Stevie walked to the right and slightly behind Phil. The kid was into his stride, doing what he was born to – create a ruckus. It is a strange phenomenon when a friend or partner is down there is an urge to be strong and carry the weight – stanger still that when they are up the urge is to follow. Stevie wondered if he was alone in this sentiment - was this the reason why he found it so hard to bond with other people? The flash of self-reflection was pushed aside by his present mind.
For weeks he had doubted that they could pull off any sort of resistance, even that morning he had been filled with dread at the idea that nobody would show for the march. Now he had the people and they had their leader he could focus on their next move. A rush of new doubts began rolling in like distant ripples off the shore growing into crashing waves. How would they get in? How would they find Walter? What would they do once they found him?
The first was the most immediate and it was easier to focus on a tangible problem. He caught up the extra half step to talk with Phil, “We need to play out the rally for a while before we make a move on the Towers.”
“Too easy. Be careful trusting in Hippy Flip, though. He doesn’t back down easily.”
“He might have to. We don’t know the purpose of this Unston gang.”
“If you thump your chest the hardest and hurl your shit the farthest they won’t be too keen to push forward.”
“Well remember the cops are on your side this time.”
Phil kept looking forward. They were barely 50m from the courtyard that opened out from Citadel Towers. The whole square was filled with people. If the Towers were considered the front of the square then Phil and Stevie were marching into the back right corner. A line of police was beginning to fill its ranks between the stationery crowd and the incoming protesters. Stevie was surprised to notice that the people weren’t as focussed on his brigade as the officers. As their view opened out onto the plaza they saw what the crowd was staring at.
An enormous screen was set up on the front of the Towers and Tony Holdsworth was commanding the crowd’s attention. It took a moment for Stevie’s ears to adjust to the distorted voice coming through the loudspeakers.
“...such an amazing scene! There must be a hundred thousand people out here today!”
“What the fuck is this?” Phil asked Stevie. “This fat fuck was meant to be on our side last night.”
Stevie remained quiet. He needed to understand the situation. His gut churned, reminding him that he was still behind Tank and running out of chances to catch up.
“So who is ready for another Walter Wallace Happy Hour?” Tony called out. The crowd erupted with a cheer that echoed around the plaza. On the screen Stevie saw Tony work his way through the crowd. He stopped at a young woman. “How do you feel young lady?”
“Umm, nervous I guess,” she replied.
“That’s no good. You know you don’t need to feel like that. What’s your name?”
“Alex, how do you feel on any given day? Are you happy?”
“Sometimes I think I am but other days I’m not.”
“And why is that?”
“I don’t know,” Alex laughed anxiously, “I guess I want more.”
“Well it doesn’t need to be like that ever again. You can share in Walter’s happiness. Just try this. It is pure emotion, addiction-free happiness.”
Alex took what looked like a small capsule and popped it into her mouth. She closed her eyes. The camera zoomed in on her face and she broke into a broad smile. She let off a slight laugh and opened her eyes. “Oh wow. Is this what he feels all the time?”
“It sure is. Walter is a gifted human being and now he is sharing that gift with you directly.”
The crowd cheered again. Tony moved through the crowd again. They parted for him obligingly. It was not the hostile atmosphere that Stevie had expected. He was relieved that they would not be in physical danger but it was another misjudgement – now his side would look like the aggressors.
“What do we do?” Phil asked. He and Stevie turned to see their following still filling out the back corner of the plaza.
“Do you buy this shit? Does this seem right to you?”
“Fuck no! Walter tablets, my ass.”
Stevie nodded. “Stick to the plan. We can cause havoc. Just keep the police in two minds about advancing.
Stevie walked back through his own gathering and found the PBC reporter. He was interviewing a random Stray. “What the fuck is this?” he interrupted. “I thought you said they would be hostile. You didn’t tell us this was another spectacle.”
“I’m supposed to remain impartial. I shouldn’t-”
“Fuck that. This is important. What is going on here?”
“Look. I barely know myself. The crowd gathered and then Tony came out parading the Walter product. What more is there to know?”
A sharp crackle and pinging feedback came from where Stevie was just standing. He turned and saw Phil holding up a worn out looking megaphone. “Check?” his voice shot out, “There we go. As I was saying. Who the fuck is Tony Holdsworth?!” A cheer rose from his immediate audience.
The PBC reporter pushed past Stevie, “I don’t know what this is but it needs to be documented. Good luck.” Stevie followed slowly, short on ideas. The people around him circled in on Phil.
“Hello fellow Strays and Strangers. I’m here with you today to let ourselves be heard. To point out the faults of this soulless empire that is Citadel!” The people cheered again but their voices were drowned out by the greater presence in the plaza. “Ha! They’re cheering with us brothers!”
The people laughed but their attention was drawn to the big screen and Tony’s voice boomed through the speakers. “Our next lucky draw is you, sir. May I ask your name?”
“Are you happy Big Bill?”
“No, sir. I’m not happy with the world. I think there is too much injustice and I am here to make a change.”
“That sounds like a common sentiment around the square today. Would you be interested in a pure fix of happiness? Something that will empower you to inspire and witness great changes in the world?”
“I do not do drugs, sir.”
“Not a drug Mr...”
“Unston, sir. I am a member of the Band of Bill Unston and I had chosen today to be the day of my sacrifice. My pledge to the greater good by extinguishing my unhappiness. But Mr Unston himself spoke to me through his publication and told me to come here and enforce the change.”
“That explains the bat.” Tony smirked. The camera lowered its focus to the man’s hand and the baseball bat hanging from it. “Mr Unston did call you here today and it is no coincidence that I found you. I had my world opened last night to the magic of Emotional Emitions and I offer it to you now. This will allow you the strength to make the changes you desire. This will free you of the burden of unhappiness. Take it and you won’t just be one step closer to your destiny; you will arrive there right now!”
Stevie wondered why Tony was so nonchalant about strolling into a crowd of nutjobs and depressives, but he noticed a ring of security surrounding the jolly host. That was when he found his inspiration.
The man was hesitant but the sell was already complete. He took the capsule and the camera again zoomed in on his face. It was almost identical to the reaction the girl had previously. The man broke into a broad smile and dropped his bat to the ground. He gave Tony a big hug which prompted the suited up security to intervene. “It’s OK,” Tony said warmly, shielding off the muscle, “he just found true happiness and wants to share it.” The crowd roared with glee.
Stevie squeezed his way back through to Phil. “We need to get him over here!” he shouted, “Tony - We need to entice him over. Get him to offer us the drug.”
“I don’t wanna take that shit. Give me LSD any day.”
“Just do what you have to do and get him over here!” Stevie tried to spot where Tony was within the crowd. Pretty much in the centre of the plaza, about ten yards from the memorial fountain. Phil’s megaphone crackled; Stevie prayed it would reach Tony’s ears.
“I thought Tony Holsdworth died last night.” Phil taunted. “The fat fuck’s died so many times you wonder how many lives he has. I would think he’s got about nine because he’s a FUCKING PUSSY!” The Strays let off some woos and whistles. “Hey Tony! How many times can you get fucked in the ass and still go back for more!”
The crowd on the opposite side of the police wall were beginning to turn and notice the disruption but they needed to be louder. “Phil! Get a chant going. We need to be louder.”
Phil nodded with a twisted grin. “What say we get a chant going folks?” The people cheered again. “Tony Holsdworth – You’re a cunt! Tony Holdsworth – you’re a cunt!” It was vulgar and not doing wonders for their image but it was effective in stirring a chorus. The people began to cheer along – Stevie too – and their voices were turning more and more heads.
“Uhh I think we’ve got some visitors.” Tony’s voice came through the speakers. His words seemed to focus the attention of the whole square. A buzzing hush fell and the chant became even more resounding. “Tony Holdsworth – you’re a cunt!”
“Do you have to be so rude?” Tony asked politely, still smiling warmly on the big screen. The chant was his only response but it was starting to lose its volume. “Can I ask what your grievance is?”
The chant died down further. Silence had taken to the whole plaza as the 5000 elephants in the room were finally acknowledged. Phil looked at Stevie for reassurance and Stevie gave him an urging fist pump. “Our grievance is that you’re a fat cunt.”
“I would appreciate for the younger audience – and the older ones too for that matter – that you refrain from such language.”
“I would appreciate you stop brainwashing the masses.”
“It’s hardly brainwashing, son. This is the future of a brand new world.”
“Looks like more of the fucking same if you ask me. Citadel controlling the people.”
“Let me come over and talk to you face to face. Perhaps I can relieve you of your burdening unhappiness.”
“Bring it on, fat man. But don’t expect to drug me up like and add me to the flock.”
In the distance the crowd began to part around Tony and his entourage of security. It reminded Stevie of those 3D illustrations of a planet passing through the fabric of space time. There was a murmur of anticipation as Tony approached. He arrived at the police wall. “Step aside officers. There is no danger present here – only the eradication of unhappiness from another being.”
There was resistance at first but a tall officer stepped forward and ordered the men to give way. Stevie did a double take and recognised Taylor, his former partner, giving him a wink as Tony passed through.
“Thank you, officers.” Tony said, walking towards Phil. “Now tell me, son, what is your real reason for being here?”
“Why don’t I let Stevie tell you?”
Stevie only had one free shot so he decided to make it count. He launched a wild swinging right that landed flush on Tony’s cheekbone. Stevie was pinned to the ground so fast he barely had time to see the large figure stumble backwards with Phil jumping up on his back and bringing him to the ground. A wild cheer rose from the crowd but it was muffled by the forearm pressing down on Stevie’s ear.
“Bring them in.” Whisky’s voice was loud without yelling. “Just the leader and this one; back to HQ.”
Stevie was lifted off his feet. The still too recent scars of previous encounters with the agents were screaming with pain. His arm was locked tight behind his back and he was marched through the breached police wall. “Sir! Release those men from your custody immediately!” barked Taylor but Whisky ignored the order. Stevie felt like his arm was about to pop but he still gave a feint nod to his partner suggesting this was all part of the show – he just hoped it was.
“Fuck off! Fuck off, you fucking dog! Let me go!” Phil’s voice was reaching a shrill pitch, but it was pleasing at least to know he was not alone. They climbed the stairs to the Towers and entered through the automatic revolving door. They were tossed into the elevator and a wave of relief swept through Stevie’s shoulder.
“I’ll take them from here. Go back to the mission.” Whisky ordered.
“Don’t think so, boss.” Said the second agent. Recognising the voice, Stevie turned just in time to see him punch Whisky in the jaw and send him sprawling back into the lobby. The doors shut and the dead agent from the bar, Chips, looked at Stevie and Phil with a grin. “Remember me?”