I awake to find myself in a wide rectangular room lined by downward slanting windows on three sides. A dozen men and women hover over glowing display screens, charts, and glowing arrays of dials and switches. The storm rages on beyond the windows, jagged lightning clawing at an endless expanse of agitated, black sea. We’re at least a hundred feet above the waves, and the perspective doesn’t quite make sense until I lean forward to gaze down at the acres of steel jutting off like a vast highway below me. Neat rows of military aircraft flank either side of a zebra striped runway that diagonally bisects the ship. On the deck, tiny men in neon raincoats fight the wind, sheets of rain cascading on them from above and then streaming from the sides of the runway. The sheer immensity of the aircraft carrier is breathtaking and difficult to grasp, a veritable floating city. Despite the roaring weather and high seas, our vessel slices through the seas with little trouble.
“Look who’s up,” Agent Meade says, almost cheerily. He walks over and hands me a Styrofoam cup of hot coffee. I accept with some hesitation, and the handcuffs tethering me to a handrail only allow me to reach so far. “Ever been on an aircraft carrier before?” Meade asks, sipping from a mug as he gazes into the squall.
“She’s a Nimitz-class. Biggest of her kind. Six thousand crew members, runs on nuclear power. She can go twenty years without refueling, and she’s got enough firepower to take on an entire fleet singlehandedly. God bless America.”
“How many tax dollars did it take to build?” I say, barely able to contain my contempt.
“Millions, billions? Who knows. Who cares? We’ve got it, and we’re the only ones.”
I say nothing.
“I’ll bet you think you were pretty clever with that stunt you pulled on the radio,” Meade says, his tone still amicable, eyes shifting to smile at me. “I suppose you think we didn’t expect it?”
I’m silent as I feel the unseen fangs of a deep dark dread clamp down on my throat.
“Hello, Luke? Anyone in there?” Meade says, tapping a finger against my forehead, the smell of stale coffee and aftershave overwhelming me. “Do you really think we would’ve given you a way to sabotage this operation?” Meade repeats, his smile wide now, teeth glinting.
“What are you talking about?” I mutter.
“You are one dumb cop,” Meade sneers, exhaling sharply through his teeth.
“Tell me,” I say, teeth clenched tight. It’s the first time I catch sight of the two MAs behind me, their rifles at the ready. They step forward to shoot Meade a questioning look. He brushes them off without breaking our stare.
“You’re an idiot if you think we would’ve put such a crucial part of this operation in your hands. The one thing we could count on was you turning traitor. You’re about as easy to read as that wind sock out there. The coordinates we gave you were right off of the Carolina coast. Their ship would’ve passed right through it without us sending some message to rendezvous. It’s smack in the middle of their course.”
“Then why did you make me send the message?”
“So you’d tell them to avoid the spot, of course. We want them farther out to sea. Our guess is they’ll swing wide by fifty miles or so, which will be plenty.”
“Plenty for what?”
“Plenty to get them over deep waters. They’ll be far from shore, with chances of rescue next to zero,” Meade says, turning back to the window, that sinister smile growing ever wider on his face. I don’t need to ask the next question. I’ve played yet again into Meade’s hands.
“Not that we’re really expecting anyone looking our way. It’s the middle of a typhoon and the nearest town’s been practically obliterated by some redneck anarchists, but still… Orders are orders. And you helped us carry them out. So once again, thanks. Turns out you do better work for your government when you think you’re on the other side. If that’s not the definition of ineptitude, I don’t know what is. Still, cheers,” Meade says with a cynical wink and the slight raising of his cup.
The humiliation and agony build to a fever pitch. I feel my fists clench into rocks at my side, hot coffee squeezed from the Styrofoam drizzling over my knuckles and onto the floor. I forget the MAs with their guns, the fact that I’m riding a giant weapon staffed by thousands of military personnel, the fact that they could kill me and dump me into the waves without anyone ever knowing. None of it matters, really. Not after losing this much.
I visualize the violence before my muscles react–my free arm lunging out to grab Meade’s coat, dashing him to the ground and kicking him before he can rise to his feet. And then, if I’m still alive, if the guards somehow haven’t managed to fire a round, I’ll…
“Sir, we’ve got something on radar. Looks to be about the size of our target,” says a young woman, her hair gripped back in a tight bun, eyes dark and alert. She wears baggy aqua colored fatigues, a bright yellow navy insignia embroidered into her lapel. She glances between Meade and the admiral, waiting for one of them to acknowledge.
“Scramble a bird. I want a live feed from the air in ten,” grunts the admiral, giving me a brief, emotionless stare before returning to his elevated chair at the corner of the room. The young woman nods and lifts a black receiver from beside a set of monitors and gives the orders.
Not five minutes later, I watch as a fighter jet is catapulted from the deck with a roar, rear engine glowing blue as it pierces the storm and disappears.
“Not long now,” Meade says with unabashed glee.
I look around at the youthful faces around me, expressions of determination cast in relief by the upglow of digital readouts and radar screens. They’re younger than me, I’d guess, and not so different.
Me just six years ago, a rookie on the force. Me pulling the trigger when it seemed like the right thing to do. Me, blood on my hands. Blood that doesn’t wash out, no matter how hot you turn that water, no matter how many bars of soap you scrub through. Do they know how close they are to spilling that kind of blood? The blood of my wife! Then again, would it matter? Would any of these kids have the guts to disobey orders, to stand down due to their conscience? Would I?
The anger is gone now, washed away by a sobering reality that I’m no better than the rest of these people. Perhaps this is why our judgment will be the same, why I’m standing on this warship rather than with Amy. I close my eyes, tasting only the bitterness of my fate, and pray to Jehovah.
The storm ahead swells and churns and begins to rock our ship. The brothers have been kind enough to allow me to stay with them in the bridge. Perhaps they hope to distract me. This room is a few stories above a deck filled with coils of chains and cables and tarpaulin covered crates. Brother Harris sits at my side, consoling me with scriptures as best he can, suggesting that my husband may still make it out alive. I appreciate his sentiments, but deep down, I know it is too late. Luke has made his choice. He has–for the last time–sacrificed himself.
I watch absently as a team of skilled brothers and sisters rove over the controls, reporting their readings to the brother with the grey hair, our captain.
“How we doing in these swells, Shelly?” he asks, swiveling slightly in his chair, pointing the question to a sister over his right shoulder.
“We’re listing about one degree to starboard, but nothing serious, Brother Andros.”
“Good. Don, are the stabilizers still functioning normally?”
“Mostly. One of them has been giving us irregular readouts over the past half hour.”
“All right. Let’s get someone from maintenance to check it out. If the stabilizers go down we’ll have a lot of seasick friends on our hands.”
“Yes, sir,” the brother says, lifting a phone from the dashboard and relaying the command.
I turn slightly as a hand gently descends on my shoulder. It’s Marc. His eyes are red and puffy, his lips quivering slightly.
“Marc? Are you ok?” I ask, worried. He drags a folding chair over and plops down next to me, wiping his eyes with a sleeve before speaking.
“I’m so sorry about Luke, Amy,” he says, the grief heavy in his voice. I study him for a moment before answering.
“It’s ok, Marc. It was his choice,” I say sadly.
“Yeah, I know. Just like the train. I can’t stop thinking about it, Amy. Trying to figure out if there was another way.”
“It… It isn’t your fault, Marc,” I finally say. “I shouldn’t have blamed you and the others. I know my husband. It’s his nature to protect others. He would’ve wanted it this way. If something had happened to you or Ashley or your son, he would’ve never forgiven himself.”
Marc frowns at the floor and nods somberly. “I keep praying that Jehovah will remember him, Amy. Right now I want that more than anything. He’s a good man. I have to admit, when we first found him, in the forest, I had my doubts. But as time passed, it really seemed like Jehovah was guiding things, like he’d led Luke directly to us.”
“Luke has always been a good man, Marc. He probably would’ve come around sooner, had I been less secretive. Chelsea had been on my case for months about it, you know. I was too scared. Worried that Luke would react badly to the news that I was studying. Maybe I have no one to blame but myself for all of this.”
“Captain, take a look at these fuel readings,” one of the young brothers says from a computer screen to our left. The older brother moves over quickly to peer into the screen.
“Can this be right? We were three-fourths full when we left Wilmington.”
“We’ve been overhauling the engines in this storm, but I think we may also be leaking fuel,” says Don.
“How much father can we get on this tank?”
“It’s hard to gauge. Another half day, maybe. And that’s if the storm lets up.”
“Captain, sorry, but I’ve got something else here,” someone says from the other end of the controls. The voice is sharp and agitated. Everyone in the room freezes.
“Well, go on, what is it?” Captain Andros says, voice soft but concerned.
“Something on radar, coming in fast. I think it’s a plane.”
“A plane? In this weather?” Andros asks.
“It’s moving way too fast to be a boat. Less than a mile now.”
Our heads automatically rise, peering through the oily rain and black skies. The room is silent but for the distant rumble of thunder. We barely spot it cross over our deck, and it’s gone an instant later, but the unmistakable roar of its jet engine rings in our ears.
“Sam, how far are we from those coordinates we received?” the captain orders, his voice low and quick.
“A good seventy, eighty miles.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, unless the GPS is acting up. We’ve been on this course for hours. I can’t imagine it’s wrong.”
“Ok, ok. Don, get brother Michaels on the phone for me. We need to let them know the news.”
“They’ve found us, son.”
“That the best we can do for visuals?” Meade grunts, staring up at a widescreen monitor perched above the admiral’s chair. The image on the screen is a hazy, black and white outline of a large cruise liner.
“I’m afraid so,” one of the technicians replies apologetically. “The rain’s coming down in buckets out there. The pilot’s made several passes. We tried infrared, not much better.”
“Were you able to positively ID the vessel at least?” the admiral says irritably.
“Yes, sir,” the tech says, keying something into the console as a series of still images flashes onto the screen. “You can see here. And here, near her prow. It’s the Cornelia, alright.”
“Good,” says the admiral. The young man nods with a faint smile and disappears behind a console. “Meade? What’s our move?”
Agent Meade’s eyes glow, intoxicated by this delicious and horrible power, like a small boy discovering his father’s hidden handgun. He gives me a menacing look and leans towards the admiral.
“Let’s see if she’s armed. Draw her out. Can we fire some kind of warning shot over her deck?”
The admiral nods before lifting the receiver on his phone and giving the order.
“So this is the plan,” I say. “Killing innocent civilians.” They’ve got me locked up to a handrail at the rear right of the pilothouse, where I’m forced to watch this all unfold. I feel much calmer now, and the thoughts of violence towards my captors are gone. Still, I don’t expect to just sit by and watch without a word.
“Innocent? Is that how you’d label any other radicalized religious group? Wake up, Harding. This is a cult. Our government knows it, our allies know it. For god’s sake, even our enemies know it. You have any idea how many seats of the United Nations General Assembly moved to ratify the total obliteration of this sect? One hundred ninety-three. That’s a one hundred percent vote. A landslide. There’s not a question in my mind that this brand of extremism is anything but innocent.”
“You’re wrong,” I say, thinking back to the conversation with Marc and Andrew days ago. Their explanation of the tumultuous conclusion of world events, the clear attack on God’s people by the World’s nations. It was a hard concept to swallow, but here it is. Clear as day.
“So what do you think, then? You think God’s somehow protecting these people? Is that it? Then where is He now? Because last I heard, most of the Witnesses around the world are either in prison camps or fleeing for their lives like animals on the run. Mark my words, a few years from now, Jehovah’s Witnesses will be a thing of the history books and nothing more. Just watch, Harding. Just watch.”
“Admiral, sir, our bird’s almost back in position,” announces a quartermaster.
“My orders stand. Let’s show these zealots a thing or two about the US Navy.”
“Live video feed on your screen now, sir. Half a mile and counting.”
I raise my eyes to the monitors, unable to look away. The picture is grainier than before, but the ship stands out clearly onscreen. The digital crosshairs of the fighter jet weave and bob against the outline of the ghostly ship.