Fifteen tribal members crowded into the lounge room of the main teaching house in Sao Paulo. Furniture had been removed to make space for them, and for the large legless table-top that lay on the floor in the middle of the room. It had strong leather straps attached to it at each side.


Luis had arrived back from Rio that same morning. In Rio, he had watched a proper doctor do this only twice, before he was given the task of operating on his own. Now, less than two weeks later, he was to teach others how to do it. There was a long waiting list in Sao Paulo, as more and more people were cracking the email code and begging for help to escape the Mark.


"You have two choices," Luis had said to his first patient earlier that day, while ten others had listened to the same speech. They had all been brought there blindfolded. "We can take the skin off the back, or we can take the whole hand. We're ninety percent certain of getting the transponder by taking the skin, but it could have worked its way down under the ligaments too."


"No, please, amigo! Take it all off!" pleaded the patient, a poor farmer in his 40's, named Joaquin.


"The demons, they are everywhere," he continued. "I cannot sleep. I cannot think. Please take it all off. God, help me!" and his eyes looked heavenward.


Now Joaquin was being strapped to the contraption on the floor, like a prisoner on a cross. The front door opened a crack, and Francisco peeked in. "I got 'em," he said, as he entered the room and closed the door behind him. He pulled a fistful of Stanley knives out of his sleeve. "Had to steal 'em. May God forgive me." His head dropped in a posture of repentance.


"I think that, under the circumstances, God will understand," Luis said comfortingly.


Fran raised his head and let a little grin escape. "I'm glad you see it that way, Luis," he said, "'cuz I didn't feel guilty at all when I took it. Felt kinda good, actually!"


The others smiled only slightly. The scene was far too tense for anything more frivolous than that.


Joaquin, who had been given a handful of pain killers to swallow ten minutes earlier, was firmly strapped in. Two men kneeled on the floor, straddling his legs. Two women moved closer to his head. They too were on their knees, but they were holding Bibles. They would take it in turns reading Psalms in Portuguese, while Luis performed the operation.


When they were ready to start, a heavy piece of leather was placed in Joaquin's mouth, so that he could bite into it. It was important that they not arouse the suspicions of their neighbours, and because of that, Joaquin could not afford the luxury of screaming out his pain.


A ball of rags was placed in his left hand. He was instructed to hold his right hand as still as possible throughout the operation.


"The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want," Felicidad began in Portuguese. She continued softly as Joaquin focused intently on her words.


The first razor blade knife had been cleansed with alcohol. Luis applied a rough tourniquet, gripped Joaquin's lower arm to steady it, and then made his first cut, across the upturned palm, using the extendable razor. Joaquin's body tensed and he bit hard on the leather.


"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me," Felicidad continued. "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."


"We need to allow for extra skin from the palm," Luis explained, as he grabbed a needle and thread to tie off an artery. "When we finish, we'll fold that skin over the stump, and join it to the upper portion."


Because he had no proper surgical clamps with which to grasp the end of a loose artery, Luis tied most of them off right through the skin, a short distance back from where he had made the cut. He used a simple pair of pliers to hold the skin if necessary. Deeper arteries needed to be cauterised with a hot piece of wire… a particularly painful procedure.


The tourniquet had reduced bleeding to a trickle, so that it was not easy to determine whether either the thread or the hot wire had done their job. Luis had a chart in front of him showing where to look for the major arteries.


"Very tight bandaging should take care of the smaller vessels," he said.


Joaquin's eyes were filled with tears, and the knuckles on his left hand were white from squeezing the rags. His whole body struggled in an effort not to move his right hand.


"Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning…" Maria read, while Felicidad looked for another suitable Psalm.


Luis made a sudden, forceful movement with the razor, and Joaquin's body lifted off the table. The two men struggled to hold him still. He whimpered quietly, and beads of perspiration ran down the sides of his head.


"There! We've cut through most of the nerves," the instructor was saying to his startled students.


"The hardest part is over now, Joaquin," he said softly to his patient.


Luis spoke less now, as he fully busied himself with what he was doing. His wide-eyed students crowded closer to watch.


It was Felicidad's turn to read when the operation was nearing completion. "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile," she read.


Joaquin arched his neck back to look directly at Felicidad. Tears ran down his face, as much in response to the words he was hearing, as in response to the pain he was feeling.


All that was left now were some ligaments joining the bones of the wrist together. Luis pushed hard with the Stanley knife, to cut through the largest of the ligaments while missing the bones on either end of it.


Joaquin's eyes closed and he went limp. He had mercifully passed out.


When the procedure was finished, and Joaquin's stitched up stump was wrapped and bandaged, Luis reminded his audience that he would do only one more demonstration before they would have to perform the same operation on their own. They would each be expected to do one patient before the day had finished. And they would be doing many more in the days ahead.


He finished up with basic instructions on how to nurse the patient in the days after the operation.


The whole ordeal had emotionally drained all those involved; but even before the wound had begun to heal, when Joaquin was conscious once again, he smiled through his pain. His whole countenance had changed, and he glowed as he spoke of the peace he felt.


Luis warned him that there could still be complications. Infections were commonplace and, without antibiotics, a few amputees had already died from them.


"That is not a problem," said Joaquin. I am happy to die for my God now. My heart, it is free. Thank you, God! You know, brother, I am happy to die for Jesus now… really happy."


And Joaquin was not exceptional amongst those who came to have the Mark removed. All over the world a revolution of faith was taking place. People who had never taken seriously the demands of God were discovering peace, joy, love, and courage in the face of death, as they exercised obedience to this one command of Jesus. It had become the new rite of initiation into the ranks of the redeemed… a baptism into Christ's suffering. It represented a true circumcision of the heart, as they turned from the lie of false grace to genuine faith in Jesus Christ and all that he taught.


Unfortunately, this amputation of the Mark was only the start of the suffering for these people. Their missing hand became an inescapable testimony to the rest of the world of their stand against the Mark. Everywhere they went, people turned and stared... not just because they were different, but because the public was seeing more and more people with missing hands. Something was happening, and the most forward members of the public would stop the amputees to ask.


"How did you lose your hand? I have seen others like you. What does it mean?"


And from that, the message was being preached by word of mouth to any who had not yet visited the web site. Those who heard the testimonies of the amputees would pass it on as faithfully as they had received it, for there were none who were untouched by what they heard.


It was necessary to hide the amputees during their initial period of recovery. They were given as much teaching as possible during that period, and then they would be put in touch with other amputees in a separate location. They would be smuggled out of the safe houses blindfolded, under cover of darkness, to where they would begin their existence in exile, living like outcasts on the fringes of society. They knew that it would only be a matter of time before their obvious deformity would make them targets for arrest. But they had made their choice, and they all, like Joaquin, were happy to die, if necessary, for their newfound faith.


Because the Mark was invisible, the 144,000 of the Twelve Tribes looked no different to everyone else as they walked the streets. And because of this, they were able to stay anonymous throughout the final three and a half years.


But the amputees became the public image of the movement. They came to be referred to, amongst the believers, as the "Tribulation Force". What Rayford and Chaim's two-dimensional testimony on the internet could not do (despite the powerful truths contained in it), a living testimony from the Tribulation Force made up for. These people who had made such a sacrifice and still boasted of the riches that they had received in return... as though their salvation had cost them nothing... were a powerful testimony to the true grace of God.


The Tribulation Force had no promise of refuge in the wilderness as did the 144,000. They believed that, as spiritual lepers, their days were numbered. It would not be long before Dangchao and his troops would round them up for execution, if Rayford and Chaim's understanding of prophecy was correct.


But knowing this only caused them to be more bold in preaching the good news of Jesus. They wanted to help others to escape from the curse that hung over the planet, and their positive glowing testimony was something the Twelve Tribes could not match. Thousands more were coming every day to join their ranks. The world was receiving, through this new movement, a wake-up call to what it means to have real faith in the midst of a godless generation.
* * *


At the same time, there was a transformation of a different sort taking place in the halls of power in Jerusalem. Pope Pius, who had vowed to do something heroic "some day", was moving farther and farther away from the likelihood of such a move. He, who had convinced himself that it was not "possible" to take a stand against the Antichrist (because it would have threatened his position, his organisation, his reputation, and his comfort) had been shamed and angered by the testimony of the single-handed members of the Tribulation Force, whom he mistakenly assumed to be the hated Twelve Tribes.


Pius was able to forget about the real sins of Dangchao by concentrating on the perceived excesses of this group of fanatics, and the pain and suffering that he believed they were causing all over the world. His mission, with Dangchao, to track down the Twelve Tribes, became more and more of an obsession, until he had convinced himself that his true calling in life was to protect the world from such obvious abuse of religion.


Living and working so close to Dangchao had the same effect on Pius as living next to a sewage treatment plant has on local residents. What shocks the senses of visitors ceases to be noticed at all by those who live around it day after day. Dangchao had his vices, it was true; but he was trying to bring stability to the world at a very difficult time. The stresses of his office had probably led him to act in the way that he did. The important thing, Pius told himself, as he cauterised his conscience, was to maintain the unity of the church, and the unity of the government. A few compromises along the way were unavoidable. They were part of the price he would have to pay for the times in which he lived.


Pius was talked into making secret alterations to the statue in front of the basilica. A speaker was installed, as well as a series of guns around the base of the statue. Great crowds gathered in the forecourt each day, and the giant image would "speak" to the crowds at random intervals, saying, "Bow down and worship your king and your god!"


Five seconds after the announcement, the guns, which were placed about a metre above the ground, would fire.


Scores of people were killed or injured the first time that the guns went off. There had been no warning about what to expect, and Dangchao had chuckled at how effective the carnage was in getting people to fall flat on their faces and lie there until they were sure the guns had stopped, the next time that the image "spoke".


"There will always be collateral damage in military matters," he said, when people complained about innocent spectators being killed… spectators who would have gladly bowed down if they had only known what was expected of them. "Isn't it interesting how quickly word is getting around to other 'innocents'," he giggled, "now that we have made examples of a few weaklings who would hide behind their ignorance?"


The Antichrist had no qualms about killing a few of his own faithful in order to make a point. But what he desired most was to rid the world of the terrible Twelve Tribes, who were gaining a higher profile every day in their prophecies against him. News of the amputations had reached him, and he decreed that guillotines should be constructed in malls and shopping centres all over the world. If believers were executed publicly, and in great numbers, he reasoned, it would successfully terrorise any of his followers who might be considering defection.