When God came back to earth, His message was simple. Surprisingly simple.
It was: “Move. Anywhere you like so long as it’s 500 metres above present sea level. You’ve got until the sixth of April.”
People had questions, of course. Like, Why? And, Where have you been? Or, What about world hunger and brotherly love? Not to mention, Why 6th of April?
Answers came there none, except, allegedly, to the last. Someone in Austin, Texas claimed that when she asked that one, God shrugged and said it was His mother’s birthday. In Britain, most people felt it was probably something to do with tax.
Not many of us asked anything, though. There was something about His presence that made most people stop still, like a shrew before a rattlesnake. His eyes were sort of — or perhaps, it was more the tone of His voice, which was — at least, the way He walked was somehow very —
All right, I don’t know what. He was simply there, and telling us His message, and though you couldn’t really remember anything about His appearance or His voice as soon as He had gone, though He left no visible trace of His passing, you did know that you had been tongue-tied and paralysed while He was there, and you knew what His message had been: Move. Anywhere you like so long as it’s 500 metres above present sea level.
He first appeared on the 26th of February. No one could say for sure what was the site of His first visitation, if it wasn’t simultaneously everywhere in the world (though the Netherlands and Bangladesh were the first countries to experience rioting; in Nepal and Switzerland, there was little alarm at first, until they were confronted by the sheer impossibility of defending their borders against the coming wave of refugees). The internet swam with rumours, theories and implausible calculations that proved every possible set of coordinates as the site of God’s epiphany. Attempts at photographic or video proof of his simultaneous ubiquity failed, unspectacularly: it simply wasn’t possible to take His picture. People who took out cameras or pointed phones in His direction would be hit at that moment by a speeding truck or a falling piece of masonry, or would slip on a patch of oil and smash their skulls on the pavement. Whatever accident occurred, it was almost invariably fatal. Somebody in Ouagadougou published a photograph they claimed had been taken by their dying niece as she lay bleeding beneath a fallen statue of Ousmane Sembène: a blurry image of someone in what might have been a blue duffel-coat, or possibly a green robe, turning away from the camera and leaning on a wooden staff, or perhaps pointing at a tree in the distance. In the War of the Blues and the Greens that was waged sporadically over the next few weeks, the materiality of the staff was generally considered a secondary issue to the colour of God’s apparel, though it may have been a factor in the Massacre of Messina.
There were some attempts at taking satellite images, of course, but the owners of the spy satellites with that sort of resolution put a stop to it before more than half of them had been hit by space debris or burned out by solar flares. Meanwhile, weather satellites and space stations were applied to analysing the really important problem: by what mechanism was the presumed disaster to occur? It was true that it had started raining on the day God reappeared, apparently all over the world, and hadn’t absolutely stopped since. But meteorologists both trained and self-appointed went hoarse, blind and numb-fingered explaining to the world that rainwater was just recycled seawater and couldn’t possibly raise the level of the sea by even five centimetres, not if it rained for four hundred days. Seismic activity was monitored with more than usual concern, and surveyors complained of widespread theft of theodolites as amateurs and dissident members of the profession sought to disprove one another’s measurements, but nobody could find any convincing evidence for land sinking towards sea level either. The Marianas trench appeared no more active than usual, and volcanoes both terran and marine smoked no more or less than before.
Most people scrambled for higher land (in Britain, Ordnance Survey maps sold out in 24 hours and hoarding of them was quickly made a capital offence), some invested in boats (marinas became the fiefdom of organised protection rackets even more quickly than mountain summits). Many, of course, agonised over the morality of God’s edict. People might not have been able to address God directly (the apocryphal Texan aside), but they could argue fiercely with one another. How could He do this? Was it because of sin? Because we had not cared enough about the environment? Because of gay marriage, or abortion, or not wearing hats to church? Could it really be God’s intention to drown most of the world’s population, children and nuns and wholesome weather girls alongside murderers, sex offenders and Reality TV producers? Hadn’t He promised, thousands of years ago, not to do that again? Wasn’t that what the Rainbow was supposed to be all about?
Others were more concerned about the fact that God apparently used the metric system.
As days passed and then weeks, God’s presence became somehow less definite. He was still everywhere in that odd way that – well, you knew you had seen Him that day, even if it was only a glimpse, or heard His message muttered from somewhere around a corner or issuing from an alley you were passing – but you couldn’t say when or how exactly. Government spokespeople appeared daily on the TV, while it lasted, and on videos on the internet, while that lasted, assuring everyone that there was no reason for alarm and that all was being done to secure the postdiluvian future of the population; but even they didn’t look like they believed it. Newscasters would trail off in the middle of their reports, with a puzzled, distant look, then try to collect themselves, staring at their autocues or at the papers on their desks as if struggling to decode hieroglyphics. Which they were, in a way.
Conventional sorts of wars were breaking out alongside the religious ones by the middle of March. Nuclear weapons are presumed to have been used, but mass movement of troops and coordinated military action are hard to achieve when most of your soldiers are going AWOL, guns and all, rounding up families – their own or other people’s – and making for the highlands. It didn’t take long for war between nations and movements to degenerate into a frantic battle for the mountaintops amid a war of each against all. By All Fools’ Day the abandoned lowland towns were home to corpses, stray animals and those among the old, disabled or disheartened who had survived that long but were unable to join the “flight to the heights”.
And so, here we are. It’s the fifth of April today. Four of us are hiding out under a ledge in Snowdonia, Wales, that I believe to be 487 metres above datum. There is a steep but not impossible climb above us to the 500-metre point; though it would be easier if it weren’t for the rain. There are guards on the ridge during the day, but they don’t appear to be armed – perhaps the warlord of this particular hilltop gang doesn’t think this approach is so vulnerable to assault; perhaps he doesn’t trust his guards; perhaps they just don’t have enough weapons to go round. At any rate, we are all reasonably fit, and desperate enough to try for the summit tonight; if we make it past the guards, we should be able to lose ourselves among the thousands of people packed into the few acres up there: no one will have had time to make a register.
Ieuan still thinks we should wait and see what really happens tomorrow, but the rest of us think that’s too risky. There’s no guarantee that the sea will rise slowly and not in a speeding wave; or even that that is what will make lower ground uninhabitable. What if the atmosphere below the 500 simply turns toxic at the stroke of midnight? It might be happening already, of course – the 6th of April began some hours ago on the other side of the world, rolling west from the International Dateline. Since the final collapse of the worldwide web in late March and the end of all broadcasting three days ago, we would have no way of knowing, even if Jerry hadn’t been carrying our only working radio when he slipped and fell a hundred feet the day before yesterday. We could see him still moving, slightly, this morning; but it’s unlikely the radio will have survived the drop.
It’s getting dark now, but we’ve agreed to wait until nine o’clock: late enough to be really night, but too early for them to be ready, if they’re anticipating a midnight rush. I hope we make it. It’s been a long forty days.