8.6 - Awakening
When Joanna mentioned “the fire,” I was picturing a fire in a single building, perhaps in the library close to where the Briggs were blocking the street. I wish she would have said something like “the conflagration” or maybe “the end of the world,” because that’s what I actually saw. The air was hot and had an orange tint, even well away from any of the numerous burning buildings. From where I stood half the town must have been on fire, though I’m sure it was a quarter, a third at the outside.
A big fire has a way of burning up things like loyalty and discipline. The Briggs had totally abandoned that fighting vehicle, and Joanna and I just marched on by undisturbed. But there were other goons around, members of the rapidly disintegrating factions that had stopped fighting altogether and were just trying to get clear. There were heavily armed men who simply ran right past us, the ongoing massacre no longer their biggest concern. I’d say it was nice except the fast-moving inferno was still a touch unpleasant. I learned a lot about myself in Lawrence, and one thing I discovered is that I don’t like fire. It never came up before.
In a rare moment of unambiguous good luck, the Union was not yet consumed by the flames. “Hallelujah, it’s a clear shot,” said Joanna. “You got the keys?”
I fished Sara’s keys out of one of the hidden pockets of my bag. “We’re good to go.”
“All right. We’ll cut through the building and into the garage. You cool to drive?”
“As cool as I ever am, but what makes you think that it’ll be that easy?”
“Relax. All the Briggs are gone.”
“What if they all ran inside?”
“Um...” Joanna studied the shotgun in her hands. “...Then I guess we’re in trouble, because these are the last two shells Caspar had on him. Goddamn it, I knew you should have taken Arcadius’s gun.”
“That gun’s cursed. Only kills journalist, and I’m the only one of those left. And I don’t need to leave my prints on any murder weapons.”
“Fine, geez.” Joanna took a deep breath. “Well, let’s not hang around outside. Time’s wasting.”
The Union might not have been in flames but it was looking worse for wear than the last time I’d seen it. Chunks of the facade had been blown out by explosives and what was still standing was pocked all over with bullet marks and blood splatters. There was a pitched battle here, no question. Joanna led me down to a side entrance and a door that I assumed had once been affixed to the entrance. The heady smells of chaos and destruction were detectable even from several yards away.
“Don’t let that make you nervous,” I said. “Whoever did that might be dead,”
“Thanks, you’re really filling me with confidence.” Joanna lifted the shotgun to her shoulder. “Well, let’s go.”
There was something ominous about the building, some dark note hanging in the air that I could never quite articulate. It was a little too quiet in that hall, the air a little too still. The electricity arcing through the few still operable lights made a sound that was slightly askew and the illumination was slightly off-color. Joanna must have sensed it too, as she did her best impersonation of a Hollywood commando, creeping across the tile with the shotgun at her shoulder.
“Do you hear anything?” whispered Joanna.
“Nope. I’ll just take a look.”
And then I did something that gave Joanna a shock, something that shocks the shit out of me writing this - I stepped around the corner. If there were enemies in that hallway, then it would have been a turkey shoot. Eight days in the thick of it, only to end up reduced to a stain at the zero hour. And there were enemies in that hall, but they weren’t in any shape to fight back. The corpses had been so thoroughly annihilated that I’m not even sure how many there were, let alone who they were with. My best guess is that four men had died here, though I wouldn’t deny the possibility that it was eight who were killed with exceptional rigor. The hint of Semtex in the air told the tale of what had happened.
“It’s okay, Jo, you can come out,” I said. “Be glad you haven’t eaten much lately.”
Joanna eased around the corner. “Holy fuck, what happened to them?”
“You mean my Harmon? He’s not capable of this.”
“No, but Caleb is. I’ll explain later, we need to get to the car.”
We tiptoed through the gore to the stairway, past the dining common with its shutters ripped off, past the model of campus in its splintered case. There was no resistance here, nor was there any on the next floor down. We were close to freedom - twenty yards past the bookstore, into the garage and out.
But I could sense a presence behind me, and I think Joanna could as well because she stopped bolt still right next to me. Both of us turned and there, down a little nook leading to the elevators, was Caleb, wearing the deranged smile of a supervillain and toting some manner of RF detonator.
“You’re awake,” said Caleb. “I’m glad. I know how it’s all going to end but even with that knowledge I still feared for you.”
“Harmon!” Joanna started to sprint to him but stopped after the first step. “Harmon, you...you don’t look well.”
“Maybe Harmon doesn’t, but I’m feeling sublime. I’ve finally embraced the totality of this situation.” Caleb held up the detonator, studying it with care as though he’d never taken note of this weight hanging by his side. “I’m about to wake up, too, though the light may sting me more than it did you.”
I took a step toward him. “Caleb -”
“Who’s Caleb?” said Joanna.
“I’ll explain later,” I whispered to her before turning back to Caleb. “Caleb, can I assume that you’re the one burning everything?”
“That would be...accurate,” said Caleb. “But then I had to. For your sake, of course, but also for mine.”
“I don’t see it,” I said. “Clearly you get off on this kind of thing but I don’t see a real reason to start fires and kill people.”
“I did it because I’m trying to end the dream!” Caleb’s voice built to a booming, almost supernatural crescendo, with far more force behind it then the hipster’s shallow chest should have been able to produce. “This is not reality! This is a sheet of wrinkled paper covered in runes and stretched over reality! It is a lie, all of it! And I’m going to burn it all, layer after layer, until the real world reveals itself!”
“Harmon, for fuck’s sake, calm down!” shrieked Joanna. “You need help! Come with us, we’ll find someone who can undo...whatever it is I did to you.”
Caleb shook his head. “No, I’m not fated to leave this town. I have cleared the path for you, though, and not merely because you are the one who finally gave me awareness and a body. You have a role to play as well, but you...” He pointed at me. “...You are the keystone, the one upon everything rests. There is no future if you die here. If you perish, then all of us will be sent back to the beginning.”
“I still don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” I said. “I’m grateful, but the philosophy sounds like bullshit.”
“But it’s all fiction, remember?” said Caleb. “You said it yourself.”
“I said...wait, I said something like that to some kid,” I said. “Were you listening?”
“Were you? He told me. He whispered it to me across the ether, remember?” Caleb held his arms aloft and to the side, finger perched on the trigger switch. “But now it’s time. You’ve lingered here too long as is. Atticus, Joanna...perhaps one day, when the world resets and the next dream begins, I can meet you as I am. But today...today we all burn alike, and become the same ash. Unified. Peaceful.”
“Harmon, don’t!” said Joanna.
“I’m sorry, Joanna. In another dream, I was your faithful servant, but in this one I am my own man, and I must do what I must do.” He depressed the switch on the trigger. “Farewell, explorers.”
There was a blast and a series of loud whooshes as the firebombs arranged around Caleb sprang to life. Fans of flame arced out from all around him, darting along the tile floor, merging with each other and erupting skyward. Caleb stood placidly at the heart of the pyrotechnic show, watching in mute tranquility as the flames merged into a great breathing wall and engulfed him. He didn’t make a sound as the inferno swallowed him, not a scream or a mad cackle or even a single word. Once he was there, and in the next moment he was gone - his flesh, his shadow, his unique brand of madness.
Joanna and I were gone as well, charging down the hallway, racing for freedom. It was the endgame, and how appropriate that it was going to end in fire.