A Credencium story
Kaolin Imago Fire
Start at the beginning of the Credencium series
Joshua was out of breath long before he got to the squat, but he'd hoped to find them earlier: checking up and down The Ave., then Fred's Market, then down further to Shattuck. It wasn't so much the distance covered as the deceptively slight grade, up this way, down that way, always more of a struggle than it should be. The exhaustion compounded his sense of urgency, and he pushed himself harder, hoping the spots in his eyes didn't mean he was about to pass out. He was glad for the cold that wicked away at least some of the heat of his exertion.
He had been finding the laissez-faire approach to existence freeing, but now he knew the flip side: you could count on anyone, if they were around, but couldn't count on anyone to actually be around. Where were they? It wasn't late enough for anyone to be somewhere particular, crashing out—even if he understood their routines, chaotic and fractured as they were. The squat was a poor option, simply better than every other he could think of.
He cursed every block that took him further from where he was certain Phoenix lay, and prayed that he was doing the right thing. Joshua couldn't remember the last time he'd run this hard; if he ever had, he'd been much younger and the effort couldn't have seemed so dire. He tried to distract himself with memories so as to let his body do its thing, but he dredged up only nightmares: endlessly running, the place he needed to be continuously just out of reach.
Joshua offered a prayer to anything that might be listening, tried to believe that someone or something might be, that he could influence the unknown unknowables in such a way; then collapsed into the sidewalk, only partially dampening the impact with limbs too tired to support his weight. Blood welled up slowly around the fine gravel now embedded in his hands; he fell further, to his side, gasping for oxygen, writhing, wishing that everything would just stop hurting, wishing that the world and his body would slow down. Pain crawled limb to limb, his side cramping, then his back, then a spasm in his head before the throbbing in his hands took to the fore; and then the red, raw rasping of his throat; cold sweat trickled from his armpit down his side, and made him shiver, running another wave of pain around the circuit of his body.
Slowly, he gathered his breathing under control, still rough and wheezing, but slower, slower, letting the oxygen absorb into his blood. His nose was running; he wiped it on the back of his sleeve.
"So much for life on the street making you tougher." He pushed himself up, gingerly brushing off his hands. His ears rang. His head throbbed. The ground swayed uneasily beneath him.
"Hey, Dreamer! Where's the fire?" Spike was ambling towards him.
"Spike! Oh, man. I've been looking for…everybody, anybody."
"Then the universe answered your prayers. I'm here."
"I think Phoenix is in trouble."
"How well do you know the campus?"
"Well, don't ask me what any of the buildings are named. What's going on?"
"I think she's somewhere on campus, but…. Look. I know she goes off, but I think she's mixed up in something, I don't know what. I think it's got something to do with that horrible trip I had my first night here. I think she's in trouble, and I think I had a vision telling me where she is; only I couldn't find her because I don't know the campus."
Spike looked him up and down, as if trying to weigh the crazy versus the adventure. "Alright, so a spirit quest or something. Where do you need to be?"
Joshua looked around for a stick, or anything to sketch with, but nothing jumped out at him. He cursed under his breath. "Okay, so I saw her that night. Or I think I did, it's all sorts of confused. Anyway, she had this glow around her." He put his hands up to ward off Spike's questioning look. "Let's skip how many drugs I was on, or what they were, I don't even know. So today, completely sober—well, maybe a little drunk—I wake up. And I see this glow, and I try to track it down. But I couldn't, I could only really see it from a few blocks away. So I gave up, right, just sitting on the ground thinking about what a failure I am, and then I notice I'd been drawing something. Like a building, and it seems like I should be able to distinguish it, but I can't. And I figure the best way to find out would be to ask someone, but everyone's just…gone."
"There's a big rave going on down in the city tonight, pretty much everyone was headed down there. But tell me about this building—or tell me about it while we walk back towards campus."
"I'll tell you, but it might be easier to just show you my drawing, and it's not far out of the way at this point. Just the other side of the eucalyptus grove. There's probably some detail you'll see that I wouldn't think to mention."
"Alright. Let me know when you're good to jog again."
Joshua checked his breathing, "I think it's going to be a bit. Plus, I don't know that we want the attention. One gutter punk running is enough to wonder at. Two, and people really will think there's a fire."
Spike steadied Joshua as they headed back up Telegraph—for all his running around, he hadn't gotten very far. Joshua thanked the universe for delivering, hoping he wasn't completely off his rocker; then considered the alternative, that maybe he was off his rocker, that Phoenix was fine wherever she was. He didn't want to be crazy—and yet….
"So, what do you make of it?" Joshua asked.
"I didn't expect your drawing to be quite so—"
"No…. Like, real. Though the symbols are pretty cool. I recognize that place."
"Yeah, it's being retrofitted or something. Other side of campus. Uphill. You going to make it, Dreamer?"
"My hands won't stop stinging, but I'll get over it. What doesn't kill me makes me stronger, right?"
Spike laughed. "Or cripples you for life, but hey. Did you rinse them out, at least? I hear the creek has antiseptic properties."
"Yeah, like the Chemistry labs dump into it or something. That'll kill anything, right? No? You're sure? Okay then, this way." Spike set off up the hill, following a road that curved north, then east, splitting campus.
"I'm going to be pissed if it's one of the buildings I ran by earlier, but I feel like I ran by all of them, so…. God, it's all so frustrating."
"Here's to hoping you're just imagining things, chum."
Joshua had never really taken the time to appreciate the Berkeley campus before. It was an odd little microcosm, sculpted but organic, academic but wild. And so many hills—that part he'd noticed, but he hadn't really thought about them. As much of a pain as they were, he was glad they hadn't been flattened out.
It was weird, he thought, how the city was so square outside, while campus had no straight lines, had paths that meandered, overs and unders; and one just fit in the other, though he knew the campus had spilled out into the city in a few places. But out there, it was squared, blocked off, regulated. Campus proper was a giant garden, with multi-story buildings instead of statuary, making everything else seem tiny. He stifled a giggle, imagining everyone drinking a bit of Alice's wine to get to school in the morning, eating a bit of her cake to go home.
"Yeah, Dreamer?" asked Spike.
"Nothing. Just...this campus is kind of mad. I'm with it."
"A park for the want-to-be-wild, intellectuals. And maybe for dreamers. Everyone's dreaming something, right, or they're not really alive."
"Do you punks ever let up on philosophy?"
"Depends on who you ask. Or what your definition of 'is' is, right? Anyway, we're nearly there. Just past this gray monolith. Here lies mathematics, and I think there's a computer lab in the basement."
"I'm glad we don't have to search through that monstrosity."
"This campus has a lot of strange buildings I wouldn't want to search without MRE's. And that's just the stuff above ground. Speaking of which…." Spike gestured with a flourish down a corridor defined by plywood and two-by-fours. It had probably felt quite open before construction, but between the odd angles of the wood, and loosely-caged incandescent bulbs, it was downright claustrophobic.
"That goes underground?"
"It's not supposed to, but yeah. That's our ingress."
Joshua eyed the dancing shadows skeptically, feeling the hot wet breath of unknown monsters down his back. It felt too much like his nightmares. "You're sure?"
"I think a mugger would go for juicier pickings; and I could use a good fight, anyway."
"Well, that makes one of us. Seems odd that they'd just leave it open like this."
"The tunnel goes on through to the other side; this is a proper pedestrian walkway. The trick is when to exit. Just come on, already. You'll see." Spike rubbed his hands together with anticipation.
Joshua followed him down the tunnel, straining to hear anyone lurking about. The tunnel went on straight for a hundred feet, then up some stairs, but Spike branched off before then, ducking under some dirty caution tape.
Joshua stopped at the tape, taking in the view. It was unreal.
Dirt loomed twenty feet high on each side, guarding a path five feet wide down the middle. A wooden plank bridged the darker shadows of what appeared to be a moat ringing the building. And across the plank was…under the building. Joshua shook his head in disbelief. The entire building had been dug out under, and was now being supported by a grid of absurdly large steel girders and columns.
"So, cool, yeah?" Spike called back.
Joshua was silent for a few beats before answering. He shook his head. "It's fucking rad. I mean, seriously, that's some serious engineering."
"Yeah, it's something." Spike skipped over the plank, and was quickly swallowed by shadows. "You should see the equipment they've got around here."
"Alright." Joshua walked slowly, taking everything in. Once he ducked under the caution tape, the sky opened up over him, swollen and bruised blues barely distinguishable from black. And even larger loomed the building, scaffolding crisscrossing its walls like scars. "God, we can just walk…under…like, everything."
"Truth. So where do you think we should look?"
"I guess we start down here, and just work our way up to the ground floor and see where that leads us. Have you explored this place much?"
"A fair bit, yeah."
"Cool." Joshua put his hand on one of the steel poles, easily three feet in diameter. Its surface was layered with dirt, some retaining water from the moist air, more isolated bits peeling off like rotten skin. "I've never thought about the sheer scale of, like, a public building before. Houses, sure, but this…this is serious, and it's not even one of the bigger buildings on campus."
"Hey, Dreamer. Mind on the mission."
"Right. God, I don't even know where to begin."
"Start at the beginning, right?"
"Thanks, Alice. Yeah."
They spent a quick hour covering the nooks and crannies of the new foundation, and then Spike led them up some temporary stairs to the proper ground floor. That floor had fewer hiding places, more proper rooms with nothing in them but construction detritus. Lighting was few and far between in the actual building, but that didn't slow them much. The next floor up was more of the same, except a balcony around the main atrium, which somehow was more impressive than seeing it from the previous floor. The skylights ran the length of the atrium, a cathedral ceiling Joshua had not seen the equal of. Spike had to punch him to get him to move from there.
"She has to be here," Joshua groused. "As awesome as this place is, she has to be here. Something is wrong, horribly wrong. It's crawling up my skin, it's so wrong."
"Like you're getting antsy? Or maybe we're getting close."
"We can't be getting close, we've searched everywhere."
"There's still the roof."
"But would she really be up there? I mean—"
"Haven't you been on a roof before?"
"Uh…no? I mean, they're roofs." Movement caught the corner of Joshua's eye, whipping his head to the side, giving him a view out a window to the next building across the way. "Did you see that?"
Joshua stepped closer to the window; a streak of motion, hardly distinguishable from the darkness around it, blurred past. "That—did you see that?"
"It's like it's starting to rain…or hail. It can't be hailing, here, can it?"
"Wait. I do think I hear something on the roof. Scratching, maybe? Or someone else walking around?"
"Unlikely. Let's go check it out."
"So how do we get on the roof?"
"After me." Spike flourished a hand, again, and walked back to the atrium, then down another corridor. "There's a window over here that opens onto a lower roof. Levels, and levels, man."
"Levels and levels. Man." Joshua chuckled awkwardly. "Man."
The window let out onto another pair of planks that swayed disconcertingly under Spike's weight. The planks connected to more scaffolding, which wrapped around an extrusion of the roof. Joshua was thankful the wind was slight, and it didn't seem like rain, let alone hail, was going to make an appearance. The moon overhead was just a hint, reflecting nothing but Joshua's fears. Stars were also dim against the city glow. He climbed cautiously out of the window, keeping a hand on something at all times—the wall, the scaffolding itself, bits of roof.
Spike made quick headway and disappeared in the gloom, though Joshua could still hear boards creaking and scaffolding clanking ahead. He struggled to move faster, but his heart beat too quickly, his balance was uncertain, and even though his hands stung when he grasped cold metal or rough plaster he kept moving hand to hand. He didn't remember being afraid of heights before, and wondered what had changed. Or maybe he just didn't feel comfortable going up there. And too much weird shit was going on, he presumed. How could he trust that he wouldn't hallucinate?
He heard Spike shout, though he couldn't make out words. Joshua bit his lip, studied the roof next to him carefully, and leapt, praying he didn't disrupt the scaffolding. It shook loudly behind him, but didn't budge; the roof rushed just as quickly towards him, and likewise didn't move, though he began to slide once he hit it.
More shouting, two voices now.
He scrambled frantically for purchase, grinding more sediment into his wounds, and in his panic slammed his arm against a metal vent sticking out of the roof. He grabbed at it, caught hold and held it firm, fighting to keep his breathing under control.
The shouting had stopped.
Joshua crawled forwards along a rise of the roof, keeping his center of gravity as low as possible without scraping. On the other side he made out two figures; the larger one he presumed was Spike. The smaller one—was that Phoenix? Why would they be shouting at each other?
Joshua pushed himself up, and loped cautiously towards them, still wary of the odd and seemingly arbitrary pitch and texture of the roof. "Spike! Phoenix!"
As he approached, Phoenix took a step back. Spike called to him, "Careful, Dreamer. She's confused."
"Confused?" asked Joshua, stopping warily. "What, like she's going to jump?"
"I don't know," replied Spike. "She doesn't recognize me, doesn't seem to know who Phoenix is."
"The fuck?" He turned to her, questioningly. "Phoenix?"
Phoenix shook her head. "Phoenix is gone, like a dream; do I know you?"
"I'm…I'm Joshua. You call me Dreamer."
"Dreamer. I dreamed a dreamer. Are you a dream? Is this? Is he?"
"Spike's not a dream, and I'm not, either. You—what happened to you?"
"I woke up. Or I'm sleeping. Maybe I'm the dream, some butterfly on the other side of the world trying to make a tsunami."
"You're Phoenix. But what happened to you?"
"Phoenix hatched; she flew away. I'm just a shell, though I think I know you. I think I know you both. I think you're safe. But I'm just a shell, cracked and crumbling." Phoenix sank to the roof, wrapping her arms tightly around herself. "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down."
Joshua shivered. "Don't joke about falling, but we should get down."
Spike chimed in. "Come on, Phoenix. We'll get you to the free clinic when it opens in the morning, maybe they can help; you've got a place to stay."
"Ashes, ashes, ashes," she sang.
"Will you—" started Joshua.
"Ashes!" she said, louder.
"Okay…Ashes. Let's go home."
She wiped at her tears, smearing dirt and mascara across her face. "Where's home?"
Story and image by Kaolin Imago Fire, Copyright 2011