The Oasis is Burning

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4.1 - Drawing Lines

There’s something to be said for journalistic instincts, for the ability of a seasoned reporter to take a walk down a sun-kissed placid street on a dewy morning and have his thoughts dominated by that other shoe that’s just waiting to fall on his head. I was damn anxious that morning, and while the extra large dose of benzedrene I’d taken that morning may have been a contributing factor, there was something else at play. Mostly it was the lack of OSIS troops patrolling the streets. I’d never been more than a block from one of those delightful young goons since arriving in town and while their absence was a small relief, it also meant that something had changed. Change in a crisis zone is never a good thing. Joanna split early to sneak in to her shop, so I didn’t have any locals to tell me if this was expected. Damn, do I hate running investigations without any background.

By the time I made it to the Replay Lounge, I had some confirmation as to my hunch. There were more barricades set up on Massachusetts Street, but ordinary movable plastic barriers rather than the crazy war movie props I’d seen outside of the Eldridge. There were a handful of grunts, most of them free of the stifling body armor and giving up the bulky machine guns for sidearms and composite polymer bludgeons. The impression the whole thing gave off was less crisis zone and more unusually rowdy homecoming parade. I half-expected to see a belligerent pack of early morning drunks crash through a barrier, but other than a handful of obnoxious kids there were no civilians on the street.

One of the kids, an awkward reed with a well-traveled notebook, bumped into me as he sprinted from the barricades. “Sorry, mister.”

“No problem. Fine morning to give the cops shit, isn’t it?”

“Oh no, I was just taking notes for a writing project.”

“Hmm. Well, you look a little skinny to take a punch or a bullet, I don’t think journalism is for you.”

“This is actually fiction.”

“It’s all fiction, kid.”

A pair of angry assholes stormed out of a side alley and knocked the kid clean on his back. The bigger of the two assholes glared down at the kid. “Get the hell out of here, brat.”

“No need to be so unpleasant,” I said. “When the kid’s published, I’ll be happy to read it to you.”

The smaller asshole stepped up and flashed his teeth. “You trying to be clever, you elitist pecker? Your type always thinks you’re smarter than us, don’t you, you pointy headed fuck?”

“No, this guy ain’t no intellectual.” The big asshole wrinkled his nose. “They don’t smell like that. I think we found us a real live hippie.”

“Yeah,” growled the little asshole through gritted teeth. “A hippie. Dirty fucking liberal asshole.”

“Hippie? That’s an original one.” I took a step back and settled my hand low by waist, ready to go for my knife if shit went south. “Either of you old enough to remember hippies, or are you just going for that vintage talking head feel?”

“Keep talking,” said the big asshole, spraying me with anger spittle. “Nothing better than bashing a wise-ass hippie.”

The side door of the Replay flew open and a familiar giant stuck his massive head through. “Victor, Art, what are you doing here? I gave you your assignments.”

“The state guys wouldn’t let us pass,” said the little asshole. “They keep acting like they don’t need our help.”

“I see. We anticipated this. Come in, we have to discuss the situation.” The giant spotted me. “Gainsborough.”

“Cain, right?” I said. “They got you off the book burning gig?”

“We’ve got something more important to do.” Cain threw open the door and waved me in. “Get inside, I want someone to record this for posterity.”

It obviously wasn’t a request, and Cain was obviously a man not used to refusing his demands. That didn’t seem like a good time to start, so I shuffled through the door with no further quips. The patio area had been subject to a quick redecorating scheme courtesy of Cain and his bros. Large banners with the weird Y-shaped symbol of the Briggs were draped all over the place, with a crude mockery of the same symbol painted on the ground before the stage. Bottles and cans were strewn all over the place, but there were cartridge boxes and knives of various sizes mixed in among them. There were at least thirty Briggs there, all different sizes and ages, all wearing clothing in ill-imagined combinations of red, white and blue, all of them pissed off.

Cain stomped onto the stage, the short-handled bat in his right hand dragging the ground behind him. “All right, we’ve got a situation. Victor? Give us your status.”

The little asshole - whom I could guess was named Victor - climbed up on one of the benches. “Well, me and Art went to campus to offer to help protect Joshua Jameson on his visit tomorrow. You know, because everyone knows those Union thugs are gunning for everyone. The state guys stopped us flat.”

Cain nodded and stroked the bat in both hands. “Did you explain to them that we are authorized by the Governor’s announcement?”

Victor nodded. “Sure did. The guy called us dumb goombas and sent us away.”

“All right. At ease.” Cain paced the stage, twisting his hands tight around the bat. “Last night, Mr. Brigg called me and the other group leaders for a special meeting. He explained to us that even though Governor Goldstreet has made groups like ours legitimate, that there would be many small-minded peckers in OSIS who would never approve of us.”

The big asshole - Art - shot to his feet. “Why would they do that? We’re on the same goddamn side.”

“Because they’re embarrassed we’ve doing a better job than they are,” added a guy who was the roughest looking twenty five I’ve ever seen. “We’re out there cleaning up the trash while they jerk each other off.”

“You’re probably right,” said Cain, pointing into the crowd with his bat. “Mr. Brigg explained to us that the job of OSIS is not - let me make this clear, NOT - to protect the state or the people who live here but to secure their own interests.”

“It’s just like Leroy says all that time,” said a fat guy with about a foot of beard. “This Jameson guy wants us to think that he has all the power, and he gets his people to...y’know, keep up the, uh...make it look real.”

“Exactly,” said Cain. “Joshua Jameson is a pretender. He’s fooled this whole country into thinking that he’s God main man. He’s not coming here to help us. He’s coming here to kick this city while it’s down. He wants a lot of cameras and people around so he can make us look weak in front of the whole world.”

The gathered group burst into howls and cheers and screams of “Fuck him!” It was more than a little troubling. I’ve heard of situations like this, and it always ends with some journalist getting stomped into an unrecognizable shape. But this mob was better controlled than I thought, and they knew who it is that they wanted to hate.

Cain tapped his bat on the stage. “Men, we are not going to protect that pretender Jameson or any of his stooges. We’re gonna protect our own, we’re going to take back neighborhoods so that people can live free of those animals on campus. Mr. Brigg will have new orders for all of us soon enough, but until then? Do what you know is right. Make this town safe for the decent ones.”

Cain left the stage to another round of noisy primate approval and walked over to me. “You’ll report the news. Leroy Brigg will no longer protect people who aren’t on our side.”

“I’ll get right on that,” I said. “Course, I’ve got to type out a proper copy before anyone can read anything.”

“I can take you to a place with computers.”

“Not necessary. Actually, I have a little gathering later on that’s on the other side of campus, but if they’re not letting you guys through, then I’m not making it.”

“We can go through our designated territory. I’ll drive you.”

“That’s right decent of you.”

Cain’s car was a tiny sedan with styling from the wrong side of the 70′s. Watching him wedge his enormous frame behind the wheel would have been hilarious were it not for the contents of the car, which included a light machine gun and an extensive ammo belt rested across the backseat. The passenger seat was friendlier, but the glove compartment was ajar and I had no intention of trying to close it lest something go off in my face.

It wasn’t the first time I’d hitched a ride with a killer, but it is the only time I’ve ever rolled out with a warlord.

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