Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Long War, Part XVII - Resistance

Previous: The Long War, Part XVI - Advent Rising

France

Syl was dumbstruck at the sight of the millions assembled in the Place de la Republique. She had never been in a crowd that size before, and the teeming mass was like a living thing, breathing, roiling and undulating through the streets of Paris, filling every street, every alley, and every corner. They had come from all over the France to take part in a massive rally against President Hollande. The news was disseminated through traditional word of mouth - social media had been shut down in the first wave of emergency legislation, but despite the lack of Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, the French people, undaunted and provoked by the President's brazen attempt to seize control of their nation, rallied and massed together in their thousands. They descended onto the French capital like a force of nature, sure in their belief that a demonstration of national unity would suffice to frighten off this wannabe dictator, fracture the Socialist Party, and rally the rest of the French political parties to their side. Seeing the crowd first hand Syl was inclined to agree.


Scree, on the other hand, was more concerned with the practicalities of navigating through this enormous throng of people. The two former X-Com operatives were on their way to a meeting with their commanding officer. Two French companies had deployed with X-Com in February, only to be withdrawn one month later, and had never been heard of since. Scree and Syl, as members of the strike force, were the last two to return, and their repeated attempts to contact members of their unit were met with silence, confusion or concern from relatives or loved ones.

"I was told that you were all still deployed in Japan," replied one concerned spouse to Scree's inquiries. "What's going on, Victor? Should I be worried?"

"It's probably just a misunderstanding," replied Scree. "I'll get it straightened out and get back to you."

Truly alarmed now, they shared their concerns with their X-Com commander, Colonel John Bradford, and he in turn offered them a roundabout way of returning home. They'd only been with X-Com for just over a month, but as members of the strike force they participated in two missions apiece, which was enough to earn them the loyalty of their C.O. The two of them were dropped in Belgium, given a powerful radio transmitter, and sent off with the best wishes of Bradford and their squadmates.

"The transmitter links to a bay tower in Germany, and then travels overland across Europe and Asia," said Bradford. "You need anything, give me a call, and I'll do whatever I can."

That transmitter was now safely tucked away in Scree's pack as the two of them bumped, jostled and ground their way through the square. Scree swiveled the pack around so that it faced to the front, in order to keep the contents more secure. The two of them were linked together by their elbows in what would otherwise have been an intimate gesture, but it was done for more practical purposes - if they lost each other in this crowd they would never find each other again. Being soldiers they'd also prepared for this eventuality. Every fifteen minutes or so they would set a rally point at an intersection, a street, or a shop both of them knew just in case they were separated. In the event that this failed then the final contingency would be to meet a block from their destination. There was a reason for their excessive caution. Syl's last phone conversation with her C.O. did not sit well with her. Davout, a gregarious but competent officer, shared Syl and Scree's misgivings and agreed to cover for the two of them when he departed home for France. They had not heard from him since. In the intervening time they traveled across the Belgian border in the Ardennes and made their way to Grenoble. From Grenoble Syl called Davout on a pre-arranged number, and spoke to a person who sounded like their old C.O., but differed greatly in manner and attitude.

"Come to Paris immediately," Davout had said in a flat, emotionless voice. "This is an order." He gave them an address in Paris, and hung up.

So here they were in Paris at last, only a kilometer or so from their final destination. This kilometer might just have well been ten, given at the speed at which they moved. Despite the size of the demonstration an air of merry-making permeated the air. The people seemed confident in victory - this rally dwarfed even the thousands that lined the streets in the liberation of Paris in the Second World War, and the size of the assembly begat confidence and purpose. It was as if every man, woman and child had come to Paris that day to underscore and re-affirm the tenets of liberté, égalité, fraternité. The tricolors of France fluttered in the spring breeze, and they flew everywhere, from the hands of small children and the elderly alike, and from cars, balconies and rooftops. White collar and blue collar marched side by side with students and unionists. Celebrities of all stripes turned out in force either as an expression of true belief and solidarity, or as cynical opportunists hoping to parlay this zeitgeist for personal gain. Songs and chants rippled through the crowd, died out, then began again. The noise was like a roaring of a great waterfall, and the sound was felt, rather than heard. It rippled through tissue and bone, and it was hard not to become enamored by it, to be caught up in the feeling of being part of something greater. Even the two soldiers were not immune to its charms. Syl found her heart swelling with pride for the ardor of her countryfolk.

"This is amazing," she said to Scree.

"What?" Scree's gaze was fixed resolutely forward.

She stopped moving, and Scree finally turned and faced her, annoyed at the sudden stoppage. She motioned all around. "This," she said. "This is amazing!"

Scree's eyes turned outward, and the enormity of the gathering seemed to finally register. An uncharacteristic grin came to his face, and he nodded. "Yes, it is." He looked around once more, then re-focused. "Come on. We have to go."

The crowds increased in size as they pushed closer into the city center. Slowly and almost imperceptibly the atmosphere gave way from gaiety to muted tension - Syl knew without looking that they were approaching the police lines. The welcoming smiles turned into tight lipped nods and looks of acknowledgment. Suddenly they were at the front, and before them, about 20 meters distant, stood a wall of black clad riot police. They wore riot helmets and sported riot shields and batons. They stood stock still in the face of the din, and their line was meticulously perfect. Their sleeves were adorned with new ADVENT insignia, an emblem that was fast gaining notoriety in France and greater Europe. At the front of the demonstration stood men, women and even some children, hands linked together as they chanted slogans and sang songs. Syl shook her head. She feared for the safety of the children at the front of the demonstration. As they winnowed their way through the crowd, Syl took the time to address one of the parents.


"You should take your children home," she shouted over the din at one startled looking couple. "This could get ugly." She looked at a different couple with a young girl, and repeated her comment. "This is no place for children."

Scree gave both couples long, even looks before pulling on Syl's elbow. "Come on," he said. The two of them kept moving through the chanting throng. Behind them one couple appeared to heed Syl's advice and began moving backwards, while the other parents exchanged quick words, shrugged, laughed and then turned their attention back to the police lines. Syl seethed in frustration. Scree appeared oblivious to Syl's mood, his attention solely focused on blazing a path through this dense, seething forest of humanity.

"The police are blocking the route," Scree said. "We need to find a parallel street and go from there." He pulled on Syl's elbow again, but she didn't budge. Irritated at this second stoppage he turned to her, but found her pointing towards the police lines. Look, she mouthed.

A pretty young woman had detached herself from the chanting crowd, and crossed the gap between the demonstrators and the riot police. She held a bouquet of white poppies in the crook of one elbow. When she reached the lines she offered one to one of them of the troopers - when it failed to elicit a response she placed it in the gap of the trooper's helmet and moved on to the next one. She moved down the line, placing poppies in the gaps and chinks of the riot gear of every trooper she met. She was also speaking to them - Syl could see her mouth opening and closing, but it was impossible to make out her words over the roar of the crowd. She stopped in front of another trooper, but this time she reached up and lifted up the perspex shield covering his face. She tucked the flower behind the man's ear, and smiled at him. The crowd cheered approvingly. Syl admired the girl's boldness. Then Syl took another look at the face of the trooper, and a shock of recognition almost floored her.

She tapped Scree on the shoulder and pointed. "Look - isn't that Girard?"

"What?"

She had to shout to make herself heard. "Look. Isn't that Girard? Wasn't he part of your unit?"

Scree followed the direction of Syl's finger, and stared at the trooper. "My God. It is him." He was dumbfounded. "What's he doing here?"

"I don't know," Syl shrugged. "But I'm going to find out." She deftly unhooked her elbow, left the embrace of the crowd and walked briskly across the gap towards Girard, bellowing a greeting over the tumult. Scree was left grasping at air, but recovered swiftly and jogged after her.

"Girard! It's Roche!" The man didn't budge. "Girard! It's me, Roche." She looked into the man's eyes, trying to spark a flicker of recognition. "Girard, you jackass, it's Roche. What are you doing here? Where's the rest of the unit?"

Girard stared at her, eyes unblinking. The girl noticed Syl's presence at the front of the lines, and flashed her a friendly smile of camaraderie. She offered a white poppy to Syl. "Vive la France," she said. Syl took the poppy and returned the smile with an awkward one of her own, but her attention remained fixed with Girard. It was him, no question, but the man's seeming lack of awareness and his failure to recognize her troubled her. He stared straight ahead, eyes unblinking and utterly devoid of warmth.

"Girard, you damned jackass, snap out of it. Don't you remember me? What's wrong you?"

Girard turned and looked at her for the first time. Encouraged, Syl continued. "It's me. Roche. We were in Tanegashima together." Scree arrived behind her. "Do you remember Rousseau? You were in the same unit." Syl looked to Scree, and on cue he continued prodding the silent trooper. "Girard. It's Victor. What's wrong, comrade? Where is everyone else?"

The whole line suddenly moved in unison, much like a parade line does when reacting to a shouted order. All of the sudden Syl and Scree had the attention of the entire front line, and the unblinking gaze of so many eyes was disconcerting, especially after the trooper's silent vigil. Girard's eyes were now alert and wakeful, and he spoke for the first time. "Roche. Rousseau. Major Davout wants to see you." In an amazing display of synchronization Girard and another trooper grabbed Syl by both her wrists. At the same time two other troopers stepped forward and grabbed Scree. "You must come with us. Do not resist." The troopers behind created a gap to allow them passage, and without waiting for either for them to speak the troopers began dragging the two of them bodily back through the police lines.

"Wait a minute," Syl said angrily, digging her heels in. She pulled her wrist back through the weak point of the grip between the thumb and the index finger, and was shocked when he was able to maintain the hold. She tried again, this time with all the strength she could muster, and her hand slipped through the grip and was free. Girard made a clumsy attempt to grab her wrist again, but this time she was ready and avoided his clutching hand easily. Nonetheless the other trooper still had her other wrist. Despite her best efforts she was being pulled further and further back.

"Stop!" she shouted, furious now. The trooper was tremendously strong, but she received help from an unexpected quarter. The girl with the flowers latched onto her other wrist, shouting, "Fascists! Fascists! Let her go! Help me, they're trying take her! Fascists!" The poppies tumbled out of her hands, covering the ground in a tangle of white petals, but their combined strength was enough to stop the trooper from dragging Syl back any further. The girl shouted and pleaded with demonstrators in the line, while simultaneously hurling curses and imprecations at the riot police. "Fascists! You should be ashamed! You call yourselves French?" One trooper near the girl deliberately drew his baton and brought it down in a vicious arc into her face. The girl went down instantly, her face suddenly transformed into a crimson mask. There was a collective gasp of horror from the crowd. For two, three, maybe four seconds there was absolute silence - then an animal cry of outrage swelled from the mouths of a thousand people and a human tide engulfed the lines. The mob surged, ebbed and crashed violently, but around the fallen girl an eddy of stillness prevailed. Several people picked her up gently and began moving her back through the oncoming charge, which parted like the Red Sea to let them through. The crowd's fury was reserved for the troopers, and in the front of the melee furious demonstrators punched, kicked, bit, spat, pushed and hurled insults.


The trooper's casual brutality seemed to be a signal for the remainder of ADVENT to swing into action. More ADVENT hands grabbed Syl, and this time there was no resisting - she was carried backwards like a struggling, kicking child by several troopers. Scree too, was resisting as violently as he could. A big strong man, he was putting up a mighty fight, and he shook off the first two troopers with ease. An accomplished judoka, he also cross-trained with his fellow soldiers in other grappling disciplines like wrestling and jujitsu. These troopers were large and uncannily strong, but also slow and ponderous, allowing him to move his feet into positions where he could throw them over his hip and shoulders. Nonetheless the weight of numbers began to overwhelm him as more and more ADVENT troops joined the melee. Even the troopers he'd thrown were grabbing his boots from the ground, seemingly oblivious to the kicks and stomps he was throwing at them to make them let go. He was saved by the arrival of the furious crowd. Scree could see Syl disappearing into the police lines, but there was nothing he could do about it. Surrounded by hundreds of furious French it was all he could do just to keep his head up in the madding crowd. He hoped that the crowd's impetus would suffice to sweep away the lines, and let himself be carried by the wave of outraged French towards the ADVENT lines.


The black lines showed no fear of the oncoming mob, and they laid into the demonstrators with brutal precision, hitting them with batons and riot shields. They displayed no fear or remorse, and their attacks were bone-crunchingly effective. The initial fury of the crowd was dissipated in mere minutes as skulls, shoulders, forearms and elbows were shattered and broken by the fury of the assault. Soon the first demonstrators were either writhing in agony on the ground, or backing off fearfully, stunned at the viciousness of the police response. Some lay unmoving, pools of blood growing beneath them. The black line advanced slowly, shields interlocked, and the crowd began giving way. Demonstrators helped their wounded comrades retreat, or dragged them backwards with the help of others. Witnessing the brutality of the attack Scree realized that he and Syl had been spared the worst of it - none of the troopers had used their weapons on them, and had been content merely to forcibly haul them into custody. He didn't have time to ponder this mystery. The whistle of tear gas canisters overhead warned him of a new danger. To his right a retreating protester buckled and fell suddenly, but got up again and limped on. Rubber bullets and tear gas, Scree thought grimly. This escalated fast.

Scree withdrew with the rest, recognizing the hopelessness of the situation. He passed by a groaning young man in his 20s, and grabbed him by the scruff of his jacket. He dragged him backwards for about 20 meters, but found further progress impeded by crowds of people advancing from the other direction. By now the canisters were laying down clouds of choking white gas along the street, and protesters who had never experienced the awfulness of tear gas found themselves coughing and gagging as the acrid fumes burned their eyes and lungs. It was the catalyst for a disaster - afflicted people stampeded and fled in all directions in frenzied attempts to escape the gas. People were trampled underfoot, and terrible scenes ensued. Scree knew that he had to get off the street. He lifted up the youth, and slung the boy's arm over his shoulder.

"You need to walk," he yelled. The youth nodded, his features twisted in pain. "What's the injury?"

"My ankle," the youth replied, grimacing. "Rolled it as we were pulling back."

Scree nodded. "Lean on me, keep your weight off your bad ankle, and walk with your good leg. Ready?" The youth gave a pained thumbs up, and the two of them began hobbling along the curb, looking for a place to stop. They had barely moved 10 meters when a terrific explosion knocked them off their feet. The detonation came from the direction of the Place de la Republique, and such was the force of the blast that it shook the ground itself.

Scree rolled to his feet, dusted himself off, and looked in the direction of the explosion. A persistent ringing was all he could hear, and he wondered if his eardrums had burst. He could not see the plaza from this street, but above the tenements he could see a thick plume of oily black smoke rising into the sky. The ringing was slowly dying away, and its place the wailing and screaming of the injured could be heard keening into the wind. Then he felt his eyes burning and his nostrils and throat constricting in pain, and he knew this was no place to tarry. He hauled the youth to his feet again, despite the latter's cries of agony - the boy had fallen on his bad ankle, and was in incredible pain. "Come on," Scree grunted. They stopped in front of an apartment building. Scree tested the door, found it locked, and saw a frightened face through the glass behind. He thumped on the glass. "Let us in," he shouted.

The face disappeared for a few moments, and Scree was debating whether to smash the glass when the door finally opened, and several hands emerged and helped the two of them inside. They were in the lobby of an old apartment, and the place was full of terrified people. Some appeared to be nursing injuries, while others looked in shock. The muted weeping of frightened children murmured in the background, as did the whispered words of comfort doled out by parents trying to contain their own rising panic. One old man had the doorway to his apartment wedged open, and from the interior emerged a steady supply of cold water, hot tea and coffee, and biscuits. The ground floor hallway was almost full of people, and more were coming in every minute to escape the carnage outside. Scree helped the youth down to a patch of tiled floor. Rolling back the hem of the trousers Scree uncovered an ankle ballooned to double its normal size. He sighed. "You won't be walking on that anytime soon," he remarked. 

The youth nodded through the pain, and replied, "Yeah, I noticed."

"I'm going to leave you here, OK? My friend is still out there, and she needs my help. Do you have a phone? Do you have someone you can call?"

"Yes, I'll be alright. Go on. Merci pour tout."

Scree turned to go. "Wait." The youth reached into his pack, and produced a gas mask. "Take this. For the gas."

Scree looked at the mask. "You always carry one of those around in your backpack?"

"Not my first demonstration," the boy grinned. He must have been barely 20.

"What do you know of this ADVENT group? Where are they based?"

"ADVENT? I hear they've taken over the old Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité HQ. They merged the CRS with ADVENT a few weeks ago."

"Is that where they would take rioters, people they've arrested?"

"I assume so, yes."

"Do you know the address?"

"I have it." He pulled a moth-eared notebook filled with pamphlets, maps and scribblings, flipped through it and found what he was looking for. He scribbled an address on a page corner, tore it off, and handed the stub to Scree.

Scree looked at the address. "I know this address." It was the one Davout had given them earlier. "Merde."

"Is something wrong?"

"Nothing. I was hoping an old friend could help me out, but he might be in more trouble than we are." Scree began pacing, stopped, then made a decision. "I'm in over my head here. I need help."

The youth's eyes blazed fiercely. "My friends and I, we're organizing a resistance. We've already joined forces with several other campuses. We could use someone like you."

"What?" Scree paused and smiled ruefully. He admired the youth's spirit, and did not want to patronize him. "I would be happy to join." He pulled out the radio transmitter Bradford had given him. "First, though, I'm going to need to call some people."

Next: The Long War, Part VIII - Awakening

4 comments:

  1. This is so damn good. Keep at it!

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  2. Those soldiers are going to need extraction....

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  3. Damn. Binge read to this point. Now the Long Wait begns...

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  4. Nice chapter. Again you deliver quality ^^

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