Friday, June 28, 2013

E.H.U.D: Chapter 17

Chapter 17

Alice stood in a crowd surrounding City Hall, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of others enraged at the death of Raoul Omerta.  With his death, the “Defend the Defenders” movement had found a martyr.  As warm bodies moved around her, Alice felt the city alive and angry on that cold Sunday afternoon. There was hope that they might achieve something, that Raoul's death might not be in vain.  Just what they would accomplish... she had no idea.
The shadow of a man passed over her and she looked up to the bronze gaze of William Penn staring down on the mass of people assembled.  What would he have wanted in all this?  He was a founding father after all, someone who wanted freedom from tyranny, equality for all.  What would he think of the police's actions, of the government he had helped to create?
Wait.  No, he wasn't one of the founders, was he?  Alice couldn't remember; it wasn't something that usually came up in her daily life.
She tore her attention away from the statue and focused  on a tiny figure standing in the archway beneath the Hall's tower, blasting the crowd with a megaphone.
“Is this the way we treat opposing voices?  Is this the way we treat young people looking out for their futures?  No!  No!”  The crowd burst in with a chorus of “No!”s and some of the speaker's next words were lost on Alice.  “—can't pretend this isn't happening!  They took their rights, they abused them in the name of foreign policy, then they silenced any voice of protest!  So we start yelling!  Yelling 'til our voices are too loud to silence!”
The crowd roared with a concerted, animal yell, Alice shouting herself hoarse right along with the others.  While she yelled she looked up and saw several tiny figures on the observation platform at Penn's feet.  They walked back and forth, surveying the crowd.  Light glinted on what appeared to be weapons.  She shivered and looked away.  Of course there would be police here; why should she be surprised?
As the latest round of yells died down she crouched to pick up the sign she had thrown together before rushing out to join the budding demonstration.  It featured a crudely-drawn death's-head EHUD helmet beneath the slogan “Who Defended Raul?”  She hoisted it over her head and began waving it, feeling some satisfaction as a forest of other signs grew up in the moments after hers.
She stood taller, pushing up on the tips of her toes, and looked around at all the signs that now floated above the heads of the crowds.  The speaker in the archway was launching into another rant, but Alice was distracted by a sudden movement in the forest of signs.  The outer edges were rippling, distorting her vision of them.  As quickly as they had come up the signs began to come crashing down, like trees caught in a pyroclastic flow.  Renewed yelling followed the felling of the signs, though this chorus was more vitriolic, more focused on the here and now. The police weren't on the observation deck alone.
The police presence on outer edge sent a physical ripple of agitation through the crowd.  Alice felt herself caught up in the compression wave, bodies behind packing her in with bodies before.  As the wave passed and she was pulled into the trough she lost control of her sign.  It whacked someone on the shoulder and disappeared.
The man she hit fell backwards into her as a reflection of the wave pulsed past them.  She tried to push him back up but was almost immediately shoved forward into him as another wave, the strongest of them all, pushed in from the outer edges.  She waited for it to pass but as soon as it had another wave, then another, pounded in from behind.  Moments later waves from the front reached her, and she realized that something must have sparked police action. 
She managed to free her arm and clear enough room to pull out her mobile.  News-feeds flicked by on the screen, and she stopped when she saw a live video stream coming from high up in the Municipal Services building.  It showed the crowd, a cumulatively dark brown amoeba stretched over the streets around City Hall.  The crowd disappeared  past the side of the MS building to the north, but stayed constrained to the width of the Hall east and west.  A thin border of blue defined the edge of the amoeba on the west, but to the east and stretching north the border had broken and become commingled with the brown.  Arms grew from the amoeba, stretching to swallow the bits of blue still visible.  The blue was able to fight back, small clusters bursting out radially to turn on the now free-floating arms, swallowing them and leaving the digested remains too weak to threaten the invading blue organism. 
The entirety of the amoeba now pulsed in a north-easterly direction, along the sightline of William Penn, desperate to devour the free-moving blue masses.  The blue line to the west, meanwhile, was taking this opportunity to push in, acting as a semipermeable membrane hemming the amoeba in yet letting bits of it drift away as—
A foot came down on Alice's right ankle and she dropped the mobile.  The little black rectangle disappeared among the roiling legs of the crowd, lost forever.  She straightened and stifled a groan as the pain in her ankle shot up her leg.  A moment later she let out a full scream as the man before her turned, hitting her alongside her head with his elbow.  He pushed past her, though whether in haste to tangle with the police or due to pressure from the front of the crowd she could not tell.
She spent a moment rocking back and forth, supported by the masses around her, and waited for the ringing in her head to stop.
Someone moved, and she found herself falling towards a person suddenly wasn't there.  She stumbled enough to recover her balance but was pushed from behind by the eastern side of the crowd trying to escape westward.
Momentum carried her for several feet, stumbling and fighting for balance, before the force of western movement was cancelled out by eastern movement.
Okay, enough was enough.  Alice knew from watching the Washington riot earlier in the week that her position here was not a good one; if she wanted to avoid more injury, she had to get out.  She thought back to what she had seen on her mobile, and decided the west would be her best chance, as fighting hadn't yet started there.  After a few moments of fruitless struggle, free movement proved near impossible; she was just going to have to wait until the crowd broke up enough that she could get through.  Or she could make her own hole...
In her pocket was a tube of pepper spray; that should be enough to open a corridor to the outside.
An intense surge of movement from behind forced her decision, and she pulled out the tube.
“Hey!” she yelled to the man standing to the west of her.  “Let me out!”
The man tried to shrug, but there wasn't enough room to perform the gesture properly.  “I'm just as stuck as you are!”
“I'm really sorry about this!”  The tube came up and leveled at his face.
“Shit!”  The man pushed away from her, though it didn't get him very far.  It was enough to cause ripples, however, and a few moments later a new current pulsed through the center of the crowd, leading towards the west, towards freedom.
Alice sent the tube back into her pocket and let the current move her several dozen feet.
She was just starting to think she could make it out of this all right when the crowd broke around her and she realized that hostilities had commenced on this side as well.  The crowd was forming into clusters, about ten strong, and facing off against clusters of two or three police officers decked out in riot gear.  She watched in horror for a moment as a group of men—more like teenagers—wrestled an officer to the ground and began to beat him with shoes and protest signs.  She caught a glimpse of her “Who Defended Raul” sign coming down on the officer's helmeted head before she looked away.
There was no chance to take advantage of this opening and escape; a small mob pushed past her and caught her up.  Escaping was useless for now; police officers hemmed them in on all sides, a microcosm of the greater amoeba.
A woman standing next to Alice bellowed and charged forward, only to have a truncheon cracked across her jaw.  She fell to her knees, mouth bleeding, and whipped her arm up into the officer's groin.  Despite the heavy padding he had there, he groaned and slipped down to the woman's level.
Seeing the downed officer, the cluster surged towards this weak point in the barrier, carrying Alice along with it.  No one seemed to have given a thought to the downed woman and Alice, now on the outer edge, tripped over her, sending them all sprawling down into the street.
Alice screamed as someone heavy landed on her already tender ankle, and she felt it give way under the weight.  She tried to extricate her leg, but it was pinned under the struggling mass.  She curled in on herself and moaned, tried not to think of the pain.
Footsteps clattered on the pavement near her head and she looked up to see the remaining police redistributing themselves around their downed prey.  There was a momentary glimpse of on officer's face, and Alice thought she recognized him from somewhere.  The moment passed, and the police where upon them.  They swung their truncheons to no rhythm, putting as much force behind each blow as they could. 
The rioters, still pinning Alice to the street, tried to roll away from the blows but found it impossible amidst the flailing limbs.
One man, with the seeming fortune to be near the top of the pile, was able to roll off, stand, and stumble a few feet before the police focused their attention on him, surrounding him and beating him back down to the ground.
The others on top of Alice took this opportunity to make breaks of their own and soon it was just Alice and the bleeding woman she had tripped over.  She pushed herself to her feet and gasped as she put weight on her ankle.  This wasn't good, not good, no...
Nausea tinged her vision as she looked around, desperate for a viable means of escape.  Walk out, past the police, lose herself in the next few blocks, try to find a cab... 
She hobbled away, ignoring the pained screams from all around her.  Not this, not now...
She was in sight of a few lingering police on the edge of the perimeter when pain blossomed across the back of her head, her vision flashed, and then everything went dark...

The family funeral of Raoul Omerta wasn't until the following Tuesday, but the pastor of St. John the Evangelist had declared that Sunday mass would be held in the boy's honor.  Consequently, thousands of  Philadelphians had packed out the church to pay respects to their martyred brother.
Rachel, being somewhat close to Raoul, as well as for... other reasons, had insisted that they attend the memorial.  Reggie had declined; he never felt comfortable in churches, and he needed the sleep after the weekend's shifts.  John agreed to come on the condition that they arrived early.  He was glad they had; the church was almost full by the time they forced their way into the back of the sanctuary, and crews of volunteers were hastily erecting cameras and outdoor screens to convey the proceedings to the overflow.
After what seemed like a hot, crowded, agitated eternity, the pastor entered, preceded by a column of alter children, and the congregated mourners stood to sing a hymn.  When the pastor had shuffled to the front of the sanctuary, the singing petered out, and scripture was read.
John tuned it out and stared up into the vaulted ceiling, tracing out the supports that held the roof aloft.  This was the first time he had been in a proper, traditional cathedral.  He could appreciate this bit of antique engineering.
After what seemed like hot, crowded, agitated hours, the pastor stepped aside and a weeping, middle-aged woman was led in front of the pulpit.  She spoke at some length about her son, interrupted frequently by bursts of uncontrolled sobbing. 
The longer she spoke, the more uncomfortable Rachel became.  “That wasn't how it happened,” she whispered.  “The police didn't start this.  I did.”
“You had no way of knowing it would end up like this.”
“That doesn't make it less stupid.  God, everyone's blaming the police now...  That's not going to end well...”
When Mrs. Omerta was finished, her husband led her back to her seat then took the stage himself.  Unlike his wife, he said little about his son.  Most of what he said was directed against the police and the government, and John could see where Raoul had gotten his political streak from.
As Mr. Omerta's tirade wore on, noise from outside the building grew louder.  At first this was ignored; lunch-time traffic.  Then it continued, past the end of Omerta's speech and into the next.  Furious whispering broke out, drowning out the new speaker.
John saw several people checking their mobiles; after they had, they rushed out the door.  He grabbed Rachel's wrist.  “I think we'd better get out of here.”
“Is something going on at City Hall?”
“I don't know—hopefully we're far enough away that we won't get caught in it.”
It took them some time to get to the door of the church; it seemed as if half of the attendees had all gotten the urge to flee at the same instant.
Then they stepped out of the church and into a riot.   
A flood of pedestrians was coursing through the street, funneling through the openings between parked vehicles.  Some adventurous souls leapt the obstacles, leaving broken windshields and shrieking alarms in their wake.
John immediately turned back to the church, but another group of mourners was already trying to push out, so he and Rachel were forced into the mob.
By staying on the edge of the crowd they were able to avoid the worst of the current, and only moved a few dozen yards.
“What's going on?” Rachel yelled.
“Looks like something's going on at City Hall!”
A back flow was beginning on the sidewalks, heading in the direction of Penn Square.
“We need to get out of here!”
The main flow of pedestrians ebbed for a moment, and John took the opportunity to duck behind a row of parked cars, dragging Rachel with him.  A moment later the back flow broke into the street proper and managed to reverse the tide a moment before a phalanx of armored police drew even with the church.
Now that the rush of flight was over, those wanting to confront the police were pouring in with an even greater force, trapping John and Rachel.
The inevitable clash of flooding rioters and damming police occurred in front of the church.  A young man with a baseball bat, half running of his own volition, half pushed by those behind, swung at the leading police officer.  The swing glanced off the officer's shield, and the officer surged forward, knocking the bat back to crack into the man's jaw.  He fell back into the crowd, able bodied rioters swarming around him and surrounding the hapless officer who now found himself surrounded by six enraged men.
He swung his shield at the two in front of him and his truncheon at the one to his right.  The three behind him pushed, knocking him off balance.  These three were themselves attacked from the rear as the other police engaged, but by then it was too late for the first officer.  Undefended while he flailed to regain balance, his three remaining attackers stripped him of his shield and forced him to the ground.
Over the roar of the crowd, John heard bones crunching.
Rachel sat on the pavement, her back against the car.  “Shit, shit, shit—it's happening again, they're all going to kill each other, shit shit shit—”
John ignored her and stood on his knees to stare over the car in perverse fascination at the chaos erupting around them.  The police pushed forward, their line becoming diagonal.  Those on the left edge stopped to help their fallen comrade while those on the right pushed up to engage with fresh rioters.
The rioters, for their part, where pushing in tighter, coming from somewhere up the street.  They must be new, fresh to the battle, as none of them were coming from the direction of City Hall.
The right edge of the police line curved as it engaged in combat once more.  This time, they weren't playing defense.  They raised their shields, charged forward, cracking their truncheons with bone-shattering force against the hands that pushed past the shields. 
Several police weren't carrying truncheons, and instead sprayed the crowd with tear-gas and pepper spray.  Rather than discouraging the crowd, it only made them angrier, and they climbed on top of one another, using each other as springboards to launch themselves on the police, collapsing individual officers to the ground, trapped under their shields.  Soon the police line was in disarray, and the rioters were able to surround the few remaining police and bludgeon them with improvised clubs.
With the street now clear, many rioters broke ranks and continued down the street in the direction of Penn Square, though enough remained to ensure that John and Rachel were forced to remain a while longer. 
Just as it looked like the violence would be over here, a new set of screams erupted from the cluster of rioters still pacifying the police.  One officer had abandoned his shield and equipped the truncheon of a fallen comrade.  He was now using his weapons to perform a series of swift, surgical strikes on his tormentors, leaving them curled on the ground, hopefully unconscious, possibly dead.
The flow of movement in the street slowed as people stopped to see the lone officer, mowing his way through rioters, always managing to stay one step ahead of the ten or so people who were up against him.
A large man, at least six feet tall and armed with a crowbar, pushed his way through the crowd and to the officer, swinging his weapon and bellowing.  The officer froze, fell into a boxer's stance, twin truncheons held at the ready.  The man swung at the officer's head, but the officer ducked, sidestepped, swung out his right-hand truncheon and caught the man in the kidney. 
The man grimaced but didn't slow.  He spun to face the officer, grabbed his helmeted head in a one-armed bear hug, and used his free hand to bring the crowbar down toward the helmet.  The officer reacted immediately, bringing the right truncheon once more into the kidney, then the left into the man's groin, then right into the base of his skull.  The crowbar fell and the left truncheon came up and caught the man below the ear.  The officer was free.
More rioters were on him, but he held his own, twisting and dodging with grace, blocking and striking as if this were all just an elaborate dance.
Sunlight  glanced off the visor of the helmet, and for just a moment John thought he caught a glimpse of Lucy's fiancĂ©, Shaun.  For some reason this terrified him, and he felt a jolt of nausea run up his spine.
The officer looked up, seeming to know that frightened eyes were upon him.  The blankness of his helmet locked with John's eyes for a moment, then the officer—Shaun—disengaged from his attackers and lunged in John's direction.
John reached back for Rachel's arm.
“We have to go—”
“There's still too many—”
John turned away from the rapidly approaching Shaun and ran in the direction of the church. 
“Wait!”  Rachel was following him now; she latched onto his sleeve and managed to keep pace as he barreled through rioters. 
Sounds of injury and screams of pain followed behind them.
John pushed ahead, fueled by the irrational fear that Shaun was gunning for him.  If it even was Shaun, if he even was coming after him specifically; it could be a stranger, could be a coincidence. 
He risked a look over his shoulder and saw their pursuer hot on their trail, leaping over rioters, knocking down those he couldn't scale.
“Who the fuck is that?”
“I don't know!”  No point loading on more baggage than she could carry at this stage.
They were coming up on a side street that was nearly empty; only a few people stood and gawked at the riot, recording the chaos with their mobiles.  John broke past the final line of rioters, into the emptiness, and risked a final look back—no one was following them.  Police still battled civilians, the violence still engulfed the streets, but there was no phantom police officer chasing them.
A girl around Rachel's age approached them, staring at the screen of the mobile she pointed at them.  “What's going on in there?  What's it like?”
John, still trying to catch his breath, pushed the mobile away and trudged down the street. 
“Where are you going?”
“I'm going home!”
A moment later he heard Rachel's footsteps following him to safety.

For the first time in his memory, John could see stars in the sky over Philadelphia.  The usual light that glared from the city had gone off about half an hour ago, flickering off in miles-wide blocks.  Only isolated points burned in the darkness: hospitals, police stations, buildings supplied by generators. 
Sky Crest was one of those safe beacons of civilization.  Rachel lay sleeping on the living room couch, warmed by the glow of the television giving second-hand accounts of what she had experienced that day.
Shortly before the power had gone out, the governor had interrupted every television broadcast and informed the people of Pennsylvania that he was declaring a state of emergency.  The National Guard was to be deployed as soon as humanly possible, and the city of Philadelphia was to be put under martial law until such a time as the riots could be ended and peace restored.
The announcement only made things worse. 
Sounds of sniffling reached out from the living room.  Rachel was not taking this well; John knew she felt responsible for this.  As much as he wanted to comfort her, he knew there was some truth to her belief.   
He left the window and walked to the living room.  He stood behind the couch and listened to the news anchor tick off statistics: deaths, arrests, cost of property damage.  Every few minutes a talking head would appear and wonder where the president was, what he would do to help.  Then would come talk of Defenders: were they behind this?  Was this the first steps in a mass destabilization campaign?
A toilet flushed, and Reggie walked into the room.  He stood at the edge of the sunken living room, looking at his daughter, then glanced at John.
"I think I made the right decision.  Did I make the right decision?  This isn't a place for a kid.”
John smiled  “Or a grandkid.”
Reggie snorted.  “You won't let me live this down, will you?”
John shook his head.  “You're old, dude.  Get used to it.”
Reggie didn't respond for several seconds.  He stepped down into the living room, approached the couch, and leaned over to stroke Rachel's forehead.  “I'm not ready...”
John placed a hand on his brother's shoulder.  “It's a good thing you already got the tickets.”
"Yeah.  I was going to wait a week, but as soon as mentioned babies, Denise insisted I send Rachel out right away."
“Has anyone told Wayne?”
Reggie stiffened.  “Rachel can call him if she wants.  It's best if our paths don't cross for a few more years...”
John nodded.
Reggie sighed and rubbed his neck.  “Listen, I've been told that there's an emergency triage center setting up downstairs.  Apparently this place is owned by the NSA, and he's got local National Guard diverting wounded overflow here.  So, I'm going to head down and work a bit.  Can you tell Rachel what's going on if she wakes up before I get back?”
John nodded.
“I'll try to keep it under ten hours.  Don't want her to miss her flight.”
John nodded.
Reggie kissed his daughter, then left.
John stayed next to Rachel a moment longer, then returned to the window. 

As he watched fires spread in the streets below, heard muffled screams and gunfire, he felt the walls of his normal life crumbling, letting in some of the chaos that raged outside.   

No comments:

Post a Comment