Among 21st-century knights, within the Roundtable of Common Citizens, a young voter swears her allegiance on the United States Constitution. Her armor splays sun rays on the stern-faced fighters, and her blade hangs in its sheath at her side. A fellow knight places a medallion in her palm. The engraving is an opened-jawed eagle, screeching loyalty from the depths of its throat. It is a license of all accountable knights, to participate and protect, to govern and be governed.
Eagerness tingles in her fingers and thumps against her chest, where the medallion now hangs. She steps from the Roundtable into the realm of beasts and dragons, seeking glory. Her fingers fling for the hilt of her sword like a mighty tug on Excalibur...but her sword is not there. No hilt to grasp, no blade to pull. She looks down. Within her sheath lies a scroll. She unrolls it. It's a name, written in thick ink. Splotched below, beneath and beside are the words, VOTE FOR ME. More parchment spills from the sheath, white and shiny with names, numbers and faces. From among them, she pulls a small ringing device—a cell phone. She answers it.
"Are you a registered voter?" it asks.
The young knight replies, "I'm not sure."
The caller hangs up.
The other knights appear to walk effortlessly through the chaos, into a cloudy unknown. Panicked, she begins to follow them, but people in suits stop her.
"Who will be your next president?" one asks.
Then another appears. "Will you participate in a survey?"
The knight flees to the Roundtable, where she finds citizens barricaded underneath. She wants to join them, but hesitates. She reaches for her medallion, her last weapon, but it's changed to a small paper card with 'voter information' written at the top. Somewhere, an eagle screeches, and she feels her throat clench. Mustering her strength, she tucks the card into her armor, turns from the Roundtable and charges back into the chaos.
Shouts have turned to mumbling. Phones ring in the darkness, but the knight won't answer.
From the downpour of paper, cell phones and fleeing citizens, a boy dressed in an old t-shirt and jeans takes hold of the knight's wrist. The knight bends down as the boy pulls out a wrinkled piece of notebook paper with CNN.com blogs written at the top. Drawn below is a family of four then two arrows, one pointing to a map of North America and the other to South America. Next to it is written, "I am one of the 350,000 children born to an immigrant parent in the US."
The knight wants to help him and is about to ask how when a revving sound splices her ears. An enormous truck speeds from the shadows and slams to a stop beside them. The passenger door opens, and plumes of exhaust flow out, followed by a large man in a gas mask. He hands the knight a set of keys, returns to the door and beckons her inside.
Now crowds appear, two larger ones and then some smaller ones. A leader from each comes and places a MAYBE or a POSSIBLY sign beside the boy and the truck. The smaller crowds approach as well with signs reading YES and NO, but the larger crowds don't allow them to pass. The knight again wants to run and hide, but the boy hasn't let go and the man in the mask is shouting at her.
"You are defeated before you fight," the boy says. "You can't make them all happy. Use instead your own judgment."
The boy lets go, and immediately the crowds hold out hands for the knight to take, but she only grasps at one.
Selecting the Worthy
A few men and woman emerge from the knight's group of constituents. They are met with pats on the back and shouts of encouragement. The other groups, too, have leaders who step forward. They are decorated with dollar signs and American flags. One by one they introduce themselves, but soon they are throwing words and statistics blindly, like spears across a field of smoke.
The knight catches a little, but can't agree with it all.
"Fact check!" someone shouts.
"Go straight to their platforms!" calls another.
Some of these leaders whisper in her ear, making promises, while others focus on badgering each other. Many constituents have chosen their representative and stand tall beside them while others stand far off or squirm toward another.
The knight is once again at a loss, but members of her group come to her with new devices. One holds out a computer, the second a newspaper, the third a widescreen television. A fourth member steps out wearing a bright smile and holding a stopwatch.
"Ready, set, go!" he says.
The knight grabs hold of the first device, the computer, and stares at it blankly. An older woman with round glasses and a long skirt comes and joins the knight. She reaches for the computer and the knight suddenly wishes to defend herself, but the woman smiles brightly. The knight reluctantly hands it over. The woman clicks on the screen, then types in Real Clear Politics. Columns of information drizzle down the screen, and the woman begins to read it aloud. Another group member brings them a stack of newspapers labeled The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Now familiar with the candidates, the knight flips through the headlines, picking only the valid. Mostly convinced of the candidate who would represent her best, she takes the television offered by the last group member. It broadcasts a sequence of speeches. It's all arguments, much of which the knight doesn't understand. Some groups cast questions in the chaos, but the candidates sidestep, like dancers too fast for their partners.
The woman with round glasses giggles. "It would be nice if the candidates actually answered the questions," she says.
The woman takes hold of the computer again and types FactCheck.org. They pore over the articles, checking facts from the speeches, and the knight finds she's left with more questions than answers.
More time passes, more newspapers and discussions, more speeches and data. By the end, the knight feels her head swelling inside her helmet. She weakly decides on a candidate and her selection is cast amongst her group then among those of the other groups. Votes are counted and the finalists step forward.
Powers of Persuasion
"This is odd," the knight says to the woman with round glasses and a long skirt.
"A king would not allow this much debate on his successor."
"There is no king here," the woman says.
"Does our leader not possess power?"
"Yes, but not all of it. The power is spread, like branches on a tree. It belongs to all of us and people sacrifice much to defend it. One hundred years it took for women to earn voting rights, and for African Americans it was 90 years after the Civil War."
The knight sits, her armor clanking like loose coins. "It would be much easier to follow orders."
The woman stands, knocking the knight's armor. "You're right. It would be easy to live as the object, to live by what others decide. Then how could you change anything? A request? 'Please, your Majesty, could you implement this policy?' It wouldn't work. It's the people's job to support and advocate what's needed."
"But majorities makes policy, regardless, so why should we bother voting?" the knight spews back.
"Who makes up a majority? Just because a lot of people like something doesn't mean it's good or right. With media, networking and discussions, opinions change. Eventually, things repressed can make majority."
The knight looks at the woman. She is petite in her skirt and frail glasses, but her narrow eyebrows and gazing eyes hold strength. The knight stands and bows to her. The woman nods as well.
The woman points to the knight's armor. "That's a bit old-fashioned," she says.
The knight looks at the shining armor around her chest and arms, but she doesn't want to remove it yet. She looks to the finalists instead. They are bombarded by their followers, pushed and pulled and given heavy loads. Entwined in these loads, the knight sees the millions who fought for their rights and she thinks of the people beneath the Roundtable, afraid to be apart of it.
Televisions splay the final debates. Persuasions tilt opinions like ships in a storm. The knight wants to ask more questions, but the constituents' eyes are cast down in careful calculation. She joins them.
Last Heroic Act
To govern is a task of many, the knight repeats to herself. She is no fighter; no orders has she given but those that linger defiantly in her own head. Her loyalty, she discovers, is to herself. A democracy requires opinions and persuasion, strengths not granted to mere followers. The quest, the knight thinks, is to care for her livelihood, to defend and change it and know who will do it and how. She peels off her armor, stained with ink and speeches, until her last defense is left hanging around her neck. Her destination is not far now; she walks with men, women, old and young to the final battle. All suits, sounds and screeches are silenced. Upon arrival, she passes her sheath to the leaders whom she's chosen and inside they place their own swords and promises. The new citizen then returns to the Roundtable, where new knights swear their allegiance on the US Constitution.
Illustrations by Gabe Cianchetti.