Decker got to know his room like a regular lover. The facilities, washroom and materialiser slot were a little higher class than your typical brothel, but after a while there was the same smell of warm human and desperation. And it had the same guard on the other side of the locked door.
The sun rose and set several times, but after a while he stopped paying attention. He was locked out of the local net, and his neural implants were about as useless as he was. But he did notice the city coming to life out of his window. Lights glittered out there in the nights, vapour trails crossed the skies, and the building was rumbling constantly with the arrivals and departures of aircraft. Decker saw them once or twice. Small, thin ships, carrying large white pieces of metal between them as they fled to the stars. But without a point of contact, he could only guess at what it meant.
After a while, he began to doubt his own sanity, when even the guard on the door stopped telling him to shut up when he kicked the walls. He began to hear sounds in the walls, especially when he was asleep. He put this down to withdrawal, although he wasn’t shaking. He no longer felt like shit. Except he did.
One long afternoon, Decker was toying with the materialiser control panel. He had decided it was Friday. And Friday meant fish. His dad had always said so, back when the fish were still biting. Before the river turned sour and the fish fled the invasion better than the humans did.
“Flendarian air salmon,” Decker told the slot. “with a side of let me out, you fucker.”
“Please repeat request.” The machine said in a cold voice.
“Worth a try,” sighed Decker. As it had been worth a try yesterday and the day before. He sniffed. “Fuck it. The salmon, with a bowl of narcfruit. And a vial of Envy.”
“Warning!” said the machine. “Excessive drug use is –” the machine cut off with a high squeak, as if it had heard Decker’s thoughts. But it didn’t produce the salmon. Decker hit it, once, twice. He couldn’t hear the impact of his fist. In fact, he couldn’t hear anything at all. Not even the faint hum of the building’s reactor.
Text scrolled quickly across his eyes. It took him a moment to believe it and pinch his thigh to prove he wasn’t dreaming.
Decker, read the text. We don’t have long.
“Bril?” Decker said, his heart beating quickly. He couldn’t hear his own voice. A localised mute-field. Expensive tech back home. Two-a-breath here.
Go to the bathroom. Sent Bril. The air filter.
Decker shook his head. “Already tried that,” his throat rumbled. “Almost broke my fingers.”
Decker sighed and shuffled across the springy carpet. If he wasn’t dreaming, he might as well indulge the rat. It wasn’t like he had anything else to do.
He walked across the wet tile, past the shower recess and the misted mirror he’d written Tobias’s name on six times. He hadn’t seen it when he’d done it, and he didn’t see it now. The room smelt of cherry shampoo.
Decker climbed on top of the toilet with a grunt. Nothing had changed. The metal grate was still there, slightly below the ceiling, gleaming chrome in the harsh light. It was secured from the other side. Decker squinted past the grille but saw only darkness.
“Nothing doing, rat.” He said and rapped on the metal. That was silent too.
Push. Sent Bril.
Decker sighed, stretched on his toes and pushed. And his heart fluttered. He’d noticed the vent after the first hour Sixteen had exiled him. He’d expected it to be electrified or a hidden laser to take off his hand. But in this one aspect, Sixteen’s super-planet had overlooked something. Something he couldn’t take advantage of. Until now.
The grate fell into the vent shaft silently. There was a faint odour of dust and oil. The space was big enough to take a skinny man. Which, despite the bottomless salmon, he still was. Decker eagerly hauled at the grating, dragging himself up the wall.
Reach inside. Sent Bril.
“Fuck that,” said Decker. His boot found purchase on the tile. “I’m out.”
Not yet, Bril’s words were sudden, panicked. They’ll shoot you on sight.
“Got to see me first,” he panted as he climbed higher. He would crawl through, drop down somewhere unobserved, get a gun and … and what? Decker felt a flush spread over his cheeks. He wasn’t a soldier. He hesitated.
If you listen to me, they won’t, Bril typed. Now reach in.
Decker reached in. His fingers danced over cold metal, old dust and loose screws. He fancied they would tinkle like glass, if they could make a sound. He touched something soft and heavy. He couldn’t see much past his arm, just a long dark passage, a large fan behind a grate at the end. Decker grunted and pulled.
It was a uniform of some description. In the bathroom light, it looked grey and unassuming. Dust billowed off it in gentle clouds. It stayed grey, but a line of dark blue lights were visible on the wrists and chest. The material felt spongy, cloying.
Decker carefully replaced the grille and sat down on the closed toilet, holding the suit.
“What is it?” he asked.
Prototype phase camo suit. Bril sent. It refracts light by way of –
“In Coalition standard?” said Decker.
It’s a stealth suit.
Decker laughed hollowly. “Pretty much every military has those. One thermal scan and I’m lit up like that sun.”
No-one has a suit like this. Bril sent. Now put it back.
“What?” Decker objected. “I just -”
I didn’t put it there with my own two paws so you can get busted playing fancy dress when the cameras come back on. Bril typed quickly. Which is in about forty seconds, so move your ass.
“That was you?” Decker gasped. “I thought -”
Decker. Now. Sent Bril. Decker bolted to his feet. Where were the cameras anyway? Were they watching him in the shower?
Decker brushed the thought aside, jumped back onto the toilet and bundled the suit back into the grate. He pulled it up too fast the first time, and it fell back into the vent. He took his time, sweat beading on his lip. How long had passed? Ten seconds, twenty?
Decker got the grate back in place and jumped off the toilet.
“What now?” he said. He could hear his voice now, just a whisper.
Bril was silent. Decker was about to turn back into the bedroom when he saw a black boot mark on the toilet seat. He dashed forward, scrubbing with the elbow of his shirt. He’d already looked up there once, true. But once was natural.
“Bril?” Decker asked. His voice was almost level. He could hear himself panting.
I’m here. Bril sent. Ten seconds. Act normal. I have to get back to work. I’ll tell you when it’s time. Do NOT touch the suit.
“Why would I?” Decker began indignantly as the sun shone through the window on his red face. But Bril was gone, and the sound came back. He became aware he was cursing under his breath only after a few minutes. He looked around the room for the hidden eyes. He couldn’t see them. But he knew they were there. And now Bril was gone, they were the only company he had.