SUNDAY, MARCH 22
Everything was going according to plan.
The man with blue eyes blended in perfectly with his camouflage: blue jeans, a white T-shirt bearing an American flag with a cross in place of the stars, and just for a touch of extra realism, a “WWJD?” wristband. As he joined the crowd jostling its way into the Verizon Center, he drew no notice beyond a “Welcome, brother! God bless you!” from an usher. Of course, no one asked to inspect his backpack. Even if they had, they would have found nothing more suspicious than a 64-ounce water bottle in an insulating sleeve.
He strategically selected an aisle seat near the central stage. The folding chairs on the stadium floor around him, and then the bleachers, began to fill up with legions of the infected. The stadium could seat thirty thousand, and even this far before starting time, it was beginning to look as though it would be a capacity crowd. He noticed that his breathing had grown shallow, and he found himself wishing for a surgical mask and a bottle of the world’s strongest hand sanitizer.
Don’t be ridiculous, he admonished himself. It’s all in the mind. There’s nothing dangerous in the air here…yet.
“Brothers and sisters,” came the announcer’s voice, “welcome to Awaken America! This place is packed and the Spirit is ready for action! Glory, hallelujah! And now, may I present the man who made it all happen. Brothers and sisters, let’s hear it for the Reverend Isaiah Hill!”
To thunderous cheers, he made his grand entrance: Isaiah Hill, super vector, personally responsible for the infection of thousands. The spotlights shone blindingly off his white suit and the white teeth gleaming from his black face, magnified a hundredfold on the four giant screens suspended from the dome.
“Good morning, brothers and sisters!” he greeted the adoring crowd, his voice echoed faintly in Spanish by a simultaneous interpreter. “And do you know what comes in the morning? Joy! ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.’ And the dawn we’ve all been waiting for is coming, brothers and sisters! It’s time to Awaken America!”
Right on the last word, clouds of confetti and columns of laser light shot up from the corners of the stage. The gospel choir burst into song, as dry ice vapor cascaded from the risers to make it look as though they were ascending to heaven. Yes, Hill had clearly gotten where he was because he knew how to play on the emotions like a virtuoso organist, while keeping the stops on the brain pushed firmly in.
As the crowd joined their voices to the choir, the man with blue eyes clapped and swayed along with the others, mouthing the words that scrolled across waterfalls and Rocky Mountain landscapes on the screens. As one speaker after another took the microphone, he added an occasional “Hallelujah!” or “Praise the Lord!” to the answering chorus. The words left a slimy, evil-tasting residue in his mouth, but he consoled himself with the thought that this was the last time he would ever be in a place like this. And it was an even greater consolation to be the only one who knew that the same was true for hundreds, hopefully even thousands, of the others here.
Then came the cue, exactly according to plan.
“Dear brothers and sisters,” came the Reverend Hill’s voice over the loudspeakers, “are any of you sick? Are any of you weary? Are any of you carrying heavy burdens? Come to one of our prayer stations, and our ministers will lay hands on you and pray for the healing of everything that harms you. Come unto Him, dear brothers and sisters! Come unto Him!”
A soprano soloist from the choir started to belt out a gospel-style rendition of Come unto Him from The Messiah, backed by an array of instruments that Handel could never have imagined. All around the stadium, people began to rise from their seats and make their way into the aisles.
That was the cue. He reached into his backpack, uncapped the drinking tube on the water bottle, and pressed the button in a pocket of the sleeve. He heard a muffled beep.
The countdown had begun.