His voice was gentle, utterly at odds with his stentorian physicality. There was no echo, as if the sound waves had been ordered to proceed directly into Rhoth’s inner ear, ignoring the acoustics of the cavernous hold. “I can appreciate the fright you obviously had once you observed the nature of your incarceration,” Zeno continued. “But there’s nothing mystical about it.”
Zeno produced from his pocket a small vial filled with a milky off-white solution and held it up for Rhoth to see clearly. “It’s merely a variant of our standard brainwash. It leaves the consciousness free to think of its own accord while rendering the body itself susceptible to suggestion. It’s not fully tested yet, but it’s worked so far.”
Rhoth’s mouth failed to stir, but his eyes blinked furiously, starved for expression. Zeno saw the raucous fluttering. “Speak,” he said.
Rhoth began to speak. “You admit you had me incarcerated? You’re actually telling the truth for once in your life? Is it too much to hope that you admit that, in doing so, you completely ignored due process and every human right there is and exposed yourself to be a sadistic, dictatorial – ”
Rhoth was again silent.
“Mr. Rhoth, I would like to have a civil discussion with you. Divergent opinions don’t preclude a friendly exchange of ideas. I’ll entertain any notion informed by a measured critical analysis of facts. And failing that, I can even entertain a mere deeply held conviction if it’s rendered with passion and sincerity.” The Sovereign took one step closer to Rhoth. “But I will not entertain an absence of civility and decorum or disrespect shown me in my home.”
A deathly chill enveloped Rhoth. Reflexively he cast his eyes away from Zeno, personally descrying the inviolate will that had made Zeno the most powerful and feared man on Araddor.
Zeno crossed his arms. “What say you?” he asked.
Gallantly Rhoth squeaked, “Fuck you.”
Rhoth’s eyes snapped shut. His head jerked back. His spine arched. He loosed a scream that would curdle the blood of demons. There was no smoke, no fire. Yet Meako Rhoth burned to the marrow of his bones. His muscles seized with the blind terror of fleeing rats. His toes and fingers shot spread-eagled in unconscious panic, trying to escape the immaterial inferno. Rhoth felt his tears evaporate in the blaze as they escaped the iron clench of his eyes. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t think. He could only wish for the agony to end, extinguished by the blessed reprieve of ice-cold death.
And the pain stopped.
“Please don’t make me do that again,” said the Sovereign. “We have no shortage of test subjects and that’s not why I had you brought here.”
Rhoth’s breathing continued to stutter in a gagging tremolo, his gun-shy tendons still twitched, but the incendiary anguish was gone. He felt only the residual pain of its memory. As his breathing steadied, his nerves calmed, and his capacity for rational thought returned; Rhoth noticed Zeno standing before him, peaceful and still – waiting.
Zeno reached into his pocket and retrieved a mobile ComNet receiver. “This is why I had you brought here, Mr. Rhoth. Watch and listen.”
Zeno switched on the receiver. A small disc of white swirled outward from the center of the receiver. A brief flicker of anthropomorphic light blinked above the white disc and was replaced by a video feed.
Rhoth silently watched himself sit at his desk and address his ComNet optical capture device. The old Mharahkyte standard of the ancient free tribes was draped across the wall behind him. Rhoth, recognizing his clothes, knew he was about to watch his most recent address. It had been a good one with only a few turns of phrase he wished he had taken the time perfect. But Rhoth could see his audience’s heads nod in agreement and he warmed to the impassioned talk he knew his address had provoked.
Good people of Araddor, welcome once again to Truth to Power. I started this ComStream four years ago based on a single self-evident truth: speaking truth to power is a vital component of any free society. I believed that four years ago and I still believe it today. But despite all my scathing criticisms of the Trontaarian Dynasty; despite the litany of sins they’ve compiled on their path to imperial hegemony; despite the crimes I’ve unearthed and the cover-ups I’ve exposed; despite even my particularly enthusiastic animus toward our current Sovereign, Zeno the Leech; I’ve never suspected we were in danger of losing our capacity to speak truth to power… until today.
As you obviously know – especially if you’re a regular viewer of this ComStream – over the past two years Zeno has repeatedly amended the various statutes of his quote-unquote Treason Laws, which is a patriotic enough-sounding term. But then you actually read the things and you see how backhandedly despotic they are. First, he made it treasonable to claim the gods and religious conviction as motive for protest. Now granted, Zeno did this to prevent the resurgence of the Theocrats, so everyone just blindly went along with it. It’s understandable considering the Theocrats’ abuses were still fresh in people’s minds – which Zeno saw to thanks to clever rhetoric and effective propaganda. Then he made it treasonable for the temples and shrines to withhold the rolls of attendants and minutes of ceremonies from his bootlicking Auditors. Then Zeno used the millennial anniversary of the Hundred Steps – and made a much bigger to-do of its coming than any previous Sovereign – to amend the laws to state that any Oligarch whose actions are detrimental to the general economic stability of Araddor can be charged with treason. He claims this is to prevent abuses of power for the sake of greed. Talk about abuses of power!
Which brings us to today. This morning The Leech issued an edict further amending the laws he loves so much, he can’t stop changing them. Effective immediately Zeno now has the power to bring under sovereignty control any enterprise he considers to be a threat to planetary security. Now, I asked myself, what’s the point behind this new statute? No leader of commerce or industry would risk losing their company when they can already be executed for abusing their power. So why would Zeno make this law? I’ll tell you why: to bring under his personal control the one human enterprise that does not affect the economy and has no central figure of authority. The one enterprise that always has been and continues to be owned, operated, and maintained by the good people of Araddor…
From its inception the ComNet has been the bastion of personal expression and individual liberty across Araddor. The Prototype ComNet was first developed to allow the original free tribes to better communicate with one another. So without the ComNet the Assembly of States might never have been formed. The ComNet then proved its value when it was used by those who dared to stand up against the Oligarchs. It was how the Army of the Faithful was able to coordinate and mobilize. Thanks to the ComNet brave patriots like you and me were able to disseminate the Theocrats’ abuses and stir up enough unrest to bring about their downfall.
Zeno is a lot of things, but he’s not an idiot. He knows the ComNet is a weapon to be used against him, and he knows he can’t arrest everyone who goes on and makes light of him. So, rather than stop the people from communicating, he’ll just stop the means of communication.
Good people of Araddor, it is our responsibility and right to –
Zeno flicked a switch on the receiver. A snap of light, a thin hiss, and the ComStream disappeared. “Your closing is a little on the saccharine side,” Zeno said, “but that’s neither here nor there for the time being. Would you like some water?”
Rhoth tried to defiantly meet Zeno’s unconcerned face.
Zeno asked him, “Say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ ”
Rhoth swallowed hard. “Yes.”
Zeno motioned to one of the guards. The guard approached Rhoth and placed his flask to the prisoner’s lips.
Rhoth hadn’t realized how parched his throat was until Zeno had offered refreshment. The cool water rejuvenated and calmed Rhoth as it flowed into his mouth, sweet as honey. A moment later, the guard removed the flask and returned to his master’s side. Rhoth instinctively tried to stretch his neck after the receding water to no affect.
“I had you brought to me,” Zeno started, “because I’d like to offer you a job.”