Phil felt that horrible sickness in his stomach; the one that made him want to shit even though he hadn’t eaten breakfast. It was uncommon on the day of a rally or a protest. Usually he would be oozing with excitement at the chance to spit at some cops and swear at some journalists, but today he was planning on avoiding the cameras at all costs and an alert police force was likely to be his only chance for survival.
Forest came out of the burger shop with two burgers and a cup of chips. “Not much vegan on the menu, man. I just got some chips.”
“What oil did they use to cook it?”
“I don’t know, dude,” Forest had been pleading for Phil to cut him some slack ever since the fuck up with the BullCit article.
“Don’t worry about it, I’m not hungry.”
“Eat it.” Stevie said, looking down the street at the park where they were due to gather, “Don’t know what our next meal will be.”
Phil took the chips begrudgingly, but he was grateful to have something. Stevie was right: if they were caught it would be unlikely that hot chips would be on the menu.
The trio ate in silence out front the sidewalk store, savouring each moment between now and that walk in the park. Phil couldn’t shake the sense of dread to the point where it was distracting him from thinking straight. All he could do was imagine some personal tragedy that might free him of his obligation – if only his father could have a heart attack.
Stevie looked at his watch. “It’s already 9:30; we should get there to boost morale. Fair few arriving already so we should blend in well.” He set off down the street. It was clear Stevie was in charge. He and Phil had disagreed over the plan – specifically the involvement of the Citadel robot – but they had still worked through it as a team. They were partners, each owing their life to the other but right now Stevie was holding the fort while Phil was struggling not to fall apart.
“So we’re really doing this?” Forest said through half a mouthful of burger.
Phil waited for Stevie to reply. Stevie didn’t respond immediately. It then occurred to Phil that Stevie was waiting for him to reply. Before he could speak up Stevie turned, “We’re doing this, but you don’t have to.” He looked at Phil as he added the last part.
Phil tried to swallow the mouthful of potato and fat but it was exceptionally dry. He wondered if anyone on death row truly enjoyed their last meal. The crowd in the park had grown substantially in the last half hour. Despite the threatening nature of Bill Unston’s blog they still turned up and there was still a buzz of excitement in the air. Hacky sacks were being tossed around in various groups, weed smoke rose from other circles. Phil imagined it like the camp before a medieval war, tents set up and the troops play fighting and warming their hands by a fire. Only the generals knew of the true peril that awaited them.
Stevie grabbed Phil by the shoulder and reeled him in close, startling him out of his fantasy. “You think you’re the only one scared shitless? You think you’re the only one putting it all out on the line?” Phil looked away, instinctively checking to see if anyone saw what was happening. “Look at me!” Stevie growled, pulling him in again. “Today could turn out shit, it could be a complete disaster. We’ll be lucky to get into that fucking building before we die, let alone find Walter and escape. And even then, what the fuck are we supposed to do? But this is the first time in weeks we have taken a positive step. We’re not running anymore. It’s easy to be brave and ride your luck when you’re dodging the cops but what really defines a man is when he walks straight into the fire. I can’t do this without you and you can’t do it if your head is down in the dogshit. So liven up and inspire the fuckers to march on so we can do our fucking job.”
He pushed Phil away and walked off. Phil felt like shit but no longer because of his imminent death – it was because Stevie was right. All his life he had wanted to make a real change, to challenge the norm and change history. Now he had the purpose, he had the people, all he needed was the motivation. He walked to the centre of the park where the majority of The Strays were standing.
“Howdy stangers!” he called out, still approaching the group. The familiar faces and sundry turned to the sound of his voice. “Who’s ready to make history?” There were some anonymous woos and claps. Phil was almost cringing before he said it but he went the trusted cliché, “I said who’s ready to make history?!”
The response was similar, possibly even more subdued.
“Huh. That must be the first time that hasn’t worked,” he muttered to himself. “Look, today may not be or turn out how we planned. I don’t even know what most of you are planning, but I think we are all here for one reason and that is Walter Wallace. Many of you have seen the video of the suffering he is being forced to endure and it was revealed by that loony bitch Blues that he is being milked for his happiness to sell to the people. And we’re ‘sposed to believe that Walter agreed to all this?
“It makes me sick to think that we are forced to come out here and march up to defend the rights of one person, one regular guy, long before any authority or government sees fit to interfere. Sicker still to imagine that there are people out there who not only have no empathy for Walter’s plight but actually seek to prevent us from helping him.”
The audience applauded, no resounding rally claps but a thoughtful confirmation of Phil’s words. Phil grew conscious of the growing interest in his speech. He wouldn’t let it affect him. “Yesterday we also saw the reach of these people, this Unston character and the cult that follows him. He infiltrated the most powerful tool of communication we had and used it to spread hatred. He has rallied an army together and they stand not far from here. I don’t know their purpose or their motivation. Personally, I believe they are just a bunch of sad fucks looking for an excuse to blame their sorrow on somebody else.”
There was a resounding positive reaction. The people were firing up. Phil spotted a camera crew: Public broadcasters. “Hey!” he called out, walking towards them. “Hey, you got coverage of the other side?”
The reporter who Phil recognised from the train incident nodded. “Big crowds over there. At least 20,000 immediately out the front of the building and thousands more crowding the streets around there.”
Phil was slightly taken aback. He was no expert in counting heads but he couldn’t imagine more than 3-5000 people gathered in the park. “And where is all the coverage for us? Why do we only get the PBC telling our story?”
“Most the crews are out there.”
“Fucking right!” He yelled out to the people. “How can anyone genuinely believe that is not a coincidence? This gang claims to have no affiliation with Citadel and yet all the media attention, all the Citadel subsidiaries are over there turning us into the bad guys! Tell me that isn’t fucking bullshit!” The people let off a cheer.
Stevie had worked his way over to the reporter. He was careful not to have his face caught by the cameraman as he called Phil into a small circle. “What are we facing over there? Are they armed?”
“There’s been some images of some pretty heavily decked out people. For the most part they are just a large group of people.”
“Plenty. Maybe a thousand in riot equipment.”
But they will be sandwiched between us.” Stevie said, more to himself. He looked to Phil, “if we entice them into some kind of battle then a lot of people could die. The last thing we want is for a mob to start closing in on itself.” He paused. “Fuck.”
“Give me something here, Stevie, we need to roll with this momentum.”
“We need to keep our distance. Give the riot squad room to focus on the other mob. If we start pushing them they will become overwhelmed. Tell them to stay peaceful.”
“How are we supposed to get in the fucking Towers if we are protesting 100 metres away?”
“We’ll take a side street and try blend in with the Unston gang. Whisky will find us.”
“You put a lot of trust in that robot.”
“You mean the robot that shot you?” the reporter chimed in.
Phil shrugged his shoulders emphatically, looking to Stevie about his long lost argument. He turned and faced the crowd again, “Nobody here is being asked to march to their doom. We are a peaceful people and we do not want anybody dead. We will not strike with any weapons.”
Stevie took the lead. His voice had the commanding bark of an officer but still did not quite match Phil’s natural presence. “There is a large crowd there trying to mute our voices but we will still be heard. Do not approach the riot police. Do not antagonise them. Give them the space they need because they will be all that is protecting us. Our purpose here is to demand the freedom of one man but if it costs the life of another then we have already failed. Do not be reckless. We cannot win this battle on their terms.”
“But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to win this fight on our fucking terms!” Forest yelled from the front of the immediate crowd.
“He’s right!” Phil shouted back, “We are going in there on our terms and we are going to let them know where we stand. So who’s fucking with me?!” The crowd cheered, not the most uproarious cheer ever heard but it was enough for an outnumbered bunch of rag tag protesters about to be sent packing by the masses. “As this fucking camera is our witness we will set Walter Wallace free by the end of the day or I’ll go in there and rescue him myself!”
Phil set off on his march. He knew they would follow and the camera would follow too. He knew that the other channels would catch wind of their determination and start filming them. He finally understood Stevie’s plan – even if Stevie himself didn’t. To trust in the robot was not to look out for him. It was to act completely normal and let the robot find them. The opportunity would arise in due time, but for now he was to be the impulsive free thinking Hippy Flip that was born to lead this army into battle.