For nearly three and a half years now, death and destruction had become a way of life throughout the entire world. More lives had been lost in violent deaths during that period than in all the wars throughout history.

 

In Britain, cities like Swansea and Plymouth had been virtually washed off the map by the big wave. Cities like Liverpool had also suffered great damage and loss of life. Britain had done a better job of rebuilding than other countries (mostly in Africa and South and Central America) which had also been severely damaged by the wave; but that did not say much in itself. Disposing of all the bloated bodies had become the first priority. Reconstruction was largely put on hold.

 

Deserted coastal towns were popular haunts for the Tribulation Force, who found shelter and escape from public exposure by squatting in them. They were able to fish for sustenance, even if they could not find discarded food as easily as they could in the big cities.

 

The United Nations had declared England to be an "international country" shortly after the fall of America, which effectively meant that it was under strict U.N. control. U.N. troops enforced conformity with all of its official policies. And U.N. policies were always determined by General Secretary Levi Xu Dangchao.

 

England had lost a further ten million people to the U.N. executions.

 

All of this had the effect of numbing people to the full impact of death. For those who chose to follow Dangchao, it meant that they had hardened their hearts even to the cries of children and babies being cruelly and callously murdered. When their own loved ones were lost, they only became more angry with God.

 

Numbness for the Christians meant that they lived with a constant appreciation of eternal values -- something they had not given much thought to in the days when life had been easier. Death, especially such a quick one as performed by the guillotine, was an express ticket to heaven. There was no future for them on earth, apart from getting others to join in their dramatic statement of faith in God and rejection of all that Dangchao's regime stood for.

 

But it was still as though everyone -- good and bad alike -- was living in a constant state of shock.

 

The saddest thing about the executions were the children. Parents would often have to hold their own babies in the neck groove at the bottom of the death machine, because the gap was too big for their tiny heads. The children, of course, had not yet received the mark. But the rules were that all orphans of the Tribulation Force were to be forcibly given the mark and then raised in government orphanages.

 

The authorities really did not want the responsibility for so many babies and children, but they took an evil delight in forcing parents to make the choice themselves about whether to sacrifice their children to the authorities or to the guillotine. Most chose the guillotine.

 

Older children (those over seven) were allowed to make their own choice. Most chose to go with the authorities, and that caused more anguish for the Tribulation Force than did the guillotine.

 

The saints came to see the significance of a warning that Jesus had given, instructing believers to pray that they would not be pregnant or have small children in the period just before the Great Tribulation.

 

Sexual activity did not cease altogether amongst the believers, but it did become much rarer than it had been before the troubles started. No one wanted to have a child in such awful times, and birth control was a luxury that few of the saints could afford. The crowded living conditions did not leave much opportunity for privacy either.

 

Those facing execution had far more serious thoughts on their minds. And the Twelve Tribes had earlier adopted a policy of discouraging marriage, and banning romantic dalliances. If a couple wished to pursue a relationship, they were assigned to work duties together, always with chaperones present or nearby. If a decision was made to marry, it was made without any kissing or cuddling. A simple ceremony would be performed as soon as possible after a decision was made.

 

Married couples in the Twelve Tribes were expected to put the cause above their relationship. They were often separated for long periods of time; but they only needed to remind themselves of how hard life was for the Tribulation Force to get things back into perspective.

 

There were a few tribal members who fell away. But that only strengthened the resolve of those who remained.

 

And there were physical casualties amongst the Twelve Tribes too. Although not a single person who had refused the Mark had been stung by the locusts, there were tribal members who had been caught during police raids, when they were visiting or assisting the Tribulation Force, and there were one or two incidents where security had been breached and a whole base had been taken into custody. Death, in such circumstances, was inevitable; but authorities were more inclined to torture those who did not have the Mark, believing that they had more information on where the leaders were located.

 

Some had given in under torture, resulting in more arrests; but such defections were rare.

 

New converts at the start of the final three and a half years (ones who had not taken the Mark) were enough to fill in for any losses in the Twelve Tribes' numbers, so that, with a year to go, they still numbered close to 144,000.

 

But during that last year, their numbers dropped dramatically. They were all that remained of the holdouts... the only people on earth who had refused the Mark. And even they were rapidly dying out.

 

"What happened to our protection?" Chloe asked in an urgent email to Rayford when Mary Teresa was shot and killed in a raid in Rome.

 

"Protection is not absolute," Rayford had written to all of the tribes in response. "God still lets his rain fall on the just and on the unjust. Any army that has ever won a war has still had its casualties, and we have had them too. But look how far we have come. God is surely with us.

 

"The word 'survivor' literally means 'one who lives above'. We can physically stay alive, and that would be a form of survival. But there is an even greater triumph that comes from facing the final enemy -- death -- and still coming out on top. The message of the resurrection is that death is not the end. It makes all the difference.

 

"As the Apostle Paul has said, if there is no resurrection, then we are, of all people, most miserable. But because there is a resurrection, we will live on -- even after they have taken our lives. We will survive! We will live above it all!"

 

Nevertheless, every surviving member of the Twelve Tribes was counting down the days over those final months.

 

When there were just two weeks to go, Rayford and Chaim felt it was time to head for Jerusalem. They both knew that it would end in their deaths, and so, when they bid farewell to their respective co-workers, it was with heavy hearts.

 

Irene was surprisingly peaceful about Rayford's departure. In fact, she was the one who reminded him that they had had much more time together than most of the other couples they knew. "Count the days," she said as he pulled away from their final embrace. "Count the days."

 

The Two Witnesses left behind their computers -- their only communication link with the rest of the Twelve Tribes. They took a change of clothes and a few toiletries -- nothing more. Rayford was able to hitch-hike the entire way; but Chaim needed to board a plane to get out of Australia.

 

Chaim had never been married, and possibly because of that, he had a closer relationship with his co-workers. His tears flowed freely when he said goodbye to his colleagues. He was older than Rayford, with long brown hair and a beard, that had grown of necessity when they ran out of razor blades. "It just seemed natural to let my hair grow too," he said.

 

Chaim walked into Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney, on a warm Sunday afternoon in late November. He was not sure how he was going to get out of the country. He had no ticket, no passport, no visa, no money, not even any identification, and most important, no Mark. He got as far as the departure lounges without incident. Australian Immigration had ceased checking documents for departing passengers a few years earlier.

 

He located a flight with El Al going to Tel Aviv via Bangkok. When passengers were called to board, Chaim took his place in the queue. A woman in front of him had a seizure of some sort just as her ticket was being checked. While airline staff occupied themselves with her, Rayford slipped past the checkin desk and into the hallway that led to the plane. It was as easy as that. The flight was not heavily booked, so Chaim waited in the plane's rest room till all other passengers were seated, and then he took an unoccupied seat next to the aisle.

 

The plane took off for Bangkok without incident. It reached its desired altitude, and then levelled out. Chaim was thanking God for how smoothly it had all gone when a stewardess came and leaned over his seat. "We have no record of a passenger in this seat," she said quietly. "Have you moved from some other seat?"

 

"No, this is the only seat I've been in," Chaim responded, smiling up at the woman with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

 

"Can I see your boarding pass?" the stewardess asked.

 

"I'm afraid I don't have one," Chaim replied, still smiling.

 

The stewardess looked concerned. "Can you show me your ticket?"

 

"Truth is, I don't have a ticket either," Chaim answered sweetly.

 

"Please wait here," the stewardess said as she hurried off to get a second opinion before proceeding further. I wonder where she thinks I would go up here, Chaim thought to himself as he waited.

 

In the galley, Hattie, the stewardess, pulled David, the chief steward out to where he could look down the aisle toward the rear of the plane.

 

"See that man in the middle aisle seat about six rows back?" Hattie whispered. "He doesn't have a ticket."

 

"Really?" said the steward, as if that explained everything. "See, I noticed him when he got on. Thought at the time that he looked like one of those Witness blokes. Didya see them on T.V.?"

 

"Oh yeah!" said Hattie, as she studied Chaim's features. Chaim noticed the two staring at him and he fluttered his fingers in a friendly wave.

 

"This should be interesting," David whispered as he walked back toward where Chaim was sitting.

 

"You're one of the Witnesses, aren't you?" David asked. "I've visited your website."

 

He glanced at Hattie, who encouraged him by saying, "No big deal, David. Everybody has."

 

"Thank you," said Chaim, who shook David's extended hand.

 

"So what are you doing on this plane?" David asked.

 

"Flying to Tel Aviv. I have some business in Jerusalem."

 

"But you really do need a ticket to fly."

 

"You must know that I can't buy a ticket without the Mark; and I don't have the Mark."

 

"I'll have to report this to my superiors, and they'll probably want us to turn around and take you back to Sydney. Even if they agree to let you stay on, they'll have police waiting for you in Bangkok. You do realise that, don't you?"

 

"Don't you think God can get me to Jerusalem?" Chaim asked as he looked up at David with his head tilted to one side?

 

"Well, I've heard stories... and I sure wouldn't want to get you angry!" he laughed. "But certainly you wouldn't do something dangerous here, not on the plane, would you?"

 

"To tell you the truth," Chaim said, as he indicated for David to bend closer so he could hear a whisper, "I really don't have much control over it. I only know moments before it happens. I figure that only God knows just how much protection I need."

 

"Look, what I'll do is have a talk with the Captain and then get back to you," the younger man replied.

 

"Thank you," Chaim smiled, and then he went back to reading the newspaper that he had been reading during take-off.

 

In the cockpit there was a hurried exchange of information and then a call to Sydney.

 

"He says that there could be a show of force," said the Captain.

 

Instructions came through that they should do nothing to upset Chaim, and that they should proceed on to Bangkok, where authorities would be notified.

 

However, a zealous airline employee in Sydney phoned Israel too, and suggested that word be sent through to the palace. By the time the plane touched down in Bangkok at 10pm local time, instructions had been changed. Chaim was to be kept on the plane for the midnight flight to Tel Aviv. A welcoming party was being arranged by the authorities at Ben Gurion Airport the following morning.

 

Meanwhile, someone in Tel Aviv had leaked the story to the media, and word on TV was that Chaim had hijacked the plane. Half the reporters in Israel were at the airport, along with what looked like half of the U.N.'s sizeable military presence.

 

When the plane finally touched down at Tel Aviv, it taxied to a domestic lounge which had been sealed off overnight. Chaim was then allowed to exit on his own, before the plane proceeded to the international terminal with the other passengers.

 

Chaim came through the door into the arrival lounge and blinked at the flashing cameras and bright television lights. He waved to the press, and then a U.N. official came forward, trying to look strong for the sake of the cameras, and yet trying to look non-threatening for fear of Chaim's special powers.

 

"I'm afraid that you are going to have to come with me," he said, as he braced for a reaction.

 

"Certainly," Chaim responded. He was handcuffed and led to a police paddy wagon.

 

He was then taken, not to the police station, but to the palace itself, in Jerusalem.

 

"So! At last we meet!" gloated Dangchao as Chaim was led into his throne room. Everyone else bowed on the floor before the General Secretary, while Chaim remained standing.

 

"Where is your partner?" Dangchao asked.

 

"I don't know," Chaim answered honestly.

 

"Maybe I should hold you here for a few days, and see if he turns up."

 

Chaim did not respond.

 

"We could have some fun with you at the Temple," he said with an evil glint in his eye.

 

"And God could have some fun with you," Chaim replied, with a confidence that matched that of his captor. Dangchao caught the seriousness of the threat and eased back.

 

"Only kidding," he said. "I just want to ask your friend some questions. We really need to work together... for the good of the whole world."

 

Again Chaim remained silent.

 

News reports stated that Chaim had been arrested and that he was being detained at the palace. Dangchao was hopeful that it would be enough to attract Rayford.