Saturday, May 23, 2009

Conversions 7

"The Antichrist?" said Gary. "You mean like Damien or something?"

"Well, sort of," said Paul. "According to the checklist, the Antichrist is going to be a charismatic politician, probably at the UN."

They sat round the table in Paul's office: Paul, Gary, Patrick, and Kate, with all the Rapture leaflets and books Kate had accumulated. The dreadful predictions barely varied from one leaflet to another: at least they knew exactly what was coming.

"That Nicolae Whatsit," said Patrick. "He's charismatic - did you hear that speech he gave?"

Paul nodded. The new leader of the United Nations, hastily sworn in after his predecessor was confirmed among the disappeared, had spoken simply and emotionally about the need for unity in this time of horror. He had stressed the need for the nations of the earth to pool their resources, since this was their only hope for finding their missing children or preventing more disappearances.

"That's another warning sign," said Kate. "The Antichrist is going to be all about peace."

Gary picked up one of the leaflets by the corner, as if he was afraid it would give him fleas. "So the Antichrist is the opposition, is he? He's fighting the ba- the Rapture God?"

"Eventually." Kate sounded tired, as if the angry energy that had sustained her in church had finally run out. "He's going to run around wrecking things for a while, before God shows up and beats him senseless."

"But we're on his side, right?" said Gary. "If he's fighting God, and we're fighting God..."

"There are worse things to be than on his side," said Patrick. "Everything he said in that speech was something you can really believe in."

Kate shook her head. "It was all a lie. There's a war coming, and he's going to start it. Oh, he probably won't mean to, an idealist like him, but that's how it's going to work out."

"You don't know that," said Patrick. "Maybe if someone talked to him, showed him the prophecies, he'd know what not to do."

"He's already seen them," said Kate. "He must have millions of advisors, and the Rapture people are everywhere. Someone must have made the connection by now, even if he didn't know about it before."

"So he knows," said Patrick. "He knows what would start a war if he did it, and he won't do it."

"Or he'll decide some things are worth starting a war over," said Kate. "If he's the Antichrist, you think he'll have a problem with a little war?"

Gary looked from one to the other, wearing an expression of complete bewilderment. "So which side are we on?"

"Nicolae's," said Patrick. Kate shook her head, but didn't say anything.

"The Antichrist is fighting against God," said Paul, "but he's not fighting for us. It's between the two of them, and we're just the battlefield."

"Oh," said Gary. Now he looked as if he understood - and rather wished he was still confused.

"We can still help Nicolae, can't we?" said Patrick. "Or ... at least give him some sort of support."

Paul shook his head. "He's going to do some terrible things, especially to followers of the Rapture God."

"Serve them right," said Gary.

"You think it serves Lucy Woolford right, if she follows the Rapture God in the hopes of seeing her children again, and dies horribly for it?"

"Anyone who's stupid enough to worship that bastard..." grumbled Gary. "No, I suppose not. But what's the alternative? The Antichrist, or that..."

The three of them looked at Paul. Patrick, still wanting to believe the best of Nicolae; Gary, willing to consider any opposition to the Rapture God; Kate, miserably disillusioned with every option. They all needed something from him.

He looked down at the pile of books. "It doesn't say anywhere that there can only be two sides."

"But what other side is there?" said Gary.

"The side of humanity," said Paul. "The side of the people who are going to get hurt by all this. We won't be able to keep everyone safe, but we'll do what we can."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Conversions 6

The church wasn't as full as it had been in the first hours: some people were grieving in private, and others were looking for answers that had nothing to do with God. But enough people had come back - drawn, Paul guessed, by curiosity as much as anything.

"You've probably already heard the Rapture theory," he said. "You've probably seen the new converts preaching, or read their leaflets, or seen their videos. They're claiming that it was God who took the children, that this is the beginning of the end of the world."

A few nods, a few murmurs of agreement. Did that just mean that they'd heard the theory, or that they believed it?

"They're partly right," Paul said. "The predictions they've made about the end of the world - they're coming true so far. Even if there was another explanation for the disappearances, this is the only one that fits all the facts. Something - someone - with a power we can't even begin to understand - has taken our children, and is now making these prophecies come true."

He looked across at Patrick, who was staring at him in something like horror. Quickly, he cleared his throat and went on.

"This is the work of a God, but not the God I've believed in. The God you'll find in the Rapture leaflets is arbitrary, petty, jealous, vindictive. All He has is power - the only reason to worship Him is fear. And I'm not going to worship any God out of fear."

Patrick looked faintly relieved, but none of the other faces held anything so encouraging. Some looked frightened, others disgusted, still others stared back at him as if he'd started speaking in tongues.

"I believed in a just and loving God. I no longer know whether that God has any existence outside my imagination, but I believe that He represents something worth honouring. Even if He isn't real, we can make the world a better place by living as if He was."

A couple of nods, but they were outweighed by the blank stares.

"If the Rapture God is really the only God, this is a dangerous thing to believe - I know that. The future doesn't promise much safety for any of us, but defying the Rapture God is a worse risk than appeasing Him. I can't ask anyone to stand with me in that kind of defiance. If you want to leave this church today and save your souls before Him, I won't stop you."

"What about our children?" Lucy Woolford asked. "If God's taken them, surely we should be praying for their safe return?"

Paul took a deep breath. "If the Rapture theory is true, your children are ... well, they're dead. If you pray to the Rapture God, you might see them again in Heaven - that's the only hope that's left. I'm sorry."

"In that case," said Lucy, "that's all the more reason not to defy God."

"I thought that for a while," called a woman's voice from the back of the church. Paul didn't recognise her, and it was only the look of joyful recognition on Patrick's face that told him it was Kate. "I thought I should kiss His holy backside until he let me be with Demi. But it won't work."

"Why not?" demanded Chris Green.

"Because He's a bastard, a real twenty-four carat tosser," said Kate. "You can't trust someone like that, can you? You grovel to them, do everything they say, and then they turn round and say, 'Sorry, there's one little stupid thing you missed, so you're out of luck.'"

"So you're saying we should do nothing?" said Lucy. "Or do you think effing and blinding like that is going to help?"

"Nope," said Kate. "Whatever we do isn't going to bring the kids back, and it probably won't get us near them afterwards either. So all that's left is to forget them and just do what's right."

No-one liked the sound of that, and Paul could hardly blame them. They'd just heard - probably the first time anyone had spelled it out - that their children were as good as dead, and that God was directly responsible. Now Kate was blasting into what illusions they had left, and they were going to shoot the messenger.

"She's right," he said, as loudly and as forcefully as he knew how. "We've all lost loved ones before - not in this terrible wholesale way, but we all know the pain of bereavement. In the end, all we can ever do is try to live our lives in the way our departed friends would have wanted."

"But what you're saying," said Chris, "we can't even hope to see them in Heaven. Not if we ... well, if she's right about everything."

"It's difficult," said Paul. "I can't even begin to imagine how difficult. And if you want to follow the Rapture God, I won't stand in your way. But St Andrew's will be a refuge, for anyone who wants to believe in something better. However thin that hope might be."