Author : Ian Hill

Harsh white floodlights drenched the area in a sterile haze.

Hundreds had gathered at short notice, all saturated with stomach-burning anxiety as they tried to figure out what was going to happen next. There they stood, packed together tightly, wondering if they would still exist a second from now. Those who managed to salvage some presence of thought held bulb-tipped microphones forward, trembling slightly in the chill wind. Most simply waited, hands stuffed in pockets, faces pallid and mouths flattened into thin lines.

At the front of the gathering was the white podium, draping its multicolored patriotic banners. Behind the lectern stood a tall, thin man whose weathered face wore a grave expression. Shadows under his eyes and the papery quality to his skin made the stress obvious. Slowly, he scanned the crowd, throat itching as words stumbled through his buzzing mind.

“I have no doubt that all of you are very worried.” He began, voice soft but imminently audible through the speaker system.

An absolute hush settled over the assembly in the wake of his first words since the disaster.

After a moment of gauging the crowd’s reactions, he continued. “Why aren’t we retaliating? Where is the war?” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Have we won already?”

A few people nodded as if their concerns were being voice for the first time. Most listened impassively, hearts gripped with terror. Only a handful had an inkling of what would be said during this address.

“Well, I can tell you this,” the man drawled solemnly, rising back to his full height, “this… tragedy exists not as an omen of war, but as a shield from it.”

A sudden wave of confusion passed over the crowd. Reporters exchanged uneasy glances, and a few people mumbled into each other’s ears. Here and there a pair of eyes widened in realization.

The man opened his mouth to speak again, but quickly closed it. He grimaced, shook his head, and looked down to the podium’s surface where his hands lay intertwined like two ivory spiders. A tiny bloodstain at his cuff acted as a brief distraction.

The susurration of an uneasy crowd drew the man’s attention back forward. It was clear what he had to say. Steeling himself, he continued. “The bombs were dropped at my order-”

An audible groan tremored through the crowd, and expressions shifted from fear to apprehension, and from apprehension to outrage. A few shouted out at the man, staggering forward as if they had violent intentions. Guards in front of the podium pushed them back. Someone from behind the stage moved forward and whispered into the speaker’s ear, but he shook his head, motioning them away.

“Please,” he said, voice louder now, arms outspread in a pacifying gesture, “allow me to explain.”

With shocking speed, the most vocal dissenters were ejected from the crowd. Those who remained stood stunned, minds slowly dissecting the new information.

The speaker powered on, determined to deliver what he had to say. “Six hours ago a mistake in our machinery led to orders being given to one of our planes to bomb the capital of our adversaries. We were unable to contact this rogue bomber. It quickly became clear that a war was unavoidable, unless we—unless I proved my trustworthiness to the prime minister…”

The crowd looked on in horror as the puzzle began to clarify.

“So an exchange of cities was arranged.” The man finished. It was clear now that everyone understood. He stepped back from the microphone and strode from the stage as the screaming started again.

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