“Gimme a sec...Dirty white behind scratched plexi is the best I can do for now.”
“Hold still. Calibrating. Better, but if you find something cleaner, give me 10 seconds.”
Lukas turns away from an ad for pharmaceutical-grade intestinal bacteria on the side of the bus stop, pulls his hood forward, and begins walking. He joins a sparse tide of people that is slowly but steadily growing. Some carry signs, a few have cameras or bags with a large red cross inside a white circle; some nearly bubble with excitement, some run, some bounce, and some move with steady efficiency. Others wear the grim face of one who has a job to perform and some of the grim-faced are spectators, which should cause concern among those who watch for complications. Lukas moves from the waist down, his upper body nearly immobile; a compromise between an effort to look normal and the desire to keep the camera steady.
A low-profile pack, with no hanging tabs or straps, is secured firmly across Lukas’s back. The hooded shirt and pants fit closely with no loose material to be grabbed onto or inadvertently catch on anything. They are made of a high-tech performance material that marry mobility and sturdiness. Lukas taps the side of the tintless eyeglasses and a faint translucent screen pops up in space, off-center, a few feet in front of him. After a short boot-up sequence, an image of a mass of people, in an open square which updates every few seconds appears. A news feed begins scrolling, across the image, consisting of short phrases describing the chaos.
“I've got the feed,” Lukas mumbles, attempting to not draw any attention to himself from the people around him whose numbers have increased while the audible din they have been approaching also grows. His effort is unnecessary because those around him, beginning to feed off of the chaotic energy of the crowd up ahead, have broken into a steady jog. Still and video camera operators are holding their hands to their ears and talking as they inform someone that they have reached the day's event. Lukas keeps one eye ahead, so as not to stumble, and the other on the bird's eye view of the crowd in his news feed, trying to determine the best location to move towards.
Any demonstration is based on a controversial issue being debated by 2 opposing camps; those that are defending or promoting the issue (the Pros) and those that are opposed to the issue (the Antis) because they believe it might not be in our best interest. Those that prefer to display their perspective in the public forum are usually beyond rational dialogue. which is why Lukas has an occupation.
Sound in his left ear drops and a voice declares, “You are approaching from seven o'clock. The Pros are spread across the top from 10 to 12 o’clock. The Antis are mostly avoiding the fight, so far. You might want to make your way across the river to the other bank, unless you see some other action on the way.”
Street noise returns to normal levels, which, at this point, is a dull roar.
Lukas pauses at the edge of the crowd taking in the scene. The disembodied voice in his ear pipes up while the crowd mutes, “Give me a sweep, for flavor.”
Body still, Lukas turns his head left and slowly pans right. The movement is steady and even, until halfway through the panoramic when he rests his gaze on an angry young woman with beads and small gears woven into her dreadlocks. Her anger is palpable and her jaw quivers as she throws her closed fists overhead menacingly toward the front of the crowd. Behind her, there is a sea of glaring faces and pulsating fists.
“Nice shot,” the voice in his ear comments.
“Trying ‘a Moses,’” Lukas declares as he attempts to move through the crowd. The first few steps into the crowd are relatively easy; weaving around people whose attention is focused straight ahead, shouting in unison, more or less. Within a few meters, bodies are closely packed together and stable movement becomes impossible.
“The water will be a bit muddy for a while.” Lukas sacrifices upper body stability for speed of movement and makes his way across to the other side of the confrontation. The crowd, intent on action above and forward, are oblivious to Lukas's trek. He uses the ebb and flow of the crowd to bob and weave across. He receives a few elbows and knees as he is shoved into the backs of others. By tomorrow, the bruises he retains will remind him of this experience. He tries to use the crowd like a swimmer uses the current; allowing himself to be pulled in one direction and then working against the flow for a while to correct direction.
“Given the skyline, I would guess that you are approaching 4 o'clock.” Lukas's upper body had been stabilizing as he moves beyond the thickest portion of the crowd toward the more lightly populated edge. The stability had probably alerted his handler that he is nearing the end of the trip across the sea of bodies, and so Lukas corrects his direction slightly left.
Out here, on the periphery of the action, Lukas is able to scan the people and the situation with less difficulty. A few are Antis taking a break; some are drinking water, while others are nursing bruises. There are some from NGOs like the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Missing Persons Worldwide, all clearly labeled and trying to keep tabs on, well, everything. There are also a couple of obvious corpo-narcs and personnel trackers.
“Give me a sec, looking for a perch,” Lukas scans the buildings for something within reach that he could climb onto to get a better view of the chaos.
“Don't bother, I think you wandered into a reunion of your own kind; there is a glut of feeds from your location.” Lukas didn't bother to ask how he knew. If his handler knew where he is, that means that Lukas is popping up in the feeds. A year ago, he knew everyone on the ground although, the handlers were a different story. Now he is tripping over noobs at nearly every event. He can't get angry about it; he was a noob once. How long ago? Three years? Yeah, about that; forever ago. The HD providers have the bulky cameras and they always stay at the edge to protect their equipment. Whereas the low-rez feeders, like himself, have wearable equipment and they are not always as obvious. Although, given enough time, you can always spot them; their need to keep the camera steady means that they move unnaturally. There are the drones as well, but they tend to stay at least 30 feet up in the air because the Pros always have some fun toys for those that stray too close. The tech on the drones is getting amazing, but they will never replace ground pounders because looking at the tops of people's heads gets old, fast. What the public wants is to see some blood streaming down your face, and a bit of pain in your eyes.
He moves along the buildings toward the front line; time to earn his pay. As he walks, he raises his eyes to check that his hood has not fallen forward. Early on in his career, some beautiful footage had been lost due to a careless wardrobe malfunction leaving the camera partially obscured. He is seriously considering moving the lens below his chin or to his chest, but it would be harder to camouflage there. Maybe he will give some thought to a dual mount system. Jobs like this one, when fighting the crowd, a well-hidden camera whose lens is covered by clothing is pointless. However, when he is on a tail, obscurity is highly valuable.
The image in his personal feed has been switching to different sources from time to time; the drones that provide the image move in and out of optimum position. Lukas is reminded why he appreciates his handler as the image switches again to the location that meets his needs. No instructions or requests; his handler knows what information Lukas needs to do his job well and provides it. A good handler will filter and parse the raw data in both directions. They provide the optimal data that allows the ground-pounder to do their job and also take the raw data from the ground's low-rez equipment. The handler cherry picks the best clips and sends it out to the news feeds. Lukas understands it in theory, but he also knows that his talents lay on the ground, not handling the data.
As he walks in and around the spectators, most ignore him, focusing on the skirmish zone ahead. 1 in 20 would watch him skulk by and he knew that his image is being sent into one of many databases, some public and some corporate, in order to note his presence at this event and assess his threat level. He had given up on anonymity a long time ago; it is a casualty of the job. On the one hand, the hidden decision makers know he is not a trouble maker, on the other hand, getting in trouble is not an option. Some of his kind will go to elaborate trouble to maintain some privacy, from disguises to surgery. Lukas doubts the efficacy of these efforts, he is fairly certain that most cutters are on the take, even the back-alley variety. And if they aren't then they are probably under surveillance. Besides, it is easier to maintain on-line anonymity, so let that be the identity to hide, let your real-self be the obvious one.
Quickly, the crowd that he is worming through becomes thicker and the energy turns aggressive. “Here we go,” he mumbles. His handler gets the message. At the moment, he is surrounded by Antis and he is more or less safe, but that could shift in a heartbeat. He has been watching these demonstrations for a few years now and the turning point is never predictable. Sometimes, the shift is an accident; a rock hits a well-padded hired gun and their switch is flipped. Other times it is clear that a command is given in some cloud and there is a surge of shields and batons (you would think that after so many years of these, they would have more high-tech tools, perhaps nothing is more satisfying than a bone cracking under a stick).
He can hear the crowd shouting in unison, repeating the calls of the initiator. As loud as their calls are, he can still hear the clack of plastic and metal from the line of hired guns behind their shields, a stone's throw away. Perhaps his survival instinct is kicking in because he cannot understand a word that is being said, but the sound of heavy objects banging together cut through the noise, as if amplified. Lukas is still near the buildings on one side of the open square, where this particular demonstration is being performed, and looks for a vantage point. There are fewer contractors this close to the fray and there are also few places to which one could go to get a clear view of the action. The obvious ones on railings and light posts are taken by Antis and they are too low to provide much of a view or are too close to be safe when the situation becomes too hot to handle.
Scanning the buildings close by, he sees bar-covered windows near a building stoop. He works his way through the crowd, which is standing on the stairs leading to the building, and moves onto the landing. The backside of the landing, near the door, is clear as all the occupants are focusing their attention forward to the street. Reaching behind and underneath the pack on his back, Lukas fiddles within a bottom-accessed pouch and pulls out two looped straps with flat metal hooks. He threads his hands into the loops and positions the flat hooks near his palms. He steps onto the stone railing of the landing and squats leaning out toward the bars of the window. Next, he pops off railing, grabs the bars with one hand, quickly followed by the other and places the balls of both feet against the wall under the window. Finally, he shuffles his way up the bars until he can reach the top crossbar and turns around. Now that his back is to the bars, one hand at a time he shakes his arms downward until the metal hooks lay in his palm and then hooks them over the crossbar allowing his fingers to hang over the hooks and then jams his heels between the vertical bars and rests on the bottom crossbar. His hanging weight is held by the metal hooks which transfer the weight to his wrists through the loops. While it requires some effort to hold this position, most of his bodyweight is sustained by the hooks and his legs. One or two people who had watched his progress from the landing return their attention and energy to the demonstration and Lukas does the same, stating,
He knows that the Antis will not waste their energy on him and the Pros will ignore him until the scene gets ugly; when that happens everyone is fair game. No longer attentive to positioning and safety, he can now focus on images and framing. He points his head at the obvious focal point, where there is the most to-and-fro, so that the camera is focused on that point and then lets his eyes wander over the entire scene while keeping the head and neck immobile. His eyes continue to roam as he moves his head at the instructions of his handler.
“Up a tick and left two. Hold there. Pan right at quarter speed. Pause. Hold. Hmmm. Up a hair.”
Lukas follows the instructions, continuously scanning, looking for interesting shots, and watching for signs of the inevitable trouble. The pressure in his shoulders is slowly building and his feet are beginning to ache, but this is what he trains for. He guesses that he has about 10 minutes before he will need to come down. The worst thing he could do is stay too long and risk being unable to safely dismount or being forced to come down in the chaos and needing time to recover mobility. Recovering use of your arms and legs is difficult when you are being beaten with sticks.
A frenzied scuffle suddenly breaks along the front line, close to his position, Lukas announces, “We have activity, shifting focus,” and drops his gaze to the brawl. A very large, dread-locked white man, doing his best impersonation of a whirling dervish, has somehow gotten himself behind the first row of shields and is now attempting to cause as much disruption as possible. The uniformed behind the line are trying to bring him to the ground and the front line are trying to keep the attention outward, while not allowing the commotion behind them to suck them down. The Antis that are directly opposite the barely standing dervish are pulsing against the shields hoping to take advantage of the distraction. As the enemy behind the lines collapses to the ground under the weight of uniforms, they roll en masse into the front line, clipping two of the shield-holders at the knees, who collapse backward, onto the pile of squirming rage and flesh. Finally, true pandemonium erupts as 10 or 15 skinheads and dreadlocks leap over the pile and cause as much chaos and pain as possible.
Without waiting for orders, the hired guns move to the offensive. Forcefully and without restraint, they push forward. From here on out, the event is textbook; the Antis, who wanted a peaceful demonstration, begin screaming as they are attacked and bloodied. The Antis who have been itching for a fight, howl and surge forward. The Pros, who are all paid muscle, and who took this job because they enjoy a tussle, begin to move with grim purpose. They don't discriminate between the pacifists and the activists. If you are in front of them and standing, you pose a threat to their safety and that of their family so it is in everyone's best interest that you be brought down, bloody to your knees at the very least, and at best, immobile and prone.
Within seconds, Lukas knows that the wave of violence will surround his position and so he needs to beat an orderly retreat if possible; a frantic retreat will also do. As he is about to dismount from his perch, “That's Steph,” comes in over his earpiece. His head locks still and his eyes roam looking for whatever it is that his handler sees.
Knowing that his window of escape is closing very quickly, his anxiety levels rise, and he feels the internal debate raging between cautious repositioning and panicked retreat. Then catches sight of Steph. Tiny Steph, who is skilled at low-rez because she often goes unnoticed due to her diminutive size, is being easily overpowered by four burly police contractors. Any one of them could have handled her, but apparently she rates 4 this time. She is putting up a good fight, but she is no match and they are not pretending to be gentle.
Well, it’s time to bail. Lukas feels bad for Steph, but this job has risks and attempting to help her is suicide; pure and simple. His attention turns to his own safety. He presses his heels down lifting himself upward and releases the hooks from the crossbar. He straightens his legs once to work out the cramps, turns the toes of one foot into the bars, releases the other foot, and allows his body to swing away from the wall, pushing off of the bars to leap back toward the landing. The previous occupants of the landing have moved on; either toward the excitement or fleeing the scene. Lukas's arms dangled uselessly as the feeling slowly returns. He hops to the railing and down to the landing, a bit clumsily, and stumbles down the steps.
“Make your retreat expeditious my friend, your position is now Indian territory,” the voice in his ear states. At the base of the steps is a churning, frothing sea of black uniforms, swinging clubs and bloody limbs. He hunches low and barrels headfirst into the crowd. The key is to keep moving. What the hired guns want is a stationary target to pummel into submission. If that stationary target has already submitted, that makes the job even easier. He scooches, jags, twists, shimmies, and flails, attempting to avoid staying in any one position for no longer than a microsecond. He feels jarring blows from sticks and fists on his shoulders and back, but none have any real impact and he uses their force to change his direction of movement.
“Ungh!” Lukas drops to his hands and knees with a blinding white light in his eyes; probably caused by the piano that has been dropped on the back of his head. Instinctively and of their own accord, his hands and feet continue to scrabble forward, trying to move away from the inevitable second strike. The inevitable occurs, but slightly off-target and the next blow hits the corner of his pack which skitters down his shoulder. His left arm is numb and nearly useless, but he tries to maintain forward momentum, while trying like hell to scramble off of his knees. When he is almost upright, a slow-moving mountain in front of him, stops his progress and then pushes him back down to the ground. With a crash and a forceful expulsion of air, a hired gun lands on his back, with Lukas trapped under his legs. Lukas hears a roar of victory and sees a band of black-jacketed skinheads climbing over the hired gun, and swarm over the helmeted bastard that had just been wielding a club at Lukas’s back.
Lukas struggles out from under the legs of the corporate gun-for-hire and scuttles into the lighter melee and out of the square. With every step, he sends short prayers of gratitude to the close fitting resin/gel headgear which is more commonly worn by extreme sports enthusiasts and bicycle messengers because of its ability to withstand blunt force trauma. It resembles brown spaghetti, woven snugly, like a spider web, onto his head. It stays soft and pliable until meeting an object at unsafe speed and then hardens to provide a barrier between the object and the very fragile human skull. The low-profile nature of the helmet means that there is no obvious sign that anything inorganic is beneath the hood. Even when exposed, most people would not see the headgear due to the hair poking through the many large holes created by the webbing. The layer of Lukas's pack that is closest to his body is made of the same material. So, while he is still disoriented and will have some impressive bruising tomorrow, he can still walk away, unlike poor Steph.
“Nicely done. Are you OK?”
“Eh,” is all Lukas responds with.
“Well, you have earned a break. I haven't seen all of the feeds yet, but yours is getting played on the 7 major networks and so many of the propaganda machines that I cannot count.”
“Anyway, I am going to get on some post-prod. I want to go back through and see if we missed anything. Did you notice anything that might be feed worthy?”
Lukas replies, “The usual, agitators, troublemakers, and spoilers. Nothing special, nothing new. Maybe you could see what you can find on Steph.”
“Yeah, will do.”
“Hey, do you know what this little party was all about?” Lukas asks.
“Nope. Oil, water, cloning? They all run together after a while. I think there were 4 demonstrations scheduled for today. It makes you wonder what people did for fun back when they didn't have the opportunity to get their heads kicked in.”
“(Snort) Yeah. Will touch base later.” Lukas taps the side of his clear-lensed glasses. As the overlaying feed fades, he takes off the lens, and walks away from the dimming sound of chaos and pain.
If you found the first chapter interesting and would like to read more, head back to the main page to learn how.