Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
The city burns behind them. Long shadows stretch almost to the citadel of government. Late afternoon sunlight picks out moments in bright clarity: metallic reflections from the bent panels of a vandalised coupe, a discarded sheet spread like spilt milk, the sparkle of falling tears.
Ahead of such scenes, a mob stands. The roaring of righteous anger has faded in the face of the rows of masked soldiers who block the street. Behind them can be seen the squat forms of armoured cars.
This impasse has stood unchanged for nearly an hour. Within the mob, a few arteries of anger seek to drive it forward. Veins of unspoken reticence keep it still. Within the serried ranks, there is little movement: mainly the shifting of position that betrays discomfort. This crisis arose faster than expected. A number of the troops are locals. For all that command has tried to minimise the number of them at the front, unit cohesion has to take precedent over the threat of adverse emotional reactions.
There’s a stirring within the mob. Surveillance images are confused for a moment, then a smarter observer pulls the watchers back so an overview can be gained: a figure moves forward. The mob parts and reforms behind. Little eddies of concern can be seen in the wake.
Stepping into the clear space between the groups, the figure is revealed to be an older man in nondescript casual clothing. He bears no placard, displays no holograms, wears no badges or disguise. In his arms a child is cradled.
Walking to a point between the two groups, he crouches and places the limp figure down, taking a moment to tuck a roll of material under the child’s head.
A hesitant voice calls from amongst the soldiers: “Is… Is he hurt?”
The man straightens up, shaking his head: “Bless you for asking, but no. Royan got overstimulated when the drummers joined in. He’s taking a nap to process it.” He looks down and smiles: “Pretty soon he’ll be back to demand we all play football with him.”
There are nods of understanding on both sides.
The man looks about. He raises his voice. It’s deep: carries well.
“Four minutes ago, somebody made a mistake. A press release about this,” he waves his hands to encompass the stalled riot, “was sent to Reuters earlier than intended. It says dozens of soldiers and rioters were killed by a suicide bomber. It also says left-wing fanatics claimed responsibility.”
Soldiers grip their weapons tighter. A few begin to bring them up, but are ordered to stand down.
On a nearby rooftop a hidden observer receives a terse message, then recalls a drone with its cargo undelivered.
The man points towards the citadel of government.
“I came here to protest against the uncaring bastards who are driving ordinary people to destitution and death so they can hoard even more wealth.”
He looks down: “I want my boy to be able to carry on playing football, because the medical care he needs is affordable, the social care he sometimes needs is available, and both are given by experts.”
The man sits down cross-legged, spreading his arms in a gesture for others join him.
“I will not be party to a hoax that kills. Will you?”
The ripple of people sitting down is halfway through the mob when one of the soldiers steps forward, slings his weapon, and sits down. The ripple that starts travels faster.
Sitting by his sleeping son, he looks up at the hovering watchers from between two groups of seated people.
“No massacres. No compliance. Your move.”