Their plans had been nothing short of meticulous. Under Brother Chavez’s oversight, Peter Burton and Charles Garboni had worked carefully to ensure that the plan was as failsafe as possible. No detail had been overlooked. The entire night crew was brought in for a lengthy debriefing that afternoon, each phase of the plan carefully delineated so that all were on the same page. There could be no mistakes.
Peter and Charles took their positions at the crow’s nest––a small, glass box perched beside the rig’s tower crane. They had ascended the ladder just after dinner so as not to stand out to suspecting eyes. They’d brought with them everything they’d need to get through the night: water, snacks, sandwiches––even a bedpan. There could be no descending for a bathroom break during such a crucial night watch. Together, they kept their eyes glued to their binoculars, watching the walkway on the perimeter wall where the lockers were.
“What if he doesn’t show?” Peter asked.
“Then we’ll be back tomorrow night. He has to surface for supplies sometime.”
“Should’ve gotten more details from the brothers who spotted him the first time in the cafeteria. If we knew how much food he took, we might be able to better approximate how long it’d take him to run out and have to make another run.”
“Yeah, I thought of that too, but it doesn’t really matter. We’d be out here tonight just the same.”
Peter knew he was right, and was thankful for it. Having the backing of the overseers had lifted a tremendous weight from his shoulders.
“I just wanted to say thank you.”
“Okay. For what?”
“For being out here with me tonight, for doing all this. For coming up with this plan and all.”
“Our sister is in danger. I’m just doing what needs to be done.”
“No, I realize that. I just really appreciate how serious you’re taking this. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate.”
Charles Garboni said nothing, and Peter was about to drop the conversation when the man let out a long sigh.
“I probably owe you an apology.”
“For not taking this threat more seriously from the beginning. Maybe we could’ve got her back sooner if it hadn’t been for me stonewalling you.”
“I didn’t take it that way.”
“I just couldn’t accept it, you know? I’d been over all the security procedures a million times. I mean for crying out loud, the branch had training seminars and everything, and I was one of the instructors!”
“No one’s blaming you, Charles.”
“I’m blaming me. I was so caught up in other things around the time that imposter boarded that I didn’t pay it much attention. We should’ve asked for credentials––a congregation number, a full name, contacts that could verify him––anything. But no, we just let him right onto our rig and didn’t give it a second thought.”
“There’s no way we could’ve known who he really was. It caught all of us off guard.”
“Pete. It’s my job to always be on guard. And then, a few days ago, when you started talking about kidnappings… Man, that really scared me. At first I thought there was no way, thought we were way too airtight for something like that to happen. Pride before a crash, I guess.”
“Well, that’s all behind us now. I’m just glad we’re here, and we’ve got a plan.”
“Even if it’s a crazy one,” Brother Garboni chuckled.
“It is pretty wild. To be honest, I’m surprised the overseers okay’ed it.”
“It’s the lack of options, that’s all. You know, when the tribulation first started, we once had an armed man enter our Kingdom Hall.”
“He had a nasty-looking kitchen knife under his coat. Came in right before the meeting started so the doors weren’t locked yet. I happened to be an attendant that night. There was something fishy about him, even before we saw the weapon. We knew something wasn’t right. I rounded up a couple of other brothers––big guys, all of them––and we approached the man. Tried to keep it real friendly, asked if he’d like to sit with us, that we’d find him a chair, all that stuff, just the way the branch trained us.”
“What’d he say?”
“Not much. It was clear he was up to no good, kept trying to squeeze past us into the main hall. We asked him to leave, and he refused, started getting real hostile. At this point the opening song was playing but people kept looking back at us through the doors. It was all very tense. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life. It was then that I had someone call the cops, though we didn’t really expect anyone to show up. We grabbed a few more brothers and formed a tight line between the man and the auditorium doors, and that’s when he pulled the blade.”
“Did anyone get hurt?”
“Nah. Directions from our organization are pretty clear. As soon as someone gets violent or shows an intention of violence, we use whatever force necessary to keep the friends safe.”
“Which meant what?”
“Well, we kept trying to reason with him, but when it was clear that wasn’t going anywhere, we jumped him.”
“Amazing no one was hurt.”
“It was quick and painless. One of the brothers used his suit jacket to cover the man’s face as the others went for the knife hand. It was over in an instant. The police never did show up, so we let the man go.”
“That’s it? You just let him go?”
“Sure. We kept the knife, of course, along with the footage from the cameras. Told him to never show his face again in our Kingdom Hall, of course. So far as I know, he listened.”
“That’s quite an experience.”
“And it’s not so different from what’s happening here. We’re taking a little more initiative, sure, but the principles are the same. We know this man is a threat, we know he has ill intentions. It’s up to us to remove the threat with whatever means necessary.”
“But what happens after? Suppose we catch him? Then what?”
“We let him go, I suppose.”
Behind his binoculars, Charles shrugged and chuckled. “We’ll see when we get there.”
Chad Harkett had been on the road for days. What would’ve been an hour long drive under normal, pre-apocalyptic conditions had turned into a grueling sojourn over dangerous highways, across treacherous bridges, and around countless blazing infernos. As the fire chewed through the landscape, it sent choking plumes of contaminated smoke and swirling embers into the air hungry for fresh tinder.
Chad knew he’d only made it this far thanks to the armored military convoy and trained soldier escorts. Had he been alone venturing these roads, his life would’ve been taken within miles of Martin’s bunker. Had the fires not consumed him, the gangs surely would’ve. They moved in droves, leaping from the shadows at passing cars and hurling bricks and whatever else they could find to startle drivers and commandeer their rides and supplies. Even with the military escorts they’d been ambushed twice, both attempts abruptly interrupted when the soldiers had brandished weapons. There’d been screams and the heavy thud of projectiles being thrown at the car, and then silence after the fusillade of automatic artillery. Whoever these people thought they were, they were no match for professional military troops.
Still, they were forced to make frequent stops. In one instance, they’d spent hours removing a fallen oak tree from the middle of the road. In another, they’d spent the night in a small clearing beside a highway when their vehicle had run out of fuel and a small team of soldiers was dispatched to look for more.
The civilians––Chad and a few others who’d been picked up from their homes along the way––were ordered to bed down for the night in the back of the supply truck while the remaining soldiers took turns keeping watch outside. Chad gorged himself on a standard issue MRE, complete with a pouch of piping hot black tea, but even a full stomach wasn’t enough to ease his nerves. Judging from the furtive glances he caught from the others, he knew he wasn’t alone.
“So how’d you get reeled into all this?” a man asked him. He was heavyset with a graying beard and a braided ponytail.
Chad shrugged. “They came knocking. I answered.”
“I guess it’s better than being burned alive in your own house,” said a woman. Mascara smudges left two dark runways on her face. Her face was puffy and red but she seemed to be all out of tears. She seemed to be a shell of some other person who once existed inside.
“Worst fires I ever saw in Cali, that’s for sure,” said the man. He scraped the last of the beef stew from his MRE pouch. Some of it drizzled on his beard.
“How do you two play into all this?” Chad asked.
“Something to do with my work in AI, but that’s all they’ve told me. Jay’s the name,” he gave Chad a long hard stare but didn’t offer his hand.
“And you?” Chad asked the woman. A sound from outside the truck had caught her attention. She stared tensely at the back doors. Chad finished off his tea as he waited for her reply.
“Her name’s Sadie. She’s a digital security whiz. Big cryptology buff. Used to win Sudoku competitions, that kind of thing,” Jay said, rolling his eyes. Sadie didn’t comment.
“You two know each other?” Chad asked.
“Yeah, we started at Google the same year. You?”
“App developer. Mostly encrypted communication stuff. We were working with AI, too. Did the army tell you who they think is behind this all?”
Jay nodded, his expression shifting as if a shadow had fallen across it. “The Witnesses. Doesn’t surprise me in the least.”
Sadie shifted, her gaze fixing on a spot between her feet. Chad thought she looked uncomfortable.
“You see that video that was going around few months ago, back before all of this started up? Fire and brimstone, and all those world leaders getting incinerated? I said it right then and there––these people are terrorists! And then what do they do? Up and leave, abandon everything to go live who knows where! We’re talking here about a massive, global organization with millions of followers. You know their video had over two billion views when YouTube finally decided to take it down?” Jay was shaking his head in disgust.
“I didn’t,” Chad said.
“Well, it’s about time the government takes action. It was a mistake to not label them a terrorist organization before, because that’s exactly what they are.”
“Should’ve gotten out,” mumbled a frail voice. Chad and Jay turned to find Sadie, her eyes shut, tear streaks glistening in the dimly lit space.
“What?” Jay asked, annoyed.
“I got one of those invitations. I should’ve just packed up and left.”
“You kidding me, Sadie? Have you heard anything I just said?” Jay demanded.
“It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter what you think, what the government thinks. Doesn’t even matter if they are terrorists. They were right.”
“They were right? She’s lost it,” Jay scoffed with a look at Chad. “Two kinds of people in this world. Survivors and followers. I’ve always believed that.”
“You saw the videos,” Sadie said. “They predicted this. All of it.”
“They predicted it because they made it happen!” Jay shouted.
“Hey! Quiet down in there!” came the voice from one of the soldiers outside. Chad wondered what difference it made.
“Maybe, but it still makes their side the safest,” Sadie continued, unfazed.
“Watch it, Sadie. What you’re saying is beginning to sound like treason.”
“I don’t care,” Sadie said weakly. Her expression was distorted, somehow off kilter.
At that moment, the back doors of the truck flew open, revealing the snarling face of one of the soldiers. “Y’all forget your orders?” the man snapped. Fresh stitches ran like a railroad down one side of the man’s face. They tugged at the flesh as he opened his mouth to talk. “We’re all out here risking our necks to keep y’all protected, and y’all were told to keep quiet. This ain’t no Menlo Park no more. Do I make myself clear?”
“Actually, sir, I’ve decided to leave,” Sadie said. Everyone fell silent.
It was just past three in the morning when Peter Burton spotted movement on one of the lower catwalks of the rig. A dark, lanky figure had emerged from the shadows and was making his way up a switchback of stairwells.
“That’s him,” said Peter.
Charles Garboni flipped on his walkie talkie and pressed the transmitter. “We’ve got movement on the walkway. Team B, prepare to move in.”
“Copy that, Team A,” came the succinct response from the brothers below. Peter watched as they emerged from a doorway one level up and quickly descended the stairwells to the locker level.
“Uh, Team A, you see which door it was?” came the request as soon as the men had assembled on the lowest walkway.
“Sorry, no. He came out of nowhere. You’ll have to try them all. Start with the south door.”
“Copy,” the voice said, the tension palpable. Small flashlights were illuminated, the yellow rods of light slicing through the blackness of a starless night as the clocked ticked down. The afternoon before, a brother had done a trial run on the opposite side of the rig to see how long a brisk walk to and from the cafeteria would take. He’d completed it in six minutes and they’d cautiously added another three for the time it took to pilfer the kitchen.
“How’re we doing on time?” Charles asked. Peter glanced at his stopwatch. “Ninety seconds down. Seven and a half minutes left.”
Charles let out a thin breath. “Team Charlie, what’s your status? Do you have eyes on the suspect?”
“Team Charlie here. Yeah, suspect moved through the northern corridor about twenty seconds ago,” whispered the brother on the other end. Charles closed his eyes and retraced the route in his head, then he frowned.
“No good. He’s moving faster than we anticipated,” he muttered. Then, into the walkie talkie: “Listen up: Team Bravo, you might have less time than we expected. How are those doors coming?”
The response took a moment. When it came, the brother was out of breath. “The first one was barricaded. Got it open finally with a crowbar, but nothing’s inside. We’ve got seven… no, eight more to go.”
Charles and Peter exchanged an uneasy look.
“Team Delta here, just saw him pass our location,” came another quiet voice on the radio.
“Time, Peter,” Charles mumbled.
“Six minutes forty left.”
“Second door open, nothing here,” reported Team Bravo. Charles pulled the binoculars from his face to wipe the sweat from his brow. Peter was feeling it too; suddenly it was as if someone had turned the heat on in the crow’s nest.
“They’ll never get all the doors at this rate,” Charles said anxiously. It was a seemingly impossible situation, and Peter well understood the complications. The doors had to be checked, one by one, but it was important to damage them as little as possible so as to avoid detection when the suspect returned. To this end, only one crowbar was assigned to the team. They were to avoid using force if at all necessary. But with nine doors and as many minutes, things were moving too slow.
“Third door open!” came the exuberant voice from Team Bravo.
“What’d you find?”
“Uh… We’ve got some shelves in here, bunch of items stocked up. Empty packaging, bottles. Broken light bulbs. Looks like someone was here recently.”
“That’s probably the locker he was hiding in,” Peter commented.
“No one else there?” Charles asked.
“Negative. It’s empty.”
“Then keep moving! You’ve got only five minutes left!” Charles said. Then: “Team Echo, report in. You have eyes on him?”
Team Echo had been assigned to the cafeteria. It was the same pair of brothers who’d originally spotted the stowaway a few nights prior, Mikey Glover and Cary Doyle. They along with the other brothers on the ground wore earpieces connected to the walkie talkies to make as little noise as possible. They’d been strategically positioned away from the intruder’s expected course, but even the slightest sound had the potential to carry far in the cramped metal chambers that were the innards of Rig 7.
Two bursts of static piped through the airwaves and through Charles’s radio. This was a mute code; it meant Delta had made visual contact but were too close to the subject to communicate verbally. Charles was glad they’d gone through the rigors of accounting for a variety of scenarios and training the teams accordingly, prouder still that the brothers remembered everything.
Charles gave Peter a look. “Just under four minutes,” Peter said, taking the cue.
“Bravo here, doors three and four open, no one’s inside,” crackled a voice from the radio.
“Team Echo reporting in, suspect has just left the cafeteria. Repeat, subject is heading your way!”
Peter felt his heart jump into his throat as commotion erupted from Team Bravo’s end of the line. “We’ve got five doors left down here, there’s no way we’ll get them all in time!”
Charles shot Peter a glance. “Do we call them off?” Peter asked.
“If we don’t and he returns, things could get ugly. Those men are defenseless and he probably knows it,” Charles said grimly. Peter nodded, the stark realization washing over him. To be this close and come away empty-handed was a painful defeat.
“Finish the door you’re working on now, then get out of there,” Charles ordered.
“So close,” Peter said regretfully.
“We can try again tomorrow night. If he goes again for supplies, we’ll find her. We’ve eliminated––“ but the overseer’s voice was cut off by a loud voice on the walkie talkie.
“Brother Garboni, we got the door open. You won’t believe it––we found her!” exclaimed the excited voice from the Bravo Team. Charles allowed himself the briefest moment of relief but no more. This was, after all, only the first phase in a complex plan; things could still go terribly wrong.
“You wanna run that by me again?” the soldier growled at Sadie. A second soldier had appeared at his side. He spit something from the side of his mouth, eyes flicking from face to face.
“A misunderstanding, gentlemen,” Jay said. He cleared his throat and gave Sadie a hard look.
“No. I’ve made up my mind,” Sadie insisted. “This isn’t where I want to be. I don’t know what you’re all up to, but I don’t want any part of this.”
“Shut up, Sadie,” Jay hissed. He grabbed at her but she shook him off and stood. She scooped up her luggage in her scrawny arms.
“I’ve been quiet long enough. I know what I’m doing. Now let me out,” she said.
“Can’t let you do that, ma’am,” one of the soldiers said icily.
“What do you mean? I was told this was a volunteer situation.”
“Don’t care what you were told. Our orders are to keep you here.”
“So what, are you saying we’re prisoners or something?”
“Call it whatever you like,” the soldier said, shrugging.
“Just sit down, would you?” Jay said, his tone more imploring this time. Sadie glanced around at the faces staring her down and shook her head stubbornly.
“Tell me, then. What happens when we get to whatever base you’re talking to? What do you want with us? How do we fit into your plans?” Sadie asked.
“I’m not privy to that info, ma’am. I’m just an escort.”
“Well, it sounds like you’re planning an attack against the Witnesses.”
The soldiers looked at one another and shrugged. “That’s above my pay grade.”
“My family are Witnesses,” Sadie said finally, her voice starting to shake. Sitting next to him, Chad saw Jay slowly lowering his face into his hands. “I was raised a Witness, in fact. I didn’t stick with it, but I remember enough. I know what’s coming. I know you’re planning something big. But it won’t succeed. God isn’t on your side.”
“Well, you’re right about that, ma’am,” said the soldier, his forefinger tapping the safety on his rifle. “God isn’t on our side, and he isn’t on theirs either. That’s ‘cause there is no God.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone’s saying these days,” Sadie said. “Tell me, what’s the punishment like if one of you turns out to be religious?”
“Ma’am, I’m going to ask you just once to sit down and keep your mouth shut.”
“Are you fined? Does your pay get docked?”
“I won’t ask you again,” the soldier warned, eyes narrowing.
“Or is it worse? Do you get thrown in prison? Executed?”
“Enough!” Jay shouted, desperate eyes darting between his colleague and the soldiers. But to Chad it was clear that no one was backing down. This wasn’t going to end well.
“I don’t want to be here,” Sadie said one last time. Bags in hand, she took another step to the back doors. And to her surprise, the soldiers made no move to stop her. Instead they backed away, allowing space for her to squeeze between them.
“Thank you,” she said quietly, smiling nervously at each of them. She struggled with her luggage, moving into the darkness of the night. The soldiers allowed her several paces before quietly shutting the rear doors of the vehicle, and taking aim.
There was a single pop, and Jay covered his face and wept.
“Great news, Team Bravo,” Charles Garboni said, relieved. “Get the girl out of there immediately.”
Peter Burton watched as the team of brothers below them scrambled down the catwalk and out of sight. He supposed Angelica was sandwiched somewhere in between them, but he could see nothing. He heard Charles draw a deep breath beside him.
“Here comes the tricky part,” he said, pulling the walkie talkie to his mouth. “Team Foxtrot, are you in position?”
“All ready to go, Brother,” came the voice on the other end.
“Good. Stay put until you hear my order. We’ve got eyes on the catwalk,” Charles said. “How’s the clock looking?” he asked Peter.
“A minute thirty to go.”
“Foxtrot, we’re cutting it close. He’ll be there any second now.”
“Copy that, Team Alpha. We’re ready to go.”
“Team Charlie, have you made visual contact yet?” Charles asked after another fifteen seconds had ticked by.
“Negative. All’s quiet here,” came the voice, barely a whisper.
“Odd,” commented Peter with a glance at his watch. The time was nearly up, but still their suspect had not made it to the final checkpoint. “Maybe he took a detour,” Peter suggested uncomfortably.
“Let’s hope not,” Charles said. The heat was rising again. Another minute ticked by and still there was nothing.
“I don’t like this one bit,” Charles finally said.
“You think he caught on to us?”
Charles nodded slowly. “It’s possible he spotted one of the surveillance teams.”
“Well, at least we got our sister back,” Peter said hopefully, but the mood was tainted. Until the intruder was caught, no one would be truly safe.
“Team Charlie, update us,” Charles said. The suspect was now a full two minutes behind schedule. They’d officially lost him.
“Sorry, still nothing,” came the response. “Should we go looking for him?”
“No, stay right where you are.”
No sooner had Charles spoken these words when the shadowy figure reemerged. “Alpha Team here: we’ve spotted him,” Charles said immediately into the walkie talkie.
The figure walked briskly, clearly familiar with the route. A canvas sack was slung over his shoulder. As he walked, he tossed a food wrapper over the railing. It fluttered along with the sea wind and disappeared into the night.
The man slowed. Something had caught his attention. He paused at one of the locker doors, crouching to inspect the locking mechanism. Peter and Charles held their breaths. It was not the room that had held Angelica Parry, but it was one that the brothers had entered only moments before. Clearly, not all had been left the way they’d found it.
Peter’s heart was a jackhammer in his chest. Everything hung on the following moments. The man backed out of the room, then began to jog down the walkway. Clearly he knew something was up. Plans would need to change.
“Team Foxtrot, be advised, our suspect appears to be on the alert. He’s checking rooms.”
“What do we do?” asked the panicky voice.
“Hold your position,” Charles ordered. “Team Bravo, is our sister safe?” he asked.
“Team Bravo here, we’re with her in one of the generator sheds. She’s shaken up but conscious.”
“Did your team leave the decoy?” Charles asked. The decoy was a long pillowcase filled with life vests. It wasn’t convincing by any stretch of the imagination, but it was enough to pass for a body in an unlit room full of shadows; that’s all they needed.
“Affirmative, decoy is in place and covered with a bed sheet.”
On the catwalk, the figure checked a second door, and then a third. Neither Peter nor Charles knew where the intruder had gotten his keys from. Then again, if he’d managed to make it this far, being able to fashion his own lock picks from supplies lying about the rig didn’t exceed the realm of possibility.
After three doors, the man made a beeline to the room where Angelica had been kept.
“Get ready. He’s headed for the bait,” Charles said.
The man glanced several times over his shoulder, then pulled the key from his pocket and entered, slipping in and closing the door immediately behind him.
“Move!” Charles commanded into the radio. On the catwalk below erupted a flurry of activity. From the southernmost room, three brothers raced towards the room where Angelica had just been extracted minutes before. Their boots clanked loudly on the metal grating, but it didn’t matter. Stealth was no longer the game here; speed was. A metal rod carried by one of the running brothers was threaded through the handle of the door and jammed against the doorframe on either end, effectively pinning the inward-opening door. Armed with a power drill and steel screws, a second brother affixed a row of clamps around the bar and into the metal doorframe. There was now no way in or out.
This first task completed, the brothers took a step back to make way for the third brother. He wore a large plastic canister on his back. From the top of the canister led a thin rubber hose. He pulled the pack from his shoulder and set it down, donning an air filtration mask before working a hand operated pump at the top of the canister. As he readied the canister, the two others stuffed a knot of rags under the door jamb, leaving only a small hole for the rubber tube.
The tube was inserted, and once the brothers had retreated to a safe distance, the canister’s release valve was pulled. Within two minutes, the suspect’s room had filled with chloroform.