General Zod was unhappy. A sudden memory from Military school struck him. It was his first day, he stood at attention, lilting slightly to the left like an old building.
“So…Zod” his field instructor had said, glancing down at the clipboard that held the scant details of Zod’s military record. “Where do you see yourself ending up in the army?”
“S-s-s-s-orry, s-s-sir” stammered Zod, mentally kicking himself for delivering the sort of cowardly and awkward reply that he was sure the army punished. Possibly with push ups.
“What rank are you after, eh?”
“Er, General…Sir” Another mental kick, as he’s almost missed the Sir part at the end, this time. Come on Zod, it’s not difficult, he told himself.
“General, eh.” The Instructor relaxed back into his rickety chair, and casually buffed one hairy knuckle against one of the many brass medals that studded his chest like rivets on a steamship’s boiler. “Politician, then. Not a soldier. All of the soldiers want to be Lieutenants or Captain, even sergeants. The really ambitious aim at Field Marshal. The secret megalomaniacs are all aiming for General or Colonel. Don’t know if its the uniform or that it looks good on the headed note paper, but Generals and Colonels – all the same. Despots.”
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“See, the other ranks are mainly interested in shooting things, blowing up other things; dropping the occasional bomb. Explosions. But as soon as someone gets that general’s insignia sewn onto their jackets, the next thing they think is ‘better organise a coup, then’.
Plays somewhat into the other ranks’ overwhelming desire to make things explode, as well. ‘Hey there chaps, help me wrest control from…whichever chummy’s grasping onto power at the moment and you can fire rockets at the Imperial Palace’. And it doesn’t matter how obedient or high ranking you are as a soldier, you can’t resist shooting rockets at a Palace. Even if it’s your own.
It’s a sad state of affairs, in times of wholesale peace that you rarely get the chance to roll a tank over some marble statues or give a banqueting hall a damn good riddling with a machine gun.”
“But wouldn’t it be better to fight another country?” Zod felt a woozy feeling wriggling up from his stomach towards his head. The sensation was making his Attention look even more decrepit. Had he been a house there’d been serious work ahead to shore up his foundations.
Certainly, in his imagination, he’d seen himself proudly saluting passing columns of tanks and ranks of soldiers lock-stepping down a large boulevard, while he stood on a rostrum and crowds cheered. Things combusting or navigating a heavily armed vehicle through the ancient marble of a perimeter wall had never really featured in his daydreams of army life. Having the best uniform and telling people what to do. That was the Army life…Wasn’t it?
“But…wouldn’t it be easier to invade another country, Sir?”
“Invade?” The Instructor chuckled, glanced once again at the clipboard that help Zod’s rank and number, and the results of the ‘look to the left and cough’ test that the doctors gave, to see how good new soldiers were at taking orders, while a stranger cupped their balls.
“There’s no glory in invading another country. Plus, it’s hard work. Seizing control and ruling your own country is much simpler. You don’t have to learn a new language, you already own all of the right maps and you don’t have to spend an hour and half explaining exactly where it is that you rule, when you’re boasting in the mess hall.
There’s also the fact that it’s rare that your arch-enemy rules another country. They’re normally cowering behind a plush, pink velvet chaise lounge in the Imperial Palace, as the treacherous army works hard at exploding the Palace’s front door.”
“I’m sorry, sir?”
The Instructor took his feet off his desk, lean across it, resting one elbow on the tatty baize that covered the top. His voice dipped to a low, friendly, conspiratorial tone. “That’s the thing this being a General or a Colonel. Those are the ranks that tend to be most concerned with assassinating each other. There’s always more Generals than there are Despots, you see.”
“Generals: plenty” And he leant back in his chair to better sweep both arms out in a gesture that encompassed the largest possible number of hypothetical officers.
Just as swiftly, the Instructor leaned forward again, left elbow back on the fraying baize, while the right hand swept towards Zod’s face with the thumb and forefinger extended, as if the instructor was going to catch a fly under Zod’s nose.
“And only one Despot,” he finished with a wink.
He leant back again. “And if you’re not getting your portrait painted standing over the bloody corpse of your dead enemy, or shouting out proclamations in the name of the People, you’re the next guy along, trying to rally the troops to start reloading and warm up the tanks’ engines. Or of course, you’re one of the pack of lesser generals, all trying to shoot or car bomb each other as you’re coming out of your mistresses’ apartments. Trying to be next in line.”
“Is this a joke sir? Like some sort of hazing? Aren’t you going to make me do press ups till I’m sick?”
The Instructor leant back further, pushed out his many-medalled chest and laced his hands behind his head. From this position, which reminded Zod of a man feeling rather smug about receiving fellatio, he held Zod’s gaze for a minute.
Zod wished he hadn’t conjured the fellatio image, as the quiet and the intensity of the Instructor’s stare was awkward enough, without the vivid image added like a disgusting cherry on top of a nauseating pie.
For months and years after the conversation Zod tried to divine the meaning of that stare. Every time he thought it through, that stare had a different significance. Sometimes the Instructor has condemning Zod’s life: it’s messy, noisy futility. At other times, it seemed that the stare was a silent compact – a look of approval and permission. Occasionally, Zod thought that the look was the instructor imagining all of the future opportunities he would have for making Zod do push ups until he was sick. There were other horrendous moments too, when Zod imagined that the field instructor was in fact remembering a particularly fine piece of fellatio he’d received: the glazed look of supreme satisfaction that other men get when they are remembering eating a particularly well cooked gammon.
Finally, the instructor broke the stare. He sighed an equally vague sigh and said:
“Enjoy your time in the Army, Zod. I hope it’s worth it.”
Zod slowly came back to the present. What had caused that recollection to rise, like a cloud of cordite, so swiftly and pungently from the past? As he looked around the battle blasted Palace and then down at the bullet riddled body of General Yof, he guessed it was the sheer prescience of the Instructor’s words.
The memory had dampened his triumphal spirit, though. Five seconds ago he’d had his jackbooted foot on Yof’s slumped and bloodied corpse and was trying to commit the moment to memory, so he could give the State’s National Painter a really good brief for the official portrait. He’d already decided to call it Zod Strikes a Fatal Blow to The Forces of Fascist Terror on Behalf of the Grateful People. But now the moment had soured.
He felt the same hollowness that suddenly swoops down on people at around three o’clock on their birthday. That dull horror, as they realise that the jubilant celebration is only in their own mind. That, in fact, for everyone else – even their most cherished friends and family – the day is no different from any other; at best an excuse to drink a bit more than usual, but otherwise as boring and quotidian as any other Tuesday.
Why had that particular memory welled up in him now?
For just a brief moment the years had fallen away and instead of Zod the martinet, he’d been Zod the gawkish tenderfoot, with his head newly shaved and quaking with fear, worried that if one more boorish sergeant yelled directly in his face, he’d cry, demand to go home or wet himself.
He looked around the room, at the shambles of broken masonry and bullet-eaten upholstery. Had it really been worth it: the murder, the intrigue, the politicking and literal as well as metaphorical backstabbing? The times he’d had to act coldly, his every move calculated.
He thought of his old friend Kos.
Kos and he had been inseparable since they had meet at the military academy. Together, they’d done push ups until they were sick, marched side by side, graduated and laboriously worked their way through the ranks. They had been like two peas in a pod. And not just because they wore a lot of green.
That was until the night of their joint promotion to General. That night Zod asked his friend about his ambitions in the army. Zod had never discussed his own motivations. It hadn’t seemed right to voice his growing concerns about the inept way the country was run. He’d never realised before, but the military men who stood on the balcony of the Presidential Palace, having blasted their way in through the main doors, were all liars and cheats. As one tyrant rose and then fell in a hail of bullets, another would climb atop of the smoking pile of corpses and rubble to assume command. It was becoming clear to Zod that someone needed to take charge. A man of poise and military skill. But not necessarily one of the gung ho fools that surrounded him. A military man, yes, but also a politician. Someone who cared for the huddled masses more than he cared for a full magazine loaded into a large-bore machine gun. Someone like…
“Why did you join the army, Kos?” They were lounging in Kos’s front room, having celebrated all day. Both were feeling drunk and sleepy.
“For the filing, really. There’s lots of opportunities for administration once you get up into the higher ranks.”
“Filling and administration…like being in charge?” Zod looked carefully at Kos’s eyes, hoping to catch some hint of ambition; a glimpse of the hunger for power that Zod was beginning to suspect lurked deep in his best friend’s heart. After all, no one does filing for fun.
“No, honestly, for the filing. I wanted to be an accountant, but I remember that my father wanted me to experience the life of a soldier. He had such fond memories of when his unit flattened the Winter Palace as part of the ’76 coup. He wanted to share that sense of excitement with me. He used to say that there’s nothing better than seeing a large building reduced to dust and scorch marks. But, as you know, I’m not one for making a fuss and I can’t stand the ringing you get in your ears after loud noises. So, when I enlisted, I found out which ranks got to do the most paperwork. And Generals on the whole do quite a lot of admin, so that’s what I aimed for. Plus, my Instructor told me that Generals made great administrators.”
“He told me generals are despots,” said Zod.
“Oh. Is that why you became a General, then? To be a despot?” Suddenly there was a nervous undertone to Kos’s voice.
“No, to stop despots,” Zod replied. Now he was surreptitiously but desperately searching Kos’s mien for any tell-tale sign of treachery. It was surely there. After all, it was only a small leap from administrator to ultimate ruler. He who controls the accounts, controls the coffers. He who controls the coffers controls the world.
“That’s good,” his friend said and changed the subject.
He despatched General Kos that night. Smothering the man with the scarf knitted in regimental colours that Kos’s wife had given him as a gift. Christ, Kos had a wife. The elation he’d felt as the light had bled out of Kos’s eyes had, at the time, felt magnificent. He had finally understood the febrile excitement he heard in the voices of other soldiers, when they talked about nicely clustered mortar rounds.
“Why?” Kos had asked, as Zod loomed above him, bearing down on him, wrapping the woollen rope around his throat.
“Because only power matters, friend. Only power and the will of the people. You want to rule with paperwork and accounting. But the people need a real leader. A man not a calculator.” And he pulled the scarf tighter around Kos’s neck.
Kos fought. He tried to wrestle his body out from under Zod’s weight, He tried with desperate fingers to loosen the grip of the woollen scarf as it bit tighter and tighter into his neck. But Zod would not let go.
In his final moments, Kos had looked into his friend and betrayer’s eye and rasp his final words: “I’m not a calculator…”
Zod remembered how patriotic he felt at Kos’s posthumous trial for treason: “Kos was a coward and a despot,” he roared from the witness stand.
“No,” Kos’s wife had wailed, “He just liked maths.”
But now…Now, it all seemed barbaric; disgusting. He had killed Kos. He looked around him at the ruined Palace. The walls were pock marked with a thousand bullet holes, burn marks from grenade flashes grew up the walls like tendrils of black vines.
Kos had only be the first of many. Thirteen in total. After Kos had been General Mot, then Nor and Oat. On it went. He’s enjoyed the subterfuge and the planning, always telling himself it was for the greater good. But the end was always the same: a look of shock, panicked gurgles or a splutter of indignation, a dead hand loosening its grip on his lapel. Then a wreath to the family, a show trial and a statement to the press.
He’d taken pride in his work. In fact, once he’d overheard a Field Marshal say to another office “Someone should really speak to Zod about his knack for offing rivals; we could put it in one of the manuals.” Hearing that had been Zod’s proudest moment. Up until the moment I liberate this country that is, he’d promised himself, at the time.
When he’d been travelling to this moment of triumph, he’d seen the path ahead as a broad straight road. The sort that would ring triumphantly with the sound of boot heels stamping down on it in unison. Now that he had actually reached his destination, he suspected that if he looked back, the path would be a winding one, showing a single set of footprints, creeping up behind him with the elegant stealth of a murderer.
Acidic disappointment suddenly bloomed in Zod’s throat. He flung his pistol into the corner of the room, where it came to rest beside the exploded Presidential desk. He walked to the window, kicking aside a rag of smouldering curtain and looked out of the glassless grand windows, into the main courtyard of the palace.
All across the courtyard, the regular patterned cobbles collapsed into a multitude of craters. Many of them, he noticed, didn’t look all that fresh. Some in fact, were filled with dirty water. Others even seemed to be ancient enough to support small ecosystems of march grass and mosses. In the centre of the parade ground a group of troops, including many supposedly loyal to former dictator for life General Yof, where cheering on a young Subaltern. The young junior officer was throwing a cobble as far into the air as he could, before quick-drawing his pistol cowboy style to shoot at the now descending piece of paving. The shooter, his face a fixed mask of determination, was missing horrendously.
His ineptitude generated exuberant applause from his audience. Especially when his wild shots destroyed something that looked like it might be valuable. As Zod looked on, the boy soldier lobbed the block in the air so that its arching ascent sent it behind his back. The gun-slinger span, tripped over his own feet and sent his bullet ricochetting through the petrol tank of the official Presidential Staff Car. The crowd roared its approval, then groaned when the large black car failed to explode. To help events along, one of the bystanders helpfully lobbed a lighted flare into the pool of petrol. The car erupted. As did the crowd’s hoots of glee.
Zod turned away from the window. Could it be that the faithful soldiers who had rallied to his cause only really cared about destroying stuff? Was that really the only reason for the army – the opportunity for thugs to get their hands on really big guns and then raze as much decorative architecture as possible?
“Pull yourself together, man. You’ve done it,” he told himself. “It’s time to get on with the important business of ruling this country the way it should be ruled. Ruled with fairness and intelligence and for the benefit of the peasants and poor.”
Feeling his mood bob back and begin a slow doggy paddle towards the distant marker buoy of happiness, Zod called in the young Lieutenant-General that served as his aide. The boy demonstrated many of the attributes that Zod valued in his soldiery. Rather than a desire to run to armoury at any given moment, his young Aide, Aeon, valued order, discipline and a nicely cut dress uniform. In many ways, he reminded Zod of himself: the pencil thin moustache that slashed right and left along his top lip, the burning conviction that duty meant rising through the ranks to achieve glory for the people of this great country, and a love of exuberant epaulettes on his uniforms.
“Aeon, it is time to ensure that this country is run for the good of its people. As the new supreme leader of this great and proud nation, brought to its knees by the venal corruption of Genral Yof, here are my first commands.”
The Lieutenant-General licked the end of his pencil and flipped open the little notebook he used to record the General’s proclamations.
“Firstly, we must see about unlocking the treasury vaults. Then we must set up a Swiss Bank Account. Possibly in my wife’s name. Just to be sure.”
“Secondly, we should try and take the guns away from the other soldiers, before they cause any more damage. Oh and find me a big desk.”
“Very well, General,” Aeon replied, clicking his heels together. “And may I add, Supreme Ruler.”
That’s the thing with Aeon, thought Zod, He knows how the technical execution of a salute can make a man feel better.
Since the time he’d recruited the young gentleman to the position of aide, Zod had begun to nurture almost paternal feelings for the ambitious and cold-hearted cad. Aeon was always there to act as confidant and counsellor. Always ready to pour the general a large brandy and meticulously note down the intricacies of Zod’s many plots and plans. Sometimes Aeon would chip in with his own connivances. But he was meticulous in insuring that only Zod’s own machinations were recorded in the little black notebook. Zod liked a man who should that type of deference to a superior mind. The boy was a wonder.
He should reward the boy somehow. Maybe a promotion. A raise in the ranks, to let him know that he’s respected and valued.
The aide had turned to leave the room to carry out his mission. “Aeon, wait.”
“Yes, General.” the young man said, turning sharply, crisply, with the natural martial ease of a born leader. By god, he really was an impressive young man to have in your corner. Loyal, bright, faithful.
“For your service, I’ve decided that my fourth proclamation is to raise you up a rank. It’s for your dedication and loyalty, you see. It’s, er, appreciated. And you’ve cheered me up a bit, as well. You see, Aeon, I wasn’t enjoying my victory as much as I’d hoped.”
Zod wanted to say more, he wanted to tell the younger man about his Instructor’s words all those years ago. The sudden urge to unburden himself of this strange grief was, even now, threatening to cascade in and drown his good mood. And worryingly, this odd sorrow kept asserting itself in particularly nautical terms, which shouldn’t really happen to a soldier.
He wanted to grab the boy by the elaborate epaulettes and say, it’s real loyalty that matters. And love. Yes, love. Not power. The soldiers will only follow you for the chance to cause mayhem. They don’t love you, they love things that go bang. It’s this, this moment now that matters, not the uniforms or the orders, or funnelling tax revenue out of the state and into the snow topped vaults of a secret bank account. The realisation went off in him like a well-primed mills grenade. The aptness of that particularly soldierly analogy cheered him further.
But the younger man’s eyes had glazed. Aeon’s gaze settled past Zod’s shoulders, towards the ruined Presidential desk. “A promotion, Sir? But that means, that means…”
“Yes!” Said Zod, now grabbing the boy by his shoulders, holding him at arms length to admire him, like a father congratulating a precocious son. “Yes. You’re a general now too! I’ll have to promote myself to Colonel, I suppose. We can’t both be Generals, and you working for me, it would be odd. But yes: a General!”
The boy’s voice was almost a whisper: “General.” He made the word sound like to secret code that would open a vault in a mountain. The way that Aeon pronounced those three syllables, Zod could almost see the gold and rubies tumbling from their suddenly revealed cavern. The newly promoted General’s eyes swam back into focus and a shiver ran downt the length of his body. His voice still sounded dreamy as he thanked Zod again. And perhaps, Zod noticed, the heel click that partnered his salute had a shade of insolence in it: it seemed a bit too bright, a bit too crisp.
Left alone again, Zod righted the one chair that hadn’t been reduced to kindling. This has been a strange day, he thought. But at least now the common people could be free. He sat and thought about the common people. Had he ever seen a common person?
There was a distant and hazy image from his childhood. Happy people tending green fields while a soft sweet breeze caressed the tree tops; a tractor pulling a trailer; the tractor’s diesel engine making a homely, comforting puttering noise.
His memories only really coalesced around his time in the military: military school, then marching 100 metres down a dusty road to the military training camp, where he had had the strange interview with the Instructor. Once he’d qualified, there’s been a short march another 100 metres down another dusty road to the military base.
Come to think about it, the presidential palace was only 100 metres from the military base. The town behind the palace, which he’d always assumed was the capital city, mainly catered for the needs of the military. There were military bars and brothels and tailors that specialised exclusively in making ornate uniforms. And of course there were the munitions factories, lots of munitions factories. But what the city lacked was a single civilian. Where were the shops that sold delicate porcelain tableware? Or the haberdashers, with their rolls of cool white lace and blush of pink taffeta?
Zod put his elbows on his knees and then fitted his head into the cupola of his hands and tried to think what other institutions a capital city might possess. Libraries, schools, restaurants? Other than those that dealt with military interests, the town seemed bare of the anything that could conceivably be called normal life. In fact, why had he thought of the town as being behind the palace? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the city to face its source of sovereign power, rather than ramble away from it like the dull clockwork behind the grand facade?
I’ve been looking at this all wrong, he thought. His memories only ran back as far as the gates to the military compound – a green landscape that reeked of gun oil and echoed with the sound of political dissent and explosions. Zod closed his eyes and tried to push his memory against the wood and wire frame of that locked gate, towards his childhood and the singing, smiling people who had wavered and shimmered in his mind, a moment before.
And there it was, the white glisten of an office; medical charts. Everything too large and too faraway: a child’s eye memory of a doctor’s office. A tall, gaunt man wearing a white coat and stethoscope. “I’m sorry, Mr Zod, Mrs Zod. We’ve done the Reicher-Menowitz test. It’s not as simple as him being an insufferable little shit. Unless we alter or channel his tendencies, he’ll cause huge problems.”
In the present day, Zod’s head felt heavy, as if his brains were a 12 pound shell that someone had stuck his hawk nose and rapier thin moustaches to. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers, trying to get this new memories to cohere.
In his memory the three gauzy adults turned to look at him. He had the sense of his small pudgy legs, swinging gaily, sitting on the examination table. He felt again that ancient sense of wonder and entitlement, of knowing that these three grown-ups thought he was so important; that he was the most important little boy in the whole world.
The woman, brought a hanky up to the smear that was her face and wiped at one of the white blobs that Zod’s memory supplied instead of actual eyes.
“It’s okay,” continued the figure dressed as a doctor. “There’s a new programme that we have for the seriously maladjusted. We call it R-Me, after Doctors Reicher and Menowitz. Your son’s such a deplorable little turd that he’s sure to qualify.”
The shaky camera of remembering whooshed forwards. Zod’s head span with the speed and the surprise. It was days (minutes; months?) after the first memory. This time, he is sitting, his fat little legs swinging again, but this time from the back of a green truck. Behind him there’s the sound of little boys engaged in acts of random brutality against each other. The man-shaped fog that Zod now assumed was his father leans down to speak to him. With a grease smear of a hand he ruffles Zod’s hair. “Don’t worry son. These nice men will take care of you. You’re going to a fun place where they’ll make you a general.”
Vomit raced suddenly and ferociously in Zod’s throat and he deposited it on the shambles of the presidential desk.
Was that it? The whole thing a charade, a game to occupy the nation’s malcontented males? The whole escapade of murder and plotting and scheming, nothing but a complicated lie that his parents – the nation’s parent – had told to their unruly children? Was this really a banishment not a triumph?
There it was the truth. And with this discovery, the treachery and brutality that served as the core of Zod’s character reasserted itself, marching up to the door of his melancholy, politely knocking once before kicking the door off its hinges and giving a good kicking to any conflicting emotions they found hanging around.
“The bastards” he roared to the shrapnel splintered ceiling.
This was why he had become President. Not for anything as petty as embezzling money and pouring the loot into a Swiss bank account – and besides, if everything else was a lie, was there any such thing as a Swiss? No, his course was clear. He would rouse these heavily-armed, blood thirsty rabble from this pathetic game and call down a vengeance upon his parents, all the parents. They would pour, in their tanks and jeeps, armed to the teeth, out into this other, ‘real’ world and put it to the gun.
“Ahem.” The polite, mild mannered cough broke the General’s reverie. He turned to face Aeon.
“Ah, Aeon, quick gather everyone, we need to invade…” Zod began. And then he saw the small, evil-looking pistol that Aeon was pointing at him.
“Ah, ‘general’,” the younger man began and Zod could hear the inverted commas that Aeon had placed around the honorific. “I’ve been considering your position as supreme leader,” the newly promoted general continued, his voice a caustic sneer.
“You see, I have here evidence of your perfidy.” In the hand that wasn’t gripping the pistol, he wagged the notebook where, as a Lieutant-General, he had recorded all of Zod’s plans for world domination. Previously these had been an excellent aide memoire. Now Zod saw that the little black book, with its lines of neat scrolled handwriting, was a neatly parcelled Exhibit A and all the excuse for a coup that Aeon needed.The ambitious little swine, thought Zod.
Zod reached for his pistol, but too late remembered how he had tossed it away earlier. Idiot, he cursed himself. Now, just at the moment when everything had become clear, he was going to lose it all. He must convince Aeon.
“Don’t shoot me, you fool.” He began, hoping that the years of jumping to the commands of senior officers would make Aeon hesitate.
“Don’t talk to me like some little underling,” the young man snarled back.
No, that wouldn’t work. So he began to explain: Yof’s murder, his sudden and revealing memories of his childhood, the whole blasted conspiracy. At some point, without realising it and in his fervour to be believed, he dropped to his knees and grabbed the perfectly pleated fronts of Aeon’s dress trousers.
As Aeon pulled back the hammer on his mean little pistol, Zod talked faster: his plans for the future, a world of revenge on those who have cheated and lied to them. Lied to him, lied even to you Aeon. You must listen, you must, you must…
Aeon pulled the trigger.
As Zod lay on the floor, his life running out of him, and Aeon’s triumphant boot resting cockily on Zod’s elaborately braided shoulder, Zod thought to himself “I wonder how long it’ll take for someone to shoot Aeon?”
And for the first time that day, Zod felt truly happy.