There’s nothing quite like a gun aimed at your head to heighten the senses. A Colt .45 going off less than twenty feet away is unbelievably loud; like a thunderclap. The muzzle flash is blinding, especially when the barrel is pointed right between your eyes. And it might have been my imagination, but it seemed I could even smell the gunpowder, strong and acrid, in that same instant, as I closed my eyes and waited for my head to explode.
I had been looking him square in the eyes, as he might have put it. I hadn’t really believed the old fool would pull the trigger; maybe he read that in me somehow, and that had set him off, I don’t know. He had seen the power of the Angels; he must have known that killing me would be his last act on Earth. I’m sure he thought it was worth it. The President used to claim some kinship to Davy Crockett; he probably felt that he was living up to that legendary death at the Alamo. I know he is now a hero to millions, who believe he died in the cause of Freedom. “Live Free or Die.” Or as the pamphlets out there say, “You cannot conquer a free man, you can only kill him.”
He was to be disappointed. Even through my squeezed-shut eyelids I sensed the brilliant flash of light that immediately followed the gunshot. For a confused instant I thought that it might be my own death, and that I would open my eyes to see the mystical light that I was supposed to go towards. But when I opened my eyes I saw the President still standing there, staring at me, his mouth hanging open in a cartoon image of astonishment. I heard a metallic clinking sound and glanced down to see the .45 bullet still bouncing at my feet. I might have been surprised by the President’s desperate act, but Ishim Command had been prepared. That flash of light had been the energy transfer when the bullet had struck the force-field around me that I hadn’t even known was there.
Then the big cowboy raised his gun again and would have no doubt emptied it at me, but before he could pull the trigger three of the Ishim disintegrated him, while the other four each eliminated the four Secret Service guys, three of whom got off shots before they were mowed down. They were all aimed at me, and they set off a series of flashes like paparazzi cameras at a red carpet event, before the bullets fell harmlessly to the deck. These Ishim weapons were far more powerful than the ones they had used to quell the uprising at Disneyland; they left no smoldering remains—in fact, they barely left a trace at all. Each victim seemed to turn to ash in an instant.
This had all taken a second, maybe two. Now the troops out by the barricades were raising their weapons. Within another second or two, thousands more might die. Right now the civilians were too shocked to panic, uncertain of what they had just seen and what it all meant. I faced the crowd and raised my hands high. With as much command as I could muster I shouted, “HOLD YOUR FIRE!” The words reverberated down the length of the Mall. I wasn’t sure the Ishim would hold, much less the Army troops, but as a second ticked by, then another, I dared to hope we had avoided a full-scale catastrophe.
“PLEASE. No one else needs to die here today. No one needed to die here today at all. I came here to ask the President for his help. I never got the chance to ask.” This had the merit of being absolutely true; hopefully at least some in this crowd would sense my sincerity. I pushed back the fleeting thought that I was in way over my head right now; that I didn’t have the necessary oratory skills. I just plunged on: “Please. Hear me out. I need your help. Right now I am the only human being on the planet who can speak to the Angels. Nobody took a vote and elected me, and I didn’t volunteer. I was chosen. I was chosen, but I wasn’t given a choice. Sure, maybe I could have said no thanks. Maybe I should have. But I was the one chosen, and they made it clear that it was me or nobody. Either I would speak for humanity, or no one would. I knew I wasn’t qualified, but for better or worse, I decided that I was better than nothing. Not much of a campaign slogan, but it’s all I’ve got. ‘Better Than Nothing.’
“That’s the truth. That’s why I came here today looking for help. Because who am I to be bargaining on behalf of all mankind? Nobody. I’m just a substitute teacher who got plucked out of the crowd. ‘Chosen.’
“None of us was prepared for what we have lost these past few days. Power, communication, transportation grids, all shut down. The terrible loss of life. How could we be? The entire world is in a state of mass shock. People of all faiths all over the planet are questioning their beliefs, asking ‘Why?’ over and over again. Never was energy more wasted. Don’t ask why. Ask ‘What can we do to survive?’ Whatever else you may or not believe in, right now you need to believe in yourselves.
“I have asked the Angels to restore power and communication and transportation. The answer was no. But I kept asking, and they have made some small concessions. Hospitals all over the world now have power to care for their patients.” Eloi had assured me this was so, and cynic that I am, still I trusted Eloi. I’m not sure he could lie if he wanted to. “Right now, that is the only electrical power they are willing to restore. All I can do is keep on asking, and I promise you I will.
“As soon as people step up to help, the Angels will arrange that some rail service is restored, mostly to allow for distribution of food. Communication is a tougher issue. Already you may have noticed that they are using radio and television in a limited way for their own purposes. Frankly, they don’t want us freely communicating with each other. Cell phones and radios and the Internet may never be back. We did manage for thousands of years of civilization without them. At least for a while, we’ll have to manage again.
“I have asked that you have a way to bring ideas to me, so that I can take them to them, but here again I need help. I am just one person, and I have no means of dealing with thousands of messages every day, however they are delivered. I’m hoping that some of you will volunteer to man a communication center here in Washington, to make lists of the most urgent needs and send them on to me.”
I signaled to the Ishim that they should stay put, and I walked down a couple of steps toward the crowd. Right now I was grateful that there were no scorched corpses smoldering behind me. The President’s sudden demise had been so surreal that all bets on “normal” crowd reactions were off. At the moment the prevailing mood seemed to be on the side of hearing me out. “I’ll stay here with you today for as long as it takes to work out some kind of communication plan. I know that’s not much after all you’ve been through, but...” I risked a wry smile. “It’s better than nothing.”
An Army colonel broke the ice, stepping out from the barricade. “I’ll head up a communications team,” he said. It was a start.
The seven Ishim stood like statues at the top of the steps, hour after hour. I sat on the stone stairs, working with this Colonel Hatfield and a handful of others. A dedicated few gathered round and sat down on the ground, paying attention, and offering a question or an idea as they relaxed bit by bit into the moment. Often they raised their hands, and I let the colonel acknowledge them. We set up a plan that put him in charge of prioritizing and communicating directly with me, which we decided would work best as a kind of voice-mail arrangement. Eloi, monitoring from afar, sent a device directly into my hands, a silver headset that would be linked with my little eardrop. It would signal me when a message was complete (a process after all that could take hours inside the pyramid); then I could deal with it as necessary. When the gadget materialized in my hands, the colonel’s eyes widened, and he said, “How...?”
I shook my head and said, “Don’t ask. Just put ‘How?’ right up there next to ‘Why?’ Otherwise, you’ll only give yourself a headache.”
Finally, we had a tentative accord. I got a glimpse of Colonel Hatfield’s watch, a big, solid, kinetic-energy thing, and saw that it was almost noon. I’d been here for over four and a half hours. Nearly twenty days had passed inside the pyramid.
I stood and thanked the colonel. I started to offer a handshake, but decided I didn’t want to create an awkward moment if he was unwilling to shake the hand of the greatest traitor since Judas. He surprised me by offering his. “I accept, sir, that we are not enemies,” he said. “And until I receive orders otherwise, I will serve in the role we’ve agreed on today. But just so we’re clear: I am a colonel in the United States Army. Today, my first duty is to see to the survival of the citizens of DC. But the day will come when I will fight to restore my country’s independence. That day might come tomorrow, it might come ten years from now. But it will come. You can communicate that to your high and mighty Angels.”
I shook his hand. “Thank you, Colonel. I will.” I turned and walked back up the steps, giving Eloi the sub-vocal message that we were ready to return. I decided against any parting words to the remnants of the crowd that was still on the Mall; I didn’t want to disappear mid-sentence again.
I glanced around the concrete to see if there was any sign of the President or his men. Not so much as an ash; the dust that had once been five arguably very brave men had long since blown away. The spent bullets still lay where they’d dropped around me. A flash of light caught my eye. A few paces away, the President’s polished silver six-gun glared in the noonday sun.