There are fifty thousand people in Russell Square, at least forty-five thousand more than what was allowed for events such as this before the ban on gatherings, and way more than what was allowed in the ghetto at any given time. There are people covering every inch of the square and all the way down to Capitol Street. Most of these people are part of the Front, but the rest are civilians who came here to make sense of what's been happening in the past few weeks. They went over their fear of the rebels to see with their own eyes what this is all about. Somewhere down the road, and despite the bombings, they stopped believing blindly to what's left of the government, ignored the invitation that strongly discouraged them to show up today – for security reasons – and came anyway. That is what Adam wanted, a crack in their unshakable faith in the established order big enough for him to slip through and changes things.
It was easy to rally his own people – poor, forgotten and largely misused, they only wanted revenge – and, in some ways, it was easy to get rid of the heads of government too once the right moment came, but this right here is what will decide if this civil war is going to end the way it was supposed to; or if it is going to end at all. Adam wants to make sure that his main message goes through loud and clear. He's not here to take over the government and bring back the same situation there was before but in reverse, with the ghetto people in charge of the city and all the others pushed at the very edge of it. He wants one city, united, where people can be equal. The Movement is spreading the same idea through out the Country – One Nation fit for everybody – but Adam is focusing on the here and now because whatever wave has to wash over North America, it has to start from here.
Media are everywhere, today.
They're agencies that worked for the authority either openly or by the back door, and they're now going through the motions, following the old guidelines as they wait for the new ones. Independent press stopped being a thing the moment the NCP, the National Conservative Party, took power and any further attempt at free information was suppressed, often violently. The government's control was so complete that it was impossible for the Liberation Front to get any news out, and it ultimately resolved to leave the mainstream channels be and use exclusively the deep web, which was almost impossible to shut down.
Although dealing with the government press (and any other kind of propaganda's establishment) is in the plans, Adam hasn't had the time to dismantle anything yet. Besides, it's useful to have what the citizens consider official press here today. It will be the first time news channels and newspapers known by the common people will talk about the rebellion.
Wherever you look there's a man in front of a camera, describing the situation. The rebellion cover-up was so extensive that the majority of the people didn't even know there was a rebellion before the Liberation Front made itself known once and for all by beheading the government, and so most of the journalists have to summarize the whole story starting from the very beginning some twenty years ago.
“An unprecedented amount of people gathered at the entrance of the Rehabilitation Housing Complex this morning, even despite the authorities' invitation to the citizens not to leave their houses. The news that the rebel leader, Adam Walker, is going to finally make an official announcement seems to have drawn a lot of attention...”
As he and the others pass by the journalists scattered along the road, Leo realizes the importance that right phrasing has had for the NCP. The Rehabilitation Housing Complex, or RHC, was the name the government used to present to the public the plan of relocation of problematic individuals, that is all those people who later were going to be simply defined as not meeting the national standard requirements for healthy citizens.
The place was far from being a medical facility of any kind, but the government needed a reassuring title for the project, something non-threatening that would convince everybody that it was a good thing.
Even the left-wing, that would have put up a fight against the whole concept of considering sick people that most certainly were not, fell for it, especially when the infamous list of requirements was submitted incomplete and only subsequently went through a subtle process of revision. By the time the squadrons started collecting people from their own homes, there was no left-wing anymore.
The word ghetto, as people started to call the RHC, was used so freely at some point that for most of his life Leo thought it was just a nickname. The seriousness of what that place represented was completely erased by the wildly spread idea that people in there were not being marginalized but isolated only to facilitate their rehabilitation, as the slogan went. The ghetto was hardly talked about anyway, and when it was talked about, the terms used to describe it were completely wrong.
Everything makes no sense now, but it did just a few months ago, and the thought is scary when Leo thinks about it. He distinctly remembers one time when his father was talking about the ghetto with his grandfather Paul. They were whispering to each other and nodding their heads in an unspoken agreement to the general pity that they seem to connect with the topic. As you would do in regards to an unpleasant accident happened to someone else. It was the same kind of polite disappointment, that I'm-sorry-for-you-but-it-would-never-happen-to-my-family kind of attitude Leo had experienced sometimes with the neighbors when the topic of his mother running away and leaving his father alone with him came up. They were all sorry for him, but his mother had done something inappropriate that must only be addressed if strictly necessary and with the right amount of contempt.
He wonders what he would have done if he had known Cody had been taken away into the ghetto; instead, his father told him he had just left the city with his family. The fact that he didn't specify where they went had seemed logical at the time. Why would he know anyway? And so he grew up with the vague notion of a place right outside the city where he wasn't allowed to enter – no, where it wasn't proper for a guy like him to enter – and where government sent a certain kind of individuals. People Leo didn't think he knew.
“At this point is clear that Adam Walker, whose name had never hit the headlines until the attack of a month ago, has been the mind behind the Liberation Front all along, proving that this was not, as it was commonly considered, a disorganized movement...”
“Walker's mother was rumored to be among the rebels, which would explain his involvement in the Liberation Front...”
“The mystery surrounding Walker does nothing to ease the fear of a Country who's now facing uncertain times. The Liberation Front, as the rebels appear to call themselves, lied claim to the attack against the heads of the National Conservative Party only minutes after it happened, but no further explanations regarding the gesture have been given after that. The involvement of NATO is also unclear and it's already been declared unconstitutional by several members of the right-wing coalition, to which the NCP belonged. Walker's announcement could shed a light...”
“It should be illegal to hear his name more than four times before lunch,” Leo sighs, rolling his eyes away from yet another man in suit with a microphone in his hands. “I swear, if I hear another Walker, I'm gonna puke.”
“You could ask for it to be his first law as President of the United States,” Blaine says.
“He's not the President,” Leo grumbles.
“Oh, but he will be.”
There's such pride in Blaine's voice that Leo feels the usual pang of jealousy towards Adam. Intellectually he knows that Adam deserves to be president. Even if he wasn't the one who started the rebellion – besides, he couldn't since he was about one when it began – he was most definitely the one who put it into effect.
After joining the rebellion, which happened when he was very young, he basically reinvented the way the Liberation Front worked and improved a preexisting web of connections, the same that had brought him to the rebels through Blaine. Adam managed to put the old core of the Liberation Front – based in a system of caves outside Washington – in contact with more people inside the ghetto and a few hundred people in the city ready to help out, effectively reaching the numbers that simply weren't there before and that eventually made the recapture of the city possible. He came up with a system to get messages in and out of the ghetto, and later implemented it so that basic necessities, healthier food and weapons could be smuggled as well. He was the one insisting on involving NATO in the whole operation. He planned the attack to the heads of the NCP and then personally executed it. All before turning twenty-two
When most guys his age have barely finished school, he just happened to save a country. And he could lead it exactly as he led the rebellion, with intelligence, empathy and his stupidly good-looking face. Nobody can deny that, not even Leo. Of course he could be president. In fact, he should be. But Adam doesn't want a benevolent dictatorship – of course he doesn't – and so he decided that he will be an interim president as long as it will be needed to fix a few things; like the current political situation, for example.
As they all move toward this long awaited, life-changing speech of his, Adam's makeshift army is working, shotguns and all, to remove from the White House – and from whatever place they might be hiding in – any remnants of the previous administration. Adam made clear that nobody else has to be killed, but allowed the shotguns just for show because he knows that they help to speed up the process.
He wants to take away the people from the ghetto and relocate them into the city – given that this will be done with a capillary action in every state – and open the Country to the rest of the world again. He wants to educate everybody on what really happened in over twenty years and make public everything that has been kept a secret from the wide majority of the citizens.
Then, when order and equality will be restored on a basic level, he wants elections to be held. Everybody will be allowed to put themselves in the picture at that point. To Leo, this is a risky move, but for Adam is important that the United States remain a free country, and this is not going to happen if he establishes himself as the president without the people's support. Blaine claims that all the work he will do – and the way he will do it – before the elections will guarantee him the presidency. Especially after even the people from the ghetto will be allowed to vote. Leo doesn't know about that, but Blaine is usually right.
Leo has seen Adam in action, he knows exactly what he can do and he can see his valor. In fact, that's exactly the problem he has with him, that Adam is so undeniably unreachable.
They used to be best friends. Someone could say that they were so little at the time that it doesn't really matter that much, that people change and that that long-lost friendship shouldn't count at all, but it does and it makes everything weird. Leo used to know Adam like the back of his hand, then Adam went where Leo couldn't reach him and they grew up in a completely different way. Even now that they have a common goal, they're still living on two different planets and the only thing that really connects them is the memory of the time when they played heroes and villains on the school playground.
And Cody, of course.
When Leo and Adam met Cody, he was a tiny thing, one year older than them and yet looking way younger. Cody was their first encounter with something different from them, something so outside the rigid scheme the government had already put boys and girls into at the time – even tho they didn't exactly know that back then – that he looked magical. He was a boy alright, but he looked like a girl and sometimes he wore girl clothes too.
Leo was in love with him as a six year old can be in love, and he would bring him flowers he plucked directly from the flowerbed in his own backyard, or little bows he made from pieces of ribbons he found scattered around the house. Sometimes he would bring him frogs too, because he thought that if Cody was a boy-girl (a category Leo had made up in his mind and that was entirely dedicated to Cody), then he must like frogs too. And if Cody found them disgusting, he never said a word.
At the time, Leo and Adam were glued to the hip, one never went anywhere without the other. And even if they were very different, Adam was quiet and thoughtful as Leo was loud and careless, they acted and spoke almost like one person. They had known each other since birth, they were practically brothers.
Cody waited every morning for Leo and Adam to climb over the wall that divided their schools. Leo took pride in the fact that Cody would follow him everywhere and always held his hand whenever he could. Cody's hands were tiny – tinier than his own – and he always wore bracelets made of plastic beads and even nail polish sometimes. Holding that hand didn't feel transgressive to him, just nice. Cody was a nice thing and he liked him because of that.
Leo feels like they were equal back then, and Cody chose him.
Then he was taken away, Adam joined the rebels, and now they somehow share a piece of history that Leo has lived through from the other side of the wall. There are things they feel that he can't understand. Leo will always be the kid who had food and toys and a whole city to walk around, while Cody was living in a tiny gray house, away from his family and friends, with nothing to comfort him but scraps and broken things Blaine would find for him and that were regularly taken from him by the militia.
Adam was there for him when Leo was not, and then he went on and saved the day. He saved Cody's life. Of course Cody looks at him with longing eyes. Leo can't really blame him for that because he too sees the hero in Adam. He too would look at him like that if it didn't sting so much to know that he will never – ever, no matter what he does – be the person Adam is, because he's not and he has never been. And even if Cody is with him now, Leo can't help but think that he would be with Adam if he could. It's just that Adam doesn't seem to like Cody that way.
It's hard when you know that your boyfriend will always look at your rival as if he's the best thing in the world. It's even harder when said rival is most likely the best thing in the world even according to your own judgment, and you can't compare to him by any stretch of the imagination.
Leo realizes that he must be a very bad person if they're taking Adam to give the speech of a lifetime, surrounded by thousands of people who've been waiting years for this moment, and the only thing he can think of is that Cody is not looking at him adoringly enough. But that's the whole point, isn't it? That's why Cody will always prefer Adam, because he's a hero and Leo is like this.
“We're almost there,” Blaine informs him, mercifully stopping the self-bashing mixed with irrational Adam-hating that was going on in his mind.
They're riding one of the five Humvee the Front has managed to put his hands on, an old thing that has probably seen more wars than he was built for. Their mechanics have worked wonders, tho, because it doesn't make a sound as it moves slowly through the crowd towards the entrance of the ghetto. People are barely moving aside to let them pass, they press themselves against the side of the van, wanting to catch a glimpse of Adam sitting on the passenger seat.
“Are they for real?” Annie sighs, letting herself go on the steering wheel. Moving an inch every few minutes is not making this trip any easier on her nerves. She's really restraining herself not to step on the gas and run a few people over. “How they think we're gonna get there if they don't freaking move?”
“A lot of them have never seen Adam up close,” Cody chuckles. He's kneeling right between the two front seats, so he can see outside. Since he came out of the ghetto, he's eager to see the world and everything amazes him, even the smallest things. He has spent half the trip observing every single hat he could spot and made a list of his personal favorite. So far, veiled hats seems to be winning the race.
“Not that there's much to see,” Adam shrugs, a serene smile on his lips. The last few months have put a strain on him. This is the first time Leo sees him really content. Set in motion a nation-scale process and going away with it tends to do that to a person.
“Oh, I'd like to disagree,” Cody says. They look at each other and, for a moment, it's so painfully clear that only they exist in their little world that Leo tenses. He sits rigidly on the bench inside the van and tries really really hard not to go off. Not even the quick, chaste kiss Adam leaves on Cody's lips in response to his subtle compliment hurts as much a that glance.
Kisses for Adam don't mean the same thing they mean for everybody else. They are a political statement to him. He kisses everybody. He even kissed Leo when they met in the caves for the first time after fifteen years. It was the very first thing Adam did, even before speaking a word to him, he just kissed him. On that occasion he also told Leo that he was politically gay, meaning that he didn't like men but he was gay as long as the government didn't allow gay to exist. Or something of the sort.
So, Adam's kisses are inconsequential. But the way he looks at Cody, that's another story. That look in his eyes makes even his kisses concerning. Luckily for Leo, Annie reaches the limit of her patience and stops the Humvee. “All right, that's as far as I'll go,” she announces. “Time to get those long legs moving.”
“Here will do, Annie. Thank you,” Adam says, chuckling. And since the door on the passenger's seat has been stuck beyond repair since anybody can remember, he simply hauls himself out from the Humvee's window in between the hoots and roars of his own cheering crowd.
“Show off!” Cody calls after him, mockingly.
They stopped three hundred feet from the entrance of the Rehabilitation Housing Complex, as the sign over the arch would say if it didn't miss most of the letters. Now it just spells abuse. Leo doesn't know if it was the use or the rebels, but it seems fitting enough.
Before becoming a glorified prison for thousands of people, the RHC was an old zoological park. There were very few animals left inside and most of its structures were falling apart, so dismantling the park and turning it into affordable housing had been one of the key points of the Conservative Party's election campaign. Rents in the city were skyrocketing and there was nothing the people wanted more than houses they could buy without getting into debts for the rest of their lives.
Then, when the NCP was elected and the cleansing started, a lot of houses were left vacant and the government sold them at half the price. Meanwhile, the new project for the former zoological park had changed purpose and there wasn't going to be affordable housing anymore, but nobody complained because at that point there were plenty of cheap houses for everybody to buy and they were downtown, which was a way better area. Suddenly everybody agreed that the wide piece of land that had housed the zoo, and that incidentally was also well outside the city, was the better place to build a facility for all those mentally ill people, who certainly needed a quiet, isolated place to recover anyway.
The real cages were destroyed – not even the NCP went as far as keeping them as they were, although probably some asshole thought about it – but they were replaced with small wooden prefabs, designed to house only one person at the time. Two hundreds square feet cabins more than real houses, equipped with kitchen, bathroom and a bed. All in all, glorified cages sold as comfortable accommodations. Leo had seen Cody's house and there was barely any room to move in there.
The whole park, stripped of any kind of decoration to make room for more and more cabins, turned into a conglomerate of small identical buildings, divided in blocks by numbered streets. A gray city of shacks that looked dangerously like a camp. Before entering the Rehabilitation Housing Complex, couples and families were separated. Members of the same group were often sent to different complexes in other cities. Children and teens were housed in the orphanage-like facility inside the ghetto, which was ruled partially by the militia and partially by volunteer residents of the complex, until they were of age. Records of any kind were hasty if kept at all.
Of the old structure of the zoological park, only the entrance was left intact, three huge openings in the tall white wall surrounding the whole place, but the turnstiles were swiftly replaced with gates and the old tickets booths were turned into boxes where militia soldiers could stand guard. There's no one in them now, tho. And the gates are open, which seems to make everybody nervous. The so called proper citizens, so flashy in their clean-cut clothes amid the raggedy mass of the ghetto people, stand among their own and they look around suspiciously. Sixty feet above, the RHC sign with its missing letters is towering over the crowd.
A few run-down cars that were lying around – as the whole area around the ghetto is a big open-air junkyard – have been pushed together, and Adam climbs over them to reach the roof of an old school bus, which is missing a few seats and all the windows. The moment he turns around and everybody can see him, even those so far away that he must look like a tiny black dot to them, a roar arises from his people, together with a jungle of raised fists. Adam raises his own closed fist and his crowd explodes in an even louder roar. The vibrations of all these voices give Leo goose bumps. He has seen Adam giving pep talk, but this is different. These people are looking at him in adoration. He's not the man who is promising them things anymore. He's the man who kept those promises.
Adam lets them cheer for a while, he shamelessly basks in their happiness. Leo understands that he's doing this because they deserve to be loud, but also because the citizens of Washington need to see how strong the rebels are, how even their voices seem powerful enough to move mountains. Then, after a few minutes of nonstop cheering and calling his name, he gestures them to be quiet and slowly, like a wave starting from him and reaching even the outermost edge of the crowd, the voices fade out. Someone hands him over a microphone, an old thing coming from a past that seems unreal right now, and when he speaks, his strong, warm voice comes out from speakers all around the square that Leo hadn't even noticed.
“I am Adam Walker and I do not speak for the Liberation Front,” he says slowly and calmly, letting every sentence set down before moving to the next. An eerie, tense silence falls on the crowd as he suddenly feels more real than ever before, not a ghost moving in the shadows anymore. “You have heard our voice a thousand times in the past and you have never listened to it. You, as the people that came before you, were quick to turn deaf to the cries and screams of those you thought were unimportant just because they weren't exactly like you. I have spoken for the queer people in the past, but I'm done talking.”
The people in the ghetto agree, but the murmur of the citizens seems louder, stronger somehow. They don't like what he's saying and that's exactly why Adam is saying it. Proper citizens, as they like to consider themselves, don't like to be told off. They feel irreproachable, but that's the very first thing that has to change. Adam waits for the muttering to subside. He watches them, studies them. And he lets them do the same.
“You've been told,” he resumes, his voice loud and clear, carrying to the very end of the square and beyond, amplified by the speakers, “that queer people have more chances to become criminals, but keeping us apart has not lowered the crime rate. You've been told that queer people were going to destroy the traditional family, but the only families that were destroyed were ours. You've been told that what we are is contagious, but this illness of ours has not been eradicated. And do you know why? Because we are not ill at all. We are not immoral. We are no different than you.” He takes a breath, he wants this to sink in before going on. “We live, we laugh, we love and we make mistakes exactly like you do because our sexuality doesn't define us.”
People – his people, still – clap and cheer again. They make so much noise that, for a moment, their happiness is the only thing that can be heard. It covers up the sound of the others – the others still – that don't seem equally happy. And that displeasure, that disgust even, takes form and finds its voice, finally. Adam has been chasing it down, after all.
“This is bullshit! You're a murderer!” Someone in the crowd screams. Leo feels the tide change. He can almost hear the clicks of the safety on the weapons in the hands of the rebel soldiers. But Adam raises his hand. He stops them and locates the man who spoke up.
“Yes, I am,” he says, not with pride but like someone who's perfectly aware of what he did and why. “And so are you, and the person next to you. You've been all murderers by looking the other way. Until now, you have deluded yourselves by thinking that those were not your brothers, your sisters, your children. But they were. One out of three families has been deprived of one or more members, so chances are that if you didn't lose a relative, your neighbor did.”
That seems to hit home. Everybody had a relative taken away or knows somebody who had. The hiding, the reports, the cleansing, they didn't happen too far away from anybody. They might have become good at ignoring the facts and live in denial, but deep down they know the truth.
Adam pauses. He makes them wait. He forces them to think. He seems to look at them one by one, making sure they know that he's speaking to each and everyone of them. Leo knows that what's really important to Adam is that they understand the responsibility they had in what happened and the power they will have to change it if they only want to. It's time for them to stop thinking that the city is something different from the people who live in it. That what happened 'till yesterday had nothing to do with the people suffering. A war is soldiers dying and kids covered in blood. You can't ignore the first and then feel pity for the latter.
“But you have a choice now,” Adam continues, with a little more intensity maybe. “You can either look back and deny what's been happening under your very eyes, or you can face it, bravely, and decide to change it. There's no higher power at work here. There is you and there is us, and together we can do wonders. This city, this Country, deserves the best that we can do. It deserves to be better as it was intended to be.”
The crowd murmurs again, but this time is different. They don't sound angry, but puzzled. They're listening to him, which is way more than Leo was expecting them to do. In his experience, which is brief but quite eventful, very large groups of people tend to ignore what's being said and get angry quicker than single individuals. Adam is smiling, tho. Not an happy smile, a determined one.
“Yet, I will not ask you to believe my words,” he says, getting an even more puzzled collective look from the crowd. This time, even his people frown at him. “Because I'm not here to tell you things, expecting you to follow me blindly. In fact, I don't expect you to follow me at all if I don't deserve to be followed.”
Adam takes a few steps back on the roof of the school bus and makes a gesture towards someone Leo can't see. A moment later, a wrecking ball track approaches. “You will not have to follow my words,” Adam continues as the mechanic arm of the track brings the wrecking ball closer to the wall of the ghetto, “because I will prove you that everything that's been told to you was wrong. The time of empty words is over.”
One nod, and the wrecking ball crashes against the wall. It crumbles instantly, the first gate crumpling as if it was made of paper. The people of the Front cheer, but they're not alone this time. Someone, timidly, is joining in. The voices are so loud that Adam is forced to scream louder. “From this day on, there won't be two cities anymore. Not you and them but us.”
And for the first time in many years, it really seems actually possible.