Reinhard trudged wearily through the ankle-deep snow. All of Moscow was in a shambles. Hardly a building in the city had been spared.

 

First there were the meteorites, thousands of them scattered over all of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and some parts of Asia. They left craters wherever they hit, and caused forest fires over much of the planet. A cloud of haze had circled the earth, blocking out much of the sun's light. Warm air from the fires had forced precipitation far up into the atmosphere, where the moisture froze and refroze until it became huge hailstones weighing up to a kilogram apiece. Thousands died when the giant balls of ice finally rained down on the population. Whole cities were left without roofs. Cars by the millions were smashed beyond repair. Animals lay dead everywhere.

 

Then there was the "big one", the asteroid itself. It landed in the mid- Atlantic, sending hundred metre high tidal waves across the ocean, completely swamping most coastal cities. Millions were lost on the east coast of South and Central America, and the west coast of Africa and Europe.

 

The second wave of meteorites or falling stars, was worse than the first, although they were all part of the same galactic storm that had been flying through space for aeons. In Russia, they were calling the disaster "Chernobyl" because of its radioactive composition. Radiation levels were dangerously high in a third of the earth's water supplies, and the problem was so widespread, that most people had little choice but to drink the contaminated water, even knowing that it would cause cancers, birth defects, and early deaths. It was often a choice between drinking it or dying of thirst.

 

Rayford and Chaim had predicted it all, and Dangchao and Pope Pius had done what they could to hush it up when they had learned that the asteroid really was on its way. Right up to the last, the experts were reported as saying that the chances of a direct hit were extremely small. They started with figures like one chance in a million, and the day before the first meteorites fell, they were still saying there was only one chance in ten that it would be a direct hit. By the time the seriousness of the situation had become clear, it was too late to evacuate most cities. And now, Dangchao's brave new world was in total disarray.

 

It was because of his hatred for the Tribulation Force (whom Dangchao also assumed were the original 144,000 tribal members) that this had happened in the first place.

 

It had started with Rayford and Chaim declaring a drought on Israel, that would continue until Dangchao ceased his plans to execute believers. The rains stopped and did not fall for the next three years. But it did not stop preparations for the executions.

 

Then the Two Prophets promised that the drinking water would be cursed in the first city where an execution took place. The executions started in Amman, Jordan, with more than a hundred believers killed the first day. However, the same day, two monkeys were found dead in the town's water supply, after having escaped from a circus. Subsequent tests revealed that they had died from the ebola virus, and a deadly epidemic broke out which ended in all of Jordan being quarantined to contain it. Interestingly, executions in Jordan ceased, and there were no further executions of believers there throughout the final three years. Of course, it was hardly a place of refuge, as deaths from the virus were as prevalent as were executions elsewhere.

 

But Dangchao had bellowed out his anger against the believers even more after the Amman incident. Executions started in earnest around the world over the next few days. In the space of a month, more than a million one-handed believers had been beheaded.

 

And that was when the Two Witnesses decreed that the asteroid would hit. Dangchao and Pius, both of whom stubbornly refused to look at the Twelve Tribes website themselves, as though fearful that it would "brainwash" them, received regular reports on it from their advisers. When they had been informed about the asteroid prophecy, they put observatories on the alert around the world. Observatory personnel were told to keep information secret from the media and from other members of the public, but it did not work completely. The Press got the story five days before the asteroid hit. Nevertheless, it was still too late for the public to do much about it.

 

Now here was Reinhard, trudging through the snow in Moscow, on his way to a safe house, which had been damaged by the hailstones. It would be his job to organise repairs. Sheila Armitage was too old to undertake such tasks, and so the hard work was always left for him to do.

 

First it was Rayford, whom he had spent so much time teaching, only to have him take over the stage in directing the Jesans. Reinhard had done his best to accept it humbly at the time, but it wasn't much fun being left to get out the literature on the streets while Rayford went on teaching as though everything he said was his own ideas. Then it was Sheila. People just naturally turned to her for counsel in preference to himself, because she was almost twice as old as him. And lately it had been Jerry, one of the first recruits for the tribe of Asher, who was commanding more respect from tribal members than what Reinhard himself was getting.

 

Sure enough, when he arrived, Jerry, a strong, handsome man in his sixties, with long white hair and a beautiful white beard, already had everyone working hard at repairing and reconstructing the safe house. While neighbours pulled off damaged roofing, so they could replace it with plastic sheeting, or other materials purchased from government stores, Jerry's workers scoured the streets for the best of the discarded bits, to be used in repairing their own accommodation. Materials were already coming in, and it would not be long before the snow, at least, would be kept out of their living quarters.

 

"Come in! Come in!" Jerry said kindly, when Reinhard gave the secret knock and Jerry had unlocked the door. "Ivan, get some coffee for our brother," the ex-American said in perfect Russian.

 

"I do not need coffee," Reinhard said abruptly. "I am here to vork."

 

"Certainly," Jerry said politely. Then he looked Reinhard in the eye: "Is something bothering you?"

 

"No, nothing is bothering me," Reinhard snapped. "Is something bothering you?"

 

"Well, yes, I guess it is," said Jerry. "Can we go into the back room to talk privately?"

 

"Vat's wrong vit talking right here vere ve are?" Reinhard asked as he sank deeper into the soft chair, his hands extending the full length of both its arms.

 

"I didn't want to embarrass you," Jerry replied, almost in a whisper. "I think you're upset about something, and I wanted to discuss it in private... just you and me."

 

Reinhard picked himself up and threw his body toward the back room. "I didn't want to embarrass you" he thought to himself. Typical of the smoothtalking Jerry Anthony. He just naturally assumed that he was right and that all of his lackeys would agree with him.

 

"Does it bother you that I'm leading here?" Jerry asked. He had been noticing the problem for several weeks, and it was time to address it.

 

"Maybe," Reinhard said, with a shrug of his shoulders, eyebrows, and lips, to indicate the insignificance he supposedly placed on the issue.

 

"Please, can I share something with you?" Jerry asked.

 

"Suit yourself," Reinhard replied, pretending to show no interest, as he leaned against a counter in the tiny workroom, and looked at the floor.

 

"Before the war... in America... I had what I thought was a good job. I saw myself as a good leader. But it took the war, and the deaths of a lot of innocent people, to make me see that my ideas were all wrong. A fancy title does not make a person a leader.

 

"I came here, to Moscow, a lost and broken man. But when I met you, Reinhard," (and Jerry paused here for effect). "When I met you, I knew that I had found someone who was a true leader. You had no recognition as far as the world was concerned; no pay, no title, but you knew where you were going. You knew how to tell the important issues from the trivial ones, and you inspired me to try once more... to be a true leader.

 

Reinhard had been caught completely off guard. He had expected a rebuke from the older man. Instead, he had been flattered. It did more than any rebuke could have done to humble the young man. It had been a long time since Reinhard had received such a warm compliment, and he knew himself that what Jerry was saying about true leadership was right. Being a good leader did not depend on getting compliments or other positive recognition. It had more to do with catching sight of something that others were not aware of.

 

What Jerry had said was enough to bring back the vision to one who had let his flame go dim. Reinhard had seen others in the Twelve Tribes lose their vision of eternity, and heaven, and the return of Jesus, and they had each turned back. Some of them had been very good leaders before they had fallen away. He shuddered to think that he had been heading the same way himself. He reached out to hug the older man.

 

"Danke," he said, for Jerry knew German too. "Danke, Jerry! Please forgive me for my bad manner."

 

Reinhard had been very busy since he arrived in Moscow, more than four years earlier, but it was no excuse for his failure to have ever really shared deeply with this man who had been such a great help to the movement for more than three years, and who had just spoken the exact words that were needed to bring Reinhard out of his spiritual nosedive.

 

"Tell me about yourself," Reinhard said, in an effort to make up for the sins of his past. "How did you come to Moscow, of all places?"

 

"We did not have much choice," Jerry explained. I hid out in America for several weeks; but when a helicopter finally came to pick up survivors, it turned out to be a Russian one. We were brought here, and I have been here ever since."

 

"And vat about your family?" Reinhard asked.

 

"I had a daughter and a son, both living in New York City. They were near the centre of the blast. They would have died instantly."

 

"And your vife?"

 

"My wife?" Jerry asked blankly. "I... She..." And he hesitated. "I have never talked about it."

 

"Maybe zis vould be good time for starting," Reinhard suggested kindly.

 

Jerry hesitated once again. It was clear that he wanted to talk, but something was holding him back. "I do need to talk about it," he said. "Can you keep this just between you and me?" he asked. "It's very important."

 

"Certainly," Reinhard agreed.

 

"My wife was killed, not by the bomb. She was killed by an assassin, in front of my eyes." Jerry's voice was already beginning to break, but he wanted to finish his story. It obviously was something that he had kept inside for quite some time. "He meant to kill me too!" he sobbed. "Hank... Hank Greenhorn… one of my security men, he threw himself in front of me. He never had a chance."

 

Jerry sat on the floor and put his face in his hands, sobbing quietly as he spoke.

 

Reinhard listened in amazement. Security men? Assassins? What was he talking about?

 

"The explosion deafened me for a while. I was so traumatised that I could not speak. No one else got out of that bunker alive. When the Russians arrived, I knew I couldn't use my real name. So I used my middle name instead... Gerald Anthony. My beard had already begun to grow, and so I kept it... along with the long hair.

 

Reinhard joined Jerry on the floor and reached out to hug him. Whatever the man was talking about, he was clearly deeply disturbed.

 

"How could God ever have forgiven me?" he wept, wiping his nose with a handkerchief.

 

"How could I have been so heartless? I let my own political ambitions become more important than the lives of all those people. I saw my error too late. I couldn't save America; but thank God, I didn't push the button to destroy them."

 

Reinhard was still trying to make sense of what Jerry was saying. How could Jerry Anthony, or Jerry whoever he was, think that he had caused the fall of America? He pushed the old man's hair back away from his face, and studied his features. His hair had gone completely grey, possibly from what he had been through, but under the beard Reinhard thought he could recognise him now.

 

"Fitzhugh?" he asked.

 

Jerry nodded.

 

Reinhard could hardly believe it. He was sitting on the workroom floor hugging the former President of the United States. The man was a bit older, and wore long hair and a beard now, but it was the President.

 

A suicide bomber (perhaps one of his own security men) must have entered the President's bunker under the White House, along with him and the First Lady.

 

The President of the United States had just told Reinhard that it was Reinhard who had taught him what it meant to be a leader. And he had said it after having worked quietly under Reinhard's leadership for more than three years. What an amazing compliment! And how foolish of him to have worried because he was not getting the recognition that he thought he had deserved!

 

Truly, what God had called him to do was more important than being the President of the most powerful country in the world... President Gerald Fitzhugh himself knew that. And what they were doing was important even if Reinhard was not the most widely recognised member of this new kingdom. Reinhard prayed for strength to stay faithful with even the humblest job, and he thanked God for the privilege of being able to serve in such an important movement.
* * *
In contrast, Dangchao and Pius were tortured men, spinning out of control in their obsession to maintain control of the world. Pius was almost as demonic as Dangchao now, having learned how to perform a few sensational tricks with the help of Dangchao's supernatural powers. Pius would unashamedly prostrate himself on the ground in front of the statue whenever walking through the Temple Complex now, and he had started bowing to Dangchao and using grandiose titles for him that became further evidence of his worship for this man/Beast. The statue had survived the disasters, but both Temples had been damaged by the hail storm. A meteorite had destroyed Pius' personal residence when the first shower hit. Fortunately, he had not been there when it struck.

 

"We must stop them," Dangchao spluttered as he was eating lunch with his cohort. "We must find their headquarters... kill their "Two Witnesses", as they call them. If we don't, they will continue to grow. Torture will do it. Someone must know. They'll tell us where it is."

 

"But, Your Worship," Pius replied, "torture takes time. It will slow down the executions. And everyone is needed for rebuilding. It takes a lot of infrastructure just to ferret them out to begin with. There are interviews with informers, office staff to maintain records, arresting officers, executioners. Even the morgues are overcrowded with these latest disasters."

 

"Damn the disasters! Let them lie where they are! If we don't stop these Christians, everything else will be wasted. Skip the red tape too. If an informer even thinks that someone is connected with the movement, I want that person killed. I don't care whether they have a Mark or not. There must be people on the inside helping them. We must find them and make examples of them."

 

Dangchao continued: "The people can rebuild later. All of our energies must be put into stopping these Christians. If we don't do that, there won't be a world left to rebuild."

 

And so, while the world looked on in shocked disbelief, their great leader -- the man they had all thought as recently as a year and a half ago was the greatest leader the world had ever known -- chose to ignore their suffering because of his own obsession with getting back at the Christians.

 

Dangchao had convinced himself that it was the Christians who were destroying the world, and he used his best speech writers and press secretaries to get that message across to the masses. He succeeded in whipping up such hysterical hatred for Christians, and such paranoia about their supposed conspiracy against the rest of the world, that soon neighbours were turning one another in for execution on the flimsiest of evidence. Executions increased tenfold, but eight out of ten of the people being killed now were ones who bore the mark in their very much intact right hands!

 

The effect of Dangchao's rage was to encourage even more of his faithful followers to defect. If they were going to die anyway, they reasoned, it would be better to die on the side of right.

 

And the Two Witnesses could not resist echoing the timeless wisdom of such reasoning. "If we are all going to die anyway," they said, "then how much better to die for God than to die for a demon? This has been the common sense behind the gospel message for centuries, whether or not the world happens to be falling apart around us."