by Evgenia Citkowitz
There once was a woman who wasn’t afraid of governments. For this reason she had acquired a certain notoriety. Most people in the last outpost of the last superpower of the free world had heard of her existence but no one knew exactly who or where she was. She was said to be a woman – at least that’s what the leader of the city-state had been told by his intelligence services. At the end of the third Civil War, the Leader of Dominion had fought to consolidate the last and most precious resources into the citadel and now the territory was under siege from rebels led by this revolting woman. In a bid to preserve his domain, the leader had sealed the perimeter, issuing edicts against his enemies, targeting his opponent with a bounty upon her head. The leader blamed the woman for all manner of ills: she had infiltrated water systems and poisoned the food supplies. She was responsible for shortages and rationing. He even blamed her for engineering foul weather as recently there had been hail the size of footballs. Whatever the identity of his opponent: female, male, undeclared, hybrid or pending – rumors on the subject abounded – the leader of Dominion knew that if dissident forces were not swiftly neutralized, his hold on the last outpost of the free world would slip and he’d soon become another loser in the war against terror.
The leader was born Percy Kling but called himself King even though he was not of royal blood. Along with his territories he appropriated names, adapting his own as he wanted a less desperate, more powerfully paternal one. His adopted name was also an homage to his father, a Freedom Party fighter, who had kept a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. in a pocket over his heart as he revered his beliefs in the fundamental rights of man and the importance of nonviolent protest, (there was another more romantic association that we shall go into later). Yet, neither values nor the photograph were enough to protect Kling Senior as he was captured by Resolutes and flayed in front of young Percy. Along with his mother’s abduction by Dwellers, his father’s death was one of many horrors that young Percy had to endure and shaped his belief that a strong hand was needed in pursuit of peaceful government. As a third generation child of war he grew up keenly aware of the perils around him. He lived day to day in a state of hyper-vigilance, conscious that one wrong move would send him helter skelter into a dangerous chasm. Only in the dead of night, when the wails of the broken ceased and snipers nodded and drooled over their weapons, could he dream of an ordered society that would buffer and protect him against the great pitfall of death. By the time he had figured out that survival was a balancing act of political expedience he had come of age, and his dreams had likewise matured into fully-fledged ambition. When seeking allies it was only natural that he would gravitate towards the most powerful: the Freedom Fighters were proven wimps; the Dwellers, uncivilized oafs, the Cannibals indiscriminate and disgusting (seeing his father’s flesh stripped like a doner kebab had made Percy vegan for life); that left his father’s killers, the very same Resolutes, as his only viable option. At the beginning of the Third Civil War, he joined them. It should be noted that Percy Kling wasn’t quick to forget an insult. At his peak of influence he avenged his father by dissolving the faction, taking a good portion of the name for his own regime, the Absolutes, who were now the ruling party in control of Dominion.
Now being leader of the last city-state in the free world wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Making tough choices required rigor and the suspension of sensitivities. Percy often commiserated with himself that he had most difficult job in the world other than God’s, but as God had died, probably in the last nuclear holocaust, his was the hardest. He discovered that there was a magnetic repulsion between the interests of the individual and the common good; reconciling the two was near impossible, especially when it came to gnarly questions such as the division of property and natural resources. It was a headache having to adjudicate what was right all the time. Plus, it didn’t help that all his judges had been wiped out in a terrorist attack. (There were rumors that King’s men were behind the massacre but this was never proven.) King had no choice but to rise to the challenge: as well as being the Head of State, he had to step up and become judge and jury himself.
King met Eleanor Sauvage while breaking into a government bunker at beginning of the Third War. They were both young independents then. King was still Kling: Eleanor, still Eleanor Sauvage – she also hailed from a family of activists. Fate had them converge on a narrow ventilation shaft as they inched their way into the compound, worm-style. They were both seeking refuge post fall-out after correctly assuming that bunkers built for the families of politicians would be well stocked and provided. After penetrating the interior and displacing a few inhabitants along the way – they weren’t the children of guerrillas for nothing – Percy and Eleanor waited another 26 months for decontamination convoys to arrive, getting to know each other as young people do living together at close quarters. As brainstreaming wasn’t available they passed the hours watching Jailhouse Rock on an antique television machine found at the back of a shelf in the recreation room – a quaint, communal experience. There was no audio but they were both mesmerized by the main dancer and found the display surprisingly affecting given it was at a remove from the usual direct form of delivery.
Also in the bunker lived an ancient crone who occupied a cupboard between the hygiene station and the recreation room. No one knew how long she’d been there as she didn’t speak and she only ventured out to perform vital functions. On such occasions she would crouch with her face to the wall with the appearance of someone who didn’t want to be seen – unlikely as everyone in the shelter was accounted for and she was conspicuous with bulging tumors all over her face. Eleanor thought that she feared being culled because of her age, when in fact she was being kept as a reverse-mascot; an ugly reminder to those around to stay alert and keep away from radioactive material. Eleanor tried engaging the old woman in conversation many times, but her timidity and incoherent babbling made meaningful discourse and friendship impossible. Her lack of socialized speech led Eleanor to speculate that the crone had been born in the shelter to a worker who had subsequently died; furthermore, an irradiated interloper had broken into the compound and exposed her but not so much that her cancers were terminal. When Eleanor shared her theories with Percy, he nodded in agreement even though he had tuned out, as he usually did when the conversation became overly earnest or detailed.
One night, the old lady was scampering past the rec room on her way to use the bathroom. Catching sight of Kling and Eleanor watching Jailhouse Rock for the hundredth time (it was the only disc that worked) she piped up: “He were called The King, you know,” surprising the couple as it was the first time they had heard her utter a complete thought. Her sudden memorializing of this piece of lore that she’d likely heard from her mother, who might have heard it from her grandmother, acted as proof and confirmation of Eleanor’s theory. Eleanor even went as far as to suggest that the disc might have belonged to one of the old lady’s ancestors. As always, she finished her argument with a truth: “This is what happens when our citizens have no protections. Years of service – and you end up in a closet.” While Eleanor was justifying her thesis, Percy was having an epiphany of his own. Hearing the dancer be called King, two icons, the King of the Civil Rights movement and the King of the dance fused in his consciousness, creating a third in his mind’s eye – himself – and Kling became King evermore.
During the long hours he spent in the bunker with Eleanor, nibbling soy nuggets from nutrition sachets, licking moisture from inside water pouches, he had the chance to observe her. When she wasn’t being vehement she had a contained, unreachable quality that he could only describe as otherness but she was always the model of fairness and integrity – and that tongue of hers was the prettiest shade of pink. For as long as he could remember Percy had nurtured an urgent desire to stay alive, but a new sensation began to take hold and possess him: a longing to join forces with her for life. Two years after meeting the young Independent in the ventilation shaft, on leaving the bunker for good, Percy King asked Eleanor Sauvage to be his wife.
It must be said that this was no slam-dunk proposal, nor a forgone conclusion. There followed a heated discussion with Eleanor voicing her concerns about his intention to turn Resolute – she cited their abysmal track record on social justice and abuse of power, not just limited to the sadistic murder of his father. King argued back that weakness and anarchy had turned their great country into a giant dustbowl. “Where is the fruitful fruit? Where are the fishy fishes?” he asked urgently but not literally (rhetoric was a stylistic trope of the Resolute Handbook). “At the eleventh and one half hour,” he declaimed, “hope lies in leadership by the strong.”
Eleanor listened to his speech intently. When he reached the part about hope lying, a little wrinkle formed between her eyes – her nose always seemed to become pointy when she was vexed. She sighed, “Must we always be pragmatic?” Then, as if talking to herself, she said “Yes, I suppose we must.” In spite of her initial reservations, Eleanor agreed to be his wife, supporting him through the reformation of Resolutes into Absolutes, through his battles and compromises to become leader, as good First Ladies always do.
Ten more years of warfare passed with the land remaining barren and the seas plankton-free. The victor of Dominion experienced his greatest defeat: the loss of Eleanor at rebel hands. King heard the news of her death on the eve of the Feast of the Fourth of July. Apparently Eleanor was out on the battlements looking for her children, who were proving more and more elusive during their pre-teen years. There was a chink in the protective electrical shield – the work of saboteurs, surely – and Eleanor was vaporized by enemy fire as she went by.
King was devastated by his wife’s death. People often said that after she was gone he was never quite the same. Her assassination begged the question of whether he had been betrayed by someone in his household. He had a policy of hiring spies from different countries and would turn them in counter spies and thence enlist them to spy on each other, but apparently one of his thrice turned had been turned again and conspired to assassinate lovely, pink-tongued Eleanor. Her sudden annihilation made Percy King feel vulnerable. If his network of quadruple agents couldn’t be trusted who was there, anyway? He called a meeting of his security services and demanded an explanation but they responded with dumb stares and evasive answers and failed to reassure. He asked God for advice but was quickly reminded by a profound silence that God was dead as well. He began to feel more and more isolated while he mourned his wife, pacing the high cloisters of the citadel, watching the tracers leave patterns in a glooming yellow sky. He had an inspiration to commission new ammunition in Eleanor’s memory that would whiz and pop in pink, perhaps magenta; to kill in nice, joyful colors, not in nasty, depressing ones.
Loneliness and despair made King sentimental. He was overcome with an urge to see his children. He hadn’t seen them in ages and didn’t know where in the residence they lived. Realizing that the present was as good a time as any, he went on a mission to find them, starting in the top turret, working his way down through a labyrinth of halls and cavernous spaces, only populated by security services lounging indolently in corners. (Their uniforms with the distinctive A insignia were starting to annoy him.) He found rooms that he didn’t know existed. There was one was full of specimen rocks, another full of Curly Wurly candy bars, another stacked high with baked beans. He asked the guards for help and became increasingly paranoid when they answered vaguely and muttered the moment his back was turned. As he searched he was spurred on by the memory of his beautiful children, their lovely smiles and shining faces. What were their names? Never mind, he told himself; he would soon find out and would ask them himself.
King continued looking for his offspring. When his search failed to yield results he became increasingly frantic. He had the dreadful thought that his children might have been vaporized as well. Casting doubts aside, he persevered on. Eventually, he stumbled upon a deep marble staircase. Sensing it might lead to the truth, he braved the descent below. He had to clutch the ivory balusters as the stairs wound fast and seemed to accelerate to the bottom. Landing on a patch of red concrete, he looked up and saw a guard standing outside an iron door. The sentinel looked as though he hadn’t seen daylight in a while and had skin the texture of porridge. Like the crone in the bunker, he was badly in need of a dermatologist.
“I am looking for my daughters,” King used the plural as he wasn’t sure how many to say. He tried to look imperious while raising himself from the floor.
“Your daughter is not here,” Porridge Face said with a snort. His lips quivered with excitement.
The guard’s inappropriate affect was disturbing. King knew that it would be unwise to trust a man with no muscular control. Pushing the guard aside, he unbolted the door and continued down a ladder into darkness, hollering, “Where is she?” and, just in case, “Where are they?”
At first King didn’t know where he was. There was nothing but blackness. The stench of human excrement and throat-catching urea, familiar from the days of his father’s captivity, soon told him his location. He was in a dungeon. When his eyes began to adjust he saw the walls were not solid but shifting. They were moving, writhing with human beings. It was a sight from hell. There were young men and women with wasted bodies and jutting bones chained to the stone. They cried and moaned for help. Someone spat at him in anger. One lone opportunist, getting the drift, called out father as he went past.
“Where are my children?” King demanded. Then, in a moment of doubt he called for the guard. “Are these my children?”
“Sir, you have none.” The guard called down. He hadn’t followed because of the stench. “Those there are your prisoners.”
“Liar,” King blustered, “my wife was always talking about them. Granted, I wasn’t always listening.”
“When your wife spoke of saving the children,” he sneered, “she didn’t mean they were actually yours.” Then, with incredible insolence Porridge Face rolled his eyes at Percy King.
King fled the basement, aghast. Were these the precious resources for which he had fought? These wretched creatures, Curly Wurly bars? Baked beans?
He wasn’t sure what he valued any more and the confusion made Percy King even more insane. If he had been compos mentis he might have realized that lovely Eleanor had not been killed on the battlements. She was still alive. Helped by allies in the palace – former spies indeed – she had escaped through a chink in the electric protective shield and was raising an army against him that would soon breach the perimeter. She knew what needed to be done to rid Dominion of its mad ruler. She was not afraid of authority or governments, even if it was one belonging to her husband. Eleanor was one of many souls pending. Soon, when the transition was complete, Eleanor would call himself King with a more sincere intention of doing justice to that name.