Tyndale House Publishers
IT TOOK LESS THAN A MONTH for every United Seven States of America and International Government agency to concede that Los Angeles was not fixable. Initially the various heads and undersecretaries pointed at each other, insisting that one or another must act first before their own experts could wade in. As the foliage withered and services—particularly medical—shut down for lack of water in any form, eventually everyone reluctantly pulled out.
It was hard for the public to imagine life without water. Nothing to drink. Hardly anything to eat. Toilets wouldn’t flush. People couldn’t bathe. Anything and everything that in any way relied upon H2O became worthless. Thousands died. The rest, reluctantly but fast losing hope, slowly migrated elsewhere. The largest city in the world, by landmass, became a barren ghost town.
Except for people of faith. The underground became the sparse populace that had the run of the place. The endless miles of freeway pavement, once the crippled cars of the judged were moved aside, became a playground for the formerly oppressed. They had running water. Their bottles were full. Their machines had fluids and lubrication. And when they assumed control of the dead vehicle of a banished victim, it sprang back to life.
Unable to explain such a catastrophe to the populace, the government resorted to threatening to obliterate life in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. This was met with a furious outcry. What about the landmarks, the homes, the office buildings? If a cure were ever found, what would there be to return to? Was this not admitting that the majority had lost to the minority?
Worse, there were those who—given the poverty of the government’s ability to explain, let alone rectify, the situation—suggested that the claim of the rebels must be true: God had sent this plague on Los Angeles because of the slaughter of innocents. And should the government compound its culpability by attempting to wipe out the rest of them, what would stop Him from expanding the scope of the disaster?
This proved the greatest nightmare for the government since religion had been banned internationally more than three and a half decades prior. The year 38 P.3. (which would have been known as 2047) was shaping up to become the year of the underground, of the rebels, of the resistance. In all the USSA’s regions, underground factions seemed to take heart from what had transpired in L.A. It was as if God had had enough of the carnage, the persecution. Secret believers came to hope that He would not abandon them, that they might grow bolder and be able to count on His protection, even His vengeance against their pursuers.
In Columbia—formerly the nation’s capital—people who were found bearing the flat, smooth, white stones that identified them as believers were suddenly feared. While the NPO had a mandate to round the believers up and prosecute them—the sentence, death—private citizens suddenly quit turning them in. Rather, the populace looked the other way when they happened upon a rebel planting literature in a public place. Some even risked stealing a glance at the printed material, though none dared being caught with it on their person.
In Atlantica, where the underground carried ailanthus leaves that marked them, some believers in the office buildings of New York City were bold enough to establish hybrid groups made up of some from one cell and the rest from others.
In Gulfland, medallions depicting the Bible were left at scenes of what otherwise might have appeared to be industrial sabotage. Yet officials refused to follow leads that might have pointed them to the resistance.
In Heartland, particularly in Chicago, bold rebels were actually seen wearing crown-shaped pins on their lapels in public. Yet not one was followed to a gathering place of believers.
In Sunterra, where San Francisco was soon named the capital, replacing the ghost town to the south, it was commonly known that house churches—much like the one that had been destroyed—were springing up all over. Ancient Lincoln-head pennies identified believers there.
In both Rockland and Pacifica, rumor had it that underground believers were having tiny tattoos applied on the ankle. Insurrectionists in Rockland chose crosses; in Pacifica the ichthus, sign of the fish, was the choice. Authorities broadcast far and wide that such decisions were self-inflicted death penalties and announced rewards for information leading to the capture of anyone so bold as to sport such a sign. Yet no news of an execution came forth.
Eventually the government seemed to decide that noisy retaliation was not worth the risk of another Los Angeles. While some agencies continued to feverishly study a way to remedy the situation there, the new national modus operandi became to hearken back to the propaganda of wartime—to the rhetoric that had resulted in the banning of religion. The government fought fire with fire. Every attempt by the underground to establish that God was alive and well and that He might soon return was met with a barrage of information from Columbia. With a flurry of e-mail and Internet broadcasts, television and radio pronouncements, messages broadcast to every personal digital assistant in the country, the USSA was reminded by its leadership of the new core values that had resulted in more than thirty-six years of peace on earth.
“Remember,” citizens were told, “that war results from religion. The propagation of fairy tales, of promises of pie in the sky by and by, devalues the human mind and reduces men and women to puppets, automatons, sheep. Ask yourself what ultimate positive effect religion has ever had on a society. Eventually, extremists arise, mutually exclusive sects emerge, and war and bloodshed follow.”
The tactic seemed to work, at least temporarily, in the USSA, which had been embarrassed globally by becoming known as the nation of civil unrest. Elsewhere it appeared there was no underground, that the international community had succeeded in bringing entire nations into line. Human goodness and intellect were revered; religion was an ugly stepsister of the past.
By early January of 38 P.3., the USSA was on the cusp of becoming a model of how to quell such uprisings—largely with a docile response to the underground and eschewing real confrontation.
Charlotte Ian, twenty-two, left the suburban London flat she shared with four other young women at a quarter past six the morning of Thursday, January 10, 38 P.3. She hadn’t had time to do her hair the way she liked, but that was less important than being on time. Mr. Woodyard, the supervisor of guides at Stephen’s Tower (formerly St. Stephen’s Tower) had remarked in her most recent performance review that he expected her uniform to be “clean and crisp,” her hair “fashionable but done in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself,” and “most important, that you never be one minute late again. I’m serious, Miss Ian. This is a plum position if I may say, and many wait eagerly in line behind you. You must be here, in place, and ready to go when the first tour is scheduled. I should also like to warn you not to let your plumpness get the better of you. We like a tidy image and your uniform should fit appropriately.”
Her uniform was only slightly askew, though embarrassingly tight—thus she toted a very light lunch, and while her hair was up in back like a prancing horse’s tail, Charlotte believed her top priority was reaching the tube early enough to make it to the tower in time to be ready. She had no doubt she had her lines down, and Mr. Woodyard had corroborated this. “You have a loud, clear, pleasant enough voice, and it’s plain you have well memorized the patter, though I must say it doesn’t sound rehearsed. I would like you to stay on, so please attend to these other areas, promptness being the major one.”
Charlotte arrived at the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster ten minutes before her day was to begin. Her first tour group consisted of twenty people.
“How many Brits?” she asked, and about half raised their hands.
“Americans?” Six more. “Others?” One couple was from France, another from Russia. That told Charlotte that she would be giving statistics not only in metrics but also in feet, tons, and miles. As she led her charges through the structure, she began, “This tower was completed some hundred and ninety years ago in 1858. You may know that the original Palace of Westminster was nearly destroyed by fire twenty-four years prior. The tower stands ninety-six meters tall, and for you Americans, that calculates to three hundred sixteen feet.”
“Is it the clock or the bell that is called Big Ben?” the French woman said.
“Actually Big Ben is the name of the bell, the clock, and the tower. The name first referred to the bell, and tradition tells us it may have been named after Sir Benjamin Hall, London’s commissioner of works at the time the tower was constructed.“
Charlotte recited the weight of the clock, the diameter of the four faces, the lengths of the hands, the height of the numbers, and added, “The bell has been heard from as far away as fourteen kilometers, or nine miles.”
By her three o’clock tour, Charlotte had been through this seven times, and the hard-boiled egg and two ounces of chicken breast she’d scarfed at noon had long since worn off. She was breezing through her recital of facts while talking herself into an ice cream on the way home in two hours when Mr. Woodyard passed with a smile and a thumbs-up that made her day.
Twenty seconds later she and her tour group, plus four hundred and sixty-three people in the adjacent palace, two hundred and seventeen at street level, and dozens of others passing by, lay dead under rubble. Charlotte had coached her people on how to cover their ears completely when the more than ten-thousandpound bell sounded the hour, but no one had been prepared for the much louder blast of the bomb that would eventually be traced to a newsstand on the ground floor.