The dungeon seemed to grow smaller with the passing of each boundless day. The air grew into a fetid marsh. Meako Rhoth sweat through the swampy cloud. He felt his skin cocoon within a film of grime. An olfactory broth of mold, decay, body odor and human waste swirled about the cell and brought up Rhoth’s empty stomach. Beyond the walls the whir of intakes and exhausts began to set his hair on end. His teeth chattered with the clinking of turbines. He flinched at each crackle of circuitry. His ears started to ring. The geometry began to look foreign.
Rhoth saw the optical capture device before him. Within the lens of the ComNet Rhoth saw his acolytes aligned in battle formation. A battalion of eyes adrift on an ocean of silent desperation stared back at their leader.
Rhoth raised his head to the sound of his fanfare. His back stood straight as his upraised standard. The pain and sickness washed away as Rhoth began to speak. “Good people of Araddor, thank you. I know you’ve all been troubled by my recent silence. But I assure you, I am more resolved than ever to eradicate Zeno’s regime. My incarceration has not broken me in the slightest. Rather, I am now emboldened. My imprisonment has betrayed Zeno’s fear. He knows that we are a threat to his tyranny, and he has made me a living martyr. I am the proof of Zeno’s barbarism. Together we can drive the monster from power forever. Let us conclusively unite and cast his embers to the winds!”
The crowd roared and surged forward. Rhoth was swept up by the wave of followers. He rode the crest of his disciples’ shoulders, washed over by their chanting: “MEAKO! MEAKO! MEAKO! MEAKO!”
It was not long before the cell door swung open. The light from the corridor dispelled the hallucinations. Zeno; his arms crossed, his face hard as iron; and his guards took their place.
Rhoth marshaled every ounce of will. He stood tall, his chest puffed valiantly, as he met his captor’s eyes.
“You are strong, Mr. Rhoth. I have to commend you. It’s been a long time since someone down here has defied me so stubbornly. But it’s high time we got this over with.”
Rhoth braced himself for the end.
The Sovereign approached slowly. “Someone – I don’t remember who – once told me that anger is just fear directed outwardly. I remembered that the other day. I was questioning one of my administrators about some trivial malfeasance. He acknowledged that he’d broken my laws. But he refused to admit that what he had done was wrong. He called it a victimless crime. He would not see the logic behind my reasoning. I lost my temper and had him flayed alive. It was an over-reaction that I immediately regretted.
“I wasn’t mad at him. I was afraid of you. I’ve been trying to reason with you. I thought that I could muster an argument salient enough that even you would be forced to recognize its correctness.
“But that never works, does it? At the end of the day we’re all emotional creatures. My former administrator would testify to that if he could. I was afraid I was losing control. You’ve succeeded in unmanning me as few ever have. I realized then that I had to prey upon your fears as you have, unwittingly, preyed upon mine. But was it that you fear? What is it you most value? I wrestled with these questions for some time. I thought of all our conversations, examined your every nuanced reaction to what I said or did. I thought of all you said. I kept coming back to the premium you place on the liberty of the people. That ultimately is how I arrived at the answer. I had to laugh when I figured it out, it was so poetic.”
Zeno produced his ComNet receiver.
“Just as my strength has its source, so does yours.”
The cone of light shot from the receiver, blanketing Rhoth’s field of vision. He trembled as he watched himself deliver an address he had never made.
Hello, good people of Araddor, and welcome once more to Truth to Power. Firstly I want to apologize for my protracted absence. I assure you that I am in fine health and even better spirits. This evening won’t be comprised of my traditional polemics like you would expect. Instead I have a message of the utmost importance to deliver – one to which I hope you’ll be receptive.
For the past few years I’ve dedicated myself to exposing what I believed to be the crimes of our Sovereign Zeno. Some of you may not have agreed with everything I’ve said. But I want all of you to know that everything I have said has been for the good of our society and our planet at large. Truth to Power was created to inform you, the public of Araddor, of what is happening in our world, so that you could decide how to govern your lives for yourselves. I make this announcement in that same spirit.
I’ve recently had the opportunity to speak with Zeno face-to-face. The Sovereign was gracious enough to grant me an audience. We spoke at length on a number of issues, and I’m delighted to tell you that, as well intentioned as my past vitriol was, I have been unfair to Zeno. Since speaking with him I’ve discovered that our aims are one and the same, even if our opinion of means have deferred.
Our Sovereign has magnanimously invited me to join him in crafting a future for Araddor that will please all her citizens regardless of faith, economic standing, or regional origin. I can say with utmost confidence that Zeno has your best interests at heart, and I intend to help him make our world a place where every one of her inhabitants can realize the life they have always wanted for themselves. I ask you all to –
Zeno abruptly returned the ComNet receiver to his pocket. “It gets worse from there, but you get the point,” he said.
Terror welled beneath Rhoth’s eyes.
“Work for me covertly, and not only will you enjoy material comfort beyond your dreams, but you will be able to oppose me openly and vehemently as you like.” Zeno stood an inch from his captive’s face. “Stay your misguided course,” he continued, “and that address will be distributed across the ComNet. I personally will make sure that every media outlet makes it their top story for days. Every man, woman, and child on this planet will see it. There will be no martyrdom for you. No one will praise you in song. No one will dramatize your heroic sacrifice. No one will regard you a hero. You will be an object lesson to all who challenge me. You will be a demonstration of how easily the enemies of peace and order can be cowed and co-opted. And your audience? They will call you a coward and a turncoat. They will regard you a traitor to their cause, a craven toad who sacrificed his principles and the will of countless others for his own well-being.”
Zeno plunged the antidote to the stasis into Rhoth’s neck.
Rhoth immediately collapsed on the floor. With more strength than he had possessed in weeks, Rhoth let out an anguished cry. As he pulled his knees to his chest, his heart and will shattered. He was vulnerable as a newborn infant. He sobbed openly, loudly. His tears poured down his face and swam in the dried pools of strange bodily fluids.
Zeno towered over his defeated form. “What say you?”
Rhoth never looked up. “Yes,” he moaned.
“It’s always about power, Mr. Rhoth,” Zeno informed his new ally. “Even to you.”
The planet Araddor floated along its orbit through the space. The warm blues and greens of the planet shielded the cold virginal void from the fires that raged beyond it. The blackness spied life at peace on the small quiet globe, unaware of the tumultuous savagery from which it springs.