The light came down from all directions, blinding Governor Prokop as he walked to the podium. Everything in his sight seemed shrouded in a panoramic splash of color. Absently, he recalled a picture in his history textbook of a Mardi Gras festival, taken back in the 21st century. The light, as it struck his eyes, caused Prokop to blink and squint for a few seconds. As he shaded his face with his hand, however, the haze he felt around him faded. To his left, a sprawl of glass and plastic, long and sinewy like flames in a fire, came into view.
Haventon, he thought. The pinnacle of modern man.
On the other side, hundreds of cheering people gathered before him, mostly dressed in green or purple, with a few reds toward the front and yellows dispersed among the crowd. No one would have the tastelessness to wear brown or gray to such an event. The faces Prokop could make out were lit by smiles as they beamed at their speaker. The governor’s people seemed genuinely glad to see him. At this moment, however, Prokop saw a sinister tinge to their expression. The brightness of their clothes seemed too bright, the smiles too wide. Just his nerves making him paranoid, he thought as he scanned the public for a familiar or comforting face. There was none. His gut began to sink.
A whirring interrupted his thoughts. The microphone, now below his chin, adjusted itself to almost touch his mouth. Supporting the microphone was the podium, a round, metal base with its own wires and gears hidden from view. Prokop raised his hand and waved to the crowd. After some cheering and clapping, the crowd fell silent.
Clearing his throat, he began: “My brothers and sisters. . .”
The sound of laughing interrupted him. A single snicker, having no source but loud enough to clearly tell, burst from the crowd. Nothing changed on Prokop’s expression, but he felt a cold drop of sweat in his brow.
“I came here with a message, one from the depths of my –“
He was deafened by the sound that came. Hundreds of voices, all at once, cackled with maniacal glee. Alarmed, Prokop scanned the audience. Every once-smiling expression had morphed into the same, despicable smirk. The sound of his mockery built up as more people joined. Even more, each individual voice increased in volume, becoming bolder.
Prokop looked down, unable to bear the sight of his audience. Suddenly, he turned to look behind him. The podium had adjusted itself to trap him, surrounding him with a steel barricade. He could probably climb over the five foot barrier and run if he tried hard enough. He was before his people, though; he must face them as his comrades.
As he looked up from his enclosure, he heard the sound of footsteps. Before Prokop could register what happened, several members of the crowd rushed to seize him. The governor had no time to escape before they grabbed his arms. After a few seconds, Prokop could only see the dozens of outstretched hands at his sides, closing anywhere from his wrist to his bicep. None of them pulled or pushed, only groped, searching for something. Suddenly, a hand to his right reached above the rest—
Prokop woke up drenched in sweat.
It took a few seconds for him to notice a staccato ringing filling his ears. Almost by reflex, his right hand rose to his phone’s digital display beside him, pressing against the cover. The beeping faded, leaving the room in silence. Prokop sat up in his bed and looked around him. On the opposite wall, a red satin curtain covered a floor-to-ceiling window. Outside, darkness shrouded his neighborhood, as it was still night. To the window’s left hung a portrait of his father, staring into the distance with a proud and stern face. As he looked to his left, he saw the stucco walls with various scenes of trees and foliage painted onto them. Despite the beauty, Prokop sometimes felt a sense of regret. If the house’s builder had not convinced him that pictures of nature were necessary to fit with the “new” and “fresh” wave of this century, he would never have painted the walls.
He looked at his hand. It still rested on the phone, which itself lay flat on a mahogany bed stand. Dropping his arm, he read the display: 4:35 AM. He sat in his bed for an entire five minutes. Throwing down the covers, he jumped onto his feet, almost running to the bathroom.
As he got ready in the morning, he prepared himself for the day ahead of him. Today, the Prime Minister himself, Michael Alonge, had invited Prokop as a guest to his speech. Prokop had met with Alonge in a couple of Alonge’s campaigns. He admired the man, but had so few opportunities to be with him. After all, Alonge was the prime minister, and a quite busy one at that. Already, a mental checklist began to form in his head:
Script for my speeches? In the binder in the living room.
Phone? Beside the desk.
Wallet? In today’s pants pocket.
Are my license, ID, and credit cards still in the wallet?
Prokop continued this throughout his morning routine. After showering, he got dressed, shuddering as he put on his shirt, shaved, and brushed his teeth. Taking a comb, he peered into the mirror, making sure his jet-black hair curved across his forehead and settled behind his left ear. His shirt, although collared, boasted a bright enough shade of purple for the occasion. It also did not have the tie, that noose of the past. To complete the look, black pants complemented his hair.
After a small breakfast in his kitchen, Prokop walked into the main lobby and pushed open one of the double doors in front. His Mercedes, which he bought shortly after college, sat in the center. Although a few years old, the convertible still gleamed from Prokop’s constant washing and cleaning. Hopping into the car, he pushed the start button. After scanning his finger, the engine turned on with a soft hum, almost gliding as he backed out onto the main road.
Prokop double-checked to make sure he parked at the right hotel. California Inn, in memorial to the ancient state. Or something like that. There so many names to remember in the old world, he could never retain all of them. He found it so much easier to remember the Union; one nation, one people. He opened the front door and looked inside. Light beamed down from the fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling, each surrounded by reflective glass. On the tables scattered about the room, glasses surrounded various drinks and finger foods. Beside some of the tables, small crowds of VIPs chatted with each other, leaning against a wall. Turning left, Prokop headed toward the major table.
Of the crowd gathering, one man stood almost a head above the others. He could be described as tree-like, tall and thin but not gaunt. Even in a discussion twenty or thirty large, everyone had their heads turned to him, rapt in attention. Prokop immediately recognized the man as Alonge. The prime minister’s eyes lit as he told his story before the crowd, and, as he made sweeping gestures with his hands, his sleeves changed from green to red to orange in the light. As Prokop approached, Alonge leaned into the crowd, grinning.
“. . . And all I heard was, ‘I’m gonna set you straight, boy!’”
The entire group burst into laughter. Taken by his own joke, Alonge tilted his head back, almost roaring at the ceiling. Although Prokop had missed the joke, he could not help but smile. After Alonge had regained control of himself, he saw Prokop out of the corner of his eye.
“Hey, Alex! Nice to see you around,” the prime minister remarked. Others of the audience began to see the governor as they moved on from the story and acknowledged his presence. Prokop had a reply in mind before he joined the circle, but now he struggled to remember it.
“Nice to see you, Alonge. . . How has Haventon been treating you?”
“Oh, it has been wonderful here! Care for a drink?” Alonge nodded at the circle of cocktail glasses at the table, surrounding a bottle bathed in ice. Prokop nodded and took one before Alonge continued.
“Where was I . . .? Yes, I was talking about my stay. The new statue here is beautiful. I had the pleasure of the mayor’s company when touring the area, right before she escorted me here! I was about to miss it, too.” He smiled at the blue-haired mayor beside him, who giggled in response.
“I think this place, though, has more than an external beauty. The people here, and the overall atmosphere, seem so diverse and happy. When I came here, I realized Haventon is what this whole Union needs. If we are to move on from our dark past, we must rebuild a society of freedom and love. I believe that Haventon, and even the rest of Wolnoski from what I’ve seen, has accomplished this goal. Kudos to Governor Prokop and Mayor Elaine for their work!”
Alonge raised his glass in salute. Several people beside him raised their drinks to Prokop, and he tapped his against theirs with a sharp clink. He made sure to do the same to the mayor, raising his glass to her before having his. As he tipped it into his mouth, he looked down the rim at the sweet-smelling, magenta liquid. When everyone had some of their drink, the conversation began again about the protestors outside of the Haventon memorial, where the prime minister would give his speech.
“I don’t think they understand what they’re resisting,” someone commented. “Our mission is to help everyone.”
“And they wish to respect the barbarians and warmongers of the past century! The people who almost destroyed humankind with their missiles. . .”
As usual, Alonge had something to say about this. “Some people are just born and raised that way. The Stained can’t understand what they’re doing is wrong. I wish I could help them, but it’s too ingrained in them.”
“So you don’t want to help them, reach out in some way?” the mayor asked. “I mean, what if they were re-raised?”
“I don’t know if they can be. I may not like them, but I don’t think they can be fixed.”
“The Giving Tree himself, refusing charity!”
“I really do believe that is the way it needs to be. But look at the time! My speech is only in an hour. I think we should head over there.”
“You never told us, Alonge, what is this announcement about?”
To this, the prime minister simply looked at the questioner and replied, “You’ll see.”
Prokop joined Alonge and his group as he walked to the preparation room behind the memorial. He saw the protestors outside, already making signs and advertising their presence, and he felt the need to blend in a crowd. Each protestor wore a suit, the exact same one: black, with a white dress shirt and gray tie. On the right shoulder, a badge had the letters “END: Erebus Nuclear Descent” emblazoned on it. Prokop could even see the Stains on some of the faces, streaks of white or grey, like old scars, across their foreheads or cheeks. To this day, scientists could still not explain how exposure to radiation could cause these birthmarks. It did not seem to matter to their pale faces, whose expression held nothing but the slight downturn of contempt.
From the group, a dark-haired man walked out in front of Alonge’s crowd. Prokop felt a lump in his throat. He recognized Erebus from the news reports he watched. The man had a special kind of air around him, the confidence in his stride and the ease by which he interrupted the prime minister’s conversation. The voices of the Stained, which Prokop had previously tried to tune out, suddenly came to him. He heard the shouting, the cries about true faith and trust. Among them, he could make out Erebus’ words:
“Can you keep up this show inside you? You color yourselves like parrots, just plumage for the winter!”
A few people with Alonge looked at each other, furrowing their brow. Looking at the ground, Alonge tried to walk around Erebus. “I will answer your questions in a few hours,” he murmured, “but I’m busy right now. You can contact my secretary. . .”
But Erebus remained where he was, eyeing the crowd. For a split second, he looked directly at Prokop. The governor saw the lines around Erebus’ eyes and the way they seemed to shift from place to place. Inside his chest, a numbing pain seeped from his heart. Prokop quickly tried to look away as Erebus made a final comment:
“What you show to us cannot be human. What I show to you is not human. But deep inside both of us there lies a human being, waiting to come out. I hope you remember this as you lead the Union and its people.” Knowing Alonge’s guards, who remained hidden for public relations’ sake, would come out soon, Erebus backed off and let Alonge, Prokop, and the rest of the crowd by him.
Why did that man have to appear now, of all times? He barely talked or even looked at anyone among him, instead almost running into the nearest bathroom. When Prokop saw Erebus’s eyes, the nightmare he had the night before rushed to his mind, mocking him, taunting him. Even as he entered the bathroom, he remembered the hundreds of hands grabbing at his arm. He looked around him and discovered he was alone.
If only Erebus knew.
Quickly, with his left hand, he raised the sleeve of his other arm, exposing everything up to the deltoid. His action revealed a small, circular Stain on his shoulder. On one side, a long, gray sliver stretched from the circle like the tail of a mouse. A decade ago, when he first heard about the Stained people, he told no one about his mark. He had asked his parents, neither of which were Stained, whether they adopted him. They not only denied it, but recalled the time at the hospital his mother spent before giving birth to him. They couldn’t lie to him for all these years, but the mark was so obvious. . .
Shaking his head, Prokop pulled the lever on the sink, grabbed a small cupful of the water, and splashed it on his face. Upon feeling the sharp, cold dampness around his eyes, he felt his confusion fade away. He pulled down his sleeve, took a paper towel, and used it to wipe off the last drops trickling down his cheek as he left the bathroom and headed toward the stage.
Prokop took his seat to the right of the prime minister. After about ten minutes, the other leaders arrived, taking positions behind the man of the hour. Facing them was a crowd of several thousand, despite the fact that Alonge had made his announcement quite suddenly.
When the prime minister arrived, several beside him frowned. Alonge was no longer smiling like he was a few hours before, instead looking directly at the audience with grave eyes. He paused a few seconds before giving his announcement.
“For three years, I have been grateful to serve as your prime minister. The Union has prospered, and I am glad I could help my people. However, I regret to inform you that I am resigning.” Everyone on stage suddenly looked at Alonge.
“I understand, this is quite sudden. But I feel like I can no longer deal with the oath that was presented me when I came into office: Represent your people. For I have one small, but dark secret inside.”
He looked around at the audience. “For those out there who are in END, or any other Stained, I apologize for the treatment of your people. This society was made to uphold uniqueness and personality, but how can we do so at the cost of a small, but nonetheless important part of our society. Yes, these people’s great grandfathers shot nuclear missiles at each other, rendering half the world uninhabitable. These people, however, would not all do the same, if given the choice. While we should move on, we cannot move out of our past. It is the past that has created us all. I, born in a normal family in the Union, still have a mark from it.”
The crowd gasped as he reached for the center of his shirt, pulling apart the shirt from its buttons. Under it was a large white mark that meandered across his chest like a snake. Prokop, half expecting a riot, scanned the audience. Rather than coming at him, however, the people began to reach up to touch a certain place on their collarbone or chest, almost in salute. Looking down, Prokop saw his own left hand grasping his Stained shoulder.
“And so, I have to give my position to a fitting member of the current government,” Alonge continued, “an honest man who has done his best to live in the world around him. I would like to announce our new Prime Minister Alexander Prokop.”
Prokop felt the cheers around him as he climbed on stage. He felt a lock in his chest open. Feeling the words well up within him, he decided to drop the speech he had rehearsed earlier that morning.
“I would like to thank Alonge for his kindness, and I appreciate the honor he has given me in leading the Union. . .”