The Oasis is Burning

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2.5 - The Market

After a long day of evading security patrols, enduring the diatribes of violent racists, being held at gunpoint by radicals and sitting through endless debriefings by the representatives of creeping autocracy, one longs for the opportunity to blow off some steam. In the age of heroes, there were many harried correspondents who returned from a day of dodging bullets to relax with a few pints of orange chicken, a decent bottle of rye, a gram of Columbia’s finest and some eager young tail to share them with. On the other hand, I had errands to do, errands that kept me from blockading myself in the hotel room with a large thin-crust supreme and three or four blunts.

Ten bucks to the OSIS transport got me a special trip to a special shop on Massachusetts Street. The place looked abandoned, and you’d barely notice the entrance if you weren’t paying attention - a door and a narrow staircase leading to an upstairs shop. I heard it used to be a record store, which might explain the jazzy murals painted on the frame of the door. The OSIS grunt standing next to the door gave me the once-over, then waved me through like a bouncer. It had the trace odor of an ambush, but business is business even if that entails being jumped now and then.

A lot of people have a romantic image of the black market in an occupied state, picturing the Cafe Americain when what they get is a bunch of shady throatcutters squatting in a disused building. At least this place was trying. In true college town fashion, it was illuminated primarily by strings of Christmas lights and small desk lamps that left the center of the room covered in filmy shadows. There was a small turntable, half-hidden by stacks of records, that piped experimental rock through a series of minute speakers crammed into the corners. There was no stock on display, just a lot of plastic crates stacked behind the front counter or crammed into the cheap particle board shelves that lined the walls. To the right was a large open space filled with beanbag chairs and mismatched coffee tables and ashtrays heavy with crushed-out roaches.

There were three people there, engaged in an animated conversation. One of them I knew - Joanna, the proprietor, the dealer-turned-lifeline to the outside world. Across the counter was a couple. The man was thirtyish, unshaven with shaggy hair and sporting a very long red-and-gold coat that probably came from a country I can neither pronounce nor spell correctly. His companion had stepped off an Asian propaganda poster - short but tough-looking, deep amber skin, black hair drawn back in double pigtails and a stern and pitiless expression.

The man was talking as I entered. “...We can’t stay in that part of town anymore, you know what it’s been like lately. Any one of us might be next.”

“Haven’t I made this clear?” said Joanna. “Part of my deal with the locals is that I don’t sneak people out. I do that, I get shut down and half my client list ends up in stir.”

“We’re not trying to get out of the city,” said the man. “We just need some space between us and the perimeter. The Briggs just torched the Islamic Center and no one did a goddamn thing about it. Plus, the state guys have been kicking down doors looking for gun runners. Word is that they’ve already shot some people in these raids and are hushing it up. We need to get away from that place.”

“She’s not enough to keep you safe?” Joanna smirked and pointed at the woman, whose expression didn’t shift by a hair’s breadth.

“You think this is funny, Joanna?”

“No, I’m sorry. But really, there’s no one you can get for protection?”

“Who, the UFJ? Even if I thought it was a good idea to hang out with them, they’d never lift a finger for anything that doesn’t tie in to their cause. Hell, some of these new guys they’ve brought in are about as likely to kill us as the goddamn Briggs.”

“I don’t know. There’s what, ten of you in all?” Joanna turned a lazy eye toward me. “...Atticus! Didn’t hear you come in. Gang, this is Atticus Gainsborough. And these two are Caspar Delgato and Liang Qiang. Atticus here is a writer, here to cover the disaster.”

“Gainsborough...yeah, I’ve heard of you.” Caspar didn’t sound terribly enamored, but he didn’t spit out my name like most of my detractors.

“Caspar here’s a teacher down at Free State High,” said Joanna. “Or wait, that’s wrong. What’s your title, again?”

“Learning naturalist,” muttered Caspar. “Haven’t been any teachers there since Goldstreet worked his magic.”

“What does a ‘learning naturalist’ do, exactly?” I said.

“I spy on kids all day long,” said Caspar.

“Anyway, he’s developed an affinity for some of the international students who are living near him...” Joanna glanced at Qiang and I could tell that she was holding back a smile. “...and now he’s got a regular U.N. Council that’s depending on him to get them out of trouble. And Caspar, I can make a few inquiries for you, but I can’t promise anything. You guys aren’t the only ones trying to get clear of the madness.”

“Of course.” Caspar was forcing out the good grace. “And I’ll be happy to pay a finder’s fee if anything turns up.”

Caspar had something odd affixed to his belt, a plain gray box that was maybe six-by-three-by-one and featureless except for a single button. I hadn’t noticed it until he was leaving the shop. I didn’t even notice the girl coming up next to me. She could have harrangued me over staring, but instead she uttered a single syllable under her breath. It sounded like “Run.”

“Business, always business,” said Joanna. “Well, welcome to my stock. We’ve got a little bit before all the customers come, so make yourself at home. Or are you here to place an order? If you’re in need then I don’t have much on hand, but I can offer you Adderall, MDMA, and I can probably scrounge up a little LSD if you’re in the mind for it. Or you can try some Blue Sky or Ghost Vision, if you want a new taste.”

“Possibly.” I peeked in to a few of the crates, all of which were filled with anarchic mixes of consumer goods and mystery canisters. “What was that box your friend was carrying?”

“Oh, you mean this?” Joanna slapped a gizmo onto the counter. On closer inspection, it looked like someone had gutted a decades-old piece of electronics and then hacked the case back together with a splattering of glue and solder. “Don’t remember what the geeks call it, but basically it disrupts the signals coming out of those sensors they’ve got all over the place. Hit the button, and you’re invisible. But they get suspicious if you use it for more than a few minutes at a stretch. That’s what the geeks tell me, anyway.”

“I could get some use out of that.” I reached for the gizmo and Joanna yanked it away. “Something wrong?”

Joanna smirked. “Well, you have to pay for it. I can cut you a deal, Atticus, but I’ve still got my own costs to cover.”

“Of course. And I have a few other things I might need.” I dug into my boot for my bribe money. “You friends with that last one? You knew a lot about him.”

“Is this the part where you imply that I’m a slut because I hang out with so many boys? I really thought you’d be a little more sly than that.” Joanna leaned over the counter, overshadowing me and smiling down from her position of prominence. “Anyway, Caspar wouldn’t be interested in me.”

“Why’s that?”

“Wrong number of eyelids.”

The door flew open and I felt a trendy presence enter the room. There was Harmon, still nursing that vaporizer, this time wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a video game produced at least fifteen years before he was born. He could barely take his lips off the vaporizer long enough to speak. “Jo, I need more Vision. The guys came over last night and tapped my whole supply.”

“All right, I’ve got another bag lying around, but try to make it last this time, I have other clients,” said Joanna. “Oh, Harmon, your friend from last night is here.”

Harmon’s eyes lazing drifted in my direction. “Atticus. You know, I really hoped I’d run into you again.”

“Really? I would have been just fine not running into you.”

“Look, I think you were unfair last night. I do plenty to advance the cause of justice. I raise awareness.” Harmon held up a finger to stop me as he took an extended drag. “You know, I have a lot of friends who only know about the world because of what I say and what I post. I raise awareness.”

“Is that right? Any of these newly aware people vote?”

“Well, no.”

“Any of them go for direct action?”

Harmon rubbed his scraggly beard. “...Direct action? Never heard of it.”

“Look it up. You might find it interesting.”

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