8.4 - Fading Light
I’m sure that the University of Kansas has a fantastic campus. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a good feel for aesthetics when the place is covered with state stormtroopers (as it was when I arrived) or reverberating with the sound of gun battles (as it was when I left). Beauty can calm the mind but an explosion a block or two away will wake it right back up.
We must have been one sorry excuse for a tour group. Arcadius, boldly leading us away from the sacrificial lambs in his personal guard, fumbled with the cylinder of his revolver in a way that suggested less experience with it than he’d like us to believe. Caspar had barely enough energy to bleed so Joanna was doing the walking for both of them, one tottering step at a time. Meanwhile, your faithful narrator was attempting to cram yet more Adderall down his tension-strained throat. That probably wasn’t the best of ideas given that time was dilating already, but mortal peril has a way of clearing the mind of little things like overdoing it. Well, I wasn’t thinking clearly about much because of the pills but the point is true in principle.
Campus was swarming with Briggs but even that bare semblance of direction they had once exhibited was flickering out. Groups of two or three men were running back and forth, firing wildly at the shadows and then retreating. Occasionally some opposition group - UFJ militants or OSIS remnants or a couple local nuts out for a weekend shoot, it was hard to tell in the dark - would ambush one of the groups and a brief, bloody confrontation would ensue. I swear that I even saw one group of Briggs attack another and watched the two groups of allies shoot each other to death without ever knowing who was killing whom. The group was braindead - without the voice of their fearless leader to direct them they were in a frenzy, killing anything that smelled like a threat.
There wasn’t much chatter until we were close to the Union and our ticket out of that shitstorm. Arcadius led us to shelter behind a long building - Wescoe Hall, one of the strongholds of the UFJ before everything went to hell. “Okay everyone, we’re close. Not that far to the garage and then we’re fucking done with this place. Now, I’ve only got...” He dug in his pocket. “...Eight shots total in this monster, so we gotta avoid everyone. And then...Caspar, you still with us?”
Caspar took a labored breath. “Yeah, I’m here.”
“Good...good.” Arcadius cleared his throat. “I need you to tell me the safe way out. Better yet, write it down. Atticus, toss me a notebook and something to write with.”
“Not a chance,” said Caspar.
Arcadius kneeled next to Caspar. “Why, for fuck’s sake?”
“Because I know how you operate.” said Caspar. “I know how this ends, you cowardly asshole. The second you don’t need me anymore, you’ll leave me to die.”
“You’re cracking on me now, here?” said Arcadius. “We don’t have a lot of time. If we can’t get out quickly, then we’re all dead no matter what.”
I took a break from the argument to do a little scouting. Even through the dark and chaos I could see the embattled husk of the Union. All that was left between us and freedom were a block and a half of street, a Bradley fighting vehicle and the half-dozen or so Briggs who had commandeered it.
“There’s a complication,” I said. “You might want to take a look at this.”
Arcadius ran to my position and commenced to groaning. “Goddamn it! How did that hillbilly mobilize this many people? Son of a bitch!”
“I take it we’re not going anywhere?” said Joanna.
“Not just yet...not just yet.” Arcadius glanced up and down the length of Wescoe Hall. “Okay, there’s a way in on the south end, they won’t see us. Brothas who were holed up in here might have left some supplies, maybe even weapons. We can hole up inside until the fascists take off.”
“Capital idea,” I said. “And when they swarm into the building and surround us, we can hope that they kill each other in the crossfire.”
“No, no, no. There are lots of little nooks in there that are perfect for defense. Yeah...and a dining area and some little shops we can raid for supplies.” Arcadius hoisted his revolver. “All right, get Caspar and follow me up the stairs. And watch your ass.”
Caspar didn’t speak until Arcadius was well out of sight. “Is he gone?”
“For a minute,” said Joanna. “Something you need to say?”
Caspar winced. “I don’t have long,” he wheezed. “There’s an escape route on my Pardner. It’s rough, not sure if it’s safe. Didn’t account for the Predator.”
“We’ll make it work,” I said.
“The file is marked LFK212. Password is 5438. Once you get the car, turn it on and follow the directions exactly. And don’t stop before you get to the lake, otherwise they might spot you.” Caspar winced again. “Getting hard to breathe.”
“Hold on, pal, we ain’t letting you go,” I said.
“There’s one more thing,” said Caspar. “Something you have to do before you go. You have to kill Brinkley.”
“You want us to kill Arcadius?” said Joanna. “Yeah, he’s a scumbag, but you don’t see like much of an executioner.”
“It’s the only way to stop the madness,” said Caspar. “Brigg, Jameson, the Governor, the Secretary of State. They’re all dead, their evil’s been buried with them. But Brinkley will keep spreading chaos if he gets a chance. If you can’t bring yourself to shoot him, then...then just ditch him. Leave him to the Briggs or the army. His madness can’t leave this town. It...it has to stop somewhere.”
“I don’t think that’s going to stop the madness,” I said. “There are a lot more psychos out there.”
“Yeah...yeah,” said Caspar. “You’ll see a lot more of them, I’m sure. But at least he won’t kill anyone else. At least he won’t be around to start more fires.”
Atticus appeared at the top of the stairs. “You assholes coming? We’re exposed out here.”
“We’re just trying to get Caspar together,” said Joanna. “We’ll be along in a minute.”
“All right...okay.” Arcadius gestured to me with his revolver. “Come on, Atticus, they don’t need you. And there’s something I need to discuss with someone.”
When a man wielding a giant revolver points to an empty building and says “we need to talk,” it’s seldom a good sign, but I opted to roll with it in this case - there was nothing he could plan that would be worse than what awaited me if I stayed out in the open. So I left Joanna to tend to Caspar and headed up the stairs to meet with the head radical-in-chief. Broken glass crackled under my boots as I reached the landing at the top. The corridor inside was dark but I could make out the usual college building accoutrements - the bulletin board and lounge seats and water fountains (probably with crushed empties in the cavity behind them). It wasn’t much of a fortress, and I could really understand why Arcadius’s radicals didn’t do any better.
“I think there’s someone else around here, I’m hearing funny noises.” Arcadius squinted through the darkness. “Come on, get inside.”
The air inside was stale except for the faintest traces of cordite. “Nice little fort. Did your people leave us anything?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Arcadius. “Once the girl gets up here we’ll do some searching. Go down to the dining area, see if there’s anything left that’s still okay. We might have to hold out a day but -”
And then a shape appeared around the corner. “Oh thank God, I thought it was them. My name is -”
If you see a twitchy armed man sitting in a lonely hallway, and you sprint around a dark corner and scream for him, you can’t exactly be too shocked at what happens. Arcadius squeezed off two shots in the direction of the presence, hitting it both times. Once he finally relaxed, and I felt comfortable walking in front of him, I jogged over to check out our assailant.
“Who was it?” gasped Arcadius. “Doesn’t look like one of the Briggs.”
“Nope, he’s not with them,” I said. “You just shot Frederick Tomasson.”
“No shit?” Arcadius ran over to me and leered at the rotund corpse. “Goddamn.”
“Apparently, that machine of yours kills journalists. Not shedding too many tears for this one, though. You might have done the profession a great service.”
“Could you lay off the jokes for just one goddamn second?” Arcadius walked to the other end of the hall and slumped against the wall, opening the cylinder of his revolver and pulling out the used brass. “There’s something I need your help with.”