|"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."|
- King Lear, William Shakespeare
A was the first to arrive. He knew the importance of staying one step ahead of his enemies, and two ahead of his friends. Ambition by name. Ambition by nature.
He strode to the head of the long table and sat down. With a click of the remote control, images filled the TV screen behind him, the sound muted.
A large, lumpen man with hair like straw and a dark business suit was beating a podium, his face contorting as he shouted slogans. A didn’t need the sound to know how the crowd greeted his words – the triumphant fist pump said it all.
He smiled. Everything was going fine.
A knock on the boardroom door.
“Come!” snapped A. He half-rose from his seat and motioned the woman who entered to take a place on his left. Mrs B sat and the TV flipped to burning crosses against the night sky.
“The Pastor will be with us soon,” a blush spread across her buttoned-up features. “We rode in together.”
“Ah yes, the good Reverend,” A nodded. “A great man. Couldn’t do without his firm moral compass.”
Angry demonstrators waved “GOD HATES FAGGOTS” banners as a middle-aged man with a clerical collar and suspiciously smooth face joined them.
“All praise!” he pronounced. “Our time has finally come.” He sat at A’s right hand without being bidden.
Next came a buxom blonde with a fake tan, false eyelashes and fur coat. In her wake, a woman who was her polar opposite - small, timid, birdlike, dressed in brown, eyes darting about in case of hidden dangers.
Mrs B snorted with contempt at the blonde, looked to the second woman and patted the seat beside her. “I saved you a place, Miss F.”
F darted over and sat on the edge of the seat, clutching her bag.
Unphased by the snub, the blonde threw herself onto a chair, and tipped the contents of her bag onto the tabletop. Make-up, cigarette packs, fast food wrappers, wet wipes and used coffee cups spilled out. Nestling among them was a gold lighter emblazoned with the slogan ‘Nothing succeeds like Excess’.
C was the last to arrive, all wild eyes and shambolic fashion sense speaking of deep hurt buried but never resolved.
“Typical Chaos,” B tutted to F, loud enough to be heard.
“Back off, sister! Have you seen the traffic out there?”
He pulled papers out his pockets, peered at them, dropped a burger wrapper and tried to smooth a crumpled page.
“We can’t all be perfect, Mrs Bigotry. You’ve got Judgement and Xenophobia on your side, not to mention Little Miss Fear here, and Dogma …” he nodded at the Pastor “…with his rules laying everything out in black and white.
“I got nothin’ like that. I’d like to see how you’d handle natural disasters and madmen who manoeuvre themselves into power.”
A coughed and shifted in his seat.
“Let’s begin,” he turned to his left. “Maybe you would like start?”
Mrs B straightened her spectacles and stood.
“We’ve been focusing on the media,” she said, clicking the TV remote. A hard-eyed woman baying into a microphone, a Twitter feed pock-marked with capital letters and exclamation marks, headlines screaming.
“Our well-known allies in the ‘War on Woke’: shock jocks, publicity-hungry celebrities, trolls and tabloids. But in the past few months, we’ve seen growing support from the so-called ‘serious’ media – something we would never have seen if not for the admirable work of Popularism.”
“Excellent,” said A. He cast a questioning glance at C, who was still searching for something in his backpack.
“Not yet,” came the reply.
A rolled his eyes – but a smile played on his lips. He turned to his right.
“Very well. Then, perhaps we can hear from the good Reverend?”
“Gladly,” said D. He took the remote control and clicked to a PowerPoint presentation. Every page was headed ‘The One True Way’. Graphs, maps and figures danced across the screen, dominated by an angry red arrow in a jagged upwards trend.
“Despite our concerns over rising secularism, we’re seeing a welcome resurgence of fundamentalism across the board.” Burning effigies slid onto the screen. “And not just in our heartland, where you’d expect. We’re seeing great work by Mullahs, Rabbis and even in some Buddhist strongholds.”
He smiled at F, cowering across the table. “Much of this can be attributed to our good friend Fear, as well as the excellent work of our agents in the field Ignorance, Oppression and Zealotry. Praise be.”
All eyes turned to C. Head down, he was still sorting through his papers.
A turned to Excess. “Madam E, if you’d be so kind?”
The big blonde flounced to the head of the table and posed before the TV which now showed mountains of plastic flaking fibrous strands into the wind.
“Our recycling campaign has been a HUGE success. We’ve convinced people that all they have to do is throw their trash in a different bin and they can carry on consuming with a clear conscience.”
On the screen, hessian bags sat in a shopping trolley with boxes, bags, vacuum-sealed vegetables and shrink-wrapped bananas.
“Meanwhile, our sideline businesses selling reusable cups, bottles, bags and more are seeing record sales – and 80% of households are repeat buyers. We’re on track to smashing our target, and making a tidy profit in the process.”
Excess sat down and Miss F got to her feet. As she did, the image on the screen flipped again. An endless line of people snaked across the screen – every one of them young, male, dark-skinned and sinister. Bold red letters screamed ‘BREAKING POINT’ next to a frog-faced man in a grey business suit.
“We’ve been working with Mrs B and her team, and the results speak for themselves. Even among those who claim to embrace diversity, fear of the ‘other’ is at record levels.
“And whenever concessions are made, our response mechanisms are working like clockwork. Look no further than the conspiracies about cancelling Christmas and removing the word Easter from chocolate eggs. All excellent fuel for paranoia.”
A shot her a Cheshire Cat grin of approval, and she sat down.
Finally, it was the turn of Chaos. He gave up rifling through his papers and walked to the head of the table. The screen leapt into staccato action showing wildfires, looters, floods, caged children, riots, a boy carrying a gun as big as himself…
“It’s growing exponentially,” said C. “It’s clear we’re approaching the tipping point, from which there’s no return…” he gave a hollow laugh “…exactly as we planned.”
“Excellent work, Chaos – yet again,” said A. “But next time, please be ready when it’s your turn.”
C flipped A the finger behind his back.
“That’s something I never got. Why is it so goddamn important to have everything in ABC order?”
“It’s about symbols. The alphabet is a human creation. So are we.”
He settled back into his chair, a smirk smeared across his face.
“The signs are good. Project End Days is progressing well. You will all be rewarded – in this life or the next.”
In a spreading bruise of yellow, red and black, a familiar mushroom cloud filled the TV screen.