d spook him. It’s got to be just me.” He gave them a firm look. “I’ll handle it. Okay?”
Slowly, they nodded. Decker stepped off the lift.
A few muttered exchanges directed him up a short ramp to the module where the Updaters of Core 3 were monitored. Four or five people huddled over their desks, their eyes glued to ever-shifting columns of information on their screens.
Decker stopped behind one of them, a woman with cropped, greasy hair of indeterminable color. He cleared his throat.
She didn’t move. He reached out and tapped her on the shoulder.
The woman started, and twisted around. Her eyes blinked into focus, and she shot him a questioning glare.
“I need to see an Updater,” Decker said. “Dio 11.”
The woman raised her eyebrows, and Decker pushed up his sleeve, revealing the blinking clearance wristlet.
She stared at it, scanning with some kind of cerebral implant, and then her eyes widened, and she looked at him in bewilderment. Probably wasn’t used to seeing Downgrades with level four clearance.
He smiled thinly. “Not joking here. This is urgent, so please move fast.”
The woman turned back to her screen, and it exploded in a burst of data. She nodded slowly. “You have access to the room. It will open for your wristlet.” She gave him a sideways glance. “Level thirty, room fifteen.”
“Thanks much,” Decker said, and headed back to the lift.
Decker counted unmarked doors down the narrow hallway. More like hatches—reinforced oblong metal things with no opening mechanism in sight.
Twelve, fourteen, thirteen, fifteen. He stopped in front of the door, reached out and touched it with his fingertips. His wristlet beeped, and the door opened.
The smell, he remembered, was the worst part. It was like decay, and human waste, and living rot. He thought he was ready for it, but the liquid smell crashed down his nostrils and stirred up the nausea he’d done such a great job of forgetting for the last few hours.
He had to stop, put his hands on his knees and squeeze his eyes shut, just concentrate on not puking for a second. Itching skittered across his skin, and he shook his head, trying to push it out of his thoughts. No thinking about that now.
Decker unbent and surveyed the room. The door sealed shut behind him.
The room was small, circular, lit only by a few yellow-flickering displays on the wall flashing meaningless graphs and numbers. In a single metal chair bolted to the opposite wall, the Updater huddled.
The man’s torso was all sagging flesh and bloated gut, dwarfing his stick-like arms and legs that hung listless from the chair. A scrawny neck barely supported a head drooping forward, chin resting on the top of chest. Pale eyes stared out of his bony face, twitching back and forth as if reading something invisible in the air. His forehead rose high and bulbous, concealing all the cybernetic crap shoved into his brain. Patches of hair persisted around the sides of his head, like moss clinging to a mountain.
Dio 11. Not even the dignity of a real name.
Decker approached the Updater. The man’s eyes darted back and forth, unseeing. Decker stood in front of him, waiting, until Dio blinked and looked up at him.
His eyes widened, and his lips moved silently for a moment. “You–you’re a Downgrade.” His voice came hoarse and unnaturally high. “Did Hyrand–Did Firewall One send you?”
Dio’s eyes closed, and he drew in a ragged breath. “They stopped answering my messages–I thought they’d… And then Zero started watching me and I couldn’t risk it anymore.” His eyes opened, and burned into Decker’s face. “Are you here to get me out?”
He’d never actually spoken to an Updater before. Something about the man’s voice drew a knot in his stomach. Decker set his jaw. “Tell me about the projects I’m here to stop.”
Dio hesitated a moment, and then his eyes narrowed. “No. First I want to know how I get out of here. I want to know you’re not going to leave me here. Those are my terms, I already told Hyrand.”
Hyrand hadn’t said anything about extracting the Updater. That didn’t make any sense–the man didn’t even look capable of getting out of his chair, let alone sneaking out of the facility.
“He said his team could do it. He said–once I was back, they could fix me. Get me back to normal.” Dio’s mouth quivered. “They can do that, right?”
Decker didn’t know what to say. He stood silent, looking down at the mess of science and screwed-up humanity sitting in front of him. Normal–had this guy been normal? He’d assumed that Updaters were just grown or something, human fetuses twisted and doomed to their job from the very beginning.
“I didn’t even know,” the man was saying, his voice rising shrill, spittle flecking on his bloodless lips. “I didn’t even know what they were going to do to me. I was a Downgrade for god’s sake, I thought I was just coming here to check things out for Hyrand, see what’s going on, and then they put me to sleep and I wake up like this.” His eyes stared, haunted. “You don’t sleep. You don’t sleep after what they do, your brain just keeps going, and going. Just numbers, all the time, numbers and numbers–“
Decker knelt in front of the Updater. “Listen. I’m sorry, I really am. But you’ve got to give me that info.”
“NO.” Dio’s lips bent into a snarl. “They lied. I’m not giving them anything.”
Heat pounded in Decker’s temples. Time was running out. Any second now, somebody was going to find the two guards he’d left trussed in his truck, or just wonder why he was taking so long and come to check on him. And all this would be for nothing.
He reached out with both hands, grabbed Dio by his shoulders, and heaved him out of the chair.
Dio shrieked and sprawled onto his side, one leg kicking the air uselessly. Then he went limp, and his face contorted. He started sobbing, ragged and breathless.
The sound tore down Decker’s spine, stirred up the crawling and itching under his skin and he bit on his cheek until he tasted blood. He needed the shot in his arm, that cool numbness that would chase all this away, keep him from feeling.
Or a gun with a bullet that he could put in his brain and never feel anything again.
The thought slammed into him with a force that staggered. He ground his teeth and tore himself away from it. He went to one knee by the Updater, forcing his thoughts into coherency.
“Hey,” he said hoarsely. “They lied to me, too. They tried to kill me, and they’ll probably try again. I can’t help you, but if you tell me what I need to know, I swear that I’m going to make Hyrand and the rest of them pay for what they did to both of us.”
Dio’s crying choked in his throat and faded to a gurgle. He stared half-lidded at empty air, expressionless. “Please kill me.”
Decker bit his cheek again. “Give me the info, and then we’ll talk.”
“There’s a boy named Lyan,” Dio said, voice monotone. “They keep him in a cell. He’s on the lowest level of Core 2.”
Decker nodded. “Okay. He’s the secret weapon?”
“One of them.” Dio’s eyes closed. “Just one of them. The other is being held at the top of Core 3. This building. Hyrand wants it destroyed, but you’ll have a hard time with that.”
A smile spread across Dio’s face. “I’m not even supposed to know this, but I’ve been keeping an eye on it for so long.”
“Why am I going to have a hard time?” Decker repeated.
Dio’s eyes opened. “Because it escaped just a little while ago.” The lights from the display monitors illuminated his smile, crooked and humorless. “You’d better work fast, Downgrade.”
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