The Oasis is Burning

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6.2 - Firestarter

That was the first time I left a room containing human remains but not the last. One thing I’ve discovered over the years is that there’s little in life that will make a large group of people make tracks faster than a bloody corpse. A bomb or a fire will do it, or even a lot of smoke suggesting a fire, but anything else will induce as much curiosity as terror. A person who exhibits curiosity after finding a corpse is either a coroner or a serial killer, and either way you don’t want to be stuck in an enclosed space with the bastard.

So we all went our separate ways. Caspar and Liang Qiang split the unloved foreigners between them and went off in search of safer quarters. Shayla made a beeline for the Prof’s house, which was not exactly the method of suicide I’d pick, but to each her own. Sara disappeared for parts unknown as was her prerogative. That left me and Joanna to tromp through militia-patrolled streets in search of an illegally occupied black market store that only stayed open due to her dubious dealings with a questionable private army. It’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, but it has a place in the bottom twenty.

Broad daylight wasn’t doing Massachusetts Street any favors, at least not that morning. The police and OSIS barricades were toppled or reduced to mounds of coarse splinters on the sidewalks. Those inadequate barriers had been replaced with commandeered cars, most of them already spotted with bullet holes. There were glinting coppery pools in the street - piles of shell casings, I surmised. On the plus side, I didn’t see any dead people, which made it some kind of improvement from the safe house.

Joanna leaned in close. “I’m not getting a great feeling from Mass Street.”

“Really? Because I’m eager. I’ve never been shot at before.”

“Real cute. You have any plans for what we do if the street’s too hot?”

“Other than don’t stop running?”

A group of rifle-toting Briggs wandered down the street with something less than military precision. They were thugs, but even with the weapons and the ridiculous symbols they felt more like a pack of jokers hunting tail than the vanguard of a neofascist army. One of them spotted us and held out his hand, palms toward us like a security guard in some cheesy old propaganda poster. “Hold it. I haven’t seen you two around here. Care to identify yourselves?”

“Feel like I could ask you guys the same thing,” I said.

“We are agents of Leroy Brigg, the only properly recognized authority in town. As such, we’re authorized to do whatever the hell we want in the name of protecting order.” The thug sized me up. “Are you affiliated with the UFJ or any other radical organizations?”

“Nope?”

“The University?”

“Negative.”

“Governor Goldstreet or Secretary of State Augustus?”

“Never touch the stuff. I’m solely affiliated with a digital journal that has unwisely chosen to pay me.”

“A journalist...hmm.” The thug stepped to Joanna. “And you?”

“I’m a merchant,” said Joanna.

“What kind of merchant?”

Before Joanna could dream up a plausible lie, one of the other thugs screamed “Union!” and all hell broke loose. At first I couldn’t see where the gunfire was coming from, only the reaction as the Briggs scattered and clumsily returned fire. A group of young men, armed like the Briggs, charged out of an invisible alley with screams and volleys of lead. By the time I spotted Joanna, she was already yards away, ducking down a side street into an alley. It took a ricochet off a nearby street sign to get my own feet moving but I caught up in time to survive my very first ambush.

Joanna was leaning against the wall and struggling for breath. “Okay...the shop, I think...I think that can wait.”

“I’m inclined to agree. Seems like a good idea to hide...” There was more gunfire, this time closer. “...you know, at least until that stops.”

And then a raggedy creature crawled from around one of the dumpsters. I was on him as fast as my well-worn nerves could manage, slamming him against the wall. The sad creature let out a wail as his back hit the bricks. “Aaaaticuuus!”

“Harmon?” I turned him loose. Goddamn, he looked even worse in natural light - pasty and spastic and drained and a weird fog behind his eyes like he wasn’t quite seeing me. “Jesus, didn’t you learn from last time?”

“Sorry, I didn’t know...Joanna?” Harmon scurried over to Joanna. “Holy shit, I’ve been looking for you for days?”

“Sorry Harmon, I’ve been...uh...hiding.” Joanna was trying not to stare. “Jesus Harmon, are you okay?”

“Are you kidding? I’m great! Had a couple of rough days, but now I’m tip-top. Tip-top, tip-top.” Harmon clapped his bony hands together as he spoke. “I’ll tell you, I was missing that Ghost Vision, but I’ve been out for a few days and I can’t remember why I used it. I’m feeling so unblocked now.”

Joanna nodded apprehensively. “That’s good, because I don’t have any. Really.”

“Oh, that’s okay.” Harmon took a deep breath. “Okay okay okay.”

“So...buddy,” I said. “How’d you get away from OSIS?”

“Caleb showed me a way out. Once he pointed out how porous the guard’s patrol patterns were, it was a breeze.” Harmon laughed, or that’s the best way I can describe the weird wheezy noise he made. “He’s been a real lifesaver.”

“Harmon?” said Joanna. “Who’s Caleb?”

“But I...oh that’s right, I never told you.” Harmon turned back toward me. “So remember I told you that the Vision dreams didn’t quite stop when I woke up?”

“Better than mainstream TV, right?”

“Right. Well, there were all these bugs flying around, and one of them landed on my shoulder and started whispering things.” Harmon leaned in closer. “I didn’t want to tell you because you’d think I was crazy.”

“Because a dream bug was talking to you? Never crossed my mind.”

“I thought it was crazy too, but Caleb has been right about so many things. My whole plan would have been ruined if he hadn’t helped me out. Oh, that reminds me.” Harmon dug a thoroughly frayed scrap of paper out of his pocket. “I made a map to all my secret stashes. Here, please take it. If I get caught again or killed, you can do what must be done.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I don’t even know what you’re planning.”

Harmon ignored me and moved on to Joanna. “You should get somewhere safe. Somewhere...fsheh...” His voice trailed off and he froze for a second, then continued speaking as normal. “...The Kansas Union. It’s safe there for now because OSIS is hanging around in that area. But be careful, they still might shoot you.”

“You’re coming with us, right?” said Joanna.

“No, we still have things to do...things...” Harmon stalked off, still searching for the end of that thought but far too busy to wait for it to turn up.

“That was disturbing,” said Joanna.

“It’s not the worst I’ve ever seen, but close. Very close.”

“You think it was really the Vision that did that to him?”

“Actually, he said that he didn’t start to feel different until he stopped smoking that shit.”

“Really?” Joanna rubbed her chin and peeked out into the street. “You think it’s safe to make a break for it?”

“Only one way to find out.”

I knelt by the wall and peeked out onto the street. The fighting had moved away from us but it had also grown from a skirmish into a full-on street battle. More men had joined both sides and, judging by the ones with extra holes in their bodies, the Briggs weren’t making out so well. They looked scared, or maybe troubled that the UFJ, this group of inferiors, had so readily crushed them.

Then a long shadow appeared at the other end of the street, accompanied by the lightning reports of a machine gun. There was Cain, looking suitably monstrous and evil in his makeshift body armor and weapon harness. He had the LMG in one hand, feeding the rounds into the weapon with his other hand as he fired, walking forward in time with the burst of the gun. Bullets glanced off the pavement and deflected off his armor but he never broke his stride or even changed his expression. He just continued his advance, each burst of the machine gun dropping another UFJ combatant - one, two, three, four. When it seemed like it was over, one last UFJ fighter emerged from a side street, wildly firing a handgun. Cain drew a street sweeper from his harness and dropped the man with two quick shots. It was all distressingly casual, like facing down rifles and killing people were just minor detours from his regular schedule.

I backpedaled into the alley. “This is just instinct as much as anything, but I think we should get out of here ASAP.”

“We’re going to the Kansas Union?”

“Sure.”

“You’re sure you want to trust Harmon?”

“Nope.”

“Then why are we going to campus?”

I peeked out behind the wall again. Cain was surveying the results of his work. He said something to his men which I couldn’t make out, but I could hear his last command, shouted over the still air - “Dispose of this trash.”

“Well...” I fell back into the alley. “If you want to stay and deal with them, then I’ll go myself.”

She didn’t. We both learned an important lesson that day - sometimes the more terrifying part of combat is when the gunfire stops.

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