Rayford Steele had endured enough brushes with death to know that the cliché was more than true: Not only did your life flash before your mind's eye, but your senses were also on high alert. As he knelt awkwardly on the unforgiving red rock of the city of Petra in ancient Edom, he was aware of everything, remembered everything, thought of everything and everybody.
Despite the screaming Global Community fighter-bombers--larger than any he had ever seen or even read about--he heard his own concussing heart and wheezing lungs. New to the robe and sandals of an Egyptian, he tottered on sore knees and toes. Rayford could not bow his head, could not tear his eyes from the sky and the pair of warheads that seemed to grow larger as they fell.
Beside him his dear compatriot, Abdullah Smith, prostrated himself, burying his head in his hands. To Rayford, Smitty represented everyone he was responsible for--the entire Tribulation Force around the world. Some were in Chicago, some in Greece, some with him in Petra. One was in New Babylon. And as the Jordanian groaned and leaned into him, Rayford felt Abdullah shuddering. Rayford was scared too. He wouldn't have denied it. Where was the faith that should have come from seeing God, so many times, deliver him from death? It wasn't that he doubted God. But something deep within--his survival instinct, he assumed--told him he was about to die. For most people, doubt was long gone by now ... there were few skeptics anymore. If someone were not a Christ follower by now, probably he had chosen to oppose God.
Rayford had no fear of death itself or of the afterlife. Providing heaven for his people was a small feat for the God who now manifested himself miraculously every day. It was the dying part Rayford dreaded. For while his God had protected him up to now and promised eternal life when death came, he had not spared Rayford injury and pain. What would it be like to fall victim to the warheads?
Quick, that was sure. Rayford knew enough about Nicolae Carpathia to know the man would not cut corners now. While one bomb could easily destroy the million people who--all but Rayford, it seemed--tucked their heads as close to between their legs as they were able, two bombs would vaporize them. Would the flashes blind him? Would he hear the explosions? feel the heat? be aware of his body disintegrating into bits?
Whatever happened, Carpathia would turn it into political capital. He might not televise the million unarmed souls, showing their backsides to the Global Community as the bombs hurtled in. But he would show the impact, the blasts, the fire, the smoke, the desolation. He would illustrate the futility of opposing the new world order.
Rayford's mind argued against his instincts. Dr. Ben-Judah believed they were safe, that this was a city of refuge, the place God had promised. And yet Rayford had lost a man here just days before. On the other hand, the ground attack by the GC had been miraculously thwarted at the last instant. Why couldn't Rayford rest in that, trust, believe, have confidence?
Because he knew warheads. And as these dropped, parachutes puffed from each, slowing them and allowing them to drop simultaneously straight down toward the assembled masses. Rayford's heart sank when he saw the black pole attached to noses of the bombs. The GC had left nothing to chance. Just over four feet long, as soon as those stand-off probes touched the ground they would trip the fuses, causing the bombs to explode above the surface.
Rayford's first inkling was that he was in hell. Had he been wrong? Had it all been for naught? Had he been killed and missed heaven in spite of it all? He was unaware of separate explosions. The bombs had caused such a blinding flash that even with his eyes involuntarily pressed shut as tightly as his facial muscles would allow, the sheer brilliant whiteness seemed to fill Rayford's entire skull. It was as if the glare filled him and then shone from him, and he grimaced against the sound and heat that had to follow. Surely he would be blown into the others and finally obliterated.
Rayford could not see far in the raging firestorm, but every huddled pilgrim around him was also ablaze. Abdullah rolled to one side and lay in a fetal position, his face and head still cocooned in his arms. White, yellow, orange, black roaring flames engulfed him as if he were a human wick for a demonic holocaust.
It was four in the morning in Chicago, and Buck sat before the television. Leah and Albie joined him, Zeke having gone to collect Enoch. "Where's Ming?" Buck said.
"With the baby," Leah said.
"What do you make of this?" Albie said, staring at the screen.
Buck shook his head. "I just wish I was there."
"Me too," Albie said. "I feel like a coward, a traitor."
"We missed something," Buck said. "We all missed something." He kept trying to call Chloe, only imagining what she was going through. No answer.
"Do you believe this guy?" Leah said. "It's not enough to massacre a million people and destroy one of the most beautiful cities in the world. He's chasing it with a missile."
Buck thought Leah's voice sounded tight. And why not? She had to be thinking what he was thinking, that they had not only lost their leadership and seen a million people incinerated, but that everything they thought they knew was out the window.
"Get Ming, would you?" he said. "Tell her to let Kenny sleep."
Leah hurried out as Zeke and Enoch walked in. Zeke plopped onto the floor, but Enoch stood fidgeting. "I can't stay long, Buck," he said. "My people are pretty shaken."
Buck nodded. "Let's all get together at daybreak." "And--?" Enoch said.
"And I don't know what. Pray, I guess."
"We've been praying," Albie said. "It's time to reload."
As the Tribulation Force in Chicago watched, the fighter-bomber pilot acknowledged to GC command that he had a visual on the missile originating from Amman. And from the right side of the screen came the thick, white plume trailing the winding projectile as it approached the flame and smoke rising from Petra.
The missile dived out of sight into the blackness, and seconds later yet another explosion erupted, blowing even wider the fire that seemed to own the mountainous region.