8.1 - Crimson Star
Amphetamines never get any recognition as the wonder drugs that they are. I’ll grant the critics that the rapid pulse, dry mouth, fuzzy vision and occasional throbbing headaches are a drawback. Then again, if I had to sleep a full eight hours a night, I probably would have been stomped to death by neofascist thugs. As with so many things in life, it’s a tradeoff.
I probably gobbled too much of that black market Adderall but I can’t imagine that there are many doctors who would have faulted me given the situation. When you’re running through the dark in an unfamiliar place that’s swarming with armed reactionary lunatics and you’ve just burned their leader alive, then a little chemical assistance is just what you need. And there were a lot of those Brigg psychos running around, more than I thought I’d see even so close to their leader’s doom fortress. I’m not so sure that the pills helped much with the disorientation, though. I really didn’t know where I was, if I was running towards safety, if safety even still existed, if I was running deeper into their territory, if it would be easier once day broke, if that would just make it easier for them to find me.
So I guess my advice is that if you’re going to set a warlord on fire, make sure you have an exit strategy.
But I had one close call, and I mean close enough I could smell the filthy bastards. It was around closing time and the wind had picked up enough to give the streets a good haunted house movie vibe. I had found a place to catch my breath - a big park by some once major road that seemed like it was far enough removed from Leroy’s stamping grounds that they’d leave it alone. I can only blame exhaustion on the fact that I didn’t spot the two thugs wandering the grounds. I don’t think they saw me - the fact that they turned toward my hiding spot could have been coincidence, or perhaps the sharks caught a trace of fear sweat in my general direction. In any case, they started walking towards me.
What do you do when a pair of angry homicidal types are approaching you? There are options, sure. You can run for it and hope that they’re so surprised that they forget they’re packing rifles that can hit things a lot farther away than you. You can ambush them, which probably won’t work but maybe they’ll take pity and only break your legs. You can call upon your latent psychic powers and try to influence them to walk another way. Or you can sit tight and try to maintain control of your bowels.
I opted for the latter. There was a good forty yards of space between us - plenty of room for them to turn around and go somewhere else. Then it was thirty yards. Then twenty. Then I began to wonder if maybe I could reason with them. Then I wished that I had grabbed that bottle of bourbon off Leroy’s desk before I ran.
Then there was an explosion - not a big bassy muscular one like I’d heard back at the Eldridge, but a small and sharp one that sounded like a box of fragile gewgaws hitting the floor in front of an amplifier. When I peeked out from behind the trees I saw the two thugs on the ground, diced to bloody chunks by shrapnel, and another form standing behind them with something in the general shape of a gun.
“Mr. Atticus, what an unfortunate night for a walk.”
I squinted at the figure. “...Harmon? That you?”
It was Harmon, although I damn near didn’t recognize him with all his parts in the right places. He wasn’t all twitchy and soggy and wheezy this time, though his eyes still had that indigo fog behind them. As he neared me I got a better look at the gizmo in his hand, which must have been some sort of directional radio detonator - perhaps a prize from the routed OSIS forces. He was still wearing the squid hoodie but it was well-torn and the logo was obscured behind soot and traces of dried blood.
Harmon strode over to the corpses. “That’s eight...and nine. Small numbers, but progress all the same.”
“You’ve blown up nine of these assholes?”
“Nine of the fascists, plus four radicals and a pair of state goons turned looters. So it’s fifteen in all. A respectable start.” Harmon stepped around the corpses and paced towards me with a nutty and rapturous grin. “I’m so glad that you’re still with us, Atticus.”
“Same to you, Harmon. Looking sharp, too.”
“I’m sorry, Harmon’s not available right now.”
“What the hell are you...” And that’s when it finally sank into my dense skull. In the past week I’d never seen Harmon act like this - self-assured, even whimsical. So I rolled the dice. “...Caleb?”
I’ve known plenty of drug addicts over the years, seen plenty of people go out of their heads because they got their hands on some bad shit or just went overboard. Completely switching places with an imaginary friend? That was a brand new roller coaster for me. But Harmon, or whatever he wanted to be called, seemed to like me (or at the very least he didn’t hate me, which for me is basically the same thing) so I rolled with it.
“So Caleb, what sort of shit have you been getting up to this evening?”
“Not as much as you, Atticus. Not if you found that.” Caleb pointed to the conflagration in a bag that I’d been toting since my escape from Leroy’s doom fortress. “That was the one I placed in preparation for my strike against the lord of the Briggs. You were there, yes?”
“I enjoyed Leroy’s hospitality.”
“Then the fire in the west, was that your doing? Did you bring down the Missouri River Conqueror?”
“Leroy definitely wanted me to stay longer and your little care package was just the thing to convince him that it was time to go.” I handed the bag to Caleb. “Thanks for the assist.”
Caleb waved the bag away. “You should keep that, Atticus, it may yet have value for you. I placed that bag with plans to do what you just did, and thus I have no more need for it. In any case, I have plenty of incendiaries on hand for what’s to come.”
“Gotta tell you, I don’t much like the sound of that. Fire’s not exactly my thing.”
“There is no need to worry, Atticus, your life is always a priority.” Caleb tucked his detonator into his own bag and rubbed his hands together. “Brigg summoned you, yes?”
“I’d never go to one of his shindigs without a gun to my head.”
“Did he ask you about the Storyteller?”
That one made me pause. “What do you know about that?”
“More than you but less than Brigg wanted, I’m sure.” Caleb stared up at the half-visible moon with an unexpected reverence. “I once came to Harmon and whispered secrets in his ear. Now, the Storyteller whispers things in mine. Your name has come up.”
“All right, I’ve been playing along with this because you saved my life and because Joanna’s shit turned your brain into bug butter, but this cryptic bullshit is giving me a headache. So just come straight with me, you crazy bastard.”
“I’m sorry Atticus, but there is little I can tell you. All he told me was that your death is not in the outline.” Caleb turned back to me and his grin had turned into a much more somber expression. “You can’t die here, Atticus. There are things that you still have to do, you still have a role to play.”
“That’s an interesting thought, and if you weren’t a drug fiend in the middle of withdrawal-induced psychosis I might stay and chat about it, but I’ve got to get back to my safe house before some passing goon gives me a curbjob.”
“Very well, Atticus. It isn’t important that you believe, only that you survive. That’s why you can’t leave just yet.” Caleb pointed skyward. “They’re watching from above.”
“Sure, I know about the drones.”
“Do you know about the Predator?”
“You’re fucking with me. Are they even allowed to use those on American soil?”
“Just because a tactic is illegal doesn’t mean that the powers that be won’t utilize it. You of all people should know that.”
“Yes, I should. A fed tried to hire me out for a hit yesterday.”
Caleb waved his arms to the sky like a maestro directing the movement of his lifetime. “Watch the sky, Atticus. Wait until the heavens turn orange. That will be the sign that it is safe to escape. The authorities will be much too busy to worry about you.”
“Much obliged, Caleb.” I gathered up my own bag and Caleb’s napalm gift bag. “You know, for an insane pyromaniac, you’re a hell of a nice guy.”
“Just survive, Atticus. That’s how you’ll thank me.” That ecstatic grin reappeared. “And remember, the Storyteller can adjust the threads of fate, but only you can create the future.”
I swallowed another tab of Adderall and headed back into the shadows. I’ve absorbed a lot of bullshit from junkies in my time and even during calm days I find that it’s easily forgotten. Goddamn, would my life have ever been simpler if I could have just pushed Caleb out of my head.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Bad habit.