The Oasis is Burning

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6.5 - Haven

No one gives me any credit for leadership, and I wouldn’t deserve it if they did. I don’t think it’s because I drain a hip flask every three hours when I’m on the job - there are an awful lot of people who can’t distinguish between self-destructive drunken bravado and a bold and decisive spirit of action. My ability and willingness to absorb blunt injury could only be a benefit in the group leader. And I do possess certain powers, such as the ability to distinguish between a straight-up dealer and a vicious dealer at a glance. But I’m Atticus Gainsborough, and no one who’d ever read anything I wrote would want me at the vanguard of the group.

But that all assumes normal conditions and not the mad flailing of combat. Violence and anarchy have an interesting effect on the group dynamic. We had Shayla the crusading artist, still shaken to the bone from all of the dead men she had seen in the previous eight hours. We had Darius, blind and stupid with rage, ready to charge into the ranks of the savage nemesis with nothing but a table knife if we’d let him. And we had Joanna, the untrustworthy drug dealer. She was playing it pretty cool but there was something off behind those mask, possibly guilt over having turned her best customer into a babbling psychotic mess.

Out of the four people in the group, it was the bruised-up speed-freak who was most suited to lead. It was probably just because Sara sent the map to my Pardner and no one was willing to grab it out of my hands, but maybe that’s all leadership is - the ability to hold onto the baton. Or maybe not.

Our target was a house just to the west of campus. We circled around campus, sticking to the fearful suburbs that sat just at the edge of the new conflict zone. There were no bad guys, no radicals or fascist thugs or cops-turned-raiders stalking those streets, but the reports were a constant reminder to stick to the path.

The map ended at a small nondescript house in a neighborhood west of campus, a building conspicuous in its plainness. The eclectic homemade bric-a-brac that defined most of the houses in Lawrence was absent, as was the weather-beaten lawn furnishings one would expect in a suburb. Sara was waiting out front, and judging by the impressive pile of crushed-out butts at her feet and the fresh snap as she tore into a fresh pack, she must have been waiting upwards of twenty minutes.

“You people are really slow.” Sara lit a new cig with the smoldering remnant of the last one. “Feeling really exposed out here.”

“The best safe houses are in neighborhoods where standing on the porch is dangerous,” I said.

“That’s every place in town right now,” said Sara. “Who’s this guy?”

“The Prof’s son,” I said. “He won’t be with us long, he’s just sticking around until he gets a chance to kill everyone who started this mess.”

“Oh, okay.” Sara eased open the door. “Come on in. The Rainbow Coalition hasn’t arrived yet, but you might as well make yourself at home.”

You have certain expectations of a house in a college neighborhood. If it’s not a typical middle-class dwelling, then it’s going to be a party house with fourth-hand furniture and decorations consisting primarily of exotic beer bottles. So what I saw really caught me off guard. The first hint that something was askew was the mural of puppies and kitties stretching across every wall, painted in assertively non-aggressive pastels. The tables were all low round jobs with rubberized edges, topped with piles of art supplies and surrounded by pastel bean bag chairs. It looked like a nursery, save the enormous television monitor at the front and the shelves stocked with bland comic strip collections and self-assurance books.

For once I was out of the loop, and not because of hallucinogens this time. “I’m extremely confused.”

“You don’t get it?” Joanna was ready to break out laughing. “You don’t see what this is? It’s a safe space! We’re in a safe space!”

“Wait a second, I’ve been here!” said Shayla. “Darius, you don’t...right, you were busy, you didn’t come along. Remember that white girl who wanted us to come hang with her friends?”

“At this place?” Darius was about as stunned as me. “Glad I had other shit to do that day.”

“Hold on, my head’s not on straight.” I leaned against one of the walls, a pastel puppy staring at me with his unblinking eyes. “You’re not telling me this place is for adults?”

“No, it’s for college students,” said Joanna, still terribly amused by the whole situation. “Sometimes the institution provides. If not, then a bunch of sensitive types get their rich mommies and daddies to buy some little shack and they renovate the place. At least that’s what I’ve heard, but I always thought they were a right-wing myth. How’d you even find this place?”

Sara took a drag, almost trembling with delight. “Ran into the sensitive kids with the rich folks. Got the location out of them.”

“You didn’t torture them with your cigarette, did you?” I said.

“Kinda. I lit one up, this one girl starts screaming about ‘smoke assault,’ really freaking out. I crush it out, next thing I know she’s telling me all sorts of shit, just so I won’t light another one.” Sara watched the smoke dance from the end of her cancer stick with an impish grin. “Goddamn, these kids are soft.”

“Oh yeah, don’t turn that on.” Shayla pointed to the TV. “It’s a custom setup or something. They hardwired into some kind of DVR.”

“Containing what?” I said.

“A 20-hour loop of rabbits hopping around in a field,” said Shayla.

“She ain’t lying.” Sara crushed out a cigarette butt on a rolling green hill and pulled out a fresh one. “All right, the food situation. Good news is that they have some. Bad news is that all I found are pudding cups, boxes of mac and cheese, chocolate graham crackers and apple juice. Oh, and also a shitload of pizza rolls, but they’re pretty freezerburned.”

“I’ve made do with worse,” I said. “We swiped enough snacks to make a big bowl of outlaw journalist trail mix, and I’m sure Caspar and his assassin friend will have supplies when they turn up. That’s good for food, now how’s the liquor situation?”

“There’s no liquor here,” said Joanna. “These people are freaked out by nicotine.”

“That’s just the city. They’re college students, there has to be a keg or a bottle of cheap whiskey tucked away in some little corner.”

The cigarette bounced joyfully on Sara’s lips as she chuckled. “Oh, I found liquor. Found a nice little hollow in the wall containing...” She grabbed a bottle from a little nest of pillows against the wall. “...cotton candy-flavored vodka. A bunch of bottles and nothing but.” She pressed the bottle into my hand. “Enjoy.”

That bottle, with its colorful carnival-themed label, brought back some regurgitated childhood memories I’d been trying to keep down. I can’t remember the name of the fool who opted to buy that bottle with his fake ID and a pile of teenager money. Nor can I remember where we decided to twist that bottle open. What I can remember - and no amount of the good brown liquor has ever managed to quite dislodge this sense memory - is the taste of that violently sweet syrup as it meandered down my throat. I’ve had a lot of rough hangovers and bad come-downs in my life, but the one I got from that bottle of fifteen year-old remover was so grim that it’s not worth writing a list. The whole experience was so grim that it drove me into the forgiving embrace of cannabis for almost three years. And once I discovered the sensuous delights of quality spirits, I pledged never to touch any variety of flavored vodka ever again.

But then again, any port in the storm.

I was just opening the bottle and letting the nauseating fumes wash over me when Caspar nudged open the door. “All right Ms. Mills, this had better be worth all the subterfuge. On the way over, we...” He froze in the door frame. “What the f...”

I can safely spare you the fine details of the evening. Suffice it to say that condensed soup, trail mix and frostbitten pizza rolls make for a gastronomically confusing but remarkably hardy meal. Everyone settled in to an evening routine - Darius introducing himself to everyone in the room as a preface to asking them if they can get him a gun, Sara squatting by an electric fan so that the aroma of her third pack of the day wouldn’t upset anyone, and Caspar kneeling at a desk in the corner with his back to the room.

That stood out for me. Caspar Delgato wasn’t a great conversationalist under any circumstances, but he wouldn’t ignore the tribe he’d been leading through gunfire for the last few days unless something was up. The projector on his Pardner cast a faint blue glow on the desktop, tracing the outline of the city onto the surface.

I crouched next to him. “Looking for a restaurant that’ll deliver through a war zone?”

“Why are you here?” The rhythmic sound of his pencil scratching on his notebook didn’t slow for a second.

“In town, in this building, or next to you?”

“I’m busy. I’ve got to find a way out of town before it’s too late.”

“Too late for what?”

“The federal government has decided to force an end to this. We’ve got a few days before they mobilize the National Guard. Probably move some troops out of Leavenworth, too - not sure how legal that would be, but that’s never stopped this asshole.”

I took a seat on the ground. “So you found an egress?”

Caspar dropped his notebook. “You’re not going to leave me alone until I tell you something, right?”

“I’m a journalist.”

“Fine.” Caspar leaned over the projection, pointing out locations with his pencil. “They’ve got the Guard, state police, and whatever’s left of OSIS watching the major roads. I’ve seen UAVs scanning the river area and the north and east parts of town. Transit lines are obviously cut off. But no one’s really watching Clinton Lake. There are a few minor roads that are probably clear.”

“And the problem?”

“Transportation. We’d need a regular caravan to get out. Four cars, at least, and I don’t know where to get them.” Caspar flicked his pencil away. “And I wouldn’t feel right asking people if they know how to steal a car.”

“You got a crowbar?”

“You can hotwire a vehicle?”

“Yes, if you have a crowbar.”

“How -”

“Important journalistic skill. It’s why I’m always prepared.” I dug out my multitool and a tattered scrap of paper came with it - the drawing that Harmon had passed off to me. It was a struggle to open it without ripping through the worn and dirty paper. The art was good for a lunatic scrawl, detailed enough that I could pick out Harmon’s incendiary stashes on the projection.

Caspar leaned over. “What’s that?”

“Strictly confidential.”

“I just spilled the beans on a delicate plan, and you’re going to stonewall me?”

“Sorry for my rudeness. So how big a building are you interested in burning down? Because my friend has enough -”

“Okay. Point taken, I won’t ask.” Caspar clicked off the projector. “Just don’t talk too freely around the others. I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, it’s still a long shot.”

“Of course.” I pocketed Harmon’s note and reached for a memo book. “Now, about this prying instrument you’re going to get for me...”

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