“How are you and Tina holding up?” asked the night watchman. His name was Mike Glover, though most on the crew knew him as Mikey. He broke a Snickers bar in half and handed it to his buddy, Cary.
“Little antsy, to say the least,” Cary said glumly. He bit into the chocolate, savored it. “Man, I can’t tell you how bad I want to get to that next supply depot.”
Mikey grunted in confirmation. “Yeah, rations are taking their toll. On the plus side, I’ve probably dropped ten pounds in the last few weeks.”
“Three more days, man. Three more days and I can forget about tuna salad and crackers.”
“I wonder what our diet is going to be like when we get to Namibia,” Mikey said, chewing on the last bit of his candy bar.
“Probably not Snickers bars.”
“Yeah. Probably not. I’m sure we’ll be taken care of, though. It’s pretty crazy when you actually stop and think about everything that’s happening now. It was only a year ago when the evacuation letters were read. I’ll never forget that meeting. It was so unreal, getting those instructions.”
“We didn’t sleep at all that night. Just laid awake in bed talking about it, worrying about the house and the jobs and everything. Only a year ago. That is crazy.”
“Feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?”
“Sure does. And can’t say I don’t miss it a little bit.”
“What do you mean?” Mikey asked.
“The stability, you know? Having a job to clock in on each day, a paycheck to look forward to. Being able to drive around, go to the grocery store, come home and flip on the TV or Netflix and just veg.”
“Life has become simpler. But you do have a stable job, and you don’t have to worry about a paycheck now. And no more rush hour traffic, right?”
“Yeah, sure, but it isn’t the same. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m grateful… for everything.”
“That’s good to hear, Cary. We just had that talk about not looking at the things behind, you know? And I know life aboard this rig isn’t what any of us expected. But we’ve got to keep fixed on what lies ahead, right?”
“Yeah, of course, I get that. Like I said, I’m not about to jump ship and try to swim home, I’m just saying. You miss those mundane things in life when everything gets flipped upside down. Don’t you?”
“Once in a while, sure. But we’ve got so much more to look forward to. I try to focus on that.”
“That’s great and all, don’t get me wrong, but we also have no idea how long this tribulation will last. What if it goes on for years? Have you thought about that? What if we’re all crammed into some kind of refugee camp in Africa for a decade? Can you imagine that? Ten million of us or whatever. I’m just saying it could happen.”
“I guess anything is possible. We don’t have the details. But I’d still take that over what’s happening in the rest of the world. You saw that footage from New York: no power, no sunlight, and now flash fires? It must be scary. I wouldn’t want to be back there. Would you?”
“That’s just the East Coast though, Mikey. There’s no way of knowing how bad it actually is in California. Maybe things are just as they were when we left.”
“I dunno, Cary,” Mikey said uncertainly. “That seems like a dangerous train of thought.”
“I’m just talking, Mikey.”
The two watchmen fell silent as the overhead bulbs thunked off in succession until the only light was the soft glow of an electric lantern seeping from the kitchen window. The last of the kitchen crew filed out of the cafeteria. Some waved.
“So, what are your thoughts on this whole… fugitive thing?” Cary asked when the two were alone. He pulled his phone from a jacket pocket and swiped to the artist’s sketch, combing over the details.
Mikey shrugged. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you think he’s connected to those two who were poisoned?”
“I didn’t hear anything about anyone being poisoned.”
“What? You didn’t hear about the two guys who collapsed the other day? It happened right over there,” Cary said, motioning with his chin.
“No, I heard about that, but I didn’t know they’d determined it was anything to do with poisoning.”
“Well, it’s not official, of course. But that seems to be the consensus. I guess they’re trying to keep things under wraps, trying not to cause a stir.”
“Makes sense to me.”
“If you ask me, it’s worse to be so secretive. Same with these wanted posters. I say stick ‘em up on the walls, put them on the monitors. Get everyone involved. We’d nab him a lot sooner.”
“I’m sure the brothers know what they’re doing, Cary.”
“I wish I had your confidence.”
“I think the important thing is to just keep our minds on the task at hand.”
“You really think the guy’d show his face in here after what happened? He’s probably long gone,” Cary said smugly. He took a seat on one of the cafeteria benches and threw his feet up on the seats across from him.
“Then again, maybe there’s a reason the overseers assigned two of us to this place for the night shift. They explicitly mentioned keeping a low profile and staying out of sight. We should probably take a look around and figure out how to patrol the place without being too visible.”
“Relax, Mikey. It’s almost pitch black in here. No one’s gonna show.” Cary crossed his arms and tried to get comfortable on the bench while Mikey looked on in dismay. He had words for his nephew––many words––but would save them for another time. He set off by himself towards the kitchen.
Joyce stared motionlessly at the still body of her friend, Stacy Owen. The injured woman had been laid on one of the ship’s cabin bunks and wrapped in a space blanket. The color had drained from her cheeks while a vicious fever had gripped her for nearly three days. Joyce had administered all of the antibiotics the crew of the Abigail had managed to scrounge up, and there was little left to do now but wait.
She prayed aloud for the dozenth time that day, repeating the words that had become nearly rote. Perhaps Stacy could hear them too.
“How is she?” asked the baritone voice of a man from the doorway. Joyce Tucker turned to find Captain Callister standing there, a mug of steaming black tea held in his outstretched hand. Joyce took it from him and escorted the two of them out into the corridor.
“Still fighting off some kind of infection. I’ve medicated her as best I can with what’s available, but I’m not sure it’s enough,” Joyce explained softly, glancing back at her friend through the doorway. “I’m more concerned with the pain, though. She’s got second and third degree burns on her hands and arms. If she wakes up, it’ll be excruciating.”
“She still hasn’t regained consciousness then?”
“Her system is in shock. My guess is that’s what’s keeping her under. She may be more conscious than we know, though. It’s possible that she’s aware of her surroundings on some level.”
“I see,” grunted the captain. “Well, I may have some good news for you.”
“Great. I could use a dose of that,” Joyce said, feeling some of the tension release in her shoulders.
“We received a radio transmission this afternoon from another vessel.”
“A transmission? I thought all the signals were being blocked somehow.”
“They were. But it seems that things are improving the farther we get from the coast. We’re picking up nothing from the mainland, just other ships out here with us. Skies are lightening a bit, too.”
“What was the transmission for? From one of our ships?”
The captain nodded. “A supply depot. One of the massive barges that was sent out from Burrard Harbor.”
“What about medical supplies?”
“Most of the supply vessels are stocked with a little bit of everything. If you can put together a list of the things you need, we can ask.”
“I’ll do it right away,” Joyce said, already compiling a list in her head. “How far away are they from us?”
Captain Callister glanced at his watch. “At our current speed, we should reach them late tonight. If everything goes smoothly, you should have your supplies shortly thereafter.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Joyce said.
“Happy to help. Seeing the way you’ve taken care of your friend, well… It’s the least we can do. You two from the same congregation?”
Joyce nodded. “Yes. Only got to know her well in the last couple of weeks though.”
“Yeah, I hear a lot of people saying the same thing. Lots of friendships being forged by the fires of these trials.”
“I used to think Stacy and I were such different people, back before all this started, when we were just two sisters in the same hall. It turns out we were more similar than I thought. We’re all working through things, but we’ve all made it this far, and I guess that says some––” Joyce was interrupted by the loud clanking of footsteps coming from the end of the corridor. A tall black woman in a grey parka was rushing towards them, a fiery look in her eyes.
“Captain,” said the woman. “We need you on the bridge. We’ve got a situation.”
Mikey Glover stood and stretched, his mind wading through a drowsy haze. It was much easier on the normal night watch above decks, with the cold wind at his back and a regular patrol shift to keep his mind and feet busy. There, a rotating roster of brothers to chat with, an occasional hand of rummy, and plenty of opportunities for conversation kept the drowsiness at bay. Down here in the cafeteria, though, it was just him and Cary and the dark.
Mikey took a long look at his dozing nephew and could only shake his head. Not only did the younger man fail to take their assignment seriously, but some of his recent sentiments had been downright worrisome. He and his wife, Tina, were becoming growingly impatient and dissatisfied with life aboard the rigs. Mikey was grateful that the couple had made it this far, as there was little choice for them now but to stay and endure their situation. Still, he was unsure how they might react to future challenges. He was not sure they could resist the temptation to go home if such became a possibility.
Mikey stood and scanned the dark cafeteria for the dozenth time that night. No one had entered or exited since the departure of the kitchen crew. The cavernous space was utterly quiet but for the distant rumble of the rig’s diesel engines and the creaks and groans of the platform itself as it waded through the waves below.
He walked to the end of the cafeteria and pushed through the swinging doors into the kitchen. All was just as it had been when he’d checked an hour prior. Mike scanned the room and stifled a yawn. He checked his watch; it was only slightly past eleven but it felt much later. Out here on the open ocean, the bodies of the crew and passengers had adapted to a new Circadian rhythm, one that utilized daylight as efficiently as possible. They rose with the sun and headed for bed shortly after dark. Despite being on the night crew for weeks, Mikey found it increasingly difficult to stay alert during the long stretches of dark and quiet.
He mentally reviewed the instructions they’d been given from their overseer, Brother Garboni, two days before. The overseer hadn’t said much about the man they were to be on the watch for, but had insisted that they keep the artist’s sketch to themselves. If spotted, the man was not to be apprehended or followed; they were to report the sighting immediately and await further instructions. Mikey had to admit that the direction had been odd, and it was difficult to resist drawing conclusions to link recent events aboard the rig. Maybe Cary was right about that one after all. Maybe they weren’t as safe out here as they all thought.
Of course, they’d been warned of as much in recent broadcasts and reprinted study articles that were reviewed at the weekly meetings. It was unreasonable to assume that each and every individual would be protected through the great tribulation, only that the great crowd as a whole would pass through the other side. Infiltrators were thus a real possibility, as was injury and even death. It was a sobering thought and one that Mikey Glover preferred not to dwell on as he knelt down to perform a quick scan of the space beneath the prep tables. Nothing.
Satisfied, the watchman stood and headed back towards the dining area to rouse Cary. But then he froze. The sound of creaking hinges shattered the stark silence. Reflexively, he ducked his head so as not to be seen through the kitchen window. Then, as quietly as he could manage, he snuck to the back of the kitchen, where a rear door led into a corridor connecting the dining area. He stood up slowly, his eyes lifting to the level of the door’s window, and watched.
A tall, dark figure moved silently among the tables. Thankfully, Cary was napping on the floor on the opposite side of the large room and went unnoticed. Mike clenched his teeth and winced as he pushed the door back into the dining area open, hoping it wouldn’t squeak as the others had, but it remained silent. He slipped into the cafeteria and crouched behind a table stacked with serving trays.
The figure made a beeline for the kitchen, exactly where Mike had been only moments ago. Whoever he was, Mike thought, he seemed awfully familiar with the layout of the place. But was he their wanted man or merely a worker who’d returned to retrieve a forgotten item? He needed a good look at the man’s face. Slowly, he rose from his hiding spot and peeked back through the kitchen window, hoping he wouldn’t be spotted.
The man’s back was turned towards him as he pulled a canvas sack from a shelf and began filling it with various food items from the kitchen. There were several cans, a carton of juice, and half a loaf of bread. The man seemed to deliberate over certain items. Mike watched as the man carefully replaced one of the cans, adjusting its position to match the other stacks. Suddenly, Mikey understood.
This was their man.
John Callister moved hastily through the cramped corridors of the supply ship, eager to reach the bridge. His first mate led the way, revealing as much as she could as they went. Her name was Monique Legrande, a French-Haitian whose family had emigrated to the States years ago. She was as seaworthy as they came, and the captain was grateful for her presence. Her competency made the urgency in her voice and the way her eyes shot nervous glances back over her shoulder especially unnerving.
“Ok Monique, lay it on me. What’s happening out there?” John asked, trying to keep pace with the younger woman. At twice her weight, it was no easy task. He envied the way she slinked and weaved effortlessly through the corridors even as the vessel moved with the rhythm of the sea.
Monique threw him a grave look before replying. “Pirates.”
John took a moment to process this. “Pirates? Here? Off the coast of California?”
“We noticed a smaller vessel trailing us at first. We ignored them at first, until we spotted a second ship ahead of us.”
“What makes you so sure they’re pirates?”
“They’re right in our path and showing no signs of yielding. I hailed them on the radio and they asked to speak with the captain. I’ve got a bad feeling about it.”
“Maybe they just need help.”
“We’re very isolated out here, Captain. If we were just a bit farther down the coast it’d be a different story, but here…”
“Have you tried radioing the others?”
“No response. I think the signals are having trouble again.”
On the bridge, the captain picked up the VHF handset, careful to hide the apprehension in his voice. “This is Captain John Callister of the Abigail. Please state your intentions.”
Monique handed the captain a pair of binoculars while they waited for a response. He was able to make out the craft clearly. It had been positioned at a ninety-degree angle to their course, exposing its starboard side. It was a luxury yacht, and with more powerful engines and a sleeker design, the captain knew immediately that there would be no way to outrun it.
He checked the forward and aft ends of the vessels and felt his heart sink. Patches of dark paint had been hastily applied to the hull. “Name’s been covered up,” the captain groaned uneasily.
“I noticed. Stolen?”
“Seems likely. And the one tailing us?” the captain asked, setting down the binoculars and glancing at Monique.
“Thirty to thirty-five footer. No name. That one’s a fishing boat.”
“Then they’re both too fast for us. We’ll have to talk our way through this one,” John Callister said.
“Should I alert the cr––” Monique began, but a pop of static from the radio stopped her.
“Captain Callister, we read you loud and clear. You a military vessel?”
Military vessel? John mouthed to his first mate. It should’ve been obvious from a glance that their ship was anything but.
“No,” the captain replied, his mind racing. “We’re part of an evacuation convoy from Vancouver.”
“A convoy?” asked the voice skeptically.
“Yes. We were rerouted through the bay due to poor visibility. We’re going to rendezvous with the rest of our convoy soon.”
“You carrying supplies?”
The captain hesitated. He had feared this question was coming.
“What kind of supplies?” he asked, buying time.
“Food, water, meds.”
“Very little. We have injured aboard our vessel, which is why we need to rendezvous with the others as soon as possible.”
“Yeah, well, us too. And we’re running low on food.”
“I’m sorry,” John said firmly. “We’ve got nothing to share.”
The following moments of silence were agonizing as John and Monique waited for a response.
“Here’s the thing,” the voice finally said. “We want to keep this civil, but we’ll take what we need if we have to.”
“Monique,” the captain said, turning to his first mate and speaking in a quick but calm voice. “Rouse the crew. Tell them not to panic, but explain the situation. Have them gather any supplies we can afford to part with and leave them on the aft deck. Understand?”
Monique nodded quickly and disappeared immediately below decks.
“I copy that,” responded Captain Callister into the transmitter. “We’ll see what we can spare.”
“Good. One of our boats will rendezvous with you shortly.”
“Ok,” said the captain. The branch had been explicit in their directions on how to handle these kinds of encounters. The brothers were to comply as much as possible and avoid confrontation. Lives were always to be protected over belongings. John Callister exited the pilothouse and watched as the smaller fishing boat crept alongside their starboard quarter. Two men, one with a rifle flung over his shoulder, shone flashlights along the outer hull of Abigail, inspecting the outer walkways and portholes.
“We are unarmed!” the captain called out to the men, who didn’t bother responding. They wore dark baseball caps and jackets. John wondered if they were ex-military. He recalled the odd question they’d been asked by the captain and wondered if that’s what he meant. Perhaps he’d been testing the waters, trying to figure out how protected the supply vessel and her crew were.
The smaller craft approached and the two men climbed aboard. The captain said a quick prayer and walked to meet them, just as several members of his crew emerged onto the weather deck with a few boxes of items.
“Set ‘em down right there,” barked one of the men, pointing a gloved finger at a spot on the deck. The other man stood with his legs spread apart, his rifle held at the ready. His dark eyes darted from one crew member to the next.
One by one, the brothers complied, depositing the boxes where the man had indicated. Captain Callister stood and watched, careful to keep his hands where they could be seen. He was at this moment as proud as he’d ever been of his crew. Unarmed and with only moments to prepare for this encounter, he knew they had to be scared–terrified, even––but they didn’t look it.
The first man knelt on the deck and began digging through the boxes, tossing items onto the deck one by one. The first was filled with shirts and jackets and a pair of shoes. He didn’t seem pleased as he began rifling through the second box. This one contained two gallon-sized cartons of drinking water, a pair of propane lanterns, and some assorted canned goods. They were precious emergency supplies from the pantry, John realized. The third box contained toiletries: a large carton of toothpaste, a family-sized pack of toothbrushes, rolls of toilet paper and paper towels, and bags of hand wipes. The captain hoped it was enough. They all did.
“Unbelievable,” said the man, rising to his feet. “You all had time to run to Costco before boarding this ship or what?”
“Gentlemen, you got what you came here for. We’ve been more than generous with you and we don’t want a fight on our hands. Now please, take your items and leave us in peace,” John said, taking a cautious step forward, hands still in front of him.
“You think we’re stupid or something?” asked the man with the gun.
“You all are stocked with extra clothes, paper towels, and… and toothpaste and you expect us to believe you’ve been generous?”
“I don’t understand… What’s the issue here?” the captain asked.
“We want your firearms and ammunition,” demanded the second man.
“I’m sorry, gentlemen, but like I said, we’re an unarmed vessel. I can assure you that you won’t find a single gun aboard this ship.”
“Well, then you won’t mind us checking, will you?” the leader of the two said with a scowl. He leaned over the edge of the ship’s railing and whistled down to the men in the fishing boat. Moments later, two more armed men had climbed aboard. They charged through the back doors of the supply ship. Screams erupted from the cabins and corridors within as the men began ransacking the vessel. The brothers exchanged nervous looks with the captain, but no one budged.