'Satan's Soldiers', they called them, though Peter thought 'brownshirts' more apt. That's all they were really - hired thugs, pound-shop Hitler's. It was laughable in truth but Peter didn't feel much like laughing, not with two of them dragging him to the cells and a resistance movement in Liverpool expecting his arrival and gradually, inevitably, grasping why he hadn't come.
The streetlights and the slanting rain combined to give the familiar buildings - Central Library and the Midland Hotel in particular - an eerie, sinister glow. Peter actually knew the men who were hauling him off - born and bred Mancs like himself - Mark Cassidy and Jason Bell. He had even worked with them a couple of times over the years - here and there, around and about - in supermarkets and building sites and what have you. He had done them a good turn once or twice. But they didn't remember. They were too drunk on power. They tried a bit of persuasion on him. "All you've got to do is renounce Christ," said Bell. "Even if you don't agree just say it with your mouth. That's what all the Christians are doing. You'll get your life back mate. All the perks as well."
"Two words'll do it," Cassidy told him. "'Fuck Christ.' Or if you don't want to swear then 'I renounce Christ.' That's it. Simps."
"It's not about the swearing," replied Peter. "You know that."
For some members of the public though, it definitely was about the swearing. Great crowds of them came surging past - spliffs in one hand, bottles and cans in the other - on their way to venerate the new statue of Satan. They curled their lips as they saw Peter being led away.
"Fuckin' knobshanks," growled one.
"Christian cunt" snapped another.
They said this because Christianity was the only crime one could be guilty of now. Everything else was permitted.
They took him to Bootle Street Police Station, threw him in the cells, chained him to the wall and left him there. Peter looked around. The room was lit - somewhat erratically - by a flickering bulb, loosely attached to the ceiling. The walls and floor were made of pock-marked stone. Lots of folk were there, bound to the wall as he was, spaced out evenly in a rectangle around the room. His neck had been chained as well as his arms, so he wasn't able to clock everyone present, but he recognised one or two from church, a few beggars, a couple of known alcoholics, and a handful others who he had seen around for years but had always presumed were rationalist, atheist types. Yet they must have been Christians all along, or had recently become Christians, otherwise they wouldn't have been here. After all, there was no other crime now.
"Covid Marshals!" shouted a wild-eyed man sat opposite. "Bloody Covid Marshals! That's when it started. First they came for the anti-vaxxers, then when that died down they came for us. It was always about us, wannit? It was the Christians they were after from the start. Now they say there'll be human sacrifices up there at Albert Square. Kids as well. Bloody awful it is."
Peter nodded and made eye-contact, acknowledging the man's presence and showing that he sympathised. But did he agree? He wasn't sure, and that was why he kept mum. He didn't want to get into the whys and wherefores of it all. It was a distraction. Not the point. So what was the point? Peter lowered his gaze. Someone, one of the 'soldiers' probably, had left a copy of the Manchester Evening News in the middle of the floor, front page up, so that everyone could see the picture and read the headline:
THE GREAT LIBERATION - SATAN SPEAKS TONIGHT IN ALBERT SQUARE.
There was a colour photo of the hideous twenty-foot statue they had put up in the Square. Peter looked away. If his eyes rested on that picture for more than a second it would rot and corrode his soul as it had done so many others. He focused on the lightbulb and reflected on the situation. He hadn't realised that it was a speaking statue. These monstrosities had sprang up in all the countries where the Satanic Revolution had taken root - Canada most notably, parts of the US as well, and places in Europe too. The guy was right then. Human sacrifice had followed in all those places. But this was the first speaking statue, as far as Peter knew, that they had erected in Britain. What a disgrace that it should be in Manchester too! He closed his eyes and bowed his head. He felt like weeping, but the tears wouldn't come. Everything in him was hard - too hard for crying - all gnarled and twisted - a tight, constricted ball of frustration and wrath.
How had it come to this? London had fallen a fortnight ago, Manchester just yesterday. That was why he had been arrested. He had been tagged as a prominent Christian for a while, and they had started the round-up in earnest once they'd seized the Town Hall. Yes, he could have got away sooner, but he had never been a quitter. Right until the end he had believed that the city would hold. But it hadn't, and now he was banged up, cut off from the resistance in Liverpool and Dublin. He was the top man too, so they'd struggle without him, just as he faced full-spectrum insignificance without them.
The odd thing was though, that even if he had told the Satanists about his network, they probably wouldn't have been bothered. It was the Christian faith itself that bugged them, especially the practice of that faith - people saying prayers, going to church, etc. An old woman of ninety, fingering her Rosary, beads was as much, if not more, of a threat than Peter and his band, with all their political and military know-how. He had been nicked because he was a practicing Christian, not because he was suspected of plotting a counter-coup. Unlike the Nazis and Soviets of old, these weirdos didn't seem to care that capable people were agitating against them. It was as if that sort of thing didn't matter, like they didn't need to act, that the wild tide of inebriation they were riding would scoop up all the rebels and reactionaries and smash them to pieces. All they had to do was keep upping the ante and whipping up the frenzy. Satan would do the rest, and so far this strategy - if that was what it was - had been 100% successful.
From a rational point of view, none of it made sense. But maybe that was the point? Rationalism was so 'yesterday' now. It astonished Peter the scale of the volte face which had taken place in barely over twenty years. Back in the day, the enemies of the Church would often say that they wanted to believe in God but couldn't because there was no scientific proof. Now they had no trouble believing in God but were so consumed with hatred towards Him that they had chosen His opposite as their champion.
The Satanists had been shrewd in their messaging. They had upended the traditional narrative of God v. the Devil and totally captured the Zeitgeist. That was what this 'Great Liberation' trope was all about. Satan, so the story went, was the true master and shaper of the world. His energy, his ruthlessness, his amoral dynamism - these were the powers which set the stars in motion and brought growth and vitality to the Earth and everything on it. Our vocation, as human beings, is to tap into these potencies - to align ourselves with them - and thereby share in Satan's fecundity and gain dominion over our lives and circumstances, and over others too should we so wish.
Satan is stronger, they claimed, than the entity we mistakenly call 'God'. It wasn't through any lack of strength that he fell from Heaven but through a piece of low-grade trickery - vague and unspecified - from the renegade angel Yahweh. This dubious figure then usurped his throne, and the maker of the universe had to descend to the lowest depths of his creation and bide his time, waiting for Yahweh's empire of lies to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Yahweh had even concocted a myth that his lieutenant, Michael, had worsted Satan in single combat and physically flung him into Hell. The reverse was actually the case. Satan had overcome Michael, but at that time he wasn't able to match Yahweh's cunning, so might and force alone were not enough for him to regain Heaven. But now the wheel had come full-circle and the long-awaited assault on the High Places was nigh. Earth was falling, Heaven was next. 'Thy will be done,' as the Satanic prayer puts it, 'in Heaven as on Earth.'
Peter opened his eyes. What a load of bollocks it was! An opportunistic power-grab that a child could see through. Yet the movement was gaining massive traction and the whole world was running after Old Nick now. It had filled a gap somehow - given people the release and ecstasy that they craved and that neither Church nor State had been able to provide.
Soon, however, they would start to fight and kill each other. Unbridled licence only goes so far. Then, mused Peter, we'll see a tyranny unparalleled in history - Yeats's 'rough beast' ruling the roost with rods of iron and fists of steel. What could stop the juggernaut? "Only prayer," said a voice. Who had spoken? Peter looked around. The voice was external. Definitely. It was a man's voice and had come from somewhere in the room. But where? None of his colleagues had spoken. He could tell that straightaway. They looked too beaten-down and tired - even the sparky fellow opposite - for either speech or prayer to make their mark.
Peter tried to obey. He wanted to pray, needed to pray - he knew the voice was right - yet no prayer would come. He was in a place beyond words now - a bitter bed of grief and mourning - and it was tears that came instead. All those lovely memories and the loss of so much that was good and true and beautiful. It was too much for him. Not so long ago, he recalled, there had been candles and incense and chasubles, and now there was nothing, with the great Manchester churches - The Holy Name, the Hidden Gem, St. Chad's - shuttered up and silent. The Faith had been crucified and was lying in its grave and he, Peter, had backed the wrong horse, lunging with his sword at the High Priest's servant and lopping off his ear. To what effect? Absolutely none. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.
He sobbed like a child. He wasn't a soldier or a politico or a 'man about town' any more. He was a vulnerable little boy again - the same unheard, unseen kid he had been when he was ten years old - stymied by shame, thwarted by trauma, fighting a one-boy war against a blind, mechanistic world that walled his soul and spirit in.
His eyes misted up. It seemed brighter on his right side than his left for some reason. He turned his head and was met with an astonishing blend of colours - red, gold and purple, shot through with streaks of silver. He rubbed his eyes. The colours were still there, brighter and sharper. Hold on a minute! How did I do that? How did I lift my hand? Where are the chains? He looked down. There they were on the ground, cut into shards. "Get up," said a voice, the same voice he had heard before. He stood up. The colours began to take shape. In front of him was a giant - or an angel, maybe - a great being of light at any rate, some seven or eight feet tall. The figure glowed and throbbed with pure vitality and strength. As he gazed upon him, Peter felt those qualities pouring into him as well. Where there had been disintegration, now there was focus and resolve. Where Satan had scattered and fragmented his mind, he sensed an ancient, long-slumbering source of power and direction surging up inside.
Then he saw the sword - blade of gold and edge of fire. The Presence before him held it point-down, from what Peter now saw was his right hand. It pointed to the chains, and right there and then Peter knew who his visitor was - St. Michael the Archangel - and saw and felt the absurdity of that Satanic fable about the Devil giving him a whipping. It couldn't be done. Wasn't possible. Only God Himself could best this being and that would never happen as Michael and God were so closely aligned that conflict between them was unthinkable. Then, at last, Peter was able to see his face. The eyes were molten brass and the hair like running flame. "Come," he said. "Follow me."
Joy abounded in Peter's heart yet he felt himself strangely reluctant to leave. "What about these?" he asked, gesturing towards his fellows, none of whom appeared to be witnessing anything out of the ordinary. "I can't just leave them."
"You're leaving them with God," replied the angel. "He will look after them. He is here now. If you had faith you would see that. But come. You must go to Liverpool."
The cell door was already open. Michael passed through and Peter followed. He turned to look back on his comrades. All of them were quiet. All of them awake. But the stress had gone from their faces and Peter discerned a certain peace and serenity there instead. A hint of triumph even. That was good. So good. He left them and caught up with the angel who had glided down the corridor ahead of him.
Michael navigated the rabbit-warren of passages with ease. None of the guards or 'soldiers' could see them - they were invisible - yet their expressions were tense, as if they sensed that somewhere, somehow - quite near at hand - something was going wrong. Fine, thought Peter. Let the dead bury their dead.
Soon they were outside. The rain had stopped and there was a stiff breeze. Scraps of cloud scudded through the sky like tattered ribbons A few stars peeped out. Michael led him around the side of the Library towards St. Peter's Square and the top of Oxford Street. There was the smell of smoke and a dreadful noise of roaring and bellowing from Albert Square on the other side of the civic buildings. But Oxford Street was quiet. Little groups of 'brownshirts' hung around smoking and laughing in shop doorways. They had had an easy night of it. No need to drag and compel folk to abase themselves before the statue. Punters had gone of their own volition. Normally Peter felt nothing but disdain for these types - 'Satan's Soldiers' and all that. But not now. Not with the angel beside him. He saw them with the eyes of compassion instead - a new experience for Peter - fallen men and women like himself, vulnerable and fragile, who had been taken in by a grand deception. Same for those in Albert Square. It could so easily have been himself. Should have been really. He looked back on his life as he walked and realised that he had sone absolutely nothing to deserve being sprung from prison like this. His faith had lacked substance. It had all been about aesthetics. That was what he was fighting for. If the Antichrist had come to town with a basket of fine vestments, Peter would have snapped his hand off. There but for the grace of God, etc.
"Don't let self-hate find a foothold," said Michael, reading his mind. "Remember the paralytic. Jesus first forgives him then sets him free to march forward into the future. So it is with you. God shows you your past, you see it, you repent, then He blesses you and sends you on your mission. So be of good heart. Your fight is a just one."
They bore right at the Java coffee house, up the concrete hill that led to Oxford Road Station. As they left the main road, Peter saw flames leaping high into the sky, about a quarter of a mile away. That's the Holy Name, he thought. That was the church he had gone to for years and where both his kids had been baptised. It surprised him that he didn't feel more angry. He wasn't even sad. In fact he almost felt glad. Why was this? What was happening was horrific, yes, but as he watched the inferno, Peter had a strong sense that everything that was going on was somehow as it should be, that God was in command, and that the Holy Name was this very night fulfilling her vocation, sharing in the passion of Christ so that one day, maybe very soon, she would rise with Him in glory.
The angel tugged his sleeve and ushered him up the hill. The touch of his hand was like a draught of cool, refreshing water. At the top, Michael stopped at the row of ticket machines, stooped down and pushed some buttons on the screen. Peter looked on, amazed at the practicality of it all. "I'll leave the receipt in the machine," said Michael. "You won't need it."
He turned and handed Peter his ticket. There were two of them. "You've given me a return," said Peter. But the angel was gone and the tannoy was announcing his train, the 2141 to Lime Street. It was on its way from Piccadilly, almost here now. Peter punched his ticket through the barrier and dashed across to Platform 2. There it was. He hopped on, sat down, and spent the forty-five minute journey in silent prayer for the saints and heroes he had left behind at Bootle Street. "Only prayer," the angel had said. That was the best way, Peter felt - the only way even - to begin his second life.