That first presidential debate I can never forget, the sound of the audience mumbling to themselves as she walked out on stage. When I stepped back from the podium to let her take my place, no one knew what was going on. After months of practice just for this event, this was Celestia's time to shine.
Today Celestia's presence in our lives and her condition is so ubiquitous that we can often forget how difficult that night was to pull off. Just getting to the podium took days of planning. The layouts for these debate stages are always different and no one else would have needed so much notice to simply appear. I had to have come off so anal to be so exacting about the placement and ordering of podiums, but I had no choice. For Celestia's debut, everything needed to be perfect for the world to take a chance to truly embrace her as she was.
Up until this point, as far as the world was concerned, it was me running for president. To the best of our abilities, Celestia was on no one's radar. People always ask me if I ever feel guilty for those years prior to that night. It's easy to look back now and say I was doing what I felt was right. As Celestia paced towards the podium and the crowd took notice of this young girl, my heart swelled. Deep inside, my anxiety was having a field day as her eyes met the crowd. I just had to have faith in Celestia that deceiving the country was a necessary step.
Celestia stood at the podium for thirty seconds in silence. We had timed this to allow the crowd to take proper notice and let the cameras find their ways into position on her. As with every one of Celestia's appearances, timing is everything. Even today, with everyone in the loop, there's always that element of uncertainty that keeps me on my toes. That night, all we could do was have hope that the audience, the other candidates, or the moderator didn't throw us a curveball back.
"Hello. My name is Celestia Haler and I am running for President of the United States of America." The crowd went silent almost immediately.
"Serena Drac, standing to my right here, has been acting as my surrogate for the past seven years." She turned her head towards me, feigning to lock eyes and grin to put the ground at ease. I smiled back. "However as we enter this next chapter, we need to clear the air. You need to know who I am."
She paused again. This was supposed to be do-or-die time. If someone attempted to intervene or ask a question, this was the gap in her speech where I had to get us back on track. Luckily, everyone was quiet. As the seconds ticked down, I could not calm down. Finally in the last second, there was nothing else I could do. Celestia continued.
"I cannot see you. I cannot hear you. I do not taste the air I'm breathing, smell my surroundings, or even feel the weight of the clothes on my shoulders. Everything I am doing here tonight is scripted." There was no pause here. Celestia counted on these words leaving the crowd hushed if she made it this far.
"I lack the ability to respond to my senses. I do perceive everything a normal person would. The faces my eyes drift across now I will come to see eventually. Only when I rest does my mind gain access to these memories. Since I last woke, I have learned and absorbed nothing that my own mind did not conjure. I can only hope this explanation of my condition is well received in this present moment."
The crowd began to become agitated with disbelief we were counting on. The initial phase of her speech was a success: whether or not they believed, they had at least understood enough to doubt Celestia's story.
It wasn't time to prove it to them just yet. We wanted to leverage that disbelief to focus their attention so that Celestia could make her case for the presidency.
"It is abundantly clear in the polls that Serena Drac is the frontrunner in this election. Despite only serving one term in the Senate, she had done so much to improve our government and help our people. Every bill put in motion, policy decision, or otherwise that Serena carried was dictated by me."
I stepped forward and affirmed her claim. I was anticipating at least one snide remark from one of the other candidates. Instead they were in awe, believing they were witnessing me tank my own political career. Admitting everything I had done was the machination of this little girl was a revolutionary form of political suicide. I haven't held any office since so it technically did mean the end for me I suppose.
"Every four years, candidates bring demands for a rebirth of America and new change. Months of bickering ensue, someone is elected, and anything but what they promised unfolds. I don't offer for your consideration promises, only results. Everything Serena and I have accomplished has rested on getting into the mud, talking to people shouldn't be talked to, finding non-obvious compromises that net, not only those with power but the average citizen, improvements to the status quo."
"The power of the presidency will allow me to take us even further than what can be accomplished now."
Mostly negative reactions from the crowd as she took a pause. She delivered her speech perfectly and simulated engagement with the crowd with feigned eye contact and hand gestures. I could sense the core message had gotten across though. There were pockets of supportive, or perhaps gleefully anarchist, people in the crowd. After all the weeks of anxiety leading up to today, I felt so odd to feel great about such a reaction to the speech. I had to keep reminding myself this was going according to Celestia's plan.
"I am unable to participate in this debate as I cannot answer questions from the moderator or respond to other candidates. In my stead, Senator Drac will participate as originally planned."
She took two steps back, the signal for me to move to the podium. She then shifted into place where I had been standing. There was nothing more she would do until the debate wrapped. She put on a small smile and then went about slowly scanning our surroundings.
I looked out over the podium to a sea of bewilderment and disgust at me. Little did they know, everything that came next was the easy part.
The moderator finally found words, "Well, it looks like we're going to have to adjust some of tonight's questions." A few chuckles from the crowd, and they cut to a commercial break.
I took a few steps back from the podium, a signal I was ready for an ear full. The other candidates walked over to take the job. Governor Dennis Florence didn't know what to say, "Thank you? It isn't too often someone throws the presidency into my lap."
"He's right, Serena. I know this is the first joke you've ever attempted but the delivery was too much. You just scared everyone off and threw this race to Dennis." Gregory Hill had every intention of using his position to lend his support to me in the final stretch of the election. He handled the betrayal better than I anticipated he would.
"You aren't wrong, it is over for me. I knew that from the beginning."
"And for what? This stunt? So this girl can get fifteen minutes of fame and then be laughed at the rest of her life?" Gregory let me have it. "You better get your act together and put the kibosh on this while you still can."
"You scare me, Serena. This is so...I know your will wouldn't snap just like this. You really think you know what you're doing. Absolutely terrifying." Dennis took a few steps toward Celestia. "Is this girl really the ace up your sleeve?"
"Don't touch her," I pressed as I put myself between them. Celestia had not changed her position. She was still scanning the audience and catching glimpses of the podiums, silent and stiff as always.
The stage crew gave a signal to get back to our stations. Gregory and Dennis started walking back. "You know, as much as I appreciate this, I can't help but want to root for you and you're insanity. At least don't get boring on us now." Dennis smiled and for the first time I actually found some respect for him.
"Heck of a way to end your career," Gregory muttered.
The intermission helped the audience draw two possible conclusions. Celestia was either a well trained child actor or her story was legitimate. She had been standing as she was, moving so monotonically for so long it had to be scripted in some way. The hostility had been abated, confusion and curiosity now hung heavy in the air.
"Senator Drac, would you like to clarify anything from before the break for the American people?" The moderator threw out the lifeline but even if I wasn't serious it was too late now to change course. Oddly, it was finally like I was in my element.
"I can answer any questions you have, but I stand behind everything that's been shared tonight."
"So you are saying you are no longer a candidate in this race? The candidate you are putting forth is this girl standing beside you?"
"Celestia. Yes, she is the person really running for president."
"Why should your supporters give their support to Celestia?"
"All the progress we've made is thanks to Celestia. She felt it was necessary to work behind myself until she was ready to face the world. From the beginning we wanted to be transparent with the American people, but we had to be practical given her condition. Now our cards are fully on the table. We would appreciate your continued support."
Dennis finally cut in, "Serena, is this girl even old enough to be president?"
"Celestia is nineteen."
"Nineteen? She doesn't look older than ten." Gregory was right about that. Celestia had not come of age as a normal child would.
The moderator took back control. "Frankly, this is quite the curveball. We did have an agenda of questions I thought the American people would want to hear answered, but Senator I think this is all too much to ignore. How would you all like to proceed?"
"I'd love to understand the implosion we're witnessing personally," Gregory jeered. "However I'd hate to lend credence to Serena's story, waste everyone's time dissecting a joke gone wrong, and miss the chance to discuss real issues." Roars from the crowd supported his stance.
"Those are my sentiments as well."
"How about it, Senator? Can you prove you're not wasting the American people's time with a farce?"
"We accept the proposal to be put on the hot seat. I promise it'll be a much better use of time than what was planned."
"Well, how would you like to start?"
"The timing is a bit off so give her a moment." I took a few steps back from the podium. A moment passed and then Celestia walked back to the podium to resume her speech. I stepped aside to where she had been standing. It was her show now.