The second pistolcrack snapped Kat from her sleep. She gasped for breath and choked on the acid still scorching her throat. Her swollen eyes opened just in time to escape seeing his body drop to the ground again, lifeless and limp. But the dead hum of the plane’s engines didn’t drown out the echo of his bones splintering in his chest under the weight of the jeep or the screams, gradually fading from her mind. She jabbed at the call button, looking behind her for the nearest flight attendant.
– Whiskey. Please.
The flight was half empty. Entire rows of unoccupied seats carried only the somber absence of early morning that had boarded with them in Rome. The crew had been generous with the refreshments, providing Kat with a constant supply of single-serving bottles, probably under the impression that she suffered from a fear of flying.
Steve had never seen her so tormented. For the first few days afterwards, she had been strangely calm, almost numb. Ever since they had boarded the plane, she had fallen into a restless slumber numerous times, only to wake shortly after hands in a violent fit with tears welling in her eyes, asking for more drink. He tried to comfort her but she refused to let him in.
– Kat, you okay ? Do you want to talk about it ?
– No. Always the same answer, – No. Her energetic spirit had been transformed into a stonewall of indifference. Steve didn’t understand whether she was angry with him or if she was going through some posttraumatic stress thing. The truth was that it was a combination of the two. She’d decided she would never let Steve in again. It was over. But at the same time she was afraid that if she told him anything, if she dare describe what she had seen, that desperate scene would repeat itself all over again. She was afraid that speaking those words, she would somehow find herself standing helplessly in that piazza, paralyzed and alone.
– Here’s your whiskey, honey. The hostess, doing her best to be kind to the exhausted girl in row 47, leaned over with two ounces of Jack in one hand and a small plastic cup containing a few shining cubes of ice in the other. Her smile was almost genuine but Kat wasn’t having any of it.
– Thanks. She answered without looking up and, refusing the hostess’s plastic cup, twisted and discarded the cap from the minibottle and guzzled the brown liquid as fast as it would come. The hostess glanced concerned at Steve and turned away. After nearly draining its contents, Kat sat back, resting the bottle on her knee and let out a burning sigh. For a long time, her void gaze stared through the seat in front of her.
He wasn’t the only one to have died that day, she thought. She couldn’t feel anything but a confused ache anymore. Her heart was absent, the dry wrenching in her gut wouldn’t go away. Outside, nothing mattered. She went through the motions, she saw one last sunrise over the Eternal City from the train, she peered out over the curve of the earth and the ocean below ; she even held Steve’s familiar hand in hers, searching, searching for something, love hate rage heartache, anything but that gnarled knot agonizing inside her, but nothing. Nothing, it was all gone. Only pain.
The warm fuzz brewing in her stomach called her back to the bottle. Downing the last of its contents, she stuffed the hollow carcass into the pouch in front of her. She thought she heard Steve try to say something again but her heavy eyelids promised the dead suspension of sleep, so she waved him off and rested her head against the cool plastic wall.
She feels the sun warm her cheeks and the slow air across her face. The sound of a rumbling engine muffles indifferent chatter. The humid glass blurs her vision, her head is heavy ; stiff, now she can barely move. But she is moving. She is moving, pushed by the slow procession. The past drags her on. There is no other way, this is the road. Guided by the high wall to the right, she hears helicopters overhead. – Where am I ? Via Tolemaide, a voice. – Where is Steve ? No voice. – Steve ? No voice.
Then everyone stops and she can’t move. There is no more room, thousands of people behind, one thin layer of plexigass ahead. A silent minute passes, ages of nothing but unmoving sun from above. Musky bodies beside and a thin thread of sea air weaving invisible oceans around them. Stop. Stop. Why ?
A black mass of men is moving, swelling not far ahead. A sprawling oil spill expanding until it covers the road. Vast and growing. – Why don’t they go ? This is not the red zone. A black mass of mechanical beasts. Stand silent in a military line. Until every last exit is blocked. Until there is nowhere to go. Suddenly it stops. Abruptly it does nothing.
And then the first canisters explode. From guns they fly and smash against the shield. Then the gas starts hissing. Everything that was distant and black now turns white and nearby. And then there is nothing left to breathe.
The poison sears her eyes and sticks pins in her lips ; a spiny fist thrusts down her throat and pulls pure pain up from her gut. Nails shattering from within, lungs devoured by an army of barbed larvae writhing. It corrodes her skin, sticking like sap and sizzling under the summer rays of sun. Her face is melting.
She doesn’t see the black mass advance. The first slam sends her back. And then pounding thunder. All around, the short sounds of metal shattering glass, metal smashing steel, metal perforating plastic. Of metal meeting flesh. Pounding, pounding. Limbs are flailing, bodies are falling. Bellows of hatred from black masked mechanical beasts with men inside. Snorting without eyes. But they breathe. And they bite.
Then furious cries : – Tenete ! Tenete ! – Hold ! – Hold ! Shrieks and screams and thuds, bones breaking, helmets and heads bursting and blood running. – Hold ! Hold ! and she can only keep pushing, – Hold ! And for a second it seems. It almost seems like. For a second, – Hold ! Like they’ve done it. The black mass disappears back into the dissipating gas. For just one second. And then there is the second wave.
Black beasts attack the left side. Toppling shields, people scatter. The relentless advance of the obsidian shadow is unstoppable, usurping terrain like cancer, leaving corpses trampled. Somewhere, some voice finally says :
She follows frantic colored figures through a maze of streets, trying to flee the black machine. Dispersion. She is severed from the others. Some are stuck behind, bastards bludgeoning the remaining shields and heads. Some escape, some are cornered between garden grates. Some cower and cover their heads. Others never stand again. She and a few others find an open gate. Separated from the rest. A concrete courtyard surrounded by a high fence. A boy is bleeding behind a car, she and other people are trying to help. Calling up to a balcony above. But the residents point and shout : – Attenzione ! Attenzione ! And the black mass is back, blocking the gate.
Some resign, raising their hands in a sign of surrender. But black machines march down. But black machines have their tonfa out. Kat knows better. Kat can climb. Drop the helmet, she strips her shoulder pads off. And just as she gets over the steel spikes : screams.
Somewhere on the other side she finds more refugees. She can barely breathe. Sirens wail like war dragons, explosions from every angle, pillars of smoke rise to the sky and now only metallic air for her exhausted lungs : a city under siege by the black machine. She grows faint. She slumps. She falls. Somewhere close in the white mist comes a hand. Holding her. And a voice. Her voice…
– Water, water…
Steve leaned over in his seat and caressed her hair, half-bottle of water in his hand and apprehensive eyes. The air in the cabin felt icy against her sweating flesh. Kat pulled herself up in her chair, threw the little pillow to the floor and took the cup from his hands. She tried not to look at him.
– Honey, you were dreaming again. You okay ?
– I’ve gotta go to the bathroom. Kat stood, stepped over Steve’s lap and headed to the back of the plane. Inside, she locked the door and ran cold water over her hands and face. Placing her hands on the counter, she looked up and stared into her reflection distorted in the dirty mirror. After a long moment, she slumped back against the wall and burst into tears.
Steve didn’t have to make much effort to understand that Kat was dreaming about Genoa. He had gotten separated from her early on, after the first clashes with the police had cut the head off of the human serpent and sent her and hundreds more running directionless through Genoa’s tiny side streets. He had been pushed back to the second line of defense around the flatbed truck that carried the sound system and supplies. For three hours they had kept the militarized lines of police and carabinieri at bay with a continual launch of rocks and whatever else they could find. The burning barricades of overturned dumpsters held the foot soldiers off just long enough for the thousands remaining to inch back until armored vans would slam full speed into them, sending them tumbling over anything or anyone unlucky enough to be within range. As they made their slow retreat, the terrain they left behind looked liked the scenes from the crumbling cities Steve had seen in pictures of World War II.
He had heard fragments of what had happened in that piazza but Kat refused to say what she had seen. When they saw the first newspaper reports a couple days later, Steve struggled to decipher the language and could only piece together the general idea. One dead, possibly a Spanish anarchist hit in the head by a rock. But when Kat read the article her face contorted in anger and she shoved the paper off the table clenching her teeth and murmuring one word: – Merda.
Kat came back looking composed but tired. She had deep wells under her eyes. Steve stood to let her back to her seat but she just grabbed her flimsy Delta blanket and pillow and threw them onto the next row of empty seats ahead.
Lifting all three armrests she said, – I’m going to try lie down and sleep here.
– You want me to get you something ? More water ? Whiskey ? Kat curled up and didn’t respond. Again, she was gone.
She comes to with a soft rag soaked in lemon water gently wiping her face. It’s hot again, and the thin face of a dreadlocked girl looking around anxiously turns to her.
– Pensavo fossi persa. She says. Kat recognizes her face, but can’t remember her name. Another from the Indymedia crew. Francesca ? Federica ? Italians all have the same names.
She sits up confused and mumbles something. Persa means lost. She’s lost. But there’s no time. People throwing things are backing down this street. Kat stands and between the buildings she can see a fleet of flying objects and the stone wall of Via Tolemaide on the other side. Then a police van comes crashing. Some don’t manage to stay on the main street and are forced to escape, the mass of black cuts the road behind.
– Come on, we must go from here. Now. Francesca or Federica pulls her forward and now they are running again.
They come to an open square, an orange church stands solemn guard. A marble sign says Piazza Alimonda. The small group starts making barricades, but another black machine is amassing at the corner. Kat and the others have nowhere to flee.
The contingent charges, two jeeps chase behind. But here they meet a falling sky : a heavy rain of rocks and stones and sticks and poles and bottles and branches and broken chairs and burning trash and chunks of pavement and pieces of grate and it’s raining defiance it’s pouring desperation and everything is drenched in sweat and gas and the neighbors are shouting and there are cameras everywhere and everyone is screaming and here, now, no one is going to kneel. No one will give up because they’ve already lost. Nowhere safe, nowhere to hide. Only battle and survive. There are no more hands reaching for the sky. No begging for respite : the church’s imposing wooden doors are closed and god has left the State to its own despotic devices. And the young, the ones who have come to defy the privilege of the rich and reclaim their lives. The ones who were beaten by police kilometers before the red zone, the ones with nowhere left to go : now they must fight.
Kat finds her courage, gathering what little is left on the ground. Together in a tight group they take the center of the street. The black mass shrieks and sinks back into the blackhole they came from under the barrage of coal clouds. Gaining ground now there is little left but a jeep. They flank the four-tired brute with beams and clubs. She strikes once without hesitation, she strikes twice without trepidation, thrice for the fear and four without remorse.
– Leave ! Leave ! You have no place here. Someone thinks they see a gun through the back broken window. Five flurries become ten and then she’s losing count, scores unsettled. – Leave ! Leave ! And her chest heaves with tears and fury – Leave ! Leave ! Steve…
Somewhere high above the sea’s pale blue breeze and the streets below, her eye surveys the land and the affairs of men. Gliding on wings of light in effortless flight, she sees the far july sun has begun its slow descent for the horizon. Along quiet coasts inaudible mediterranean waves lap at the ancient stone ports leaving salt to dry as a reminder. And somewhere a mother is worried about her son. The sounds of the sirens and the fires echo in whispers through the steep green valleys and the abandoned tunnels that spiral out from the city. Somewhere it is still, somewhere someone is being born.
From here, far above, a she floats carried by the clear current of air and starts to fall. Down gently with no sense of direction, down indifferent to the whims of the wind. And she flies and floats and falls through open space free of blame and hate. Between the maze of dark brown buildings in the shaded alleys, through the teeming turmoil in the streets below. She flies free of the machine, free from the black mass spewing ache. She floats unencumbered by desperate projectiles vaulting from the hands of lovers and brothers, sisters and children. She hovers just above the sound of two low booms at five twenty-seven that soak this burdened city in one motionless moment.
Finally, she tumbles to rest on hard pavement. Beside the body of a twenty-three year-old boy shot in the head, a red extinguisher by his side. She sees the last light leaving his eyes. She feels his last breath blend with the wind and drift out to sea. And somewhere somebody cries.
Kat awoke alone on a plane suspended over an anonymous ocean. She slowly opened her eyes, adjusting to the sunlight stained with tears. Sitting up, she looked around, though nobody noticed. Steve slept against the window in the row behind. A middle-aged woman read a penny novel on the other side of the aisle. The stewardesses were busy compiling lists and a young american listened to his headphones with his eyes closed. Kat lowered herself back down and faded into a deep, dreamless sleep.