Everyone was caught off guard when the trouble began.  But no one was more unprepared than those who supposedly knew ahead of time what was to happen.

 

Rayford Strait was not a believer, so he never expected any of this -- not in his lifetime, nor in anyone else's lifetime.  But he was a realist.  If circumstances changed (as they had as a result of the attack), then he would simply make the necessary adjustments and set about doing what needed to be done.  Which is more or less what he did.

 

His wife and son, on the other hand, were believers.  Irene Strait attended church faithfully, not far from where they lived, in Prospect Heights, Illinois.  Vernon Billings, Irene's pastor at New Hope Chapel, often taught about the troubles that were going to come on the earth.  He had a shelf full of books and even video tapes detailing what to expect.  The topic had become something of an obsession with him.

 

Irene knew from what she had heard at New Hope Chapel, that a popular world leader was going to arise who would gain control over the entire planet.  She had heard that he would persecute believers on a scale never before known.  She knew that there would be death and destruction everywhere, and that her own country would not be spared.  

 

Irene had shared much of this with her 13 year old son, Raymie.  She tried to share it with her 19-year-old daughter, Chloe, too, but Chloe was -- like her father -- a cynic.  She had little interest in anything she could not see and touch.

 

Raymie found the books, the lectures, and especially the videos exciting.  They were scary at times, but he took comfort in the fact that he would never have to go through what they were describing, because he would be whisked up to heaven before it all started… instantly and painlessly… and all because he had said a little prayer asking Jesus into his heart.  Raymie faithfully prayed for his father and his sister, that they too would say the prayer before it was too late.  If only they would, then they could all go to heaven together.  

 

Irene prayed the same prayer that Raymie prayed, and she prayed it even more faithfully and more fervently than Raymie did.  She did not want any member of her family to be left behind.  But she never for a moment thought that she or Raymie would be among those who would be left.  She had books and tapes and videos and a long list of religious experts to back her up in her belief that she and others like her would be spared.

 

All of the suffering, she had been told, was reserved for someone else, for someone more appropriately suited to suffering… like the Jews.  After all, they have had more practice than the rest of us when it comes to suffering!

 

Rayford Strait was piloting an early morning flight from London to Chicago on a Tuesday in May when the invasion began.  He had left London at 5am and was about halfway to Chicago when he received word from Civil Aviation authorities in Chicago that unauthorised traffic had been picked up on radar in Canada, and it was crossing his proposed flight path.  (It was about 3:30am in Chicago by that time.)  

 

At first Rayford had been asked to divert to another corridor, but while they were still communicating the details, another message came through as an all frequencies broadcast.  A distraught flight controller was ordering all aircraft passing over the Ice Cap to turn back immediately.  

 

When Rayford asked for an explanation, all he received was a shouted warning: "All flights headed for North America over the Arctic Circle must turn back immediately.  This is a matter of extreme urgency.  It has come from the American Civil Defence headquarters in Washington, D.C.  I repeat:  Turn back!  Do not attempt to land in North America!"

 

Unidentified aircraft had come like a swarm of bees from the north, over the Ice Cap and across Canada.  With them had come missiles… hundreds (if not thousands) of them, flying high above the aircraft and coming down to earth just moments before the bombers crossed into U.S. airspace.  Each missile had been programmed to hit a particular U.S. city or a strategic military target.  Some were intercepted, of course, but on the whole the highly sophisticated American missile defence system had proved to be helpless in the face of so much fire-power and with so little warning.  

 

The enemy missiles were each surrounded by a cluster of metallic balloons, which served to confuse tracking devices on the American anti-missile missiles.  Nine out of ten of America's defence weapons totally missed their marks.  And while American missiles were busily tracking other missiles, many of the enemy planes were able to sneak safely into U.S. airspace as well.  What the missile invasion did not destroy, the enemy bombers took care of.

 

Although the general public had been conned into believing that America had an effective defence against an attack like this, military intelligence in almost every other country of the world knew better.  But they also knew that  nothing could stop America from pressing the button and sending its entire arsenal out to do the same thing to any other country that would dare to attack the U.S.  By doing this, the United States could at least wipe their opponents out as they themselves were going down.  This threat of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD, as it was called, for short) and not the highly touted missile defence system, had been the one thing that had kept the peace for as long as it had.  

 

But now that the threat of nuclear attack had become a reality, the American system found itself either too unwieldy, too timid, or perhaps too sane to do to an enemy nation what was being done to itself.  Someone in charge of pushing the button apparently realised, too late, that such a move would be pointless.  It would not bring back to life the millions of Americans who died that night, and it would only double the suffering for the human race.  

 

In Prospect Heights, Illinois, where Rayford Strait's family was sleeping, the air raid sirens went off several minutes before the first missiles hit, at 4am on Tuesday.  But people had grown complacent about such things, ever since the Cold War had ended, and especially since communism had suffered such total defeat in the 1990's.  The U.S. fallout shelter program was totally scrapped in 1992, and air raid drills were widely regarded as unnecessary, especially when they chose to go off in the middle of the night.  

 

People in Prospect Heights, like people throughout the rest of the country, mostly rolled over in their beds, and either slept through the first impact or else never knew what hit them.

 

But Irene Strait was not like everyone else.  She lived by the book, and if there was to be an air raid drill, then she would do the right thing by her country.  She roused her family and they all trundled down to the basement, despite protests from both Chloe and Raymie.  

 

On their way, Raymie grabbed what he thought was his latest hand-held video game lying on the kitchen counter.  If he was going to be locked in the cellar for a while, he may as well have something to play with.  

 

When they reached the basement, Irene turned on the transistor radio that she always kept there.  She quickly picked up the special civil defence broadcast.

 

It was just dawning on the trio who sat huddled around the radio, that this was not a drill, when they heard and saw the first explosion.  Downtown Chicago was some twenty miles south of them.  When the first nuclear warhead hit it, they not only heard the explosion, but they also felt the rumble in the ground.  The darkened basement lit up from the flash coming through two small street level windows.  The windows themselves shook from the shock waves.  A short while later, they heard several smaller explosions, with at least one of them coming from O'Hare International Airport, just six miles away, where a bomber had dropped a smaller bomb to destroy the runways.  

 

The Strait family did not know it at the time, but one of those explosions came from a one megaton warhead that veered off course and landed between De Kalb and Dixon, some eighty miles west of them.  It had been intended for a target just north of Prospect Heights.  If it had landed as planned, their house would almost certainly have been destroyed, and if they had survived the blast, they would have been so badly burned from radiation that they would not have lived for more than a few days.    

 

While they sat relatively safely in their basement, literally millions of Americans were being incinerated.  Millions more were receiving burns and other injuries from which they would never recover.

 

"What's happening?" Irene said to herself in bewilderment, as she ran her hands through her hair.

 

"Are we being bombed?" asked Raymie.  "It can't be the end of the world," he added, as if trying to reassure himself.  "It can't be; we're s'posed ta be gone before that happens.  It's not the end, is it, Mom?"

 

"I don't know, Raymie," Irene responded, with exasperation showing in her voice.  "I've got to think."

 

"Quiet, you two," said Chloe, who had her ear pressed up against the radio.  "They're saying that Russia has launched an attack.  The missiles are from Russia.  They say our defence system will stop the bombs before they reach their targets."

 

"Yeah, tell that to whoever just copped that last one!" said Raymie.  "Bet it hit Chicago!  Now we're gonna die too.  We're gonna die; and what's God doing about it?  He isn't doing anything, is he?  Why, Mom?  Why?"  Raymie's voice was becoming more hysterical as the seriousness of the situation dawned on him.  

 

"Settle down, Raymie!  We need to pray," said Irene.

 

"Yeah, sure!  We need to pray," he almost whispered sarcastically to himself.  "We already did pray, and it was s'posed ta make us safe from all of this.  I should be in heaven right now."  He turned to Irene.  "What went wrong, Mom?  Why didn't we go?  We're just as good as the others.  How come they got raptured and we didn't?"

 

"We don't know that they did get raptured," said Raymie's mother.  "Maybe the rapture hasn't happened yet."

 

"Well, what's the point, if we're still gonna hafta go through this?"

 

Chloe interrupted again.  "Will both of you shut up?  We're lucky to be alive right now.  But it's not over yet.  We need to act quickly."

 

Just then, the cellar lights went out.

 

"There should be some candles in that cupboard over the workbench," said Irene.  "At least that's where we used to keep them."  

 

Chloe felt her way over to the bench and opened the door on the overhanging cupboard.  Not only were there candles, but there were matches too.  She silently prayed that they would still light, and after a couple of strikes they had a reassuring flame perched on the workbench.

 

She turned to her younger brother.  "Raymie, turn the faucet on and fill up the laundry tub with water.  Quickly!"  Chloe, like her father, was the pragmatist.  She could see that decisions needed to be made, and she was making them.  Her urgency jerked Raymie out of his wailing complaints, at least for a while.

 

"Mom, stay by the radio and see if they tell us anything more," Chloe said, and then addressed herself:  "I need to find a way to cover those two windows as quickly as possible.  There's a lot of radiation up there, and it's going to be around for quite a while."

 

Chloe found a hammer and some nails on an old work bench.  She pulled boards off an orange crate and tacked them up in front of the two under-sized windows high up on the wall.  There was still some coal in the corner of the old coal bin, and she stuffed as much of that as she could between the glass and the timber slats, in the hope that the coal would soak up some of the radiation.  By the time she finished, she was covered with soot.  But there was no time for cleaning up.  

 

"Raymie, what's happening with the water?" she asked.

 

"I filled the laundry tub and a bucket.  There's nothing else to put it in."

 

"What about empty paint cans?  Tip the paint out somewhere if you have to.  We need to fill every available container, no matter how dirty it is."

 

Raymie went back to work looking for containers and muttering to himself about how no one would ever catch him drinking water from a dirty old paint can.  "The paint's probably worse for me than not having any water at all," he said.

 

"There're only a couple dozen candles, and two boxes of matches," Chloe said, loudly enough for the others to hear.  "We need to ration the candles and the water.

 

"What're we gonna eat?" asked Raymie.

 

"Nothing… at least not for a while.  It's too dangerous to go upstairs.  In a few days we may be able to make a quick trip to the fridge and grab something."

 

"In a few days?" wailed Raymie, who had tipped nails and screws out of some empty cans and was filling the cans with water.

 

"Yes, in a few days.  It won't kill us."

 

Irene was not listening.  She was fervently praying that God would do something to bring meaning to all of this.  She prayed that he would protect them, that Rayford would be safe, and that she would be able to contact Pastor Billings.  That was when she saw the cell phone.  

 

Raymie had accidentally grabbed it, thinking it was a hand-held video game.  She picked it up and started dialling.  She thanked God that they had paid extra for the microwave satellite function.  The Billingses had a satellite phone too.  Hopefully she would be able to get a call through to them.  

 

"Pastor Billings!  Is that you?," she said when Vernon Billings picked up the receiver on his end of the line.  "This is Irene Strait.  What's happening?  Please tell me!"

 

"Trust God, Sister Strait," said the kindly old pastor.  "Everything's gonna be all right.  He knows what he's doing."

 

"But the country… it's being bombed!" said Irene.  "This isn't how it was supposed to happen.  We were supposed to be raptured.  Is this the end of the world or what?"

 

"Believe me, Sister.  It's all under control" replied Pastor Billings.  "I was on the phone to a Christian militia movement in Montana just last night.  They said the Lord has actually appeared to them out there.  Yes, really!  It's not quite how we expected it to happen, but we have to flow with the Spirit, Sister.  God is calling his people from all over America to make their way to Montana.  I refused to believe it myself; but that was last night.  Now I'm thinking differently."  

 

There was silence on Irene's end of the phone as the pastor paused to let her respond.  "Are you with me, Sister Strait?" he asked.

 

"Uh, yeah, sure.  I'm with you," Irene replied hesitantly.   

 

Pastor Billings continued.  "We may escape this thing yet, Sister.  But you'll have to be obedient.  Elaine and I are praying about it now, and we want you to do the same.  The Lord has spared us for a purpose.  He's coming for us, Irene, you can be sure of that.  We just had a few of the details wrong."

 

"A few of the details?!" said Chloe when Irene recounted her conversation a minute or two later.  "The destruction of America is one hell of a big detail!"

 

"Watch your language," Irene cautioned.  She should have known from past experience that such a warning would not stop her strong-willed daughter.  Even bothering to make such a correction was out of character for Irene, who tended to let her children do what they liked.

 

"I'm sorry, Chloe," Irene said quickly.  "It's all the pressure."  And then she looked at her daughter in the light of the candle, with soot all over her face, and she longed once again for her to accept Jesus. Tears began to flow as she spoke, "This may be your last chance, honey.  Wouldn't you like to get right with the Lord now, so that you can go with us?"  

 

"I'm not going with anyone until I'm sure that it's safe out there," said Chloe.  And then she added, "You aren't seriously thinking of going with him, are you?  You'll get yourself killed!"

 

"What else are we supposed to do?" asked Raymie.  "Just sit here and starve to death?"

 

Chloe shared her brother's frustration, but she did not let on.  "What we need to do is sit here and listen to the radio.  Civil Defence knows what's best.  They said radiation is at its worst for the first 24 hours after the explosion.  It could be suicidal to go out there now.  Someone may come and rescue us.  Or they may decide that it's safe for us to come out after a while.  We just have to keep our heads and not panic.  What they're saying now is for people to find shelter and wait."

 

Just then the phone rang.  Irene picked it up.  It was Rayford.

 

"Irene, I'm sorry to bother you at such an odd hour.  I was worrying about you."

 

"Oh Rayford!  It's awful! Chicago has been bombed, and some other cities too…  No, seriously!  It's on the radio…  We're not hurt, just hiding in the basement…  Are you okay?  … When will you be home?  … London?  Why London? …  But you will be back tonight, won't you?  … Oh, this is awful!  Just awful!  … Yes, I understand.  … I'll try.  Do you have any idea how long you might be?  … I can't hear you.  Your voice is breaking up…  Oh dear, I've lost him."

 

Pan Continental, the airlines for which Rayford flew, had been the first to experiment with microwave satellite equipment on transatlantic flights.  It was only good for a short, specified distance on each flight, but it meant that pilots had one more window through which to receive important information on long, lonely flights.  Rayford had obviously used some of his precious satellite time to contact Irene.

 

Irene turned to the children.  "Daddy couldn't land because of the bombs.  He's on his way back to London.  At least he's safe, and he knows we are too."