The chorus of voices echoes through the pilothouse. My skin tingles at their sound. Amy’s is among them. And in this moment I am more proud of her than I can bear to express. Tears well in my eyes, more sure than ever that their God, Jehovah, must be listening. I only wish I could know the words to the song, that I could be an extension of their voice, right here, like a knife in the heart of the enemy!
I listen carefully to the melody, trying to get a feel for it’s swaying rhythm, the pitching melody so perfectly matched to the rising and falling of the sea around us. Surely this is no mistake, this perfect song of conquest over fear! I may not know the lyrics, but by God I can hum my heart out, and nothing can stop me!
By the time the third verse rolls around I’ve got it, and I’m humming as loud as I can muster, chained to the bulkhead like a blathering fool, but I don’t care. The effect is not lost on the quartermasters, nor on Admiral Hawkins or Agent Meade. They’re visibly shaken by the sheer power of the resounding voices, stunned as if by the roar of lions. For a moment, I see the flicker of fear in their eyes.
“Turn off that ruckus!” Meade screams, lunging towards the communications officer. She fumbles with the switches, but the volume only increases.
“I–I’m sorry, sir. Something’s wrong with the controls, I can’t–”
She’s cut off by a sudden, chilling silence as the song ends, followed by a strong, low voice bursting through the speakers. It’s their captain, Andros.
“Admiral, are you still there?” he asks, no hint of fear in his voice.
“Yes. What’s happening?” the admiral responds, flustered and confused.
“You have offered surrender and this is our response: You have come to us with planes and bombs, missiles and torpedoes, an immense warship stocked with unimaginable weaponry. But we have come to you in the name of Jehovah, the God of Armies, whom you have taunted. If it is to be, our God whom we serve is able to rescue us from your hand. But even if he does not, Admiral, know that we are determined not to let anything break our integrity to our God. We will never renounce our faith! Over and out!”
Stunned, the Admiral slumps into his chair, a frown etched deep into his face. He’s visibly shaken by the entire ordeal and unable to move.
“You heard them,” Meade hisses, boiling over with an insane kind of rage. “Burn them!”
“Status report!” Captain Andros hollers above the scream of alarms. The cabin is flooded with the strafe of blood red lights, warning lamps spiraling out of control.
“Fuel is completely depleted, sir! Aft chambers taking on water fast! I’m not sure what happened, but we are sinking!”
“She’s an old ship, and this is a formidable storm,” Andros says dryly. Then, snapping up the radio transmitter, “Get the friends to the higher decks immediately. Tell them to leave everything. Prep the lifeboats.”
“We’re listing, sir. Four degrees and counting,” says Shelly.
“Never mind that,” Andros says in a voice devoid of emotion. “This ship is lost. Focus all efforts on evacuating and protecting the friends.”
“Yes, sir,” she says, immediately switching consoles and chattering commands into a separate transmitter.
“Brother Andros,” Don says, pointing out the window at the looming warship. “They’re firing.”
We turn to watch as a barrage of lighted rockets hiss straight up into the air. Despite the rain, they attain incredible height in just seconds, becoming dull glowing orbs as they disappear into the storm clouds.
Brother Andros turns to hug the young man, then the others, in turn. They ruffle one another’s hair and smile, tears again flowing freely. Then they come to me and the others of us waiting in the pilothouse. We share a final embrace as we await death.
“Where are those mortars?” Meade sneers, leaning into the window to glare up at the skies.
“Something’s wrong,” mumbles one of the officers, checking a readout on an overhead monitor. “The shells exploded prematurely.”
“Did any make contact with our target?” the admiral asks, brow furled.
“Uh… Negative, sir. Must be a weapons malfunction.”
“A dozen simultaneous malfunctions?” Hawkins asks again, fidgeting in his chair, struggling to look out the window. A bright flash of lightning illuminates the skies outside, the dash of thunder so powerful that the bulkheads shudder like chattering teeth. Admiral Hawkins jumps back from the glass, eyes wide, hand against his chest, laboring over his breaths.
“What is it, Hawkins?” Meade snorts.
“A face. I–I saw a face…on the other side of the glass. The eyes…”
A shadow falls over Agent Meade’s face as he leans into the admiral, their eyes just inches apart. “Get it together,” he hisses. “Order another attack and end this freak show.”
“Yes, yes. Of course. Let’s try the Mark forty-sixes. Aim low, boys. Let’s crack her hull and get this thing over with!”
Meade’s attention snaps towards me. He roughly detaches my restraints from the handrail and grips the back of my collar in a clenched fist. “Walk!” he orders. I comply, nearly stumbling over my own feet as we march across the bridge. The quartermasters’ eyes glance up furtively–fearfully, I think–as we pass.
Meade shoves my face into the window, slapping the metal cuffs onto a steel handrail. He shoves my head into the window, my cheekbone catching the cold glass hard and painfully, my eyes forced to witness the impending holocaust.
“Watch. Them. Burn,” he hisses in my ear.
On the deck below, I see men in bright green raincoats loading the torpedo turrets. They fumble and slip, the strong wind and the slick deck making normal movement impossible. For a hopeful moment I imagine them toppling overboard, but slowly and surely they manage to load the weapon. The turret groans to life, finding its mark. The men step back. There’s a deep thud as smoke erupts form the back of the cannon, then a blur of red as the torpedo dives into the waves.
“Sir, the lower compartments are flooding rapidly,” Don reports.
Captain Andros into the radio: “Jack, how are the lifeboats coming?”
“We’re doing our best, Captain, but in this storm–”
“Good. Keep working on them, get more helpers if you need. Prepare to abandon ship.”
“What about all these crates of supplies on deck? They’re taking up a lot of space–I’m not sure if we’ll be able to get everyone out here.”
“Toss it overboard. Get the friends on deck, above the water line. That’s the top priority.”
The captain switches through various channels, spreading the evacuation orders to each deck and group. When that’s done, he sits in his chair and looks at those of us still on the bridge.
“This is where we part ways,” he says gently. “I want you all to stick together. I’ll find you once all two thousand four hundred and thirty-nine of our friends are accounted for on deck.”
There’s a long pause before we finally begin nodding. The captain hugs each of us before we file out of the bridge. We ride the lift in silence to the deck, alarms blaring all the while. The doors open to the overwhelming cold and the rain falling in thick sheets. Hundreds of friends have already gathered, gripping each other for stability as the ship lists and rocks.
The crowd presses closer together as our numbers increase. More and more faces bubble up from the bowels of the ship, young children held in the arms of parents, older couples moving slowly, hand in hand. The battleship is still there, having drifted back a few hundred yards from us, but it is silent and still. Perhaps mounting its final attack, I think.
Jesse and Chelsea somehow locate me in the crowd. Marc and Ashley are close behind, draping a plastic garbage bag over me and my wheelchair. They reach down to hug me, uttering sweet words that I can’t quite make out. Matthew gazes at me from his father’s arms with a sleepy, curious stare. I reach up to stroke the tip of his nose and he smiles, and in that moment, everything seems right.
The aircraft carrier is gone, along with the roiling seas and furious skies. The lightning is replaced by a breathtaking sunset, a masterpiece of reds, pinks, and oranges. We are no longer cornered prey waiting as a firing squad takes aim. We are in paradise. Beautiful, wooded hills surround us on every side. A family of deer graze near a gurgling stream. A vibrant, blonde Chelsea picks roses and smiles over her shoulder at Walter before placing the flowers delicately in her basket. Matthew runs through the trees, a litter of baby foxes close on his heels. Luke tucks his arm around my waist and pulls me tight as we close our eyes, feeling the retreating rays of sunlight warm us down to our very cores.
And then the explosion comes.
“Direct hit, sir! That last shot finally did it!”
“About time,” the admiral says anxiously, thoroughly bewildered by the inexplicable number of misfires. “Where was she hit?”
“According to our sensors, it was dead center, just below the water line. Should capsize her. Won’t be long now, sir.”
“Good. Good,” Hawkins says, wiping a line of sweat from his brow.
“And you really thought God would save them!” Meade says with snarling laughter. “All that singing and wailing, and for what? They’ll all be dead soon.” This brings another bout of laughter as Meade keels over, bracing himself on a console. “You really bel–”
“Sir, Admiral, sir,” one of the male quartermasters says anxiously. “We seem to have a problem.”
“Go on, spit it out,” Hawkins snaps.
“I don’t know how to describe it, but… Take a look at these images.”
We wait a moment as the feed is routed to the main overhead monitor. The quartermaster walks over and jabs a pencil at the screen. The Cornelia is smoking from here and here, but the center appears wholly intact. “Here. This is where that last shell exploded.”
“Are you sure?”
“We have footage. From our POV, it detonated right here.”
“Where’s the damage?”
“I-I don’t know, sir. Maybe the shell went off prematurely. Or their hull is reinforced after all.”
“Impossible! Even this ship’s hull couldn’t withstand a Mark forty-six.”
“I don’t know what else to say, Admiral, except–”
The pilothouse is suddenly plunged into darkness as the electricity cuts out. Every screen and console, every switch and light bulb, instantly goes black. The only light is from outside the windows: a pale, ghostly glow that wavers ethereally between sea and sky. For that dreadful but exciting moment, I am certain that every corridor and cabin of the Gerald R. Ford is fearfully silent.
A solitary, jagged scream pierces the stillness in the air. It drifts up to us from the hollow caverns of a deck far below, magnified by the silence of dead electronics. The men and women around me slowly remove their headsets and gape down at the floor, looking to make sense of things, struggling to maintain composure.
“What’s going on?” someone finally says, their voice a trembling wire.
“Why aren’t the backup generators kicking in?”
“You think it was the storm?”
“Do we have contact with the lower decks?” asks the admiral, followed by fumbling noises from one of the consoles.
“No sir. The power is completely out.”
“Jackson. Paige. Take flashlights and go check it out. I want you back here in ten minutes with a full report.” The two men confirm the order and jog out through a doorway. We hear their feet clank and clatter down a stairwell as the room remains dark.
The tension in the pilothouse is just beginning to dissipate as another scream echoes up through the deck floors. It’s much louder this time, much closer. The admiral curses under his breath, his fear pale and naked. From his side of the room I hear a metal compartment open, followed by the familiar clink of ammunition being loaded.
There are muffled gasps and moans from the officers around me as the two men with flashlights return to the bridge.
“Report! Tell me what’s going on!” says the admiral shakily.
“Empty. Everyone’s gone. Nothing but empty corridors,” one of the men says between ragged breaths.
“The ground. It’s covered in this… This black chalky stuff. It smells. I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s bad, sir. Real bad.”