September 16, 2015
Lisa Styles ran. Her lungs burned, and her nostrils felt the sting of the white ash - somehow whiter than snow, almost luminous - all around her. She couldn't see anything. And the soft downpour muffled all the sound from the world. So she knew that her dead friend's voice was in her own head.
"When do you think you'll give up?" Henry asked her pleasantly.
The smell of the burning had taken on a new character. Plastic. Rubber. The stink of an electrical fire. She didn't dare think where she was going, of if she'd ever get there.
She knew she'd fail.
Don Jespersen stood inside the aircraft in the enormous hangar. It was a retired Air Force One plane on exhibit at the museum. Jespersen was just behind the line of candidates, who faced the audience and did not know he was there. He looked through the window of the plane at each of them in turn and smiled. Ranks of people stared at them. Mingled among them were Jespersen's friends. His army. Some of them stood in the shadows behind the moderators. They waited.
"America needs a leader," said Scott Walker. And in the aircraft, the thing beside Jespersen made a hissing sound.
"I'm tired of this," it said in a voice like metal on gravel.
"They're talking about you," said Jespersen.
"No," it answered. The candidates spoke about leadership and strength. The used words to make people feel at ease with themselves. And the words touched on something more powerful than any one figure, or person, or house.
As the front-runner, Donald Trump, spoke, the camera panned to the room full of Jespersen's army, and the shadows shifted. They twitched in anticipation.
"They're responding to him, yes? He might be the one?"
Trump's face slowly flushed. They could sense his fear.
"Yes." The thing's breath was thick. "It won't be long."---
Outside in the storm of ash, Lisa had passed some boundary, and she was half-running, half-sliding down an embankment toward a cracked road. She knew she was going to give up. She knew it. She could feel the muscles in her legs tiring out...
---Back in the hangar, the candidates were all talking about America's enemies, and what we would do to them...The audience was applauding in wild bursts, punctuated by hungry silences. Jespersen's face was sheened in sweat. He had an amused smile as he stared at the candidates and somehow heard their voices, even though he was behind the aircraft's thick metal walls.
"Every time they say 'nuclear' we get closer."
"Yes," it said.
"When?" Jespersen asked. But it didn't answer.
"When?" Henry asked Lisa. "When are you going to just... just rest?"
The rain stung her. Her throat was coated with paper. Her feet and legs felt shredded.
"Later," she said. "I'll give up later."
She kept running. She kept telling herself she'd give up later. She'd screwed her eyes shut. They were streaming blood and water. Her world was a blur, and it was a long while before she could see again. But when she did, she noticed the ash was thinning out. The sky cleared. It was twilight and cool. The star were coming out over the road.
She smiled grimly. Lisa kept going. And somehow, later never came.
The crowd outside knew it was time. And they knew that no one was going to wear the mask tonight. No one person. It wouldn't be like that. Each of them leaned over to someone near, a member of the audience, and whispered. No heard exactly what they said. The sounds mingling with the candidates droning on. But after they whispered, each member of Jespersen's army disappeared, leaving bits of charcoal, a faint whiff of smoke.
And the people felt uneasy as their candidates talked. Angry. The feeling spilled out of the room. It spilled through wires, through screens. It affected Thousands of people. Millions. The disturbance of the Reagan museum crept into homes everywhere that night.