"Almost" Part 25: Book 2, Part 15

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Tom Returns

The size of the crowd was completely unbelievable. Tom had never seen even a tenth of the number in any single place. Tens of thousands of people milled, surged, boiled and cascaded down streets like broken rivers. They changed directions madly, contradictorily, but in strangely consistent patterns, like the flights of small birds in high winds. Many of the protesters had curled lips and out-thrust jaws, and carried bats or sticks or knives or axes. It was medieval; torches flowed up over the crowd like the bright spurting blood of headless devils. The steam of the crowd’s hot breath surrounded the flames, giving the fires a swirling, ghostly base.

The voices of the crowd rose and fell. Tom asked every English-speaker for the latest news, the safest routes. The rumours flew that the government had brought in tanks and cannons to break up the crowd – and even that aeroplanes were being flown in from the military airport to strafe the streets. Everyone was ready to be outraged, violated, to enact the blackest acts of vengeance. Cries of horror and rage swept through the crowd. Tom tried to follow them, with his mind’s eye. He imagined that one man had been injured somehow, and howled out. The crowd, imagining that this was the first ‘whiff of grapeshot,’ or strafing airplanes, or rolling machine-guns, became panicked and hostile. More and more took up the screams of terror and rage, and they swept through the mob, which surged to defend the stricken and avenge the fallen. The crushing crowd caused more casualties, and it took some time for the crowd to understand that, in its zeal to protect life, it was actually taking it.

The bodies would become so tightly packed – and this could happen at any time – that Tom sometimes found that he was pressed up against someone who was grievously injured. One lolling face turned, missing an eye. Another man was missing an arm from the elbow down; his face was pale, rapt. Twice, Tom pushed back at bodies squeezing him tight, only to realize, with a feeling as if he had received an electrical shock, that they were dead men, just being carried along.

More base hands were also at work, both for material and sexual profit. Tom gave up trying to protect his watch, his wallet and his genitals at the same time.

There was a constant cross-current through the crowd, which is what made it so crushing and insistent. There was always some imagined front, where atrocities were being committed and vengeance could be had. The recreational protesters were always trying to get away from these fronts, while the political ones were always trying to get to them.

There was, most of all, a sense of invincibility among the crowd. Tom realized why Rousseau had titled his book ‘The Social Contract,’ because that cold February night, it was clear that here were several tens of thousands of people who simply refused to be ruled. And so they could not be ruled. It didn’t take much. Tens of millions of people in France. Tens of thousands – a tenth of a percent – decide to refuse to be ruled, and it all comes crashing down. Government is an illusion of acceptance, thought Tom. Leaders who forget the fragility of their power can destroy the world…

37 episodi