The Oasis is Burning

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8.7 - Egress

It wasn’t until we were in the garage that I realized that I had no clue what Sara’s car looked like. Before he sent me out the radical had made damn sure that I knew where the car was located on campus, but no one ever bothered to fill me in on little things like make, model or color. Maybe he assumed that I knew already, or that I could deduce it on my own, or maybe it just slipped his mind entirely. That kind of oversight can be time consuming and frustrating under normal conditions. But when the building is on fire and there are a half-dozen armed extremist factions looking for people to kill, and the only people you could contact have all had their heads crushed in or blown off, it’s somewhat more serious.

“All right, so we at least know what model of car it is, right?” said Joanna. “We can figure that much from the key.”

I pulled out Sara’s car key and studied it. “It’s a car key, that much we know.”

“You mean you don’t know?”

“I don’t know from cars.”

“You know how to hotwire a car but you don’t know model? Are you serious?”

I spotted a beige four-door compact piece of crap a few yards away. “That looks like the kind of car she’d drive.” I pressed the unlock button on the fob and the piece of crap emitted a merry unlocking sound. “And there we go.”

“You know, you are the luckiest man alive,” said Joanna.

“Only sometimes, Jo.”

As with any journalist’s car, Sara’s piece of crap contained more miscellaneous junk than open space. The driver’s area was an impressive clutter of food wrappers, crumpled energy drink cans, Styrofoam cups, dirty notebooks, spent batteries, sticky notes, pencil stubs, and (disturbingly) what appeared to be a box of cartridges. The seat let out a pleasant crinkling sound as I slid in and slipped the key into the ignition. Meanwhile, Joanna (maneuvering with surprising ease into the even junkier passenger side) slammed Caspar’s Pardner onto the dashboard and pulled up his escape plan. A moment later the map was projected onto the windshield, ready to guide me to comparative safety outside of town. The shotgun with its last two shells rested across Joanna’s lap in case our luck kept up and we came under attack during our escape.

In short, I’ve been on better road trips, but at least this one would be brief.

We emerged from the garage into a world dominated by fire. There was no place the eye could land that wasn’t obscured by pillars of flame - the buildings, the trees, even the air itself was heavy with cinders and sparks. Our shitty little car was cruising neatly a narrow slice of safety in the middle of a valley of fire. I could see us on the cover of some dire heavy metal album with a juvenile parody of Moses parting the sea of crimson for us.

“Jesus, how many firebombs did Harmon build?” I said. “Joanna, you see anything coming?”

Joanna’s eyes went wide as plates. “Yes, yes, holy shit yes! Step on it, damn it!”

I could see it in the rear view now, a Bradley crawling with Briggs bearing down on us with alarming speed. It was hard to tell if the death machine was after us or if those dumb bigots were just trying to get out town but asking them politely didn’t seem like a very prudent decision. I redlined the tiny engine and we tore off with an unanticipated burst of speed, the assault vehicle keeping close behind us as we maneuvered through the burning wreckage of campus. And the race was on, the Bradley keeping within a block of us as we left campus and onto Iowa Street. The grunts took advantage of the straight shot to draw and ready their sidearms, eager to land one last kill before returning to their day jobs back home.

“We’re taking a quick detour. Hold tight.” I took a hard and early turn down a side road leading to some sort of medical research pavilion. In retrospect, I’m not sure what I was thinking here, since the assault vehicle surely could have outmaneuvered our crappy car. But in retrospect it was also the right decision, as the gunship monitoring the ground opened up on the fascist scumbags with a volley of cannon fire and missiles.

Joanna looked back at the flaming wreckage. “You don’t expect me to believe that you anticipated that?”

“Nope. Just lucky.”

“Well, I hope your luck doesn’t run out. The Apache means that the army is already here.”

“You want to stop and negotiate?”

“No jokes, just drive!”

Behind us were the sounds of hostilities being extinguished with extreme prejudice. With Brigg and Brinkley around (as far as they knew), no one was fucking around, and that meant that it was no time to dawdle. I turned back onto our planned route and gunned it for the lake. The city buildings disappeared into the rear view and were replaced by the rural aesthetic of a small town, until eventually that vanished as well. The reports of the guns of righteous faded into the still air, and for the first time it hit me how long it had been since I’d experienced even a fleeting moment of silence.

Joanna let out a deep sigh and slumped deep into her seat. “Atticus, are we still alive?”

“Yep.”

“Then we made it out?”

“Looks like it.”

“Cool.” Joanna looked into the backseat. “There’s something weird back here. I noticed it when we jumped it but I didn’t want to check until I was sure we weren’t going to blow up.”

“If it moves too much, we might have to blow up the car ourselves.”

“Nothing like that. It’s like a canvas bag. Huh, something’s written on it.” Joanna turned around and wriggled as best she could into the junk-filled cavity. “It says...ARTEMIS.”

“Artemis? You sure?”

“You sound worried. I guess that means I shouldn’t open it up?”

“I wouldn’t. Hold on, we’ve gone one more little errand to take care of.” I pulled over alongside Clinton Lake. “You want to give me a hand?”

Joanna helped me pull the canvas bag free of the back seat and drag it over to the edge of the water. It rested peacefully on the dark surface for a while before taking on water, a little bit at a time, taking its violent secrets down with it. I ran back to the car to retrieve the cartridges and disposed of those as well.

“Did we just cover up a crime?” said Joanna.

“Oh yeah. Speaking of which, you might want to ditch that shotgun.”

“Good idea.” Joanna tossed the shotgun into the lake, severing our last connection to the violence. “So, what’s next for Atticus Gainsborough?”

“Not sure. I’ll probably get in touch with my editor, give him an earful, and then try to grab a bus back home.”

“I was going to go home, but I don’t think that’s enough space between this place and me. Maybe I’ll head to one of the coasts. Hell, maybe I’ll fly to Russia.”

“Perfect. They ought to have some appreciation for your skills over there.”

“Smartass.”

“You want to keep the car? I don’t need it.”

“What, you’re going to hitchhike?”

“There something wrong with that?”

Joanna was silent for a while after that as we watched the city of Lawrence smolder. It was a bracing sight, and one that I never thought I’d never witness with my own eyes. Joanna must have been taken aback too, especially given her own involvement in previous events.

“Atticus.”

“That’s me.”

“What Harmon said back there...or ‘Caleb’ or whatever he was calling himself...did any of that make sense to you? That stuff about it all being fiction?”

“Isn’t it?” I sighed, a little trick to give myself some time to work through the bullshit. “Harmon was totally detached from reality, you saw that. But I feel like he saw something that the rest of us didn’t. He saw this world of ours as some sort of construct, a layer of bullshit covering the truth. Maybe he thought that it was the right thing to do to destroy that construct. Maybe he didn’t feel bad about killing those people because they weren’t really people, at least in his own head. And hell, Joanna - maybe he’s right. Maybe it is all fiction. Maybe none of us have seen what’s really there.”

“Do you believe any of that?”

“Give me some mushrooms, I’ll believe anything you want.”

Joanna laughed. “I should know better than to have a serious conversation with you.”

“Who says I’m not being serious? If you can figure out this whole ‘reality’ thing, I’ll praise you for the rest of your life.”

“I’m sure you would.” Joanna walked back to the car. “I’m about to take off and leave you in a random field on the outskirts of a war zone. You cool with that?”

“Sure.”

Joanna yanked Caspar’s Pardner off the dashboard and tossed it into the lake. “Just in case. I’ll keep an eye out for your article, and remember: it’s Brawney, not Brawley.”

“Actually, I planned on calling you Alford Timon.”

“Sure you were. See you again, Atticus.”

I watched the tiny car vanish into the horizon beneath the crown of the rising sun.

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