The Oasis is Burning

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6.3 - Lost Lambs

A riot is innately disorganized, yet it’s amazing how efficiently and how swiftly rioters can wreak destruction, with a skill and thoroughness approaching that of professional demolition teams. I don’t know if it was the UFJ or the Briggs or some other aggrieved party who left that trail of destruction across Oread, but I guarantee that there was a lot of sick pride going through the wrecking crew once they were done. Not a single fixture was untouched - every light pole, every bulletin board, every kiosk light enough to budge had been battered and toppled. All of the FASTR sensors had been torn down and mutilated in inventive ways that were almost artistic. There were signs of fires and blasts, most of them targeting that massive hotel and the luxury accommodations surrounding it. All of the damage was to property - there were no corpses or blood pools or other signs of personal violence, a refreshing change.

In contrast, the Memorial Union was in remarkable shape. Given the history of the place I figured it for the first building to go up in smoke, but aside from a few half-assed scorch marks on the facade it was untouched. My first thought was that the rioters had started to work on the building only to be driven off by OSIS, but there was no sign of the state thugs. The street was desolate.

“Son of a bitch, I guess Harmon was on to something,” said Joanna. “Unless it’s an ambush.”

“By OSIS?” I said. “Not their style. Besides, I thought you were buddies with them. Your best customers, right?”

“A few of them, yeah. Some of them can’t stand me. I don’t know, what do you think?”

“I think I’m hungry. Gonna see if they have any leftover box lunches upstairs.”

Skipping meals is one of those things that gives me false confidence. My head was telling me that the last time I overlooked OSIS, I ended up locked up in some anonymous bunker that I only escaped due to lucky timing and a serendipitous assassination. My stomach was telling me that it had been a good 16 hours since I had eaten anything and longer since a proper meal and that I could find snacks, lunch leftovers and probably a bumper crop of hidden flasks inside. It was an effortless decision.

But that journalistic instinct is something that survives through hunger, withdrawal, sickness and brushes with death. It was a little delayed but it finally kicked in as Joanna and I approached the door. “Hold on for a second.”

“Changing your mind?” said Joanna.

“Just being cautious. Step away from the door for a second.”

There were about four seconds of silence before the glass doors exploded outward, blown into shards by automatic weapons fire. A few seconds later, a trembling voice - “Identify yourself! Now!” The owner sounded like he was going to pass out if he saw another face, though not before emptying another magazine into whatever happened to be in front of him.

I pressed my back against the brick and edged closer to the door, keeping low in case of another storm. “This is Atticus Gainsborough, unarmed outlaw journalist. I’m not a threat.”

There was a good five seconds of silence. “Prove it.”

“How should I do that?”

More silence, then a trace of motion from inside the building. The barrel of a weapon emerged from the weak shadows inside the threshold, followed by a face. “Who’s she?”

“Joanna Brawney. Entrepreneur.” Joanna stepped closer. “I’ve seen you in the store, haven’t I?”

“Yeah, I guess I did go in there a couple times. With some of the other guys.” Silence. “Why are you here?”

“Security,” I said. “And we’ll also take food, if you’ve got any. All I’ve had to eat all morning are uppers.”

“Come on, we’re hardly a threat,” said Joanna. “If we become a problem, you can just run us out. You’ve got the guns.”

“Yeah...okay.” The gunman took a step back. “Come in.”

The interior of the Memorial Union was pristine, at least physically. All the monitors were all dead and the lights were out. The place looked abandoned at first brush but there were sounds coming from deeper in the building, the rattle of guns and gear and body armor. It was a few seconds before the grunts belonging to those sounds made themselves seen, peeking out behind low barriers and behind corners.

I put my hands up and away. “I’m not packing, fellas. Neither is she, I promise.”

There was a muffled voice from behind the lobby piano. “Who are they with?”

“We’re not Briggs, we’re not UFJ. Not exactly on great terms with either, frankly. Anyone here mind if I put my arms down?”

The grunts stepped a little farther out into the open space, showing more reticence that I’d expected to see from an elite security force. The exposure gave me a chance to see what a sorry sack of shit they truly were. Some of them weren’t wearing their armor, and the ones that were had it clumsily strapped to their bodies in a manner that must have hurt. A few of them must have misplaced or ruined their guns, as they were wielding whatever heavy objects or kitchen knives they could find lying around. I swear that one of them was trembling so much that he accidentally hit the magazine release on his weapon and had to put it back in.

There was one familiar face in the room, a friendly goon who walked right up as soon as he spotted me. “Atticus? It is you.”

“I remember you. Let me see...uh...Archie, that’s it.” Still not his real name. “Things aren’t quite under control anymore, are they?”

“You don’t know the half of it,” said Archie. “The OSIS perimeter is fubar. Uh...you’re not here looking for the governor, are you?”

“Is Goldie here? You know, I haven’t spoken with him yet. I should get his opinion.”

“I wouldn’t mind having a word with the man,” said Joanna.

Archie stared at Joanna. “Who’s this?”

“Never mind,” I said. “Just take us to Goldie, he’ll love to see me.”

“Okay.” Archie led us down a little side hallway, rambling as he did. “You wouldn’t believe it. We were holding off the UFJ at first, but then there were all these explosions and half our men ran off scared. We were pushed all the way back to here, now we’re just waiting for extraction.”

“Not much of a perimeter out there. What do you guys still control?”

“Um...this.” Archie seemed like he was ready to hyperventilate, but he managed to keep speaking. “The Briggs turned on us immediately. We got sandwiched between them and the UFJ, and this was the only exit.”

“Hell of a performance for the elite OSIS fighting force.”

“‘Elite,’ yeah, right. You saw those guys out there. That’s OSIS. The organization had plenty of money for weapons and gear and vehicles, but no time for training or screening. They didn’t have any bodies out there, so they took anyone who signed up. We got a bunch of people with no battle experience, just people looking for an easy paycheck or psychos who wanted to bully people. They were real tough when all we had to deal with were unarmed protesters, but no one was prepared for this.”

“I believe it,” said Joanna. “Ran into a lot of guys hunting down phantom UFJ gun runners, looking for weapons and bombs that even they didn’t think existed. They were so intent on keeping up appearances that they managed to miss actual stockpiles.”

“Keeping up appearances to keep everyone scared. Page one in the despot’s handbook.” I pointed out at the sorry group in the lobby. “Besides them, how many men do you have left?”

Archie shook his head. “I don’t know. Not that many casualties, but a couple whole units ran off. Who the hell knows what happened to them. And the actual tough ones? A bunch of them turned to looting the rich homes and campus buildings, and a couple of guys even went and joined with the Briggs! And we’ve lost our tactical support, too.”

“Figures,” I said. “This building makes for a shitty fort.”

“No shit,” said Joanna. “A public building, lots of entrances and windows? Someone surrounds this place, you’re screwed.”

“Don’t talk like that, I’m trying to keep these guys calm.” Archie nodded to a set of double doors. “And don’t mention my name around the governor, okay?”

The door opened to a small auditorium, free of the carnage of the street but hollow and dead in its own way. There were only two people there. Closest of the door was Karlyle Augustus, looking as angry as he was when I last saw him. The other man, a reedy and cringing figure, was the one behind it all, Merton Goldstreet, in all his lack of glory.

Karlyle noticed me first, and he was not pleased. “What the hell are you doing here, you parasite?”

“Hey, missed you too.” I glanced around. “Your big friend isn’t here anymore. Shame, I could go for some grain alcohol. My throat is parched and my liver is confused.”

“Do you just never quit?” Karlyle stormed over to me, close enough for me to wager a guess as to what happened to that grain alcohol. “You goddamn vulture. I bet you’re just salivating to sell your story about watching Jameson die, aren’t you? Yeah, that’s what this was about, wasn’t it? You hear about an assassination and then let it go through to protect your story. You son of a bitch. Once I’m out of here, I will devote the rest of my life to your destruction. I’ll dance on your grave in Potter’s Field!”

“Interesting theory, Karlyle. I actually have two rebuttals. One’s a little wordy and I sense you’re not in the mood for it, so I’ll give you the short one...”

I then cleared my throat and sucker punched Karlyle in the face. It was just a quick jab, enough to get the blood flowing. I hate throwing punches, especially when I’m on assignment and really can’t suffer a broken finger, but when the moment is right you just roll with it.

Karlyle dropped back into one of the seats, struggling to staunch the blood. “You asshole! You son of a bitch!”

“That’s not much of a pull quote, but I’ll keep it in mind.” I approached Goldie, cowering at a table at the front of the room. “The man at the heart of it all.”

“What do you want?” Goldie had obviously been crying.

I grabbed a tiny conference hall giveaway water bottle off a nearby tray. “I’d like a quote. Nothing big, just your expert opinion on the sacking of a modern American city.”

“This wasn’t my fault!” snapped Goldie.

“Hmm...defensive. Well, I can understand that. On the other hand, you ran the state into hock pursuing a voter suppression scam. You took massive sums of money from a megalomaniacal billionaire without looking into his intentions. You used that money to form a private army of scumbags. You supplemented that army with the trigger-happy followers of a homicidal fascist. I’d argue that this is entirely your fault. And if I hadn’t already scraped my knuckles on that gila monster in a suit, I’d lay you out right now.”

“Did you just come in here to mock me?”

“Well...yes. Also, I was hoping there would be snacks.” I scooped the rest of the water bottles into my bag. “Tell you what, Goldie. You live through this, we’ll have a debate on CSPAN. Agreed?”

Joanna was waiting by the door, watching the whole thing with a little grin. “That was worth it. But now what?”

“Well, the Prof’s place is close, and I’d like to check in on him. How about we raid the place for edibles, then head on out?”

“I’d say we’ll be lucky to find salt packets, but it’s a deal.”

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