Kings of Orient,
Dresden, D.C.

When I woke up the place was on fire. I didn't know where I was. Smoke and flames everywhere.

I ran around screaming, trying to find a way out. The hallway was burning. My hair caught on fire. Somehow I made it to the cellar. I remember falling down some stairs.

An old drunk was lying in the corner.

"Help!"
I shouted.
"Help! Fire!"
Even down here you could smell the smoke, like when the wind blows round your campfire. Crackling sounds from upstairs nearly drowned out my voice.

"Huh? Wha?"
the drunk mumbled.
"Look! I'm burned! Fire! We have to get out!"
I yelled in his face, started shaking him.

"Let go!"
He twisted around.
"What fire? There isn't any goddam fire."
Orange light from the far wall lit up his face.

"Just listen! Look around! The ceiling! Gonna fall on us! Which way do we go?"
He stared at me.
"Look, sonny,"
gruff, bleary.
"There isn't any fire. You're acting like some kind of radical. Bug off! Lemme alone."
He looked at an empty bottle on the floor, made a face.

Drunk and stupid, I thought. The pain came back, and I grabbed him.

"Just tell me how to get out of here!"
I shrieked.

His arm swung up and bashed me in the head.

"Out! Talk sense if you're going to talk! What do you mean, out?"
He was bigger than me so I ran.

иии

I found another stairway and went up. Couldn't breathe to run any more. Heat made me sweat. Too thirsty.

One of the doors opened. Another guy was standing there.

"Hey!"
he said.
"Where are you going?"
"Don't know! Help! On fire!"
"Calm down!"
He was stern.
"I know there's a fire. You're not burning now. Just sit down."

I sat. The floor was hot.

"How do we get out?"
I asked. At least somebody knew what was going on. Something crashed nearby.

"We don't,"
said the guy.
"We wait here for the soldiers. They're busy pouring gasoline. The worst thing we can do is panic. We have to stay put and stay calm."

"But, but,"
I was still breathless.
"We'll...get... burned..."
"Maybe so, but that's a risk we have to take. There's no reason to worry."

I heard more beams crashing. Then it hit me. Gasoline?

"Why are they spreading gas!"
I yelled.
"To put out the fire, you idiot! Why else would they do something like that! They ran out of propane!"
"But we're trapped!"
I stood up.
"Shut up!"
He was feeling the stress.
"You're getting hysterical! I don't know! Just keep quiet!"

I couldn't stand it. I just started to laugh, and cry. My hands hurt where they got burned. I hit him, then I ran off like crazy.

иии

I don't know where I went. The fear got worse. I was alone. A door blew out right after I passed it. The blast burned my back. I was frantic.

Then I got to a hall with an indoor pool. I ran straight for it.

There were soldiers.

"Stop!"
they called out. I kept going. They grabbed me. The lake was crystal clear, still as stone. I screamed and bit them and tried to get loose.
"No, no! Help! Help! Let go!"

They wouldn't. Everything popped. I gave up. Who cares? I started to cry. They dragged me to an office. The captain was there. He was on the phone. Papers all over.

"Well,"
he said after a while.
"How are things?"
He didn't look up from the paperwork.
"I hurt all over,"
I said.
"What about the fire?"
"Oh, that. You must have come from one of the primary infiltration quadrants. We're safe here."
He chuckled.

"The water. Why aren't they putting out the fire?"
He frowned.
"They didn't tell you much, did they. When the soldiers put water on the fire it burns hotter. Besides, we're not supposed to put it out."
I stared at him.

"We have to keep it going, don't you see? That's why we're here. I coordinate the placement of the gunpowder and the hydrogen."
"Did you start the fire?"
"Well, not exactly, no."
He paused to light a cigar.
"The higher-ups did. There was too much phlogiston."
"Oh."

"The scientists over at the planning center found out about it. Sheer chance. It's all too complex for a man like me."
He started chuckling again.
"Funny about the planning center. Computer printouts keep catching on fire. They're having a devil of a time staying on top of the phlogiston calculations."

"Why don't they run?"
"Why should they? Fires aren't dangerous. Studies show it. A million times we'll see a fire that never even bothers us. The chances of any one fire ever doing actual harm are so low that it's absurd. Everyone blows it out of proportion."
He frowned again.

I was tired of all this.

"Can I go in the pool? Just for a while?"
"Oh, no. I couldn't allow that. What good would it do?"
"But I'm burned!"
"But you're just a single person, my boy. So what if you cooled off? You don't even exist outside the context. You might throw the phlogiston calculations way off."
This was deep for him.
"Can't I go to the hospital, or something?"

This made him laugh.

"I'm sorry. They really didn't tell you anything. We had to burn all the hospitals, during the airlift. All the phlogiston flowing around near the patients. It would have started something without warning. We're burning the whole city. If we didn't, it might catch fire."

"The whole city?"

"Yes, yes!"
He was growing impatient with my questions.
"Don't you see! If it caught fire without warning it might spread! Don't you realize what a responsibility this is? We have so much trouble."

Gerry Reith