From the author: This story is a mashup of climate change, "doing more with less" in journalism, and fundamentalist religion. It feels very timely to me right now, even though I wrote it eight or nine years ago.
“Just watch my feed, Jo. As soon as you see it, I know you’re going to want it.”
Jo Givens shook her head. Habit – the conversation was audio-only. “Matt, I’ve got another hurricane hitting Florida, out-of-control fires in Orange County, an earthquake in San Francisco that’s apparently pushing seven on the Richter scale, and a heat wave that’s killed over 300 people in Chicago. That’s just the U.S. weather. I don’t even know where I’m going to put two terrorist attacks and three political scandals, not to mention typhoons in southeast Asia, a flood in China I can’t get any data on, and the aftermath of the Tokyo earthquake. And you want me to run some feed about a preacher in Southern Virginia?”
“He’s talking about all those things. He says they prove the Apocalypse is at hand. He’s very convincing about it.”
“This isn’t God; it’s climate change caused by human stupidity. The chickens environmentalists have been yelling about for years are coming home to roost. Haven’t you seen the science reports we’ve been running?” Three other lines were buzzing and Jo’s finger was poised to cut Matt off.
“Yeah, I have, and you’re going to have to balance all those scientists with another point of view or management’s going to get pissed. Fair and balanced, remember? Why not my preacher? You know management likes preachers.”
Jo made a face. But Matt was right. If she didn’t get something on the air that contradicted the science reports soon, she’d get a call from management before her shift was over. The head of US Global’s news division was born again. “Okay, okay. Let’s see your feed.”
The preacher had a mane of thick blond hair and an engaging smile. “Look at the fire spread,” he said, waving his hand toward a screen showing what Jo recognized as the grass fire that had raged across Kansas back in July. “The Bible says that when the first angel sounded his trumpet, ‘all green grass was burnt up.’” And then, in a voice so quiet Jo had to strain to hear it, “‘For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?’”
“Jesus,” Jo said. The man knew how to play to his audience, she had to give him that.
“That’s what he said. It’s all about Jesus.”
“He’s quoting from the Book of Revelation. It doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus.”
“I never read Revelation. The preacher says it’s from Jesus. Are you gonna run my feed?”
“Yeah, yeah. How can you not have read Revelation? You’re the religion reporter.”
“I never read any religious books. Keeps my mind open. See ya soon. I got a line on a rabbi.”
“This is New Testament stuff,” Jo said, but Matt had already hung up.
Matt’s raw feed was almost broadcast ready, as usual. It only took her ten minutes to turn it into a presentable five minute story. Jo sent a thirty second version to TV with an ASAP tag, then stripped the vid from that version and forwarded the audio to radio. She followed that with a heads up to the TV and radio anchors, alerting them to a new story in the mix. The whole five minute interview went to online, where those so inclined could download it at their leisure. Then she fed the audio into the text converter and sent the output to the editor who would make it fit the written word editions (online and print) as a story under Matt’s name. A selection of stills culled from the vid went to that same editor. (As she sent the text and stills, she couldn’t help thinking about the persistent rumor that the company was going to lay off the print/online crew and add their jobs to her workload as well.) The original and each edited version stayed safely on her computer. Jo believed in backups and she never trusted her reporters to keep them.
Nothing buzzed on her desk, though her message light was blinking. She ignored it, took a sip from the cup at her elbow and made a face. The coffee was stone cold. She wondered if she had time to run to the kitchen for a fresh cup. Nah, not worth the effort. She leaned back in her chair and watched the thirty second version of the interview with a member of the International Association of Scientists for Responsible Climate Policy.
“While, uh, we must be very cautious, umm, before attributing any one particular weather-related, umm, disaster to dangerous anthropogenic interference.” He paused and looked down at his notes. “Uh, we must not forget that the average world temperature has, uh, has increased by one point two degrees Celsius since the beginning of this century and that concurrent loss of glacial, umm, ice has raised already raised sea levels by an average of one point four meters.” He stared straight at the camera and grinned, as if he hadn’t just presented bad news.
Damn, he was a lousy speaker. And why did he use words like “anthropogenic interference” instead of something people would understand, like “human caused climate change.” Stupid IASRCP. Those people were so media-inept they couldn’t even come up with a decent acronym. Matt’s preacher was going to blow him out of the water. Good TV. Maybe even better radio. But lousy news coverage.
She punched up her science reporter. “Gail, you got to get me something better than this idiot we’re running now.”
“But that’s Thomas Whitaker,” Gail said in a shocked tone of voice. “He’s the most preeminent biologist …”
“I don’t care if he’s God Almighty, he’s putting our viewers to sleep. Get me someone sexier.”
“Science isn’t sexy, Jo.”
“Correction. Most scientists aren’t sexy, but science certainly is. Hasn’t one of those damn think tanks got a media-savvy spokesperson?”
“I’ll see what I can find.” Gail’s voice had frozen over.
“Look, Gail, you think these guys are right about why we’re having all these disasters, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. Don’t you? Any intelligent person …”
“Right. But most of our audience isn’t intelligent. You want to get their message across, get me somebody who can explain science to eighth graders and make them eat it up. Got it?”
* * *
The chime that signaled the end of her shift caught Jo by surprise. She finished sending out Gail’s new science report – an interview with a very attractive biophysicist who knew how to look at the camera and sound pleasant but stern while explaining that increased carbon emissions had led to warmer ocean water, thus generating more hurricanes – and punched up Brian as she sent him the recap of the past eight hours. Her shift didn’t technically end until she transferred control.
“The usual,” she told him. “Bad weather and religious nuts.”
“What happened with the bombs in Jerusalem?”
“Yesterday’s news. There’s the usual body count in Baghdad and something in the Philippines, but weather is crowding everything else off the screen.”
“And we got preachers saying the end is near? I guess management is happy.”
“They haven’t called, so I expect they are. All yours.”
Jo shut down her system and took off her headphone. The sudden return of peace and quiet stunned her, as it always did. The adrenaline that carried her through her shift was still pumping, but she knew from experience she would crash soon. A drink would smooth out the transition.
She poured herself a glass of wine and then puttered around the kitchen, sorting dishes and talking out loud to the elderly cat sitting expectantly beside his food bowl. “That feed from San Francisco reminds me of New Orleans after that big hurricane. New Orleans never really came back. I wonder if Frisco will. At least the hurricane coming up the Atlantic side of Florida wasn’t all that bad.” The cat meowed, as if in response. Jo filled up the food bowl and the cat turned his full attention to the crunchies.
It was impossible to stop talking when she’d been fielding calls and listening to feed for hours. What she wanted was someone to talk to. (The cat didn’t count.) The worst thing about working from home was that you couldn’t go out with your co-workers afterwards for a drink to wind down and discuss the day. But then, if USG News required people to work in the office, instead of networking them from all over, she’d have to live in Atlanta. Too hot. Too big city. She preferred Madison.
She had plenty of friends, but none of them were mediameisters. Experience had taught her that post-work cooldown didn’t work well with people in different lines of work. Better to go to brunch with them on your day off.
Jo popped a frozen dinner in the microwave and downloaded the latest episode of her favorite futuristic drama series. It relaxed her to watch something she didn’t have to edit.
* * *
“The Christian book of Revelation is related to our apocalyptic scripture,” Matt’s rabbi was saying. “Of course, the fundamentalist Christians have misinterpreted it, as usual – they seem to think they are the chosen people – but there is still truth in it.”
The rabbi was young and spoke crisp American-style English. Rumor placed him at the head of an organization that had assassinated several Israeli Arab leaders – not to mention Palestinians – but the conditions for the interview ruled out any mention of that connection. To compensate, Matt had integrated vid of bombings in Bethlehem into the talking-head feed from the rabbi’s office. “So you think these disasters might portend the end of the world?” Matt asked, looking for the perfect soundbite.
“There is good reason to suspect that the God of our fathers is not pleased with us,” the rabbi replied.
Not as good as the preacher’s “great day of his wrath,” Jo thought, but the rabbi was a politician as well as a religious extremist. He took care what words he sent into US mediaspace.
* * *
Gail’s feed today was on the thawing of the permafrost in Alaska. It showed houses sinking into the ground and dead trees leaning in a hundred directions, as if they were drunk. It reminded Jo of the earthquake pictures from San Francisco – that same jagged edge of ground sticking up, buildings collapsing. She suspected Gail of taking a camera out and shooting the damage herself – something reporters rarely did anymore, relying instead on feed from their sources and, on occasion, from local stringers who were paid a pittance.
If Gail had run the camera, she’d done it on her own time – there hadn’t been a gap in her regular reporting. The stunning quality of the visuals made it obvious that whoever shot it cared deeply. Gail had overlaid a quiet voiceover that gave a litany of the problems resulting from the melting of the permafrost.
“If things are so dicey up there these days,” Jo said, “why is it you live in Fairbanks?”
“Because in the not too distant future, it’s not going to be possible to live anywhere else on Earth,” Gail said. “The only place we’ll be able to grow food will be up here.”
“Maybe, but probably not in your lifetime.”
“I’m not so sure about that. Besides, it will happen in my daughter’s.” Gail had a two-year-old.
“That’s just scare stuff,” Jo said, responding as she did every time they had this conversation. If you let her, Gail would explain in detail why the world was doomed. While Jo knew human irresponsibility had brought on the current crop of weather disasters, she dealt with the problem by keeping herself convinced that things wouldn’t get too bad. That irrational semi-optimism was probably what made her a good mediameister. It also let her sleep at night.
* * *
Congress had just approved a bill increasing the average fuel economy standard to thirty-seven mpg by 2023. Jo ran a comment from Public Citizen pointing out that it should have been set at double that years ago and something from the international car manufacturers’ organization estimating that this would cost the industry forty-two thousand jobs worldwide, not to mention profits. The average cost of a gallon of gas hit eleven twenty-nine on news of the higher standard, though the price of a barrel of oil plummeted by fourteen dollars, down to a hundred seventy-one. Markets ran on their own logic, Jo thought, putting together the economic news to squeeze in among the disaster reports. There were more cars on the road than ever, despite the price of gas. She didn’t see how the car manufacturers were going to suffer. But no one had done a story on increased car ownership.
* * *
Today Matt had an imam from London. “The day of the Mahdi is at hand,” the imam said. Matt inserted a brief explanation: Shiite Muslims believe that the hidden Twelfth Imam will return as the Mahdi on the Day of Judgment.
“Lies and debauchery have led the world into the path of destruction. False witness is commonplace, criminals are honored, the most ignoble and dishonest have become our leaders. Women resemble men and men resemble women.”
“Well, he’s more or less right about our leaders,” Jo said. “Their inaction has certainly contributed to the environmental crises.”
“Maybe, but he seems to think the real problem has been that they didn’t pray enough. And didn’t pray right. Plus I can’t see you agreeing that women resembling men and vice versa is a problem.”
“No.” She listened to the rest of the clip, which suggested that the world would be restored to health by the death of all – misguided Muslims as well as Christians, Jews, and the myriad other so-called religions – who failed to convert. Jo shivered a little. “Matt, can’t you find any sane religious leaders to interview?”
“Not about the weather. Sane religious leaders don’t sound any different from scientists on the subject. Well, they use less jargon and they do suggest prayer, but that doesn’t really add anything to the discussion, does it?”
Not in the media, anyway. Sane discussion about complex topics never worked. Jo knew that. And the weather certainly wasn’t sane. Two more hurricanes had popped up in the Gulf of Mexico. The California fire still wasn’t under control. Disaster relief was barely underway in San Francisco – great footage of people walking to Sacramento. The heat wave that was killing people in Chicago had led to grass fires all across Indiana. No one even bothered to cover the extended drought in the southwest – after fifteen years, who cared? It was snowing in London. And something was going on in China, but no one knew what. USG couldn’t get a line in anywhere. Satellite coverage confirmed extensive flooding, but experienced China hands all said something political was afoot as well. No telling if that had to do with weather or was just another power shift.
Gail buzzed in with a report that the founder of Run Forever Inc. – the engineering firm that had cracked the problem of short-life batteries – had just sunk a billion dollars into the Gore-Lovelock Foundation, the think tank coordinating most of the global warming research. The Foundation’s latest work was a sociology study on how to best preserve civil order during weather and related emergencies. Gail fought to get the report on the air. At least the Run Forever guy had a spot of charisma.
When her shift ended, Jo actually sat down and read the civil order report – something she rarely did. It started with ways local communities could plan in advance of disaster, setting out ways to organize an extensive network of volunteers who could jump in and take action regardless of whether they were dealing with floods, fires, or bombs. One whole section was devoted to handling refugees.
Refugees. Jesus. Jo thought back on that long line of people walking from San Francisco to Sacramento. Of course the earthquake probably wasn’t related to the climate change problem. Earthquakes were a fact of life in California; everyone was always waiting for the big one. But this wasn’t the big one – it was bad, but no worse than the ones in 1906 or 1989. She wondered why things seemed so much worse this time. Maybe too many of the city’s disaster resources had been siphoned off for other problems, like the southern California fires.
Jo tried to think back to a day when weather hadn’t dominated the news feed. She couldn’t think of even one in the five years since she’d moved from reporter to mediameister. Even the LA bombings had been shoved aside by the Category 5 hurricane that left half of Houston under water. Eleven hundred people had died in LA, but the storm killed three thousand and permanently displaced half a million.
Act of God trumps acts of men, Jo thought. No wonder the preachers are doing so much business. People like magical explanations. She felt guilty about running all the apocalypse crap. Her master’s thesis was on the misinterpretation of apocalyptic literature – her revenge on the Bible Belt town she’d left behind – and when she’d covered religion for USG, she’d done her best to avoid giving the crackpots any airtime.
But that was before the current president for news. Jo had always found it difficult to believe that people who possessed the ruthlessness required to climb a corporate ladder actually believed in any Christian virtues, but it seemed his church equated material success with God’s blessing. And one didn’t get rich loving one’s neighbor.
Jo wasn’t sure how many of the management types that stretched between her and the president actually shared his beliefs and how many were faking, but these days all corporate meetings at USG-News began with a prayer. And Matt was the apple of their collective eye.
They wouldn’t have liked Matt if they’d actually known him. Matt didn’t go to church; she was pretty sure he didn’t believe in anything except getting a hot story. He did that spectacularly: At a time when scientific explanations should dominate the news, Matt managed to land a lead story four days out of five. And it was Jo – not upper management – who was deciding to run those stories.
Jo felt guilty, but Matt did great work and good jobs were hard to come by. Besides, she’d long ago shed any illusions she had about media contributing to the solution.
* * *
“You got to see this, Jo.” Matt was practically babbling. “You know that preacher I interviewed yesterday – the one that took over Falwell’s church in Lynchburg? He told me he was going to ‘drop a bomb’ in his sermon this morning. So I figured I’d better download it in real time. I was about half listening, half working up something else, and then this happened.”
Jo clicked on the feed. The preacher was saying, “God will punish them for their wicked ways.” She had just enough time to wonder which “them” he was referring to before the man disappeared. The pulpit was still there, but he was suddenly gone.
“What the hell? Are you trying to liven up the Sunday morning shift by photoshopping the feed?”
“This is two minutes old, Jo. I watched it three times before I called. He was there one second and gone the next. And watch as I pan out – about three quarters of the congregation went with him.”
“Okay, so they’re playing some kind of trick with their feed. It’s a hoax, Matt. Gotta be. People don’t just disappear.”
“It’s a really big hoax then, because that’s not the only place it happened. Look at this.”
“This” was the live show from the Redeemer Baptist Church in Dallas – the megachurch that had broken away from the Southern Baptists because they were too liberal. Again, the people were there one minute and gone the next. Matt manipulated his download of the webfeed and zoomed in on one member of the remaining churchgoers. The man was shaking. He kept looking around the room and muttering, “All gone, all gone.”
Then Matt focused on a crying baby. A little girl – not much more than a baby herself – picked it up and began to rock it. He panned the whole room. A couple of hundred people in a room that seated thousands.
“Oh, fuck,” Jo said. “It’s the rapture.”
A wealth of images raced through her brain. The first time she’d heard about the rapture, she’d been five and very excited about getting to sit through church with the grownups. But when the minister began talking about the day when God would take all the righteous into heaven, she had cried and cried, until her mother had to take her out of church. “I don’t want everybody to go,” she’d explained. And she hadn’t been comforted by assurances that she’d get to go, too.
When she was ten, it had been a sermon on the rapture that had convinced to her to march down to the altar to be saved, though Jo had never been sure if she had been motivated by ecstasy or fear. At fifteen, she had walked out of church during a particularly lurid description of how those left behind would suffer. She hadn’t been inside a church of any kind since.
“The bastards were right,” Jo said under her breath. Her stomach clutched.
“What?” Matt was clearly freaked out about seeing people vanish, but he didn’t seem to be suffering a religious crisis.
Jo decided to keep hers to herself. She took a deep breath, tried to keep her voice from shaking. “We have to find out if this really happened. Maybe it’s a hoax that a bunch of religious fanatics cooked up, to try to scare the rest of us around to their point of view. We can send the Dallas stringer out to Redeemer. Any other suggestions?”
Matt lived in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I can be in Lynchburg in a couple of hours.”
Jo shook her head before she remembered they were just audio. “No. I need you calling everyone you know. We’ve got to find out how widespread this is.”
“I’ll make David drive so I can work.” David was Matt’s partner. “I can work as well in the van as I can here. Anyway, I want to see this one in person.”
“Okay,” Jo said, as she always said to Matt. “But check in every ten minutes or so. I need answers.” Her voice cracked on “minutes” and “answers.”
“Sure, sure. Uh, Jo?”
“You know the rapture is just made up stuff, right?”
“Of course,” she said, trying to keep her voice as casual as possible. She wondered who she was trying harder to convince, Matt or herself.
* * *
Within fifteen minutes, Jo realized it hadn’t been necessary for Matt to go. Every reporter working Sunday morning was calling in and every stringer hoping to land a permanent job was filing feed. The Capitol Hill correspondent – who had been following live feed from a Bible Belt congressman so he could work up a feature piece – had watched as the man disappeared from his limo on the way back from early church.
The White House spokesperson said a statement would be forthcoming. He wouldn’t confirm whether it would be from the president.
The FBI spokesperson said all agents were in the field and they wouldn’t be able to comment until the investigation was further underway. The Department of Defense press office said they were pretty sure no one had invaded the country. The CIA said surveillance satellites didn’t show any unusual activity. The Transportation Security Administration said they were going to search everyone’s carry-on bags.
A reporter on vacation called in to report his harrowing experience when the pilot of the plane he’d been on disappeared during landing, along with two flight attendants and about a quarter of the passengers. The co-pilot managed to land the plane, but taking over in mid-landing had been damn scary, he said for the feed. The reporter was herding around several kids who’d been left parentless. “I guess I’ll take them to my mom’s, get them a decent meal while I try to find their relatives.”
The stringer from Dallas confirmed the situation at Redeemer. The roads are a mess, she said. Cars abandoned everywhere. She sent a clip of a bumper sticker – “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned” – on one of the abandoned cars.
Jo didn’t think it was funny. It was going just the way all the fundamentalist Christians had always said it would. She flashed on the self-righteous feelings she’d had at thirteen, when she’d gone to church several times a week and been sure she was among the saved, except for those times when she was thinking about boys and had been equally convinced she was among the damned. Those who’d disappeared were the ones who’d been able to keep themselves convinced.
She put calls into the news president and everyone else she could think of in management. No one was picking up. “Christ, they can’t all be gone,” she shouted at the cat. All those backstabbers and asskissers couldn’t really be saved. Could they? Her heart was beating so quickly that she could almost hear it; she tried to put her fingers on her carotid artery to take her pulse, but her hands were shaking too much and her vision had become so blurred that she couldn’t even see the seconds change on the clock.
Anti-stress drugs had swept the nation in the last few years – some even going over-the-counter – but Jo had always disdained them. ‘We need to fix the problems that cause stress, not the stress,’ she’d declaimed to anyone who would listen. Now, though, she had to calm down or she wouldn’t be able to work. She might even have a stroke. Her attempts to slow her breathing and empty her mind weren’t working. She didn’t have time to run to the nearest drugstore for drugs – news was breaking too fast – so she opted for the old-fashioned response: alcohol. The closest bottle in her kitchen bar was an expensive single malt, and with her first swig she spilled more than she swallowed. But after the second her hands had stopped shaking quite so much and she was able to pour a healthy amount into a glass.
When she sat back down at her workstation, her vision had cleared and her hands could work the keyboard again. Matt called to report – with an air of chagrin. He couldn’t get out of the mountains because the roads were full of empty cars. He did send some feed from the Pentecostal Holiness Church in the town where he did his shopping. It was empty except for one very confused old woman – “probably senile” – and about twenty kids. David was trying to track down the local social services staff to come take care of things, but given the state of the roads, it was going to be awhile.
Meanwhile Matt had a statement from the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, who advised everyone to stay calm and announced that all Episcopal churches would be available to take in the orphaned children. Apparently most Episcopalians hadn’t gone anywhere.
Matt couldn’t raise anyone at the Vatican, though.
At least ten reporters had interviews with people who claimed to have seen a UFO at about the time of the disappearances. Alien abduction? Absurd. But really, not any more absurd that assuming God had taken all the righteous into heaven. Jo toned down the interviews and put them on the air. She took another call.
“Jo, it’s Diane Stern.”
Jo almost said, “Who?” before she remembered: the USG VP for lifestyle news. “I’m so glad to hear from you, Diane. I haven’t been able to reach anyone in management.”
“I seem to be the only person in News,” she said. “I’ve spoken to corporate and they’ve put me in charge for now. I’ve been watching your feed and I like the way you’re playing everything straightforward – just the facts as we know them. I think that’s the way to go. Let the tabs play up this alien abduction and religious nonsense.”
“So you don’t think this is the apocalypse?” Jo said.
“I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think anything is gained by haring off after magical explanations. I’m Jewish,” she added, as if that might explain her attitude. “Uh, you don’t really think this is some kind of religious event, do you?”
“No, no,” Jo said, trying to sound as businesslike as possible. She took another drink of scotch. In ordinary times the amount she’d had would have made her drunk, but now it was just keeping her numb enough to work. She’d never before tried working on more than an occasional beer at lunch on a slow news day.
Jo edited Gail’s feed, which was a sequence of scientists saying they didn’t have a clue followed by a spokesperson from NASA, who said it couldn’t possibly be aliens. She ran twenty-three different interviews with governors urging people to be calm. The other statehouses weren’t responding.
She tossed in more weather news. One of the hurricanes looked like it might hit South Texas. Fire still had the upper hand in California and Indiana – it didn’t help that they’d lost a few firefighters in the mass disappearance. Order was beginning to be restored in San Francisco – they hadn’t lost many people up there.
Matt’s next report took her completely by surprise. “I can’t reach that imam in London,” he said. “In fact, the only Muslims I can find right now are with that radical feminist group up in New York, though they assure me that they’re in contact with some others. And I tried that rabbi I interviewed last week, and I can’t reach him, either. Have you looked at the international feed lately? I think things are pretty crazy in Jerusalem right now.”
It wasn’t just Jerusalem. Apparently there were major disappearances in Tehran and Mecca as well. Indian reports suggested that half the population might have disappeared. Nothing from China – but feed from China was still blocked. Europe had a lot of hotspots, both Muslim and Catholic. And the African feed was almost as crazy as the US – major disappearances all over the place, in both Muslim and Christian areas. Only in the few places where people primarily practiced what were usually termed primitive religions did anything appear to be remotely stable.
Japan seemed to be the only major country relatively unaffected.
Jo went for a walk after she got off shift – she was exhausted, but despite the amount she’d had to drink, her mind was way too wired to let her sleep. She wandered up State Street in a sea of other dazed people. Madison hadn’t been hit too badly, but people were still freaked out. Everyone knew of someone who was gone.
Jo took refuge in a bar. USG news was playing on the TV. Brian had added a couple of things to the feed since she’d gone off shift, though nothing had really changed. She could hear pieces of conversation around her.
“Got to be an alien invasion. The government’s just keeping it quiet.”
“Why would aliens want religious nuts?”
“Who knows what aliens want?”
A man sitting in a corner by himself was polishing off shot after shot of straight bourbon and whispering, “I shoulda listened to the preacher.”
A group of what appeared to be graduate students was debating the subject while inhaling pitchers of beer. “Look, it can’t be the apocalypse. That’s irrational. There’s got to be a better explanation.”
“But they disappeared. Just like in the Left Behind books.”
“Those are fantasy novels. Bad fantasy novels.” You couldn’t mistake the sneer in the voice.
“Well, it was like magic.” This person’s tone was defensive.
“’Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’”
“Clarke’s third law.”
“Now you’re talking science fiction.” The person who had spoken out for magic, now sounding derisive. “Magic doesn’t happen, but aliens do?”
“There has to be other life in the universe.”
“So why haven’t we seen any evidence of it?”
“Maybe we just did.”
Jo finished her drink and left. She walked around the capitol building, noticing all the lights. The legislators must be holding a late session, trying to think of something to do. She continued on to the terrace overlooking Lake Monona. The moon laid a pattern of white across the water. Peaceful. The world was going to pieces, but at least lakes still reflected the moon. She stood there for almost an hour before going home and collapsing into bed. At three in the morning she woke from dreams she couldn’t remember, and lay there, paralyzed with fear.
I shoulda listened to the preacher, she thought.
* * *
Another day, another shift. Despite her troubled sleep, Jo found she didn’t need any coffee to wake up. An hour into her shift, she was sipping whiskey again just to keep her hands from trembling.
The Census Bureau reported that at least 60 million Americans disappeared. Other estimates reached 80 million. Worldwide guesses topped a billion. There was feed of a suicide bomber in Haifa who had vanished just as he started to put his finger on the button. The Indian government was in chaos – the latest best guess was that at least several hundred million Indians were gone. The reports from Pakistan were similar. None of the major religious-focused terrorist groups issued any statements.
The Speaker of the House had taken charge of the U.S. government. She made a speech that bumped all other feed, though she didn’t say much except, “Stay calm and help your neighbors.” She had pressed government workers into service – the military having been hard hit by disappearances, particularly the Air Force – and was sending them out to take over necessary services and particularly to take care of the abandoned children, who were everywhere.
Matt’s feed summed up the new reality, as usual: A group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians had put together an emergency orphanage in Bethlehem (disappearances in the Middle East approached fifty percent of the adult population in some places) and were taking care of an equally mixed group of children. Everyone was intermingled, though they were trying to keep children from the same extended families together, to help them adjust to life without their parents and other relatives.
Matt then jumped to Kashmir, and a similar adoption project run by a coalition of Muslims and Hindus. The piece ended with an expert speculating that at least a billion and a half children had been orphaned by the disappearances. We must find homes for all these children – safe homes – and we need to do this quickly.
Adoption is going to be a growth industry, Jo thought. She speculated on what her life might be like if she took in one of those abandoned children. She’d lived by herself for so long. They’re part of the future, she thought. We all need to nurture them.
If there’s a future.
After shift Jo poured another drink and, trembling a little, sat down to read Revelation. She muttered a small prayer as she started, “Let me read this with an open mind and open heart.” It was the first time she’d prayed in years.
She started reading as if she were still a scholar, noting the similarity of the first chapter to other religious works of its time: the repeated sevens, the images of stars and candlesticks signifying enlightenment. She skimmed ahead, stopping on the chapter explaining that a hundred and forty-four thousand would be saved. Quite a jump from that to more than a billion. But then the population of the world back then was only about two hundred and fifty million. The numbers still didn’t correlate. Less than one percent of the population was righteous enough for John in Revelation, but maybe 20 percent were gone now. Of course, John couldn’t have known how many people lived in the world. No Internet back then.
She laid her Bible on the table. It was insane. The idea of the rapture was pure fantasy, an idea perpetuated by preachers who were so dumb – or desperate – they took mythology literally. She hadn’t believed in it since she left the Baptist church behind. She didn’t believe in it now, not with her rational mind. But her stomach turned over.
It had happened. There was no logical explanation, no scientific explanation, that made any sense. People don’t just disappear, but they had. It wasn’t a trick done by mirrors.
She picked up the Bible again, skimmed until she read, “The first angel sounded, there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth; and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.
“And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea; and the third part of the sea became blood.”
She shivered, skipped forward a few verses. “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabiters of the earth …”
Her hands were shaking. She almost dropped the book. Her mind flashed on preacher after preacher in her youth, each standing in the pulpit and screaming such words, painting dire pictures of what would happen to those people who didn’t follow their pronouncements: Believe in our version of Jesus, hate those that don’t believe, women are here to serve men, anything pleasurable is a sin, we are the true children of God.
She jumped up and threw the Bible at the wall. It hit hard and landed open on the ground. The cat raced out of the room.
“I hate those people,” Jo screamed. “It doesn’t matter that they’re right. I still hate them and what they have to say. If that’s what God is about, then fuck God. Fuck God. I’d rather go to Hell.”
She collapsed back in her chair, burying her head in her hands. She expected tears, but none came. Instead, the knot in her stomach slowly relaxed itself. Her hands stopped shaking. “I’d rather go to Hell,” she said again, and knew she meant it.
Despite the multiple crises, it had been wonderful not to run feed of someone blaming the ills of the universe on the sins of homosexuals or Jews or infidels or those who had not accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Instead, she had run stories of people trying to solve massive problems without name calling. She couldn’t think of anyone she knew among the disappeared she’d liked or respected.
Of course, there could be the Antichrist somewhere – if the rapture were true, perhaps that was too. But Jo pushed that thought aside. Those who preached hate were gone. No matter where or why. The world was better off without them. “I’d rather go to Hell,” she said for the third time, and crawled into bed to get her first decent night’s sleep since the crisis began.
* * *
Gail’s feed included estimates of the worldwide population drop by an interdisciplinary team of scientists. “Our best guess is that at least one point five billion people disappeared, dropping the population back to a little over five and a half billion, or early nineties levels. Coupled with the technological improvements made since then, we anticipate an actual drop in carbon emission levels this year – for the first time since we started measuring the human effect on the environment.”
Gail had balanced it with another scientist who figured even a twenty percent drop in the world population was too little, too late, but even this guy seemed gleeful.
Traditionally, Jo thought, those remaining after the rapture were supposed to be consumed with guilt – except for those under the influence of the Antichrist – but most of us seem pretty happy. Matt hadn’t come up with one interview from a religious leader who was worrying about any coming struggle with the Antichrist.
His feed today included particularly moving footage of one of those children left behind – an eleven-year-old boy who was crying as he spoke. “Why didn’t Jesus take me?” he asked. “I was just baptized two weeks ago. I love Jesus. My mama is gone. Why didn’t Jesus take me?”
It made Jo’s heart ache to watch it, though she worked her editing magic on it briskly and got it on the air. Why weren’t the children gone? Especially the ones who had been saved. As near as she could tell, the youngest people among the disappeared were somewhere between seventeen and twenty.
She punched up the research desk. “Comb through the reports and see if you can find anything about pregnant women who were suddenly not pregnant when the people disappeared.” No, they reported back after a few hours. Several reports, but when chased down they turn out to be women who weren’t pregnant at all. A couple of hoaxes, a couple of nutcases. And a few stories about women disappearing a few days later, just after giving birth. No live feed, though – that could be hoaxes, too.
Jo sat there staring at her screen. Not just Christians gone. Well, maybe that just signified that religious differences were not as large as everyone had thought. No children. Why would a just God leave children among us sinners? Plenty of religious people left, but no one who professed no religion among the disappeared, as least as far as anyone could tell.
The phone was buzzing. Matt. “Jo, have you got an in with the new head of news? I want to put in for a transfer and I don’t really know her.”
Diane Stern’s appointment as head of the news division had been made permanent. USG-News was making do without the rest of management – fortunately, there had been few disappearances among the actual news gathering staff. Stern recognized that her mediameisters knew their trade, and had given them encouragement and free rein while she tried to hold the company together. A few people would likely be promoted into management eventually, but right now they were needed on the ground.
“Sure, I’ll hook you up with Diane. But why do you want a change?”
“The religious stuff is getting boring.”
“Boring? A billion and a half people disappear and you find it boring?”
“Oh, that’s not boring. Or at least, there’s lots of good stories about picking up the pieces. But anything interesting about religion disappeared along with all the people. Now all the preachers say is love one another.”
“So what do you want to cover?”
“Tibet, I think.”
“Yeah. I think things are about to get interesting there.”
Jo shook her head, but said, “Go on and put in a request. I’ll back you up with Diane. I’m sure someone else is dying for your beat, though I don’t know if there are enough resources to assign someone to just Tibet.”
“Oh, that will work out,” Matt said.
She was still wondering why Tibet when she took her next call. An Asian correspondent had an interview with the Dalai Lama.
“We have accepted the kind invitation of the new leadership in Beijing to return to our homeland on our terms,” the Dalai Lama said. “They are offering us some very generous resources to aid us through the transition from their government back to our own, so that we will be able to do our part in caring for and educating some of the many children abandoned in the worldwide disappearances in addition to providing for our own people. I am confident that our new working relationship with China will be a positive one.”
New leadership in Beijing? But now that was coming too – the block on China had broken. It seemed that the recent flooding – which had killed at least fifty million and probably many, many more – had provided the catalyst for what was being described even by the most cautious diplomats as a democratic coup. As a gesture of goodwill in these uncertain times, they were pulling out of Tibet.
She buzzed Matt as soon as she had put the feed on the air. “How did you know about Tibet and China?”
“I didn’t. I’m just watching your feed now. But it makes sense. We knew something was going on in China. And they’re smart to placate the Dalai Lama. After all, he didn’t disappear along with the Pope and the Ayatollah and all those preachers. He’s obviously got juice.”
“Maybe he’s the Antichrist,” Jo said.
“Jo, you know that Antichrist stuff is just more nonsense, don’t you? Don’t you?” He sounded worried.
Jo didn’t answer right away. Not the anti-Christ, but the anti-hater, she thought. The spokesperson for a new world, one where people didn’t kill each other in the name of God. People would still find reasons to kill each other – the human race still had too few resources and too many people – but it was a start. That’s why the kids were left behind – they weren’t old enough to make a commitment to the God of Hate. Even God recognizes an age of reason.
“I think they went to Hell,” Jo said. “The people who disappeared.”
“Jo! Since when do you believe all that religious crap?”
“Something happened to all those people who built their religions on hate, and you might as well call it God. Maybe a just God. Or maybe what they believed in was an evil God and that’s what took them. It’s something we don’t understand. But we don’t have to understand. Look at all the islands of compassion that are springing up amid all this chaos. People are taking in abandoned children; they aren’t out shooting each other.” She took a deep breath. “Maybe Revelation was right about the Apocalypse; just wrong about who the righteous were. Maybe the left behind are the true righteous.”
“Jo.” Matt sounded a little scared.
She needed to reassure him that she wasn’t nuts. “Don’t worry about it. In the end, it doesn’t matter what took them away.”
“What if it was aliens?” Matt said.
Now he sounded like someone for the funny farm. “Nope. Not aliens.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because you want to cover Tibet, not the space program. I trust your instinct – whatever you want to cover has got to be the next important thing. I don’t know how you know – hell, you don’t know how you know – but you’re always right. The Dalai Lama is going to be the next big story.”
“Yeah, well then think about this. Maybe the Dalai Lama is an alien.”
She laughed. Matt didn’t.
It was only after she hung up that Jo realized Matt was serious.
This story originally appeared in Postscripts Vol. 30/31: Memoryville Blues.