Ha-Jun emerged beaming from the rejuvenation room, his robes immaculate, and wended his way back down the corridor past the long, serpentine queue of his patient countrymen. And there he was…the Glorious Leader! Standing patiently in line, waiting his turn, between two women who might have been anyone. There were no bodyguards, no retainers; there was no hubbub of sycophantic attendants. Merely a young man waiting his turn.
Ha-Jun went to one knee reflexively, preparing to prostrate himself. “Eternal Sun of Mankind!” he exclaimed. Above him he heard a chuckle, and he felt a hand upon his shoulder. He looked up, and the face that stared from a hundred thousand posters was beaming down beatifically at him. “Not here, my friend,” he intoned. “There are no outsiders watching.”
The Leader’s hand descended and grasped Ha-Jun’s, hoisted him to his feet. The line shuffled forwards a bit. Ha-Jun’s face flushed with embarrassment; seeing this, the Guiding Sun Ray smiled generously and made a dismissive gesture. The mere wave of his hand banished all shame from Ha-Jun’s heart. “It is not uncommon among those who have been with us for a while. So many years of ostentatious display for the sake of foreigners! It is hard to set aside old habits.” He raised an eyebrow. “And you have been with us for a very long while, I imagine?”
Ha-Jun nodded eagerly, swallowed. “Since…since the beginning, Fate of the Nation. Since before then. Back to the Discovery, in fact.” He cleared his throat and saluted. “I was at your side, on that day. One of perhaps a dozen…”
The Leader’s brow furrowed as he stared into Ha-Jun’s eyes, then his own eyes went wide. “Ha-Jun!” he exclaimed. “You must forgive me! I did not recognize you! The one great disadvantage of the process, of course…” The line inched forwards again. From the opposite direction came a fresh-faced woman, no doubt on her way to makeup and prosthetics; the two men bowed and pressed themselves flat against the corridor wall, allowing her to pass. The Leader turned back to Ha-Jun. “You are looking well, old friend. How were the waters?”
“They were…” Ha-Jun was but a simple soldier. He lacked the words to describe the sensation. His metabolism utterly changed, every cell cleansed and refreshed, right down to the telomeres in his DNA. He was, truly, a new man. “They were youth itself, Beloved Father.”
He smiled, nodded. “Just so. Just exactly so. Good to see you again, old friend.” He turned back to the line.
Ha-Jun licked his lips. “I would never dare to monopolize your time, Great Sun of Life, but…er…is it true, what they say? That the Pool of Radiance is…is being depleted?”
The Leader turned back to him, stone-faced. Ha-Jun saw the old eyes within the young face, and imagined possibilities flickering behind them. At length, the Leader turned to the woman behind him, his glance inquiring. She gave a slight nod, and turned her back. As if of a single will, those behind her turned their backs as well.
The Leader leaned in close, his voice low. “It is…somewhat true, old friend.” He paused. “At levels barely perceptible to our scientists. It recharges very slowly, as you know, and there are so many of us now.” A frown creased his face. “Not for many years, but…unless the population is carefully managed, we may one day need to consider rationing.”
A sickness crept into Ha-Jun’s soul. He knew it for what it was. Man’s most ancient fear. That most terrible and eternal companion, held at bay for almost seventy years now through the Guiding Son of Heaven’s miraculous discovery. The skeleton hand reached down the decades to grasp Ha-Jun’s heart, and his grip was cold.
The Leader somehow recognized Ha-Jun’s pain. “Nothing to be frightened of, old friend. One day, our scientists will discover the way to accelerate the recharge rate—and on that blessed day, we may share our gift with all the world. But until that time…careful management is critical. By whatever means necessary, we must restrict access.”
Ha-Jun nodded. Few knew this better than he. “Many years ago, Great Marshall,” he said, “I picked up a rifle. I put my own gift at risk to keep the secret. To prevent the discovery of our miracle, that the people might continue to cherish it. I will carry that rifle, Dear Father, into the future. For as long as it takes.” He paused. “My compliments, Eternal Secretary, on your new face. The surgeons did their jobs well.”
The Leader’s hand graced his shoulder. “You are a patriot, Ha-Jun, and a kind man as well.” He laughed. “I am glad to be rid of those accursed glasses, at least. Best of luck to you.”
This time, the dismissal was definitive, but Ha-Jun scarcely noticed. His heart sang with the Leader’s praise as he marched back up the corridor. Back to the room where he would set aside these gleaming robes, and don a shabby, threadbare uniform. Where they would streak his hair with gray, and etch his face with lines, and send him back out into the world.
Cavendish stared through the binoculars, across the DMZ to the border station, where the guard was changing. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he muttered. “Look who’s back.”
Smith stared through his own glasses. “That’s our old friend, sure as hell. Been gone, what, a month? I thought we’d seen the last of him. ‘Reeducation’, or breaking rocks somewhere. Or just—POW. Him, and his whole family with him.”
Cavendish shook his head. “Why do they put up with it? A slave state, cut off from the rest of the world. It’s evil, is what it is.”
Smith nodded. “Brainwashed. The whole bunch of ‘em. Steady diet of propaganda.”
Cavendish set the binoculars down. “Still,” he grumbled. “You’d think…I dunno.” He shook his head again. “So many years. So much suffering. After a while, you’d think it would get old.”