FICTION: Pillar of Fire 4

You know what’s terrifying?

Look up. There’s an expanse of sky. A vast, encompassing black and blue ceiling. An invisible barrier and an electromagnetic force field protecting against cosmic radiation and solar flares.

Look down. There’s concrete, earth, and rock. Solid, dependable, reliable.

We are riding on a space ship flying circles around the sun.

What’s so terrifying about that? It’s an illusion. That feeling of permanence and security, I mean.

We are standing beneath a thin, flimsy layer of gases. We are standing on a few shards of rocky plates floating and colliding on top of magma — red hot, boiling, liquid rock.

Above, the black emptiness of space and vacuum. No air, no sound, no heat. Below, a sea of boiling, molten rock sloshing around an iron nugget.

And here we are. Like a civilization of fleas on the back of the last dog in existence. And that dog is 20 years old.

Life is precarious. The existence of life is precarious. It doesn’t really seem like it’s built to last.

That’s what I was thinking as I slid down the side of a metro bus, the window cracked from where my head slammed into it. I remember not being able to catch my breath. The dizziness. There was some kind of stitch in my side. Every time I tried to breathe in deeply there was pain on my right side. I collapsed on the ground in a heap.

People are strange. The mid-day, lunch time rush K St. crowd were in the early throes of reacting to the unexpected. I heard the first gasps of shock and disbelief. I saw the first deer in the headlights reactions and the first run for your life early adopters.

I saw Lily charging in my direction with a hard, determined look in her eyes. I thought she was coming to help. If you’re ever in a bad situation or in danger there’s nothing more glorious than the site of a super soldier coming to your rescue.

The sight was much less glorious when she smoothly unholstered her sidearm, effortlessly ran through a park bench splintering it into shards without slowing, aimed in my direction, and pulled the trigger.

With all of the chaos around us I didn’t realize that it was me who was shouting, “No no no! It’s me! Lily, it’s me!”

Life is precarious.

Well, let me back up about twenty minutes or so.

“Yeh, that’s the guy. I think he dosed me or something. I had the trippiest hallucination after I treated him to a coffee,” I said.

Homeless Joe gave me a look and then he did a double take and looked me over more thoroughly. He said in his gravel and ground glass voice, “You sick, boy? You look out of sorts?”

Then he noticed Gabriel and Lily and his mood changed to upbeat. He said to Gabriel, “Heeeey. How you doing, champ? You staying outta trouble?”

“More or less,” Gabriel said, shaking Homeless Joe’s hand.

“How’re you doing, Joe?” Lily said.

“I’m doing just fine, baby,” Joe answered. “I take it you’re here for a reason.” He held a change cup and swirled it so the coins clinked together.

Gabriel nudged me with his elbow and indicated the change cup with a glance.

“What? Oh.” I took out my wallet to find a dollar bill. “I’ve only got twenties.”

Everyone stared at me until I sighed and put a twenty dollar bill in Homeless Joe’s cup.

“What you need?” Joe asked.

Gabriel told Joe about what had happened so far that morning. Joe looked a little unsettled, which didn’t fit his normally detached and disaffected attitude. There was silence as Joe was deep in thought. It was nearly lunch time and the sidewalks were getting more congested. I was cold and shuffled my feet back and forth trying to warm up.

Lily said, “What do you think, Joe? Have you heard anything?”

Joe nodded slowly. “I’ve heard things. Seen things. It makes a little more sense now.”

“Like what?”

Joe said, “I’ve seen more of your kind, champ.” He gestured toward Gabriel. “Past few weeks or so. Yuppies every day, sure. What do you call them folks? Buy congressman. Lobbyists? See them every day.”

Lily said, “This is the Golden Triangle. K Street. There’s nothing strange about that.”

“Sure.” Joe distractedly scratched at the whiskers on his jaw. “But you don’t usually see them together.”

“Together?”

“Your people trying to get some bills passed again? Win another defense contract?” Joe said with a chuckle.

“No way,” I said.

“Way,” Lily said.

Gabriel said, “Without the, uh, Home Office doing the, let’s say, project management we need some way to carry on, stay safe and functioning.”

“I don’t understand any of this crap,” I said.

“You know Edna’s been in town for at least a week,” Joe said.

“A week? No, I didn’t realize.” Gabriel’s look was troubled. “There’s something going on.”

“You could say that,” Joe said. “I — you sure this boy ain’t sick?”

“What is it, Joe?” Lily asked. She was always hyper alert. She never stopped calmly scanning her surroundings. You could tell she was doing some professional grade people watching. She seemed to be getting nervous, though, for some reason and she was looking at me.

Gabriel looked like he was getting impatient. “What do you think is going on, Joe?”

“You ask me,” Joe said, “I think the, like you said, Home Office is about to open for business again. That’d be my guess.”

“No.” Lily looked genuinely shocked. “After all this time. Why now?”

Homeless Joe wrinkled his brow as he stared at me and spoke to Lily. “I think you need to do something with this boy here. He ain’t right.”

“Oh s—,” Gabriel said. “It’s here. It found him.”

“What? Where?” I turned in a circle looking for that thing. That living shadow.

Then I blacked out.

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