...What palace personnel Rayford could make out in the eerie sepia tone landscape through the cockpit window appeared in agony. Chang had told him that the people writhed and moaned, but a jet screaming onto the runway also clearly terrified them. They had to think it was about to crash, as some had on the two number three runways.
It was as if the people had given up trying to see. Anyone near the Gulfstream IX had stumbled in the darkness to get away from it, and now they huddled here and there.
That has to be Chang, Rayford said, pointing to a slight Asian hurrying toward them and gesturing wildly to open the door.
Let me get that, Miss Naomi, Abdullah said, unstrapping himself and climbing past her. As he pushed the door open and lowered the steps, Rayford saw Chang turn to a small group of men and women in dark jumpsuits feeling their way along behind him.
Keep your distance! he shouted. Danger! Hot engines! Leaking fuel!
They turned and hurried away in all directions. How did it land? someone shouted. Its a miracle, another said.
Did you all remember rubber-soled shoes? Chang said, reaching to help them off the plane.
Nice to meet you too, Mr. Wong, Abdullah said.
Chang shushed him. Theyre blind, he whispered. Not deaf.
Chang, Rayford began, but the boy was shyly greeting Naomi. All right, you two, get acquainted back at the ranch. Lets do what we have to and get out of here.Rayford would have to ask Tsion about this one. What was it about the darkness that was so oppressive it left victims in agony? He had heard of disaster scenestrain wrecks, earthquakes, battleswhere what haunted the rescue workers for years had been the shrieks and moans of the injured. As he and Abdullah and the two young people tiptoed across the massive runways, around heavy equipment and between writhing personnel, it was clear these people would rather be dead. And some had already killed themselves. Two crashed planes lay in pieces, still smoldering, many charred bodies still in their seats.
As he moved from the dead to the suffering, Rayford was overcome. The wailing pierced him and he slowed, desperate to help. But what could he do?
Oh! Someone! It was the shriek of a middle-aged woman. Anyone, please! Help me!
Rayford stopped and stared. She lay on her side on the tarmac near the terminal. Others shushed her. A man cried out, We are all lost and blind, woman! You dont need more than we do!
Im starving! she whined. Does anyone have anything?
Were all starving! Shut up!
I dont want to die.
Where is the potentate? He will save us!
When was the last time you saw the potentate? He has his own concerns.
Rayford was unable to pull away. He looked ahead, but even he had but twenty feet of visibility, and he had lost the others. Here came Abdullah. I dare not call you by name, Captain, but you must come.
Comrade, I cannot.
Can you make it back to the plane?
Then we will meet you there.
Abdullah was off again, but their muffled conversation had caused a lull in the cacophony of agony. Now they called out, Who is that?
Where is he going?
Who has a plane?
Can you see?
What can you see?
The woman again: Oh, God, save me. Now I lay me down to sleep
Shut up over there!
God is great, God is good. Now I thank him
Put a sock in it! If you cant produce light, shut your mouth!
God! Oh, God! Save me!
Rayford knelt and touched her shoulder. She wrenched away with a squeal. Wait! he said, reaching for her again.
Oh! The pain!
I dont mean to hurt you, he said quietly.
Who are you? she groaned, and he saw the United European States number 6 tattooed on her forehead. An angel?
I prayed for an angel.
Promise youll tell no one, sir. Im begging you.
You prayed to God?
But you bear Carpathias mark.
I despise that mark! I know the truth. I always have. I just didnt want to have anything to do with it.
God loved you.
I know, but its too late.
Why didnt you ask his forgiveness? Accept his gift? He wanted to save you.
She sobbed. How can you be here and say that?
I am not from here.
You are my angel!
No, but I am a believer.
And you can see?
Enough to get around.
Oh, sir, take me to food! Get me inside the terminal to the snack machines. Please!
Rayford tried to help her up, but she reacted as if her body were afire. Please, dont touch me!
Just let me hold your sleeve. Can you see the terminal?
Barely, he said. I can get you there.
Please, sir. She struggled to her feet and gingerly clasped the cuff of his sleeve between her thumb and forefinger. Slowly, please. She mince-stepped behind Rayford. How far? she said.
Not a hundred yards.
I dont know if I can make it, she said, tears streaming.
Let me go get you something, he said. What would you like?
Anything, she said. A sandwich, candy, water, anything.
Wait right here.
She chuckled pitifully. Sir, all I see is black. I could go nowhere.
Ill be right back. Ill find you.
Ive been praying God will save my soul. And when he does, I will be able to see. Rayford didnt know what to say. She had said herself it was too late. In the beginning, she said, for God so loved the world. The Lord is my shepherd. Oh, God
Rayford jogged toward the terminal, skipping between ailing people. He wanted to help them all, but he knew he could not. A man lay across the inside of the automatic door, not moving. Rayford stepped close enough to trip the electric eye and the door opened a few inches and bumped the man.
Please move away from the door, he said.
The man was asleep or dead.
Rayford pushed harder, but the door barely budged. Finally he lowered his shoulder and put his weight behind it. He bent and drove with his legs, feeling the pressure on his quads as the door slowly rolled the man away, and Rayford heard him groan.
Inside Rayford found a bank of vending machines, but as he reached in his pocket for Nick coins, he saw the machines had been trashed. Enough people had felt their way here to tear the machines open and loot them for every last vestige of food. Rayford searched and searched for something, anything they had missed. All he found were empty bottles and cans and wrappers.
Who goes there? someone demanded. Where are you going? Can you see? Is there light anywhere? What has happened? Are we all going to die? Where is the potentate?
Rayford hurried back outside. Wherere you going! someone shouted. Take me with you!
He found the woman on her stomach, face buried in her arms. She was wracked with sobs so deep and mournful he could barely stand to watch.
Im back, maam, he said quietly. No food. Im sorry.
Oh, God, oh, God and Jesus, help me!
Maam, he said, reaching for her. She shrieked when he touched her, but he pulled at the sides of her head until he could see her hollow, unseeing, terrified eyes.
I knew before everybody disappeared, she said, pitifully. And then I knew for sure. With every plague and judgment, I shook my fist in Gods face. He tried to reach me, but I had my own life. I wasnt going to be subservient to anybody.
But Ive always been afraid of the dark, and my worst nightmare is starving. Ive changed my mind, want to take it all back
But you cant.
I cant! I cant! I waited too long!
Rayford knew the prophecy, that people would reject God enough times that God would harden their hearts and they wouldnt be able to choose him even if they wanted to. But knowing it didnt mean Rayford understood it. And it certainly didnt mean he had to like it. He couldnt make it compute with the God he knew, the loving and merciful one who seemed to look for ways to welcome everyone into heaven, not keep them out.
Rayford stood and felt the blood rush from his head. And thats when he heard the loud speakers.
This is your potentate! came the booming voice. Be of good cheer. Have no fear. Your torment is nearly past. Follow the sound of my voice to the nearest loudspeaker tower. Food and water will be delivered there, along with further instructions.