Reformed Science-Fiction: Rich Coffeen’s “The Discipling of Mytra”

Originally posted on The Reformed Reader:

A couple of weeks ago, I started rooting around the internet for Christian science-fiction, mostly wondering how Christians might utilize and interact with some of the futuristic technology described in science-fiction books.  Though I am not all that interested in this kind of reading, my enjoyment of the post-apocalyptic genre sort of gives me a sort of “tangential” interest in this sort of thing.

One of my Google searches for Christian sci-fi hit something that called itself something like “a Reformed alternative to the Left-Behind series.”  This, of course, piqued my curiosity.  The book was titled The Discipling of Mytra and was written by Rich Coffeen, a minister in the PCA, although it looks like he is now a school teacher.  (Click here for what looks like a personal website devoted to the book.)

This has been a very interesting read.  I cannot judge it on its merits as…

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City on a Sea, short story #5

Boarding Action

 

For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.  Matthew 16:27

If he says, “Whatever,” I think I may kill him.

National Security Advisor Doug Andrews pondered this thought as he approached President McCauley’s virtual office. Wouldn’t that be a twist on American history, a president assassinated by a member of his staff! Andrews hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Truly, truly, he hoped it wouldn’t.

Andrews found the president as he always did on the rare cases they had an actual face-to-face meeting. McCauley stood in the middle of a bare room filled with 2-D and 3-D projections of data, movie clips, news programs, and live faces. The president manipulated the continual stream of information through hand motions and voice commands, collapsing one virtual screen, calling up another, multi-tasking to an extent that would overwhelm anyone but a super-genius.

The National Security Advisor took a step toward the president and waited. He saw the president had three faces in his live box: the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and his personal chief of staff. That meant they were ready to begin. The president minimized his current set of projections, loaded the Bethel package of data, and gave Andrews a glance. “Go ahead, Doug,” he said.

“Yes, Mr. President,” Andrews replied. “Our embargo against the Republic of Bethel has entered its tenth week. As you’ll note from the diagram of Pacific shipping patterns, Thelan cargo vessels have simply swapped routes with other carriers. For example, Bethel is now running most of the trade between China and Mexico, whereas the five companies previously handling such trade are now going between China and the U.S.

“Four loci of opposition grow in lobbying strength. American businesses do not like the higher shipping costs. Our military and police forces do not like being unable to buy weapons from Bethel. Environmentalists favor Bethel’s move toward solar power, and view the embargo as an attempt to preserve oil company profits. Christian organizations consider our actions to be a veiled attack against Christianity.”

McCauley’s chief of staff, a man personally opposed to the embargo, chimed in. “We need the votes of these groups if we’re going to get reelected.”

“The political ramifications are not strictly my concern,” Andrews replied. “What worries me is the growing threat to national security.”

“From a country with less than half a million people,” the chief of staff scoffed.

“We must look to the next generation,” Andrews said, baffled as always at the older generation’s inability to look ahead. “Bethel is no threat to us now, but for how much longer? If we allow them to build sunsats, we cede control of space to a potential future enemy. How helpful will air superiority be to us if our foe possesses space superiority?”

The president called up a large map of the Pacific. Red dots showed the location of Thelan ships. Blue dots revealed the position of U.S. naval forces. There was a lot more red than blue. Andrews seized on the image.

“We simply cannot allow space to look this way,” Andrews declared. “Sunsats will gather sunlight, convert it to microwaves, and beam these microwaves to earth. An environmentally friendly source of electricity, the Thelans say. But a sunsat’s ability to focus and redirect energy also makes it a potential weapons platform. Imagine a sunsat detonating the planes parked on an airfield, or frying the electronics in our spy satellites. Space is the new high ground. We simply cannot secede control of it to the enemy.”

“The Thelans aren’t our enemy,” the chief of staff objected.

Andrews wished he could smack the man. If only he were older than thirty, that he might get these men to take him seriously. Why couldn’t they see the threat Bethel posed? Why didn’t they get it? Thelan coins were starting to be used in West Coast cities. Some foreigners preferred immigration to Bethel over immigration to America. Bethel had captured the imagination of many as the new frontier for colonization and settlement. Didn’t these men understand the significance of these things? Couldn’t they see where history was headed? Bethel had to be stopped before it was too late.

“This is the critical moment,” Andrews explained, trying to control his frustration. “Bethel invested its start-up capital in building ships out of composites. That long-term investment resulted in Bethel operating at a net loss during its first thirty years of existence. But now that Thelan ships are starting to outlast the service life of normal steel cargo vessels, they are beginning to operate at a profit. This makes Bethel capable of engaging in its next significant investment. Sunsats are what they want to build, a course of action that must not be allowed. We must redirect their next round of investment into an area that does not increase Bethel’s military capabilities.”

Andrews lamented that the alternate course of action – America building her own sunsats – was not a realistic option. Crushed with the legacy costs of Social Security and servicing the national debt, long-term capital investment was something of which the United States was no longer capable. Andrews hated that this little insignificant country could do something that Americacould not. We should do more than simply eliminate Bethel’s sunsat program. We should force Bethel to operate with a budget deficit, borrow money, abandon using gold and silver currency. We should force them to create a welfare state. If America had to endure such budgetary constraints, the Thelans ought to be made to endure them, too.

Oh, how they offended! The Thelans who had been Americans were traitors, abandoning their responsibilities to their country. How dare they try to escape from paying on the debt? How dare they try to avoid paying Social Security taxes? Bethel’s 9% tax rate simply could not be allowed to survive. People who didn’t like paying half their income as taxes should have no option, no out. That was what really grieved Andrews: the existence of an alternative. Bethelwas like a lean, impudent start-up company devoid of pension costs. The government had to crush such competition lest the big, old companies go out of business. And America was the biggest, oldest company of them all.

“We must take more aggressive action,” Andrews declared. “Once we force the issue and Bethel caves, we can end the embargo.”

“The Thelans have always been a staunch U.S.ally,” the president objected, but the National Security Advisor could tell that he had won the argument, at least for today.

“An ally that is forgetting its place,” Andrews concluded. “Space belongs to us. We must retain possession of the high ground.”

***

The Fast Attack Airfoil U.S.S. Norfolk fired a warning shot across R.B.T. Capitol’s bow on the evening of March 27, 2043. Capitol cut her speed from flank to steerage, but took no other action.

Major John Samson, the marine tasked with boarding and occupying the Thelan ship, watched a live feed from within Norfolk’s combat information center. Capitol’s decision to cut engines surprised him. He said as much to Sergeant Martinez, who stood observing the threat boards from beside his commanding officer.

“I’d have forced one hit,” Samson explained. “Capitol displaces 42,000 tons empty. She’s fully loaded with containers, protected by a composite hull. She can absorb an HE round with little risk.”

“Why risk it at all?”Martinez asked. “They’ve their families on board.”

“That’s why I’d take the chance. They’re certain to be filming. You have to assume everything is going to get  posted on YouTube. It wouldn’t look good if we fired on an unarmed ship. That’s what I’d be after if I were them: make us look bad on TV.”

“Going down without a fight?” the sergeant pondered.

Samson considered this possibility. He recalled the Thelan troops who had fought alongside him in the alleyways of Damascus. Their application of force had been controlled and non-lethal, yet ruthless and agonizing for all that. Some of those veterans were likely waiting in the Capitol’s passageways even now, daring Samson and his men to engage the Thelans in their natural environment.

“Not a chance,” Samson replied.

***

Major Samson and his forty marines scaled the Capitol’s port side at 2200 hours. Given that cargo trailers occupied every square meter of deck space, the boarders made no effort to stop at the gunwale. Instead they kept going until they came out on top of the containers. These created a large “deck” of their own on which Samson set up his command post. He sent a squad of ten men aft to occupy the bridge.

Samson found himself disappointed by the lack of opposition. He was here to pick a fight. If only the Capitol’s detachment of commandos would usher forth and engage! Likely they were hiding deep within the vessel, waiting, perhaps even beckoning. Would the marines content themselves with camping? Or would they be so foolish as to venture into Capitol’s depths?

The marines’ Missionand Rules of Engagement were clear: using passive methods only, Samson and his men were to capture R.B.T. Capitol and bring her to dock at Pearl Harbor. No Thelan fatalities were to be inflicted under any circumstances, even if the opposition resorted to live ammunition. Not that they would, of course. Thelans led the world in the art of non-lethal warfare. Likely Capitol did not even stock bullets, or the rifles needed to fire them.

That didn’t mean the opposition was unarmed. The Americans carried the very latest in area-denial weaponry – ironically enough, all manufactured in Bethel. Certainly the Thelans wielded the same class of guns. And the Thelans had developed their own martial art, informally known as corridor. A fighting style designed for a ship’s cramped interior spaces. Samson had seen corridor at work inDamascus, did not cherish the prospect of losing a knee or an elbow in the next few hours. Granted, such an encounter would not kill him. But a shattered joint would be career-ending. He had no desire to ride a desk at 29 Palms.

Thelans had trained Samson and his men in the art of non-lethal close-quarters combat. It was why the marines had been chosen over a Seal team to carry out this boarding action. Samson intended to prove that, despite having receiving instruction from the Thelans, the marines were still the better fighters.

The expected news arrived: instruments on the bridge were non-responsive. If the Americans wanted to take control of the ship, they would have to seize either the engine room or the battle bridge. Since the marines had no idea where the battle bridge might be, that made their next objective simple.

Major Samson had observed a depressing truth in his years of military planning: if he could think of something, that meant the enemy could think of it, too. Or to put it more crudely, he was not able to outsmart his enemy. His advantages were all obvious ones: numbers, better equipment and training, superior motives for fighting. But not superior minds. For example, his unit had brought canisters of tear gas in the hope that the fumes might be fed into the Thelan ship’s ventilation system. A great idea if it worked, as it would force the vessel’s occupants to abandon the interior without a fight.

But if Samson could think of it, so could the enemy. Presumably the Thelans were ready to receive a chemical warfare attack. Gas masks were one possible avenue of preparation, although with small children on board hardly the most practical. Shelters cut off from primary shipboard ventilation were more likely.

Reckoning it a waste of time, Samson nevertheless commanded his men to fire tear gas into the Capitol’s air conditioning ducts. This effort ended up failing, although not in the way the major had expected. His men searched the exterior of the vessel for over an hour, but could not find any air intake ducts into which to introduce the gas. The search proved all the more frustrating given the certainty that there had to be intakes somewhere. The failure reminded Samson just how little he knew about the Capitol’s layout and design.

If only time were not a factor in accomplishing the mission! As Samson saw it, the ultimate key to success was avoiding entering the belly of the beast. Why not just camp on the vessel’s surface and wait out the occupants? They couldn’t stay hidden forever. Better yet, find a way to disable the rudder and tow the Capitol toPearl Harbor. Who cared if it took a month?

The politicians in Washington cared. Bethel was to be brought to heel, and brought to heel quickly. Businesses were screaming for restoration of their normal Pacific trade routes. Samson and his marines would make an example of the Capitol, reminding the Thelans that their silly little “country” existed only at the discretion of the United States. Bethel would abandon its sunsat ambitions and recommence the cheap, timely, diesel shipment of goods to American ports.

The major had other options before committing to a standard action against the engine room. He could try to hack into the Capitol’s computer network (but from where?), set off an EMP burst to disable the Capitol’s electrical systems (and risk his own electronic devices), or deploy his two combat robots in a search for the crew (and isolate these precious machines far from friendly support). There was nothing for it but to trust in his traditional set of advantages (numbers, better equipment and training, superior motives for fighting) and engage in the expected frontal assault.

“Squad two hold the CP, squad four hold the bridge,” Samson finally ordered over the com-net. “Squads one and three with me. Move out.” Sergeant Martinez organized the twenty men, had them cover themselves with basic hazmat suits and gasmasks, and led first squad down a stairwell. Samson went next, followed by third squad. He felt his men’s eagerness, their pent-up violence. It was time to go get some.

The marines had selected a moderate armor load of twenty pounds, enough to provide sub-sonic impact protection while still allowing significant freedom of movement. Samson and seven other men carried the standard Thelan Active Denial Device, a “rifle” equipped with taser, microwave emitter, and shotgun loaded with either bean-bag or rock salt rounds. Four men carried goo-guns, weapons that fired packets of super-sticky polymer. The rest of the assault team wielded random but potentially useful equipment: flash-bang grenades, “slip-n-slides,” an EMP charge, a combat robot plus control equipment, hacking computers, torches with fuel tanks, and a wheeled cart weighed down with bottles of water and goo-gone.

Upon heading down the stairs, Samson immediately noticed the rubber-like coating on the steps and railings, then the floor and walls of the first passageway. The material gave a firm purchase to his boots, yet also provided significant cushioning. The major was accustomed to the hard-metal reality of normal ships, enough that the soft surfaces distracted him. It made him feel like he was invading a home rather than seizing a ship. He didn’t like it.

Internal lighting had been turned off, at least in this corridor, which gave the marines cause to continue using their night-vision gear. A marine ahead of Samson paused to note a small lens in the ceiling, likely a video camera. Should they destroy the surveillance equipment?

Being observed by the enemy carried inherent disadvantages, but Samson hoped to take over the video monitoring system at some point and use it against the Thelans. Thus he hesitated to damage it. Besides, watching the marines approach would fill their opponents with a certain measure of dread, an emotion that might come in handy at the critical moment. Samson ordered that the cameras be left alone.

The hazmat suits, gasmasks, and heavy equipment slowed their forward progress, but now that they had committed to making a push for the engine room, Samson was in no hurry. He imagined Thelan commandos leaping from every passageway, and though he had brought only half of his strength, twenty men was probably still too many for such a restricted space. Even if he outnumbered the prospective defenders, the narrow corridors eliminated that advantage as most of his men would be unable to bring weapons to bear on an attacker.

Ceiling lights blazed on. Several men grunted in momentary surprise, for it took the computers in their night-vision a moment to adjust to the increase in ambient light. Two seconds later and the lights went off. Two more seconds and the lights came back on. This cycle began repeating itself in a most exasperating fashion, for their night-vision always took a fraction of a second to adjust to the change in lighting.

“Shoot out the lights?” Martinezasked.

Samson shook his head. “This is a big ship,” he explained. “No sense wasting ammo just to avoid a headache.”

The marines pressed on, the lights continuing to turn on and off at two-second intervals. A nuisance, certainly, but nothing like a flash-bang. Now a smart enemy would throw a flash-bang or two, timing detonation for just when the lights went out…

Three grenades exploded, filling the corridor with enough light and sound to stun an unprotected man. But Samson and his men were not unprotected. Their electronic ear-plugs were designed for just this sort of situation, allowing in regular conversation but blocking all sound above a dangerous decibel range. And although the night-vision gear had to adjust quickly, it did keep out most of the flash through its secondary filters.

Still, his men were momentarily blinded. It was an ideal time for commandos to attack in force using their unique martial art, cripple several and withdraw. Yet no such attack came. Where are they? Samson demanded silently. Why don’t they show themselves?

Samson’s eyes cleared. “Where did they come from?” he demanded, meaning the grenades.

Several men discovered blackened depressions on the ceiling. The major examined them. Had the weapons been dropped from above? It looked more like the grenades had been lodged in the ceiling, just waiting for Samson and his men to walk under them. He pondered the walls, the floor, the ceiling above them. Grenades could be lodged anywhere.

He realized that if the Thelans had been using lethal weaponry, half his team would be dead. But then if the Americans had been shooting to kill, they simply would have stuck eight torpedoes in the Capitol, and that, as they say, would have been that. Both sides were holding back, trying to avoid fatalities. It reminded Samson of Martinez’ question when they had first gotten their orders: “What have the Thelans ever done to us?”

What had the Thelans ever done to them? They were a loyal U.S. ally, providing troops, intelligence, and logistical sealift support. They sold their best weapons to the American Marine Corp and provided training in their use. They guarded the West Coast from terrorist attack by ruthlessly inspecting every scrap of cargo that entered America’s Pacific ports. And here Bethel was, in the face of monstrous U.S. ingratitude, restraining the impulse to repel an attack on its capitol ship with anything more than non-lethal force. What has Bethel ever done to us?

Pointless line of inquiry. He had been given a job to do, and orders were orders.

“Blow out the cameras,” Major Samson commanded his men, deciding they had to exercise their impulse to shoot something. “The lights, too, while you’re at it.” He dispatched four men back to the command post to obtain extra salt shells for their shotguns, ordered his squad still on the Capitol’s bridge to destroy any video cameras and search the ceiling and other surfaces for embedded grenades. Samson reckoned tearing up the rubberized coating would be a torturous process. At least it would keep them busy.

They descended another stairwell and noticed a significant increase in air temperature. Moving aft through a corridor, the heat became oppressive, then ridiculous. Samson held his gloved hand up to vent, felt hot air blasting into the passageway. Then a locked watertight door stopped their forward progress. The major set his welding team to work on the door and considered his options.

Such heat could not be endured for very long, especially given the hazmat suits. Samson’s gasmask already felt like it contained a quart of sweat. The Thelans no doubt wanted them to strip out of their suits, which would open them up to goo attack. But if was too hot for the marines to wear their hazmat gear, then it was too hot for the Thelans. Unless they had temperature-controlled suits? Cooled suits would be bulky and heavy, though. Thelan commandos prided themselves on being light infantry, able to move quickly and agilely through the corridors of their ships.

“Redeploy back to the previous deck,” Samson ordered. “Set the robot to finish the welding job.” He hated retreating for any reason, especially when no contact had been made with the enemy. I will not be worn down, he swore to himself. It would take more than a few flash-bangs and an overheated corridor to keep him from fulfilling his mission.

Samson made it to the cooler passageway, removed his mask and drank two bottles of water. “Have the robot pause on the door,” he commanded the machine’s operators. “Let’s cut some metal sections from one of the containers and have the robot weld them over the vents down there.”

“That’ll take hours,” Martinez noted.

“Best get started, then,” the major replied.

By 0320 hours the heat-blasting vents had all been welded shut, the water-tight door had been breached, and Samson’s marines were ready to pierce deeper into the ship. His team returned to the hot corridor, finding it significantly cooler though still stifling. They rushed through the opened door into the next passage, used their shotguns to take out the video camera and the lights, and pressed on.

The sprinklers activated. For a moment Samson wondered if the marines had somehow started a fire. Then he realized the sprinklers weren’t spraying water. A strong-smelling chemical of some sort was being dispersed by the fire suppression system. The chemical reacted with the rubberized coating on the floor and walls, turning the rubber into goo. The marines came to a sudden, sticky halt.

Goo-guns fired blobs of hyper-stick polymer that caused limbs to adhere to anything they touched. A person hit with such goo quickly became immobilized as his legs stuck together or his arms adhered to the side of his body. The hazmat suits were worn primarily to protect from a goo-gun attack: the suit could simply be removed. Bottles of goo-gone were brought along to clean off weapons and valued equipment from any goo that happened to hit them.

A whole floor covered with goo – this was something for which the marines were wholly unprepared. There was simply too much of the stuff, more than a whole platoon of goo-guns could fire. Samson paused for a moment to admire the Thelan chemical engineers, who had obviously used a goo-precursor as the building block for the rubber that coated the vessel’s interior surfaces. Mixed with his admiration, however, was a growing frustration at his enemy’s choice of tactics. His men were here to engage Thelans, not activate booby traps. He could sense the team starting to gear down, lose focus. They had to find some live targets!

The sprinklers turned off. Samson tried to move his feet, being careful not to fall over and ruin his weapon in the inch of hyper-stick now coating the floor. There was so much goo that some movement was actually still possible, though probably not for much longer. He ordered his men to retreat once again.

This proved difficult, but not impossible. When the first man made it back to the water-tight door, he stepped through onto a floor which had not been sprayed, and promptly got stuck for real. He stripped out of his hazmat suit. Each marine followed the same procedure. There was no way to bring their heavy equipment with them, though. Their cart, welding tanks, and robot remained stuck to the floor in the goo-covered segment of passage.

“I’m sensing a pattern here,” Samson commented.

“Every corridor seems to possess its own method of resistance, sir,” Martinez offered.

“Why not do it all together?” the major asked. “Hit us with the goo, and the flash-bangs, and the heat all at once.”

“Finite resources, sir,” the sergeant suggested. “My guess is they don’t have that chemical loaded  in all the sprinklers, just a few of them. Same with the grenades. They could probably heat any passage, though.”

Samson imagined the sprinklers turning on again, now that they were out of their hazmat suits. They would lose their boots for sure. Yet no spray came.

“We need to build steps,” Samson declared. “Like stepping stones in a creek.”

They headed back topside, all the way to the command post, and had a helicopter land with the necessary supplies. The helo also brought extra hazmat suits and additional bottles of goo-gone. Their second robot got to work building Samson’s “stepping stones.”

The twenty-one men returned to the sticky corridor after dawn, tired but resolved to press on. Samson took consolation in the fact that his unit had as yet suffered no casualties. But he didn’t appreciate the chewing out he had received over their lack of progress. In sixteen hours, he and his men had made it down two stairwells and three sections of corridor. The powers that be were not pleased. All the marines had to do was take over a simple cargo ship and redirect it to Pearl Harbor. How hard could that be?

The stepping stones were made of metal, two inches tall with a flat surface topping crude blades that would hold each step in place like spikes. Samson had his men place the steps in every passageway, not just the one that had turned to goo. It was slow going, especially at first. The team eventually developed a system in which every man took two steps in one hand. The whole team would then surge forward into a new section of corridor, pierce the floor with their steps, and then stand on them to make sure they were securely driven into the rubber.

The assault team used goo-gone to free the robot, which could walk on the steps. They built a system of skis for the carts that enabled the marines to slide the welding tanks, bottles of goo-gone, and boxes of extra hazmat suits from step to step. This proved to be an incredible pain, since the men pulling the carts had to restrict themselves to standing on the stepping stones. But they kept moving forward.

Samson expected more watertight doors to be locked against them. It was why he insisted on keeping the acetylene with them. Yet the welding torches remained unneeded. The team descended another stairwell quickly, got their first set of stepping stones placed in this new corridor. The sprinklers turned on.

The major looked down to make sure his feet weren’t in contact with the rubber, then suddenly slipped. The rubber softened his fall, though he still found it jarring. His gun squirted out of his hands and slid across the floor, bouncing off another marine who had also fallen. Samson glanced around, saw his whole team on the floor. He caught the familiar smell of slip n’ slide.

This chemical reduced friction to a minimum, making it difficult to keep one’s balance or hold on to an object. Samson was glad they had shot out the closest video camera. The Thelans should have used the slip n’ slide before the marines had gotten their steps in place, for these could be grabbed with both hands and used to pull oneself around on the floor.

The marines began sliding themselves and their equipment toward the next water-tight door. Once again Samson marveled at his unit’s relative helplessness, the ease with which they could be counterattacked. All twenty-one men were seated or lying down, skittering haphazardly across the floor, unable even to hold their weapons much less discharge them. Thelan commandos with a few tasers or dart guns could appear at the doorway and incapacitate the lot of them. It’s what Samson would have done, and if he could imagine doing it, so could the enemy. Yet no attack came.

It took hours to strip off their hazmat suits, wash their weapons, and get new suits on. By 1130 hours the marines were ready to move forward. Samson was hungry, and beginning to feel annoyed. The Thelans would never get him to turn back. They must know that. Why didn’t they commit to battle, then? Why nothing but these juvenile efforts at slowing the marines down? Samson understood afresh the wisdom of not permitting the marines to carry lethal weapons. In their fatigue and exasperation, they might start using them.

Samson considered switching off squads, allow these men to get some sleep. He decided against it. These were the marines who had put up with the heat and the goo and the slip n’ slide. These should be the men to win through to the engine room.

Progress continued, but slowly. Shooting cameras and lights, placing stepping stones, pulling the carts on their skis. Samson wasn’t expecting it when he and his men suddenly emerged into the engine room.

They spread out quickly to plant stepping stones, realized that the floor in this space was not coated with rubber. They shifted to searching for a computer terminal into which they could hack and take over control of the ship’s power plant.

There came the sudden distinctive hum of a deuterium fluoride laser. Sergeant Martinez was blasted onto his back and momentarily dazed. DF lasers were considered non-lethal weapons because they didn’t pierce the objects they hit. Instead, upon contact with a target they induced a plasma explosion. Such a detonation had blown Martinez off his feet and shredded his hazmat suit. Otherwise, however, he seemed unharmed.

The laser hummed again. Another man was struck down. Everyone searched for the source, discovered a laser mount in the ceiling. They commenced shooting at the energy weapon with their shotguns, trying to disable its emitter, but the rock salt they fired wasn’t hard enough to knock it out.

Marine after marine got hit by the laser. Samson ordered his men to pull back into the corridor. Then he radioed his squad at the command post to send three men with the PEP gun, a hand-held deuterium fluoride laser. This could be used to take out the enemy gun mount.

Samson took stock of their situation while waiting for the PEP to arrive. One concussion, one broken wrist, maybe another man who had cracked his back. Every marine on his team had been hit exactly one time by the enemy laser. That couldn’t be a coincidence. “Everyone get new hazmat suits on!” he demanded. But it was too late.

Compartments in the ceiling disgorged three hornet’s nests, which fell to the floor and burst open. The insects were on them in an instant, stinging again and again through their shredded suits. Samson alone wore intact hazmat gear, but several stings succeeded in piercing through to his arms and legs. “Fall back!” Samson ordered, grabbing the man with the injured back and helping him down the corridor.

The hornets pursued them. The PEP arrived as the marines made it to the top of the last stairwell they had descended. “Light ‘em up,” Samson urged the man carrying the PEP. The marine set the weapon to wide dispersal and fired. The air in front of him turned to plasma and exploded, creating a shock wave that stunned all the insects before him.

The man moved forward and fired the PEP again, knocking down more insects. He kept this up, firing and advancing, firing and advancing, others following behind and stepping on every hornet they found twitching on the floor. Within twenty minutes they had made it back to the corridor containing the nests themselves. They sent the robot forward to crush these with its feet.

Samson considered whether or not his unit was still combat effective. Everyone had taken at least thirty hornet stings, but the gasmasks had protected their faces, so no one’s eyes or tongues were swollen. He decided to send his three wounded men back to the command post, escorted by the three men who had been stung most severely. This left him with seventeen marines as he considered entering the engine room and reengaging the enemy laser.

Surprise would have been helpful, Samson mused to himself. The United States had made no secret of its plans to capture a Thelan ship. Samson could not imagine every vessel in Bethel going through such extensive preparations to repel boarders. The Thelans must have guessed that America would attack the Capitol. The chemicals in the sprinklers, the expensive laser mount, the hornets – all of  it spoke to days if not weeks of careful preparation. Which simply begged the question: where were the Thelan commandos? There had to be some on board. Why didn’t they counterattack?

Samson’s men engaged and destroyed the enemy laser, permitting their return to the engine room. Much to their disappointment, they found every computer terminal dead, the hardwires cut. They had taken the engine room for nothing.

Now Samson was getting angry. He had counted on the engine room being the key. Its uselessness meant they would have to search the entire ship for the battle bridge. Given how slowly they were moving through the passageways, such a search would take days. Samson had no choice. He gave the order.

The next eighty hours consisted of tedious agony as they triggered trap after trap. There were more chemical attacks from the sprinklers, more flash-bang grenades and super-heated passageways. There were nets and false floors and an auto-dart with tranquilizers. By the time the entire ship had been searched, Samson and his men were all fuming, exhausted, and in considerable pain. Still no sight of any Thelans on board. Samson was beginning to wonder if there were any people. Wouldn’t that be the final irony: spending days trying to take control of an unmanned ship.

Yet satellite footage from a week ago showed the Capitol putting to sea with a full crew. The vessel’s inhabitants had to be somewhere. “Where are they?” Samson demanded, not for the first time. He studied pictures and diagrams of the ship, had his men sweep it again and again, a process that could happen much faster now that all of the booby-traps had been sprung.

If I can think of it, so can they. But this rule worked the other way, too. What had the Thelans thought of? Where were they hiding? The answer, when it came to Samson, was so obvious as to be embarrassing. There was one space onboard that he and his men had not searched: the containers.

Capitol was a cargo ship, after all, its deck crammed with containers being shipped from China to Mexico. Samson had been so certain that the Thelans would be waiting deep within the ship, an assumption that had only been reinforced by the many booby-traps that had slowed their progress through the interior.

Samson’s men figured out how to operate the crane and began lifting containers one at a time to a position next to the command post. The container would be opened and searched, then lowered onto the ocean surface and allowed to drift away. This process continued for over a day, until a group of just five containers remained, a collection that had been joined together such that the crane was unable to lift them off the deck.

Samson and the thirty-three men he still had at his disposal surrounded the containers and prepared to open them. This had to be it: the Thelan battle bridge, panic room, bomb shelter. Samson ordered his men to crack one of the containers open, then proceeded to lead his men inside.

What had looked like five trailers from the outside composed but a single large room within. There Samson found what he was looking for: live computer terminals from which the ship was  being controlled and, just as importantly, about one hundred and fifty Thelans.

The major searched the crowd, found ten Thelan commandos who had lowered their weapons and placed them on the floor. Samson thought he understood. They weren’t going to risk a fight in a room packed with women and children. Samson and his men kept their guns aimed at the enemy soldiers, moved to place them in handcuffs.

A man stepped forward from the crowd, and Samson immediately recognized Sean Billings. It took all his self-control to avoid tasering Bethel’s former president, given the six days of pain and frustration he had experienced aboard the Capitol. At least it was all about to end.

“I congratulate you on your perseverance,” Billings said. “You force us to use the ‘nuclear option,’ something I had hoped to avoid during this particular crisis. Take them prisoner.”

Samson saw the Thelan commandos bend over to pick up their weapons. “Fire!” Samson ordered.

Nothing happened. The major himself tried to taser Sean Billings, but his weapon refused to work. He shifted to shotgun, but by then it was too late. A deuterium fluoride laser knocked him on his back.

Samson, though stunned, had managed to hold onto his weapon. In his dazed state he turned his gun over and read the engraving on the bottom of the handle. “Made In Bethel,” it said.

***

“Have you watched the movie?” President McCauley asked his National Security Advisor. The president did not waste the time it took Andrews to answer, but spent it reading a projection listing agricultural futures prices. A bushel of corn was up for the fifth straight week. That would help his performance in Iowa.

“I watched the 15-minute one,” Andrews replied.

McCauley expanded a screen containing the 2-hour version. “You should have watched the whole thing,” the president rebuked. “It’s a devastating piece of propaganda.”

The president advanced to the clip he was looking for. It showed Sean Billings standing in a crowded room with a boy who looked to be about twelve years old. They were watching a series of screens that showed the American marines advancing through the Capitol.

“Why don’t our soldiers attack?” the boy asked.

“Those men are not our enemies,” Billings explained. “If we attack them, they will be severely injured. Their careers as combat troops will be over. We must protect them and their futures from the folly of their leaders. It’s not their fault that they have received stupid orders.”

President McCauley turned to face Doug Andrews. “How does that make us look?” he demanded. “How does it make them look? And there’s more of it. They’ve got segments of Billings and his grandson spliced in throughout the whole video. It makes the viewer empathize with the Thelans. By the end even I was rooting for the helpless women and children waiting for our marines to hunt them down. It’s a PR disaster.”

“Mr. President…” Andrews said.

“Listen to this section,” McCauley continued.

“Why are they attacking us?” the boy in the video asked.

“America has to keep the oil companies happy, Matthew. The oil companies don’t want us building sunsats.”

“There’s more to it than that,” a woman beside them explained, a woman the screen identified as Rebecca Billings, Sean Billings’ sister and chief of staff. “Some of them feel threatened by us.”

“But why?” the boy pressed. “What have we ever done to them?”

“Imagine a girl who is the most popular student in school,” Rebecca explained. “A new girl shows up and begins to gain a following. The first girl feels threatened by the new girl. She doesn’t want to lose her most-popular status. She tries to destroy the new girl.”

“So they’re children,” the boy concluded.

Sean Billings and his sister exchanged glances.

“I suppose you could say that,” Rebecca allowed. “They are acting immature.”

McCauley froze the video and interjected, “There’s no way we can let this video get posted. And don’t even try to tell me that people wouldn’t watch it. The 2-hour version is more exciting than any Hollywood movie I’ve seen in the last three months. It’s positively entertaining.”

“We can try again, Mr. President,” Andrews recommended. “Now that we know the Thelans can deactivate the weapons they’ve sold us, we can rearm our boarding parties, seize another ship, and hold it in exchange for our men.”

“And then this video gets posted on YouTube,” McCauley said, exasperated at his aide’s lack of understanding. Why couldn’t Andrews get it? Entertainment value was everything. The Thelan video would get thirty million hits in its first week. He couldn’t have his administration labeled immature by a twelve-year-old.

“So we make our own video,” Andrews suggested.

“And the viewer empathizes with whom? With the marines trying to attack the defenseless civilians? That’s the real problem. There’s no cause of war, no reason for the viewer to hate the Thelans and want them defeated. They’re just a bunch of families on a cargo ship, minding their own business.”

“Then we need to activate our own propaganda machine, rouse our people against them.”

“Why?” the president pressed. “Iowa is in two months. How is stirring up a conflict with the Thelans going to help me get reelected?”

“It’s about the future,” Andrews said.

“You need to focus on the present,” McCauley explained, “or soon we’ll both be out of a job. I’m instructing the Secretary of Defense to accept the Thelans’ offer. We end the embargo and allow them to build their sunsats. In exchange they hand over the 34 captured marines and refuse to post this video. Then we pray a bootleg copy doesn’t make it online until after the election.”

“But that doesn’t give us anything!” Andrews protested. “We’ll never get another chance like this to halt Bethel’s expansion.”

McCauley swept away all Bethel-related projections. He replaced them with the latest polling data from Iowa and New Hampshire.

“Mr. President,” Andrews said, “don’t you care that Bethel will acquire the means to attack the U.S. mainland?”

“Whatever,” McCauley replied.

Epilogue

Sean Billings gathered his family in the Capitol’s galley. It made for a cramped farewell: his seven children and their spouses, together with thirty-one grandchildren. His sister Rebecca also came, along with his best friend Jonathan Cheung. Not Patricia, though. The radiation from too much spaceflight had finally carried her to her reward two years previously. But that frowning providence did make possible this self-imposed exile. And Patricia had showed him the way.

“Back in 2008,” Sean explained to his household, “was when I heard the word ‘whatever’ spoken one too many times. I realized the word captured the attitude of a whole generation, what I came to call the ‘Whatever Generation.’ I realized also that a time would come when the Whatever Generation held the reigns of power in the United States.

“What was the distinctive feature of the Whatever Generation? That word reflects a worldview, a way of viewing the affairs of life as inherently meaningless. All that mattered to the Whatever Generation was entertainment. As long as their ear buds kept the hip-hop pumping, they simply did not care what happened around them. Nations were rising and falling? People were becoming post-literate? The debt maintained its inexorable climb? Whatever.

“That’s when I realized that 2012 was the perfect year to found Bethel. I looked into the future and saw a time when Bethel would be large enough to make America feel threatened, yet too small to defend itself. What would protect Bethel at that critical moment? The word ‘whatever.’ Whoever America’s leaders would be, they would be members of the Whatever Generation. Bethel could get away with existing, with growing, with becoming powerful, because at the end of the day America’s leaders simply wouldn’t care about Bethel. They wouldn’t care about Bethel because they wouldn’t care about anything.”

Sean scanned his listeners, fixed his attention upon his grandson Matthew. “This next part is harder to understand,” he said. “I realized something else way back at the beginning. I studied other great works, other founders. I discovered that men like me usually go off track when they get older. They get ornery, and divisive, and power-hungry. They destroy the very ministry or business or project they spent their lives building. And I wondered how I would keep from doing the same thing. It was your mother’s time at sea that showed me what I had to do.”

“Don’t leave, Grandpa,” Matthew implored.

“I have to,” Sean explained. “Now that America has backed down, I am the greatest remaining threat to Bethel’s survival. I cannot bear the thought of ruining you. I must retire from public life. I must get out of the way.”

“You can retire and still remain aboard a Thelan ship,” his son Jonathan, Matthew’s father, interjected.

“My sailboat is a Thelan ship,” Sean replied. “It’s not like I’m dying or anything. I’ll still email and talk on the phone. You kids can come spend time with me. But only family and friends,” he emphasized. “No officials. No reporters. I must cease to be a public figure. And in order for that to happen, I need to go to sea.”

Many of his family were crying freely now. “Don’t weep,” Sean urged them. “It is for your good that I go away. You must learn to step up and lead. That’s something you’ll never really do so long as I am here.

“Right now the word ‘whatever’ will protect you from America. My departure will protect you from me. But this season of peace won’t last forever. A new generation has already arisen in America, a generation that loathes its parents’ use of ‘whatever.’ They will seek to destroy you when their time comes. So build sunsats. Build a navy. Develop water technologies so advanced that no one can hope to defeat you.

“Adult members of our society spend a day and a night on the open sea every year. In my leaving there is a sense in which I am really the one staying home, while you are the ones going to sea for the first time. That is what I am making you do. I am making you to do without your father. I am making you grow up.”

City on a Sea, short story #4

Submission

 

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”  Ephesians 5:22

 

I live on a boat.

Patricia Carlson Billings glanced back at Hong Kong’s receding skyline, the baby in her arms squirming, her three-year-old son Jonathan retching at her feet despite an adult-dose scopamine patch. Her other three children danced dangerously on the bow rails, laughing, pointing, throwing bits of lunch at the gulls. She hated their excitement, suppressed an urge to ruin it. She thought of Lot’s wife, turned to salt because she looked back while fleeing out of Sodom. The image froze Patricia in a pool of vomit even as Pertexpat drove forward through the South China Sea.

I live on a boat.

The irony of her husband’s new calling was not lost on Patricia Billings. Her teen ritual had repeated itself like only a summer routine could: while everyone else had gone yachting, Patricia and Rebecca had become sisters back at the country club. Best friends forever. Best friends forever on land.

Patricia had long contemplated the saying, “Waiting for the other shoe to drop.” The dictum puzzled her because, truth be told, no shoe had ever dropped. Daughter of a billionaire, married to the son of a billionaire. What hardships had she really experienced?

The question concerned her because the Bible promised genuine Christians a life of suffering. Yet she had borne no crosses. No trials had come her way – no trials, at least, that had come because she was a believer. And so the doubts gnawed: Am I for real? Or am I the prototypical camel, destined never to fit through the eye of the needle?

Boats, shoes, camels. Avoiding the ocean had brought her and Sean together. Now his City on a Sea was forcing her to live on the water. Not an excursion. Not a voyage. A life. Sean knew how much she detested the sea. He didn’t care. Nowhere else on earth to build a new nation. She would have to adjust.

Both shoes dropping. Trial by water. All those God justified and adopted, he also sanctified. Such fine theology she had! But to put it into practice, to submit to her husband’s will, to please him. 

She watched the bow slice through the waves, inhaled the green brine, shuddered despite the heat. God, I hate boats.

***

“I present two propositions,” Patricia informed the first meeting of the Bethel Wives Society. “One: We are the key to Bethel’s long-term success. Two: Submission is more than obedience.”

Patricia gave her audience time to process these assertions. Twelve Chinese, ten Filipino, eight Korean, and seven American wives clustered in Pertexpat’s cafeteria. All possessed at least a little English, although Patricia knew this particular conversation would go beyond the language abilities of many present. She would have to follow up with those women later. That didn’t matter for now, though. What mattered in this first meeting were the women who could speak English, especially the Americans and the Chinese. Get them on board and the others would follow.

“We have all obeyed our husbands in coming to live on Pertexpat, in bringing our children to live on Pertexpat,” Patricia granted. “So we are obedient wives. That does not make us submissive wives. And Bethel will only succeed if we submit.

“I’m talking about our children, of course. Our husbands have this grand vision for starting a new country. Maybe a few of you are true believers as well. But to be honest, most of us at this point are simply along for the ride.

“Our children aren’t stupid. They can sense this division between their parents, this lack of a common zeal or focus. It will affect them. More to the point, it will ruin them. They will not follow their fathers in wanting to create a City on a Sea, not if we are hesitant and hold back. And the children must grow up like their fathers, or this project will die after a generation.

“Understand, then, what I am trying to say. Our obedience secures Bethel’s short-term success. But for Bethel to develop into a true independent nation, one in which the children build  on their parents’ beginnings, that will require our submission.”

“But we have obeyed our husbands,” an American named Kelsey protested. “We’re here, aren’t we? I came with my husband, endured the scorn of family and friends for his sake. I’ve kept my complaints to myself. I gave up my kitchen back home for this cafeteria, and I’ve done  it without whining. How is that not submission?”

“You have obeyed,” Patricia replied, nodding, “and obeyed well as we have all seen and heard. God is glorified through such obedience, and I am sure your husband is grateful. But our men need more than us grinning and bearing this life. They need us to own it, to come to feel aboutBethel as they do.”

“That’s not fair,” their doctor, Sue Yu, said. “We can’t make ourselves feel what our men feel.”

“Have we tried?” Patricia challenged. “I haven’t, certainly. I’ve spent my first week on this ship doing nothing but moping and doing my best not to show it. We can’t control our feelings, it is true, but does that mean we are powerless to affect our feelings? What if we were to act like we shared our husband’s vision? Over time, if we cultivated the interest hard enough, might it not wear off on us? Might it not become ours? We have to try. For Bethel, for our husbands, for the Lord Jesus, we have to try.”

Another American, Cindy Johnson if Patricia remembered correctly, spoke up. “I can’t imagine ever wanting this,” she objected, waving at the walls. “It’s so not what I signed up for.”

“But imagine,” Patricia responded, “imagine doing something that changed you, that made you want it. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t that please your husband?”

“How?” Mae Quan asked. “How we ‘own’ it, like you say? How our children own it?”

“That’s what  I want us to brainstorm,” Patricia said. “How can we invest in Bethel? What can we do to make it succeed?”

“An all-metal environment is so impractical for raising children,” a Filipino woman offered. “It makes every routine injury three times worse.”

“So a rubber coating of some sort,” Patricia suggested, “for the floors and the walls.”

“That’s a lot of rubber,” a voice commented.

“We have a lot of children,” Patricia concluded.

Another woman piped in. “I can’t swim,” she admitted. “I’m so afraid of going overboard, or of my children going overboard.”

“Swimming lessons for everyone, then, every time we’re in port,” Patricia said. “And we need to design a standard uniform of some sort, one with flotation material built into it. That way everyone is always wearing a life vest. A GPS chip, too, so it’s easy to locate a person who does go overboard.”

“The material should be brightly colored,” someone offered.

“Great,” another complained, “there goes all our fashion sense.”

“We are creating a new fashion,” Patricia explained. “Bethel fashion.”

“Long hair is dangerous in such an enclosed environment,” Mrs. Quan said.

Patricia felt her ponytail, nodded. “Yes, short hair will have to be standard.”

“I thought I’d learn how to sail,” a woman confessed. “But this ship has nothing to do with sailing.”

“We can replace a couple of the lifeboats with sailing skiffs,” Patricia suggested. “We can do sailing lessons, too. Anything to make the ocean feel like home.”

“Better recipes,” a woman pleaded. “Compact Day was only five weeks ago and I’m already sick of fish paste.”

“I’ll lead that project,” a petite American named Susanne offered. “I went to chef’s school for a year.”

“Excellent,” Patricia replied.

“No private space,” a Korean woman pleaded.

“Yes, we need prayer closets,” another Korean affirmed. “Soundproof. And a nursery.”

These suggestions made Patricia suddenly self-conscious. Of course they needed private places to pray. Why hadn’t she thought of it? Because she had always had two nannies to watch her children, giving her plenty of opportunity to pray alone in their San Francisco mansion’s sun-room. I’m just a rich dumb blonde, she thought, forced to play First Lady. Who am I kidding? But this was the role Providence had thrust upon her.

“I’ll talk to Sean about it first chance I get,” Patricia promised.

The ideas began pouring forth. Patricia typed furiously on her iPad.

“A rite of passage into adulthood. Something involving the ocean.”

“Water births. If the ocean is to be their home, they should start life in water.”

“They should learn to swim before they learn to walk.”

“Emphases upon marine biology and meteorology in the upper grades.”

“A university specializing in ocean sciences and industries.”

“Your husband is right about the work. Boys should start early, learn to do all the jobs aboard ship.”

“We should have a specific sister-church in each port. No church-hopping.”

“That standard uniform should function like a wet-suit when wet, but be comfortable when dry.”

“Does such a material exist?”

“We’ll have to invent it.”

“Container shipping alone can’t supportBethel’s economy. Neither can fishing.”

“We just began construction of the first factory ship.”

“Families will have to rotate amongst ships periodically to make sure children learn all the different jobs.”

“What about elderly people? Are we going to have a nursing home ship?”

“No nursing homes!” several women shouted at once. “We’ve already started raising our children together. We’ll care for our disabled together, too.”

Of all these ideas, one phrase especially stuck in Patricia’s head: if the ocean is to be their home. If the ocean is to be their home. How could they make the ocean feel like home? For their children? For themselves? Could the sea become home? Could it come to feel like Connecticuthad when she was a child? She tried to imagine her children feeling as uncomfortable on land as she now felt on this rocking cargo vessel. Lord Jesus, make it happen.

***

Pertexpat slipped out of the Magellan dry-dock six months later, the first ship to undergo what had become known as the “First Lady Refit.” Equipped with four prayer rooms, two sailboats, a nursery and day-care center, and fully rubberized surfaces in all the living spaces, Pertexpat had begun the transformation from cargo ship to village.

But what excited Patricia most was the Sea Room. She waited until Pertexpat began making good speed forTaiwan, then led the ship’s wives down into the bow. The group crowded into a brightly lit room with a slanted floor that narrowed forward.

“We are completely below the water line,” Patricia explained excitedly. “Now watch.” She went to a panel on the wall, keyed in her security code, and commanded the room to fill. Filtered baffles on either side of the bulkhead opened slightly, allowing ocean water to rush into the room. Patricia permitted the new pool to fill until the women were forced to cram into the shrinking dry space by the entrance. Then she shut off the valves and walked down the ramp into the water.

“It’s slanted to allow for all ages,” Patricia explained, continuing to stride through the water till her wet suit took over and floated her off the bottom. “The little ones can learn to swim in the shallows. The older ones can learn to spearfish out here. The filters should keep predators out. For the most part.”

Patricia tried to swim back toward her audience. “The children can’t really wear the flotation suits in here. Not while learning to swim, anyway. If we’re in a cold part of the Pacific they’ll have to wear regular ones.”

She got to where she could stand up again and returned to her audience. “With this Sea Room our children can grow up in the sea. The water can be replaced at will as long as the ship is in motion. This will keep it fresh and interesting, as new life forms will enter each time the volume is turned over. Spend enough time in here with your baby, and he really will learn how to swim before learning how to walk. Ocean water will become his natural environment.”

Patricia smiled triumphantly as she watched some of the women begin wading into the pool. She considered the battle fought with Sean to get the Sea Room approved. “Ballast,” he had finally said. “At least it can be emptied at need.” The weight of water in the Sea Room meant the ship could carry one less container: a significant economic disadvantage. But Sean was nothing if not visionary. He could see the outcome if the children spent significant time in water.

But I don’t like water, Patricia reflected silently. Salt clung to her skin, making her sticky. And how could she ever get used to this suit?. She watched several fish dart about the pool, looking for an escape. Am I really going to raise my children in an aquarium? But the Scripture came to her afresh: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. Patricia ran her fingers through her cropped hair, took a breath, and dived back in.

***

“Why did that boy turn off his cell phone?” Patricia grumbled as she hauled her five-year-old daughter Rebecca through the Coral Sea’s deep passageways. The double-keeled factory ship was a real monster, nothing like the quaint little Pertexpat upon which they had first lived. It made searching for a child a real chore if he muted his com. Which Jonathan, apparently, had.

Patricia finally reached the entrance to the starboard factory and requested the foreman track down Jonathan. A few minutes later her son appeared, covered in dirt and grease, a big smile pasted across his face.

“I made my first goo-gun,” he announced triumphantly.

“Congratulations,” Patricia allowed, momentarily distracted. Coral Sea specialized in the manufacture of non-lethal weaponry, a product line for which the fallen world exercised insatiable demand. She hated to burst his bubble, but family reality intruded.

“Listen,” Patricia explained. “Most of the women are ashore, and I’m teaching ESL to the rest. I need you to watch Rebecca for me. The sailboats are already out, so you’ll have to take her to the Sea Room.”

Jonathan’s face sank for a moment, but he quickly recovered and submitted to Patricia’s decree. Clocking out of work, he led the way back toward the vessel’s forward section. Patricia considered Jonathan proudly as he carried Becky carefully through the non-rubberized passages near the factory. Such perfect sea legs. Patricia remembered their family’s first weeks inBethel, how Jonathan had required continual heavy doses of sea-sickness medication. Now he treated heavy seas like a game.

“If I can keep making guns,” Jonathan declared, “I can have a tetron saved by the time I’m thirteen.”

“Then you are almost a man,” Patricia pronounced, pleased that their son had become such a hard worker.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about that, actually,” Jonathan informed her. “It seems to some of us that earning a tetron is a bit, well, anti-climactic. So is the black belt. We were thinking there should be something more distinctly Thelan about coming-of-age.”

Patricia sighed inwardly, having no choice but to agree with her son. The idea of having a rite of passage sounded great in theory, but a decent practice had eluded them. They had settled on a child earning a black belt in a martial art and saving a tetron’s worth of money. Jonathan was right, however. These indicators lacked a distinctly Thelan flavor. There was nothing “oceany” about them.

“I’m not against learning how to fight,” Jonathan clarified as they made it to their quarters. “And I’m glad to save money. My friends and I just think there should be something more. Once a person has secured his first tetron.”

“You have any ideas?” she asked.

“I have one. Paul spent a day and a night on the open sea. I was thinking a person wishing for adult status should be required to spend a day and a night alone in a sailboat. Just him and the ocean.”

“That’s risky.”

“That’s the point.”

Patricia considered her son’s suggestion. A thirteen or fourteen year old child alone at sea. Would Thelan parents balk at such a ritual? Yet their children weren’t like them. They were growing up on water and in water. They weren’t normal humans. They were…what? Water people? No, not the right phrase. Sea People. Some time alone on the ocean would probably be nothing but a vacation.

“I’ll suggest it to your father,” Patricia concluded.

***

Economically inefficient, Patricia groaned from a seat in the galley as Storm Chaser fought the hurricane into which she had deliberately plowed. The First Lady knew intellectually that the triple-hulled vessel ought to be rocking much more than it was: a benefit of cutting through the waves rather than going over them. But a typhoon was still a typhoon. What had she been thinking when she had agreed to her children’s pleas to spend time aboard this ship?

Storm Chaser wielded super-strong wind turbines on her deck, enough to generate massive amounts of electricity if the wind speed were high enough. And what did her crazed children do with all those kilowatts? They engaged in the electrolysis of sea water. To what end? Certainly they manufactured plenty of hydrogen and oxygen, useful gases for sure. But their real goal was capturing the rare metals dissolved in the ocean. Evaporate enough sea water, get rid of the common salts, and you had a cornucopia of precious metals.

But such a foolish way to earn a tetron’s worth of gold! It would make so much more sense to work a job and get paid in gold. Patricia had begged Becky to take a position aboard the Wall Street, the financial ship stationed offLos Angeles. Thelan Accounting Services was making a killing thanks to their low overhead. They also only had to pay 9% of their profits in taxes to theBethel government. NoU.S. company could compete against that, not when they were paying four times as much in taxes plus dealing with the dollar’s relentless inflation.

If Rebecca had gotten a clerk’s job on Wall Street she could have earned five tetrons by now. Mining the ocean for gold! It just made no sense. And surely Sean of all people should have seen it, should have talked sense into their kids before they spent so much effort on such relatively unproductive work. But Sean had been nothing but enthusiastic for the project. Perhaps there was something irresistibly Thelan about mining the sea, something that Sean just couldn’t resist.

Whatever his reason, it left Patricia and a handful of other women to attempt the preparation of a meal while trying not to vomit. How could she get seasick after all these years? Yet none of the vessels on which she had lived had ever deliberately plowed into a cyclone. Such madness!

She grabbed the Thelan cookbook from the shelf in the galley, gazed at the pallor of the five other women with her. 212 recipes for fish paste. Were any designed to stay in the stomach in the midst of such weather? If only they could cook plain fish for once. Just once. But the coal-burning power plants inChinaand the rest ofAsiarendered Pacific seafood too high in heavy metals.Bethelhad the means to process out the metals. But that turned fish into fish paste, their staple and their bane.

“We have to cook,” Patricia implored. A ravenous work shift would be coming down soon. But the six of them remained rooted to their seats in the galley, trying desperately to come to terms with the Storm Chaser’s roll.

“Sixteen years I’ve put up with this,” Cindy Johnson complained. “I want to go back toTexas. I’m going back toTexas.”

It took Patricia a moment to realize the significance of Cindy’s words. “Perhaps this isn’t the best time to make major decisions,” she suggested.

“The decision’s already been made. I can’t take it anymore. You’re all crazy, don’t you see it? Living on a boat. Likely dying on one, if this storm keeps up. Why live in this little tiny space when there is so much land just there for the taking? So much open space. So dry. Steak and sweet tea. I tell you, I’ve had it.”

Patricia tried to think of something useful to say. Yet wasn’t Cindy simply expressing her own heart? She had tried to submit to Sean in every way she could imagine. She sailed, she evangelized in port, she spent so much time in water that she and her children could give swimming lessons to dolphins. She had pressed the vision upon their seven children in every way she knew how.

Yet what had it amounted to? Patricia still hated the sea. She hated the smell of the ships, the reek of every harbor, the never-ending labor of  learning Cantonese and Filipino and Korean. She hated never being still, hated that she had developed such good sea legs, hated salt. For all her efforts to fit in, to own Sean’s vision, the simple fact remained: she wanted to move back toSan Francisco. Oh, to have their old mansion again! To be normal, to be American, to live on land.

A group of teenagers suddenly poured into the galley, looking for their midday meal. They were laughing and joking, carrying on like any other group of teens. But these had just been working a typhoon! The weather didn’t  make them sick. It didn’t even make them nervous. Just a sport to them, producing kilowatts and driving the distilleries. Patricia shook her head. Sea People.

The children realized there was no food to be had. They gave their mothers a quick examination, understood without asking, then went unperturbed into the galley and began preparing their own lunch.

Patricia watched them labor away in their bright orange wet suits, Thelan flag over the left breast. So happy. So content. They weren’t like American children, these youth. Hardy. Hard-working. Fearless.

Didn’t that mean she had succeeded, at least to some extent? She had submitted to Sean well  enough to create children that were like him. Or, if truth be told, children that surpassed him. These children could not drive cars or play football. They inspected the video game consoles shipped across the ocean, but did not know how to operate them. Yet they were adults by the age of fourteen. They possessed multiple skills learned on-the-job: weapons manufacture, fishing, joining, office work. Unparalleled swimmers and divers and sailors, they would win gold medals in the Olympics if Thelans were allowed to participate.

I have succeeded, Patricia thought. Yet she was not one of them. They are Sea People. I am…what? Just a homesick landlubber, longing to return toCalifornia. All these years and Sean’s vision still wasn’t hers. She had obeyed, she concluded. But she still hadn’t submitted.

***

The largest ever gathering of Thelan ships – 78 vessels – held station in a rough semi-circle aboutBethel’s first satellite launch pad. Safe distance was relatively close, less than six kilometers, for the rocket burned simple kerosene rather than a more energy-dense propellant. Simplicity and safety were to be the Thelan space program’s hallmarks, as Sean never tired of repeating.

The rocket on the pad bore a distinctly Thelan look. Crafted entirely of composites, with both first and second stages bearing wings intended to fly them down for soft splash and recovery: the world’s first completely reusable rocket. Of course they’d had to break about 4000 of the world’s patent laws to make it happen, but Bethel didn’t care about patents. It cared only about profits. Specifically, that patent-holders get a share of any profits generated.

Patricia wondered how much money people would actually see. Space launch was a marginal business at best. The cost-per-kilo to orbit was simply too great. But the Trident III launch system would try to halve the current cost. Composites made the rocket lighter and stronger. Reusable stages reduced production costs. Sea launch from a non-stationary platform allowed whatever orbit the customer desired. Kerosene was cheap and relatively safe to work with, at least compared to hydrazine. The electrolysis vessels kept them in plentiful supply of liquid oxygen. Maybe it would all prove to be enough, and the launch company would eventually achieve profitability.

Profits or no, today marked Bethel’s first foray into the “other half of its flag.” The Thelan flag showed blue in the bottom half, representing the ocean, black in the top half, representing space, with a white Jerusalem cross placed in the middle to represent the spread of Christian civilization into the ocean and into space.

But so far Bethel had been all ocean. They were Sea People, not Space People. Today’s attempt at placing a weather satellite over the Pacific would at least represent a token move into the black part of the Thelan flag. Thus the massive gathering of vessels, each flying the Thelan flag that they hoped to turn from vision into reality.

Space, Patricia mused. It was hard enough living on the sea. She tried to imagine how cramped a spaceship would be, how much harder than living on a sailboat alone at sea. For that had been the unexpected fruit of her son Jonathan’s idea: all Thelan citizens had to spend a day and a night on the open sea once a year in order to retain full citizenship rights. The elderly or infirm could hold emeritus status, permitted to speak in town hall meetings. But citizens who refused the day and night at sea lost the right to vote.

And so Patricia had spent time alone at sea. It had done her no good, of course. Meaning it had not made her fall in love with the sea. She still hated boats, and water, and salt. She figured she would hate space even more.

She looked at the flag whipping from the Capitol’s main mast. Blue and Black. No green. No brown. No place for Patricia. Nowhere she could really call home. A foreigner in her own country.

The sea isn’t really blue, she pouted. The sea is grey and opaque and deep and dangerous. They had chosen blue for the flag because in the human imagination, water was blue. She was surrounded by blue. She was drowning in blue. Why oh why had Sean done this to her? Eighteen years at sea. Would it never end? Would she never come to accept it? To like it? To love it? Her seven children had all become Sea People. They were strangers to her now. What would it take for her to become Sea People, too?

A countdown sounded, the rocket arced into the sky, Patricia dutifully cheered and clapped (she was First Lady, after all). When the spacecraft was lost to sight, she turned to head to the Sea Room. God, she prayed, help me! I hate it all.

***

“It’s not working out,” Patricia informed her husband a week before her day and night was due. “Eighteen years, Sean, and still I don’t feel what you feel. Our children are Thelans, real Sea People. I’m not one of them and they know it.” I’m not like you and you know it, she added silently.

“I have never understood your theology in this matter,” Sean confessed as he sat up next to his wife in bed. “As far as I’m concerned, obedience is submission. And you have submitted marvelously. The women in the fleet have taken their lead from you. They have done everything in their power to adapt to life at sea. You don’t realize how much credit you deserve.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Patricia insisted. “You and the kids feel the vision. I need to feel it, too. So I’ve made a decision. When I go out for my day and night, I’m not coming back until I feel it.”

“You’re leaving us?” Sean asked, stunned.

“I’m going on a quest,” the First Lady clarified. “I will return as one of you, or I won’t return at all.”

“Be serious, Patricia. We need you here.”

“The moms on Capitol have already agreed to take care of Rachel and Becky. And you’ll have Jonathan to help, too.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Sean pressed. “Think of all the things that could go wrong.”

“I’ve taught a whole generation how to sail. I think I can handle myself for a few weeks.” Or months. Or years. However long it took.

“You don’t need to do this,” Sean urged. “Besides, it is not just the children that need you. I need you.”

“What you need,” Patricia clarified, “is a submissive wife.”

Patricia would not be dissuaded from her plan. Thus a week later her family gathered on the Capitol to see her off. She was grateful that the day and night ritual gave her an excuse for the start of her voyage. It kept the reporters and busybodies away. Just a Thelan citizen performing her annual duty.

She had outfitted her 8-meter sailboat Living Waters with enough supplies to last three months. She didn’t really think that would be enough, but then that was the point. Patricia and the Pacific Ocean were going to get up close and personal with each other. She kissed her husband and seven children goodbye, let the ship’s crane lower her and the Living Waters into the sea, then set a heading roughly opposite that of the Capitol. Within minutes she had the ocean to herself.

Patricia’s GPS showed her current position to be 730 nautical kilometers north-northwest ofTahiti. She used her satellite connection to call up the American and Thelan internets. This gave her weather patterns and the location of all Bethel shipping. Her general goal was to avoid major storms and company of any kind. She thought she could do both as long as her solar sail cloth kept recharging her boat’s batteries. That way she could get good work out of the propeller when the wind refused to cooperate.

Beyond that her plan was to sit at sea and wait for a miracle. And sit is what she did, at least when the Thelan flag on her mast top sat limp. When the wind picked up, Patricia spread her sails and went with the direction Providence blew her. She kept her fishing lines out and ate whatever she caught, sometimes raw, sometimes fried. The heavy metals she figured she could handle now that she was past the age of childbearing.

She emailed Sean just often enough to keep him from sending a search and rescue flying boat after her. No doubt he kept track of her on GPS, even as she could follow the progress of the Capitol. Sean kept his distance, for which she was grateful. Yet it couldn’t be coincidence that one Thelan ship or another was always within rescue range of the Living Waters. In fairness to Sean, though, there were so many Thelan ships covering the Pacific that it was impossible to get truly out of range of all of them.

Unless she were to head into the Southern Ocean, a suicidal course. But Patricia didn’t have a death wish. She had an ocean wish. She wanted to fall in love with the ocean and all things oceany. She wanted to share her husband’s vision. She wanted to submit.

And so she cruised about the Pacific, weeks gradually turning into months. When her mainsail tore she sewed it. When her reverse osmosis system broke she repaired it. In calm waters she went swimming. In rough weather she tied herself to the Living Waters and prayed to live till dawn. Always, day after day, she waited for her miracle.

Sean emailed but the children did not. Likely they understood her mission better than Sean did himself. He may have been the Founder of Bethel, but the generational gap still applied to him. He had been born on land. He had lived too much life on land. He was not true Sea People.

Patricia’s food gave out after five months, forcing her to live entirely off her daily catch. She trolled a net and caught a shark, which she ripped apart with a knife like her children had taught her. When her last bottle of sunscreen was used up she took to wearing a wide-brimmed hat secured with a chinstrap. For Sean’s sake she replaced the GPS chip in her wetsuit when its battery died. On a windless day she strapped on scuba gear and scraped her sailboat’s hull.

She prayed a fair bit each day, more than she had feared she would although less than she had hoped. There was nothing to do and yet there was everything to do: living alone at sea was hard work. It occurred to her that she had never mined gold like her children had. She improvised a tiny distillation system and began extracting rare minerals from the ocean. This used up a lot of her daily electricity, but she had become increasingly content to depend on her sails.

At seven months Sean’s emails became more desperate. Patricia was forced to start talking to him on the satellite phone, reassuring him that she was not going crazy. She hadn’t gone crazy, had she? Ironically, some women would likely interpret her absence as a supreme act of unsubmissiveness. Indeed, who could really understand her quest except those raised in Bethel? The generational gap applied to more people than just Sean and herself. That’s what she was really trying to do, she realized. She was trying to force herself into another generation, to become Sea People although she had not grown up Sea People. And how could a 47-year-old woman ever really join the generation of her children? It was unnatural.

But the unnatural was what Patricia sought. She pursued a miracle, after all, a change in the very nature of her heart. She wanted new loves and new hates, a second rebirth if she dared call it as much. Would God grant the desired blessing it if Patricia refused to let go until he did? Or would she die out on this ocean, hating it to the end?

Her schedule increasingly reversed, such that she came to sleep during the day and lay awake at night. Partially this was to provide some protection from the sun. Mostly it was so she could study the stars. On clear evenings the absence of ambient light created a star-gazing spectacle that grew in wonder the longer Patricia studied it. Binoculars weren’t much use with the Living Water’s constant motion, so she contented herself primarily with naked-eye viewing. Some nights she would watch from dusk to dawn, beholding the glory of each zodiac constellation moving through the zenith.

One night as she lay studying the loose clusters in Cancer, the flag on the mast top whipped out and blocked her view. She made to move and then paused, an insight striking her: the Thelan flag was incomplete. The top half, in particular, was a plain black field representing outer space. But space wasn’t black! Jewels inhabited the sky like fish filled the sea. Shouldn’t there be stars on the flag, or even constellations?

Why even have the black field, though? Thelans lived in the bottom half of  the flag, the blue half. Granted, Bethel had launched a handful of its own satellites, and many more for paying customers. But no Thelan lived in space. They weren’t space people. They were Sea People.

Why had Sean bothered putting black on the flag? Why not simply make it all blue? That was when Patricia noticed, as if for the first time, that the Thelan flag contained a third color: the white Jerusalem cross placed exactly in the center. And in seeing that cross, for the first time really seeing it, Patricia suddenly got it.

Bethel isn’t about the ocean. At least, it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be about Christ. A Christian civilization, not a water civilization. Hadn’t Sean said as much a hundred times? A thousand times? But Patricia had never heard him. She had never gotten it. The vision Sean wanted her to own wasn’t the blue part of the flag, it was the white. Christ was to be central, and who cared where they lived?

Patricia looked back over the last 18 years with a new-found horror. She had labored with all her might to fall in love with the sea. She had labored with all her might to help every Thelan fall in love with the sea. And she had succeeded! Against all odds and possibility, new culture had been formed. But it wasn’t Christ that made Thelans most distinctive. It was the sea. They weren’t Christian People. They were Sea People.

The folly of her quest crashed upon Patricia like a cyclone. She had chased the blue part ofBethel’s flag, thinking that thereby she was submitting to her husband. But all along Sean had wanted her pursuing the white. They had been working at cross-purposes, ironically, and she had never seen it. Had never suspected it.

But what to do about it? Their culture was out of balance: lots of blue, some white, almost no black. She had led the way in creating that imbalance. If she went back now and tried to change Bethel’s direction, would anyone listen to her? The cultural inertia that already existed was so great. What could be done to stop it? How could their children be convinced that they should not be Sea People? Was such convincing even possible?

Out of balance, out of balance. How to get the focus where it should be? How to correct a disparity that she herself had helped create, that she was actually perpetuating by this very journey at sea?

Patricia studied her GPS and set a new course. For the first time she had a clear destination in mind, such that the limitations of the wind now frustrated her. She abandoned her distillation project and pumped every volt into the drive shaft. Thankfully the Thelan ship for which she headed was currently stationary, located on the equator about 1500 nautical kilometers southwest of Hawaii.

After ten days frantic sailing Patricia arrived at Bethel’s floating launch pad. A rocket stood in the center, waiting for its window. Patricia secured the Living Waters to the side of the pad, was unsurprised to find Sean waiting for her at the top of the ladder.

She gave her husband a long hug, then led him into the rocket’s danger zone, indeed right up to one of the nozzles at its base. She reached out her hand and stroked the cone, soon to be filled with a blaze of kerosene and liquid oxygen.

“Did you find what you were seeking?” Sean finally asked.

“Yes,” Patricia replied. “I want to be an astronaut.”

City on a Sea, short story #3

Just-In-Time Delivery

 

Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my

enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!”  Numbers 23:11

 

Sean

In the beginning Sean Billings created a City on a Sea. William Bradford provided his greatest inspiration, though he looked also to the myriad Greek and Roman colonists who had settled the Mediterranean region.

The Founder of Bethel grew up at sea. He knew her ways. When sixteen years of age he went on a great adventure: “normal” life. Sean obtained a Bible degree from Columbia International University and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Pennsylvania. As a result of these years away from the Pacific, Sean thought he understood something of the landlubber mentality, the ways of God, and the treacheries of Corporate America.

Hostility towards Bethel – this Sean did not understand. As best he could determine, colonists headed for the New World had not been hated by those who remained in Europe. Neither had ancient pioneers been despised; indeed, by embracing the Aeneid the Romans had actually glorified people like Sean. Bethel’s First Father considered all this history, weighed his treatment at the hands of his contemporaries, and felt baffled at the disconnect.

He desperately wanted to grasp his enemies’ motives. He felt frustrated and embarrassed over the fact that he could not. But Sean did not have to understand his opponents; all he had to do was defeat them. And although it was painfully true that Sean did not understand the people opposed to Bethel, Sean did realize something critical: the people opposed to Bethel did not understand Sean Billings.

Dudge

Dudge and his girlfriend collapsed onto the bed in their new quarters aboard the bulkcarrier R.B.T. Pertexpat. With one hand Dudge felt the metal bulkhead behind their heads, with the other he stroked Jolene’s hair.

“What did I say?” Dudge bragged. “Told you we could get on board.”

Jolene gave him a stupid grin. Dumb as dirt, Dudge pondered. But that’s the way he preferred his women. She would do what he said. That was all that mattered.

Having someone to talk to would have been nice, though. Dudge had put in a year of law school in order to make this plot work, no small feat given his background. That was how he’d hooked up with Ben Quinn, the lawyer who would become so critical once Dudge and Jolene managed to force a trial.

Ben understood the “crab-pot feeling.” If the rest of America had to stay and pay interest on the national debt, these traitors should be forced to do so as well. Ben also understood why Christians were so offensive. They were driven by different longings, different dreams, than the rest of the human race. It wasn’t normal. It wasn’t right. In a properly functioning society they would not be allowed to exist. At the very least they should not be permitted to escape, to develop and thrive and infect the world. This Bethel thing had to be plucked up now, while still a tender shoot.

“Christians are sheep,” Dudge gloated. “Easy to shear, easy to eat. Oh, but this is going to be fun!” He bounded to his feet and smacked his head on the metal ceiling.

He scowled while rubbing his scalp. “I wish we didn’t have to wait till we left port,” he lamented. “But I guess it gives us more time to meet our fellow shipmates. Remember the basic rule.”

“Be friendly,” Jolene said, flipping her hair.

“That’s right. Keep smiling, keep talking.” Dudge reckoned it would take an American colonist about a minute to figure Jolene had some sort of learning disorder. It would be perfect. They’d be put off their guard from the start. And Dudge…how nice he must be to marry her, what with her issues and all.

Sheep, Dudge sneered. So many opportunities to expose Christianity for the joke it really was. And Billings was too stupid to realize it! Worse than Jolene, the way he’d set himself up.

Dudge reckoned this is what his parents always meant when they talked about “calling.” He had finally found his niche in life. He would use the City on a Sea to make a world-wide mockery of the Bible.

He reached a hand to Jolene, pulled her to her feet. “Come on,” he said. “Time to get to work.”

Jack

Jack Star led his wife and eight followers down a grimy Los Angeles dock. He had never seen this part of the city, and didn’t care to be in it now. The group walked slowly as they dragged luggage and noses through a cloud of diesel fumes. Coming to the end of the pier, they read the name on a vessel still loading containers: R.B.T. Pertexpat.

Jack glanced around, blinking. He expected more…what? Fanfare. Media. Something. Some acknowledgment, at least, of all he was giving up to join Bethel. They weren’t some pack of grungy laborers from Thailand or China who couldn’t even speak the language. They were Americans: the sort of people Billings would need if this colony of his were ever to amount to anything.

He noticed a gangplank leading up to the ship’s forecastle. On the pier before this simple walkway, a woman sat in a folding chair. Jack trudged up and read her nametag: Mae Quan, Purser. He introduced himself and his group.

Mrs. Quan smiled and shook his hand. “Welcome,” she said in thickly accented English. “Your quarters are prepared.” She handed out diagrams of the ship, identical to the ones they had already downloaded and brought along with them. She pointed them to the ship’s entrance.

Jack stood unmoving, realizing finally that he expected servants to appear and carry his belongings aboard. But there were no valets. He grabbed the handle of his suitcase and gave it a violent tug. “Come on,” he pronounced.

Unappreciated, he lamented as he entered Bethel territory. Everywhere he went, it seemed, people refused to be grateful for him. So much use he could be to the kingdom. So much good he could do. If people would just listen.

He made it onto the Pertexpat’s foredeck, dropped his bags, and glanced back at the smog-enshrouded city. Hopefully Bethel would be different. Great idea this Billings guy had. It just needed a little tweaking. Jack knew he was perfect for the job.

Abraham

“Remember,” Abraham urged Mohamed, “you cannot talk about grace too much. Say it over and over: Islam taught I had to earn my salvation. But Jesus earned salvation for me, and I have received it as a gracious gift.”

“I will remember,” Mohamed promised.

Abraham looked his student over, doubtful he had taken the lesson to heart, even after four years of drilling.

“And the prayers you memorize, they must not sound memorized,” Abraham insisted. “Canned prayer sends off warning bells. You have to sound spontaneous. And the more Scripture you include, the better. Most Americans don’t know the Bible well enough to include it in spontaneous prayers. They will grow intimidated, and not wish to probe you too deeply.”

The time for prayer came and went. The men did not get on the floor and face Mecca. The deception could not be risked. Instead they uttered a Trinitarian prayer. Practice made perfect.

“Christians are usually easier to trick than heathen,” Abraham continued. “Dealing with Muslims is one of the few areas in which this is not the case. You will actually have a much harder time getting them to trust you than if you were joining the U.S. Army. I know this makes no sense, but for our purposes it hardly matters. The key idea is that you are attempting what most would consider impossible.”

You are trying to convince highly educated Evangelical Christians that you are one of them, Abraham thought. Impossible because it requires you to understand how they think. And how can you do that without becoming one of them? Well, that was the risk. Let Mohamed know what the Bible actually taught – not the revised nonsense spouted by the imams – but genuine Reformed theology, and yes, Mohamed could possibly pass for a Christian. But he could also end up converting, and that would ruin everything. A chance that had to be taken.

“It can be done,” Abraham insisted. “You’ve seen how they accept me, the position of importance I have been given. But I cannot do this task alone. Only together can we strike this blow against America. Only together can we humiliate Billings with his inability to stop us.

“These people are kind and respectable,” he continued. “It will be easy for you to let down your guard. But they will turn on you with shocking savagery if they discover the truth. They call this vessel Republic of Bethel Territory Pusan Perimeter. Never forget that. To them it is not a ship. It is the very territory of their nation. It is home. If they realize what we’ve smuggled, they will hang us from the yardarm and post the clip on YouTube.”

Sean

Sean convened Bethel’s government aboard the Pertexpat, a single marine guarding the entrance to his quarters. One man, Sean thought. Indeed, at this point the entire Thelan military consisted of four veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. How easily might Bethel be snuffed out: a smoldering wick, a bruised reed. During this first generation, their survival depended entirely upon diplomacy. The third generation would likely have to rely upon advanced water and space technologies. And the second – well, that was Sean’s unique insight: the American quality that would secure Bethel’s survival when it had grown large enough to annoy the United States, yet remained too small to defend itself.

Those problems would belong to other presidents. At the moment Sean’s aides joined him in watching a live CNN stream: Washington was considering an embargo against all Bethel-flagged ships.

“I told you not to push David over the edge,” Rebecca said. “It’s not like he was ever going to agree. But now he’ll try even harder to stop us.”

“That’s why I pushed him,” Sean explained. “We need his opposition to reach critical mass now, not six months from now. I’ve made him so angry he’s lashing out blindly, excessively and, most importantly, immediately.”

Rebecca looked unconvinced. “Who has David golfed with, just in the last four weeks?” she asked. “By my count, four Congressmen, two Senators, an Emir, a Prime Minister, the CEO of Microsoft, the largest Exxon stockholder, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and, oh yes…the president of the United States. Don’t you realize the kind of damage he can do?”

“I’m counting on it.” Sean pulled his aides into a huddle. “This is the time of testing. Our enemies will try to delay us, to keep us from delivering goods and services within the times delineated in our contracts. If we arrive late, we lose. I know this. David knows this. If we don’t keep covenant, our enemies can label us hypocrites. You know how much non-Christians love accusing us of hypocrisy. And never mind that they’d be the ones preventing us from offloading in the first place. We miss our deadlines and they own us.”

“But most factors are beyond our control,” Abby protested. “If people are determined to prevent delivery, how can we make deadline?”

“By transforming weakness into strength,” Sean said. “We take our enemies’ attacks and twist them to our purposes. That is why I want David going ballistic from day one. Opponents must come to dread cursing us, for certain fear that God will turn their curses into blessings.”

Dudge

The walkie-talkie in Dudge’s pocket vibrated, signaling that Pertexpat’s sergeant-at-arms was occupied at the other end of the ship. Major George, everyone called him. Former Commando of Her Majesty’s Special Air Service. Dudge had encountered a few of those blokes in Afghanistan, realized they could break him in half while sipping their tea and never spill a drop. Thus Dudge’s strategy for dealing with Major George: avoid the man at all costs.

Jolene was God’s gift for keeping the sergeant-at-arms busy. Hopefully the chap interpreted Jolene’s attentions as the embarrassing flirtations of someone not entirely in her right mind. The girl was, after all, married. And a Christian. So she and Dudge were pretending, anyway.

With Jolene keeping the good major under dim but dutiful observation, Dudge commenced with his mission. He brought a useful skill to the evening’s immediate objective. He knew how to fix machines. That meant he also knew how to break them.

Water treatment plant first. Then food refrigeration. Odds were against getting a crack at a third ship system, but if they could somehow manage it they’d take out the air conditioning. All to provide a background of general discontent ahead of the real attacks.

Pertexpat’s maiden journey to Malaysia was about to become a trip through hell.

Jack

The former Reverend Star and his faction headed to the galley after the conclusion of the morning worship service. The water restrictions announced that morning had put him in a foul mood before they had even left for church. Then those suffering through Yu’s absurdly long message had been packed shoulder-to-shoulder in a room where the air conditioning did not seem to be working.

No one else had been able to shower, either, and the congregation had reeked. The cooks stank, the engine men stank – actually, everybody stank. And the agony of listening to a sermon in another language! The old fool had insisted on preaching in Mandarin, pausing after each sentence while a young seminarian translated. The irony was that Yu could have done the translation better himself. He had even politely corrected his assistant on several occasions. Why had the Republic’s “Secretary of State” forced the torturous session upon them in the first place? English was Bethel’s official language. People needed to accept it.

These complaints and many like them Jack spewed freely as they got in line for lunch. There to his surprise he discovered enormous piles of hot food – beef, chicken, and pork dishes representing the entire range of Pacific Rim culinary preferences. They could never eat this much, not in an entire week.

“The freezers broke,” a server explained. “We have to cook it all now, before it goes bad.”

“But even cooked it won’t last long,” Jack said, considering the sweat pouring down his back. “Especially without air conditioning.”

“Eat up, then,” the woman said cheerfully, her British-tinged accent making her sound more educated than she must have been. Otherwise, why would she be working in a kitchen?

The obnoxious food handler looked South Asian. Jack loathed them even more than the race his father had dismissed as “Rice Eaters.” He pictured this woman dunking her laundry in the Ganges River, too dense to realize the water was toxic. She probably didn’t know the first thing about maintaining a clean cooking environment. They’d be sick of food-borne illnesses within a week.

Jack loaded his tray with meat, unaware that the feast he was about to eat contained more protein than much of the world’s population consumed in an entire month. His wife and his “righteous remnant” quickly joined him at a table. The ten of them joined hands. Jack said thanks for lunch and got ready to serve his favorite Sunday meal: roast pastor.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t think of an automatic complaint to level at Yu’s sermon. Jack’s normal plan of attack was to highlight whatever the minister had not said. Usually this was easy to do. A typical message lasted thirty or forty minutes, after all, and in that time it was impossible to go over everything in the Bible. That necessarily lent a certain imbalance to each individual discourse.

Jack’s expertise lay in vilifying that imbalance. If the preacher focused on God’s grace, Jack would express dismay over the neglect of God’s justice. If the preacher zeroed in on God’s justice, Jack would lament the poor man’s failure to proclaim God’s grace.

This strategy worked because visitors normally caught a pastor in the middle of a series. Few people understood that within a collection of sermons, no individual message was capable of standing on its own. Instead, on any given Sunday worshipers got a piece of the Bible: grace or justice, transcendence or immanence, preparation or fulfillment. Over time, of course, the sermons of a good preacher would form a larger, unified whole that faithfully represented the entire counsel of God.

Jack didn’t give preachers time. He would take his group to a specific church only as long as he could accuse the minister of putting too much stress on one part of the Bible and not enough on another. This way Jack always appeared superior, the one man who got the big picture.

The problem today, Jack reckoned, was that it had been Yu’s first worship service aboard the Pertexpat. His sermon had consequently been quite general in nature, an overview of Biblical theology rather than a snippet of some larger train of thought. Jack couldn’t think of any core doctrine, actually, that Yu hadn’t gone over. Perhaps he’d have no choice but to go the opposite route, and accuse the old geezer of being too general. A good sermon ought to communicate one main point, after all, not attempt to summarize the whole Bible in a single morning.

That’s not what Jack felt like saying, however. What he really wanted to do was blast Yu for being Chinese, for preaching in Chinese, and for having a congregation that was almost half Chinese. It took so much energy to suppress this rant, in fact, that he ended up doing nothing but mumbling into his pork stir-fry.

A wave of body odor swirled with a cacophony of eight languages, creating in Jack a sudden urge to bolt from the galley. Billings is failing, Jack concluded. Bethel needed Americans. But their “Founding Father” had been unable to get real people to join up. In desperation he had settled for a pack of filthy, squint-eyed charity cases who couldn’t even talk in complete sentences. No way to start a country.

Jack was the first to admit that churches ought to keep a token chink or nigger on hand. But this ship’s complement was ridiculous. And to have the pastor be Asian! Jack scanned the eighty or so people gorging on Pertexpat’s fresh food supply, realized there wasn’t a single black person in the crowd. Maybe that’s it, Jack thought. I can accuse Yu of racism.

He recalled that blacks and Koreans didn’t exactly get along in Los Angeles. A shrewd man could take advantage of that history. Was it enough? Jack listed his points of contention: sermon by translation, translator incompetent, sermon too general in subject matter, hot and stuffy worship space, smelly worship space, all of it overseen by a prejudiced leader who had not tried hard enough to recruit Africans.

The former Reverend Star thought he could sell it. He would have to follow up, though. You can’t beat something with nothing, we would tell people. And that’s why he had no choice but to start a competing worship service the very next week.

Abraham

“The artillery piece is ‘hidden in plain sight’ as they say in America,” Abraham explained, Mohamed showing by his expression that he did not understand. “This means if we tried to conceal it, people would be suspicious. But because it is listed as official cargo, no one asks questions.”

“But why will they let it in?” Mohamed asked.

“Because they lack imagination. Because they are fixated on weapons of mass destruction. Because it would never occur to them that an object so old might still be dangerous.”

Mohamed shook his head. He thought their venture was doomed to failure, and he said as much again. “No one has succeeded in smuggling military weaponry into the United States. Ever. There must be a reason why illegal drugs get in so easily, but no weapons. Not a single machine gun. Not a single grenade. We’re trying to smuggle a 105 millimeter howitzer!

“It’s precisely because of its size that they will ignore it. It is too big. A mortar, an RPG, even a single AK-47 – all of these would draw more attention than our gun. Its paperwork is in order. Its firing pin is missing. Any American dock inspector will accept it for what it appears to be: a Korean War relic on its way to a museum in Arizona.”

And that was the beauty of it, Abraham thought. The gun was a relic from the Korean War. Manufactured in America but apparently handed over to the ROKA sometime in the 1960’s, the howitzer had been tucked away in an abandoned warehouse, rusting and forgotten. Abraham had been careful to leave the rust, of course. Useless junk. Who would think otherwise?

The key discovery had not been the gun itself. Rather Abraham had found and purchased a World-War II die used for casting 105 millimeter firing pins. And thanks to his mechanical engineering degree from Caltech, he knew exactly how to use it. In fact, he already had. A beautiful new pin lay in their Los Angeles safehouse, awaiting the gun’s arrival.

Americans thought too big and too small, ever on the lookout for suicide bombers and nuclear weapons, never for something in-between. But Abraham had read his history books. There was a reason soldiers called artillery “King of the Battlefield.” Modern U.S. security personnel had become too preoccupied with counter-insurgency warfare and high-tech weaponry. They had lost sight of the power of a simple, unguided, large-bore shell.

“Getting the ammunition in,” Abraham allowed, “is admittedly a much harder problem. But all three inspection techniques are accounted for. One shell is hidden in each bag of ammonium nitrate. That renders dogs and electronic sniffers useless.

“Since these Thelans are not complete idiots, they are aware of the fact that someone might try shipping explosives within a larger container of ammonium nitrate. Thus the palates of fertilizer will be exposed to two additional tests. First, they will be X-rayed. We get around this in the most simple of manners: I run the X-Ray machine.” A degree from Caltech had many uses.

“Second, a magnetometer will be used to test for the presence of ferrous metals. This is where Bethel’s commitment to new technology comes to our rescue. The Pusan Perimeter has been equipped with an experimental degaussing device that will disrupt the sensor. The crew does not know of this impending side-effect, of course, but I have computer-modeled it.” A degree from Caltech had many uses. “As the senior technical advisor aboard ship, I will be the one asked to solve the problem. That gets me operating the magnetometer as well. Our shells will make it to port undetected. All 300 of them.”

The final irony was that after all this effort to get around Bethel security, the American dock workers probably wouldn’t even open the container for the most cursory of visual inspections. They’d sign the shipping order and let a truck haul the whole package straight to its firing position in Ingleside.

“Bethel is about cargo,” Mohamed said. “After the attack, when Americans realize the weaponry was shipped…”

“Bethel will be ruined,” Abraham proclaimed. “An instant laughingstock. Two-for-the-price-of-one, they say. You should learn that as well.”

Sean

 “Not being taken seriously,” Bethel’s First Father shouted at his senior aides as the six of them took their shift practicing firefighting. “Never forget that everything depends on not being taken seriously.”

Sweat dripped into Sean’s eyes. His mask prevented him from wiping it away. The absence of air conditioning made this exercise a real killer. Nothing like a real fire, though. He had been in one of those. Once was enough. It was something land people never understood about life at sea. On a ship, even a metal ship, the biggest danger was never drowning. The biggest danger was fire.

Sean had offered Yu a pass, but the pastor would hear none of it. Bethel’s President had heard of the cruelties done in the Chinese labor camps. Stomping around in a heavy suit was probably a walk in the park by comparison. They reached their action station at last, informed the bridge they were ready for deployment.

“Thankfully,” Sean continued, still yelling to be heard through his breathing apparatus, “the poor reputation earned by Evangelicals…in every field of endeavor besides linguistics…actually guarantees that no one will take us seriously.” He paused to take a breath. “And what does Jesus say? From whom much has been given, much will be required.”

The emergency-control officer signaled all-clear. They removed their masks and collapsed against the corridor walls. Abby broke out a bottle and passed it around. Precious water, Sean thought. The back-up distillation system was coming in quite handy. As if he hadn’t guessed his enemies would engage in sabotage.

“You could almost say,” Sean said, taking a drink, “that we have ‘inherited’ the legacy of mediocrity stored up by previous generations of Christians. This legacy of incompetence and irrelevance is a gift, a ‘talent’ that we are to put to use. That is how I challenge you to think: God has entrusted us with the preciousness of not being taken seriously. Christ commands us to lay hold of this ironic endowment and use it to build his kingdom.

“It is essential that we be ignored. You’ve met Christians who feel a great urge to let unbelievers know how rapidly the church is growing throughout the world. These believers have twisted motives: they want to enlighten unbelievers because they crave legitimacy in the eyes of unbelievers. In other words, they want non-Christians to take them seriously. But why would we want enemies of the gospel to know that the church is growing? Better that humanists remain convinced they are winning. Better they never pay the church a thought.

“Bethel needs the same neglect. We need the U.S. to ignore us. We need the current generation of leaders to retire and die without ever realizing what is happening. And that’s why we need to get rid of half our Americans.”

“But we only have twenty percent,” Rebecca protested.

“That’s a hundred percent too many,” Sean said. “The more Americans present in Bethel, the more it puts us on the radar scope. I can’t stress the racism angle too strongly. Americans don’t care about Chinese or Filipinos or Malaysians. As long as we’re not white, we can get away with anything. That means a lot of whites have got to go.

“Besides, a significant percentage of our Americans are really wolves in sheep’s clothing. Fringe movements attract fringe people. The only reason they’re here is because they think we’re easy pickings. Because, ironically, they don’t take us seriously.

“A painful Darwinian process took place in the early American colonies. The greedy, the incompetent, the lazy, and, unfortunately, the weak, died quickly due to the unforgiving environment. This ruthless natural selection created an extremely non-random sample. The early colonists who survived and thrived, this elite remnant of hardy pioneers, they were the best sort of foundation upon which to build a new civilization.

“We don’t have starvation or smallpox, which means we need something else to winnow the chaff from the wheat. I believe God is securing the departure of our chaff. Do not doubt for a second: I will be happy to see them go.”

Dudge

As he listened to Jolene’s testimony and pondered her blackened left eye, Dudge considered afresh the force with which he had hit her. Dudge may not have been special forces material, but between his two tours in Afghanistan he had participated in a goodly share of North Carolina parking lot brawls. His right hook had knocked down soldiers. Big soldiers. And certainly it had left quite a mark on Jolene’s cheek.

What worried Dudge was the instant after the blow. Jolene had remained standing. And that wasn’t all. The stupid look had vanished, replaced with a grin of feral savagery. Fear had coursed through Dudge in that moment. Something inhuman lingered within Jolene. She could take him if she wished.

“He blocked the passageway,” Jolene said, the ship’s inhabitants listening with rapt attention to the first Thelan trial. “I should have run, I guess. Then he grabbed me. I panicked. I tried to run past him, to the stairs. That’s when he hit me. I don’t know what would’ve happened if Dudge hadn’t shown up. He took off fast when he saw him.”

“The man who attacked you,” the prosecuting attorney replied. “Would you please identify him again, Mrs. Nesbo?”

Jolene paused, then faced the defendant and pointed. “That’s the man,” she said, her lip quivering. “Major George.”

Perfect, Dudge thought. He suppressed a smile at his fellow Thelans’ grumblings. I’m going to be the next Darwin, Dudge decided with glee. Trashing Genesis had become old school. Dudge would expose the rest of the Pentateuch to international derision. After this excuse of a trial, historians would add a new name to the list of mankind’s greatest thinkers: Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud – and Dudge Nesbo!

He nearly uttered this out loud, was glad to catch himself in time. Too many people hovered within hearing distance. The vessel’s occupants packed the aft weather deck, there being no interior space sufficient to hold so large a crowd. In fact, other than a token presence in engineering and navigation, Dudge figured every Pertexpat resident had turned out. Billings himself, together with aides and two bodyguards, observed from a platform opposite the jury.

Standing room only, Dudge considered. Very impressive. But the real power of this circus lay in its live broadcast. Most of Bethel’s citizens, scattered across the Pacific, were certainly observing the legal proceedings by satellite feed. But they were not the audience that mattered. Every person in the world with internet access and a grudge against Christianity would be watching, waiting, looking for ammunition to use against the Bible.

It was going to be great. Neurotic fear of wrongful conviction enslaved American legal thought. Better a hundred guilty men go free, they said, than one innocent man be convicted. Being a criminal enabled Dudge to realize the idiocy of this American notion. But thankfully most Americans were idiots. Dudge and Jolene would secure the false conviction of Pertexpat’s sergeant-at-arms. Once the sentence was carried out, Dudge would hit the news circuit in Los Angeles, explaining how he and Jolene had concocted the whole thing. Bloodthirsty reporters, desperate for fresh anti-Bethel angles, would thrash about in a feeding frenzy. Dudge and his girlfriend would be labeled heroes for their brave exposure of Billings’ Kool-Aid kooks.

Dudge figured he could ruin four Biblical teachings in the process. Deuteronomy 19 commanded a matter be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. Dudge and Jolene’s combined testimony would result in the punishment of an innocent man, exposing the inadequacy of the “two or three witnesses” requirement. Deuteronomy 17 mandated genuinely public trials. Deuteronomy 25 insisted on corporal punishment. Americans found these notions horrifying enough all on their own, but combined with a wrongful conviction they would appear even worse. An innocent man’s reputation and honor would be forever ruined – again, a consequence of the folly of Old Testament civil law.

Finally, the Lex Talionis would be vilified. Dudge and his allied attorney had worked out the plan over a year ago (thank God Bethel did not distinguish between criminal and civil cases!). Serving as Jolene’s lawyer, Dudge’s friend would harp on the “eye for an eye” passage, knowing full well that Christians did not have the first clue how to interpret or defend the phrase. Bible-thumpers – so smugly self-righteous, so convinced of their superiority – unlike Dudge, they could not summarize the legal principle enshrined in the Lex Talionis, nor could they explain Jesus’ treatment of it.

Best of all, Christians felt utterly ashamed of Moses’ words. How wonderful that Evangelicals were so ignorant, so naïve, so comically insecure. Major George would get flogged on live TV, thereby granting Jolene her “eye for an eye.” Then the Fundamentalists would go apoplectic, falling over each other in their rush to attack the Lex Talionis and insist that they did not agree with it. The very people who claimed to uphold Biblical inerrancy would shed  buckets of sweat throttling Moses, spitting on him, grinding him into the dust. It would be marvelous to behold.

A juror suddenly raised her hand. To Dudge’s great confusion the judge acknowledged her. Through a translator she directed a question at Dudge: “Why were you walking so far behind your wife?”

The prosecutor (Jolene’s attorney and Dudge’s co-conspirator) objected. “Your Honor,” he insisted, “it is hardly appropriate for a juror to ask questions of a witness. Such is the responsibility of counsel.”

“Why?” the judge asked. “Is there any statutory law requiring jury silence during trial?”

“Well, no, Your Honor. But precedent…”

“This is not the United States,” the judge reminded the prosecutor, so recently brought by helicopter to represent Jolene at trial. “You familiarized yourself with the Code of Bethel in transit, did you not?”

“Of course, Your Honor. It’s just given the common law tradition…”

“A tradition of proceedings so boring that jurors fall asleep. You recommend we perpetuate such a system? An interactive trial makes more sense. Keeps everyone on their toes.”

Dudge traded glances with their lawyer. They had not given proper consideration to the fact that in Bethel, the captain (an elected position, go figure) served as mayor and judge. And what would a typical ocean-going captain be like, given his constant responsibility for crew survival and on-schedule delivery? Such leaders would tend to be pragmatists, more interested in common sense than in legal technicalities. A captain-judge would also, unfortunately, be thoroughly preoccupied with ship’s business, and thus determined to cut through the mindless hours of crap that consumed the American justice system.

“But jurors have no training,” the prosecutor insisted. “Their questions may not be relevant.”

“Are you suggesting jurors are too stupid to fulfill their civic duties?”

“Certainly not, Your Honor. But the resultant disorder…”

“Then you’re suggesting I can’t manage my courtroom? Is that it, Mr. Quinn?”

The prosecutor swallowed. “Objection withdrawn, Your Honor.”

“Good,” the judge said. “I believe Mr. Nesbo has been asked a question.”

“But Your Honor, we are hearing Mrs. Nesbo’s testimony. Mr. Nesbo has already testified.”

“Then let’s establish a Thelan precedent,” the judge explained. “Witnesses never ‘leave the stand.’ They remain subject to questioning until the trial is over.”

Dudge looked at Sean Billings, observed him nod to the judge ever so slightly. A cold wave of doubt broke across the bow of Dudge’s brain: he was not the only person who had conspired to make use of these proceedings.

Sun and wind forced Dudge to squint as he weighed the juror who had questioned him. She stared at him calmly, waiting. Dudge gave the entire jury a quick evaluation, realized they were intelligent, focused, very much in the game. So unlike an American jury. Most were taking notes on electronic tablets. Two were videotaping.

Dudge’s physical proximity to the jury seemed a double-edged sword. He could read their body language, guess how to play them. But closeness meant the jurors could observe Dudge’s expressions as well. And they seemed to be paying him entirely too much attention. Jolene stood at the witness position. Hers was the central testimony: the words of the actual victim. Why, then, did the jurors keep looking at him?

The question he had been asked disturbed Dudge. Did married people exercise mannerisms he had never consciously noticed? Did husbands accompany their wives? Testimony placed Jolene walking alone in a corridor when she had been attacked, with Dudge stumbling upon the confrontation moments after she had been struck by George. But why had husband and wife been apart? Why had he gone after her? They had not settled on this part of their story. Had Jolene been asked this question in deposition? What if his answer contradicted hers? He was afraid to invent a lie on the spur of the moment.

“I don’t know,” Dudge finally answered.

“Really?” the juror asked. “It was only two days ago. It can’t be that hard to remember. Where were you going when you found your wife and Major George?”

Such a simple question, Dudge thought. Why hadn’t he thought of it in advance? Why hadn’t the police asked him yesterday?

“Your Honor,” the prosecutor interrupted, “we see now why Bethel’s ‘Two Nights’ policy is impractical. Victims need time to organize their thoughts and recover from trauma. Counsel needs more time to conduct an investigation and prepare its case. Given the court’s desire to establish precedent, I move that we recess until a later date. This will permit the setting aside of the Two Nights statute, at least in felony cases.”

“On the contrary,” the judge said, “we are encountering the very reason for the law in question. The trial begins within two nights of the offense so that witnesses’ memories are still fresh, and so that those who would lie do not have sufficient time to build a coherent alternate account of events. The witness will answer the question.”

“I  don’t know,” Dudge said again, realizing he was making the jurors question his credibility. But he was even more afraid of contradicting Jolene’s pre-trial deposition. He had not been present yesterday when she had given her official statement under oath. To his horror Dudge suddenly remembered that copies of all pre-trial discovery materials had been handed to the jurors in advance. So different than America. The jury had read Jolene’s statement before the trial had even started! They knew more than Dudge did.

Dudge realized now why the two of them had been sequestered upon reporting the offense: the “witnesses” were not to collaborate. They had not even been permitted to talk with the prosecutor until the morning of the trial. But why should this matter? A victim needed no “witness preparation” – not, at least, if she were telling the truth.

Major George had been allowed an attorney from the moment of his arrest, Dudge noted, deeply annoyed. But then George was the defendant. It occurred to Dudge that perjury might be harder work than he had imagined. And this legal system seemed strangely designed to expose false testimony. As if the testimony of witnesses was what mattered most.

Another juror raised his hand. “I want the forensic evidence,” he said.

“Yes,” Jolene’s lawyer replied. “The prosecution calls Lieutenant Nate Smith.”

The court swore in the police detective who had led the investigation. Photographs taken by the man were projected before the jury. “The imprint of a fist is visible in this blow-up of the victim’s face,” Smith explained. “There is evidence of a ring worn on the right middle-finger of the assailant’s hand.”

Dudge held back his satisfaction at this touch. The ring on Major George’s hand was distinctive. It had been an easy matter to find jewelry of similar shape and use it when striking Jolene. Such a gesture would have been useless in the United States, of course, for the obvious reason now brought up by defense counsel.

“Did you perform DNA tests on the victim’s face?” George’s lawyer asked, “or on the defendant’s hand and ring? Do you have any physical proof that it was the defendant’s hand that struck the victim?”

Lieutenant Smith hesitated for a moment, then declared: “Bethel does not yet possess the means to conduct DNA testing. The hand and ring in the photograph, however, do match the sizes of those belonging to the defendant.”

“But is there not a margin of error in such measurements?” defense counsel asked.

“Yes,” Officer Smith acknowledged.

“So while the sizes of hand and ring revealed in the pictures do not rule out the defendant, the measurements are not precise enough to prove that the defendant struck the victim?”

“That is correct,” Smith said.

Dudge fell back into gloating. This was why they had chosen Major George. As near as she could tell without using an actual tape measure, Jolene had determined that the sergeant-at-arms and her “husband” possessed hands of identical size. Thus the entire situation yielded something of a bonus prize. Even if they ended up losing the case, the trial still exposed Bethel’s lack of a police force capable of the forensic science now routine in all modern countries. Open message to the criminals of the world: Bethel was fair game.

Once again a juror raised his hand. “Were pictures taken of Mr. Nesbo’s hand?”

“Objection, Your Honor,” the prosecutor declared. “Mr. Nesbo is not on trial here, and the implication that he may have struck his wife is highly offensive.”

“Prosecuting counsel needs to work on his reading skills,” the judge replied. “In Bethel courts, the witnesses are considered to be on trial as well as the defendant. Lieutenant Smith, did you take pictures of Mr. Nesbo’s hand?”

“No, Your Honor.”

“Well, hop over there and take a few.”

“Objection, Your Honor!” Jolene’s attorney cried out. “This is hardly the time and place for police to engage in investigative work!”

“Why not?” the judge-captain replied. “Time is money. We’ve all got work to do. Why should he take his pictures in a week and bring them to court in a month when the task can be completed to the jury’s satisfaction in the next two minutes?”

The prosecutor grabbed onto this and made his biggest mistake of all. “How can the court know of the jury’s satisfaction?”

“Hmm,” the judge pondered. “Good question. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, give us a vote. All those in favor of having Lieutenant Smith photograph Mr. Nesbo and present the findings without delay, raise your hand.” The judge counted, nodded. “Lieutenant Smith, you may proceed.”

Dudge stood numbly as the police officer photographed his right hand from a variety of angles. He scarcely heard as the Lieutenant announced that Mr. Nesbo’s hand also matched the size parameters of the one that had struck Mrs. Nesbo.

His insides boiled. It was all so unfair, so ridiculous, so…un-American. Trials were supposed to be boring, long-winded ordeals preoccupied with minutia. This absurd focus on immediacy, on practicality, on common sense. He hated it. He hated it. He had to destroy it.

He tried to think of a new plan while Major George took his turn testifying. It was still two witnesses against one, Dudge reminded himself. The testimony of two or three witnesses, that’s what the Bible said. How could they lose?

The defense attorney asked to present character witnesses on behalf of Major George. Jolene’s lawyer objected.

“This trial centers on the truthfulness of sworn testimony,” defense counsel argued. “Obviously, either Major George is lying or Mr. and Mrs. Nesbo are lying. The jury should be given evidence to help them decide who is doing the lying, and who is telling the truth.”

Dudge was no longer surprised that the judge granted the defense request. He stood listening as Major George’s life was laid out: 27 years of marriage, four baptized children, ten baptized grandchildren. 22 years service in Her Majesty’s Special Air Service. Battlefield commendations from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Medals and promotions. Membership and regular attendance at a series of Evangelical churches. Ordination as an elder in the church. Service on the ruling bodies of several churches.

What really began to get Dudge worried, however, was the pile of documentation presented by the defense. Letters of recommendation from pastors and fellow soldiers. Battlefield reports declaring how George had remained calm under heavy enemy fire. Testimonies to how he had resisted the constant temptation to lash out against Afghan civilians. Certificates of appreciation from churches. Paperwork from marriage conferences and Bible studies. Worst of all, thirty years tax returns combined with church-offering receipts. The man had tithed without ceasing for three decades – and had the evidence to prove it.

“Major George is a covenant-keeper,” the defense attorney concluded. “Through a life of faithful service to God, church, family, and country, he demonstrates that his testimony should be taken seriously. Indeed, this is one of the chief benefits of a godly life. When slandered by the wicked, the righteous man is given the benefit of the doubt. This stack should incline you to believe Major George’s testimony. He did not harm Mrs. Nesbo; indeed, he is not the sort of man who would ever harm an innocent person.”

The lawyer paused, then turned to face Dudge. “The paperwork of the accusing couple, however,” he noted, “deserves attention of a different sort.”

Dudge turned toward the jury, tried not to avert his eyes. What sort of documentation had been delivered to them before the trial? How much did they already know? The marriage certificate he and Jolene had used…it had been forged, of course. If only they had gotten a Vegas wedding! Then there was the record of church membership listed on their Bethel citizenship application. Why hadn’t it occurred to Dudge that someone might call those churches and ask pastors if they actually knew Dudge and Jolene? And his convictions in California and New Mexico. Weren’t they a matter of public record?

His lawyer was a fool! He must have known what evidence had been handed to the jury. Why hadn’t he realized then and there that the case was unwinnable? American attorney. That was the problem. He hadn’t read the Code of Bethel. At least, he hadn’t really believed the Thelans would follow it. Just words on a page. No one would dare attempt running such a legal system.

The prosecutor made to speak. Dudge interrupted him. “We withdraw the charges, Your Honor.”

The judge turned to Jolene. “Is that your wish, Mrs. Nesbo? Are you withdrawing the charges against Major George?”

She looked at Dudge, confused. But she nodded dutifully when he made it clear what she should do.

“Then the charges against Major Clive George are hereby dismissed,” the judge pronounced. “The accusers will pay court costs and Major George’s legal fees. The accusers will also offer Major George a public apology. Immediately. Major George, you must decide by next port whether to press slander and perjury charges.”

Dudge opened his mouth, choked back his protest. He had enough sense to realize anything he said would only make things worse.

A bailiff led Dudge and Jolene to a position facing Major George. They stood there silent for a moment, avoiding the stare of the man whose reputation they had tried so hard to destroy. Dudge became painfully aware, not just of the ship population gazing at him, but of the millions of people who would soon watch Dudge and Jolene’s “apology” on YouTube.

This country, Dudge decided, is hell.

Jack

Jack forced a smile and pronounced the benediction. Only two new people. And both of them white. Jack wasn’t sure whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. He didn’t really want minorities swarming into his quarters. But then, most of Pertexpat’s inhabitants were minorities. How could Jack start a church without including at least some of them?

The language barrier had proved more difficult than anticipated. During the last six days Jack had talked to just about every person on board, explaining the shortcomings of Reverend Yu and his worship service. Such thorough, unassailable reasoning. No one had been able to offer a decent response. But then again, how many people had actually understood Jack’s arguments? English served as a second or even third language for the majority of those living on Pertexpat. The finer points of ecclesiology and liturgical practice seemed lost upon them.

Jack’s frustration at Thelan linguistic incompetence threatened to choke him. They should be forced to learn English so Jack could snag them for himself. What did they expect – that he learn their languages? That would take fifteen years! Much more practical for the foreigners to acquire English. At least everyone had been required to speak English during the trial.

The trial. Why had they spent so much time discussing Jolene Nesbo’s face? Slander had been the real issue. It was obvious they’d concocted the whole story, probably to hide the fact that Mr. Nesbo beat his wife. Why couldn’t anyone see it? Jack could see it. He had made the failure of Bethel’s first trial the centerpiece of his sermon. Scumbags should not be allowed to malign a shipmate’s good name. Pertexpat had to jettison this silly idea of the captain serving as judge. If Reverend Star had overseen the trial, he would have provided real justice for poor Major George.

Jack led his eleven followers (eleven was better than nine, he reminded himself) to the galley for lunch. There he was forced to deal with the same petite server whose very existence had become a thorn in his flesh. The “Hindu Hussy” he had silently named her. She smiled and scooped two depressingly familiar mounds onto his plate.

The group sat in a corner, distancing themselves from those who had attended the “official” service led by Yu. Jack found himself unable to serve roast pastor (he couldn’t very well attack his own sermon, and he hadn’t had a chance to listen to Yu’s yet). Jack settled instead upon the hardships dominating Pertexpat’s run.

“The saltwater showers are a weariness,” he declared. “You can’t get a decent lather. You still feel sticky when you’re done. And the cabin’s so hot, what’s the point of bathing anyway? You’re soaked with sweat as soon as you’re finished.” He picked up a spoon and dug into his lunch. “And always, always the same. Fish and rice. Fish and rice. Fish and rice. You can’t even tell what kind of fish it is.”

“You’re offering to helicopter fresh food to Pertexpat?” a voice asked loudly from behind.

Jack turned, found the Hindu Hussy hovering above him, ladle still in hand.

“How about new condenser for water plant? Compressor for AC? Anything?”

Jack became painfully aware of the galley’s silence. Everyone had stopped to witness the confrontation. Jack opened his mouth, but what could he say? He did not have the money to transport supplies or equipment to their vessel, not so far from land. But he knew someone who did.

“Billings could do it,” he declared.

“Yes,” the woman allowed. “He certainly could. But he doesn’t. Can you tell me why, Mr. Star?”

Reverend Star, Jack almost said. He glanced from face to face, ninety people, full capacity. They were judging him. Judging him! What had he done to earn such looks of disapproval? It was always the same, he lamented. Everywhere he went. Unappreciated.

He stood up and thrust his tray into the impudent woman’s hands. Keep the paste, he thought as he headed for the nearest hatchway. I hope you choke on it.

Abraham

“The spotters have been flying in and out of LAX for a month,” Abraham said as he opened a computer for Mohamed, “familiarizing themselves with the layout of the terminals. The airport’s square shape helps. That is our kill-box,” he emphasized, using Google Earth to highlight the borders of Los Angeles International Airport. “A shell landing anywhere within this area will almost certainly cause significant damage.”

“But we’re after the airframes,” Mohamed commented, “not the buildings.”

“Correct. If our impact zone were soft ground, simple fuses would be a bad choice. Given the hardness of the tarmac, however, contact-detonation is exactly what we want. The concrete will produce a greater shrapnel radius than usual for this caliber.”

“Aviation fuel has a high flash-point,” Abraham’s student observed. “We won’t really get good explosions.”

“I realize that. Our goal is not to blow up the airplanes. Our goal is simply to set them on fire. Our attack won’t have a ‘Hollywood Look’ to it, which does seem regrettable given the location. Despite the lack of impressive explosions, however, we can still count on a significant number of targets being destroyed.”

Mohamed moved the mouse and zoomed in on a runway. “These planes will be full of passengers,” he lamented. “They stack up so deep this time of day. Hit three and we can kill a thousand people.”

“And waste most of our ammunition in the process,” Abraham objected. “We must resist the temptation to go after a big body count. Once we start firing, every plane at the airport will empty quickly. Crowds will head underground. Cars will be abandoned. Hopefully we’ll get lucky in the first minute and strike a full plane or two near the gates.

“But keep the overall objective in mind: we seek to destroy the airport as a functioning transportation hub. We march our shells through the entire kill box, focusing on the sections of tarmac where planes are parked. Fifty wrecked airframes. That is the numerical goal. Combine that with incidental damage to the terminals and roads, and LAX will be crippled for months. The resultant economic disruption should cast the entire Los Angeles region into recession. Other airports will be forced to adopt new security measures, wrecking their profitability as well.”

Mohamed looked dubious.

“Have you learned nothing I’ve taught you?” Abraham lamented. “Americans worship money. Kill a thousand people and why should they care? Depress market capitalizations so badly that suburbanites have to delay retirement – now that gets them where it hurts. You should think of us as holy thieves, Mohamed, not holy warriors. Every round we shoot strips value from millions of investment portfolios.”

“We will turn the gun on the city,” Mohamed reminded him.

“Yes,” Abraham granted. “The law of diminishing returns dictates that the more we hit the airport, the less damage each subsequent round is likely to cause. Thus it seems prudent to deliver the last fifty or so shells in the general direction of downtown. But remember that our maximum range is only eleven kilometers. From Ingleside that’s not far enough to reach the tallest buildings. And we won’t have spotters in the city. Everyone’s committed to the main attack.”

Abraham clicked on the artillery practice software and got ready to run Mohamed through a fresh set of drills. Certainly not the same as loading a real gun and setting it off, but these simulations captured the main idea: Mohamed and his team would have to adjust fire based on cell-phone conversations.

Pretending to be one of their forward observers in the LAX terminal, Abraham spoke a set of coordinates into his Bluetooth. Mohamed dutifully typed the numbers and pressed “Enter.” A few seconds later the computer screen showed the first round falling short, damaging a section of terminal roofing. Abraham called out a new range. Mohamed adjusted the gun’s angle, hit “Enter” again. The next shell exploded on a runway in the distance, damaging nothing.

But the spotting rounds had succeeded in bracketing their target, a United 737 that had just begun pulling away from its gate. Sluggish, loaded with fuel, every seat crammed for the 2:00 PM flight. An aluminum death-trap.

Abraham studied the screen data, pondered the enthusiastic grin on Mohamed’s face. So willing to kill for Allah, he sighed. Then he barked a fresh order to his imaginary gun crew: “Drop one hundred meters and fire for effect.”

Sean

Chief of Staff Rebecca Billings, Government Spokeswoman Megumi Abigail Uehara, Secretary of State Pastor Ching Yu, and Ministers of Science Jonathan Cheung and Grame Hudson joined the President of Bethel on Pertexpat’s lookout platform, the interior of the ship having become unlivable due to the ongoing lack of ventilation.

“You should kick them off the ship,” Jonathan recommended as soon as the cabinet meeting came to order. “Everyone can tell they made it up. It makes us look stupid, like we can’t recognize perjury when we hear it.”

Sean remained silent, preferring to let his aides figure out the matter for themselves.

“I thought we did background checks,” Grame said. “Their citizenship applications should have sent up lots of red flags.”

“You let them on deliberately,” Rebecca declared suddenly. “You knew they were trouble. That’s why you let them on. You were hoping they’d commit crimes!”

Sean smiled, pleased that this sister had gotten it first. “Show, don’t tell,” he said. “We can defend our laws till we’re blue in the face. No one will listen. But show the Code at work. Let people see an actual trial. That’s a different matter. Before the first live prosecution our enemies could caricature our legal system at will, creating straw-man versions unbelievers would be all too willing to embrace. Essential, then, to conduct a real trial as soon as possible. We’ve ripped the rug out from under everyone who’s been misrepresenting us. Praise God for YouTube.”

“But they’ve served their purpose,” Jonathan protested. “Why keep them on?”

“You’re hoping for more, aren’t you?” Rebecca suggested.

“It’s a dangerous game,” Grame said. “What if this Nesbo guy hurts someone?”

“It’s risky,” Sean allowed, “but we have to look at the big picture. Until someone actually gets punished, our Code is just words. No one will take it seriously. The sooner we carry out the law’s sanctions, the sooner criminals get the message that Bethel is different.”

“I thought you didn’t want people taking us seriously,” Abby said.

Sean paused. “Remember what I mean by that. I mean it is essential that the U.S. Government not feel threatened by us, that they have no desire to snuff us out. We want criminals, on the other hand, to take us very seriously. Our country is meant to be the safest place on earth to raise a family and save money.”

“What about Jack Star?” Abby asked, shifting topics. “His words are poison.”

“I let him on for the same reason,” Sean said. “He enables us to highlight the ‘Next Port’ laws. Plus he’ll draw out any other Americans with agendas or bad attitudes. He winnows the chaff.”

“What if his complaints infect the whole ship?” Grame asks.

“Do you think they will?” Sean asked. “The majority aboard Pertexpat speak limited English. How can Star’s grumblings really sink into their minds and grow there? Besides, compared to where they came from, this ship is hardly a step down in standard of living. They never had air conditioning before. They never had this much protein, even with the freezers broken. And they were never free.”

“I still think we should boot him,” Jonathan said.

“Just give him a little time,” Sean said. “As wolves in sheep’s clothing go, the guy is pure amateur. You think I’m ignoring him. I’m really feeding him enough rope to hang himself.”

“Solving our internal problems won’t open the West Coast,” Abby reminded them. “We’ve got four ships less than three days out from U.S. territorial waters. I get no hint from our people in D.C. that they’re even thinking about lifting the embargo.”

“Do you know what ‘just-in-time delivery’ is, Uehara-san?” Pastor Yu asked.

Everyone turned to look at Pastor Yu. He had been so quiet, they had almost forgotten his presence.

“Yes,” Abby said. “Thanks to computerized tracking programs, factories no longer keep surplus parts on hand. The materials they need are delivered just-in-time, meaning right as they are needed. This saves money because the factory does not have to maintain an on-site inventory of components or raw materials.”

“Which means,” Sean explained, “if our ships are delayed from offloading, even by a single day, factories will have to shut down.”

“That’s assuming we’re carrying critical components,” Abby said. “What if those vessels are full of toys?”

“Let’s say,” Yu continued, “that the ships currently approaching U.S. ports contain a disproportionately large percentage of automobile parts.”

Abby fixed her attention on Sean. “You planned this, too,” she said.

“Of course,” Sean said.

“Today I begin contacting the CEO’s of manufacturing plants,” Yu said, “explaining to them the consequences of the embargo. Then I will be calling the relevant representatives and senators, listing the numbers of workers in their districts and states who are about to be laid off. And we’ll helicopter reporters to the ships being denied dock, open the containers, show the components destined for American factories.

“It will make a good story,” Yu continued. “A ship’s captain will hold a fuel injector before the camera, explain how the part is destined for an assembly plant in Ohio. Then the program can cut to footage of the line in Ohio that is about to shut down, complete with sound bites from workers unhappy at the thought of being forced out of work. We have a lot of Ohio-destined cargo.”

“The most important swing-state,” Jonathan noted. But then he added, “It won’t be enough.”

“The core fact,” Sean said, “the central truth that gives us hope, is that at the end of the day, no one in America cares who ships their products across the Pacific. Those factory workers in Ohio do not care. No one cares. That means there is no real strength behind this embargo, no true body of animosity against Bethel.”

“Then why did Washington declare the embargo in the first place?” Grame asked. He was Australian; American politics made no sense to him.

Sean sighed. “I don’t really understand it myself,” he admitted. “Or I should say, nearly all of our enemies are a mystery to me. Especially the Christians. Some of the nastiest comments have been spoken by believers, after all. But there is one little slice of our opponents, just a fraction of a percent, that I do understand. They are the most dangerous, because they are the only ones who really perceive the long-term threat we pose to America. They are the ones who understand that in the end, Bethel is all about inheritance.”

“The United States will always be much larger than Bethel,” Yu explained. “Despite our size, however, the time may come when we inherit America’s status as the best country on earth, the nation with the greatest degree of freedom and opportunity. As kids say, Bethel might one day become the coolest nation. Certainly this is our goal. We are not aiming low.

“Such inheritance of ‘coolest nation status’ has happened before. Although England still exists, the United States eventually claimed her position of preeminence. And there are a few, a precious, dangerous few, who realize that this is what Bethel is really trying to do: we are trying to inherit America’s mantle, to become the new America in the minds and hearts of the peoples of the world.”

“These enemies who truly get it,” Sean said, “they are the ones driving the embargo. But there are only a handful of them. They don’t get along with each other, and most importantly for our immediate needs, they can’t clearly articulate their opposition to the bulk of their allies. Or to be more precise, although they think covenantally, they are incapable of teaching others to do the same.

“So these elite enemies, the ones who really get it, they have to use other reasons when gathering support. Bethel is oppressive, they say. It denies religious freedom, it supports the monstrous Old Testament Law, it steals patented ideas, it allows people to escape their tax obligations.

“But when all is done and said, most people simply do not care. They do not care about what we’re trying to do. They do not care about the future. In fact, they are actually quite annoyed at David and those others who do make a big deal about us. From most people’s perspective, as long as we keep delivering X-Boxes and iPods, as long as we keep the factories running, as long as we mind our own business, all is right with the world.”

Jonathan shook his head. “So you say. Yet we are under embargo.”

“An embargo,” Yu said, “that most of its alleged supporters are looking for an excuse to lift. We just have to give them that excuse. Something that will get the majority to drop their opposition. Something that convinces them we are lightweights.”

Lyrics of an old song came to Sean’s mind: Here we are now, entertain us. The City on a Sea had caught America’s attention for the moment, a state of affairs Sean did not want. But the First Father realized he could turn this weakness into strength. He could use the attention to get Americans to stop paying attention.

Sean knew how to do it. He had to succeed in entertaining America. He had to give the huddling masses yearning for amusement a live reality show, one capped with a unique climax never seen before, not even on cable. Entertain them properly and Americans would dump Bethel in the MTV category: harmless and irrelevant. No reason to continue the embargo. Change the channel.

Dudge

The whip stripped a fresh line of skin from Dudge’s back. This time he could not help it: he screamed in pain and collapsed to his knees. He yearned to look away from the cameras, but the lenses drew his eyes like a ring of power: haunting, irresistible, the combined attentions of CNN and FOX. How he longed to keep the one and banish the other. Liberals had a divine claim upon the media. No one else had a right to tell his story. FOX was an abomination, an unclean thing any fair country would banish into oblivion.

Corporal Johnson raised the whip again. Dudge dragged himself to his feet, grabbed the fishnet with cracked and bleeding hands. He had never worked so hard in his life, had never really known what hard work was. Unnatural, inhuman, mindless labor. Pulling and cleaning, casting and trawling. How could anyone be expected to endure it?

Senseless. Perhaps that’s why Jolene kept at it so well. The girl showed no sign of slowing down. She didn’t even seem to mind. Certainly no lashes had struck her precious back. It was all so wrong. So utterly, utterly wrong. At least the world watched. They saw his humiliation at the hands of these barbaric “Christians.”

“Hypocrites!” Dudge spat, laboring to haul aboard the net’s fresh load. “Love your enemy. Turn the other cheek. Do not judge. Look at them!” he shouted. “They preach one thing and practice another. Hypocrites. Barbarians. Medieval morons!”

The cameras stayed in his face, capturing every word. Dudge rejoiced at the freedom of the press, yet it concerned him, too. Americans would watch the footage, no doubt about that. But would all of them be repulsed by it? The CNN reporter and his cameraman were eating it up. Dudge knew the liberals would spin it marvelously. But what about the really smart viewers? Would they connect the dots? Would they realize the implications of Bethel allowing Dudge’s punishment to be broadcast live and unedited?

Then there was the background. Dudge and Jolene did not work alone; thirty-four other Pertexpat residents labored at the nets, trying to replace the food ruined by the freezer sabotage. Even Billings and his spokeswoman, the Japanese girl, were taking their daily turn at the chore. Despite the brutal sun and their aching muscles, no one besides Dudge complained. None of the people needed whipping to motivate them. In fact, many even sang as they toiled. “Dim-witted, clueless Bible-freaks!” Dudge shouted. “Too dumb to realize they’re slaves trapped in a cult.”

Dudge figured CNN would use only close-ups, lest Billings get such incredible free press before America’s working class. Liberal editors could be counted on to dub out the singing as well. Curse FOX! They would broadcast it all. Billings had taken his turn on the nets every day, but he had made no attempt to get the media to video him at the job. Now, with the sudden interest in Dudge’s punishment, Billings’ willingness to work with his hands was getting displayed to the world. It wasn’t fair!

“Restitution,” Sean Billings said for all inclined to hear. “Prisons are an unjust form of punishment. They steal the lives of criminals. They steal from taxpayers, who are forced to pay for the imprisonment. Bethel has no prisons. And in Bethel crimes are not usually conceived as having been committed against the state. Criminals do not owe a debt to society. They owe a debt to their victims. It is to the victim that restitution must be paid.”

He’s using me as a visual aide! Dudge realized. The whole horrible scene would be on YouTube within the hour: Dudge working to pay Major George’s legal fees, Billings laboring at the same task while explaining the superiority of Biblical law, and Corporal Johnson hovering over it all, making sure that Dudge and Jolene fulfilled the court’s mandate.

Despite losing the trial, Dudge at first had come away happy with the restitution verdict. His overall goal was to humiliate Bethel, after all, and he had thought the trial’s outcome would suit his purposes nicely. One of the central tenets of the Bethel Code was that witnesses had to “cast the first stone.” But his offense was not capital in nature. Thus there was no way for the witnesses to enforce the sentence.

According to the Bible, convicted criminals unable to pay restitution were to be sold into slavery to pay the debt. This law was among the top five or so that most embarrassed Christians. Dudge figured that no matter how it played out after the trial, Moses’ slavery laws would be proclaimed openly to the world. Dudge would still get his pile of revolted Fundamentalists falling over backwards in their desperation to attack the Bible. How, then, had he ended up here, a white man whipped by a black man on international television?

To Dudge’s fresh horror, Billings seemed to be reading his mind. Bethel’s president explained everything to the cameras.

“As a rule,” Billings elaborated, even as he rejected a smallish fish and threw it back into the sea, “Bethel courts cannot carry out punishments on their own. This is a very important principle. Witnesses must ‘cast the first stone,’ then the members of the jury, and finally all of a vessel’s remaining citizens. If people refuse to carry out the sentence, the court cannot use a paid executioner to enforce its will. This provides an absolutely critical check on the government’s power. Citizens can smell a rat. They can tell when a judge has been bribed.

“The exception is when the court itself is the victim. If the crime is committed against the court’s honor, then the court can punish a criminal directly.

“Contempt of court is such a crime. So is refusing to submit to the court’s will. This means that in denying restitution to Major George, Mr. Nesbo committed a second crime, this one against the court itself. Therefore he has been symbolically ‘sold into slavery,’ meaning put under the state’s direct authority and forced by the state to do its will. The ‘master,’ represented by the police officer you see here, whips the ‘slave’ into obedience.

“But ever the central concern remains full restoration for the victim. Defending oneself in a trial is a very expensive undertaking. The court is ensuring Mr. Nesbo does sufficient work to pay every dollar of legal expense incurred by Major George. And as for the public nature of this slavery,” Billings added, looking directly at the TV cameras, “Mr. Nesbo should have thought of that before slandering the good name of one of his betters.”

I’m going to kill him, Dudge decided, wincing with fresh pain as ocean spray dribbled down his back. He imagined the millions of people who were no doubt feeling incalculable moral outrage at Billings’ words and deeds. They would agree wholeheartedly with Dudge: Bethel was a sickening monstrosity worthy of summary destruction. The Founder of this hell deserved punishment, not Dudge Nesbo.

Kill Billings, and the nations of the earth would declare Dudge a hero. He’d never have to work again.

Jack

“If a man shall not work, neither shall he eat.”

Jack stared blankly at the Hindu Hussy, shocked past incredulity that she dared speak such words to his face. He continued holding his tray before her, certain that he could shame the little brat into serving him dinner. She refused to be stared down, however. More importantly, she refused to scoop any food onto his plate. “I paid my room and board,” Jack finally objected.

“We all paid room and board,” she replied. “Lease require extra work in event of emergency. Three ship systems down. What have you done to help?”

Jack opened his mouth, suppressed the surge of insults threatening to burst out. He became aware of the all-too-familiar hush. Dozens were listening to this latest altercation. “It would not be right for me to neglect the Word of God in order to wait on tables,” the Reverend Star finally explained, as though to a child.

“That all well and good,” the server said. “Pertexpat not a church. Pertexpat a town. Paul make tents. Where are your tents?”

It occurred to Jack that his normal habit of moving from church to church granted a great benefit: a woman never got on your nerves so badly that you wanted to smack her in the face. But here on this cursed ship, a man couldn’t get away. He couldn’t leave. Day after day, meal after meal, the blasted Hindu Hussy waited.

What could he do? Pertexpat had one galley. The need to eat chained him to the horrible reality of dealing with the same people three times a day, every day. No escape. No peace. No chance to live one’s own life. It was so…un-American.

“I’ll…report to the purser after dinner,” Jack finally said. There, he thought. That ought to make her happy.

The Hussy gave him a big smile. But she didn’t give him any food. “A man’s hunger works for him,” she quoted.

Jack slammed his tray on the counter and hurried from the galley. Mrs. Quan couldn’t be that hard to find. It took the Reverend less than five minutes to discover her laboring with nine others at a set of makeshift hand pumps. He gagged at the thought of taking orders from Mrs. Quan, but what choice did he have? Soon he too was struggling to force fresh air through a set of hoses down into the engineering room.

Within an hour Jack’s hands were badly blistered, but Mrs. Quan showed no sign of quitting, or of letting him quit. Jack cursed Dudge Nesbo. Most people figured he was the one who had sabotaged the air conditioning. Certainly he was the only man who seemed to be carrying around some sort of anti-Bethel grudge.

Why didn’t Pertexpat possess better forensic science equipment? An American police department would have been able to identify the saboteur with little difficulty. Nesbo had taken advantage of Bethel’s incompetence. He had exposed it to the world.

The repetitive pumping action made Jack’s arms and back scream for relief. Mrs. Quan pressed on. What was this lady’s problem? Star never bothered considering that the men in the engine room were suffering far worse due to the lack of air conditioning. Neither did he reflect on the fact that he had done nothing but complain about the fish and rice; why, then, should he be so bent out of shape at suddenly not receiving a serving of it? Most unfortunately, however, it never once occurred to the good Reverend that he was a fool.

Look at the condition of this ship, Jack thought. Billings is an idiot to have allowed that criminal on board. Pathetic, really. Total lack of spiritual discernment. Next Sabbath Jack would have to preach on keeping wolves in sheep’s clothing away from the flock.

The other people working the pumps were content to chatter away in what Jack guessed to be Korean and Filipino. A few times he considered starting a conversation, but what was the use? No one’s English was good enough to discuss important matters, the stuff that really needed to be talked about.

After two torturous hours the purser let Jack stop. At last, he thought. He was starving. Hopefully a bit of dinner was still to be found somewhere in the galley. He turned to leave, but Mrs. Quan stopped him. “Next job,” she said.

“Huh?” Jack asked, confused. He had done his share.

“Distillation system, two hours. Fishing, six hours.”

“But dinner…” he objected.

“Breakfast at six,” she said, smiling as she continued to pump.

Jack stumbled away, stunned at the realization he would have to work all night before his next meal. Before he would be allowed to have his next meal.

This country, he decided, is hell.

Abraham

“To most Americans,” Abraham said, “half-life is a computer game.” He produced the stainless-steel thermos, most of it filled with lead save the tiniest inner space. That precious chamber held the crown jewel of their attack plan: fifteen grams of radioactive iodine stolen from Manila Hospital.

“We use a paintbrush,” he continued, “and coat each shell with just a hint, just the slightest little tincture.”

“It won’t actually hurt anybody,” Mohamed stated.

“But it will,” Abraham insisted. “It will hurt because they’re so utterly, amazingly stupid. The word ‘radiation’ is magical to them. They don’t know the difference between alpha, beta, or gamma. Exponential functions mean nothing. Say the word ‘radiation’ and they freak out. In the common mind, the entire airport will be contaminated with radioactive fallout.”

“No, it won’t,” Mohamed continued. “This isn’t enough to pollute a significant area. Plus it’ll decay so quickly there won’t be any left in a year.”

“Consider everything you just said there. The level of physics understanding you obviously possess. Don’t you get it that at most five percent of Americans would have the slightest clue what you’re talking about? The rest will consider ours to be a ‘nuclear’ attack. Yes, they’ll actually use that word. This iodine, my friend, this is what turns Osama into a has-been. Our attack will leave 9/11 in the dust.”

Abraham let Mohamed shake the thermos. They listened to the magic liquid splash within. Amazing that such a tiny amount of something could accomplish so much.

“The iodine also helps with PR,” Abraham explained. “The response teams will quickly detect the presence of radioactive contamination. They will try to conceal this information from the public. Simultaneously, many groups throughout the world will take credit for our attack.

“But we will be the only ones with inside information. We will declare openly to the press, not just our responsibility for the attack, but also our use of this isotope. We will specify where the material came from. This will legitimize our claim. It will also make the U.S. government look bad, as we will have disclosed vital information withheld by them.

“The appearance of a cover-up will make people assume the radiation is far worse than it actually is. No one will believe assurances that the site has not been significantly compromised. The final beauty, Mohamed. The American government’s initial response, their panicked secrecy and hesitation in those opening hours – that is what gives our attack genuine long-term influence. LAX will forever be known as the glow-in-the-dark airport.”

Sean

“How did he win?” Sean asked, anger and guilt warring for mastery of his heart.

“It was her,” Abby explained as a nurse irrigated another cut. Eighty-five stitches and counting. “She’s an animal. After I put him down she fought like a lioness defending her cub. I destroyed an elbow and a knee. Full compound fractures. Either would be considered incapacitating. I mean true fight-ending body-droppers. But she kept wailing away. Biting, scratching, smashing her head into me, into the floor, into everything. Like she didn’t even see me. I swear she’s possessed.”

Sean studied Megumi’s frame. Every part of her showed evidence of a horrific, close-quarters struggle. Cuts, bruises, lost hair and fingernails, missing teeth. But no breaks. And the knife wounds were superficial. That was easy for him to say, though. He wasn’t the one bleeding all over the infirmary.

Bethel’s founder considered Abby’s attackers, sedated and awaiting treatment just two curtains away. The same doctor working on Megumi’s face would shortly have to operate on the people who had cut her up. How could he do it? Especially right after administering a rape kit to their victim.

“Did he…?” Sean asked.

“He did,” Abby declared.

Sean ached with pride. Most Asian women would have acted ashamed, as though they had done something wrong. Many would have avoided the medical exam, would have been unwilling to press charges. But Sean’s spokeswoman refused to look down. She refused to avert her eyes. There was nothing for her to be ashamed of. She was not the law-breaker.

“It’s my fault, Megumi,” Sean declared, kneeling beside her bed. “Forgive me. I knew they were likely to commit another crime.  That’s why I let them stay. I thought I was a prophet. I thought I could predict their actions. I’m a fool.”

Megumi shivered in her hospital gown. She waited several second before replying. “You’re not the one who attacked me,” she said finally.

“But you know the worst of it, Abby, even if others don’t. I let them on because I wanted crimes committed as soon as possible, just so we could show the world how we would punish crimes. I wanted the law broken. That’s exactly what I got. But you ending up being the victim.”

“It was your name he cursed,” Abby said. “I think it was his way of getting at you.”

The physician began examining the inside of Megumi’s mouth, cutting off conversation for a minute. “You need serious dental reconstruction,” the doctor finally concluded, “which I can’t do. Even if we helicopter in the right personnel, Pertexpat lacks an oral surgery suite. It makes more sense to evac you to Sydney or Singapore.”

“Which I will pay for,” Sean informed her. “Money is no object. We’ll get you fixed up, Abby. I’ll get a cosmetic surgeon, too.”

“No doctor can restore what he took,” Megumi whispered.

It’s all my fault, Sean thought. “I’ve been playing God,” he admitted. “Moving people and ships like pieces on a chess board. I forgot that I was a creature. You trusted me, Abby. I let you down.”

“There may be sin on your part,” Megumi granted. “If so, I will have to forgive it. Christ forgave my debt, so I’ll have to forgive yours. I am angry. So many years saving for my husband. For this? You have a security guard, but didn’t assign one to me. My black belt failed. He got what he came for.” She closed her eyes, and for a moment Sean thought he was being dismissed. Then she looked at him again and shook her head.

“Playing God? No, Sean, that’s not what you’ve been doing. There is a realm of human endeavor in which mistakes cause injury and death. Driving a car is the simplest. Text while driving and others may die. A foolish act, certainly, but the driver is not playing God. Sinning, yes. Playing God, no.

“There is a select body of jobs in which life-and-death decisions are routine. Doctors, police, judges, presidents, pastors, battlefield commanders. These men and women are not playing God by performing their jobs, even if some do end up developing god-complexes.

“What were you a year ago, Sean? Husband, father, CEO, author, speaker, evangelist, church member. Did you fulfill any of these roles perfectly? Of course not. And what were the consequences when you failed? Feelings were hurt, stock value was lost, sinful thought-patterns were passed on, people who might have repented instead hardened their hearts. Serious negative consequences. But nobody died.

“Now you’re a president. Make mistakes, and people are going to die. That doesn’t mean you’re playing God. That doesn’t even mean you’re sinning. Presidents have to make decisions that result in people under their authority being hurt or killed. They have to live with it. The next day they have to go out and make decisions again.”

Sean considered his spokeswoman in growing wonder. He knew his aides were smarter than him. That was one reason he had chosen them. But this was more than mere intelligence. Megumi was wise beyond her years. She really would be able to replace Yu when old age forced the Secretary of State to retire. And what about after that? Sean could see the brightest future opening before Megumi. Bethel would have a female president, perhaps even sooner than America.

“Think about Major George,” Megumi challenged him. “For years he demonstrated courage in combat. But there is virtue greater and rarer than courage. George had to order his men into harm’s way, knowing that some would be killed. George had to do it knowing he was not God, that some of his decisions were certain to be wrong, that men he loved and cared about would die because of his incorrect decisions.

“Whatever mistakes George made – and everyone makes mistakes – were his decisions sinful simply because men died as a result? I do not think so. The sin would be in refusing to go back out the next day, in hesitating to once again order his men to their deaths. That is the virtue rarer than courage. The virtue of leadership.

“I follow you because you are our leader. You led us into harm’s way by founding Bethel. Colonization is dangerous work. I counted the cost, perhaps better than you did. Many colonists die. Many colonists face hardships worse than death.

“Do you understand what I’m saying? My decision to follow you was not based on Little House on the Prairie. What really happened as America expanded her borders westward? Thousands of women were sexually assaulted. Don’t you think those women knew what they were getting themselves into? Do you think it took them by surprise when they were kidnapped and raped and murdered? There was no surprise, Sean. They had counted the cost. They had decided the risk was worth it.

“I am a colonist. I knew the risks. I knew this risk. It’s why I got the black belt. Civilization’s edge crawls with wicked men who prefer the frontier because they think they’re beyond the reach of the law. I take my place in the long tradition of frontier women who pay the price of frontier living.

“And I join those believers who suffer bodily for their faith. If I were not a Christian, this assault would not have happened. That means I experience the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings. How many of those who died subduing America did so because they were Christians? How many left the comfort and security of England because the love of Christ compelled them? That it how one must interpret my experience: it is because I love Christ that I’m sitting in this hospital bed.”

Sean broke into a smile. Like any good spokeswoman, Abby had organized her comments in advance. What amazed Sean was when Megumi had done so. Months prior – perhaps even years prior! – Megumi had prepared what to say in the event that someone raped her.

None of this had been Sean’s idea. He had told his followers to count the cost, but he had not trained them how to do so. And the risks of being a frontier woman…to what extent had Sean really weighed them? He had known there would be dangers, especially at the beginning. That’s why his own wife and children remained in Connecticut.

Sean had kept Patricia out of harm’s way. But not Megumi. She had understood Sean’s actions better than he had understood them himself. Someone had to serve as first victim. Anyone would do, as long as it wasn’t Sean’s wife.

Megumi knows how to count the cost. She’d outlined the speech she’d give after paying the cost. Remarkable. She was a blessing from on high, a cabinet-member who exceeded her boss, a servant who was already growing past her master. I instilled the vision in her heart, he reminded himself. I provided the start-up capital. But in Megumi’s confidence Sean could already see the future that awaited him.

I am John the Baptist, Sean realized, not Jesus. Sean would have to diminish. He would have to get out of the way. Bethel was less than three weeks old, but it was already taking on a life of its own. New wine. And despite being the country’s Founder, there was some strange sense it which Sean was old wineskins. Megumi and those like her were the ones who would really create the City on a Sea.

“Don’t lose your confidence,” Megumi concluded. “Don’t lose your edge. The world has plenty of wimpy Christian men. It doesn’t need any more. Allowing criminals onto Pertexpat was a good idea. It was cunning. There are so few cunning Christians.”

“But what about gentleness, Abby?” Sean asked. “Am I innocent as a dove?”

“I guess we’ll find out at the execution.”

Dudge

As Dudge struggled to keep his balance on the crank pedestal, plastic cuffs binding his wrists behind his back and nylon noose squeezing his throat, it occurred to him that attacking the Republic of Bethel might have been something of a mistake.

“Deceivers,” he swore at the people crammed onto the weather deck, a gathering swollen by morbid reporters eager to watch Dudge Nesbo hang. “You aren’t Christians.” Real believers were emotionally insecure. Real believers were wimps. These people were neither; therefore, they weren’t real believers. They had lied to Dudge. They had declared themselves Christians. And everyone knew Christians were not to be taken seriously.

Dudge had appealed his conviction, of course. Thus it was not Pertexpat’s captain but Sean Billings himself who oversaw these final proceedings. Thelan law required that everyone look the doomed convict in the eye. Thus the Founder of Bethel stood facing the condemned man, a mere five meters away. The three key prosecution witnesses waited to Dudge’s left. To his right Jolene observed from a wheelchair, a whole side of her body encased in plaster. An officer of the court kept guard over her nonetheless.

“Miss Uehara’s assailant has asked me to overturn his conviction,” Sean informed the crowd, “and by law I must consider his request. Understand that unlike in the United States, the Thelan President possesses no power of pardon. Yet also unlike American courts, I can consider the merits of the case against Mr. Nesbo. But I see no reason for overturning the decision of the lower court. Nor do I see a reason for granting Mr. Nesbo a new trial.”

“You have no right to judge me!” Dudge spat. “You’re a joke. This whole thing’s a joke. You’re a freight company, not a country. If people let you get away with this, businesses all over the world will start arresting people, imprisoning them, by your reasoning even killing them. You’re trying to legitimize murder and vengeance, all in the name of the Bible. Hypocrites!”

“Power flows to the government through the consent of the governed,” Sean Billings replied. “The people of Bethel covenanted into a body politic. No one forced us to do so. Nor were you compelled to become a citizen of this country. Here is the contract you signed when you became a Thelan.” Sean held it up for the cameras. “You submitted yourself to the government of this nation, agreed to follow its laws. You made this choice freely, even as you freely chose to attack Miss Uehara. Instead of trying to redirect attention away from yourself, why not accept responsibility for your actions and die like a man?”

“I’m an American!” Dudge screamed. “Born and raised in Florida. You said you’d never kill an American. But here you are, faithless and accursed. Lying hypocrite!”

“You were an American,” Sean clarified. “You chose to give up your American citizenship when you became a Thelan. Which is actually rather interesting, since surrendering prior citizenship is not required to become a citizen of Bethel. Many Thelans on Pertexpat possess duel citizenship, although, like you, I am this day a citizen of Bethel only. Why did you give up your U.S. citizenship, Mr. Nesbo? Why did you throw in your lot so completely with a people you so obviously hate?”

The rope compressing Dudge’s larynx made vocalization an ordeal. In his desperation Dudge persisted in shouting through the pain. “I was forced onto this ship against my will!” he declared. “Billings set me up. He wanted an execution as soon as possible. He picked his victim well. He knew no one would believe a person like me.”

At first Billings did not respond. The President’s face grew pensive; Dudge realized he had somehow managed to strike a weak spot. Had Billings planned all this? Ruining Bethel had been Dudge’s idea. The thought that his actions had fit into a broader design, that Billings had wanted him to commit crimes. Oh, how it offended!

“Mr. Nesbo’s protest must be weighed carefully,” Billings finally announced. “He is claiming that Bethel is not a free country, that the residents of our ships do not come and go as they wish. If this charge proved true, it would indeed call into doubt the court’s right to judge Mr. Nesbo.

“Did Dudge Nesbo sign the Bethel covenant of his own free will? Did he fully and properly understand the rights and responsibilities undertaken in this covenanting?”

Billings pointed at Jolene. “You will note that Mr. Nesbo’s wife is not about to be put to death. The victim decided that Jolene Nesbo did not fully and properly understand the covenant she signed. Miss Uehara recommended banishment for Mrs. Nesbo, and the jury concurred. Does Mr. Nesbo deserve the same charity?”

Bethel’s Founder motioned to a bailiff and had Dudge’s lawyer brought to center-stage.

“In exchange for a reduced sentence,” the President explained, “Mr. Quinn has agreed to confess his own complicity in the crimes recently committed aboard Pertexpat.”

Ben Quinn, Dudge’s supposed friend, proceeded to testify about his prior history with Nesbo. He explained how the two had met in law school, how they had conspired to ruin Bethel through a series of show trials. Quinn admitted that Nesbo was the one who had struck Jolene, not Major George, that their goal had been to obtain a wrongful verdict. Most painfully, he explained how they had decided Dudge ought to give up his U.S. citizenship entirely, on the theory that Dudge might thereby more readily gain the Thelans’ trust. Anything to give them an edge in bringing Billings down.

“And what was in it for you?” the President asked.

“Fame,” Quinn replied. He could not resist looking at the cameras as he said it.

“Mr. Quinn has gained his fifteen minutes,” Billings pronounced to the assembly. “For his crimes he is banished at next port, never to enter Bethel again on pain of forty lashes. Get him out of my sight.”

Growing desperation overwhelmed Dudge, fresh realization of his own folly. In conspiring with Quinn in such exhaustive detail, Dudge had secured for himself a unique status: the only citizen in all of Bethel who couldn’t possibly pretend he had been forced to sign the covenant. Only one avenue of defense remained. He used it now.

“The victim is your friend,” Dudge declared. “You have a personal stake in the outcome. You should recuse yourself and allow another judge to take your place.”

“You wish for another judge, Mr. Nesbo? Gladly do I grant your request. Indeed, it is time for the entire substance of your life to be appealed to a higher Judge. The court hereby forwards all arguments and evidence to the throne of Christ. And we commit you there forthwith as well, Mr. Nesbo, that you might argue your case in person.”

The platform upon which Dudge stood was not really a pedestal, but the upper end of a ramp that could be lowered through the turning of a round, brass hand-crank. This rotating mechanism had been positioned less than a meter in front of Dudge’s knees. Dudge found himself suddenly fascinated with the device. Sunlight glinted off the polished metal. He closed his eyes for a moment, listened to the wind whipping through his hair. His knees ached with the effort of avoiding a premature fall off the edge. It was wonderful. He was alive. He did not want to die.

Billings summoned the first witness, the surgeon who had examined and treated Megumi immediately after the attack. The doctor approached the wheel, grabbed one of its handles, gave the device a quarter turn. It seemed to snag a bit at that position, as though it had been designed to allow for partial rotations. The physician pressed past the sticking point, however, until he had given the mechanism one full crank.

Dudge felt the pedestal move downward slightly. The rope, tied in unyielding fashion to Pertexpat’s loading-crane, bit into his neck.. “Cursed hypocrite,” Dudge accused as the doctor paused to hear his last words. “Do no harm. Where’s your oath now?”

“I’d worry about the log in your own eye,” the doctor replied. “You forget the duties you forced upon me that I might testify at your trial. I didn’t appreciate the task, and neither did she. The way you throw the word ‘hypocrisy’ around makes clear you don’t understand it, Mr. Nesbo. That means you probably don’t know what justice is, either. Justice means getting what you deserve. Die like a man, Mr. Nesbo. Eat your dessert.”

I picked on the wrong group of Christians, Dudge thought. There were so many timid pencil-necks willing to bow before the world’s definition of justice. Why hadn’t he chosen to attack some of those? It’s not like he’d ever have run out of targets. Instead he had zeroed on the one group of believers who knew how to think, how to rule, how to stand their ground in the face of liberal mockery. He felt like a soldier who charged the only section of an enemy position still manned by living defenders.

The second witness stepped forward and began cranking the wheel. This was the man who revealed the duplicitous nature of Bethel’s founder: a DNA expert Billings had helicoptered in from New Zealand. The lack of forensic science had made Dudge assume he could get away with anything. Billings had betrayed him. Testimony based on genetic evidence left no doubt as to the nature of Nesbo’s crime – or who had committed it.

The ramp gave way further, rendering Dudge incapable of anything beyond a whisper. “Cruel and unusual punishment,” he croaked.

“I’ve testified at fifty-nine rape trials,” the biologist declared. “Fourteen were repeat offenders. Cruelty bothers you? Cruelty is letting losers like you do it over again. Cruelty is carrying out punishments in secret, denying other scum proper cause for hesitation. Be glad you are about to cause a great decrease in cruelty. Women will sleep safer watching the birds pick your flesh.”

The scientist stepped away, leaving Dudge to gasp upon his carelessness. I picked on the wrong part of the Bible, he realized. Six-day creation, three Persons in one God, sovereignty that did not absolve creatures of responsibility. All of it was absurd. God become man, miracles, substitutionary atonement, love for the unlovely. Complete nonsense. The Bible was a joke. A pathetic, ridiculous fairytale for weak-minded fools.

Except for the Law! Dudge had always hated the Law more than any other part of the Bible. That loathing had driven him to make a life’s work of ruining Bethel: the first group of Christians in over three centuries to take the Law of Moses seriously. Everything about the Law was so patently, manifestly offensive. Slavery, intolerance, inferiority of women, corporal punishment, restitution, and above all, of course, capital punishment. Execution, execution, so much execution, and for so many “crimes.” People needed to know the Law, inconveniently buried in Exodus through Deuteronomy. It had to be held up in the light, that the world might better trample it in the mud.

Too late Dudge realized that the laws requiring capital punishment were not ridiculous. They were not excessive, or burdensome, or barbaric. The witnesses had to carry out the sentence. If the witnesses did not “cast the first stone,” the execution would not take place. Not barbaric. Beautiful. Perfect. Just.

And the deterrent power of such total, public humiliation! He imagined thousands of crimes that would never take place in Bethel because would-be perpetrators knew this spectacle awaited them. The Law was the one part of the Bible, then, that even the most jaded of unchurched souls might fall in love with, simply because they craved justice. My God, Dudge thought. Everyone who loves comic books will want to move to Bethel!

Discovering the Law’s perfection did not make Dudge hate the Law less; it made him hate it more. He hated it because it was beautiful. He hated it because it was just. And worst of all, everything he had done to pour contempt upon the Law was serving only to heighten awareness of the procedural sections that made sense of all the rest.

Centrality of testimony. Trinitarian oaths. No prisons. No debt to society. No preoccupation with technicalities. Necessity of restitution. Public punishments. Witnesses casting the first stone.

That requirement especially had to be hidden, concealed, kept from the masses. No one must know of it, no one could be allowed to know of it. The Law might “click” in the minds of others, too. Dudge longed to speak, wished he could force words past the pressure on his throat. People must be kept away from the procedural laws.

And here Dudge was, displaying through his own death the centrality of Deuteronomy 17:7! The doctor had made the first crank. The DNA expert had made the second. One more turn and Dudge Nesbo would begin the unpleasant process of dying. Corporal Johnson had even coined a phrase for it: “Three cranks and you’re out.”

The third witness approached the pedestal, prepared to do her duty: Megumi Abigail Uehara, target, victim, executioner. For though the jurors would quickly join in, followed by Pertexpat’s remaining citizens – all of them giving the dying man a symbolic “quarter-crank” – Megumi’s turn of the wheel would be the one to put lethal tension on the rope about Dudge’s neck.

“You took nothing from me,” Megumi declared. “I still belong to my husband.” Then she pulled a knife from her waist and cut him free.

Dudge hit the weather deck hard. Megumi sliced the handcuffs, releasing his bonds. Then she threw her blade away. A number of unhappy voices cried out, but Billings silenced them. “The victim wields right of forgiveness,” he proclaimed. “How dare you protest exercise of that right!”

Rising onto his knees, Dudge got a brief look at Billings admonishing the multitude. An instant later a foot smashed his left eye. The shock sent Dudge flying backward. Megumi pursued, pounding his tattooed, muscular body into the Pertexpat. He tried to crawl away, but blows rained in from every direction. Voices yelled encouragement, urging Megumi on. Dudge began crying. He wet himself. He threw up. The sound of cheering grew. 

“You’re not so tough without your girlfriend!” Megumi shouted.

The crowd went wild. Her kicks increased in speed and strength. Bones cracked, then cracked again. Dudge screamed uncontrollably, groveling in a puddle of blood and vomit and urine.

A final thought occurred to him before he passed out: I picked on the wrong girl.

Jack

Summoned at last, Jack thought excitedly. Billings realized he needed help, the sort of help only Reverend Star could provide. It was why Jack had decided to emigrate to Bethel in the first place, of course. The Thelan government would bring him on as presidential aide; he would be paid to provide the counsel Billings so obviously lacked. Who knew? Together the two of them might still make something of this City on a Sea.

Not that the task would be easy. Pertexpat had reached Malaysia just before dawn. Dudge Nesbo and his girlfriend had been unceremoniously dumped as soon as the ship had settled alongside a pier. Nesbo required major medical intervention. Jack wondered if anyone would scoop him up and drag him to a hospital, or if he would die in place and get turned into fish bait.

The near-hanging of Megumi Uehara’s assailant had been most unpleasant. Mere watching had been bad enough. Realizing that he would have to participate, however – that had been even worse. No choice: give the wheel a quarter-crank or lose his citizenship. Witnesses had a choice. Jurors had a choice. The rest of the people did not. Not that Nesbo would have been twitching by the time Jack had gotten to him. It was just the thought of getting so close.

But the worst thing had not been the disgusting display of proceedings better conducted in secret. The really horrible element had been other people getting all the attention. In a proper gathering, a point should always come in which everyone focused on Jack. And the preoccupation with action! Talk was what mattered. There had been some talk at the execution, at least. But it hadn’t been Jack’s talk. The event should have focused on words. Jack’s words.

Jack finished with his tie and reentered the common room shared by the forward billets. A CNN feed in the corner showed an empty dock alongside Pertexpat. Someone, then, had carried Nesbo off. Likely unbelievers had snagged him, eager to use his treatment in some anti-Bible rant. The matter would have to be included on the first day’s agenda, unpleasant as it was. Critics were accusing Thelans of being worse than Muslims. It was a PR nightmare. Billings had to get a grip on how the world interpreted Bethel’s legal system.

Unfortunately, the pummeling and banishment of their first capital criminal had been superseded by an even bigger problem: terrorism. The Christian Republic of Bethel, supposedly committed to tight security, had allowed Islamic terrorists to smuggle an intact field artillery gun. Plus three hundred rounds of ammunition, if the reports were to be believed. News channels were trumpeting the matter at the top of every quarter hour.

Thankfully the FBI had discovered the plot. Thousands of lives had been saved. The ship being used by the smugglers, R.B.T. Pusan Perimeter, now sat impounded at the San Diego naval base, its interior swarming with federal agents. Less than a month after Compact and already Bethel had become a laughingstock, a supposedly independent country that needed U.S. law enforcement to protect its own territory. No one would every take them seriously now. In fact, the entire embargo had been lifted just so ships could deliver their containers for proper, American-quality inspection.

Worst of all, many U.S. colonists were abandoning ships as they reached the West Coast. Reporters were scurrying over San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Diego, interviewing disgruntled ex-Thelans eager to explain why life was better back in the States, why they had been fools to ever think about leaving America in the first place. An incalculable disaster. Within a few months’ time Bethel would hardly have any Americans left. Might as well call the whole thing off.

His appointment time approaching, Jack pecked his wife on the cheek and headed toward his destiny. He found Major George standing guard in the corridor outside Billings’ quarters. That was something else that had to change. Ridiculous for the government not to possess dedicated space. A president could hardly run a country from his living room! The Major opened the hatch for Jack, then followed the Reverend in and closed the door behind them.

Sean Billings sat at a desk covered with laptops and iPads. To Jack’s unpleasant surprise, Mrs. Quan sat at Sean’s left and the Hindu Hussy at his right. An uncomfortable feeling rose in Jack’s breast. The arrangement looked suspiciously like a tribunal.

“Jack Star,” Sean said, with no hint of a smile or a handshake. “Pertexpat’s Owner Committee has decided not to renew your lease. You will have to vacate the ship within the next twenty-four hours.”

This pronouncement so opposed Jack’s expectations that his mind simply ejected the words, like a machine refusing to read a scratched DVD.

“I’ve got a list of issues we need get started on,” Jack announced. “Taking Pertexpat through that storm, for example. Unwise given the only rationale was arriving by today’s date.” Such a clueless maneuver, Jack thought. He had spent that unpleasant afternoon losing the limited contents of his stomach. And to what purpose? Certainly there were times Christians had to suffer. But crossbearing had nothing to do with delivering cargo.

The three sat before him, silent. Jack found his gaze drawn to that of the Hindu Hussy. A peasant, he protested. Mongrel Ganges dirt. What claim did she have to that folding chair beneath her ignorant rear end? How dare she act like she belonged!

“This decision applies only to you,” Sean finally added, “though I’m sure your wife will choose to go. The friends who came aboard with you in Los Angeles will have to decide whether to stay on Pertexpat or join you in Malaysia.”

This got Jack’s attention. “I am a Thelan citizen,” he protested. “You can’t just tell me to leave.”

“You signed a port-to-port lease,” Mrs. Quan explained. “We have reached the next port. The owners of this vessel do not wish to renew your lease.”

“I…” Jack mumbled. “How can you do this? You said ships are our territory.”

“But they remain under private ownership,” Mrs. Quan said. “Ships belong to their owners,  not to the state. Owners are free to continue or terminate leases as they see fit. We are terminating yours.”

“I’m…I’m a Thelan,” Jack protested.

“Perhaps you can lease space on another vessel,” the Hindu Hussy suggested. “Several should be docking in Malaysia within the next week.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Jack declared, his anger rising. “I don’t have a visa.”

“You should have thought of that,” Sean noted, “before making such a nuisance of yourself.”

Mrs. Quan concurred. “Really, we’re just giving you your heart’s desire. You’ve done nothing but complain about Pertexpat since we left port. Clearly you’d rather live elsewhere. We’re granting your wish.”

“You can’t kick me off!” Jack shouted. “I have rights.”

“Every sheep on Pertexpat has rights,” Sean said. “I’m thinking especially of the right not to get gnawed on by wolves.”

This accusation brought Jack up cold. He had heard it before, realized at last what was happening. Unappreciated, he lamented, his shoulders sagging. Always, always, the same. Unappreciated.

“You can’t leave us here,” Jack implored. “You need to take us back to the States.”

“Think of your case as a warning to others,” Sean suggested. “Behave extra-well on outbound runs, or you get jettisoned who-knows-where.”

“You’re a con-man. Look at all the Americans bailing out. You fooled them at the beginning, but they’ve come to their senses. Soon the whole world will know you’re a fraud.”

“You know,” Sean said, ignoring Jack’s taunt, “you’re not very good at the whole wolf-in-sheep’s clothing thing. You’re really just a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Kind of sad. But I will say this before we boot your whining butt. There’s a part of me that’s like you. An unstable, self-destructive element. I am not a fringe loser like you. But I could easily be one. More worrisome, I could easily become one.

“Bethel faces so many challenges. Criminals, terrorists, humanists, wolves like you. But I look through the history books at ‘new works,’ and I see their greatest danger lies, not in external enemies, but in their Founders. For whatever reason, the qualities that make a man capable of great things also lead him increasingly toward some radical tangent that destroys everything he has built.

“I am the greatest danger facing Bethel. Not now. Not yet. But thirty, forty years…in a way I can’t guess or imagine, I will do something that ruins everything for which I’ve worked. Such is the usual pattern, anyway. The few successful churches, countries, businesses – these are the rare exceptions to the rule.

“I must make Bethel one of those exceptions. I must protect her from myself. As yet I do not see how to do it. Discover an answer I must, or our Republic will last but a single generation.

“The threat ever looms in my mind, Reverend Star: the day I become you. But I’m not you yet. The Committee has reached its decision. Get off our ship.”

Abraham

America’s newest public enemy moved on foot through the crowded streets of Pasay City. A dense southern portion of greater Metro Manila, Pasay provided the sort of nasty urban jungle in which a wanted man might hide indefinitely. Abraham labored amongst the street stands, concentrating on keeping his pace idle. He felt the cross-hairs: nothing quite like being on the FBI’s top-ten wanted list.

Abraham had once taken a class in horror-film makeup. That training now served well as he tried to make good his escape. He had altered his appearance with nose, cheek, and chin enhancements – sufficient, he figured, to fool facial recognition software sifting through millions of security feeds. But what about voice-recognition? Body and gait scans? Unknown means of measuring fingerprints and retinal patterns?

The terrorist had done what he could. Diuretics to lose weight. Heel lifts to appear taller. But no one knew the CIA’s full capabilities. Agents lurked around every corner, preparing interrogation and worse for the plot’s mastermind. Mohamed they had already arrested, of course. But what did he matter? Mohamed was a patsy. Abraham had to avoid capture. At this late stage, capture would be worse than never having started. And the plan was so close to succeeding! All he needed to do was disappear.

His hands kept searching his pockets for a cell phone. He no longer carried one, of course. Something he had to get used to. He would never be able to use electronic devices again: a heavy burden for a Caltech grad. Talk, breathe, think anywhere near a phone, a computer, an iPod – the National Security Agency would track him down.

Westerners accused Muslims of living in the Middle Ages. Through his aborted attack, Abraham had ironically consigned himself to a medieval existence. Nothing that used electricity. Nothing. He had a target on his back.

Abraham entered “Wise Man Alley,” the six square kilometers of Pasay City unofficially ruled by crime lord Glenn Padilla. Twenty years ago Padilla had been wrecking the typical dead-ender havoc: joyriding stolen cars, mugging tourists, pimping teens for drugs. And Abraham had followed him devotedly, learning what it meant to really terrorize a neighborhood.

Then a man had arrived to show Padilla and Abraham another Way. Their gang had beaten the young American senseless. But he came back. Then he came back again. And again. Always he returned for fresh pummeling, until finally he had earned the gang’s respect and been granted the right to live and teach in the worst part of Pasay City. Abraham and Padilla had been transformed as a result. Abraham had even converted.

Glenn had not gone that far. But although he had refused to bow to a new Lord and Master, Glenn had changed into a different sort of criminal. He had remade himself into an old-school mafia boss, protecting the people of his neighborhood from the very crimes he had once committed against them (in exchange for a small annual fee, of course). The fool who entered Padilla’s territory to attack foreigners or sell drugs often found such activity to be the last mistake he ever made.

Thus Abraham relaxed as he strode deeper into Wise Man Alley, safest neighborhood in Manila. He turned down a narrow side-road, then another, coming finally to an abandoned three-story house in apparent need of demolition. Abraham went around back and let himself in through the unlocked door. In the dimly lit kitchen he found what he was looking for: Glenn Padilla and Sean Billings.

The three men embraced and wept, for long had it been since they had last gathered in this room, plotting the establishment of a City on a Sea.

 “You were right,” Sean declared, beaming with pride as he kept a hand on Abraham’s shoulder. “You were so right!”

“I guess I was, wasn’t I?” Abraham admitted, laughing for the first time in many months. “Praise be to God.”

They settled about a rickety table loaded with take-out. They feasted and rejoiced, Abraham marveling that after so many obstacles, their goal of creating a Christian country had finally come to fruition.

The original idea had been Sean’s, of course, the PacRim heir having spent most of his childhood on container ships. Abraham had been the one to dampen their dreams with common sense: the U.S. could place the new country under embargo, destroying the project from the get-go. Then 9/11 had happened, creating a possible solution. If Abraham were willing to risk all.

“Bethel has signed a secret treaty with the FBI,” Sean informed Abraham, “just like you hoped. In exchange for Mohamed, plus a promise to hand over any future terrorists who attempt to infiltrate our ships, the United States will permit Bethel-flagged ships to load and unload in American ports. The treaty also grants federal agents unlimited access to our vessels, a right they are free to use at their discretion. In turn federal agents may testify in Bethel trials if they choose, and in that role be considered private individuals rather than representatives of the U.S. government.

“As for your future plans, any additional human intelligence we develope regarding threats to U.S. interests must be communicated to Homeland Security. It worked, Abraham. It worked!”

“But you had to give them credit!” Padilla objected.

“That was the deal-maker,” Sean explained. “When we told the FBI they could take credit for the discovery, the package became irresistible. Besides, it adds to our aura of incompetence. Anything to keep people from taking us seriously.”

Abraham laughed again. He could not help himself. “Still not willing to repent?” he challenged Padilla.

“Everything is beautiful in its season,” the lord of Wise Man Alley replied. “Besides, it’s useful to know a few criminals, isn’t it?”

“Indeed it is,” Sean said, handing over a case containing $500,000 in American currency, final payment for the radioactive iodine Padilla had stolen from Manila Hospital.

Glenn in turn picked up a heavy steel object and passed it to Sean: the 105 millimeter howitzer’s original firing pin. Friendship was friendship, after all. And business was business.

“Four people on earth know Abraham is a double-agent,” Sean said, “and three of them are in this room. Not even Yu or Rebecca know. The dangers will only get worse, Abraham. You’re going to spend the rest of your life with the CIA trying to stick you with a Hellfire missile. This is your best chance to bail.”

Abraham shook his head. “Being in the top-ten will grant me entrance to elite terrorist circles,” he said. “I’ll get some good intel headed your way. That’ll keep the FBI happy – and U.S. ports open to Thelan ships.”

“There will be other embargoes,” Padilla observed.

“Not for a while,” Sean said. “In the minds of many, embargo is a failed strategy. They will think it necessary to try other approaches.”

“And always the deeper factors,” Abraham said, settling back into his chair with a glass of rice liquor. “No one cares who ships their cargo. No one takes Christians seriously. There’s nothing to hold people’s attention.”

“Change the channel,” Sean concluded, clinking glasses with Abraham. “My, but it is a relief to the get the first embargo out of the way. I haven’t felt this good in years.”

Padilla poured himself some sake. “You should travel more,” he suggested. “Take a vacation. See the world.”

The three of them sat silently, enjoying their victory. After a few minutes Padilla stirred. “Tell me,” he asked Sean, “have you heard of Megumi Parties?”

“No.”

“My wife led one last week. Women get together, listen to Megumi Uehara’s testimony. Then they watch the video of her kicking the crap out of that guy. He’s not ever gonna have children. The women cheer Megumi, go back, cheer her again. She’s peaked YouTube. No one’s even close.”

Sean shook his head. “It’s my fault Megumi was attacked. I knew Nesbo’s record. I expected him to commit crimes. I was counting on it. Megumi paid the price.”

“Now she’s the face of Bethel,” Padilla explained. “She makes women feel empowered, especially ones who’ve been sexually assaulted. Think of all the Asian women who refuse to press charges after a rape, who internalize the idea that they’re to blame. Megumi’s their hero, Sean. That gives your Republic millions of secret fans. Reckon that’ll come in handy one day.”

“It’s still not worth it,” Sean said.

“Think of it this way,” Abraham suggested. “You wanted to establish some strong precedents, right? That’s what Megumi did. A rape victim can forgive her attacker, hang her attacker, or publically beat the living hell out of her attacker.”

“Rather ironic, don’t you think?” Sean asked. “Megumi means grace.”

“She gave him grace,” Abraham said. “He deserved worse.”

“It was the right call,” Padilla maintained. “Used to be when my men were getting ready to beat someone up, they’d say they were gonna ‘Go Medieval’ on him. Now they say they’re gonna ‘Go Megumi.’ I’m telling you, she’s the face of Bethel. You couldn’t have paid for such great PR.”

She paid for it,” Sean lamented.

“Many will pay, before all is done,” Abraham reminded Sean, his voice hardening. “Leading a group of colonists means leading people into hardship. Some survive. Some thrive. Many die.”

“Megumi said the same.”

Abraham nodded. “Then she understands. Real colonists always do. And I am a real colonist, Sean, though perhaps few will ever know it. If a Predator strikes me down, don’t waste time doubting or second-guessing. I knew the cost of colonization. I was willing to pay it. I died in service of my country.”

City On a Sea, short story #2

Compact Day

Who despises the day of small things? Men will rejoice when they see

the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.  Zechariah 4:10

“I’m not spinning off a company, I’m creating a country,” Sean insisted with admirable patience. Likely only Rebecca noticed the effort.

“You can’t turn a company into a political entity,” David replied with disgusted exasperation.

“Of course not,” Sean said. “Nor am I trying to. PacRim will still exist as a corporation. I am simply choosing to lease its vessels to Bethel citizens.”

David slammed his hand on the conference table. “You lied!”

“I withheld information,” Sean admitted, smiling as he felt the Magellan adjust course for open waters. Could his siblings even notice? “But my overall plan was no secret. I simply led the world to believe that Compact Day was next month. And don’t forget the move to long-term growth was approved four years ago. You should enjoy above-average returns in about thirty years. If you choose to stay invested.”

“What difference does thirty years make?” David demanded. “Quarterlies!”

It makes a huge difference to your grandchildren, Sean thought, but he didn’t bother rehashing the point. He had no tolerance for present-oriented Christians.

“Dad would not have wanted this,” David said.

Sean nodded, allowing the point. “But remember what he was like when we were young,” PacRim’s CEO urged. “Starting the business involved great risk. He thrived on the uncertainty. Isn’t it better to think of him that way?”

Before the dementia, Sean did not add. Before he became a dotard and a coward and nearly destroyed everything for which he had worked. And who had saved the company during their father’s decline? Neither of these, content to live on land. The majority stake had rightly gone to him, though youngest of the three.

Sean stood up for a moment to scan the horizon aft. Though the owners of Pacific Rim Cargo met in the highest stern observation deck, Taiwan could no longer be seen. Sean estimated Magellan’s speed at just eight knots. Sea slug, he mused, but that was OK. The largest floating drydock in the world. And it was his!

Physicists liked to talk about space-time. Sean preferred to think in terms of time-money: specifically, that it should never be wasted. So even though the ceremony wasn’t scheduled to take place for another hour, Magellan’s construction crew had already laid the composite double- keel of the first Bethel Kamsarmax bulkcarrier. The novel creation cost five times the price of a steel, single-keel vessel – but it would last a thousand years.

David and Rebecca joined Sean at the window, and for a moment they were a united, obscenely rich family inspecting from on high as servants went about their masters’ bidding. But Sean had performed just about every job offered by PacRim, either during childhood or after returning with his precious (useless?) MBA. He had spent years working side-by-side with those shipbuilders. He had welded rivets and fitted pipes and operated cranes. He had practiced firefighting and typed bills of lading and piloted vessels through cyclones.

Then there was David, who didn’t even want to shake Sean’s hand. Too many calluses. Too much engine grease. Bethel’s opponents called Sean a pie-in-the-sky dreamer disconnected from reality. But what about this sneering brother, unwilling to interact with anyone outside his country-club circuit? Wasn’t David the one who was really out of touch?

Sean observed his employees, some destined to join Bethel, others interested in nothing beyond their next paycheck. The PacRim CEO knew the name of every man laboring down in that drydock. He had helped them link two hull sections this very morning (such a fascinating technology, joining instead of welding). Sean had written his name alongside that of his men. When this precious piece of Bethel territory was finally launched, those interior signatures would be hidden behind a secondary bulkhead. But his employees would know the autographs were there: proof that the new cargo ship was a work of art. And the craftsmen would remember Sean’s name written with their own.

He looked down at his hands, dirty, bloody, driven by rock-hard forearms. Then he studied his brother’s effeminate frame. Both men had grown up in one of the world’s wealthiest families. Both men claimed allegiance to Christ. How, then, could they be so different? Was there nothing upon which they would ever agree?

“This City On a Sea crap is already killing share value,” David complained afresh. “The composite nonsense is just the final straw. Don’t you think there’s a reason no one would finance it?”

“It’s a new idea,” Sean granted. “But after a generation of consistent covenant-keeping, I think banks will get on board.”

“It’s just…irrational. You’re wrecking the company in every sense. Reputation’s already gone, thanks to you. Now you’re eating up our cash reserves with your stupid R&D materials. Who do you think you are? Even the navy uses steel. When Christ returns what difference will it make how you built your ships? And the willful stupidity of using mostly Christian crews. They’ll get raptured and the ships will founder. Think of the economic impact.”

Theological pornography, Sean sighed. That was what had really driven them apart. His brother had been wrecked by Premillenial escapism: titillating trash for lazy Christians. Sean just couldn’t believe the irony of his brother’s criticism. To David’s way of thinking, Christians should be so irrelevant that the rapture would not have any actual effect upon the world. God forbid that the removal of  believers might reduce America’s gross domestic product! No, things should continue as smoothly as when Christians were still on earth. And if the rapture did cause economic disruption – well, Christians must have been sinning by doing something of significance!

Sean tried the reply he had used so often: “If Christians are the ones who change direction when we meet Jesus in the air, need the world fear any harmful side effects resulting from his return?” David just rolled his eyes.

Rapture nonsense, Sean lamented. So many evangelicals ruined, wasted, rendered unfruitful. Bethel would be different. As individuals, Thelans would prepare for the Lord’s imminent return. As churches, families, ships and culture they would plan and think and labor as though Christ were not returning for a million years. By God’s grace, the Son of God would come back to find Thelan ships thousands of years old and still going strong. Oh, the power of compounded capital! Bethel would build an offering. They would hand it over to their King on the day of His power.

A bit to Sean’s surprise, Rebecca rose to his defense. “The Army uses advanced materials in its tanks, and in the plates and helmets composing soldiers’ body armor. Naval vessels are made of steel, granted, but a modern warship’s armor is not made of steel. They use composites, too. Non-metals make up an increasing percentage of rocket fuselages due to their superior mass/volume ratios. And then, of course, there are your golf clubs. You are accusing Sean of arrogance because he is making ships out of something other than metal. But these other uses of composites – no one considers them acts of pride.”

“Steel is good enough,” David insisted.

“Even if your theology is correct,” Rebecca persisted, “and Jesus is going to return within the next few years, composites provide other advantages. The material is less dense than steel, resulting in lighter vessels. This will reduce fuel costs and consequently the total carbon footprint of each cargo run. We can trumpet this to the press as a major green innovation, which will make companies more willing to contract our services. They can claim an interest in the environment simply by having PacRim move their products to market.

“Furthermore, the enhanced strength of composites will make bulkheads much harder to breach. Combined with the new double-keel design, our vessels will be the safest cargo ships ever to sail the Pacific. Don’t you want to give our crews the safest possible working environment? We can market ourselves as a company truly interested in the well-being of its employees.”

“And  remember,” Sean added, “every vessel will contain a casting room. If a hull segment is damaged, a ship will literally be able to create a new one and replace the section while still at sea. This is critical. A ship will not have to enter drydock to repair underwater damage. Greatly reduced down-time. That’s the beauty of joining instead of welding. No more pain of having to stare at one of our boats awaiting repair.”

David returned to his seat, shaking his head. Quarterly profits, Sean thought. How could a Christian be so fixated on short-term returns? Sean knew many employees who cared nothing for Christ, yet were nevertheless driven by long-term thinking. They worked sixteen hours a day, not for themselves, but to create a better life for their children and grandchildren. Christians used to build churches to last more than a thousand years. Now unbelievers…Sean shook his head. Theological pornography.

Sean finally gave his brother an opportunity to read the documents that had coaxed David aboard the Magellan. He observed silently his brother’s growing frustration with the paper viewing system. That was why Sean had installed it in the conference table, of course. These documents laid bare the founding of Bethel: Presuppositions, Preamble, Constitution, Compact, Legal Code, Commentary of Authorial Intent, plus names of those who had committed to becoming Bethel’s first citizens. It would all be posted online in a few hours, of course. But as the slides were locked under a glass top, David could do nothing but read them. Nothing for him to hold. Nothing for him to take.

David glowered at Sean, no doubt suddenly realizing why Sean had not allowed him to carry electronic devices. David wanted to photograph these documents and leak them to the press ahead of the compacting. In doing this he would steal Sean’s thunder, focus attention upon himself, and give a strong negative spin to all things Bethel before Bethel even officially existed.

Sean observed David’s hands begin to shake. For a moment he considered calling security, then remembered it was hardly necessary. In the years David had been sipping cocktails with future members of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sean had been repeatedly beaten senseless by Manila street-gangs as he attempted to share the gospel. Six artificial teeth, five facial surgeries, four arm casts, and three pints of blood later, Sean had finally earned the right to lead a Bible study in that neighborhood. And what had David secured? An invitation to the U.S. Open. Sean had nothing to fear from David. His big brother was a pansy.

Of course, David would never have attended this meeting if he had doubted Sean’s official start-up date. That Sean would deceive him, that he would lie to the whole world about when Bethel would begin…David had never seen it, had never conceived it: his little brother wasn’t just gentle as a dove; he was shrewd as a snake. Sean had lured David away from the Los Angeles news studios on the very day of compacting. He had done it with the promise of documents and insider information, material he knew David would crave. But the only consequence of David’s trip to the Magellan would be to marginalize him during the first critical hours. Sean’s face would dominate the news this night. By the time David’s jet made it back to California, he would have no secret information to reveal.

“You can’t force me to do this,” David finally blurted out.

Guarding that Park Avenue life? Sean thought with disgust. But he said, “Obviously. Rebecca is offering to buy out, in whole or in part, your remaining stake in PacRim.”

“And if I don’t sell?” David challenged. “You’ll take it by force?”

“Certainly not,” Sean insisted. “Respect for property rights is a basic Bethel value. Ships will remain under private ownership even as they become part of the body politic.”

“Nonsense!” David spat. “You’re a nutcase. You’re a freak. I own 9% of this company. You can’t ruin me like this.”

“Then sell,” Sean said.

He watched the options churn through David’s mind. Retain his shares and everything he did to ruin Bethel would reduce the value of his holdings. Sell to Rebecca and no more board meetings, no more ability to speak to the press as a major company partner. He would lose the ability to hinder Bethel from within.

Sean sighed. He wondered if in his elder years David would come around and join them. After others had endured the real risks, of course. Where was that dividing line in American history, when colonizing ceased to be dangerous and America began attracting those looking for a “better” (translation: easier) life? I’m on the first boat to Plymouth, Sean thought. No, I’m making the first boat. And the boat is Plymouth! He would leave David behind in “England.”

“Such an ego!” David accused. “You’re a traitor. I should sue you for what you’re doing.”

Sean desperately resisted the urge to gloat: We’re starting a new country, you idiot. That means you’d have to sue us in Bethel court. Read 1 Corinthians 6. A Christian court won’t allow a civil suit between Christians! You’re such a complete moron you don’t even realize it.

Sean prayed for the Holy Spirit’s help. He was sinning boldly in his anger, and was now in danger of compounding his disobedience with angry words. Most people can handle, at most, one change, Sean reminded himself. I’m giving David six.

He considered his sibling with exasperated love. They were both Billings, to be sure: wide shoulders, blue eyes, type A personalities, in theory believers committed to matters of eternal significance. But too much money, too little cross. Even Rebecca, queen of the short-term missions trip: so eager to endure privation for the sake of the gospel, as long as that comfortable life waited back in the States. She was willing to give it up, though. Sean had to grant her that. He just wished it was for Christ rather than for him.

“Was the founding of Massachusetts an act of pride on Bradford’s part?” Sean asked. “Were the British colonists committing treason by establishing a new civilization? If a country is, most fundamentally, a group of covenanted people, cannot a nation exist on sea as well as on land?”

David stood up again. He had reached his breaking point. “I’m leaving,” he declared.

“Certainly,” Sean said. “But please stay to observe the covenanting.”

“I want to go now.”

Of course you do, Sean thought. You could still make it to Taiwan before we finish.

“Look,” Sean said, pointing out the windows. The Magellan held course in open waters, but twelve Pacific Rim Cargo vessels now escorted her. “As of twenty minutes ago this immediate airspace entered governance of Bethel air traffic control. For security purposes, no flights in or out will be cleared until after the ceremony.”

David stormed from the conference room, no doubt headed for his helicopter and its communications gear. He would find his radio non-functional, his satellite phone unable to pick up a signal, and his computers incapable of linking to the Magellan’s wireless network. Compact Day belonged to Sean and the people of Bethel. The man pre-positioned by CNN to provide brutal, carefully crafted negative soundbites would be suddenly and mysteriously out of touch.

First impressions, Sean thought. On this most special of days, the day of Bethel’s founding, Thelan Dependence Day, Sean Billings had purchased the silence of his greatest enemy. He bought it at the cost of a brother.

*******

“The key to Pacific Rim Cargo’s success,” Sean explained from the Magellan’s forecastle, “is that we do we what say we are going to do, for the price we say we are going to do it, by the time we say we will have it done. We always meet contract. We are covenant-keepers.”

Sean’s audience squeezed into every available section of topside space. His shipbuilders, still wearing their sweaty uniforms, had strapped fire blankets over the new keels enclosed within the drydock. Upon this makeshift insulation the Magellan’s crew precariously straddled, resolved to stand out from the crowd, determined to make clear that Magellan was their ship. And not just their place of employment: this ugly, blockish, floating factory was now also, amazingly, about to become their country.

Sean had not planned on his workers creating this remarkable photo-op, but he appreciated the effort. A picture of Sean would be boring. But a shot of the men and women who were building Bethel’s first composite ship, lining the edges of the hull they had crafted that very morning…it conveyed vision and possibility in a way some of Bethel’s new citizens would never be able to articulate in words. Sean longed to be down there with his people, wished he could be a part of the image he realized would stand out long after his speech was forgotten. But then he remembered the stumbling block likely to threaten Bethel’s destruction in thirty or forty years. Given that future crisis, it was definitely best that he be absent from the day’s defining photograph.

The crowd shielded their eyes from the sun and wind as they attempted to get a clear glimpse of Bethel’s founder. Speakers piped his voice with admirable clarity, so even those below-deck got to hear. Indeed, most of Bethel’s new colonists observed this ceremony by live satellite feed. The eighty-one vessels had each sent a token representative to sign on behalf of his ship. But gathering the fleet for Compact would have made no economic sense: delivery dates had to be kept. Besides, satellite linkage was the indisputable technology that made a city on a sea possible. Internet connection united them into a single people, no matter how far apart ships were on any given day. Critical, then, that the Thelans compact through video conferencing: it drove home the means by which they would function as a collective entity.

“One week in high school I read a book by a Christian businessman,” Sean said, scanning the crowd in an attempt to maintain eye contact, while still fixing the majority of his attention on the camera carrying the fleet-wide stream. “This author, whom I will leave unnamed, said that Christian businesses are not trusted by secular businesses. If a check is written by a Christian business, the other party in the transaction does not ship the purchased product until the check has actually cleared. To put it crudely, Christians as a whole have a worse reputation than unbelievers. We’re actually worse at keeping our word than they are.

“This was an eye-opening moment for me,” Sean continued, “the day I realized that perhaps most Christian businesses were not like PacRim, and that perhaps most Christians were not like my father. He taught me that Christianity means covenant-keeping, and he practiced what he preached.

“I must confess I was highly skeptical of what I read. So I left the sea for America. Now this was hardly my first time in the States. I had been ashore innumerable times in the West Coast ports. I had visited dozens of churches in these cities. But although I had American parents and an American passport, culturally I belonged to the Pacific rather than to any specific country.

“Understand, then, that college and graduate school were adventures for me: living on land, living in one place, joining a specific church, fulfilling duties as a member of that church. If the thought of living at sea strikes you as novel, know the opposite held true for this ocean-going nomad: putting down roots in Columbia and Philadelphia. I had never experienced anything like it.

“My father had ensured that I receive a thoroughly American education growing up. In fact, so concerned had he been that I fit in, I actually ended up knowing the standard civics lessons better than my peers raised landside.

“What I had learned from the books I decided to experience first-hand. Money has its privileges, of course. I spent freely taking my friends on epic vacations. I quickly fell in love with all things Americana. I’ve toured every State, my friends, and I love them all.

“But as much as I enjoyed touring the country, you must remember I was a man on a mission. The criticisms I had read, of the United States in general and of U.S. Christians in particular – surely they had to be exaggerations: rants of disgruntled, separatist backstabbers ungrateful for the unique liberties and opportunities only America could provide.

“Through my study of the United States, I made discoveries rather more complex than what the books proclaimed. America certainly has deeper problems than the God and Country crowd admits; blind devotion to a mindless patriotism helps no one. But the United States is hardly about to succumb to the predictions of doomsayers: commitment to hard work, relentless innovation, the general tendency to be at one’s best when times are at their worst – it’s all still there. So I guess you could say that, far from developing a critical attitude toward America, I actually fell in love with her.

“The American version of Christianity, however – that I did not fall in love with. And it is because of this one simple fact: American Christians do not think covenantally. Every covenant I have made – the promises I made when I became a Christian, when I joined my church, when I married my wife, when our children were baptized. Every business deal into which I have entered, every loan I have taken out, every contract I have signed as majority owner of Pacific Rim Cargo – every covenant I have ever cut is printed out and taped to the walls of my office. And my heart’s prayer every day is that the Holy Spirit not let me be put to shame, but rather enable me to keep these covenants.

“Covenant-keeping. This is how Christians live out their faith in Korea, in Taiwan, in the Philippines, in Hong Kong. I’m not talking about moralists or Pharisees or Roman Catholics or legalists. I’m talking about Evangelical Christians who trust only and entirely in the finished work of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. They don’t keep covenant in some vain attempt to earn or repay the favor of God. They believe in salvation by grace alone. But they also believe in covenant-keeping as the visible sign of having received God’s grace. And that is not how American Christians think.

“I have often heard the comment of how culture changes the church more than the church changes culture. How I wish that were true! For I know plenty of secular businessmen who never miss a deadline. Why can’t Christian businesses learn that from their surrounding culture! Whenever I sign a contract with a secular company, I find myself thanking God that they have not been affected by Christians. Otherwise, I could not trust them!

“Bethel is a nation for covenantal Christians. We demonstrate this by compacting today as a body politic. Each child will practice the covenantal lifestyle by having to choose, at age twenty, whether or not to sign the national covenant. No one will be born a citizen of this country. To become a citizen you must make a choice. You must covenant.

“Equally important, to remain a citizen you must remain faithful to the covenant. Citizenship is a privilege, not a right. Break the covenant and you lose your citizenship. You revert to resident alien status, possessing the same rights and responsibilities of any other resident alien. Through sufficient covenant-keeping a former citizen can earn the privilege of becoming a citizen once again. But as to obey is better than sacrifice, so it is better to remain faithful than go through the painful process of repentance and restoration.

“What makes Bethel unique is not that we live at sea. If a piece of land opened up, I’d grab it in an instant. We’re on the ocean because it’s the only planetary territory unclaimed by current nation-states.

“No, what makes Bethel unique is that if you want to be a citizen, if you want to remain a citizen, you must be a covenant-keeper. Take Trinitarian oaths, pay 9% of your net income in taxes, obey the law, enforce the law, uphold every public contract you enter, both civil and religious. Be faithful. Think covenantally. Keep law better than religious people, so sadly convinced that man can earn salvation by keeping law! In the end, that is our real goal: obtaining a righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees even as we embrace salvation by grace alone.

“May our Sovereign, Triune Creator grant such favor! May we establish a civilization that puts American Christianity to shame.”

Sean strode to the Compact table, smiled at the cameras, and drew the Aurora Asian that he had received from Jonathan Cheung. 2,440 pens had been handed to Sean in the last three years, one from each head of household. Some were more expensive than the one Sean was about to use, others were the cheapest of ballpoints. Today these covenanting instruments had been symbolically gathered into two boxes, one on either side of the table over which Sean now leaned. Although he had memorized the words, Bethel’s founder read out loud carefully from the parchment so as to make certain he got it right:

In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our crucified and risen Sovereign Lord Jesus Christ, by right and work seated at the right hand of God, now wielding all authority in heaven and on earth, and who will one day return to judge the living and the dead.

Having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor of our King, a resettlement to plant the first colony in the greater Pacific Ocean; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names one hundred nautical kilometers due east Taiwan this eleventh of November, Anno Domini, 2013.

Sean signed, followed by his senior aides and the reps from each ship. Eighty-seven signatures total. Sean let the press get up close and shoot some feed. Reverend Yu offered a closing prayer. Sean thanked everyone and turned for the bridge.

“What?” a reporter yelled after him, confused. “That’s it?”

In the sudden, overwhelming exhaustion of the moment (it had taken a lot of years to create Bethel), Sean almost absentmindedly passed the question to a spokesman. Then he remembered his sweetheart deal with FOX News. On Compact Day FOX got exclusive interviews with Bethel’s President and senior officials. In exchange the network promised to ignore David Billings for twenty-four hours.

Sean scanned the deck, found his brother freaking out near the stern: the FOX people were the only TV press aboard Magellan, and none were willing to point a camera at David. Likely David had also learned of his helicopter’s inexplicable mechanical problem. The aircraft would take time to repair: twenty-three hours, at least. The agony on David’s face made Sean eternally grateful to FOX. They deserved another sound bite.

The founder of Bethel approached the confused reporter, put an arm around his shoulder, led him to the port bulwark. He directed the landlubber’s attention to the other Bethel ships. They were breaking formation, adjusting course and putting on speed.

“The party’s over,” Sean pronounced. “We have cargo to deliver.”

*******

Chief of Staff Rebecca Billings convened the Christian Republic of Bethel’s first cabinet meeting. She thought it highly improper that someone besides Sean should take lead, especially on Compact Day, but her brother had been detained by Magellan’s captain. Ship’s business, he had apologized.

Rebecca reckoned she had better get used to that phrase. The thought did not please her. Unlike most of Bethel’s initial American colonists, she possessed neither a grudge against secular humanism nor a wish to settle Mars. She owned a thoroughly delightful home in Connecticut, and was perfectly content to watch from its porch as her friends sailed past for a day’s yachting. Indeed, the Dramamine patch on her shoulder was the only thing preventing her from vomiting, this despite Magellan riding what any experienced seaman would describe as light swell.

Rebooting, idealism, adventure, artistry: Rebecca cared for none of it. The woman was driven by a far simpler motive. She idolized her little brother. From the moment she had first beheld his infant form, she had been bound to him like Europa to Jupiter. Whether Sean decided to grow wheat in South Dakota or harvest ice from the moon hardly mattered from Rebecca’s perspective. She would ensure her brother’s success, or die trying.

The latter felt more likely at the moment. Rebecca collapsed into the conference room’s head seat and grasped her stomach. “I wish he had gone the space route,” she moaned. “Freefall can’t be this bad.”

Four people joined Rebecca, each settling into the adaptive, salt-water resistant chairs ironically invented by David when he still had some interest in living at sea. The “family gathering” that morning had only embittered Rebecca further against her older brother. In a more naïve time she had searched EBay and purchased fifty-two different books predicting the imminent return of Christ, some of these works over a hundred years old and tucked into forgotten corners of used books stores, others recent enough to be gathering dust in Christian bookstore discount bins.

She had presented the stack to David in dramatic fashion, demanded to know how he could make decisions based on such prophetic mumbo-jumbo. Here it was, she had insisted. All the evidence a believer needed to adopt a long-term mentality. David refused to open a single book. This time is different, he had insisted. Jesus is coming back any day. That had been twelve years ago.

It occurred to Rebecca that her disagreement with David went beyond eschatology. David believed Christians should make decisions based on the Bible’s predictive passages. Rebecca did not. She believed the Scriptures contained predictions, certainly. And she believed those predictions would all come true. But she differed as to why God had shared his plans for the future. To her way of thinking, decisions should be based on the teaching portions of the Bible, not the predictive sections. The basic question was not, What is going to happen? Rather the basic question was always, What has God commanded? And the command in Genesis 1 seemed pretty straightforward to her: the human race was to fill and subdue the earth. When Christ did return, she wanting him finding her hard at work doing exactly that.

Rebecca shifted focus to thank God for the future-oriented Christians who sat with her now. What would she have to start calling them? Co-workers? Politicians? Governors? Likely she would end up defaulting to American terminology, and simply call them cabinet-members.

Two were diplomats. Reverend Ching Yu, elderly pastor from Mainland China, beaten, imprisoned and slandered by the Communist government more times than anyone could remember. His age and fame brought the Bethel venture instant respect throughout the Chinese Diaspora. Megumi Abigail Uehara, the tiniest of women, insisted on English-speakers calling her Abby. Gifted musician, endlessly irritated at the absence of Japanese Christian men, perfectly connected: her father owned the largest import/export business in Yokohama.

Two were scientists. Grame “Trimarine” Hudson, Australian naval engineer, drawn to Bethel’s radical patent laws like a vampire to blood. He purposed to design a new generation of ocean-going vessels. Jonathan Cheung, computer genius from California. Had sold his company for forty million dollars, was looking for bigger challenges.

On the theory that the government’s task was to bear the sword, Bethel’s president retained authority to wage war and administer justice. Effectively that made Sean Secretary of Defense and Attorney General. But it also made him “Supreme Court” in a sense distinctly Thelan. Unlike in America, the president would be able to judge the actual merits of cases decided by courts of original jurisdiction. Bethel would still maintain a separate Supreme Court for evaluating questions of constitutionality. Appointing and approving those justices was a high priority. But that couldn’t happen until ships elected congressional representatives.

So much to do. And what was keeping Sean, anyway? With a sinking feeling she realized her brother really did intend for her to start without him. She gave in at last and had Pastor Yu offer an opening prayer.

“The church is supposed to transform culture,” Jonathan began. “It’s almost like he was saying if we create a new culture, we can thereby transform the church.”

“I do not believe that is what he meant,” Pastor Yu said.

“I don’t understand why he didn’t focus on the Creation Mandate,” Grame noted. “I can’t find a single bloody Christian assistant to help with my research. Where’s the vision for subduing the earth? Isn’t that what we’re trying to recapture?”

“Yes,” Jonathan added. “Anti-intellectualism. Escapism. The seemingly impossible combination of moralism with antinomianism. Here’s his prime-time chance to expose Evangelicalism’s mediocrity, to make the world realize we’re not the typical Christians. And what does he end up emphasizing? Something few people understand and even fewer care about.”

Rebecca agreed. “I wanted him to talk about lawsuits. That’s something a large audience would have related to. Recidivism rates, too. Really lay out the weakness of America’s justice system. Explain how Thelans will not live in constant fear of crime or being sued.”

“I had hoped for an attack on Keynesian economics,” Abby said. “Japan has bought into the idea of deficit spending just as badly as the United States. If only young adults in Japan realized that by joining Bethel, they could escape the foolish promises made by their parents. Let those dumb enough to stay be forced to pay.”

“Recapturing America’s vision,” Jonathan said, his voice rising. “That’s what sold me. The Puritans’ desire to create a polity based on Biblical Law. The Founding Fathers’ desire to form a nation with small, decentralized government. Say it! We are more American than America. We’re doing this because we’re the only ones who still understand what America was all about.”

“When I say I’m a Christian Scientist,” Grame lamented, “people assume I’m part of a cult. The irony is that I’d actually have a better chance at getting hired. They don’t care how good I am. If you don’t believe in evolution, you don’t get a seat at the table. But are any Christian schools trying to compensate? Where is the commitment to serious scientific experimentation? It makes me sick.”

This is our first cabinet meeting, Rebecca thought. This isn’t how we should be spending it. She had lost control. No. She had never been in control. She was letting them vent. And even worse, she couldn’t resist joining in.

“Why can’t people see what is happening with Social Security?” she complained. “Why do they bury their heads in the sand? We’ve got the good sense to get out before the whole house of cards comes crashing down. And people say we’re the idiots. What happens in a generation when everyone realizes they can’t retire? The people laughing at us today will end up trying to emigrate to Bethel! Anywhere to escape the inflation. Anywhere to find a job. I want…” She paused, gaining a painful understanding of her motives. “I want Sean to say it today so I can rub the words in their faces thirty years from now.”

Jonathan began counting off (though he quickly ran out of fingers): “Welfare state. High tax rate. Sense of entitlement. Money taken from conservatives to fund liberal causes and buy liberal votes. Violations of sphere sovereignty. No longer being a republic. No longer being free from the government. Incorrect definitions of justice. Political correctness. Acceptance of Modernist thought. Additional acceptance of Post-Modern relativism. God raising up monsters in the land. Lack of repentance in the midst of crises. Humanistic worldview controlling schools, media, and entertainment. Becoming a debtor nation. Abortion. Homosexuality. Divorce. Promiscuity. Preoccupation with the vapid. Church fixated on the suburbs. Church fixated on transfer growth. Christians letting their mortal enemies train their children. Individualism. Conflict avoidance. Rise of the cult of nice. Concentration of power at the national level.”

As Rebecca listened to Jonathan’s rant, she couldn’t help but silently add her own beefs: Americans were so embarrassingly preoccupied with sports and fashion. With cutting their grass. With virtual worlds. As Sean would say, how had the home of great pioneers become enraptured with things so utterly meaningless?

Rebecca noticed that Yu had not joined in criticizing Sean’s speech. That, in turn, made her suddenly realize that Sean’s nonattendance at this meeting had been deliberately planned. What were they all really doing instead of getting on with the business of government? Giving the speeches they would have uttered if they had been in Sean’s place. Sean had known his aides would not approve of his address. He had given them time to express their annoyance. But why?

If Yu were to speak, Rebecca guessed what he might say. He would criticize the racial segregation of the American church. He would deny the legitimacy of the entire parachurch movement. He would lament America’s refusal to serve as a refuge to many oppressed people yearning to escape tyranny. Granted, the United States allowed huge numbers to enter every year. But Rebecca’s homeland could welcome so many more. Yu might even highlight American’s complicity in the Holocaust: the U.S. had denied millions of Jews safe haven, condemning them to die. And the U.S. continued to do the same today. Americans were too busy watching TV and playing video games to realize the multitudes who begged God on their knees every day for the freedom America offered.

But Yu kept his thoughts to himself. Rebecca exchanged looks with the elderly man. He had understood from the start that Sean had absented himself for a reason. That much, at least, was now clear to her. Rebecca was reminded yet again that the lack of impressive degrees behind Yu’s name really didn’t mean a whole lot. The new Secretary of State was still wiser than the other four cabinet members put together.

Sean entered the room suddenly, without fanfare or escort. He stood next to Rebecca and placed a gentle hand upon her shoulder.

“We all have things we don’t like about the countries we’re leaving behind,” he explained. “Australia, Japan, America, China. Their failures are many and glaring. But disgust with our previous cultures can’t be what unites us, most obviously because we are coming from different cultures. Even Thelans who do come from the same country will differ as to what they think is really wrong about their former homeland.

“The only way for Bethel to become a united people is for us to focus, not on what God has saved us from, but on what he has saved us unto. I appeal to you: leave your country, your people, and your father’s household. Leave it mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Do not think about where you came from, but about where you are going. A common vision, a common goal for the future – that is what unites us. That is what gives us a chance to succeed.”

“Let the dead bury their own dead,” Yu quoted.

“Yes,” Sean agreed. “You must shake the dust from your feet. This exhortation I extend to all Thelans, but especially to those of American origin. Ironically, you seem to possess not only the most patriotism for your original country, but also the most anger against her. Forget America. Forget her. She is no longer your home.

“There is to be no more talk from this government of the troubles we leave behind. Such was necessary during the time of recruitment and preparation. That time is over. The City On a Sea exists at last. Go therefore and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Rebecca marveled. She wondered how Sean and Pastor Yu had come to possess that allusive shrewdness so rare among Christians. Certainly Rebecca performed her administrative tasks with admirable excellence. But Sean and Yu possessed a cunning that went beyond mere skill.

The mystery of Rebecca’s inferiority baffled her. Was it simply privilege? New England prep school, Princeton undergrad, Harvard MBA. While she had been attending the most elite parties for up-and-comers, Yu had been suffering in prison. Sean had been cleaning bilge tanks. They knew of other hardships, too. Yu’s wife had been martyred. The wife of Bethel’s founder put on a good face in public, but she hated the idea of living at sea. That was likely part of it, Rebecca thought. Sean and Yu were tough men. They knew how the world worked.

But there was more. Some basic form of wisdom that God had granted them but not her. She did not understand it. And that was the point, of course. To understand it would be to possess it.

One thing, however, Rebecca Billings did understand.

She loved her little brother.

City On a Sea, short story #1

Winnow 101

 

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing

floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up

the chaff with unquenchable fire.  Matthew 3:12

Event: Sean Billings Book Tour, Opening Speech

Location: Hyatt Regency Meeting Room, Reston, VA

Time: Friday evening, 7:00 PM

Attendance: 153 adults; most are white, upper-middle class Evangelical Christians

I can’t wait for space. Meaning this: I can’t wait for the day when space travel becomes affordable. When that future date comes, people like me will found new colonies on the moon, on Mars, and on orbital platforms. Whether this expansion into the solar system becomes a reality in 100 years or 500 years hardly matters from my perspective. I won’t be here to see it.

I want to colonize a new land, establish a new nation, create a new civilization. But I can’t wait for space, because if I wait for space, I’ll die waiting. The territory is there. The technology exists. But the cost to get a pound of cargo into orbit is prohibitive. So although theoretically feasible, in reality we cannot establish a colony off-world. If we want to start over, then, we have to do it here.

The problem with this, of course, is that there is no land left to colonize. Every square foot on this planet is currently claimed by one nation or another. It is easy to forget that this is a recent phenomenon, that throughout most of human history new lands always existed for adventuresome souls to fill and subdue. Indeed, this sudden inability to create new countries is an oppressive weariness to those called and destined for such labors.

Some of you are born frontiersmen, naturally gifted to live a rugged, cutting-edge existence. Instead you waste away in the hoe-hum of worldly security. I imagine the opposite was the case in previous eras. Think of all the people born a thousand years ago who would have made excellent athletes and models and photocopier repairmen. They lived and died in the wrong era, never getting the chance to shine that they would have experienced in modern times.

But we face the opposite problem. We ache for a pioneer life devoid of sports, fashion magazines and office politics. We yearn to create something new rather than build on another’s foundation. We are risk-takers, entrepreneurs, visionaries, change-agents. We are the sort of people who established the 13 Colonies, and who hunger to do it again.

I love the United States of America. I love her innovation, her diversity, her resistance to the theological liberalism that destroyed the church in Europe. I love the vision of the New England Puritans (now mostly lost), and the vision of the Founding Fathers (now partly lost). I love it that America will probably never decline like Rome, Spain and England: once great empires, now shadows of their former glory. There is something unique about the United States, something that sets her apart from these lesser nations of old. And I think that unique quality, whatever exactly it is, will never be wholly lost.

Yet some of our nation’s former glory has been left in the past. America’s technological and military triumphs do not make up for her moral decline or her foreign indebtedness. The church is broad but shallow: few believers possess the theological or intellectual firepower to fight the state religion of humanism. Even within evangelical churches, not many can affirm the doctrine of biblical inerrancy or articulate the gospel of justification by faith alone, through grace alone, because of Christ alone.

In the study of America’s early colonization, a fact often neglected is that many colonists came to the New World because they loved England. They desired to establish a Christian civilization, one that would retain all the best features of Britain while replacing the rest with Biblical principles. The resultant culture would serve as a city on a hill, a shining example to the motherland from which the colonists came. England would behold God’s blessing upon the new polity across the Atlantic. England would give up her ways and become like her daughter culture. To no small extent the early colonists accomplished their goal. The United Kingdom eventually followed America’s lead and became a free, democratic society.

It is because I love America that I want to establish Bethel. I want to create a civilization that will function as a city on a hill – or, if you will, a city on a sea. This new country will retain all that is best about the United States while seeking to remake the rest on a Biblical foundation. As the generations go by and Bethel matures, she will, Lord willing, receive so much blessing from God that all nations (and especially the United States) cannot help but wonder. By God’s grace other lands will eventually follow our lead. In this our mandate to function as salt and light will be fulfilled.

But again we encounter our fundamental problem: no land on Earth is left for colonization, and space is too expensive. If we cannot use Earth’s landmasses and we have to stay on Earth, only one option remains: we must colonize Earth’s oceans.

Over two-thirds of our planet’s surface remains undeveloped. Ships use the oceans, but no nation lives upon them. More importantly, no nation claims them. For that is the real issue. Our planet, after all, contains lots of unused land. It is simply that no country would ever allow an independent colony on such land. The oceans, however, are fair game: vast unclaimed territory in which we can build the city of God.

The new country being created is distinct from modern nations in a number of respects. Most obviously, we will not have a defined territory that can be designated upon a map. Our people will live on ships, of course, but these ships will be in constant motion. Thus Bethel’s “territory” will be in constant motion. Because my company, Pacific Rim Cargo, will provide most of the initial vessels, Bethel will exist almost exclusively on the Pacific Ocean. But be clear about this: the Pacific Ocean is not Bethel’s “territory.” We will make no claims to it or any other body of water.

Bethel will also be unique in that no one can be born a citizen. When children reach adulthood, they will have to undergo the same process as immigrants: they will study the national covenant and decide whether or not to sign the bottom line. This notion of a voluntary state may challenge your most basic assumptions of what a country is (though there is wisdom to this change: new wine in new wineskins). Please remember there was a day in which everyone who lived within a given parish was automatically considered to be a member of that parish’s church. No one had a choice as to which church to join. Western civilization went through the difficult but necessary transition to a voluntary church. It is time we go through the difficult but necessary transition to a voluntary state.

A third distinctive is that this will be an explicitly Christian nation. In the controversy over whether or not America is (or ever was) a Christian country, historians have great difficulty in defining what, exactly, it means for any culture to be “Christian.” We will formally define this concept. First, our oaths will be Trinitarian: in order to become a citizen or hold any government job, a person must uphold the Three Creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Chalcedonian). Public vows will not be made in the name of a generic, Unitarian God, but in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Second, the Bible will serve as the official foundation for our constitution and legal code. This sounds like a controversial idea until one realizes that all law is necessarily religious. In other words, because all law flows out of some specific worldview, and because all worldviews are essentially religious, there is no such thing as a government that is “non-religious.” 400 years ago, Christianity was the official religion of the American colonies because the colonies tried to base their laws upon the Bible. Today, secular humanism is the official religion of America because our country tries to base its laws upon a naturalistic worldview. But a government always has a state religion, even if it officially denies it. Indeed, the only way for a nation not to have an official religion is for that nation not to have laws – in which case it would no longer be a nation.

Ironically, Christians are the ones who tend to get most offended at the idea of establishing a Christian country. In the past three years I have received input from thousands of fellow believers who feel great hostility toward this project, and who have expressed their reasons with, shall we say, extreme prejudice. I will not elaborate every argument that has been used against me, but rather mention the one I  think best grounded in the Spirit rather than the flesh.

It has been suggested that the Bethel project violates the teaching that Christians are to be in the world but not of the world. In other words, people think I am trying to withdraw from society and set up a nation like Old Testament Israel, separate from unbelievers. A return to the sins of medieval monasticism, if you will. “We are to be salt and light,” these people say. “If you create this city on a sea, you cannot function as a city on a hill.”

Allow me to offer two responses to this very legitimate concern. One: Although only Christians will be able to become citizens or collect government paychecks, Bethel will also contain large numbers of resident aliens. Many of these immigrants will be unbelievers attracted to the two things Bethel offers that their prior country does not: freedom and jobs. And so every ship will contain plenty of non-Christians for believers to evangelize.

Two: Consider the sort of life to be lived by the people of Bethel. We will move from port to port around the Pacific Rim, delivering cargo and providing whatever services businesses wish to purchase. Our people will interact constantly with a myriad of nations, learning their cultures and languages, assisting the indigenous churches as God provides opportunity, and in general engaging is the sort of risky, frontline evangelism seldom undertaken by sleepy American Evangelicals trapped in their suburban comfort zones. Far from withdrawing from the world, we will actually be doing the opposite: we will engage the peoples of the Pacific to a previously unheard-of extent.

In closing, let me stress again just how completely I love my country. I am no embittered America-hater. I stand without hesitation at the singing of our national anthem. I vote in every election and willingly pay my taxes. I cry every time I hear Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” But just because America is the greatest country on earth does not mean it is impossible to create a country that is even greater. And never forget, in the end I undertake this project for America’s sake. I want the U.S. convicted over how God blesses Bethel. Nothing would please me more than to see the United States reform itself to the extent that this alternate society’s existence ceases to be necessary. May our Lord Jesus grant such favor. God bless Bethel. God bless the U.S.A.

Event: Sean Billings Book Tour, Question and Answer Session

Location: Hyatt Regency Breakout Room, Reston, VA

Time: Friday evening, 8:00 PM

Attendance: 31 adults; 25 Caucasian, 6 Asian

Aren’t there better ways to exercise visionary desires?

Certainly there are other ways to live the life of a visionary, but that does not automatically mean such ways are better. The issue is one’s personal calling before God. If Christ is calling you to start a business or plant a church, then by all means express your risk-taking personality in such manner. But if God is calling you to start a new country, than starting a new country is “better” for you.

Shouldn’t we stay and try to reform the United States from within?

Again, it has to do with calling. I have no doubt that most of you are called to stay and function as salt and light right here in the States. Indeed, there may be only one person in this whole audience whom God is calling to help found Bethel. But let me remind you: Although most Christians stayed in England, the few who colonized America ended up having a far greater impact on England than the ones who remained behind.

Why would anyone want to emigrate to Bethel?

For the same two reasons people want to emigrate to the United States: freedom and jobs. Indeed, the only reason our project has any chance of success is because the United States places restrictions on emigration. Think of it in economic terms: there is great demand worldwide to live in America. America is not meeting this demand, meaning most of those who want to emigrate to the United States are denied legal entry. We are in a position to meet some of this unmet demand. In fact, so many people want to move to the States that Bethel can be very choosy in whom we let in. Many of the world’s brightest and most diligent people, longing for liberty and opportunity, will accept emigration to Bethel as a second-best option.

But why would an American want to switch countries?

Bethel offers a prospective American immigrant the following advantages:

1) A total tax rate of 9%. This contrasts sharply with America’s total rate >50%.

2) The absence of property and estate taxes. No government claim to ultimate ownership.

3) Maintenance of a gold standard. No printing money, no inflation, no central bank.

4) Government borrowing is constitutionally forbidden. No national debt.

5) Criminals punished in one of two fashions: restitution paid to victim, or corporal punishment. No prisons, enhanced deterrence, general cultural satisfaction at justice being done.

6) No welfare, Social Security, Medicare, etc. Charity performed by family and church.

7) Life onboard a ship is cramped. Forces people to know their neighbors, live in community. An effective counter to American individualism and isolationism.

8 ) Allows Christians to reclaim from liberals the issues of ethnic diversity and environmental concern. Bethel will be the most ethnically diverse nation the world has ever known. Potential hostility will force us to pursue non-fossil fuel alternatives for powering our vessels.

9) Different patent laws. Researchers and inventors will be allowed to use the ideas and discoveries of others, even without permission. Patent holders will be paid a portion of any profits thus generated, but patent holders will not be allowed to retain their ideas. This will greatly accelerate technological advancement, attracting many scientists who long to build on the achievements of others.

10) Different work laws. Children will allowed to work, thus permitting boys to appreciate the importance of school. By spending part of the day at work instead of at school, the “problem” of fidgety boys will be solved. Children will be able to join in their parents’ work to a greater extent than possible in the U.S. Work will pull family members together rather than pushing them apart.

11) Different laws for civil cases. Fear of being sued is a fear from which the government ought to protect its people. There will be no frivolous lawsuits or absurd damage awards.

12) Increased rate of development in select areas of endeavor: shipbuilding, marine science, solar satellite power generation, satellite internet, sea-based satellite lunch capabilities, non-lethal weaponry, protection of ocean environment from overfishing and coal-based pollution, etc.

13) Unparalleled evangelistic opportunities. Central America, South America, China, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, Siberia, etc.

14) Happiness. God has made some people with a great longing for adventure. We do not claim that God has made all people with such desire. We do not claim that all people should have such desire. But for those with adventure hardwired into their personalities, Bethel may provide the first genuine chance at happiness they have ever experienced.

The typical American Christian would never want to join your project.

That’s the point: America was not founded by average people. We need a non-random sample to make this work.

Christians never succeed at anything.

If I understand this comment correctly, you are referring to Jesus’ words in Luke 16: The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. It is true unbelievers often do a better job of subduing the earth than we do. All I can say is that although we tend to produce wealth in mediocre fashion, it does not have to be this way. Jesus is making an observation, not establishing a principle. And in any event, the successful colonization of New England proves that it can be done.

Christians should focus on evangelism.

When have I ever suggested otherwise? But our calling to disciple the nations does not absolve us of our responsibility to function as salt and light in every area of culture and thought. Jesus did not come to save us from responsibility; rather he came to save us from sin and its consequences, unto a large assortment of kingdom responsibilities. It’s also worth repeating that a desire to engage in missions will serve as primary motivation for many to become citizens of Bethel, or at least live in Bethel.

What if countries place your ships under embargo?

Can any of you name the shipping company that imported the clothing you are now wearing? No one cares how their cars and computers get transported across the ocean, as long as the merchandise gets here. But I acknowledge the project may engender irrational hostility at times. Two things. First, we will be implementing very strict security standards, searching every container for drugs, weapons, etc. Companies do not do this now because it would be too cost-prohibitive. But remember that we will be living on our ships. Contraband will threaten our territory as well as our reputation, so we will go to extraordinary lengths to keep it from entering the U.S. (By the way, this will be the primary form of employment for children: they will search containers during transit across the Pacific.) Thus if Bethel is placed under embargo, it will render America more vulnerable to terrorist attack. Second, there are an awful lot of countries in the Pacific Rim. It is highly unlikely that all of them would place us under embargo at the same time. And if worst came to worst, what can I say? There are plenty of fish in the sea.

What would be the disadvantages for an American who emigrated to Bethel?

There is an obvious drop in standard of living: sea-sickness, cramped quarters, no yard, won’t have cars or golf courses. Just a lot of what we associate with being a middle class American will be missing. Some professions and skills are useless at sea, so certain immigrants will have to retrain in a new line of work. If a person goes as far as giving up his U.S. citizenship, he will lose all the money he has paid into Social Security (assuming the program remains solvent, of course). What will be hardest for most American Christians, however, is the loss of respectability. The person who chooses to emigrate to Bethel will be mocked, laughed at, scorned as a fool. You can hear how I am ridiculed in the news. You know how nasty some fellow believers would turn if they even knew you were attending this meeting. Join me and you will have to share in my suffering.

Could ships secede from Bethel?

If only the U.S. Constitution had spelled out procedures by which states could secede from the Union! That’s what many Southerners still believe, yes? Well, the rough draft of the Bethel Constitution is online; go ahead and look at it now. You’ll note that any Bethel ship can secede a year and a day after giving notice. Such an interval is necessary to grant the vessel’s inhabitants time to buy or lease space on another ship. But no ship will be retained against its owner’s will.

The whole project sounds utterly impractical.

If by impractical you mean difficult, I agree completely. History displays innumerable colonization failures. Jamestown and Plymouth certainly did not start well. But hard is not the same as impossible. I am bringing a fleet of cargo ships, a reputation as a reliable company, and over a billion dollars to the table. So we have decent start-up capital. We will also benefit from two new technologies: a way of casting hull sections from composites rather than steel, and a method for processing heavy metals out of seafood. These techs (should God so bless their implementation) will ensure that we always have deck beneath our feet and fish paste in our bellies.

You would never get United Nations recognition.

We don’t want UN recognition. The pilgrims didn’t need the UN to write the Mayflower Compact, and neither do we. In other words, UN recognition does not make a country a country. In fact, it is absolutely essential for this project’s success that the UN not recognize Bethel. The lack of recognition will keep away those who crave legitimacy in the eyes of the world. I don’t want believers who want to be taken seriously by unbelievers. Such Christians would wreck Bethel before it even got started.

The politically correct will go ballistic.

Yes. But because Bethel’s population will be only 10-20% Caucasian, and because we will pursue a number of environment-friendly technologies, we will be able to divide the PC crowd. We will spin attacks against us as racist and harmful to the environment.

Doesn’t the use of Trinitarian oaths violate the separation of church and state?

Do not swallow the propaganda of our enemies. All governments are religious. All oaths are religious. A Trinitarian oath is religious. A Unitarian oath is religious. An oath that makes no mention of God is religious. Humanists have succeeded in getting their religion relabeled as a non-religion so that they can make it the official state religion, but please don’t get snookered by their rhetoric. The question is never, “Should our polity be based upon a religious worldview?” Rather the question is only ever, “Upon what religion should our polity be based?”

Once you realize that everything is religious, you are able to understand that the separation of church and state means separation of duties. God has appointed specific tasks to individual, church, family, and state. Separation means each covenantal unit doing its job, and no one else’s. So no Bethel church will ever arrest criminals or defend vessels from attack. Likewise no government, either at the ship or national level, will engage in charity work or educate children. Far from violating the separation of church and state, Bethel will actually uphold separation far more vigorously than the American government currently does. And not just separation between church and state, but also between individual and state, and family and state. With a 9% maximum tax rate and no authority to print or borrow money, our government will not have the resources to violate separation. Instead it will have to devote all its limited funding to its one proper task: bearing the sword.

Are you a Theonomist?

Certainly I have been labeled such by some opponents. I suppose it depends on how you define the term. I take the New England Puritans very seriously, and I find their Bible-based legal code fascinating. Ironically, however, despite many seeming similarities, Theonomists themselves do not consider me one of them. I take a redemptive-historical approach to the Old Testament, viewing its primary purpose to be preparation for Christ’s first advent. Specifically, I consider the 4000 years between Adam and Jesus to be a time in which God shows us what does not work (meaning what does not solve the problem of Man’s Fall). Every Old Testament event, action, and command – everything we encounter in the Hebrew Scriptures shows that what we really need is Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus, although I have great respect for the Old Testament, I do not think we should write the Pentateuch straight into our law books. This is what John Cotton did in 1641. I appreciate his desire to take God’s law seriously, but I do not agree with how he went about it.

At a practical level, the most controversial Theonomic position is the criminalizing of the first four commandments. Given how believers are now supposed to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations (whereas in the Old Testament believers stayed put and let unbelievers come to them), I think it would be wrong for Bethel to criminalize the first table. Under the New Covenant believers must engage in incarnational ministry, being in the world but not of the world. To function as salt and light in such a manner, our country must grant people full freedom  of religion.

But it seems like you are denying people freedom of religion.

Only if people were being forced to enter the Bethel Compact. Requiring a non-Christian to take a Trinitarian oath would violate that person’s religious freedom. But no one is forcing anyone to become a citizen of Bethel! We want to establish a Christian country. We are free to do so. Others are free to join us or not join us as they see fit. Resident aliens on our ships will be perfectly free to practice Islam or Judaism or Humanism – whatever their hearts desire.

Self-sufficiency is unobtainable.

We have no desire to be self-sufficient. We will buy rice from America, clothing from China, computers from Taiwan, and tequila from Mexico. The whole self-sufficiency thing is a crackpot idea found on fringe separatist websites. Understand that we are not like those groups. Our goal is not to escape the world, or be independent from the world. Our goal is to transform the world.

Green energy is uneconomic.

It sure is. But I never said we would run an economy devoid of fossil fuels. Our vessels will have electric drive shafts, allowing some use of wind and solar power. We may experiment with sails made of photovoltaic cloth. We can trail thermocouples. We can use solar power to break water into hydrogen and oxygen. A lot of ideas will be explored and tested. But bottom line is that ships will have diesel or gas-turbine engines to make sure goods and services get delivered on time.

What jobs will people perform?

Cargo-handling, shipbuilding, fishing, sea-based satellite launch, extraction of minerals from sea water, marine science, weather forecasting, etc. There’s a lot of “earth” to subdue out there. The colonists simply have to be willing to adopt a radically different lifestyle.

How can your government exist if ships remain under private ownership?

A government does not have to own property in order to exist. What difference does it make whether the state owns part of a ship or leases part of a ship?

It doesn’t seem like there will be enough people per ship to create a real society.

If you’re referring to the sort of massive downtown or crowded mega-church in which individuals can slip through life unnoticed, you’re absolutely right. Churches will be small, town hall meetings will be small, one-room school houses will be the norm. But is being forced to live in close fellowship really such a bad thing? Plus vessels will sometimes link up at sea. They will also dock together in port. So there will be times when larger groupings occur.

Won’t people living on the ships reduce the economic efficiency of each ship?

Good question. In providing quarters for 100-150 citizens, a container ship will lose 30-40% of its cargo-carrying capacity. Short-term this is a significant economic disadvantage. But remember that these families will not maintain homes on land. Our merchantmen will make less money but end up with more disposable income. Also our new ships will be built from composite materials, enabling them to last for hundreds of years. After the first generation Bethel carriers will reap significant profits because the cost of their financing will have been paid off.

It seems like a very risky lifestyle: ships sink.

Not as risky as New England 400 years ago. Not as risky as the frontier 100 years ago. Bethel is for people who want to take risks. If comfort and security is your thing, a city on the sea is not for you.

What if the United States tries to stop you?

We will never kill an American. Ever. Even if Americans commit capital crimes on Republic of Bethel “soil.” Even if the U.S. Navy attacks our “territory.” We will never kill an American.

What if America tries to stop us, you ask? They could end Bethel in a day. But Providence has given us a window of opportunity. Fifty years ago the United States would never have allowed a project like this one to succeed. Fifty years from now the United States will not allow a project like this one to begin. Right now, however, because of the unique qualities of this generation of Americans, we have a chance. Lord willing, by the time 60-70 years have passed and the United States suddenly realizes we are on the verge of inheriting her mantle, she will no longer be able to stop us.

Event: Sean Billings Book Tour, Dinner

Location: Morton’s Steak House, Reston Town Center, Reston, VA

Time: Friday evening, 10:00 PM

Attendance: Sean Billings + five guests

“I’ve got the tab,” Sean informed the men who joined him for a late dinner. He had reserved a table for six and was pleased that he had guessed right. Not that Morton’s would have refused him additional seating, of course. It was just the principle of the thing: he knew how to whittle down a crowd.

“I inherited PacRim when I was 25,” Sean told his guests, though likely they already knew it. “My father believed in running the company from aboard ship. I grew up at sea. I know people can live on bulk carriers because I’ve done it all my life. But my backstory we can save for another time. Why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourselves.”

“Josh Buikema,” said the man to Sean’s immediate left, shaking his hand. “K Street lobbyist, married 27 years, five kids, members at Grace OPC.”

“Lance Hershey, technical sales for IBM, married 10 years, 2 kids, go to McLean Bible.”

“Jonathan Cheung, software developer in the Valley. Married one year, no kids. Members at Redeemer.”

“Enoch Park, owner and chief operator, NOVA Form Construction Company. My wife and I are separated. Four kids. We used to attend Reston Bible.”

“Scott McGuire, real estate attorney, married 35 years, 4 kids, 9 grandkids, members at Reston Pres.”

Sean directed a question at Jonathan: “You’re here from California?”

“Your YouTube hadn’t gone viral when you were doing the West Coast. I came out in order to hear you. You might want to add some new California dates now that you’re getting press.”

This man flew 3000 miles to hear me tonight, Sean considered. Top of the list.

“How’s the recession affecting business?” Sean asked.

“We may have to declare bankruptcy,” Enoch answered. “I own a construction company and I may end up losing my own home. The stress is pretty bad. Marriage isn’t doing too well. In counseling, though. Trying to work it out.”

Desperately willing to relocate, Sean thought. Like a lot of pioneers.

“Income’s down two-thirds,” Scott added. “Market is dead. If I were younger I’d be out of business, but I’ve got no debt so I’m able to hang on.”

“No debt of any kind?” Sean pressed. “Business, mortgage, credit cards?”

“None,” Scott affirmed. “The borrower is slave to the lender.”

Give him to me, Lord, Sean prayed.

“What does technical sales mean?” Sean asked to be polite. He already knew the answer.

Lance replied: “Salesmen take me along because I actually understand the products we’re selling. Once they get the customer interested, I take over and do geek-speak.”

“Did you pick summer recess deliberately?” Josh asked.

“Yes,” Sean said. “I knew I’d never get an actual public official to attend. So better to wait for when they’ve all cleared out. Then everyone else would have a chance to come hear me.”

“Your ideas would never even get discussed in committee,” Josh noted.

Sean nodded. “That’s why I’m starting a new country.”

“It sounds like treason.”

“I’m doing it because I love America,” Sean insisted, “although I’ll never convince the God and Country folks of that. They’ve combined Christianity with American Patriotism, destroying both in the process. God have mercy on the preacher if I ever see a Bethel flag up front in the Sunday worship space.”

“You mentioned retraining,” Enoch interrupted. “Not much use for homebuilding at sea. How would a person learn a new trade?”

“The best way possible,” Sean declared. “On the job.”

“You said churches would be small,” Jonathan mentioned. “How could they support a pastor?”

“Most of them likely couldn’t,” Sean said. “Some pastors might oversee multiple ships, though that would really only work in port. In practice ministers will have to be part-time tentmakers. But there’s a lot of spiritual value in the pastor working with his hands. Nothing like sweating alongside a dockhand to make him responsive to your sermon.”

The six men paused to discuss the menu and order dinner. Sean prayed over his potential recruits. PacRim’s salesmen often described an adequate deal as “paying” for the effort that went into securing the sale. Sean didn’t need customers, however; he needed Founding Fathers: strong, disciplined, Type A personalities willing to sign the Bethel Compact. Sean figured a single colonist would be enough to “pay” for dinner. One good colonist would probably pay for the entire swing through Northern Virginia.

Josh got the group back on topic. “I’ve read through your proposed legal code,” he said to Sean. “There’s a lot to like about it, but it seems random, like you’re picking and choosing which laws to include.”

“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” Sean agreed.

“Then how can you say your code is based on the Bible?” Josh objected. “If you include only the laws you feel like including, it’s really based on your own personal sense of justice or equity or whatever. You’re claiming final authority.”

“Well, let’s clarify this,” their host began. “The two easy routes are to either completely disregard the Old Testament law, or to write the whole Mosaic code straight into our modern book of statutes. I say these are easy ways because neither requires thinking.”

Josh shook his head. “You’re assuming God no longer wants us using the Mosaic law. If God is unchanging, and if the law reflects his unchanging sense of justice, then how can you justify changing any of his laws?”

“God does not change,” Sean said. “But we are in a different stage of redemptive history. The main purpose of the Mosaic Law is to prove that law is powerless. God piles on the commands, hundreds and hundreds of them. Do these precepts produce a redemptive effect? Do they transform the Israelites into new people? No, the Mosaic code provides a reductio ad absurdum demonstration that law is not the answer.”

Josh began to fidget. “By that reasoning we should chuck the whole Old Testament.”

Sean shook his head. “I said this is the main purpose of the law. It is not the law’s only purpose. The law functions as an extension of God’s immutable justice, like you said. Thus we must still apply its general principles when forming a Christian polity.”

“I just don’t think you understand me. Picking and choosing automatically puts us in the position of judging God’s law. Who are we to judge the Judge?”

“Your argument would be a strong one if I were using my own criteria to determine which laws we should keep or get rid of. But if the Bible gives us guidance to assist us in this process, and if we submit ourselves to this guidance, then it is possible to rework the Mosaic law for a modern setting while still submitting to it.”

“You’ll make mistakes,” Josh protested.

“Obviously,” Sean granted. “In eternity I will discover some laws I should have included in the Code of Bethel, and other laws I should have left at the border between testaments. But just because I can’t do a perfect job doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. After rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah feels no obligation to restore the Mosaic Code verbatim. Instead he adapts it to the changed circumstances of the 5th Century B.C. If Nehemiah can do this while serving under the Old Covenant, how much more can New Covenant believers do the same!”

Sean observed without comment as Josh settled into a brooding scowl. I’ve lost him, Sean concluded. Likely Josh wanted the First Table criminalized along with the Second. That was never going to happen. Not in Bethel, anyway. New wine went in new wineskins.

Lance jumped in. “You’ll have to pardon me, Josh, but saying that he isn’t using enough Old Testament doesn’t really make much sense. Haven’t you read the online criticisms? The number one complaint about Bethel is that its code relies too much on the Mosaic Law. The PC crowd is just going nuts: intolerant, oppressive, medieval, no better than a Muslim. He’s made himself a laughingstock just with the 2nd Table. You want more?”

“Political expediency should not determine the law,” Josh declared.

“I’m not claiming that it should,” Sean said. “Let me make this clear: if I thought the Bible still required witches to be executed, I would include such a statute in the Bethel Code – and who cares how much unbelievers whine about it.”

“You come across as a pragmatist,” Josh insisted.

This was a deeper insult than his guest knew, but Sean let it go. “I’m not,” Sean replied.

“How can you say he’s a pragmatist?” Lance challenged. “His rough draft is utterly impractical. Shouldn’t all the criticism from pragmatists at least secure him from the charge of pragmatism.”

“Why is my code impractical?” Sean asked, determined to move the conversation forward.

“You’ll execute half your population in the first five years. I mean, it’s ridiculous how many capital offenses you have. I can understand murder, and maybe rape and kidnapping, but all the rest? You’ve got cursing your parents, for goodness’ sake, plus all the sexual sins. How can you make these crimes?”

“You’re asking two separate questions. I think I should treat them separately. The first is this: How do we decide which acts to criminalize? In the context of this question we must remember that just because an act is sinful does not automatically mean that the government should punish it. In the Pentateuch all crimes are sins, but not all sins are crimes. The second question regards sentencing: Once a specific act is labeled as a crime, how exactly should that crime be punished?

“Now at the risk of sounding overly simplistic,” Sean continued, “I think we should use the Bible to answer these questions. We should criminalize those sins that are criminalized in the Bible. Then the government should apply the sanction commanded by the Bible.”

“But that’s not what you’re doing,” Josh objected. “You’re picking and choosing.”

“Allow me to repeat myself,” Sean said. “With a change in covenant there necessarily comes a change in law. So based upon how the New Testament vision is different than the Old Testament vision, we will, as you say, ‘pick and choose.’ But the Bible does not leave us without guidance as to how to go about this. For example, the Scriptures lay out a number of principles for determining whether a law is moral or ceremonial. Does a command extend or apply one of the Ten Commandments? Does the New Testament explicitly reaffirm the command? Are Gentiles required to obey it (and condemned when they do not)? Through these and other such rules, New Testament believers can decide if a Mosaic law is still in force.

“Again, when we are trying to decide which moral laws to criminalize, the Bible does not leave us without direction. Sure, some acts are explicitly listed as crimes: murder, theft, perjury, etc. But these case laws do not mention all offenses; writing a law for every possible offense would require a Bible larger than this restaurant. So we study the law and meditate upon it, gaining insight into the mind of God. What general principles does God follow when deciding whether or not to criminalize a sin? He seems to implement four principles: an act must be intentional, it must cause harm to someone, it must be committed in public, and it must be a sin of commission (sins of omission are not criminalized).”

“You’re being inconsistent,” Josh pressed. “Some violations of the ceremonial law are criminalized in the Pentateuch. Same with violations of the First Table. You’re being inconsistent.”

Sean decided to tune Josh out. The guy had come with his own agenda. He wasn’t seeking information about Sean’s vision; he wanted to sell Sean a vision of his own. Sean wasn’t interested. Plus he was paying for dinner, time was limited, and further interaction with Josh would serve no useful purpose: the man did not have ears to hear.

“You haven’t answered my question,” Lance said.

“Actually, I have,” Sean replied. “For some reason when people see sexual sins on the list, they automatically assume our intent is to establish a police state. Like we would put cameras in people’s homes! Ridiculous straw man. Civil law concerns public behavior. It suppresses shameful deeds. But it’s not like police are going to be searching ships for criminal conduct. Complaints have to be made. Charges have to be filed. The government is to concern itself with what is done in public. What people do in the privacy of their homes is their own business.”

“I still think you’re going to destroy your project through excessive use of capital punishment,” Lance maintained.

You’re showing you haven’t actually read my book, Sean reflected, looking to see if his other guests had reached the same conclusion. “It sounds like you’re judging the substantive section without reference to the procedural section. Consider the law as a whole. Yes, the Bethel Code makes cursing or striking one’s parents a capital offense. But instead of studying these precepts in isolation, note a critical procedural law: every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. How many parents would decide to press charges and testify against their child? Surely parents would resort to such desperate measures only in the most exceptional of circumstances.

“Likewise the people themselves must carry out the execution: witnesses, jury, and then everyone else. The importance of this cannot be stressed too much. There is no government executioner! So if the people are not willing to carry out the death penalty with their own hands, no one will get executed. Plus you must not forget the deterrent effect of the law. If people know the death penalty is a serious possibility, they will be less inclined to commit crimes capital. Add all this together, then, and you end up with a relatively small number of executions in any given generation.”

“If people aren’t actually being executed, why call the crimes capital?” Lance asked.

“Ask God the same question re: the Mosaic code. The Law was intended to maintain civil order and suppress open sin. If the Israelites had obeyed the code, it presumably would have accomplished these objectives.”

“I still think death is way too harsh for most of these offenses,” Lance concluded.

Sean paused for a moment to let the gravity of this observation sink in. “Be careful,” he finally said. “We tread now on dangerous ground. If execution is too harsh under the New Covenant, then it was too harsh under the Old Covenant. Covenants change. Cultures change. God remains the same. His sense of justice remains the same. Appealing to his eternal and unchanging knowledge of dessert, I ask who knows better what punishment fits a crime: God or man?”

“Yes,” Lance pressed, “the punishment should fit the crime. ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ Executing someone for a sexual offense violates the Lex Talionis. The punishment does not fit the crime. It is like death for an eye rather than eye for an eye.”

“Again,” Sean replied, “consider the implications of what you are saying. You are claiming a greater understanding of justice than God himself possesses. He has listed the crimes that deserve death. Obviously you disagree with him. But does the fact that you disagree automatically prove that he is wrong and you are right? Isn’t the opposite also possible? What if sin has distorted your thinking, yea, your very sense of justice? O mortal man, think mortal thoughts!”

Lance wasn’t ready to give up: “And your method of execution is too harsh. You’re asking people to surrender their right against cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Consider stoning’s benefits,” Sean explained. “The materials are cheap and readily accessible. The use of stones makes it easy for everyone to participate (again, an absolutely essential component). The witnesses being forced to cast the first stone helps protect against perjury. The people carrying out the sentence provides a crucial check on the government’s power. If an unjust judge sentences someone to die and the people refuse to carry out the sentence, there is nothing the judge can do about it (no paid executioner). Stoning is very public and very painful, thus providing a strong deterrent against future crime. Imagine how much less willing a person will be to commit an offense, if he knows he will be punished in such a fashion!

“Despite all its advantages, however, we cannot use stoning. One reason criminals were stoned is that stoning sheds blood. Murder especially ‘defiled’ the land, necessitating that the land be cleansed through the spilling of the murderer’s blood. Such an Old Testament concern for the land’s defilement no longer exists, now that Christ has shed his blood: the whole earth is clean; no crime can undo what Christ has done. To acknowledge the completeness of Christ’s work, then, it is essential that we use a method of execution that retains stoning’s various advantages but does not involve the shedding of blood.”

Now Lance was ready to give up. He shrugged his shoulders and fell into a mumbling sulk. Two down, Sean thought. The Founding Father of Bethel got a sudden picture of himself as Willy Wonka, whittling down his assortment of bratty children till only one remained. Maybe if I owned a candy factory, he mused, people would consider me eccentric rather than crazy. He would have to look into buying one.

The food arrived, saving everyone. Sean shifted his attention to his three remaining prospects. He wondered about Enoch. Marriage problems. Would moving to Bethel breathe new life into a struggling marriage – or provide the final stress to shatter it? No no-fault divorce in Sean’s city on a sea. What would they do with people who had already gotten divorced? What about men trying to escape alimony and child-support payments back in the States? So much work still to do!

Enoch must have noticed Sean’s attention, for he finally spoke up. “It seems to me you have to come up with a way to get people to take you seriously.”

Sean promptly replied: “I don’t want people to take me seriously.”

At this Enoch blanched. “Then you’ll never get Americans.”

“That’s exactly why I don’t want to be taken seriously. I don’t want many Americans.” Sean noticed that this last comment offended Scott. “Understand, most of our citizens must be immigrants from other countries. If too many come from the States, we will end up simply trying to recreate a tiny version of America. It’s different with people coming from countries they hate: they will lay hold of the new vision much more readily.”

“But you’ve got to have Americans,” Scott protested.

In an instant Sean realized what the man meant: you’ve got to have white people. He observed Scott’s body language, noticed that he refused to interact with the two Asian men at the table. As far as Scott was concerned, Enoch and Jonathan were unpeople. They were not white, and so they did not exist. A country made of such personages would not “count” as a real country because it would not be composed of “real” people.

Sean considered all the immigrants he employed, many far better at being “American” than the typical Caucasian born in the States. I will build a nation of international elites, Sean swore, and I will leave your pathetic racist mediocrity in the dust.

Most of Sean Billings’ guests seemed in a sudden hurry to get through the meal. He made no effort to detain them. A few handshakes later and Sean sat eating dessert with Jonathan Cheung.

“A Theonomist, an Antinomian, a people-pleaser, and a racist,” Jonathan observed, much to Sean’s satisfaction. “Not one of them came to hear you. You realize that, right? They came looking for an audience. They wanted you to hear them. It’s a good thing you only answered written questions, or they would have taken over your second session.”

“We’re doing something that most Americans consider bizarre or even crazy,” Sean explained. “That means we end up attracting the fringe: malcontents, malingerers, people with a chip on their shoulder. One of the biggest challenges is winnowing such chaff out of the mix.”

“ I was the only wheat in tonight’s group?”

 “Probably. You bring any skills to the table?”

“Two MIT doctorates, computer science and economics.”

“I see,” Sean said. “So exactly how smart does that make you?”

“Smart enough to know the U.S. will monetize its debt rather than default on it. I want my business established in a hard-currency country before the hyper-inflation hits.”

Sean nodded.

“You made a statement earlier this evening,” Jonathan said, “regarding a window of opportunity that makes possible the success of your venture.”

“Yes,” Sean replied. “Everything is beautiful in its season. Colonization is about to become beautiful.”

“Care to elaborate on what you mean?”

Sean demurred. “Some insights I must keep between me and the Lord. Perhaps you’ll figure it out for yourself. If Bethel does well, in 75 years everyone will know the answer to your question.”

“Can a country be born in a day or a nation be brought forth in a moment?” the software engineer asked.

At hearing this verse from Isaiah, the PacRim Cargo CEO could not help but smile. Jonathan Cheung had read his book. “The wealth on the seas will be brought to you,” Sean offered in reply, “to you the riches of the nations will come.”

Without hesitation Bethel’s newest colonist quoted again, “In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on the earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.”

Bethel’s First Founder echoed back, “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them.”

The man who would find his life that he might lose it: “The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations.”

The man who would lose his life that he might find it: “Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.”

Jonathan pulled an Aurora Asia fountain pen from his pocket and placed it confidently on the table. “I’m in,” he said.

Sean picked up the $1500 gift and tucked it into his jacket. Paid for dinner, indeed.

Identify the Second Lie

*** Spoiler Alert ***

This is the hardest of the Four Rules to understand. On a closed planet, the First Lie is that Christianity does not exist. These isolated cultures possess in their libraries and databases only a radically altered version of history, a version that has eliminated all references to Christ. This revisionism is absolute, meaning the inhabitants of closed worlds do not know that their history books have been altered. In other words, they are not told, “Christianity does not exist.” They do not realize their colonies were established primarily to perpetuate this falsehood. They are so secular they do not know they are secular. This is the First Lie.

But non-Christians are incapable of lying just once. Given the opportunity to start a civilization from scratch, they find the temptation to “tinker” with the historical record irresistable. So they “cook the books” in other ways. On Laxalar, the population is told that all vertabrates are extinct. On New Caledonia, people are taught that Earth has been conquered by an alien race, and that they have to remain in hiding while developing new military technologies. These Second Lies, once discovered, can be exploited by missionaries. The missionary exposes the Second Lie to the clueless colonists, thereby convincing them that their founders were liars and losers. Once this revelation of the Second Lie stirs up doubts and critical thinking, the First Lie can be breached.

Remember the Humanist Hope: once mankind embraces naturalism, secular humanism, etc., humans will be able to create a paradise on earth (since religious thinking is the cause of all evil). But to achieve this absolutely secular culture, history must be revised. Utopia through ignorance, that is the idea. The humanists of today must make decisions on behalf of the people of tomorrow. Future people must not know what the people of today know. Alter the past and you alter how people think and live in the present. Lies are therefore the key to creating a perfect world.

How depressing that many well-educated people actually believe this rubbish. Our encouragement is that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Humanists will fail in their attempt to rewrite history. And not only will they fail, but man will always possess an inspired and inerrant record of the major events of our first 4000 years on Earth: the Bible. Unbelievers will never succeed in eliminating or even suppressing the Scriptures. We know this because of God’s promise in Isaiah 55: his Word will not return to him void, but will accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sent it. And one of those purposes is that we might forever know with certainty what has happened in the past.