The Oasis is Burning

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8.2 - Cobalt Steel

As it turns out, I’d managed to pass the street leading to the safe house in the darkness. Blame the liquor and uppers if you like, but I attribute it more to fear. They say your first inclination when you’re scared is to head home, but when home is a moving target you don’t have that much direction. I’m sure there’s some pointy-head out there who could have predicted that I would run past safety to a park, narrowly avoid a pair of thugs and have an existential conversation with a psychotic arsonist, and I would gladly pay for his book.

The outline of that safe house was like the melty joy at the tail end of an awful dream. It was such a beautiful thing that for a moment I forgot that there was a political zealot/criminal mastermind and his followers were holding a group of people at gunpoint inside. But given that Arcadius hadn’t threatened to dismember me, he really seemed like the lesser of all available evils, a big plushy devil without the flames. I stayed low and slipped up to the door, giving one last glance for any Briggs that might have had the subtle wit to tail me before knocking.

There was silence for several seconds, then a harried voice barely above a whisper. “Who the hell is it?”

“Atticus.”

The door opened a crack and a strong hand grabbed me and dragged me through the space that, thankfully, proved slightly larger than my skeleton. The room on the other side was black, illuminated solely by streetlights struggling to shine through the curtains. There were only silhouettes and raggedy breathing to identify the others in the building.

Someone - from context it must have been Arcadius - held me by my shirt. “Where the fuck have you been? And where are Rick and Tyrell?”

“Nice to see you, too. You mind if I sit down? I’ve been running for a few hours.”

Arcadius shoved me to the other side of the room. “Got your feet up? Now I’ll ask again - where are Rick and Tyrell?”

“Dead.”

I heard the click of a hammer going back. “Oh, for both our sakes you’d better have more words than that.”

“They were gunned down by the Briggs. Ambush, real ugly.” I glanced around, and based on the silhouettes all of the foreign students and drug dealers and radicals were still with us. “Everyone comfy here? Hey, you got more of that cotton candy liquor?”

“You seriously want more of this shit?” Someone, Joanna going by the voice, passed over a bottle. “Goddamn, what happened out there?”

“Good question, one second.” I tipped back the bottle and let several ounces of alcoholic sap ooze out and into my booze hole. “All right. Leroy Brigg is dead.”

“Are you serious?” It was Darius this time. “Wait, did you see it or just hear it from someone?”

“Oh, I saw it. I saw it up close and personal.” I tossed the bottle away. “Any more of this awful shit?”

“Don’t give him any more,” barked Arcadius. “So the big man’s dead for real, huh? Saves me some trouble.”

“Also Goldie and Karlyle,” I said. “Seriously, I know it’ll make me sick eventually but if there’s another bottle of that crap -”

“Bullshit.” From the glowing point in the darkness, I could tell that this was Sara. “They were headed out of the city.”

“No, they were stuck.” Shayla this time. “Oh God, the Briggs must have jumped them when they tried to run. We’re so screwed.”

I turned to a pair of outlines who I assumed were Caspar and Liang Qiang. “You’re the man with the plan. Are we screwed?”

“We are as long as he’s calling the shots,” said Caspar, waving in the general direction of Arcadius.

“Maybe we should just wait for the army to roll in,” said Joanna. “Yeah, they’re assholes, but I’d rather deal with them than the Briggs.”

“Hell no,” snapped Darius. “The Man isn’t going to distinguish between us and those peckers. I’m not ending up at some black site.”

“Would all of you shut up? It’s hard enough to think without the fucking chorus in the background!” Arcadius rubbed his face with his free hand, still brandishing the hand cannon at the assembled group. “No, this is a good thing. It’s a good thing! Everyone who had a hand in Integrity is dead. So we’re cool, means we don’t have to hang around any more.”

“Oh, so it was a choice up until now?” said Sara. “My favorite part of your plan was when you got cut off from all your men, pinned down by the other assholes and had to take hostages in a suburban hidey hole.”

Arcadius wagged his gun at Sara, but all he did was groan and continue with his spiel. “My point is that we already have one car, we can get a second, that should be enough to make a clean break.”

Caspar shot to his feet. “I have a dozen people here! We can’t get out in two vehicles!”

“Then find your own! Damn!” Even without a clear look at Arcadius’s face, the tension in his body language was impossible to miss. “Just let me quarterback this thing, okay? Now everyone involved with Integrity is dead. The EIC is finished. We got no reason to stick around anymore. It’s the perfect time to get out.”

“And the great militant puts his tail between his legs and runs for the hills the second things get dangerous,” said Sara. “I’d feign shock, but I’m not that good an actor.”

Arcadius let out a weird exasperated chuckle. “You know what, Atticus? Your friend over here has a mouth on her. Hasn’t given me a moment’s peace since you left.”

“Gee, I’m terribly sorry I poked a hole in your happy time dreamland bubble with my aggressive words. Guess the surroundings made him delicate.” Sara pressed a fresh cigarette to the smoldering stub still affixed to her lower lip. “Seriously, Atticus, you wouldn’t believe this guy. All he does is whine about how it wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.”

“Hey, this shit wasn’t my fault. My plan -” Arcadius paused to peek through the curtains at the half-lit street. “My plan was not the problem. It was the manpower. This never would have happened in my daddy’s day. Now he had real soldiers for the cause, not these pretenders. Bunch of fucking suburban pussies writing about revolution with soft hands that ain’t ever held a gun - what good are they to me? Assholes don’t even vote. Honestly, what the fuck happened to the revolutionaries? Shit, even the Nubians are gone. Whole diaspora’s given up the cause to chase money.”

“Funny, I sure saw plenty of black men and women marching for the cause when I showed up. They just weren’t gun-toting cliche-spouting bomb-throwing criminal fuckwits like you and your buddies.” Sara flicked her ashes at Arcadius’s feet. “You’re the pussy here, Brinkley.”

“You’re going to go too far, little girl,” said Arcadius. “And after that, I won’t be responsible for what I do.”

“You think I’m scared of you?” said Sara. “I’ve spent the last few years of my career on the shit list of one of the most powerful men on the planet, a guy with governments in his pocket and gangsters on his payroll. That five-shot metal cock you keep waving around just tells me that you don’t have the cobbles to deal with your problems like a real soldier.”

“Now you’re going to lecture me on the cause, that it?” Arcadius was jabbing his revolver at Sara, finger precariously close to the trigger. “Shoulda seen that coming from a spoiled white girl like you. Big important fucking reporter. You’re the problem, little girl.”

Sara stood up, her voice rising in measures to a grand crescendo. “No, I’m the fucking solution. You see a problem, you delegate, you hide and wait for someone else to fix it. You have a problem with Integrity, you spend a couple weeks running in circles waving your five-five-six phalluses, waiting for the revolution. Meanwhile, I went out and dug up the problem by the roots! That theocrat would be running the show if I hadn’t done what none of you had the balls to do!”

I’m still not sure precisely what happened next, and even after everything I saw in that town I’m not eager to describe in specific detail. There was some sudden flash of movement, a deafening gunshot, and then Sara hit the ground. For those of you who don’t know from firearms, the .454 Casull revolver that Arcadius was packing is one of the most powerful handguns around. It’s the kind of weapon a hiker might carry if he decided to take a pleasant weekend sleeping in a place overrun by agitated Kodiak bears and wanted to be sure that he didn’t have to shoot twice.

Sara took one of those rounds from a distance of 36 inches tops. Draw the picture yourself.

The body landed next to Shayla, and in my mind’s eye I could see the reaction. “Oh...oh God. Oh Jesus.”

“You fucking psychopath!” howled Darius.

“She reached for my gun! This was justified, damn it!” Arcadius clumsily pulled back the hammer and waved the gun around the room. “Now everybody calm down. I’m not killing anyone else unless you make me, so let’s be cool.”

Then there was a sound from outside of the building, or rather a muddled cloud of sounds - footsteps, mutterings, the clang of metal on metal, all mingling into a dreadful mélange. I was already coming to fear that sound, and I wasn’t the only one. Every doomed sap in that room was holding his or her breath.

One of Arcadius’s men slid over to the window and peeked through, and there was just enough light to watch the blood drain out of his face. “It’s the Briggs. Goddamn it, there’s a ton of them, and they’re coming this way.”

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