The brothers huddle around the bridge with grim faces as Captain Andros relays the news. Somehow, we’ve been tracked down. It’s only a matter of time before the cavalry shows up.
“What do we do?” one of the elders asks. There is no fear in his voice, only steely determination.
“Tell the group overseers to remain with the friends. Try to keep them calm. Share scriptures. Remind them of David and Goliath, of Hezekiah and Sennacherib, of the three Hebrews and Nebuchadnezzar. Do all you can to keep their minds on spiritual things,” Brother Harris instructs.
“What about lifeboats? Are they an option?” someone else asks.
“Only as a last resort. If this ship sinks, they won’t do us much good. Not in these waves,” Andros says gravely.
“Anything else we can do to protect the brothers and sisters?” Marc asks.
“Keep them away from the windows and sidewalls of the ship. In the event of an attack, those will be the most vulnerable places,” the captain says.
“A fighter jet like that, though. One missile aimed at the right place, and–”
“Let’s not dwell on that now,” Brother Harris says. “Let our focus be on what we can do to bolster the friends. We must keep our determination to stand firm.” Solemn nods are made around the circle and one of the brothers offers a prayer:
“Jehovah, the God of Armies, our Rock, our Protector. We thank you for our deliverance thus far. You have been there, every step of the way, guiding and protecting. Your thoughts are higher than our thoughts. You saw the dangers long before human eyes could have. Now, Jehovah, we beg for your strength. Our enemies draw ever closer. If it is your will, oh Jehovah, please frustrate their plans. But if not, know that we will remain faithful, even as this ship sinks down into Sheol. We will never leave you, Jehovah! If we live, we live to You. And if we die, we die to You. Let nothing take away our integrity!”
When we open our eyes, our faces are teary but staunch. The brothers embrace solemnly for what may be the last time before dispersing back into the belly of the ship. The words of the prayer continue to resonate deep within my heart like a cave echo. My fear retreats just enough to allow me clear thought.
“Brothers and sisters, please, what is our status?” Brother Andros says as he eases back into his captain’s chair. His voice is soft and gentle, completely belying our peril.
“Fuel less than fifteen percent, Captain. We’re definitely leaking.”
“Please, call me brother. We are all brothers and sisters here,” Andros says, patting the younger man on his shoulder.
“Yes, sir. Brother.”
“Ok. Besides fuel, what are we looking at?”
“Stabilizers seem to be holding. We’re still listing, but it’s not severe,” Shelly reports.
“Well that’s good,” Andros says, smiling. “Anything on radar, Sam?”
“No, nothing. Wait… Yes, something’s just shown up. Closing in fast, Brother Andros. I think it’s that jet fighter again,” Sam says, panic rising in his voice like a cresting wave.
“Ok, keep calm. Let’s see what he does.”
There is utter silence on the bridge as the pinging radar dot races towards the center of the screen. We turn our heads, peering out the window into the storm. The waves are higher than ever, their tips foamy and agitated. The sky is unnaturally black and moonless, illuminated only by periodic flashes of lightning. Gusts of salt wind howl over us. The smell of the sea is all around us.
In the distance, two yellow strings of light dance in the air. The lights move with incredible speed directly at us. The swells below the ship give way, and we duck downwards, the streaming lights passing just a few stories above our prow. The fighter follows seconds behind the missiles, its jet roaring breathlessly above our deck. And then it’s gone.
“That was close,” the captain says as we begin to breathe again.
“It felt like inches,” someone says.
“It probably was. But that was just a warning shot. They could hit us with something a lot worse if they wanted to.”
“Yes. Full throttle ahead.”
“A-9, what’s your status?” the admiral barks into his radio. The pilot’s voice is fed back through the bridge intercom for all to hear. The dozen or so heads around me gaze up intently to listen.
“Warning shots fired, Admiral. Just over their deck. No response.”
“No, sir. Seems to be a normal cruise ship. But they do appear to have a lot of items covered up with tarps on deck. Could be weapons.”
“Ok. Make another pass at her. Go for her radar tower. Use your Mavericks.”
“Roger that sir, standby for visuals.” The radio clicks off and smiles around us are exchanged.
“They’re probably concealed weapons,” Meade mentions to the admiral. “Maybe they’re trying to draw out more fighters. I’ll bet they’re using those quick-mount machine guns.”
“It’s possible,” the admiral says, looking down at a screen. I consider objecting, telling these men once again that the Witnesses are surely unarmed. But what good would it do? And then there’s the chance they’d throw me back into the brig, where I’d know nothing of all of this. And as horrible as it is to stand here, not knowing would be even worse.
A sharp ringing splits the air as heads turn to focus on a red telephone mounted on a control panel near the captain’s seat. Admiral Hawkins glances at it, stunned for a moment, before quickly lifting the receiver. Meade looks on impatiently, clearly displeased with being out of the loop. But all we can do is wait. The admiral’s conversation is hushed and brief. He returns the receiver with a glance at Meade, then myself.
“That was the pentagon,” he says.
“And?” asks Meade.
“The president wants to offer a pardon to anyone on that ship willing to renounce their beliefs.”
“What?!” Meade says, suddenly furious. “He can’t do that! The UN’s Council specifically ruled that–”
“It only applies to practicing Witnesses. He wants to offer them an olive branch. Apparently other member nations are doing it, too.”
“This is outrageous! These people have been plotting to overthrow our government, and he wants to just let them walk?”
“He’s our commander in chief, Agent Meade. This isn’t our call.”
Meade grits his teeth at the admiral, and for a moment I think the two might start swinging punches until Meade throws up his arms in frustration and storms off to the other end of the bridge. “Politicians,” he growls under his breath.
“A-9, belay those attack orders on the cruise vessel and return to deck. Repeat, return to deck,” the admiral calls into a radio. The pilot copies the command a moment later, traces of confusion in his voice.
“Alright, let’s re-establish radio communication with our target,” the Admiral says to one of the seated female quartermasters. Her fingers dance over the controls.
“I’ve got them, admiral. Shall I patch you through?”
“This is Admiral James Hawkins of the USS Gerald R. Ford. With whom am I speaking?” comes the commanding voice on the opposite end of the radio. We freeze for a moment, unsure of what comes next, until Captain Andros takes the radio transmitter from the console.
“This is Captain Phillip Andros of the Cornelia. Our ship is filled with civilians. We are unarmed.” A long pause on the other end.
“What is the religious affiliation of those aboard your vessel?” Andros composes himself with a deep breath.
“We are Jehovah’s Witnesses, sir.” Another agonizing pause.
“We wish to deliver a message to your passengers and crew,” says the voice.
“Copy that. What is the message?”
“We will deliver it directly to your passengers. We will rendezvous with your vessel at approximately seventeen hundred hours. We will approach your starboard side and broadcast from our PA system. Do you copy?”
“Yes, we copy. But, well… We could save you a trip if you were to just give us the message now,” Captain Andros says. We wait, but there is no response. Andros tries again, but there’s only static.
“Do you think it’s a trap?” Don asks.
“I’ve no idea. But we have no choice but to comply. We’ll be out of fuel soon, and their ship could overtake us even if that wasn’t an issue. All we can do is wait. And pray.”
“Attention, officers,” the admiral barks, the men and women in the room turning and stiffening like planks at the sound of his voice. “In less than one hour, we will rendezvous with the Cornelia. Previously, she was a cruise vessel, but we have reliable intel that tells us her passengers are dangerous. Don’t let the civilian exterior fool you. These people are trained. Keep a sharp eye. At any signs of trouble, we shoot first, understand? Look alert. Back to your stations.”
Meade glances back to me, giddy as ever, back to his old self. “Ready for the fireworks?” he asks. I remain silent and turn to gaze out into the storm. The waves climb ever higher, their tips foul tendrils of foam in the lashing wind. The crack and grumble of thunder roll over us.
My pulse quickens as I picture those men and women and children waiting anxiously on the ship. There is no way out. Somewhere, not far from us, is my wife. I can almost feel her drawing closer.
We gasp as the ship slides into view. It is a mere outline at first, a jagged, mountainous silhouette in the flashing lightning. The sky is abnormally dark for just four o’clock in the afternoon, but this thought is quickly relegated to the recesses of my mind. The ship grows and grows as it looms nearer, its turrets rotating in precise synchronization. Dozens of jet fighters are poised perfectly on the ship’s deck like polished scalpels on a surgeon’s tray. Glaring searchlights are switched on, flinging immense beams of powerful light across the waves and over our bow.
Despite the high seas and howling wind, the aircraft carrier moves undeterred. It slices through the water steadily, intrepidly, its bow lamps winking at us between the swells. The tower above the flight deck soars a hundred feet in the air like the dorsal fin of a circling shark. A shark that smells blood.
“It’s a floating city,” says Don. “Never seen anything that big before.”
“It’s a Ford-class aircraft carrier. Biggest of its kind in the world. But don’t let its bulk scare you. It’s no match for even a single angel, if that’s what it comes to,” our captain responds.
The predatory ship lurks nearer, her sheer immensity dwarfing our own vessel. Her searchlights pry through our windows and decks. When a beam lunges through the pilothouse, we shied our eyes against its blinding, searing force. The battleship is now close enough for me to make out the dark shapes of soldiers in fluttering raincoats on the flight deck, manning the weaponry, climbing staircases, standing at attention behind windows.
“Attention, passengers and crew of the Cornelia! Attention!” comes a sharp, measured voice through the PA system of the carrier. I recognize it immediately. It’s their admiral, the one who hailed our captain.
“This is the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford. You are in violation of both domestic and international treaties banning the practice and operation of organized religion. Stand down. If you or any of your passengers or crew wish to surrender and renounce your beliefs, we will provide a means of safe transport and immediate evacuation. If you refuse, we are authorized to use force. Repeat…”
The message drones on and on, the sound reverberating through the hull of the ship, ricocheting between compartments, working its way into every nook and storage space. As we continue to list and leak fuel, red lights flash on control panels, alarms chirp and buzz like panicked birds. There is simply no way out… except the one.
I wonder how many of the friends down below are plagued by similar thoughts, how many of us are ready to accept this ship as our grave. Who of us is willing to spend the final moments drowning in a strange, freezing sea?
“Stand firm,” Brother Andros says, his voice low, barely audible. He flicks on the Cornelia’s PA system and repeats the words, his voice warm, reassuring.
“Sing to Jehovah,” Don says, his face turning towards us with the faintest of smiles, his eyes calm and stoic. The words come a second time, but they sound different. They are accompanied by a melody, a familiar song.
“Sing to Jehovah,
His great name is highly exalted...”
Captain Andros turns to the young man, his face glowing with warm admiration. He hands the young brother the radio transmitter so his song can be heard throughout the confines of the ship. The following lines are sung louder as Andros and the others join in. I sing too, as best as I can remember the words:
“His proud Egyptian foes,
He has cast into the sea.
Praise Jah Almighty,
Besides him there can be no other…”
Our song echoes down into the bowels of the ship, where our brothers and sisters can surely hear it, where we hope and pray they will be steadfast. And as the chorus swells, we hear them, from the decks deep below, the radios transmitting the staunch singing of thousands of brave souls. Chills crawl up my spine as red hot tears brim in my eyes and stream down my face. I’m singing not just for me, nor just for the friends whom I’ve come to love so dearly, not just for our dear Walter who was slaughtered today, but for Jehovah God himself, for the angels who must be listening. And for Luke!
I watch, warmed by a pure thrill as Andros thumbs the transmission button, sending our explosion of voices back to the admiral and his battleship, back to those enemies of Jehovah. Our voices stronger than any missile, our faith enough to conquer warheads.
“See now the nations,
Opposing the Sovereign Jehovah
Though mightier than Pharoah,
They too will suffer shame!
Doom now awaits them,
They will not survive Armageddon.
Soon everyone will know
That Jehovah is God’s name!”
The walls of the ship tremble with reverberating voices crying out in unison, and in that moment, I know that Jehovah must be close!