The teenage assassin runs the length of my office in her stylish-yet-sensible boots, flailing nunchucks overhead. I am disappointed to see her – she isn’t exactly the singing telegram I was hoping for – but, as President of Nation, I am unsurprised.
One end of the nunchucks (one nunchuck?) hits the ceiling fan. A fan blade cracks and clatters to the floor, a lightbulb shatters. Glass and sparks rain down on her but she presses on without a flinch.
I gain no satisfaction from what’s about to happen, not anymore. There is no longer joy in bricking up the untapped well of potential inside the youth of today. It is no longer fun to know that if only we could have a conversation, perhaps I could change her mind; instead I must put such a speedy end to the underprivileged and indoctrinated sacrifice of the people. But there is nothing for it. I throw open a drawer and reach for my gun.
Not fast enough. The girl vaults over my desk, kicking things to the floor. Weaponless, I duck beneath one swing of her weapon, dance away from another, and move briskly to the painting of my late father. His cold blue eyes follow me as if to question my hesitation, to question the strength of my stranglehold on our fair Nation. I swing the painting forward on hidden brass hinges, reaching into the space within the wall.
She screams, a high-pitched battle cry, and kicks the painting-door closed on me. The frame pinches my back. My fingers curl around the rough, cool handle of a handgun, and I roll out from behind the painting as the girl’s fist rips through my father.
She stands still, then, tensing her muscles and catching her breath with the muzzle of my gun pressing into her temple. I allow her time to process, use this time to practise the calm-breathing exercises my spiritual adviser taught me after the last assassination attempt.
Her bottom lip quivers. “Do it,” she says. “The Beast will come for you soon enough.”
I consider her request. Twenty-five years ago, certainly, she would have been dead already. I would have had my gun in my hand as I oversaw trade disputes and district appearances, ready and waiting for her foot to kick in my door. I would have had spies murder her long before her feeble plans came to fruition.
I am a different man than when I ascended to power.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
The possibilities are endless. I am quite certain that every citizen of Nation, regardless of whether or not they are liable to act on it, have a reason or three to want me dead. A great many of my loyal supporters defected to the rebels when I withheld rations until we saw a twenty-five percent population decrease and a five percent productivity rise (which I still find an entirely reasonable expectation, if one were only to think analytically rather than emotionally).
The girl’s face hardens. She still looks not much deadlier than a rabbit. “You killed my grandmother. When the Geriatric Gladiator Games began, she was the first to fight the lion. She…” The girl who fancies herself an assassin chokes up, her eyes reddening, her throat bobbing. “She didn’t even look human when we identified the body.”
A shame. The Geriatric Gladiator Games were not my finest idea, I admit. The birthrate rose as the population mourned their grannies the only way they knew how.
Should I apologize? It won’t erase the girl’s trauma, nor will she accept it. It won’t make what I have to do any easier, never does. But it is the right thing to do. I so rarely get the chance to do the right thing.
With my gun against her head, I say, “My condolences. Tell me, is this what your grandmother would have wanted for you?”
“My grandmother trained me to fight. She told me we had to stick up for the little people, or we were no better than the spineless, pampered, ignorant citizens of Capital.” She snorts, tips her head back, and spits a fat green glob of saliva and mucous onto the floor. I am unsure what this is meant to accomplish, but it is decidedly unladylike. “Fuck your condolences,” she says.
Then she twists and my skull burns where her weapon breaks the skin beneath my hair and a gunshot rings out, rings in my ears, rings even deeper than that. Her blood splatters, her body collapses.
For the good of the people, as my father would say.
I set the handgun back in its space behind my father’s disdain. I run aching, trembling hands through hair that grows sparser every day. The girl’s blood pools beneath her braid, darkening her hair from chestnut to chocolate. Did her grandmother teach her to do a braid, after nunchuck training sessions? Or, perhaps her mother.
“Is it over?” my assistant calls, cowering in the hallway.
“Yes, Adams, the pubescent girl is dead.”
“Would you like me to call body disposal, Mr. President?”
I sit down at my desk. I glare at the frayed hole in my father’s crotch. “Have them take the girl to her family. Let them bury her in their custom.”
Adams walks nervously into my office. Long fingers scratch his gelled black hair. His pale skin is tinted green from the excitement. “Are you sure that’s wise, Mr. President?”
“Do as I say.”
Adams does my bidding without further questions.
The world ended when my father was a boy. Aside from access to old books and video, I have no frame of reference for how it was, only how he left it.
He was not a particularly loving man. He was, however, not unlike the loving parents and grandparents and lovers that inspire those who want me brutally murdered with archaic weaponry; he strove to make me great, to raise me above the rest of the world. We are God to the people, he said to me, yet we must fear the gods above us.
For the good of the people.
Sitting across from a lovely young woman with obsidian-black hair pinned atop her head, her lips stained red as cherries, her violet dress clinging to her buxom form like a second set of skin, these are the things I tell her.
She giggles the high, irritating giggle of a school girl. Perhaps she is a school girl. Her face has no wrinkles, no smile lines, no crow’s feet. From a purely technical standpoint, she is flawless. This could be the work of makeup or cosmetic surgery.
It matters not.
“What do you do for work?” I ask.
“As a kid I was in clothing manufacturing. Now I design fashion for the glamourous models in Capital City. When I’m not servicing rich, powerful, handsome suitors such as yourself, of course.”
“Indeed.” I gesture to my grand dining room, an enormous waste of space for a room that only ever holds me and a temporary paramour. The lighting is designed specifically by my top psychologists to elicit the desire to engage in coitus. “Are you impressed by the National Tower?”
“Are you impressed by the dinner?”
“Oh, yes, of course. Not that I’m complaining about our daily ration of processed nutrient cubes. Those are delicious as well.”
I allow silence to flood back into the dining room, filling every square inch of the indulgent space, marinating the woman in her harmless, necessary lies. She doesn’t care about our conversation. She doesn’t value our time together. She is here because she has to be. Because if you aren’t a member of the rebellion, then you respond to my whims. It’s sad, really, if you give it too much thought. I try not to.
“Say, Mr. President, what did you mean when you said you fear the gods above?” She puts her elbows on the table and clasps her hands beneath her chin. She leans forward, pressing her full breasts together. I suspect this action is utilized intentionally for my visual and erotic enjoyment. “That sounded real interesting.”
What goes on in her pretty little head? Maybe she is, in fact, a member of the rebellion. Maybe she seethes beneath the plastic-wrap fabric of a dress she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing, only she doesn’t want to be caught dead, she wants to be caught doing the killing. Background checks are supposed to put my mind at ease in this situation, but paranoia is notoriously resistant to reason.
This date is a sick joke regardless.
“Worry not, my dear. Simply an old man’s musings.” I dab my moist lips with my napkin, then place it on the table. I stand and take the woman’s hand, and bring her to my office.
I bend her over my desk and fuck her. Red still stains the edge of the carpet, and I focus on that until I am limp, and I send the woman away to her family.
She thanks me because she has no choice. Watching the swivel of her hips as she walks out of view, I do not respond. The door closes behind her.
My heart beats in my throat, my fingertips, my temples. Sweat clings the soft cotton of my dress shirt to my loose skin. The clock ticks steadily, second after second holding my full attention until I am certain this woman is not coming back to kill me.
I breathe. Alone for the night, I will have to be content knowing my security detail patrols the hallway. This small comfort means less each time an underweight teenage girl cuts through them like paper dolls, but it is the only comfort I am allotted.
Revolution after revolution after revolution, it is always the same. A teenager in the slums incites civil unrest and, with the use of some outdated weapon, rises up to lead the disadvantaged: one day it’s bows and arrows, the next walking sticks, the next the Power of the Mind. Makes no goddamn sense. When I was a teenager, I was smoking pot and fondling neighbourhood girls after curfew.
But I do not know their struggle, just as they don’t know what knowledge I am cursed with. They don’t know why I make such tough decisions. Why I seem to play with their lives.
Like most things, it brings me no joy, nor any natural sleep. I take an assortment of pills to bring my blood pressure down, to cast me into unconsciousness, and I lay my head upon my desk.
“They’re coming for you,” the boy says, pinned beneath my weary foot. “The elders are summoning the Beast as we speak, and then you will pay for all the pain and suffering your reign has brought upon my people.”
Was it the mandatory supervised Russian roulette game nights? I muse. Nobody but me knew what Russia once was, but the game seemed like a decent attempt at bringing some levity to our current predicament. Alas, you can’t please everyone.
“Your beasts are inconsequential,” I say as he struggles and squirms. He still reaches for his weapon, a polearm I had kicked away during our altercation. My eyes are tired and sore. I sigh and close them. “Everything is inconsequential.”
“When you killed my father in the televised Obstacle Course of Death, I swore to myself—”
My freshly shined shoe slides up his chest and onto his throat. He gurgles in fear. I end things quickly.
“Sir?” Adams says from the doorway, clutching a clipboard. His eyebrows furrow in a worried sort of way. “Are you all right?
“Why do you ask?”
“You used to enjoy dispatching the teens, is all.”
“I used to believe I was making the world a better place,” I say. “My father had me convinced it did not matter how the people hated us. It did not matter how many they sent to kill us. All that mattered was that we were keeping them—most of them—alive.”
“I am interpreting this as a ‘no.’ Do you need to see your therapist?”
“He died believing this,” I continue, ignoring Adams, throwing open desk drawers and pulling out keepsakes. “Even as a teenager slit his throat with a butter knife, of all the impractical weapons, he looked right at me being dragged off by the surviving security detail and he begged me to continue in his stead. He was terrified that everything he had done was for naught.”
“Your father was a wise man,” Adams agreed. “A beloved ruler.”
“Beloved rulers do not fall to revolution,” I say. “Find me a suitcase.”
Adams scurries off and returns soon enough with a suitcase. “Are you planning a trip, Mr. President?”
I clear off my desk with a swipe of my arm, and set the suitcase atop the now clean surface. Inside, I place photos, mostly: me as a child with my smiling father, a speckle of blood still staining his lapel; me in private civics tutoring, constructing a small model of a labyrinth with trapdoors and spikes and piranhas, a child’s idea of competitive euthanasia; me in a field at the edge of Nation, looking up at the stars—you would think in wonder, but no, I was terrified, gripped in a constant state of panic, ravaged by fear of the sky and all the unseen dangers it held.
“Do you know why I sit here, day after day, making up convoluted ways to kill people?”
“For the good of the people?” Adams suggests hopefully, just the way he was taught in elementary school.
“Generally, yes. But I mean the specifics. Why exactly did I insist the people needed to be split into districts based on eye colour, knowing full well—hoping, even—that this would incite bloody civil war? Have you ever really wondered?”
Adams shrugs. It is not his place to question, not the place of any within Capital City. They are kept fed and clothed and entertained, unlike the slums of Nation. There is no reason to doubt me when I pick favourites, for they are those that I have chosen, and they are treated well.
“It’s because of the Invaders, Adams,” I say simply, dangling a silver pocket watch in front of me. My father’s, once. I put it in the suitcase.
“Yes, Invaders. Aliens. Extraterrestrials. Giant tentacled beings from deeper in the sky than you can even imagine. I am not the real ruler of Nation, no. They are.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, sir. Are you positive I shouldn’t call Dr. Anders?”
“No need,” I tell him, looking into his eyes. He nods. “Dr. Anders will die with the rest of them once the population rises. The Invaders can’t have our numbers becoming too great, because they know how to keep us weak. We’ve been allowed to live our lives as we see fit so long as we don’t leave Nation, so long as we don’t overcrowd this world. But is this life as we see fit? Is this the life that we want? Evidently not.”
“Citizens of Capital City poll very highly in your favour, sir.”
“They are sheep, Adams, nothing more.”
“Sheep, sir? What is ‘sheep’?”
I sigh and snap my suitcase shut.
“I suggest you leave National Tower,” I say, walking past him. He seems rooted to the spot by his confusion. “Leave Capital City, even. Things are changing, for better or worse. The Beast foretold by the rebellion will surely be here soon, and after that, well…” I shrug.
“But what about the people?” Adams asks helplessly. “What about your people?”
“Don’t tell the people. People are idiots. Confrontational and brash. They’ll only mate at a faster rate and doom their world sooner.”
I stop in the doorway and look back on my office. My home. My father’s eyes follow me disapprovingly. Adams pleads.
“Where are you going to go?”
But I do not answer him.
Under the safety of concealing clothing, I leave National Tower undetected. The streets outside the building are crowded with the usual mass of bodies staring up at the screen that makes up floors thirty-to-thirty-five, their eyes glazing over while I personally feed them lies about protection and safety and how much fun this year’s Horned Mutant Stampede will be for the participants in the slums.
I spot several teenagers among the crowd. They might be members of the rebellion, sneaking in unnoticed among the people just as I am. Looking to kill me, without any way of knowing I make my exit from this wretched existence of half-truths and torture dressed up like silly little games.
Maybe this Beast will be the end of our time under the thumb of omnipotence. Maybe it will save them. Maybe it will not.
There is a roar that rumbles in my chest and pains my ears and chills my skin beneath this hooded garment, and I walk faster. The crowd turns to find the source of the horrifying new sound. Perhaps it’s a new game of the President’s. Perhaps the Games have come early.
A massive shadow passes overhead. I hear mighty wingbeats, the gust of unnatural wind billowing my cloak around me.
I do not turn back at the sound of National Tower exploding and crumbling and collapsing in on itself. I wonder how many people are crushed beneath the rubble. If it is the Invaders that come, then we are all doomed anyway. If it is the Beast, then at the very least, the extra deaths should buy the people some time.
We’re going to need it.
I continue on, for the good of the people.