58


EPILOGUE



            Of course, our story didn’t really end there. In a way, this was just the beginning.
It took the brothers two full days of exploring the Gerald R. Ford just to figure out how to operate it and get everyone organized. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the living quarters aboard that aircraft carrier ended up being far more comfortable than anything most of us had lived in for weeks. There was enough food on board to feed an army for months, and the ship’s robust nuclear reactor and reinforced hull were welcome upgrades to the leaky, diesel-guzzling Cornelia.
            Then there were the subsequent four days spent sailing up the Atlantic coast to New York, an exciting time spent reliving our stories of deliverance. We ran into other friends along the way too, many of them aboard damaged vessels similar to our old cruise ship, and each with his or her own incredible tale to tell once they joined us aboard the aircraft carrier.
            On the third day of our journey, the brothers organized a special meeting. It was held right on the carrier’s runway, our numbers now well above four thousand. We huddled around bonfires made of driftwood and debris carried by the tide and listened as a handful of brothers gave talks and experiences.
Each evening after dinner, wide-eyed children would gather around Luke, asking him to relate, once again, just how the angel had destroyed all those bad soldiers and weapons.
            We reunited with our brothers at a port in Manhattan where we docked and deboarded. Much of New York City had been cordoned off by the brothers due to chemical and radiation contamination, but in the safer areas to the north, a sort of refugee camp had been set up for the brothers coming from overseas. This is how life began for us in the New World.
            Alas, not all of our stories could fit into a single book, and with the current rationing of paper we had to edit much of it out. Luke and I decided to write in the present tense to capture the thrill and uncertainty of our experiences, from the moment he responded to that Kingdom Hall fire in our hometown of Haliford down to that last, unforgettable day of deliverance in the Atlantic. If our readers find the tense confusing, we apologize. Perhaps we’ll do an updated version in a more traditional style once paper becomes widely available again.
            In any case, we hope you’ve enjoyed our story. We know there are many more like it out there, and we hope to hear yours soon. In the meantime, we will continue to keep busy with the New York restoration crews as we eagerly await Walter’s resurrection.


-Amy & Luke Harding

57


5:50 PM

AMY


            The wind and rain lash mercilessly against the deck of the Cornelia as more and more people squeeze onto her crowded deck. The entire throng of people–well over a thousand and counting–is gripped by uncertainty. Still, it is determination I see marked on the faces around me, not fear. For the moment, it seems the explosion that sent a geyser of seawater into the air and shook the ship beneath us hasn’t cost us any casualties, but we can’t be sure. The ship is sinking all the same, the water line climbing higher and higher, the wave tips nearly reaching the prow.
            On the raised walkways above us, brothers struggle to lower the lifeboats. I’m not hopeful. The ropes are a chaotic tangle and whip in the wind as the boats swing crazily. I stiffen with horror as the prow of one of the lifeboats nearly smashes into a brother’s head; someone shoves him out of the way just in time.
            The battleship before us drifts with the waves. It fires a few more projectiles in our direction, but the shots go wild, missing us by a good margin. Then comes a lull. The turrets quit seeking us. The rockets are silent. Suddenly, the whole ship vanishes as the deck lights, portholes, and lamps simultaneously go dark.
            “Look!” someone shouts. An arm rises from the crowd, pointing across a turbulent sea. “There! Under the ship!”
            Hundreds of bodies turn to look, moving closer to the railing, blocking my line of sight.
            “What is it?” I ask, tugging on Marc’s sleeve.
            “I–I don’t know. I can’t make it out clearly. But there’s a bright light, coming up from the water…”
            “Is it some kind of weapon?” someone mutters behind me. More voices, more speculation. And then, like the ring of a bell, crisp and clear, comes the voice of a small child perched high up on her father’s shoulders, her oversized raincoat shedding water.
            Look, daddy,” she says curiously. “Look! There’s a man coming out of the water!”

5:56 PM

LUKE


            An explosion, so loud and close that the entire room instinctively ducks for cover as a plume of bright orange fire erupts just outside the pilothouse’s glass windows. Despite the handcuffs, my position affords me a clear view of the flight deck, where I see the smoldering wreck of what used to be one of the parked fighters, the ground around it a wild conflagration of ignited jet fuel.
            What is happening!” screams the admiral, leaning into the window, the whites of his eyes glowing brightly in the blaze. But there is no answer. Everyone stares in stunned silence at the deck below, where a scene unfolds that I am sure I will never forget.
            There, at the far edge of the flight deck, stands a large man. I think man, because this is his approximate shape and form, and yet I know this thought is wrong as soon as it passes through my mind. It is no man. His size dwarfs everything around him; he’s at least fifteen, maybe twenty feet tall. His clothes radiate with a cold, blue light, and for a crazy moment I actually think I see streaks of lightning scattering over his arms and face. His eyes are like burning diamonds, emanating a bright white light that hurts my own eyes to look at. And in his hand he wields a long, fiery blade.
            A cluster of soldiers emerges from a flight deck elevator. They kneel and take aim at the advancing apparition, but it moves forward undaunted. A barrage of shell fire is unloaded in its direction, but it passes harmlessly through. It lifts its sword once and swings, bringing the sharp, glowing tip down in the direction of the troops. Immediately, the soldiers are consumed in bright, red light. Whatever screams they attempted never made it past their throats. The execution is instantaneous. They explode in a ball of bright chaff, like sparks from a fireworks display. A charred, black cloud of dust hangs in the air for a moment but is quickly smothered by the downpour.
            Agent Meade tries the ship’s radio, then the walkie-talkie strapped to his side, but everything electronic is dead, as if taken out by an electromagnetic pulse. Below us, the glowing man advances. A second platoon of soldiers forms a line in the rain. They’re quick, but I sense their hesitancy. The men in front fire carbines from a prone position, empty shells clinking in streams onto the wet tarmac. Behind them, six soldiers man rocket launchers. Ammunitions cases are opened, the rockets are loaded, and then fired, all with the slick efficiency of military professionals. This ship’s best, perhaps. But it is an exercise in futility.
            The rockets hiss towards their target with impressive speed, but diverge just before contact as if misdirected by a powerful magnet. They whistle past their mark and launch wildly into the sky. They stall for a moment in midair before collapsing back to the deck, destroying a few million dollars worth of Navy aircraft. The jets burn fast and hard, the low, oily clouds above illuminated by the fire.
            The soldiers with the rocket launchers attempt to reload, but the creature reaches them with incredible speed, its sword carving fiery arcs the air. Like the first squad, these soldiers meet their end in a plume of sparks and soot. Here on the bridge, people scream. Meade and Admiral Hawkins bellow frantic orders to no one in particular. Bodies scramble about me, silhouetted by the orange flames from burning aircraft. Trained hands open hatches and bulkheads as weapons and cases of ammunition are removed. More death throes from somewhere below as the glowing figure disappears from the flight deck and enters the ship’s command tower.

6:02 PM

AMY


            Marc nudges my wheelchair gently through the crowd until I find myself at the deck railing with a clear line of sight over the sea. The aircraft carrier before us has plunged into blazing disarray. Stems of fire blossom from the deck as explosions go off one after the other. The ship seems to be under attack, but no other aircraft or watercraft can be seen. And what about that strange light in the water? No one can locate it now. Struggling to get a clear glimpse through the salt-sprayed air and low hanging clouds without so much as a pair of binoculars is nearly impossible.
            To our left, brothers continue to grapple with the dangling lifeboats. There’s a loud metallic rending noise as one of the pulleys rips free from an overhead beam. The lifeboat dips as it comes loose, swinging off and bashing against the deck before tumbling into the dashing black waves. I hear frantic indistinct shouting as three brothers struggle to maintain their balance on the slick deck from where the lifeboat has just vanished. A length of rope lies coiled at their feet, and I watch in horror as they lose their balance and topple into the waves. They manage to miss the lifeboat, which has capsized and is being thrashed thoroughly by the high waves. It crashes finally into the hull of the ship and shatters into bits of wood and plastic and orange scraps of tarpaulin.
            We wait with our hearts in our throats for the men to resurface. Their heads finally appear, gasping for help as the powerful waves swirl and surge around them. Life preservers are flung down to them, and somehow, amidst the debris and surging seafoam, they manage to grab on, the sea around them rising and descending like hills in an earthquake. The crowd on deck leans forward anxiously as the preserver ropes are hauled in by lines of soaking men.

6:10 PM

LUKE


            The dark, cavernous bridge fills with the cold clicks and clinks of hastily loaded ammunition. Heavy cases of gun magazines are dragged to the center of the room, where they’re unlatched and placed behind two lines of soldiers facing the doors. One of the doors is just a few feet beside where I’ve been handcuffed, putting me more or less in the line of fire. For a moment I imagine Meade might just consider turning it into a firing squad while the weapons are out and ready, but he’s busy inspecting a carbine strapped to his shoulder. His eyes flicker with fire and lightning, his teeth clenched and glistening.
           We wait in silence, the room growing steadily cold and damp with the heaters dead. In the silence of the bridge, the sounds from outside float up towards us, the tossing seas and sporadic thunder, the creaks and groans of the ship.
            “You feel that?” a faceless voice whispers.
            “What?”
            “We’re listing. Starboard.” There’s a moment of shuffling as heads turn to gaze down at the floor. Soon, we all feel it.
            “Sir?” someone says, panicked.
            “Maintain your positions!” Admiral Hawkins orders. The quartermasters spread their feet as they make an effort to comply, but it’s no easy task with the rapidly increasing incline. A few of them finally lose their footing, tumbling into the line of their fellows and sending the bridge back into confusion. Several drop their weapons to brace against the island consoles as the guns and ammo cases scrape by against the floor, crashing into the other end of the bridge and narrowly missing two of the men.
            The soldiers are kneeling now to keep their balance, one leg outstretched against the downward slant of the floor. And still the angle climbs. The ground is nearly at forty degrees by the time the command is finally given for everyone to shoulder their weapons and brace themselves. The room complies eagerly, scrambling for the walls and ledges, looping elbows around handrails.
            At fifty degrees, one of the men loses his grip. He rolls along the floor, grunting to hold a scream back in his throat. Several hands reach for him, but he’s moving too fast. He slams hard into the consoles on the far end of the bridge, screeching in pain. At sixty degrees, the pilothouse has become an elevator shaft, a long, treacherous drop from top to bottom. Three of the soldiers seem to have the right idea, and begin climbing down, using the consoles, hanging monitors, and steel window girders as a kind of ladder. As the ship continues to tilt, compartments topple open, their contents raining down on the men below like miscellaneous hail.
            As for me, I’m stuck at the top, the handcuffs still holding me fast to the rails. I prop my legs against a metal doorframe, the gunshot wound in my calf fresh and throbbing. I feel the stitches tear open and grit my teeth against the pain as I brace myself and struggle to hold my position.
            Some thirty feet below me, a female quartermaster scaling down the windows slips. There’s the pop and snap of plastic as the screen she’s holding on to wobbles and comes free, thin plastic wires streaming out behind it. She screams as she falls with the monitor still in her arms, crashing into a control panel below and spilling over onto the windows. And still the angle climbs.
            Beyond the bank of windows below, the sea looms as if through a glass floor. And yet the waves seem so far away, the width of the flight deck to the left of the tower adding a dozen stories to the fall. Far below me, crumpled against the consoles, lay the bodies of a dozen naval men and women. Many are moaning or nursing injuries; some appear to be unconscious.
Next comes a loud crash, a bulkhead flying open, a heavy metal toolbox spraying its contents from the ceiling. The tools rain down onto the bodies below me. A few hit the glass windows, which instantly sprout spiderweb cracks.
            The room is almost completely vertical now as my mind struggles to make sense of it. What could possibly capsize such an enormous ship?

6:12 PM

AMY


            The men in the water are hauled slowly back up to the deck, their limp, shivering bodies bumping against the hull of the ship like wet fish. I feel sick as I watch.
            It’s impossible to launch the lifeboats in this storm. The waves are too high, the winds too strong. The brothers move away from the winches, looking over the crowd in sad resignation as our ship continues to sink. The waves begin to crash over the prow, soaking us in sheets of freezing foam. The sky is now nearly pitch black, and I notice for the first time that the rising moon is shrouded in a reddish haze.
            There appears, once again, to be no way out.
            “Look!” someone shouts, pointing out over the waves and into the distance. A sea of heads rises to peer through the rain. The distant silhouette of the aircraft carrier is just barely visible, but the shape is all wrong. Its soaring deck tower has disappeared, replaced by a jagged, foreign outline.
            “Is that the battleship?” someone mutters.
            “She’s on her side,” someone gasps. “She’s capsizing!”

6:15 PM

LUKE


            The glass in the windows fractures, cracks growing like vines from girder to girder. The consoles beneath the windows and the metal struts encasing them are crammed with the wounded, their arms outstretched, trying to grasp on to something, anything, before the windows give. But there is simply nowhere to go. Tools and scraps of paper continue to rain sporadically down as they shift free from unseen places above.
            My arms are now numb, my wrists locked high above my head, the blood vessels pinched off by the handcuffs and the odd angle of my hang. My calf throbs, heavy blood piling up behind the wound. My back and shoulders twist and pop with the weight of my body. The pain is so intense that I feel faint and disoriented.
And that's when the windows go.
            The glass explodes outward in a twinkling shimmer. A handful of unconscious bodies, rifles still strapped to their arms, tumble quietly into the downward darkness and disappear into the waves.
            “Oh God, oh God,” I hear someone saying over and over. A second window goes, and two female officers, hideously aware and conscious, lose their grip and go sprawling down into the abyss. The terrified cluster of remaining personnel try to move away from the windows, but it’s hopeless. The ship lurches with a loud crash, perhaps from an explosion on another level, and a few more lose their grip, screaming as the vibration pries them from their handholds and pitches them into blackness.
            “Please, help. Help me,” begs a feeble voice. I glance down to see the admiral on his back on one of the last remaining windows, a single, thick crack dividing the glass behind him. His arms and legs are spread wide, not daring to test the glass. Above him, on a ledge created by the now horizontal island consoles, is Agent Meade. He glances down at the pitiful man and says nothing. The glass pops and crunches as the crack expands. The admiral lets out a final, horrible scream before the window gives, his body plummeting with the shards in a kind of sick slow motion.
            Meade watches him fall, then cranes his head up slowly to glare at me. A flash of lightning ignites his features, his cold dark eyes boring up at me through the shaft.
            You brought this on us!” he snarls, his voice powerful, dreadful. “You did it! But if you think you’re going to walk off of this ship alive, think again!” he screams. He curls over, reaching for something at his ankle, and comes up with a pistol in his hands.
            “You’re a fool, Meade. You brought this on yourself! You thought… You thought you could fight against God!” I say, barely getting the words out before gasping for air. My body is pulled tight, the muscles stretched to their limit, my shoulders and neck burning with the strain. Meade pauses before pulling the gun to level, his white teeth grinning all the while as he brings the trigger to bear.
            “I am god!” he hisses.
            Just then, the room seems to float around us. Gravity disappears as the chasm beyond windows and the ocean below drop from view. Glass splinters tumble weightlessly in the air; papers and unused ammunition toss and bounce around us. The floor is once again beneath us, the normalcy of the room somewhat restored.
Somehow, the aircraft carrier has righted itself. Meade’s shot misses, whizzing just inches from my head and ricocheting off the metal behind me.
            I close my eyes. There is no fear left. My mind flits through the images of the last days and weeks and months, and of all the emotions that run through me, I am left with a strong sense of gratitude. Gratitude that Amy will be safe, gratitude that at least I have peace of mind.
            The pistol fires again, the deafening shot ringing out, echoing in my head. I open my eyes, ready to behold the wound, ready for death. Instead, I find myself surrounded by the cold crystal glow of an unnatural, blue light. Then I see its source.
            There, close enough to reach out and touch, stands the large glowing man from the flight deck. His back is to me, his arms outstretched. Meade fires again, aiming for the man’s head. The rounds are absorbed as empty shells hit the ground. Meade curses loudly as he runs out of ammunition. He reaches for one of the rifles on the floor, but the blue figure is too quick. The sword of fire materializes instantly in his hands and he is upon Meade with electric speed.
Agent Meade’s features sag for a moment, his grin becoming a howling, grotesque mask of anger and horror. He glows bright red for a second, and then vanishes.
            I stand there, behind the figure, stunned and unable to move. Grey dust as fine as spring pollen swirls in the air and settles. The man turns to face me slowly.
            Luke,” he says, his voice low and strong.
            “Yes?” I reply, more curious than fearful.
            “What have you to say of this?”
            “I… I… Thank you. Thank you for saving them. For saving Amy.”
            “And you?”
            “Me? I don’t know. What comes next? Will I be judged? I don’t know that I deserve any different from the soldiers on this ship.”
            At once, the handcuffs snap open and clang to the floor. I collapse to my hands and knees, not daring to meet eyes with the creature. A large, warm hand rests on my shoulder and gently lifts me to my feet. Instantly, the pain in my leg and wrists fades.
            “An interesting response.”
            “I just know that… Whatever happens, I’m willing to accept it. I know Amy will be taken care of. She chose the right side. I’m… I’m so proud of her,” I say, my voice catching as tears well in my eyes.
            “And you–will you worship the true God, Jehovah?” he asks, eyes dancing like spinning diamonds in a blue flame.
            “Yes. Of course! How could I ever choose anything else after all this?”
            “By your faith, you live,” the man says, a gentle smile softening his features. I bow my head again, wanting to thank him, wanting to say so many things, but unable to through the powerful sobs and gasps for air. When I finally lift my head, I am alone.

6:30 PM

AMY


            The dormant warship settles back into its footprint as the storm begins to abate. The black and purple clouds retreat, drawing back to their distant recesses like frightened vermin. Within an hour the foam-tipped waves have been replaced by a gentle lapping against our hull. The brothers launch the lifeboats without further problems. Shortly after nightfall, before the Cornelia is finally pulled below the surface in bubbling swirls of water, all two thousand four hundred and thirty-nine passengers are accounted for aboard the lifeboats.
            “What now?” Marc calls from our boat to the captain’s. Curious heads bob in the rafts with the rising and falling swells.
            “There’s only one option I can see,” captain Andros calls back, scratching his head as he points towards the quiet aircraft carrier. The suggestion drifts across our tethered convoy of boats, eliciting puzzled responses.
            We point our boats in the direction of the USS Gerald R. Ford, her turrets limp and quiet, her deck cleared of any visible signs of aircraft.
            “Seems awful quiet,” Ashley says, resting a concerned hand on her husband’s arm. “Could it be a trap?”
            “I don’t think we have much of a choice,” he says, grimacing. But there are no explosions as we approach. No rockets, no bombs, no torpedoes.
            It takes us some exploring to find a way aboard, the ship’s flight deck towering a good five stories above us. Finally, long after dark, someone locates a trail of rungs leading to an unlocked hatch. A team of brothers led by captain Andros slips in to investigate, armed only with emergency lights and walkie-talkies from the lifeboats. Half an hour later, Marc’s walkie-talkie comes alive with a burst of static.
            “Come in? Come in? Everything ok in there?” Marc asks.
            “Just fine, Marc. You won’t believe it. Ship’s completely empty,” Andros says, a smile in his voice.
            “Empty? Did you say empty?”
            “Well, almost. We did find one survivor.”

8:36 PM

LUKE


            It takes them another two hours to locate the rear platform elevator controls, but once they do, the boarding process speeds significantly. I sit anxiously at a table in one of the hangars, rubbing my shoulders, partly to allay the pain, partly to calm the nerves. Smiling, relieved faces begin to trickle in. Children in their parents’ arms, beaming faces of moms and dads, old, wrinkled faces, not fazed a bit by their cold and soaking hair and clothing. Just happy to be alive.
            Some of the men in charge discover large folding cafeteria tables and boxes of water and MREs to feed the crowds. The hangar quickly comes alive with animated conversations and gleeful, teary faces.
            That’s when I finally see her.
Amy. My wife. I hold on to the moment in my mind as long as I can, standing from the table and hobbling to her approaching wheelchair. I reach for her and collapse into her lap, holding her tightly and weeping as I never have before. Her warm arms wrap around my quivering shoulders as she leans down to bury her face in my hair. There is so much I could say: How much I’ve missed her. How scared I was. How sorry I am. How right she was all along. How Jehovah was there for me from the beginning.
            But the words won’t come, not now. Now there are only tears. Warm, happy tears.