For Round 9 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction that revolve around a U.S. president, who can be real or fictional. Our winner was "The Dauphin."
It was to be her fifth State of the Union address. Under other circumstances, her history of past oratorical success would have calmed her nerves. The speech was well written, quite possibly her best ever. But her delivery would cross a new frontier.
How well her painstakingly rehearsed performance of meaningful looks and gestures would hold up during 52 minutes of voice-synthesized soundtrack ... that was the question.
The software techs had spent eight days mining previous recordings of her voice to find the words and phonemes needed to assemble the contents of her address. An additional three days were spent digitally smoothing the patchwork diction for convincing prosody. The outcome was reassuringly natural. There were mildly stilted bits, but overall, it sounded like her: President Katelyn Conway.
It was time. Speaker of the House Tyler Underwood boomed the customary introduction.
"Members of 116th Congress, I have the high privilege and the distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States."
President Conway took her place at the rostrum, beaming and nodding as the applause finally died down and the assembled members of government took their seats.
As previously rehearsed, she cued the speech by glancing down, then looking up at her audience. Nothing happened. Passing seconds pooled into one attenuated moment of expectation, then drained into disbelief. She shot a frantic look at the operator in the control booth. His panicked expression confirmed her dismay. Something had gone wrong with the computerized playback.
Emily Reich, the president's press secretary, had been uneasy when she'd first heard of the plan some weeks earlier. She'd wasted no time in voicing her concerns to White House Chief of Staff Owen Turner.
"Do you really think this is a good idea, Owen? I mean ... I know that every president since Wilson has delivered the State of the Union address live before Congress, but it's not a requirement. President Conway could submit the address in writing."
Turner regarded her with a fish-eye stare. "No. Too old-fashioned. We have the technology to do this, why not use it? Listen, Emily, dignifying differences and disabilities is what we're all about. Kate can do this. She wants to do this."
But they both knew there was more to it. Vice President Brauner's cancer was now at Stage 4. If President Conway had to step down, the White House would soon wind up in Republican hands.
"Apraxia of speech isn't something the public easily understands," sighed Reich. "Half the country thinks she ended up with receptive language deficits as well."
"That's why the president needs to appear in person." Turner insisted. "It was a minor stroke. Her speech therapist says she's already producing a few isolated words. She doesn't yet have the neuromotor stamina for extended discourse, but President Conway is completely lucid. The public needs to connect with that."
Seldom in its long history had a more agonizing silence hung over the House chamber. Kate Conway closed her eyes and thought. Keep it simple. Written copies of her speech were even now being distributed to the press corps. That was the official address of record. She only needed to bring this awkward scenario to a close.
Fixing the control booth operator in her gaze, she pointed at her lectern microphone and he switched it on. The president took a deep breath as she prepared to deliver the most arduous speech of her six years in office — one that no one watching it would ever forget.
"Go-o-o-d. Night. God bless. The-e-e-se. U-nited. States. Of Ame-ri-ca."