Joyce Tucker opened her eyes to a soft, orange glow. Half-burned candles swung rhythmically from hanging lanterns above her head. She struggled to sit upright, but a firm hand on her shoulder pressed her back down.
“Easy,” came a voice from an unseen figure.
“Who’s there? Where am I?” Joyce asked. Pain shot through her temples and her vision swayed.
“You’re safe. That’s all that matters.”
“Why is my head spinning? Do I have a concussion?” Joyce asked.
“Here, drink this.” A cup was squeezed between Joyce’s fingers. She felt her head lifted by a few degrees as she brought the cup to her lips. It was cold and wonderful.
“Thank you. I’m really parched.”
“You’re probably dehydrated. How long were you out at sea?”
“I… I’m not sure… Two days, maybe? It was dark. We lost track of time. Stacy… Wait, where’s Stacy? Is she ok? What happened to her?” Joyce said, fighting the urge to sit up again.
“Your friend is stable for now. We’ve got her somewhere else. But her burns were severe. What happened out there?”
Joyce pressed her eyes shut and tried to remember. “There was a fire aboard the sailboat. I’m not sure how it started; it was all so sudden. It spread. It got on her jacket and hands. How did you find us?”
“A thirty foot blaze in pitch black tends to stand out pretty well. The two men who pulled you aboard said you told them you were headed to Burrard Harbor right before you fainted.”
“May I ask why you were headed there?”
Joyce carefully weighed her possible responses. These were dark times. Over the last year, there’d been no shortage of horror stories. Witnesses being stoned while engaging in the ministry, children beaten mercilessly by classmates, bricks thrown through windows in the middle of the night, Kingdom Halls defaced with threatening messages. Identifying herself as a Witness could mean the end of this safe passage. Then again, Joyce thought, if these people had evacuated from nearby, perhaps they had valuable information and would be willing to share. After all, they’d been kind enough to rescue her and Stacy. She petitioned silently for courage and spoke up courageously.
“My friend and I are Jehovah’s Witnesses. We were trying to evacuate to the camp in Burrard Harbor to be with our brothers and sisters.”
The other voice, wherever it was coming from, said nothing.
“Is everything ok?” Joyce asked, her pulse beginning to quicken. The thought of being expelled from this boat, being forced back onto their vessel, was an unbearable one.
“I’m sorry. I need to speak with the captain,” the voice finally responded, and before Joyce could say another word, she could hear someone retreating through an unseen door.
Peter stared at the circle of faces around him. Without exception, each showed the telltale signs of stress and exhaustion. It had been a difficult year for all of them, and he was sure that each elder sitting around the table had their own harrowing tales to tell. He hated to add to their burden, but there simply wasn’t another way. After a prayer, the chairman gave Peter the floor.
“I’m sorry to get you all out here so late, but we have a situation that requires your immediate attention. This afternoon, we located the ten-year-old son of a sister in our congregation. He was hiding under the bunk in their cabin, crying. He says his mother was abducted.”
“Abducted?” someone asked. Some of the glassy looks around him had chipped slightly. The men were leaning forward.
“Yes, that’s right. We’ve got a description of the man who took her. I’d like to put an announcement out there out for an artist and get a sketch done. Maybe we can show it on the monitors, get people involved to track this guy down.”
“Hold on a minute there, Brother Burton,” one of the overseers said, holding up a hand. He held a finger in the air while he gathered his thoughts. They seemed to come with some difficulty. “What’s the name of this sister, first of all? And how was she abducted?”
“Name’s Angelica Parry. Taken from her room, it seems. Her son was with her at the time. He managed to get away, but just barely.”
“When’s the last time someone saw her?” another elder asked.
“I saw her yesterday, but no one’s seen her today, it seems,” Peter explained.
“Did you check with her neighbors? Maybe they saw something, or have heard from her,” someone said.
“No, haven’t checked yet. I’ll do that tomorrow, but I wanted to get a jump start on this now,” Peter said, starting to feel a tinge of impatience.
“I can understand your concern, Brother Burton, but… Well, other than the young boy, did anyone else witness the abduction?”
“Well, no. I mean, it was just the two of them together at the time. But when my wife inspected the room, stuff was everywhere. It was clear there’d been a struggle.”
The room fell silent. Peter stared at the older brothers’ faces around him as they exchanged looks.
“Look, brothers, I know how crazy this sounds, that something could happen way out here like this. But I have strong reasons to believe that there is a very real threat aboard this rig, and I think our friends are in danger.”
“Did something else happen?” someone asked.
“Well, sure, this afternoon we had someone collapse dead in the cafeteria. Not to mention one of our elders, Ted Watkins, falling seriously ill. He’s in the infirmary now.”
“Yes, we heard about your student. We’re very sorry. But… isn’t it true that he was a recovering addict? Is it possible that he ingested something?” someone suggested.
“And I’m not sure if I see how what happened with those two this afternoon is related to your missing sister. Is there a connection?” asked someone else, looking around.
Peter took a deep breath. He was having trouble collecting his thoughts. It was like everything in his head was jumbled and blurred. “Look, I know it seems incredible, but I do think they’re connected. You see, the sister who went missing has an ex, back in California. His name is Chad Harkett, he’s a big shot from Silicon Valley. Very wealthy, very powerful.” Peter glanced around, but the name didn’t seem to register with this audience.
“Anyway, the man is dangerous. Right before we evacuated, he came to his wife’s house with a gun. He meant business. We were able to keep Angelica and her son safe, but it was clear that he was determined to get her back. I’d never seen anything like it. He was like an animal.”
“So, you’re saying that you think he’s come after her, way out here?” the chairman asked.
“Yes. Again, I know it sounds absurd, but this man has the resources to hire someone. And I think that someone was also after me and Ted––we were the two elders who disarmed him the day he tried to attack his family.”
“So you’re suggesting that this sister’s ex-husband hired someone to board our vessel out in the Gulf of Mexico, kidnap his ex-wife, and kill you and Brother Watkins?”
Peter wanted to nod, but he had to admit that his theory sounded completely ridiculous. He lowered his head, exhausted. “Yes. That’s what I think.”
“Let’s suppose this were possible, for a moment. How do you think someone would even get out here, Peter?” someone asked.
“James,” Peter said, his head still down.
“He said his name was James. He boarded a few days ago during a supply transfer with one of the boats. Apparently, a rumor was going around that he was…” Peter took a deep breath. “An angel.”
The words had an instant effect. The brothers sitting around the table were nodding and exchanging looks.
“James. Right. We’ve heard of him.”
“Here’s the thing. The day before Sister Parry goes missing, this James character asks to have a word with her. We supervise it closely, of course, and it turns out that he wants her to get back with her husband. She of course refuses, and suddenly he’s nowhere to be found.”
“I can attest to that last bit,” Marcus Kelly chipped in. “His cabin’s completely cleaned out.”
Now the room was silent, but the overseers around the table appeared to be thinking things over.
“Well, brothers, what do you think?” asked the chairman.
“I understand Brother Burton’s concern,” someone spoke up. “And I agree that something ought to be done to help locate our sister. But I’m not sure I like the idea of putting up wanted posters.”
“Agreed. We must maintain as peaceful an environment as possible,” said another overseer. “The branch has emphasized this from day one. We’re in a small, confined space out here and people are already under stress. Even the slightest panic has the potential for disaster.”
“Ok brothers, I can appreciate all that, but surely we’ve got to take some action here,” Peter pleaded. “We’re talking about a missing sister and a potential criminal on the loose.”
“But Brother Burton, if I’m hearing things correctly, the only eyewitness to this supposed abduction is a small boy. Ten years old, you said?”
“Yes, but he’s a reliable kid. He wouldn’t make up something like this.”
“I’m not saying he would. But you also mentioned that he’s been through some very traumatic events recently. You said he was attacked by his father.”
“Well, don’t you think it’s possible that he’s suffering from some of those side effects? His mother leaves his side for longer than he expects, and suddenly his mind jumps to his abusive father?”
Peter was dismayed to find a couple of heads nodding thoughtfully at this suggestion.
“Brothers, I’m sorry, but I have to disagree here. The room, as I mentioned before, was in shambles. There had clearly been a struggle. This isn’t something Evan could’ve dreamed up. And what about this James guy telling her to get back with her husband? It only makes sense the one way! You’ve got to be able to––”
“Peter, please,” Brother Kelly interrupted, his hands in the air. “No one is accusing you or anyone else of being untruthful. We want to get to the bottom of this as much as you do, but we’ve got to consider each step shrewdly. As was stated, a crisis aboard our rig would be disastrous. We’re nearly a thousand miles from home and it’ll be weeks before we reach our destination. The friends have to feel safe.”
“But what if they’re not safe?” Peter asked, his voice cracking under the emotional strain. “I promised Angelica and her boy that they’d be safe if they got away from her ex. When my Bible student expressed doubts about boarding an oil rig with a hurricane just on the horizon, I promised him, too. Those people followed us all this way. We’re responsible for them.”
A silent pall fell over the room like a thick, black quilt. Even in the older, wizened sets of eyes across the table before him, Peter sensed fears similar to his own. It was oddly comforting.
“I know where you’re coming from, Brother Burton,” said the chairman. “We’re all carrying our own burdens out here, and not one of us has escaped the realization of how enormous this task is. But actually, none of us is responsible for the safety of our friends. That’s on Jehovah. We’ve been obedient down to the last detail, and that’s the only reason we’re here, together, having this conversation. Sure, we might’ve assumed that it would be smooth sailing as soon as we boarded these vessels, but should we have? Think of the Israelites. Just days after crossing the Red Sea, they began to doubt Jehovah’s ability to provide and protect. The evidence of his power was all around them, but they became distracted by problems that, in hindsight, were very minor. You are clearly a loving shepherd worried about one of your sheep, as you should be. But don’t let it distract you. Jehovah is in control.”
“Perhaps there’s still a way we can help without raising too much of a commotion,” Brother Kelly chipped in. “Peter’s idea of finding a sketch artist to put together a rendering of this mysterious man calling himself James might not be a bad one. Once it’s done, we could circulate it among the overseers and the night watchmen. We don’t need to provide all the details of what he’s suspected of, but that way they can keep an eye out. There’s only so many places to hide out here.”
“Thoughts?” asked the chairman. Those around the table raised their hands in a motion to accept the proposal.
“Thank you. Thank you all. And that example of the Israelites… It’s a good one. Looks like I need to do some reading,” Peter said.
“It’s a good reminder for all of us. We can only expect the pressures to mount as we get closer to the end,” the chairman said, to which everyone heartily agreed.
The lanky man sat quietly in the corner of the small room. He’d introduced himself as the captain and was now wiping what looked like motor oil from the cuffs of his dark green weatherproof. Joyce Tucker had finished the plate of scrambled eggs he’d brought in with a cup of coffee. Both had been bland, but that hadn’t kept her from savoring every mouthful. Anything was better than peanut butter and crackers.
“Thank you all for your generosity,” Joyce said, sliding the emptied metal dish to the edge of the table. She brought the mug of coffee to her lips and took a sip. “We’ve been running for days. Seen lots of awful stuff out here.”
The captain nodded, but it was a distracted gesture, as if heavier matters weighed on his mind. He was working on a smudge near his elbow.
“Engine trouble?” Joyce asked.
The captain glanced up at her for a moment, then down at the rag in his hands. “No. It’s not oil. It’s something in the air. You stay out in the fog or the rain long enough and you get covered in it.”
“Some say it’s what’s keeping the light from getting through.”
“Oh,” Joyce said, eyebrows rising.
The captain shrugged it off. “That was a risky thing you two tried. Boarding a sailboat in pitch black without a wind at your back. What were you thinking?”
“Not much, really. We were out of options. We had to get to our destination. We’d tried the roads, but the border was closed. And of course airports were out of the question. By sea was the only way, and my friend, Stacy, happened to have a boat…”
“You could’ve easily died out here. Almost did.”
“If there had been any other way, we would’ve taken it. But even the harbor was becoming too dangerous to just hang around. We were forced to leave, and so we did.”
“Whole world’s gone crazy,” murmured the captain, then frowned. “Gina said you two were Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Joyce nodded. “Yes. We were fleeing to Vancouver. A place called Burrard Harbor.”
The captain was nodding patiently. “I’m familiar with the Witnesses’ camp there. We passed it on our way out of Vancouver. The place was being overrun.”
“Overrun?” Joyce asked.
“Apparently they’d shut the gates. Once the power went off, they were the only ones in the area with the lights still on. People started flooding in. It was pandemonium.”
Joyce was speechless, a look of horror frozen on her face.
“So even if you’d gotten there somehow, there’d have been nothing to flee to.”
“But… That can’t be…” Joyce said, her voice a frail whisper. “They would’ve been protected.”
“By our organization, and our… our God, Jehovah.”
“Interesting. Someone who still believes in God.”
“I do. I’ve felt his protection these last few days, despite stupid decisions.”
“Like sailing off into the dark unknown?”
“Worse. I was in Burrard Harbor weeks ago. I left on an impulse. We were given explicit instructions and I disobeyed.”
“Well, if we run into any inclement weather out here, I’ll be sure to toss you overboard,” the captain said, a mysterious smirk forming on his lips.
“Come again?” Joyce asked anxiously.
“I’m afraid whale sharks aren’t native to the California coast, though.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not following you,” Joyce said, brow furrowed.
“You’re fortunate, you know. Had any other vessel stumbled across the two of you on that burning sailboat, they would’ve given you a wide berth. I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m buying your story so far. Chances are too great that this wasn’t just a random encounter. You may have disobeyed, but it looks like Jehovah has given you both another chance.”
Joyce’s expression froze as the picture began coming together.
“You can call me Brother Callister. We’re all friends here.”
“You’re Witnesses? But you said the camp was overrun…”
“It was. But by the time that happened, we were all loaded onto ships and barges on the other end of the harbor. The lights were on, but no one was home, as per directions from the branch. So far as I know, no one was harmed. I apologize for leading you on there at the beginning, but I needed to see if you really were who you said you were. Can’t be too cautious these days.”
Joyce’s head reeled. The relief was immense, but with it came a flood of questions.
“You said no one’s left in Burrard.”
“My husband was there. Alvin Tucker. Does the name ring any bells?”
“Sorry. Last I heard, the count at Burrard was over 190,000. Not a whole lot of familiar faces. He’s probably in one of the ships out here, though.”
“Is there any way to contact him? A radio, perhaps?”
“We’ve got the equipment, but it’s been useless. My guess is that whatever’s blocking out the light is also scrambling radio waves,” Brother Callister said, motioning to the stained rag on the bench beside him. “Navigational systems and GPS are still working, but that’s about it.”
“How many ships are out here with us?”
“No idea, sister. Hundreds, perhaps thousands. It’s a miracle how everything was coordinated. And it’s a miracle we aren’t crashing into each other out here in the dark.”
“My husband told me we were instructed to evacuate to Namibia. Is that where we’re headed now?” Joyce asked.
Brother Callister stood, stretched, and nodded. “That’s right. It’s a long trip down the coast, then we cut through the Panama Canal before heading through the Gulf and then across the Atlantic. A seventy-day trip, give or take.”
Joyce could feel her head spinning again. “We won’t run out of fuel in that time?”
“We’ve brought most of what we need with us, including fuel and supplies. When we do run low, some of the supertankers out here will act as supply and refueling vessels. That’s actually our job in all this––we run supply lines from the supertankers to the other vessels. Everything’s been positioned strategically along the route.”
“It doesn’t seem possible,” Joyce said, shaking her head. “All of this is so surreal.”
“You’ll get over it,” the captain said, smiling. “There’s plenty of work to be done on a supply ship. You got any skills?”
Joyce nodded. “I was a registered nurse back in Washington. But I’m happy to be of use wherever you need me. My name’s Joyce Tucker, by the way,” she said, her hand outstretched. Captain Callister took it and smiled.
“Sister Tucker. Good to have you. Welcome aboard Abigail.”
Chad Harkett had spent the better part of the last twelve hours in the Faraday cage hunched over a pad of paper, the relentless hiss of static near full volume in his ears. The bursts of speech were few and far between, making it a struggle to decipher even a single sentence of the repeating message. And even the snippets he’d transcribed made no sense to him, the words nonsensical and seemingly random. Some kind of coded language, perhaps.
Frustrated, Chad tossed the paper to the corner of the desk and rose from his seat. He’d been so engrossed with the broadcast that he’d hardly noticed the passage of time or the pangs of hunger. He made his way to the kitchenette and warmed a can of beans over the propane stove. The temperature in the bunker had dropped somewhat as the blaze outside had consumed all available fuel, but the air inside the bunker was dry and stifling.
For all of his disdain for Martin’s inability to cope with the pressures of survival, Chad was beginning to question his own tenacity. With the liquor absent from his system, a dull, formless dread was emerging in the pit of his stomach like a creature stepping from the void. Chad was arrogant but not stupid; he knew he would need to face the terrors of his solitude. The inferno outside would eventually diminish, but the blackness it would leave in its wake would create a vacuum where new horrors would emerge.
He needed out.
Chad washed away the salty taste of beans with a warm bottle of water and sat, ignoring the rising tide of garbage at his feet. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but in spite of his utter exhaustion his mind was a whirlpool that would not allow him even a moment’s rest. He could feel Martin’s eyes staring down at him from the darkness. His fingers trembled. He felt a chill creep along his spine even as a sheen of sweat stood out on his forehead.
This will be my tomb, he thought. I’ve buried myself alive.
Chad rose and wandered to the entrance of the bunker. The hazy blaze outside had lessened to a faint orange glow, but even through the thick, reinforced steel door, Chad could smell smoke. Wispy ash and flickering embers swarmed like otherworldly insects on the other side of the glass.
And then a shape emerged.
A body, walking on two legs, through the blackness, silhouetted by flames.
Chad felt his heart lunge into his throat as the figure neared. Surely this was not Martin, Chad thought. Even so, a faint hope emerged, and excitement with it.
But no, this was not Martin. The head, in fact, was not the shape of a man’s head, but long and bulging with large, glassy eyes. A gas mask, Chad realized. A gas mask and fatigues and a large gun. The masked face filled the frame of the small window and brought a fist to the door. The eternal silence of the bunker was shattered by a fist pounding against the outer door.
Chad stumbled backwards down the ramp, staring up at the inhuman face as if experiencing a vision. He lay motionless there for a few long moments as the pounding continued. Then, coming to his senses, he unbolted the door and swung it open.
“You Martin?” asked the man through his mask. A wave of heat flooded into the bunker with him. Chad closed the door immediately behind him, faintly aware of the danger in welcoming an armed and uninvited stranger into the bunker with him, but too eager for company to stop himself.
Slowly, Chad shook his head. “Martin was my business partner. My name is Chad Harkett.”
The soldier frowned, pulled a small notepad from his pants pocket, and grunted.
“We have this address down as belonging to Martin Landretti. Is he here?”
“I’m sorry, no. There was an accident. He’s dead,” Chad said. The soldier studied him for a moment before nodding.
“Been trying to reach his radio. You get anything?” The man peeled the gas mask from his sweaty face and scanned the room. He looked to be in his forties or so, with a buzz cut. A feathered wing tattoo crept up the left side of his neck from beneath his fatigues.
Chad turned to gaze dimly at the radio room. “I… there was something, but… The messages weren’t clear.”
“Yeah, figured. Something’s interfering with the signals. Not just radio waves, either. GPS is down, satellite feeds iffy. It’s a real pain to get any messages in or out. Landlines are working, but that’s only if both parties have power. You got any water?” The man unzipped his jacket, revealing an undershirt soaked in sweat.
Chad fetched him a bottle. “How bad are the blackouts?” he asked. The man finished the entire bottle before he responded.
“Coast to coast, it seems. We’ve had confirmed reports from Florida to New York.”
Chad’s head spun. He sat heavily.
“I’m not here to chat. You said you worked with Martin?”
“That’s right. We were business partners.”
“Know anything about AI?”
“Artificial Intelligence?” Chad asked, puzzled. The soldier nodded curtly. “Sure, we were working on some facial-scanning software that utilized AI. Why?”
“No time to get into the details here,” the soldier said as he stood and motioned towards the bunker’s entrance. “We’ve got an armored convoy out there waiting. I can explain everything on the way.”
“On the way where?” Chad asked.
“Can’t tell you that until you’re in the convoy.”
Chad thought it over for only a moment before he acquiesced. “Fine. Let me just grab a few things.”