Peter was transfixed as the artist’s stylus glided across the screen of the tablet. He could feel the slow burn of anxiety in his chest, the embers fanned with each pencil stroke.
Of course, part of it was exhaustion. He’d been sitting in the cramped conference room now for over two hours doing his best to summon every facial detail he could from his strained memory. He’d slept little in the past few days, and the weariness was showing. He barely recognized his own face in the mirror these days. It was as if he’d aged a decade since boarding the rig, and still their destination was weeks away.
But the other part was looming uncertainty. Uncertainty about what had happened, uncertainty about what remained.
“Brother Burton?” asked the young sister. She gazed expectantly over the top of her glasses, pulling Peter from his stupor.
“Sorry, Elise. You ask me something?” Peter asked, unable to recall anything past the haze of his thoughts.
“Um, yeah. The cheekbones. You said they were a little unpronounced before. Do they look about right now?”
Peter tilted his head and squinted at the glowing screen. If he could hardly recognize his own reflection, how was he expected to remember James’s?
“Umm,” Peter said, trailing off. He glanced over at Evan, snoring quietly at his side. Angelica’s son would have gotten the closest look of any of them at their stowaway fugitive, but after all he’d been through the last couple of days, Peter wanted him to rest. Peter let out a long breath.
“Yeah. I think so. I mean, it’s pretty close. Thanks, you did a great job.”
“Uh huh,” Elise said. She stretched and rolled her shoulders a few times. A glance at her watch told her it was nearly ten o’clock.
Elise was a young sister from central California who’d been a freelance graphic designer and portrait artist before the outbreak of the great tribulation. She’d been eager to take a break from folding sheets and pillowcases in the laundry department to work on the drawing, even if the overseers had been careful not to reveal its purpose. Still, being recruited so suddenly and so late in the night to do a drawing invited all kinds of speculation.
“So, I don’t want to be nosy or anything, but this drawing…” Elise said as the file transferred wirelessly from her tablet to Peter’s phone.
“Is it like a wanted poster or something?”
“Again, maybe it’s totally not my place, but if there’s someone dangerous here… I guess I’m just asking, as a single sister, is there something I should be watching out for?”
Peter’s frown deepened. There it was again, that pain in his gut, that reminder that not all was well, that the sheep entrusted to his care were in danger.
“I… I’m sorry. I can’t really say just yet.”
“Um. All right,” Elise said quietly with a shrug.
“If anyone needs to be told anything, I promise you’ll hear about it.” Peter made an effort at a reassuring look.
“Yeah, of course,” Elise replied, and left. Peter was close behind her, Evan sound asleep in his arms. He carried the boy to their apartment and set him down on a small mattress Rachel had prepared in the corner. As Peter had instructed, Rachel had kept their apartment door bolted shut all day, and several pairs of brothers had stopped by periodically to check up on her. It had been a day of fear and uncertainty, and the signs of stress were written all over her face.
“Any news?” Rachel asked as her husband locked the door.
“Not yet. We’ll be circulating a drawing of the man tomorrow. Maybe someone has seen something.”
“How’s Evan?” Rachel asked.
“Coping, I guess. Maybe he’s still in shock. I have no idea. How’re you?”
Rachel pressed her eyes shut and lowered her head. “Just tired. I want this to be over. It was exciting at first, being here with the friends. But now I feel like the walls are starting to close in on me. Like I might just lose my mind if I have to stay another week. And the food…”
“We’re on rations, Rachel. They’re doing the best they can.”
“I’m not complaining, Peter. I’m just… I’m just trying to express myself.”
“Well, I’m listening,” Peter said, slipping his coat onto a hanger and hanging it on a slim closet in the corner of the pod.
“Really, Peter?” Rachel asked, her tone of voice taking on a sharp edge. Her husband said nothing. “Because I feel like you haven’t heard a word I’ve said in days,” Rachel pressed.
“There’s been a lot going on. You know that,” Peter said.
“And? You don’t think I’ve been through a lot these last few days too?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m just asking you to cut me a little slack here.”
“You’re not the only one who lost her, you know.”
“Yeah? Well, it feels like I’m the only one trying to get her back,” Peter snapped, regretting the words as soon as they were spoken. He felt the air leave the room as the two of them stood in the vacuum of cold silence. “I’m sorry,” Peter mumbled. “I didn’t mean it.”
But it was too late. Neither of them said another word before bed.
Chad Harkett climbed into the armored convoy to find himself surrounded on all sides by monitors and racks of weapons. Crates of supplies and ammunition were lashed to the walls with thick nylon webbing. Narrow benches on either side and two swiveling chairs near the cabin were the only places to sit. Chad took a seat near the doors and took as much in as he could while the soldiers and technicians ignored him.
Chad’s escort took a seat on the bench opposite him and unstrapped his helmet. He squeezed the remains of a second bottle of water into his mouth and slid a soot-stained sleeve across his face. Chad glanced out one of the narrow vertical windows set into the back doors of the vehicle and stared numbly at a sea of flames.
“Never seen anything like this…” he mumbled.
“Makes the previous California blazes look like bonfires, don’t it?” the soldier quipped.
“How far does it go?”
“As far as we’ve heard, up and down the West Coast. More fires are popping up all over the place, too. All the way east, we hear.”
“You can’t be serious.”
The soldier nodded slowly, his expression hard and unflinching.
“What started it?”
“Part of it was those freak storms, I’m sure. Right after the blackouts; seemed to come outta nowhere. Weird lightning all over the place. Been another dry season here in Cali, of course. One bolt on a patch of dried lawn or a pile of leaves is all it takes and she’ll burn like the Fourth of July. But there’s been reports of some other… phenomena, too. Could be to blame for some of this.”
“What kind of phenomena are we talking about?”
“Well, I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, but there’s been a lot of radio chatter about… What they call it, Torres?” the soldier called out to one of the technicians glued to a monitor.
“Yeah, right. Hail fire. Fire coming right outta the sky.”
“Is that… like, a normal thing?” Chad asked, eyes flitting from the back of the technician’s head to the cold, dark eyes of the soldier in front of him.
“What’s normal anymore these days?” the soldier laughed, a little too loudly.
“So is this an attack or what? Some kind of chemical warfare?”
“That’s the current theory, yes. We think whoever is behind this is connected to the chemical attacks at the airports. Probably also connected to whatever’s mucking up the air and jamming radio signals, too.”
“And the power outages?” Chad asked.
“Maybe that too, yeah.”
“But you’re talking about an extremely highly coordinated attack. There must be only a handful of countries capable of something like that, right? China? Russia? Who do you think it was?”
“Nah, neither of those. We’ve been told that Beijing and Moscow have reported similar attacks on their infrastructure.”
“North Korea, then?”
The soldier shook his head. “Unlikely.”
“Why’s that?” Chad asked.
“Bring up the image,” barked the solider. The technician nodded once and tapped a few keys into the computer, bringing up an aerial image of a large peninsula. “You’re looking at the Korean peninsula a few days ago. The next one was a composite put together over the last twenty-four hours. Our satellite connection isn’t great, but it’s enough to get the picture.”
The screen image flittered away, replaced by a similar one. But now, instead of a greenish landmass surrounded by blue sea, the surrounding area was black, the peninsula itself a bright orange streak of fire.
“Oh my god,” Chad gasped.
“That’s everywhere. Pyongyang, Seoul, Incheon. All up in smoke. Looks like they got it even worse than we did.”
“So you’re saying this is worldwide?” Chad asked, struggling to process what he was hearing.
“Not sure yet. We’re still struggling to make contact with whoever is left. And even when Washington has news for us, our connection to them isn’t always stable. But we’ve got enough of the picture to form some conclusions.”
“And those are?”
“From the intel we’ve gathered, it seems like everyone got hit with the same thing: blackouts, storms, and then fires. We’re talking hundreds of trillions of dollars in damage. But in each area we’ve heard from so far, there are these… pockets, I guess you could call them, where things were relatively unscathed. In some areas you actually had acres upon acres of completely unaffected areas. No storms, no fires. Even, in some cases, power grids still somehow functioning when everyone else was sitting in the dark. And each of those places has something in common.”
“They were all evacuation points for a religious sect. Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Chad felt as if the air had been sucked from his lungs and replaced with gasoline. His eyes and mouth burned. He seethed quietly as he let the soldier continue.
“You still got a copy of that pamphlet?” the soldier asked. The tech pulled a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and handed it over his shoulder.
“You remember seeing these everywhere a few months back?”
Chad nodded, the sickness worsening.
“Recruitment propaganda, trying to get people to join up before they launched their attack. Looking back, the signs seemed obvious, but at the time, I guess no one thought they were dangerous.”
“How were they not stamped out with the other churches and religious group a year ago?”
“Who knows? But one thing is certain: the Witnesses are far more organized and dangerous than anyone could’ve imagined. And they’re global, too. Financially, they’re probably worth tens of billions. Looks like they finally cashed it all in on some end-of-the-world nightmare scenario.”
“To what end? Why would they want this?”
“Our intel tells us they’re trying to set up their own country and government. Apparently some African country sold them a huge tract of land years ago. They’re headed there now.”
“And then what?”
“The rest of it is detailed pretty plainly in that pamphlet, actually. They believe God has chosen them to set up a world government that will destroy all other countries. They don’t believe in playing nicely together, it would seem.”
“No kidding,” Chad said, shaking his head. “So what’s our government going to do about it?”
“Not just us. I mentioned Beijing and Moscow, and there’s a few others in tow as well. A coalition is being formed.”
“A coalition? To do what?”
“What needs to be done, of course. We’re gonna eradicate the disease of religion once and for all and take back what’s ours.”
Chad crossed his arms and frowned. It wasn’t the proposition that surprised him, but the frankness with which it was expressed. He wondered for a moment if the soldier had revealed more than he was supposed to. “How classified is this information?” he finally asked.
“Not very,” the soldier shrugged. “A formal press release is being put together about the attacks. Once people learn the truth, we expect to have the public’s full backing. After all, this isn’t the end of the Witnesses’ plans.”
“What do you mean?”
“You read the pamphlet. In their scenario, this ends with Armageddon.”
“Which means what, exactly?”
“According to their interpretation, the Lord Jesus and the angels wiping out all who oppose them.”
“And your interpretation?”
“A nuclear attack, most likely. We don’t know how they’d pull it off, but given their previous coordinated attacks, it doesn’t seem so farfetched. Another possibility is a biochemical attack, similar to what we saw at the airports. They could also be somehow seeding the air with something. There are still plenty of unknowns, but all of it points to the same endgame.”
“And where do I come in then?” Chad asked.
“You’ll be briefed when we get to base. In the meantime, I suggest you get some shut eye. We’ve got a haul ahead of us and a list of names.”
“Sure. You’re not the only recruit on the list.”
Peter found his way to a stiff, plastic chair nestled between the corner of the conference room and the long rectangular table. Tired faces––some familiar, some not––occupied the chairs beside and across from him. It was eight o’clock in the morning and Peter was unsure if he’d slept any the night before. The room stank of coffee and tired bodies; one of the water distillers had gone offline earlier in the week, requiring strictly rationed usage of water, which had only added to the passengers existing stress. Tensions were high, and nowhere more so than in this stuffily cramped room where men carried the weight of thousands on their shoulders.
The chairman spoke as soon as the prayer had finished. His name was Donnie Chavez. “I apologize for not getting an agenda out to you all before calling this meeting, but given the nature of the situation with the missing sister, and the fact that we now have this sketch, I decided to call us together again. Brother Burton, can you update us?”
Peter nodded, downed the rest of his coffee to muster whatever remained of his concentration and began. “As you all know, we’ve still heard no news of the missing sister from our congregation. Her son is safe and is staying with my wife and I for the time being. As we discussed at the last meeting, I tracked down an artist from aboard our rig and she helped me put together the profile sketch I emailed to all of you.”
The heads around the table nodded respectfully, but little seemed to register behind their eyes. Was it lack of concern or mere exhaustion? Peter couldn’t tell.
“Since I haven’t heard back from any of you, I’m assuming no one’s seen a face like this?” Peter said, struggling to control his impatience. He waited as the brothers leaned in closer to peer at the screens of phones and tablets.
“I’m sure we’ll let you know if we run into anyone matching this face, but with so many unfamiliar faces aboard this rig, please understand that it’s not a simple thing to track anyone down, especially someone who doesn’t want to be found.”
“If he’s even aboard this rig in the first place,” said another brother.
“Meaning?” Peter asked.
“As far as I remember, Sister Barry’s child was the only one to witness the alleged kidnapping. Am I correct?”
“The name’s Parry. And while Evan was the only one to see it, we had others who testified to seeing this man aboard the rig.”
“Sure, I remember that, Brother Burton. But you know that these types of things can only be established with two eyewitnesses.”
“I’m not trying to start a judicial hearing here, brothers. I’m simply asking for some cooperation in helping to find a missing sister,” Peter said, unable any longer to control his tone. He looked down to find his fists clenched on the table.
“Look, brothers. We’ve all been through a lot here,” said Marcus Kelly. “Each of us has more on our plate now than ever before, and the stakes feel higher than ever. And you’re right, we’ve got nothing established here yet with only one eyewitness. However, maybe one of us has an idea of how we can help. Just imagine if it were someone in your own group, or family, that was missing.”
Peter let out a breath, exhaling some of the tension along with it.
“With all due respect, Brother Burton––and I can only imagine how anxious this situation must make you feel––I’m still against the idea of putting up wanted posters all over the rig. People are already riled up. With the lack of land communication, the food rations, and now the water issues, I feel like we’re sitting on a powder keg. Our friends are struggling just to keep things civil. Something like this could send everyone over the edge.”
“Have there been any reports of strange sightings from the night watchmen?” asked Brother Kelly to the security overseer, Charles Garboni.
“Not that they’ve mentioned to me. Why do you ask?”
“I’m just trying to piece it together. If this kidnapper is still aboard––and I can’t imagine how he would’ve escaped––he’s gotta be holed up somewhere, which means he needs access to food and water. He’s got to know he’s a wanted man at this point, which means he probably won’t be taking his chances stealing supplies during the day. Seems only logical to assume he’d try to sneak into the cafeteria at night. Is there anyone patrolling that area at that time?”
Brother Garboni shook his head. “Our night watchmen stick to the outer walkways at night. They man the floodlights and watch for pirates or anyone who might’ve fallen overboard.”
“So the cafeteria is completely unwatched at night?” Peter asked.
“That’s right. There’s never been a need to.”
“Perhaps we can station a couple of night patrols in the cafeteria. I understand they’ve got a copy of the sketch?” Brother Kelly asked.
“Hadn’t gotten around to it. Brothers, what do you think?” Charles Garboni asked. The others were nodding, and for once Peter had reason for optimism.
“If possible, tell them to keep somewhat hidden. If this James character does show up, we don’t want him apprehended. They’ll need to follow him to wherever he’s hiding so we can locate Angelica.”
Brother Garboni winced. “You said a few days ago that this James character… he’s dangerous, right?”
Peter surveyed the room before carefully responding. “If he’s the one behind the poisoning… if that’s what it was… then yes. He’s dangerous.”
Charles opened his mouth as if to speak, but suddenly caught himself and simply nodded. “I understand. We’ll do our best.”
Peter excused himself from the conference room as soon as the closing prayer was finished. His head was pounding and his lungs ached for fresh air. He climbed up an outer stairwell and leaned into a catwalk railing as the waves crashed and frothed below. He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath as a frail hand settled on his shoulder. He turned to find Marcus smiling gently.
“Marcus,” Peter said, struggling to match his friend’s expression. Marcus nodded slowly and turned to face the sea. He closed his eyes. The two stood quietly side by side, the salt in the air sticking to their skin, making it feel coarse and weathered.
“You been feeling ok lately?” Peter asked.
“Oh, I have my ups and downs,” Marcus said with a sigh.
“I hope you’ve been getting regular checkups at the infirmary since you’ve been here.”
“I’d say they have their hands full at the moment, wouldn’t you? You check on Ted lately?”
“Last night. Same as before. Stable but still completely out of it. They put him in a drug-induced coma until they can be sure the toxins haven’t done any permanent damage.”
“He’ll pull through.”
“Wish I had your confidence.”
“You will, in time.”
“Yeah? What’s that mean?”
Marcus smiled at his younger friend and took another deep breath. When he spoke, his words were measured and calming. “Stand still and see the salvation of Jehovah.”
Peter sighed. “Marcus… I appreciate the encouragement. And I know Jehovah’s looking out for us, and that all of this will be fine in the long run, but right now…”
“Peter, right now is the long run. There’s no time left. We’ve made it this far. All we have to do is take our position.”
“You think I’m overreacting to this Angelica thing.”
“I understand it, Peter. I get that you’re worried, and I get that you’re frustrated that the others don’t seem as worried as you.”
“You’re right. I don’t get that at all.”
“That’s because you don’t understand all of what they’re going through. Take the chairman, Brother Chavez, as an example. Do you know his situation?” Peter shook his head.
“His two sons, Bret and Phillip, were killed on their way to New Orleans. A couple of hoodlums mugged them at a gas station. Their wives still made it safely aboard, but now they’re grieving over that loss while trying to adapt to life on these rigs. Or what about Charles Garboni, the brother in charge of the security department? Have you gotten to know him?”
“No,” Peter said.
“Three families in his congregation––one in his own service group––have been missing since evacuation from California. Their convoy was separated when an accident diverted traffic near their hometown. He believes they may have made it safely to New Orleans and boarded another rig, but he’s been unable to confirm it.”
“Everyone’s got a story here, Peter. And listening to these stories, our congregation seems to have gotten by pretty well. We have so much to be thankful for.”
“Yeah, well except for Darren and Rita.”
“Yes, I think about them too. But that’s not on our conscience. We did everything we could for them, especially you. Whatever happened to them, it was entirely on their own heads.”
“But that’s exactly why I’m so worried about Angelica. That is on our heads. Isn’t it?”
“No one is blaming you for her disappearance, Peter. And no one is stopping you from doing what you can to track her down. The brothers are merely trying to keep an eye on the big picture and not cause needless anxiety for the friends. The perspective is simply different.”
“You feel I was too harsh in there.”
“Considering all that those good brothers have gone through, and all they continue to do for everyone aboard this rig, yes.”
“I’m sorry, I just…”
“Listen, Peter. We’re so close to the end. But before it comes, we can be sure that Satan will try to attack us with the only means he now has––each other. You can see how tensions are already getting to people. More than ever before, unity, humility, and forgiveness are going to be tested to their limits. As brothers––and especially as overseers––we have to be setting the example. We have to be peacemakers.”
Angelica opened her eyes to the familiar four walls of the storage closet she’d been confined to for the last three days. The swaying of the sea beneath her caused the suspended halogen lights to swing from the ceiling in rhythmic arcs, tugging and stretching the shadows this way and that. The furniture had been rearranged somewhat since her arrival; Thiago had moved everything but the cardboard and sacks that served as her bed to the opposite end of the room, ostensibly to prevent her from accessing anything that might aid an escape attempt. Not that she’d tried; Angelica had been content waiting for someone to stumble upon her. There were only so many places to hide on a repurposed oil rig trudging through the Atlantic, and it would only be a matter of time before she was discovered. She was most worried for Evan, as it had been made clear to her that Chad had paid for the capture and safe return of both of them. She filled the time between meals and sleep with prayer, and this kept the anxiety at bay.
“Food’s been rationed. This is all you’ll get for today,” the tall man said as he slipped in through the entrance. He pulled the tape from Angelica’s lips; she winced as flecks of dried skin peeled away.
“Thank you,” Angelica said, raising her wrists above her head so that Thiago could snip away the ties. From the start she’d been careful to build the trust between them. No sudden moves. No thoughts of escape. With the ties cut, Angelica massaged her wrists as she began working on the plate of food in front of her. It wasn’t much, but it didn’t matter. She was voracious and there wasn’t a crumb left when she was done eating.
Her captor had been nothing if not attendant to her needs, Angelica thought. It was now clear that the price on her head was predicated by her safe return to land, and so any initial fears of physical violence had vanished. James, on the other hand (or whatever his name was) seemed increasingly anxious with each encounter. Angelica had been careful not to press him needlessly for details, but it was clear to her that whatever plan he’d originally formulated had been abandoned. The farther the rig carried them out into the open seas, the more treacherous any attempt to leave would become. Time was running out for him.
“How have conditions been here on the rig since the rations went into effect?” Angelica asked, testing the waters. Thiago gave her a long look before replying.
“Little has changed.”
Good news, Angelica thought. Everyone was keeping calm. It would not be easy, she knew. Even down here, in her cramped storage room closer to the waterline, she could feel the seas roughening with each passing day. Thankfully, seasickness hadn’t been an issue. Things could always be worse.
“Have you seen my son?” Angelica asked. Thiago’s eyes narrowed as his chin lifted slightly into the air, gauging her intentions.
“No. But when I do find him, you can be sure we’ll be on the next boat off of this cursed platform.”
“You have a boat, then?”
“How we leave is none of your concern,” Thiago hissed.
“I’m sorry. I’m not trying to cause you trouble,” Angelica said, lowering her gaze. “It’s just that... Well, if I’m going to be expected to leave with you, I’m afraid my legs won’t be much use. I haven’t walked in days, and my ankles are starting to swell.”
“What are you asking?”
“Just that you cut the ankle restraints, let me stretch my legs.”
Thiago considered the request for a long moment before tossing the wire cutters onto the mattress. Angelica removed the zip ties. The skin around her ankles was red and chafed and her whole body felt stiff from the lack of movement, but otherwise she didn’t feel terrible. She returned the cutters and slowly began to massage the muscles in her calves, her knees, and ankles. Heat spread through her body as the circulation improved.
“This place is a death trap,” Thiago growled. It was the first instance she could remember of her captor initiating a conversation and she wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity.
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Thousands of brainwashed cult members adrift at sea with no means to protect themselves. Now your food is running out. Soon it’ll be water, then fuel. Then you’ll see these people’s true colors.”
Angelica smiled. “It does seem dire, but I’m not worried. We’ve been through worse.”
“During the Second World War, our brothers and sisters were attacked by Hitler. He sent them to concentration camps and death marches. He was determined to completely wipe out the Witnesses. But we took care of each other, fed each other, gave up our lives for each other. Most made it out alive. We can handle some rough seas and food rations.”
“So much confidence, even as you sit here as a prisoner,” Thiago said coldly.
“I don’t know how things will turn out for me individually. I might live through this ordeal, I might not. But as a people, nothing can stop us. I have absolute faith in that.”
“Faith is a dangerous thing.”
“Lack of faith is even more dangerous.”
“It’s worked out fine for me,” Thiago sneered. He fished a few zip ties from a pocket and tossed them onto the mattress. Angelica looked at them dejectedly. “Fasten those nice and tight. I have some errands to run.” He stood and donned a jacket and baseball cap while Angelica complied, looping the ties around her ankles first, then her wrists. Thiago bent down to inspect her work and cinch the ties even tighter. Angelica winced as the sharp plastic bit into her raw, reddened skin.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Supplies,” replied her captor before shutting off the light and disappearing out back into the cold outside.