The clouds over the Coliseum threatened rain, but it was still holding back as the crowds poured in through the gates. Today was Dear Leader’s birthday, and he had promised a great celebration with a contest pitting the four Regions of the Empire against one another. The people had come despite their fears of the virus that plagued the land, for Dear Leader had told them to come, and he had promised to hold the sickness at bay.
They streamed in through the gates, past the vendors selling amulets and charms who lined the main concourse. The longest lines were at large stands with Dear Leader’s image on the signs in front. These were his quinine tincture concessions. The placards promised protection from contagion, at a price that was discounted to honor his birthday.
Cassie, one of the flower girls, ran quickly to take her seat. She had been one of the children chosen to strew rose petals in front of Dear Leader as he walked down the causeway, and now she got to sit in the glass-encased viewing box, with Dear Leader and all the Palace staff. Cassie knew she’d been selected because Daddy worked in the Palace, but she didn’t understand why they’d had to prick her finger this morning. She could have just told them that she wasn’t sick.
One of the Jesters began speaking into a microphone, and Cassie looked out at the scene below. A great expanse of grass was surrounded by thousands of tiered seats where the crowd clamored raucously. Some wore face masks, many decorated with the national flag. Everyone seemed to carry a flask of the tincture. At one end of the grass field stood the great gate from which the contestants would emerge. The events were being projected onto a large screen at the opposite end, so everyone could watch. The Jester’s image could be seen there now.
He welcomed the crowd and then invited them to give three cheers for Dear Leader’s birthday. There was a great roar, but he urged them to get louder, and then louder still. When he had the crowd sufficiently worked up, Dear Leader himself stepped up to the microphone.
Cassie was too young to understand a lot of what he said. She got that the virus was something horrible from the Middle Kingdom. That the Rebels were responsible for bringing it here. (Dear Leader hated the Rebels. He told Daddy that they were always making up stories about him and whispering them to the town criers.) But he promised the crowd that the tincture would protect them, and he urged them to buy more.
“If you do get sick,” he said, “it’ll just be a mild case.” Cassie heard his voice over the hiss of air coming through the HEPA filter in the ceiling above her.
Then Dear Leader described the contest. Each Region of the Empire, East, West, North, and South, had prepared a birthday tribute for him, and they were going to present them now. He would choose the one he liked the best, and that Region would win. The prize was a full month’s output from National Slaughterhouse 11, the Empire’s only remaining meat processor. The others had all closed because of the plague. The crowd gasped. Most of them were ravenous for protein, with meat so hard to find. It was a fabulous prize, even if it had to feed a whole Region.
The Jester took back the microphone and introduced the first contestants, the team from the North. The great gate rolled open and the team, a group of high school students from the farmlands, drove a phalanx of tractors to pull their offering out on a huge float.
The North’s gift was a giant ice statue depicting Dear Leader as a great hero in the act of slaying the virus with an AR15. Dear Leader liked the idea of a statue of himself. “Statues are culture,” he told the Jester, approvingly. The statue towered above the tractors, its blue ice covered with condensation despite the refrigeration coils hidden inside. When Cassie saw it, she felt a thrill of pride. Someday, she thought, she would be a warrior like that. Or else marry one.
But Dear Leader did not seem pleased. “Why is it fat?”, she heard him say.
“That’s not fat, sir. It’s an ammo belt.,” the Jester countered.
“It looks fat. Putin don’t look like that on his horse.”
The tractors pulled the statue around the field with the crowd cheering, but Dear Leader said he thought the students should be fired.
“They’re students,” said the Jester. “I don’t know if they can be fired.”
“The thing’s melting,” Dear Leader complained. And he started to play with his phone.
The next contestants were from the Eastern Region. After the Jester’s introduction, the gates opened again, and a procession of black Cadillacs emerged. They came to a halt forming a semicircle in front of Dear Leader’s glass box, and from each car there emerged three chorus girls and a banker. The girls wore very short skirts and did a little dance in front of Dear Leader before forming two rows. Then the bankers, in dark Brooks Brothers suits, strode between the rows and approached Dear Leader.
Now, Cassie could see that one of them carried the East’s birthday gift. It was a beautiful crown! The Jester read from a card that it was made of platinum, filigreed with gold, and encrusted with blood-red jewels of rare painite. Cassie thought it was beautiful. She formed a mental image of herself grown up, wearing a crown or a tiara. A tiara wouldn’t be so heavy.
Dear Leader had also formed a mental image of himself. He was wearing the crown and a purple robe and holding a scepter. He was quite pleased at first, but something in the Jester’s description had bothered him. “What do you mean gold filigree? How come it’s not solid gold?” he asked the Jester.
“Sir, it’s platinum. More valuable than gold.”
“It looks like the brushed nickel in my bathroom. And how come no diamonds?”
“Painite is rarer than diamonds, sir. It’s even more valuable,” the Jester said.
“Who the hell ever heard of it? Fire the guy that did this!” Dear Leader shouted.
“But, the Governor of the East is elected, sir. He can’t be fired.”
“Don’t send them any hand sanitizer, then.”
The Southern Region’s gift, read the Jester, was to be a passion play celebrating Dear Leader’s victory over his predecessor, the evil Ogre. When the gate opened, a brigade of uniformed teenaged boys marched out in formation, each one holding a staff over his right shoulder. They were members of the Young Leaders, and behind them marched an equal number of girls, the Young Leaders Auxiliary. The girls wore bandannas and held little wands, with sparklers going off at the ends. And behind them, a 1967 Chevy Impala convertible was pulling a wagon that bore a large stuffed effigy of the Ogre. The papier mache creature was propped against a gantry on the wagon, its arms tied behind its back. When it stopped in front of Dear Leader, a winch in the gantry hoisted it up by means of a rope that had been conveniently placed around its neck. It swung back and forth, dangling just above the group of boys.
At this point the girls stepped forward, and each one used her bandanna to blindfold one of the boys, then guided him toward the suspended Ogre. The boys used their staffs to blindly attack the effigy which was, in effect, a piñata. As they rent its sides, its hidden treasures began to spill from the openings: sirloin steaks and pork chops, chicken wings and packages of ground round. Red meat juices flowed.
The girls rushed forward to grab their prizes, sometimes fighting among themselves over a particularly fine ribeye. Cassie, too, found it exciting. She wanted to have a boy hit the Ogre for her. She wanted to grab some meat.
She saw that Dear Leader was clearly enjoying the spectacle. He was laughing and pounding his fist on the arm of his chair. But then, he noticed that the top of the effigy’s head was an orange color, and he asked the Jester about it. “Isn’t that the color of my hair?” he said.
“No, Sir,” said the Jester. “That’s just a stain from the blood coming out of the meat.” But Dear Leader hadn’t heard anything after “No.” He never listened to anything that followed a “No.”
“This is some kind of trick by the Rebels,” he said. “To make it look like people are bashing a piñata of me!” His voice was rising, and he was still pounding his fist, but differently than before, Cassie thought, as she watched him turn blue.
Finally, the Jester managed to calm him down. But, the mood had changed. “Bring on the next one,” Dear Leader said sullenly. “And fire someone.”
Unfortunately, it turned out that the team from the West had been unable to come. That region was still under lockdown because of the virus, and there were no flights going in or out. Nevertheless, they had managed to send a video of their offering, and it had arrived just in time. The Jester made the announcement as his assistant prepared the projector.
The image of Dear Leader’s favorite rapper, Kay-Y, appeared on the giant screen. The crowd cheered. It turned out that the Western Region’s gift to Dear Leader was a series of glowing video testimonials from porn stars he had met through the years, and Kay-Y would act as master of ceremonies.
Cassie didn’t know what a porn star was, but she figured it had something to do with making movies, since Kay-Y was involved. He introduced a woman named Fernanda Foxx, who spoke in rapturous tones about a time when she had met Dear Leader in a stairwell. She was followed by Andrea Angel and then by Lacey Love. Although she wasn’t quite sure what it meant, Cassie also wanted a man who could perform like a stallion and make her see the blue lights of ecstasy, again and again, all night long. It sounded like fun, although last year, when she had seen the Lipizzaner horses, she’d gotten bored after an hour.
Dear Leader was really enjoying this, Cassie could see. He kept pumping his fist in the air, looking around at everyone and beaming.
“Samantha Sweets,” said Kay-Y, and another woman took her place on the screen.
“And finally, this one’ll really blow your mind, a testimonial to Dear Leader’s versatility,” said Kay-Y. “Last, but certainly not least, Lance Long!” The image of a tall blonde man began to form on the screen.
“WHAAT!! WHO THE HELL LET THAT GET IN THERE?” Dear Leader screamed. No longer beaming, he stared in horror at the enormous screen. The Jester quickly cut off the video as Dear Leader grabbed the microphone. “That was a trick, everybody,” he shouted to the crowd. “It was planted by the Rebels, it’s a fake! I never met that guy. Don’t believe it!”
And then, to the Jester, “Get the town criers out of here. Somebody’s gonna lose their job over this…”
With that, Dear Leader stood up and put his cellphone in his pocket, preparing to leave.
“Don’t you want to announce the winner?” the Jester asked him. “Which gift did you like the best?”
“Nah, they were all chintzy gifts,” Dear Leader replied. “I didn’t like any of them.”
“What about the prize?”
“We can use it for the Palace. And make sure you send some to the Southern Palace, as well. I’m gonna be there this weekend.” And with that, he walked out, talking to someone on the phone about the day’s sales of tincture.
In the end the Jester left, too, and no one told the crowd anything. After a while the rain started, and they began to drift out of the Coliseum. They were still angry at the Rebels.