The Oligarch’s Parade – Short Fiction Challenge Week 1
(To push myself to write faster and release more often, I’ve started a short fiction challenge. Every Monday I’ll release a piece of short fiction – maybe a short story, maybe a poem, maybe something else entirely. The goal isn’t for every piece to be a masterpiece, but to improve my skills and the speed at which I write.)
“Tommy, get out here! It’s starting!” yelled Bill.
Tommy, a short, pudgy boy, shuffled onto the balcony, not looking where he was going, his fat fingers poking at a tiny portable screen. He wore a navy blue suit, a white button up shirt, and a cap topped with a floppy bow.
“Where’s your writer, boy?” said Bill, flicking Tommy’s forehead and yanking away the screen. “You’re supposed to write a report. Good grades, good job, good life. And will you smile? This is a momentous occasion!”
Tommy, unsmiling, stumbled back inside.
“Relax, Bill,” said Sherrie. “You can’t expect him to be as excited as you.”
“That’s because he doesn’t understand the history,” said Bill. “I’m trying to teach him.”
Bill and Sherrie stood side by side on the balcony of their fifty-third floor apartment. Bill was in his mid-forties, with a thin face and a drab gray worker’s outfit. The grease and dirt which filled the dry cracks of his hands were so ever-returning that washing seemed absurd. Sherrie was a few years younger than Bill. She had brown curly hair and wore a simply cut dress which was the same emotionless, government-issued gray color as Bill’s.
From a distance, they watched the people-packed city center square. Glass buildings, hundreds of stories high, gleamed brightly in the sun. To the east and the west stretched vast bodies of water, held back by mighty stone walls.
Adjacent to Bill and Sherrie’s building were several nearly identical apartment complexes, with yellow paint that chipped and peeled, and rows upon rows of balconies. On each balcony stood small groups of people who wore the same gray-colored clothes as Bill and Sherrie.
The mass of people in the center square moved slowly through the streets, balloons bobbing over their heads. Some cheered at random intervals and still others danced. Tommy shuffled onto the porch, a heavy mechanical keyboard cradled in his arms.
“Set it down there,” said Bill, pointing to a table near the edge of the balcony.
“Let him sit where he wants,” said Sherrie.
“There’s no point if he can’t see!” said Bill.
“I just mean, don’t boss him around!”
“You’re making a sport of it, aren’t you?”
“Of being a pain in my–“
Bill was interrupted by the muffled blare of far-away trumpets.
“Tommy, look!” said Bill.
Tommy set the writer on the table with a thud and hoisted himself into a chair. The mass of people had stopped moving and were looking east.
“I can’t believe they let people stand there,” said Sherrie, shaking her head. “Seems dangerous.”
“No way,” said Bill, his eyes wide with excitement. “It’s an honor. To watch the great beast soar above you. To be drenched in the fluids of our nation’s history! I tried to get us tickets, but they sold out ten years ago.”
“Great beast?” said Tommy, looking up from the mechanical keyboard as he loaded a sheet of paper.
“Don’t you know anything, boy?” snapped Bill.
“It’s okay, Tommy-bear,” said Sherrie, rubbing Tommy’s back.
“Don’t call him Tommy-bear,” said Bill. “It’s bad enough he wears those bowed hats. We don’t need more reasons for kids to tease him.”
Tommy touched his hat, making a face like a scared hamster.
There was a high pitched wail as the loud speakers in the center square switched on. A man’s voice spoke, though from this distance it was too faint to hear.
Tommy tugged his mother’s sleeve. She bent down, and Tommy cupped his hand to her ear, whispering.
“He wants to know what they’re saying,” said Sherrie.
“It’s okay kid, you can ask me,” said Bill. “I don’t mean to snap. I get excited is all… Right now they’re explaining the history of the parade. Unfortunately they don’t install speakers this far out, but don’t worry. I know it by heart.
“See, our great nation has existed for thousands of years. As far back as there’s been time, there’s been us. In the beginning, there was terror and chaos, but when the Oligarchs arrived, they brought order. The Oligarchs were handed power by the gods that created the heavens and the earth, so it’s divine will that gives the Oligarchs the power to rule.”
“Oligarch?” said Tommy, meekly. “What does it mean?”
“An Oligarch is a man who gives up his own interests to serve the people. An Oligarch is the perfect, selfless leader.”
“Used to mean something else,” mumbled Sherrie to herself.
“Excuse me?” said Bill, narrowing his eyes.
“It’s not always meant what you say,” said Sherrie. “You can find it in old dictionaries.”
“Words change, dear,” said Bill, his face turning red as he tried to contain his rage. “It’s the same with the word ‘bitch,’ isn’t it? Used to refer to a female dog, but now it means something else entirely.”
Sherrie glared coldly at Bill.
“Among the Oligarchs, there is the High Oligarch. The Oligarch to rule the Oligarchs, he’s called.” said Bill. “He’s the one we follow above all others. But leading with selfless devotion is exhausting, and after fifty years, the High Oligarch must retire. And since Oligarchs were given power by the gods, the gods send an emissary to initiate the transition.”
“Emissary?” said Tommy, looking up from the keyboard, his fingers motionless above the keys.
“A being to represent the gods,” said Bill. “The great beast Xercudes.”
“Do I spell with with a ‘Z’?” said Tommy, squinting at his keyboard.
“X-e-r-c-u-d-e-s,” said Bill, as Tommy poked the corresponding keys.
“Xercudes is the earthly manifestation of the gods who guide our nation. And so, every fifty years, as one High Oligarch replaces another, Xercudes oversees the ritual to ensure its success.”
“How does he do that?” said Tommy, his eyes widening with interest.
“That, my son, is what you’re about to see,” said Bill, patting Tommy on the back.
“A lot of good the Oligarchs have done us,” said Sherrie, rolling her eyes.
“Before the Oligarchs,” said Bill, glaring cruelly at Sherrie. “Men toiled twenty hours a day, with one hour of sleep per night and none of the amenities you take for granted. Scoff all you want, but fourteen hour work days alone prove the Oligarchs’ benevolence.”
“Benevolesense, dad?” said Tommy.
“Benevolence. It means done with kindness,” said Bill. “A word your mother should look up.”
“You’re a fool,” said Sherrie, throwing up her hands. “You believe everything you’re told, which is why you still work the factories.”
“Does following rules make me a fool?” said Bill, a vein bulging in his forehead. “Does respecting tradition make me a fool?”
“It does,” said Sherrie, stomping into the apartment.
Bill released his grip from the metal bar which lined the edge of the balcony. He looked at his red, sweaty palms, only now realizing how tightly he’d clutched the bar. He walked slowly, with deliberate calmness, to a cooler at the other end of the balcony. He lifted the top and removed a bottle of beer. Using the lip of the balcony, he popped off the cap. He waited for the beer to finish bubbling, and took a long, slow swig.
Bill lowered the bottle and blinked, refreshed.
“The day of transition is emotional,” said Bill. “Each of us deals with it in our own way. Your mother’s way is to be… well, insufferable. And do include that in your report.”
Tommy nodded and continued typing.
The sound of muffled, far-away horns once again penetrated the silence.
“And now, the grand finale,” said Bill, his wide eyes looking toward the center square. “Xercudes, the mother of our nation, will show herself and bear us a child. In the process, the mother Xercudes will die, and the baby Xercudes will take her place. And in fifty years, the baby Xercudes will do the same, and on and on it will continue, one generation of Oligarchs passing power to the next. In this way, us humans emulate the gods, and the gods emulate us humans. We are all connected, do you see? The vast, eternal, all-knowing universe, and the simple working man.”
Bill wiped a tear from his cheek.
Another muffled horn blared, and the people in the center square crowded together, moving away from the water which surrounded them on both sides. Bubbles and splashes erupted on the surface of the East Bay, and the tides withdrew, revealing bone-colored barnacles along the base of the stone wall.
Then, as quickly as the tides had retracted, a great surge of water rushed forth. Wave upon wave crashed against the stone wall, sending bursts of white mist above the heads of the now screaming crowd.
“And on this day, Xercudes falls, and Xercudes rises,” said Bill.
Suddenly, the tides dropped again, and a massive shape erupted from the water. Tommy scrambled to the edge of the balcony and pulled himself up.
Xercudes leapt from the water and soared above the crowd. To Tommy, Xercudes looked like a five-hundred foot gray whale, with a fat, barnacled body, and a wide, frowning mouth. On her back were hundreds of pink, scaly wings, which flapped lazily, somehow allowing her to fly.
“It’s… It’s…” stammered Bill, searching for words.
“Beautiful,” said Tommy.
As Xercudes soared above the center square, the crowd below cheered, waving flags and releasing balloons.
“And now,” said Bill, patting Tommy on his bow-hatted head. “The birth.”
Xercudes emitted a loud, painful groan, and a tear formed across her underbelly. As the blubbery skin tore apart, Xercudes groaned again, emitting a sound that shook windows.
“Something’s wrong,” said Bill, squinting confusedly.
From the tear in Xercudes’ belly, a creature fell. It was a smaller version of Xercudes, around three-hundred feet long, but pocked with rotten holes seeping a vile black ooze. Baby Xercudes (in as much as a whale god could convey human emotion) looked pained. Her shiny black eyes bulged as if they might burst. Her wings were not pink, but were limp and gray, like withered flowers.
Instead of soaring, baby Xercudes fell, long strands of birth fluid trailing her as she plummeted toward the crowd below. People screamed and scattered, but baby Xercudes fell too fast. With a thunderous crash, she hit the ground, and the crowd beneath fell silent.
Mother Xercudes continued soaring, but her wings no longer flapped. She cleared the center square and crashed into the water, sending a massive wave slamming against the West Wall. Mother Xercudes bobbed to the surface, her torn belly facing the sky, a black, oily liquid quickly spreading in the water.
“I’m not surprised,” said Sherrie, stepping back onto the balcony.
“What… What do you mean?” said Bill, his eyes wide with horror.
“There have been rumors of the High Oligarch trying to sabotage the transition. Now I see it’s true. He won’t give up power, and we’ll have fifty more bad years.”
“But, but…” stuttered Bill.
“Strong men take power and keep it. They don’t follow rules. They make rules and weak men follow.”
Sherrie walked back inside, shaking her head.
Bill turned toward the center square. He saw people in the crowd, soaked in blood and birth fluid, running in all directions. Tommy looked up at Bill, desperately wanting an explanation, but Bill just stared dumbly.
“But it’s… It’s tradition.”