The Conscience of the King
John North Radway
Posted on January 1st, 2017
It was never plausible and it was never smart. We did it anyway. We had to, I guess—we had run out of choices. It’s hard to remember how life felt before. I can only recall a sort of seething numbness. When everything goes that grey, you need to light something on fire.
When it had finally begun and we couldn’t turn back, when the first real shots started flying and the air turned yellow with gas that stank like a mockery of the grave, all I could feel was an angry heaving that stretched from the pit of my stomach to the roof of my brain. I wanted to throw my head back and laugh, ecstatic, perverse. I wanted to yelp to all the generations of the dead, Christ almighty, we’re doing it again, and I wanted them to hiss me off the stage. I hated myself for letting it come to this—but hell, I hated them more.
I don’t know how many of us were left by the end. Some had gone home. Some had gone over. Maybe a handful remained, or maybe it was just me and Barlow, two mostly-unarmed agitators whose only real goal had been to stay out in the streets till all hours making a fuss. The men in the armored suits didn’t like fusses, though, and the big man hated fusses even more. Fusses were bad for business.
The first burst caught us off guard. I think they started shooting just for fun. By then I wasn’t paying much attention anymore. I’d given up on the insurrection, the nation, the future—probably myself as well. I didn’t really care what hit Barlow in the shoulder or whose face tongued the dirt like a drunk lover. I didn’t see the sparks fly off the iron plates I’d dug from a dumpster and hammered flat into a parody of armor, strapping them to my forearms as if to show off my rank to the alley walls. I didn’t notice the high whine that swelled through my head like the alarm you don’t want to hear in the night, or the flashes of white light that burned my eyes like the sun in a skillet.
All I could think was how this wasn’t going to work and how we’d all be corpses buried under a footnote in an hour or two. We’d lasted a few days, which was longer than we’d expected. The bastards had shown a little restraint and come after us with cops and dogs instead of drones and smartbombs. That surprised us. They liked to take out a foreign city every few months with a little burst of neutrons, leaving streets and walls and pipelines unaltered except for a smattering of the peaceful dead whose brain cells had scattered and sizzled before they even heard the champagne pop of the trigger. I guess the bigwigs on the Defense Committee played by different rules on home turf. Maybe they were worried about collateral damage among their constituents. It’s hard to gerrymander a ghost town.
So there we were, barricaded behind a heap of garbage and car doors, wearing stolen overcoats and sucking wifi from the public mains like outcasts from Victor Hugo’s cyberpunk nightmare, trying to change the world before they crushed our heads with truncheons. The news said we were trying to bring something down, whatever that meant. It didn’t sound right to us. We were trying to bring something back.
Then their ugly black vans sealed the mouth of the alley and none of it really mattered anymore.
They never planned to kill us outright. There’s no theater in a pile of corpses no matter which way you char them. No, they wanted to play out the narrative as something comfortably familiar: the rebels quelled, the rebels brought in, dusty faces staring out from the back of a truck, looking more tired than defeated. There’s no nobility in boredom, and that’s what they wanted most: our nobility. Strongmen run nations on fear and P.R. We were a threat to both.
A hush came over the scene, louder than the gunfire. The whole thing felt unreal, like I was watching a movie of us, the scene where the smoke gathers into tidy clouds to blow through the foreground as a stranger walks out of it, a stocky man with a cocky stride that makes you hate him on sight, half Woody Harrelson, half Mouth of Sauron. Of course he’s wearing a fucking windbreaker, his hands buried in its pockets as though to remind us that it doesn’t matter one bit whether or not he’s packing. He walks right up to the camera, which of course isn’t trained on us. His whole face wrinkles up as though he’s trying to huff the fumes of insurrection out of a paper bag, and he waggles his head to one side in case we didn’t notice the bulky headset that makes him look like an air traffic controller with failed dreams of shock jock stardom. Then he opens his mouth. It’s red and wet, with a tongue that looks like it wants to get away. His lips smack on their own. He speaks.
Only he didn’t speak just yet—not this time. He made a little humming sound and peered up at exactly the holes we were peeping through, playing for time, maybe hoping one of us would take a shot at him for the cameras. He made another little noise that was almost laughter, and then he waited a long time, hoping, maybe, that we’d make job easier by bleeding out.
“‘Every schoolboy to his sport,’” he said at last, and snickered.
I looked down to where Barlow bled beside me. Barlow looked up at me and winked, grimacing less than I’d expected. She brought a damp hand away from what was only a little hole in her side and pointed to a small gap in the rear wall that wasn’t there a day or two ago. Which meant it wasn’t on their maps, either. I looked around at the empty rubble. We were alone—the others must have run or limped or crawled away as soon as the shooting started. I’d never even learned their names.
Barlow leaned up on one elbow and whispered something in my ear. I don’t remember what. The words didn’t matter. There weren’t many of them, and I would have known exactly what she meant no matter what she said. I nodded. I nodded again. The weird, warped, impossible plan we’d dreamed up over several sleepless night watches suddenly seemed like the only course our little world could take. Besides, I didn’t feel like getting killed today. Martyrdom in the age of Chirpdown looked hopelessly banal.
The negotiator took another huff of the fog of war and lowered his head like an angry bull or a man who wonders what he’s stepped in. “Look,” he said, as though we had any choice. Stubble grew down his throat like mold on a ripe peach. We couldn’t look away. “You know we don’t want to hurt you. But you’re the last rats’ nest in the city, and there are—what, three of you alive in there? Two?”
I glanced over my shoulder to see Barlow’s feet vanishing into the gap. “One,” I shouted back, trying to sound weak.
“You want to keep it that way,” he asked, “all you’ve got to do is crawl out of there with your hands up. Nice and civilized. Can probably walk out of this with only minor domestic terrorism charges, too. If you’re real nice about it.”
I used my last free moment to fantasize about his depressing home life, sexless marriage, and estranged teenage children. Then the thought hit me that I might never see Barlow again, even if we could pull off our crazy five-year plan, even if skill, luck, coincidence, the stars, and the wiles of cafeteria life all conspired to make our wildest dreams come true.
Then I stood up slowly and took a tranquilizer dart straight to the jugular. I was already too numb to care when I hit the layer of rusty scrap metal at the base of the rubble heap we’d called a barricade.
The next five years were something of a blur.
Of course the big man stayed in power. They always do, for a while. Of course there were more petty insurrections like ours, but they only fueled the zeal of his swooning admirers. Everywhere we turned we saw his perfect hair, peppery-grey and glinting with dominance. Everywhere his eyes looked out at us. Some of us felt seen and loved it. Some us just felt watched. He was a clever guy, good at what he did. He didn’t put up banners or force Parliament to stick his name into the national anthem. He let the rest of us do the work for him—on our newscasts, our placards, our Chirpdowns, our Crowcaws, even on the bumpers of our cars. He was like some fairytale monster—every time we said his name, his power grew. No news is good news, and the news was all him. He became us, and piece by piece he took everything we loved. Call it whatever you want—fascism, vampirism, tyranny, deliverance—the name never mattered. Measure the movement by what it takes from you.
Me, I started to feel like a freak of history, the last of a dying breed. The wet-mouthed windbreaker had been right: I got off easy, minimal jail time with just enough of a record to make sure I never held a decent corporate job again. I limped through the remnants of the welfare system for a few years and threw myself at the knees of the first employer who offered me an interview. If anyone cared or was watching, I was the very picture of desperation.
I liked the work and made sure never to show it. There was something deeply satisfying about laboring away the morning in a school cafeteria. I learned a lot about mashed potatoes and what never to do to them. I coined at least seven terms for frozen meat in various stages of decay. I got a reputation as the jolly man under the hairnet. I got fat and liked it. Everyone called me Kitchen Steve because they didn’t know any better. Sure, I’d had another name once, and that name was flagged with several red stars in a government database somewhere, stars that meant I was a threat to the social order and an enemy of the state—but as it happened, my lunchroom benefactors didn’t ask many questions. The lax labor rules of the new regime turned a blind eye to such formalities as Social ID numbers if an employee seemed willing to take half of the minimum wage and stay clear of the underground unions.
I didn’t see Barlow again, but letters came every now and then to the flood-prone basement that I rented from Harriet the senior custodian. She was good, Barlow was: she always sent them from a postcode that wasn’t her own, always signed them Aunt Joelle, always talked of her work in artisanal candles. If anyone trailed her, it was a plausible cover story—the wanton destruction that the new regime had wreaked on everything we held dear hadn’t so much as bruised the artisanal candle industry.
More importantly, it gave her a good excuse to talk about chemicals.
See, Barlow was one of the lucky ones. Even our new overlords couldn’t keep track of every face at every riot. The ones who got picked up, like myself, were pretty much doomed to a life of menial labor and legal abjection whether or not we managed to pass checkpoints with names we’d picked from the phonebook. But the Barlows of the world, the ones who slipped through cracks at the rear ends of alleys, had a devil’s bargain from the powers-that-were: leave us alone and we won’t come looking. Crawl back to your offices and let’s pretend this never happened. Keep your hate inside, or hell, blog about it—we honestly don’t care. Just be petty, be helpless, be small. Feed the machine.
So Barlow fed the machine. She walked back to work on Monday with a few bandages and a good story about a bike accident. She addled a fat paycheck from a state-owned biotech lab. She ranted about the government online, like a good Ph.D. She contributed monthly to privatized public radio and the Civil Liberation Union. She was exactly what half the country hated and exactly who the other half thought might save the world sooner or later by reposting the right articles.
But she also fed me. A few milligrams in every envelope adds up if your Aunt Joelle writes weekly. And there’s nothing quite like Cinnamon Sunrise, Jasmine Commodity, Vanilla Bliss, and the sweat of the revolution to keep the dogs from sniffing too urgently.
Sloppy Steves, the kids called them, which made me uncomfortable. They were sort of made of meat, or something like meat, but with a hearty dose of syrup and tomato paste to hold them all together. My radical twist had been to throw in a little black pepper. A couple of children fell into sneezing fits the first time I tried it, but most of the fifth grade talked for days about flavor explosions in their mouths, and they hounded the vice principal until I said I’d do it again. I let Steve the Dish Guy think he made them up himself, and he enjoyed the zenith of his career while I waited for the day when the kitchen gloves would come off.
Even though she warned me in cursive italics not to, I tried a little of Aunt Joelle’s powder one night. It was good stuff—better than her Jasmine Commodity tealights, which made my basement smell like a nine-year-old vampire’s boudoir. I’d tried a lot of white powders over the years, but this was my first brush with a bona fide chemical weapon. Just to make sure it worked, I phoned the guy I’d been seeing on and off for a few months, a radiator technician named Carl with thick hands and bad technique, and finally explained to him why I hadn’t been returning his calls. Two birds with one stone. I went to bed grinning.
They called it Triptych-HB. Everything about it was almost impenetrably classified, or so Aunt Joelle’s letters seemed to imply. The relevant passages were about how hard it is to talk to men at the hardware store, so I couldn’t be certain. It was intended for use in a new Level-Up Interrogation program (“a special place in the back of the store where they take naughty shoppers for questioning”), to replace some less effective and less palatable techniques that the pubic couldn’t help but get wind of from time to time (“They must know that the slow leak in the sprinkler system is bad for business—no one really wants to get all wet, even while shopping”). The final paragraph of the letter seemed to say that it was either an infallible truth serum or a deadly poison.
Luckily for me, and with apologies to Carl, it was the former.
We waited for the day with fear and trembling. Without an enormous stroke of luck, I would have remained a schoolhouse line cook under the thumb of a tyrant until I grew old and frail enough to have my pension denied. But our stroke of luck came. Sloppy Steves hit the big time. I never figured out why, or how, but suddenly they were everywhere: on the Wakeup Alert Show, on Chirpdown pop-ups, even on Broprah’s Faves list. Sloppy Steves put Bellwash Elementary on the map for something other than flagrant affluence. And the big man answered the call.
They scheduled the assembly for a Tuesday morning. It was a routine campaign-stop photo-op affair, a minor notch on the bedpost of the big man’s year-round seduction tour. Every kid would get a nice Sloppy Steve on a tidy red plate, and the big man would watch them eat, slapping backs and rubbing shoulders. The press would be there, local and national. The principal would offer the big man a Sloppy Steve, and he’d turn it down with that look of disgust that the people loved him for. Maybe the press cadre would even get a few shots of the noble blue-collar lunchroom staff singing and smiling as we toiled for our betters. It would be over in twenty minutes, forgotten in twenty-four hours.
Unless he asked a question.
It was our only chance. Five years of revolutionary schemes and impossible hopes would come down to a single moment at the tail end of the country’s stupidest press event.
I lurked in the back of the lunchroom, near the industrial dish machine. Someone had to look like they were operating it, since Steve the Dish Guy was busy working the floor and sopping up the attention of kids who liked his meat. More importantly, it gave me an excuse to stay more or less in the shadows. No sense in getting my picture into the paper.
Out on the cafeteria floor, flashbulbs blared like little neutron bombs as the big man hulked from kid to kid, boxing ears and tugging forelocks. He moved like a lizard. The students tended to lean away, or lean in to gawk at his grey skin as it passed near enough that they could touch it. None of them did. If he wasn’t a god, he was the very model of every god mankind had ever imagined, lousy with perverse charisma.
“Eat up, kids. Eat up. Sloppy Steves, huh? The greatest food. You get the greatest food here, your parents pay for something. You should. They should get what you’re getting. The greatest.”
I thought I heard a third-grader giggle. I fingered the empty envelope in my pocket. Five hundred doses of Triptych-HB in the ground meat. There would be no half-truths today.
The big man grinned. Cameras fired at will. The big man shook hands and scratched at his pepper-grey hairpiece. The cameras turned toward the kitchen window. I ducked behind the washing machine. Steve the Dish Guy did a dance. The crowd went wild. The big man waved and pursed his fat lips.
“Okay. Okay, now that’s it. Sorry, kids. You’ve got classes, the best classes here—classrooms to get back to, with these, all these wonderful teachers. This wonderful meat here. You’re lucky. We are, this is so lucky. It was a day, meeting you here. The best day. The best kind of people, at our schools.”
My fingers curled in my pocket and I think I actually gnashed my teeth. In a minute he’d be out the door. In five minutes he’d be out of town. I thought of the children—whether they’d learn to hate him, whether it would do any good. I thought of Tantalus in the Underworld—inventive meat, thwarted desire. I thought of Barlow, of that wound in her side, of all our big plans leaking out over the years like a slow trickle of arterial blood over a pile of rusty scrap. Maybe she and I were the last ones. Maybe the revolution ended here, in the privatized cafeteria of an upper-tier charter school. I made a quiet list of all the poisons in my bathroom cupboard as the big man whispered with his staff and eyed the door.
Then he waved them away, grimaced at them, took a step back toward the long furrows of Sloppy Steves, and gestured to the press to roll the cameras. As if they’d ever stopped. “Okay kids. Look, I’m here for the meat. It’s really about the meat, you know, Sloppy Stephen or whatever you call it, but it’s really about you—it’s really about—it’s your meat that matters, the best future, we’re going to make it—a great, great future. So I want any of you to tell me, before I go, tell us all—because everyone, they care what you think, when you’re as best as you are—as great—tell them what you really think of the country today, our great, great nation. Tell me—tell me, or let me ask you—just how great a job do you think we’re doing? Just how big, how great a job?”
Few sirens have as much power to startle as the sudden silence of two hundred jaws suddenly not chewing meat. The principal looked nervous. The vice principal looked confused. The big man’s staff looked terrified, and the press looked hungry. I leaned out of the shadows to get a good look at the children’s faces. They looked confused, thoughtful, wiser than their years. Sloppy Steve sloshed in their tummies, Triptych-HB pulsed through their amygdalae. I waited. They waited.
“Okay, you. You in the, in the shirt—that great, green shirt. What do you think of this. How good—how good is it? How great are we right now?”
The little girl—a third grader, I think—I knew her from the lunch queue,—stared back at the grey lizard looming over her and swallowed hard. “I think—I think you’re a terrible man and you’re bad at your job. You treat people badly, you’re a bully, and you should know better.”
The lizard stared down at her. Rage flashed over his face for just a moment before he tamped it down and forced a laugh. “That’s a great, that’s a brave great answer. You know, I happen to think you’re wrong, but that’s what makes us great—agreeing—or not agreeing, agreeing not to agree—of course, you’re just not right, very—very wrong, but we can disagree on that.” He turned away, scanning the crowd, picking a new ally. “Now you, on the other hand, you—with the hat, that nice hat—I love baseball, no one loves it more than I do—you think nice things, nicer things about all our great people than she does, don’t you? Tell us what you think. Come on.”
An older boy, twelve or so, stood up, trembling slightly. “I also think you’re a bad person. My mother says you have a personality disorder and my father says you’re too thick to run a corner store.”
“Oh, well. Well you picked the wrong parents, I guess. Good thing you have a best school like this to set your facts straight.”
But the boy wasn’t done. “I think my parents are right, though. I think you’re a serious threat to the global balance of power, and I worry that the damage you’ve done to our basic rights and liberties may take decades to restore, even if we manage to find a sane government to replace yours.”
His lizard skin turned a whiter shade of grey as he backed away from the table. “No, you’re a global—you’re a threat to the globe, a globe threat, with that face, with that—glasses, you read too much, kid. Too many books. Terrible idea, terrible. The girls don’t like that—no action for your till college, not with all that face. Threat. You’re a threat.”
The vice principal’s eyelids peeled back, fascinated. The boy nodded and sat down, wondering, perhaps, how he had said that. The big man, who had never once cut his losses, grabbed another victim. Literally. By the hair.
“You. Girl with the, with the hair. With the head hair, nice and straight, that’s good. That’s what we call an asset. What do you think—you want to be a star, here, today? Tell them—tell the nice men with the cameras, that’s right, tell them what you really think. We’re doing great things in this country, aren’t we? Go on. Tell them. Tell them exactly what you think.”
I’ll never forget the look on her face. Something in her eyes told me it wasn’t just the Triptych-HB. She really, truly hated him. She hated everyone like him. She’d met them before—on the street, on the train, maybe even at home. She’d never said a word, and if things had gone differently, maybe she never would have. But none of that mattered now. She didn’t even need the chemical incentive. She only had to open her mouth. Truth will out.
“Get your hands off me, you disgusting monster.” She got up from her seat and stood facing him as a dozen security officers stepped forward. The big man threw them back with a sweep of his arm. The girl stepped forward, half his height. “I think you’re out to burn us to the ground. I think this is a joke to you. It’s a game. You’re like a rock band smashing up a hotel room. You’re a little boy ripping the legs off a honeybee. I hate you when you’re on the TV and I hate you more now that I’ve seen your face. Don’t you ever dare come into my school again, and don’t you ever dare come near me.”
He looked up at the crowd and tried to laugh. She didn’t let him. “You really think you can make us like you just by smiling like that, don’t you. Well I’ll tell you the truth. No one really likes you. We don’t. The people in the kitchen don’t. Even your wife doesn’t. I can tell when I see her on TV. She’s just a little afraid of you, that’s all. Not even a lot. You’re really not that scary—you’re not even good at that. You’re a little balloon that’s going to pop one of these days. You have no sense of decency, and you forget that we do. You’re not one of us. You’re nothing, and you’re small, and I think you had better go now.”
Not a mouse stirred. She stood with her arms crossed, a four-foot pillar of righteous vengeance. He backed away from her slowly as a log on the water drifts before the wind. Then he broke.
He turned on his heels, stamped his foot like a lesser devil, smacked a fist on a table, shoved a tray to the floor. He bellowed like a dying ox.
He turned to the press corps. “Get those—off! Cameras, no—no cameras. No cameras—no!” He reached down to the table. He shoved an eleven-year-old boy to the cafeteria floor. He picked up the remains of a half-eaten Sloppy Steve in his right hand, and he cast it across the room with all the strength his frail body could spare, snarling as it flew.
The meat sailed through the air, dragging history behind it. For a weak old man propped up by bravado and makeup, his aim was remarkable. The meat wad landed dead on the lens of a local TV news camera, splattering and dripping down the glass like the limp dead thing that it was. It cleared just in time to capture a final shot of the big man rushing the length of the cafeteria and smashing the camera to the floor with a limp and pudgy fist.
Fortunately for the future, the feed was live.
So I guess we won, whatever that means. Let’s not talk about the ugly aftermath—the viral video, the embarrassing attempts to suppress it, Parliament rushing through indictments, security agencies withdrawing their loyalty, four-star generals saying they never liked his pasty face. The only important thing is that the nightmare is over now, good and done and ever shall remain so. When your power lies in fame alone, you have to stay pretty for the camera. Blink and the wolves close in. The emperor has no makeup. The king, as they say, is dead, and long live whoever.
No one ever suspected we had anything to do with it. No one ever learned our names. Why would they? It’s in the blood of our species to claim credit for whatever might bring us a little more power. The Neogelicals said it was an act of the Deity, and that took care of fifty million minds who might have asked too many questions otherwise. The academics said it was the natural order of things, thought they all put their own spin on the meaning of “natural,” the historicists muttering about three-body dialectics while the psychosociologists declared it the final proof that civilization had outlived its discontents and that the death drive was safely back in the hands of the private citizen. The autopundits of the digisphere all proclaimed from basement desks that they’d seen it coming all along, while proud parents across the country insisted that any child, especially theirs, would have done the same if given half a chance.
That’s the thing about changing history: you have to make it look easy enough that no one gets jealous. And you have to realize that it has almost nothing to do with you. A hero—the kind whose name you get to learn in school, if there are still schools—is often just the last guy standing in a bar brawl. It’s only a matter of time before someone sobers up and knocks him down, too. We weren’t heroes. We were no one. We were one of a million little arrows that happened to find its mark. The meat wad that landed.
You think this sounds far-fetched, don’t you? You think it all sounds too easy, or too poetic—from the mouths of babes and all that. You don’t believe in the power of shame anymore. You don’t believe that embarrassing a tyrant can take the wind out of him as readily as peasants’ giggles stripped the clothes off that emperor who long ago had none to begin with. Or maybe you’ve lost your faith in lunch programs. Maybe you’ve haven’t even lost faith, exactly, but tossed it in a bin in a corner of a car park because a magazine said you didn’t wear it well.
Then here’s another story for you, but I’ll warn you that this one really is nothing but a tall tale, a little something to help you sleep at night. Barlow and I gave ourselves up at the barricades, the last splinter of our petty insurrection. We toiled and schemed for years, we pulled a ploy quite like this one, and pulled it off rather well—only no one ever noticed, and nothing changed. The public had a good laugh. The school principal dutifully wrote a few letters home to well-connected parents, apologizing for the puerile antics of his student body and offering his resignation, which no one called for. The press kept their distance. I was unemployed at dawn.
Will that help you get some sleep, you who lie on your pillow-top mattress and dream of the sun as you count penned sheep? No? Still too much fantasy, too much angst? Then try this: we gave ourselves up, they stripped us of our robes and cast us in a pit where I scratch this on the wall over Barlow’s body, which has kept me alive for a month now although her bones grow grey and lose their savor.
You like stories like that, don’t you. Sometimes it makes me wonder whose side you’re on.
Or consider this, dear waker: we never fell because we never rose. I write this from my third floor office and will forget it by suppertime. They read every word through the wires in the wall, but the worst they ever do is dock my pay by the hour, or hold back my overtime checks until I stop asking. I have four children and food for some of them. The schools teach nothing.
That’s your favorite story, isn’t it. The one you like to write, the one you’ll never admit to. The only one that helps you sleep because it keeps the others at bay, like a pale ghost waving a charred stick on the verge of a dark forest.
Take it if you want it. And goodnight.