Plastic bags compete for color domination as they jostle through the city square like balloons at a children’s carnival. The shoppers are eager and ecstatic, their expressions as bright as the flat screens that advertise in all directions beneath a continuous sales beat. Girls walk in troops from the fashion stores to the body shops, couples meander hand in hand through complacent conversations, and business men stride stolidly through the tangle with coffees to their lips.
The spectacle of light and sound envelopes everything on the ground, but it is shallow, reaching only a foot or two above the heads of the shoppers. Above this, where eyes rarely go, a silent network of security cameras watches every move with blank yet piercing stares. And suddenly it is obvious that something is at work behind the scenes, the advertisements lose their playfulness, and an underlying pattern becomes apparent where certain figures move with strategic purpose.
A single cold face overlooks the scene with the intensity of a war general overlooking his troops. He stands in a pinstriped jacket behind a pane of thick glass, his hands behind his back and his thin lips moving, tight and fierce. His eyes seem to control the men below as they move through the crowds like hunters through a thicket. But they will not find their prey amongst the shoppers, nor disguised as the homeless who fringe the fountains, and certainly not dressed in assuming uniforms. If anything, their prey is a wild goose. And the threat, on the other hand, has already outsmarted them.
Suspended on a wire, three stories above the square, a figure scales the side of a building. He is dressed in silky black with a long cylinder slung over his shoulder. He is little more than a shadow as he slips over the lip, ducking behind a brick ledge and unclipping his carabineer. Free from any cables, he runs along a narrow ledge, jumps a six foot gap, and pulls himself swiftly into a scaffolding tower behind fabric advertisements. He pauses to press a button on his belt before continuing his climb.
On the far side of the square in the middle of a second floor office block, a man in a tidy blue dress shirt receives a text message. He presses send on an email, takes a sip of coffee, and rises to his feet. He nods to a coworker and moves for the bathroom. Part way down the hallway, he jams a key into a maintenance room and slips inside.
Two floors above, a hallway is blocked with an overturned trolley and an irate business man is helping a distraught woman pick up a mess of papers. Down the hall and around the corner, the man’s office door is ajar. Completely concealed beneath the squat metal desk within, a small man with thin black hair is sweating over the keyboard of a sleek laptop. A tangle of wires passes into the computer within the desk, and he is busy wiring a piece of hardware into the mix.
Oblivious to all of this, the man in the window oversees his men with growing anxiety. His eyes are continually pulled to the large stage, behind which, his newest victory is veiled behind black curtains. The clocks are narrowing in as the grand opening approaches, and the young spokesperson is already testing the microphones for the warm-up drum roll. Stage lights gently warm the space, and hundreds of shoppers begin to gather on the edges of fountains and on park benches between potted trees. A few media crews can be seen in attendance. But the invisible threat has not shown itself.
The man begins to pace in the window. The climber opens the cylinder and begins to assemble a long-barreled airsoft gun. Nothing must interrupt this event. The man in the maintenance room finishes his wiring and places a hand on the breaker. The overseer explodes into a bout of screaming orders as three of his agents mysteriously collapse. The man under the desk inserts three colored jacks. The spokesperson begins a rallying speech, and the audience turns their full attention to the stage. And then, calmly, an intelligent young man sitting in a café on the far side of the square taps his index finger on the ‘enter’ key of his laptop, sending a green light to the twelve members of the Emancipators.
The man in the window watches in horror as his strategically planned event is entirely hijacked in a single dumbfounding moment.
§ § §
The fiery horizon settles to burning embers as the sun drops behind mighty black crags, and in the heart of the growing shadows, a lone figure climbs with heavy steps against the clumps of grass that cling to the rock faces. He is tattered from his appearance to his spirit, and he toils more with his own thoughts than with the treacherous slope. A torn windbreaker stretches across his shoulders, and his ragged city clothes do little to comfort his aching muscles.
Pausing to face the emptiness at his back, he lets out a shaky breath. Sickening euphoria swirls dangerously up his exhausted legs, and he sits abruptly on a rock. His eyes scan the desolate landscape as his fingers pull and pry at the ground, seeking stability in the rough textures. If anything could match the hopelessness of his thoughts, it would be this landscape.
It is the unfamiliar discomfort and pain of his journey that keeps him in touch with solid reality. And it is the fears of the unknown that give him hope. Perhaps, it is only from a state of terrifying vulnerability that he will find a truth worth living for.
His thoughts begin their usual descent as sharp memories pierce his mind. But this time, his senses prickle and his thoughts halt on the verge of a frightening discovery. He turns himself outward to feel the rough winds tossing his hair and howling over the rocks. He hears his own breath, tense and restricted, and his eyes are idle as he listens for a sound he never wishes to hear. To his terror, the sound arrives in another buffet of wind, confirming the fears that now grip his mind. He is not alone. Whether it is a ghost or a man close to death, someone is crying.
To have run this far from life, it should have been fitting to hear the cry of someone so close to death. But he cannot help but shiver uncontrollably as he scrambles up the rocks to investigate. He reaches a cliff face and the cry returns, even more urgent. It comes from somewhere above his head, and he frowns at the crack that splits its way up the rock face. Somewhere up there is a crevice. And in that crevice, a man is dying.
He abandons what is left of his reservations and digs his fingers into the crack, his toes scraping on the rocks where his shoes have been ripped apart. He soon rises above his own death, leaving a part of himself on the ground and straining for some unknown end.
His hands at last grip solid handholds, and he rises to a position of temporary safety. The cave is dark, but the figure is easy to make out. Trying to scramble into the dying man’s grave, he hits his head on the overhang. His world spins sickeningly as he curses and digs his nails into the rock. The dying man groans and tries to lift his head.
There is a silence as the two wonder at the unknown forces that have caused them to unite in such circumstances. The climber speaks.
“Can you move?”
There is no response.
“Can you walk?”
The man raises a hand as if to shade his eyes. He lifts his head and murmurs something unrecognizable. Then he points.
The other looks. There is a ledge that leads along the cliff side and a landmark in the distance. A route to a destination. A purpose to strive for. The newcomer grits his teeth.
“Be strong,” he says, though mostly to himself. “I will carry you.”