The control towers were in chaos, both at Gatwick and at Heathrow… in fact, all over Europe, as they tried to deal with so many returning flights. On his headphones in the cockpit of the big 747, Rayford Strait had been able to pick up something about a charter flight missing off the coast of Scotland. It had run out of fuel while trying to get back to England. There was no telling what had become of the many flights which would not have had enough fuel to make it back to Europe. They would have been forced to put down somewhere in North America, with or without airport runways. There must have been dozens of crashes.

 

When Rayford had landed and walked into the airport, he started to get a clearer picture of the enormity of the problem. Amidst the pandemonium of flight cancellations and unscheduled arrivals, the airport was abuzz with talk about a huge pre-emptive military strike against the United States, by Russia. It was 2pm in London, but only 8am in Chicago. The sun had not even come up on the West Coast of America yet, and it would be a few hours before any video coverage would be available, but every news station in the world was interrupting its normal programming to give sketchy first reports of the disaster. Early estimates put the deaths at five million. Later reports would verify that the loss in human life was already several times that figure, and it would almost double over the next few weeks.

 

Damage to cities, highways, and airports meant that reconstruction was out of the question… even if there had been no nuclear fallout to worry about. The entire country was without government, without power, without communication, and without vital transportation links. The central business district of nearly a hundred major American cities had been entirely wiped out. If the attack had not come in the middle of the night, the loss in human lives would have been several times higher.

 

Hospitals in the inner cities had been destroyed, and along with them had gone their entire on-duty medical staffs. What medical and rescue services were still available had to function almost without administration, and that was assuming that the rescue personnel themselves were still alive and able to work. America was suddenly back in the middle ages; everyone was being forced to fend for themselves to survive.

 

Emergency services throughout the English-speaking world were quick to start marshalling forces to airlift rescue supplies, protective clothing, and medical personnel to America, Mexico, and Canada. The wounded would need to be treated as quickly as possible, although for many hundreds of thousands, even treatment would not save them. Those who were already dead would most likely be left where they were.

 

There were mixed feelings from the non-English-speaking world. Everyone was, of course, shocked. But U.S. President Gerald Fitzhugh had made many enemies with his growing military involvement in world affairs. He had conducted numerous wars of 'liberation', supposedly aimed at wiping out 'terrorism'. His closest aides swore that he genuinely believed he was doing God's will. They said that he experienced personal pain at the civilian casualties that he had caused, but that he felt it was necessary in order to create a kind of holy world peace.

 

Xu Dangchao, from Tibet, had been elected Secretary General of the United Nations one year earlier, two years after Tibet had been admitted to the world body, and three years after the U.N. headquarters had been shifted to Geneva. Although Dangchao's policies were wildly popular with Russia and with the Third World, his hands had been tied because of America's veto power in the U.N. Security Council. Dangchao wanted to erase the Third World debt and to do away with prejudicial import/export duties, which had the effect of favouring rich nations and further crippling the poorer ones. America's weak justification for opposing the scheme was just that Dangchao was trying to do "too much too soon".

 

Russia and China, who strongly backed Dangchao, were as stubborn as America about vetoing American proposals for military intervention in countries where the U.S. believed human rights were being abused. But the U.S. had ways of working around a veto from either Russia or China. It used its wealth and military might to form military alliances, with which it could wage wars on its own.

 

Sadly, President Fitzhugh found that the more he had played God with the future of countries he saw as being "evil", the easier it had become to justify interference even when atrocities commited by the side he was helping were worse than those by the ones he was committing America to destroy.

 

Of course the American public had lapped it all up. The important thing, politically, was that Fitzhugh had not lost a single skirmish while he had been in office. As long as he was careful to target small revolutionary movements and relatively weak countries, and then to hit them hard, he was almost guaranteed success. Troops would no sooner return triumphant from one conflict than he would be sending out more to settle another. Americans were more proud than ever to be Americans. They truly saw themselves as the saviours of the world. And President Fitzhugh, with his claim to being "born again", never missed an opportunity to remind voters that God was on his side.

 

But now, with America in the throes of death, Russia, China, and their hero, Dangchao, had nothing to fear either from Fitzhugh, or from Britain or France -- the other two permanent members of the Security Council. (France had been distancing itself from the U.S. anyway.) It appeared that all three of the dissenting nations had been subdued in the space of just a few hours! * * *

 

Rayford was told to get some sleep, but to stay in touch with the airport, so that he could be called in if his plane was needed for a mercy mission. All commercial flights to the U.S. had been cancelled. The British government had already declared a state of emergency. This meant that the British military would take command of all local airlines and all local airline pilots. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and many European nations were making similar moves to assist. Supplies urgently needed to be flown to North America, and refugees needed to be flown out. The entire population of the U.S. was about to be evacuated … at least what remained of it.

 

There had been no reports of damage in Canada, apart from a couple of hits in unpopulated regions, and these were apparently caused by defective missiles. It seemed that Russia's war had been only with the U.S., not with Canada.

 

England, Australia, and other countries that were sympathetic with America, had also escaped without a hint of attack. So airports in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, and Vancouver were being geared up for round-theclock arrivals and departures. Rayford, along with all other available pilots, would be playing an important part in the rescue operation.

 

Although he was tired from the trip, there was too much happening for Rayford to sleep straight away. He checked into the Airport Hilton, then laid on the bed fully clothed. He stared at the ceiling in the same state of shock that so much of the world was in at that very moment. He thought about Irene, about Chloe, and about Raymie. His concerns turned only briefly to other relatives in the U.S. who may have been hit.

 

Telephone communication with the U.S. was virtually impossible because so many lines had been knocked out. Even satellite phones were being affected by the fallout. Fortunately, Rayford had bought Irene a microwave satphone, so that he could call her from the cockpit when passing through the relatively narrow band on the Pan-Con route from London to Chicago. That would now be his main link with her. He would probably be able to give her another call on his flight back to Canada.

 

Images of how it must have been for the millions who had already died haunted Rayford. His thoughts returned to Irene and the kids down in the basement. There was comfort in knowing that they, at least, were still alive. With any luck, he would be talking to them within the next 24 hours. He silently thanked God for that. In time, he hoped to be able to find a way to get rescuers to the house, so they could take his family to safety.

 

Late that afternoon, after a few hours of fitful sleep, Rayford awoke, showered, then left word at the hotel desk that he was taking a cab to the airport. He figured airline officials could tell him more about what was happening than he would be able to learn from any other news source.

 

A visit to the airline offices above the departure lounge revealed that Rayford had been assigned to fly out at six the next morning, on a flight to Toronto. There would be only a few passengers (mostly doctors and nurses), but the plane would also carry tents, medical supplies, food, and radiation-proof clothing. They were already being loaded in a special hangar at the south end of the airport.

 

Rayford further learned that, when word had begun to spread, only hours after the bombing had stopped, that Canada had not been hit, this had started a mass northern exodus from the United States. The northern highways were already packed with people fleeing the scene. Canadian authorities were frantically trying to set up refugee camps to contain them.

 

Fortunately it was nearly summer, so thousands of people were quickly accommodated outside, near Canada's border with the U.S. This left churches and school auditoriums free to be turned into hospitals for the wounded. Helicopters and land rescue vehicles started almost immediately to ferry the wounded out of the northern states; but even then they were only able to service a few of the worst-hit cities. Vancouver was caring for the wounded from Seattle, Portland, and Spokane; Toronto was taking survivors from Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo; and Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec were doing what they could to help refugees from the area that included Boston, Rochester, Philadelphia, and New York City.

 

At the same time, Canadians themselves were panicking about the fallout that was headed their way. Airports in all of the major cities were packed with passengers waiting for stand-by seats out of the country. Hundreds of flights which would have normally been destined for the U.S. were quickly rerouted to Canada, where airlines could be guaranteed to fill every seat, regardless of what they charged or where their destination was to be. Officials from Emergency Preparedness Canada were frantically trying to set up priority criteria for determining who should be allowed to take the first flights out of the country. A TV in the Heathrow VIP lounge updated viewers on how many U.S. cities and airports had been demolished. Aircraft were still able to come and go from some smaller airstrips. But that would not be enough to meet the far more urgent needs of the larger cities -- cities like Chicago -- which were the ones that had suffered the greatest losses. Milwaukee and St. Paul/Minneapolis, both closer to Canada than Chicago, were on their own in providing transport to the refugee camps being set up by their northern neighbours.

 

President Gerald Fitzhugh and his family were believed to be trapped beneath the capital building in Washington, D.C., where they had been rushed to shelter as soon as the alert went up. If a bomb had landed close enough to bring down the White House (which appeared to be the case), then escape for those beneath it would not be easy.

 

People who had survived the bombing were being told via radio broadcasts to seek shelter and to await further instructions. There would be attempts to relocate them to places away from the fallout; but first the authorities needed to establish exactly where that might be. Weather reports before the attack showed a cold front moving southeast across the Midwest. The fallout cloud would, therefore, be likely to move in that direction. However this was only good news for people on the American West Coast, because for every cloud moving away from other localities, there was another coming toward them from the west.

 

With nuclear strikes in San Diego, Anaheim, L.A., Fresno, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Portland, Eugene, Tacoma, Seattle, and Spokane, states on the West Coast were amongst the most heavily hit anyway. Only the area between Boston and Washington had been more heavily hit. Rayford could see from the first film footage of refugees heading for Canada, that he and his family would not have much chance of reunion through that route. Both sides of the freeways were being used for northbound traffic, which was at a standstill in places and only creeping along in others. Traffic had to detour around major cities and other badly damaged roads. Against such a flow of traffic, only emergency vehicles had any hope of travelling south. The freeways themselves were becoming increasingly blocked by vehicles without fuel, which had to be pushed to the side of the road and deserted. That left the drivers and passengers of those vehicles to venture forward on foot. Days out on the road would mean days more exposed to the deadly fallout. Civil Defence warned against trying to escape before it could be established that there was someplace safe to go. But millions took no heed.

 

Chicago was too far away from Toronto to attract Toronto's limited rescue resources. But some local authorities in the Chicago area were commandeering aircraft, vehicles, and even ships to ferry survivors north. Everyone working on rescue operations was putting themselves at risk, and protective clothing was urgently required.

 

Rayford took some consolation in knowing that, even if he could not get to his own family, he would be helping the overall rescue effort. In time, his involvement might give him the opening that he needed to help Irene and the kids as well.

 

At about 7pm, Rayford left the VIP lounge and headed for the cab rank. He had learned as much as he could, and now it was time to get a few more hours of sleep before his departure. On the way out of the airport lobby, he was approached by a slim, blond man, in his thirties. The shabbily dressed man stuck a booklet in Rayford's face and asked in a broad German accent if he wanted to read it. The Fall of America was the title. It appeared above a picture of an upside-down American flag. Rayford pushed the man aside in disgust.

 

Always someone ready to cash in on the sufferings of others! he thought to himself.

But just as he walked out the door of the airport, it hit him: The attack had only taken place a few hours ago! How could someone in England already have produced a booklet telling about it? He raced back into the airport, his eyes searching in every direction for the man. The little German was near the Pan- Con ticket counter, talking to two or three other people, who also appeared to be sending him away.

 

"Where did you get that? Who wrote it?" Rayford whispered almost at the level of a shout, when he had caught the man's attention by grabbing his arm. He was trying hard not to create a scene, and yet he was desperate to know what was going on.

 

"Some friends... together, vee wrote it," the man replied, half in fear. "You are interested?" he asked.

 

"Yes, I'm interested!" said Rayford emphatically. "Very interested. But first tell me how you knew it was going to happen."

 

"Vee study Bible prophecy," said the softly-spoken little man. "And vee pray. Vee have been saying zat zis vould happen. Vee have been saying it for few years now. It is most imperative zat you read zis book." His brow was wrinkled in an almost exaggerated show of seriousness. But then, how could anyone possibly exaggerate the seriousness of what had just happened in America?

 

The young German went on dramatically: "Udder sings are coming too… Ferry serious sings."

 

Rayford wanted to read the book; but he also wanted some instant answers. He offered the man -- Reinhard was his name -- a meal, if he would sit down and talk to him.

 

"It is most important zat I get zese books to zuh people," replied Reinhard. "Vee can talk later."

 

"Please!" Rayford begged, almost in tears now. "I'll be flying to Canada tonight. My family is over there. I must know what is going on before I leave." Reinhard sensed an urgency in Rayford's voice that he must not have found in his other clients, because he quickly backed down. "Vere do you vant to talk?" he asked.

 

Rayford took him to a table in the nearest restaurant, ordered a meal for them both and then opened the floor for Reinhard to explain what was going on. "Vat is happening now… it is yudgement from God on America. But it is also opening for Russia to control zee United Nations. Dangchao is Russia's man, you understand?" Rayford knew of the growing unrest throughout the world at what many countries considered was America's abuse of power within the U.N. That much of Reinhard's explanation made sense, but it was not what he was looking for.

 

"Are you telling me that you knew this was going to happen just from reading the Bible?" he asked incredulously.

 

"I cannot show all vat you vish to know in such short time. You vill read it in zuh book."

 

In his clipped German manner, Reinhard's promise sounded more like a command. "You vill see for yourself. For now, vee have little time. I must move quickly. Zuh Bible tells of five vorld powers. Zay are a bear, an eagle, a lion, a leopard, and a rooster. Zese are signs for Russia, America, England, Africa, and France." He counted them off on his fingers. "You must know, zee leopard is being now used as sign of solidarity for zuh Sird Vorld."

 

Rayford was finding it difficult to follow, but he decided to let Reinhard carry on.

 

"England, France, and America can veto plans by Russia and China in zee United Nations. Zee udder ten Security Council members… zay are called rotating members... Zay come from zee udder countries."

 

"So?" said Rayford, who was showing only mild interest at this stage. He had other questions that he wanted to ask, but he would wait a bit longer. Reinhard went on. "Zee eagle's vings are plucked. You vill see it in the book. It is in the Bible. Zis bombing, it is zee plucking of zee eagle's vings. After falls zee eagle, zuh lion… zat is, England… loses its power. Zuh rooster vings, zay join vit zuh leopard. Zat is France and all of Europe joining vit zuh Sird Vorld. You see, it is because zuh bear… Russia… subdues… Zat is to say she stops Sree vorld powers from fighting against her. She does it by plucking zuh vings of zee eagle. Vit help from zee udder ten nations zuh new leader vill control zuh vorld."

 

Rayford was losing patience. "I'm not interested in all the political stuff," he said. "Do you have any answers? My family is over there. If you really know what is going on, what can I do for them? What should I do?"

 

"It is God's punishment," Reinhard said soberly. "If your people are alive, zay vill be forced to leave. No one vill live zair ever again. God ist angry vit zuh shurch people in America."

 

"The church people?" Rayford said with genuine surprise. "Why the church people?" He was thinking of Irene.

 

"Zay fight zuh teachings of sheesus. Zay do not prepare for vat is coming, and day do not tell the truth to udders."

 

"My wife is a church person," Rayford responded indignantly. "She was always talking about this… this… something called 'The Great Tribulation'."

 

"No, no! Zis is not Great Tribulation… not yet," said Reinhard. Zis is only zuh start of vat is coming. But your vife, she needs faith vat is strong enough to go through zuh Great Tribulation. I do not sink she vill find it in zuh shurches."

 

"She doesn't need to go through it… least not the way she tells it," Rayford replied. He was surprised to hear himself defending something he had always scoffed at. "She says that she will be taken to heaven before it happens."

 

"And did she tell you zat America vas going to be punished before she goes to heffen?" Reinhard asked quietly, as he stared at his lap. When Rayford did not answer immediately, Reinhard raised his head, and then his blond eyebrows in further anticipation.

 

Rayford finally spoke. "Well, I don't know. I don't recall her saying anything about that." Even as he spoke, he was thinking about how emotional Irene had been on the phone. "Maybe she missed that part."

"She vill need help … spiritual help," Reinhard said sympathetically. He went on slowly, as though talking to himself: "It is so ferry hard for the shurch people… Zay cannot say ven zay are wrong." Then he looked Rayford directly in the eyes, and spoke slowly and deliberately, his own eyes opening wide as he spoke. "You must not let her run avay. She vill vant to run off and find her Sheesus."

 

Rayford did not like hearing his wife talked about in such a way at a time when he was so close to losing her. He would take the time to study Reinhard's book more closely later, but he was not getting any information from this strange little man that would help him in his present situation. So he excused himself and left Reinhard to finish his meal alone.

 

Rayford wondered as he glanced back at the skinny little street preacher wolfing the last of the food down, just how long it had been since Reinhard's last meal.