by Dan Swanson
Only after he had retrieved his shield did Captain Democracy reflect on what had just happened. Once, during the Korean War, he had seen a chopper being landed in a strong wind by an inexperienced pilot. The pilot had been unable to keep the chopper from drifting sideways with the wind, and suddenly, one tip of the main rotor had hit a cinder block building with disastrous results. The entire wall of the building had been destroyed, as if by dynamite. The chopper itself had tumbled across the runway, spinning and bouncing and tearing itself apart each time it hit the pavement. The fuel tank had finally ruptured, and the whole tangled mass had exploded and burned. His thoughtless action had almost caused a similar disaster. Of course, he didn’t care about the Russian commandos, but there were three good American soldiers on that helicopter, and four innocent hostages nearby. And an exploding chopper might be a good substitute for the Russian explosions — the Captain had come close to nearly causing the disaster he was supposedly trying to prevent.
The chopper pilot apparently agreed with him. The door on the side of the big bird slid open, and three men in uniforms jumped out, each carrying a first aid kit. The pilot was swearing at the top of his lungs, screaming about what kind of idiot would ever do a stupid thing like that — his language was virtually turning the air blue. He didn’t stop swearing, even when he and his teammates started providing first aid to the wounded people. He didn’t even stop screaming when machine-gun fire tore into the side of the chopper, but at least he changed his words.
“We gotta get these wounded into a building. You two–” He was screaming at the Captain and Spinelli. “–get over here and help!”
The four hostages, who had all sprawled headlong to the ground, got up and headed for the lab building. Spinelli started shooting cautiously back at the source of the gunfire, understanding all too well the risks of doing so. A couple of police officers ran from the building, and between them, Captain Democracy, and the crew of the chopper, they lugged the wounded into the building without further injuries.
The pause had given Ivan time to regroup his command. He yelled his commands in Russian. Spinelli turned to the rest of the group and said, quietly, “Here they come!” He stepped out the door and found what cover he could around the corner of the house.
With their plans shot to hell and no hostages, there was little left for the Russians to lose. They charged, en masse, out of their hiding places, hoping to overwhelm the group in the lab building and regain their hostages and their strategic advantage.
Captain Democracy wanted to make sure that didn’t happen. He had run up the stairs to the second floor, and as the eight remaining Russians ran toward the lab building, he dived out a window and landed in their midst. He held his shield up in front of him, and he managed to hit one of the men in the head, knocking him unconscious. The Captain and the unconscious man fell to the ground, and several of the others stumbled over them. The Captain was up immediately, moving fast, striking desperately, trying to keep them off balance. Spinelli was swearing — he had a clear shot at them and probably could have taken out most of them if he had been willing to shoot, but he couldn’t bring himself to fire on Captain Democracy as well.
The Captain’s movements were fast, but jerky, and not very efficient. He was terrified that he was about to die, and his fear inhibited his ability to fight. He was trying to capture the same feeling he’d had the night before in the gym, but he couldn’t, and his fear was slowing him down, and the slower he moved, the more fear he felt.
Captain Democracy saw one of the goons level his machine-gun at his chest, and he tried frantically to throw his shield at the man before he could pull the trigger. He was partially successful — the man tried to duck and fire at the same time. The Captain took three bullets — hitting his right thigh, his stomach, and his left shoulder — and he collapsed to the ground. At the same time, the shield hit the Tommy-gun and deflected up under the chin of the Russian, knocking him down and out.
With the Captain on the ground, Detective Spinelli let loose. He got three more, but the other three managed to get back under cover. Covering himself, Spinelli ran to where Captain Democracy lay on the ground. A bullet whizzed by, and he snapped a shot back where it had come from — but instead of the sound of gunfire, all he heard was a ghastly clicking. “Uh-oh! $#!*’s hit the fan!” he said. Throwing the Tommy-gun in the direction of his foes, he put both hands under the Captain’s arms, and started dragging him backward toward the lab. “Cover me!” he yelled at the men in the lab, who responded with pistol fire. It wasn’t enough — Spinelli stopped a couple of bullets himself and fell to the ground near the Captain.
As he had felt the bullets rip into him, Captain Democracy knew he was about to die. Ernie Earnest fought death as long as he could, waiting for the Spirit of the Bill of Rights to show up. She didn’t. When Spinelli grabbed him, the new pain had shocked him back to reality.
Spinelli was trying to say something. He could barely whisper. “Looks like the… end… of two careers, eh…?” And then he coughed. The Captain couldn’t believe that this guy, whom he considered a mortal enemy, had just given his life to try to save him. He tried to speak.
“Why’d you… why’d you do it, Tony? Should’a… should’a saved y’self…”
The Captain was astounded to hear Tony chuckle. His voice sounded much stronger. “I’m a cop, kid. It’s what we do.”
Well, damn it! Ernie thought to himself. My guardian spirit’s abandoned me, and a man I hated just risked his life for me. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna give up like this! “Tony, I need your help. Can you sing?” Tony didn’t answer. “Tony, I’m serious. I need you to sing America the Beautiful with me.” Still nothing from Tony. “C’mon, Tony, we’re both going to die anyway, right? Might as well go out singing!”
Tony chuckled again. “Damn, kid, I could almost get to like you! I never was much of a singer, but what the hell?” He coughed once, then started singing. It wasn’t very loud, and it was off-key, but the words were right. The Russians had been advancing cautiously, staying under cover, but clearly not worried all that much about the pistols the helicopter flight crew still had. They sensed that they could still regain control of the situation, but they had to hurry. Reinforcements had to be nearby.
“…for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain…” the Captain joined in, concentrating on the words, words that sort of wavered in his memory. He turned his body loose and tried to lose himself in the song. “America, America…” His body knew what needed to be done; he had trained for years for situations just like this one. He was just along for the ride. He hoped Spinelli knew the second verse.
Flashing to his feet, Captain Democracy ran toward his shield. His wounded leg wouldn’t hold him, so he made sure he collapsed in the right direction, gathered himself into a ball, and rolled once, coming up with the shield. Now that he knew what to expect, he was on his feet again, moving fast and heading right toward the Russians. He could hardly put any of his weight on his right leg, and the rocking, hopping motion he made as he ran was confusing.
Almost before they knew they were under attack, he exploded into their midst. A backhand with the shield knocked one down, and another fell as he tripped over his buddies. Spinelli and the Captain were well into the second verse by now. A snap-kick to the jaw dropped the next one, but his right leg couldn’t take the strain, and he collapsed to the ground. And that turned out to be a good thing, as he fell under the stream of bullets Ivan was just firing.
With only Ivan left standing, Captain Democracy ran out of words. But it didn’t matter — Spinelli was standing directly behind Ivan, machine gun pressed into the back of the Russian’s head. The Captain realized he was about to pass out again; he could only hope that Spinelli had managed to pick up a machine gun with bullets.
“Not bad for a w–” And he was gone.
When Ernie Earnest came back to awareness, he couldn’t decide if he was dead or not. If he was able to ask the question, he must be alive, right? But he couldn’t see anything, hear anything, or feel anything. There was no taste, no smell, no senses of any kind. He tried to move, but couldn’t feel his body, tried to open his eyes, but nothing happened, tried to scream, and heard nothing but silence. He didn’t even have a sense of up and down. He was alone with himself, as he had never been before. He was surprised to realize he had no sense of duration, either. A thought lasted as long as it did. He tried counting seconds to himself, but he couldn’t even be sure the wait between counts was reasonably constant.
For an incalculable period of time he was afraid, and later he realized that perhaps during that time he had also been insane — although what did sanity mean to someone cut off from the universe as he was? Sanity had meaning only in relation to other people. After another incalculable interval, he started to question his prior existence. Maybe he had been here forever, and his memories were only fantasy. This grew boring. Since he had nothing else, he pulled out his memories and started to reexamine them closely. Maybe in those memories was a clue to what was happening to him right now.
He relived his whole life in seconds — or was it years? He found he could travel back and forth along his personal memory path at will, and he amused himself by jumping into and out of his own life, perhaps like a fish jumping out of the water into the air, and then falling back into the water again. When he was immersed in his own life, it seemed to pass at a normal rate, and he relived every day, every event of his life multiple times — but whenever he would fall out of his memory stream, it seemed as if only seconds had passed.
Finally, he grew bored with what he came to see as a pointless existence. He could watch his younger self, relive his triumphs, avoid his failures, but to his eternal frustration, he couldn’t change anything. Ah, he suddenly realized, he actually could change something — he could change himself.
Somehow, this moment of enlightenment did cause a change in his environment. Without knowing how he knew, Ernie realized he was no longer alone in the universe. Even so, he was still surprised when he heard a voice addressing him, a voice he knew was not coming from his own mind.
“Ernie! Good to see you! How you doing, son?” Ernie thought he recognized the voice.
“Joe? Joe Jones, is that you?”
“Nope, sorry, son, though I know him well.” The voice had changed, and yet it hadn’t. Ernie was sure it was now a woman’s voice. “Not the Joe Jones you know, but another…”
“You don’t mean… General Glory?” Ernie asked, awestruck.
“That’s the one, son!” The voice had changed again, and yet it hadn’t. A male voice again, and this time he could detect a Southern accent. The voice was poised to continue, but Ernie interrupted to ask the question that was most important to him.
“Am I dead?”
“No, son, you ain’t dead. Though I can see why you’d think that. Now, ya might be dead soon, or ya might not. Not really up to me, you know. There’s a higher power that makes that sort of decision. Nope, I’m here to clear up a misconception on your part.”
Ernie interrupted again. “Well, if you aren’t God, who are you? You’re not… you’re not the Spirit of the Bill of Rights, are you?” Suddenly, he was filled with hope. His whole life he had dreamed of this meeting — the guardian spirit of the Earnest family. It had to mean he had finally measured up to all of the heroic Earnests who came before him.
“Son,” the voice said sadly, and now it sounded like his mother, though it hadn’t changed, “you’ve been sold a phony bill of goods, not a Bill of Rights, and you swallowed it hook, line, and sinker!”
And now it sounded a lot like Joe Jones again.
“Your ancestor Isaiah was a good man, but he came out of that surgeon’s tent with a cravin’ for morphine as big as Texas. ‘Course, there weren’t no Texas back then, but that’s aside the point. He saw visions, for sure, that day — and every other day the rest of his life, when he could get his hands on the drug. And when he couldn’t, he took to boozin’. He didn’t write that journal of yours — his son Jake did.”
Another change, and this time, he knew he was hearing Jake Earnest. “Daddy treated me and mom so bad, I hated him. And one day, I told him I wished he was dead. He got extra drunk that night, I guess, and he falled down some stairs and broke his neck. I knowed it was my fault he was dead, and I felt so guilty I wrote this story ’bout him. He’d told me he’d had a vision after he was operated on, but he never said nothin’ about no spirit. I made that up myself.”
Then Joe Jones was back. “Ever since then, son, the men in your family have been tryin’ to live up to a legend — a legend that never existed. And ever’ last one of ’em failed; nary a one of ’em ever saw this Spirit of the Bill of Rights. And nary a one of ’em let on, all of ’em ‘fraid they’d be ‘membered as the weakling that couldn’t live up to the family heritage!”
Ernie was stunned. Grant had pointed out that when Isaiah had supposedly seen the Spirit of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the Bill or Rights were still years in the future. The United States hadn’t even won the Revolutionary War yet. Sure, with the supernatural, it was possible — but why wasn’t it the more famous Spirit of ’76?
“Don’t get me wrong, son! Your family has produced some of the gol’danged toughest men I ever did see, and I’ve seen ’em all, believe you me! Ever’ one of ’em a real American hero! And ever’ one of ’em gone to his grave thinkin’ he’s a failure, ’cause the Spirit never showed up, for him alone out of all the dads and granddads afore him. Well, I’m here to put a stop to that nonsense!” There was real anger in the voice now, anger at the brave heroes who had died thinking they were nothing but failures.
The voice changed again, and Ernie heard the voices of multitudes in this single voice, a voice of strength, courage, good will, and generosity. And he realized that this entity talking to him wasn’t a being as he had always understood the word, but the personification of the ideals of millions of Americans, past and present, and probably future, from many different Earths. This Spirit of Liberty had empowered the heroes Uncle Sam, General Glory, Captain Flag, Brother Jonathan, the Spirit of Old Glory, and many others, many of whom Grant Gardner had captured in his paintings.
The voice continued, as if the entity had read Ernie’s mind (which, in fact, it had): “I manifest differently on every Earth. On those Earths with a great need, I may manifest as a hero. On Earths with lesser need, such as your own, I imbue a token with a portion of my power and make sure the token is given to a worthy warrior. On still other Earths, patriotic heroes arise without my direct intervention, yet even on those planets my spirit lives!
“On your Earth, a most unprecedented event has occurred. My token, the token that gives power to a chosen hero, has been… misplaced. Many of my selected heroes choose to garb themselves as patriotic icons, but as long as my chosen warrior is among the missing, your great country — our great country on this Earth — will be without such an icon. You might say I’m on a recruiting mission.”
Again Ernie was stunned. “And you are recruiting me? Wow! That’s incredible! It’s what I trained for all my life!”
The voice continued, now with overtones of sadness. “If you live, which is still in doubt, your injuries alone will prevent you from assuming this role for several years, Ernie Earnest, but the hatred you currently carry within you will disqualify you forever. You lay claim to the name of Democracy because you like the costume, but you have never considered what democracy means.
“It will take you years to heal your body. If you can heal your mind at the same time, I would be proud to welcome you to my chosen ranks. You should expect to see me again at that time, and I hope that by then you are indeed worthy of the name Captain Democracy!”
Ernie was stung by these words, and angry, frustrated, and fearful. He refused to accept that he had just been turned away by the Spirit of America (and in fact, he had not, but that’s what he heard). “Hey, wait a minute! You’re telling me the Spirit of the Bill of Rights was just something somebody made up in a morphine dream? How do I know you’re not just something I made up?”
“Look into your heart, Ernie! Examine the doctrine of the bogus Spirit you learned about in your youth, and compare it to that which I espouse — equality and opportunity for all, hatred for none. Your heart will tell you which is the truth.
“Do not despair, Ernie Earnest. Captain Democracy is, in fact, within you. It is only your blind hatred of those you don’t even know that is keeping him within. When you are well, we will meet again.”