Read the first chapter of 666 Mark of the Beast by Stephen Simpson
The moon, a glowing ball of light in a sky the colour of grease, followed an 18-wheeler driving slowly through the city streets. On both sides of the silver container there was a large image of an ostrich with its head buried in the sand. In an arch above the black and white plumes of the ostrich, big red, block letters spelled out the word The Awakening. The truck’s engine rumbled a deep noise that got swallowed by the other usual night-time sounds. The loud noises of people, the shouts of children who should have been in bed already, barking dogs, and sirens.
On a continent in the north-western hemisphere of Rheta, in the middle of KyRowen City, population 8.5 million and counting, some people were starting to think about getting ready for bed. Some could not be bothered with getting up from the couch to switch off the TV. Others were waiting for the minutes to tick by so that they could be the first to wish their friends a happy day, while ignoring those in the same room as them. Children who had gone to bed early, tossed and turned because they could not wait for the new day to dawn. It was, after all, the night before Christmas. In fact, it was ten minutes to midnight. The little ones hoped all their wishes would come true. Would they get what they had asked for, begged for, since most probably before Halloween?
Joseph, who preferred not to share his surname, held onto the steering wheel of the 18-wheeler. One hand at nine o’clock, and the other at three. His knuckles were turning white. He knew what was waiting for him when Christmas Eve turned to Christmas at the stroke of midnight, but he was not afraid. He knew his family was far, far away from here, and that they would have enough money to live comfortably. They would get the best Christmas gift he would ever be able to give them. That was all he had ever wanted. To be a good provider. Growing up poor, without the possibility of going to university, he never could get those high paying jobs, no matter how big his dreams ever were. He did not want that for Sissy, his daughter. He wanted her to be anything she wanted to be.
At 11:54, six minutes to midnight, in the container at the back of the blue truck, a tiny noise made a sound and in a fraction of a second a detonate command was sent to the high explosives contained within the shell of the bomb. As the explosives blew up, it smashed the pieces of uranium together, followed by a chain reaction of fission causing a nuclear explosion.
A city that inhaled and exhaled chaos, was suddenly silent.
On a continent in the south-eastern hemisphere of Rheta, the hot sun beat down upon the large silver container being pulled along the city streets. The glare of the sun reflected so brightly off the metal that it was hard to see the large image of an ostrich or the large red letters on the sides. The city streets were quiet, and there was not a sign of the usual weekday traffic.
The rumble from the truck’s engine sounded loud and bounced back from the tall structures, but nobody took notice.
At 15:54 on Christmas day in Edysyn, where approximately 5 million people made their homes, people were feeling lazy after having Christmas lunch. There was lots of laughter and smiles. For just this one day, people forgot about their worries and their strive, and enjoyed spending time with their family and friends. Some dripped chlorinated water from the pool on the tiled floors as they carefully crossed the room, while others wiped sweat from their brows after playing a friendly game of cricket in the garden. Some preferred to sit in the shade and to scroll through their newsfeeds on their phones, totally oblivious of the sounds of happiness around them.
Stomachs were full after sitting down at lavishly decorated tables laden with food that smelled delectable. Children, young and old, pulled their Christmas crackers and dug out their colourful paper crowns, quick to open them and put them on their heads while unfolding the little scrap of paper with a bad joke printed on it.
Gloria sat behind the steering wheel of the large 18-wheeler truck, keeping to the speed limit, and sticking to the rules of the road. Even if the police pulled her over for driving the big truck within the city limits, it would be too late for them to do anything.
She must admit, if only to herself, that she feared dying now. A week ago, she was not really cared whether she lived or not. Last week as she walked out of the prison gates with nowhere to go, she had nothing left to lose. The world and everyone living on it owed her nothing, and in return, she owed nobody anything. She just wanted it all to be over. She was tired. Soon it would be over. The detonator in the back of the container would count down to zero any second now.
In a millisecond, a two-kilometre radius ball of plasma appeared. Within this ball everything sizzled and was evaporated instantly, like a drop of water on a hot stove. A thermal flash of light pulsed brightly, illuminating a thirteen-kilometre radius, and everything that could burn was alight with fire. Plastic. Wood. Hair. Skin.
The sun rose about three hours ago over Lindwhee but the lingering smog from burning crops in the fields nearby in November made the sky look dull. Aanan kept his eyes on the road in front of him, and the sun from the corner of his eye made a valiant attempt at creating a glare but could only manage a smudge of pastel yellow as its rays were diminished by the smoke in the air.
Even though it was Christmas morning, traffic in the city had already built up to a snail’s pace. Aanan sat behind the steering wheel of a large 18-wheeler; his earphones tucked tightly into his ears. The rumble of the engine beneath him made his thighs wobble a little.
There was always traffic congestion in the city centre, but he knew it was probably worse today as many devoted Christian families were on their way home after attending morning services at their Church.
He was dressed in his new clothes bought specially to wear on this day. His wife had cleaned the house thoroughly and he had made all the repair works that were needed. Some days it felt as if that list grew longer and longer as his wife added to it, but yesterday he ticked off the last of the things he had to do.
Last night, he and his wife stood in the corner of their little kitchen and admired their hard work before she left to go to her mother’s house in Arlkea. Even though they achieved to give their humble abode a fresh look, Priya would be spending it away from the city.
She would not be in Arlkea yet. It was a long way to go, but she was well on her way. She thought he was going to join her there.
A few weeks ago, they found out that Priya was expecting a baby. When she told him, he felt an immediate pang of anxiety. Having children was expensive and he knew he could not afford to look after a child. It was one of the main reasons he was sitting in this 18-wheeler, in this traffic, on this Christmas Day.
He was promised a considerable sum of money, not for himself but for Priya. He knew he would, obviously, not be around to share this fortune with his wife or child but he wanted to make this sacrifice. He had always looked for a way up and out of being poor, that’s why he joined the book club. The founder promised to show him the way. At first, he was not completely convinced but the longer he listened, the more he became persuaded.
He turned his head to look in the direction of Adan Durham Park, a slum about a kilometre away. Although he could not see it from here, he knew it well. He lived in a small brick house there, a step up from the mud houses. He walked its narrow streets daily and skipped over the sewer line running through it. He did not want his child to grow up with a lack of safe drinking water and sanitation problems.
At 10:24, in a city where about 31 million people worked, slept, and ate, a blast of wind, faster than the speed of sound, radiated from the centre of the city, flattening every building and every house in one hundred-and-seventy-five-square kilometres.
In the sky, a fast-growing mushroom, spanning hundreds of kilometres, cast a dark shadow over the tall skeletons of the steel re-enforced concrete frames still standing. The mushroom sucked in vast amounts of oxygen, fuelling the already burning city and melting everything until there was nothing.
Even though the Arelbus Capital was set aglow with Christmas lights, many of the Christmas traditions that were celebrated elsewhere on Rheta served as New Year’s traditions here. Instead of a Christmas tree, there was a New Year’s tree. People exchanged gifts on New Year’s instead of on Christmas Day, depending upon family tradition. Those who did not have a Christmas Eve feast would instead have a large New Year’s Eve dinner. So, at 7:54 on Christmas Day in Arelbus, it was a dark winter’s morning like any other.
Ava, sitting in the cab of an 18-wheeler, driving slowly on the slick, icy roads through the city centre blew on her left hand while the other hand was holding onto the steering wheel. The blood circulation had never been good to her fingertips and sitting out in minus Celsius weather turned the numb feeling into a painful needles-and-pins prickling sensation. Her long blonde hair peeked out from under a fur cap, and the warm air blowing from the vents around her made strands of her hair flutter around her face. Every now and again the tips of her hair stroked against the side of her nose, making it feel itchy.
Last night, she met Ivan at the Christmas market on Arkty Haystackins Square, and she was wearing the felt boots he bought for her. She smiled a little smile. They had been friends for years now but lately she had been getting the impression he wanted more than just friendship. Since she joined her online book club, she had known there would never be a future for the two of them. She wondered what he was doing right now. What would his last thought be? Would it be about her?
She never thought of herself as an activist. When she joined the book club, she was looking for something but what she was looking for was not something tangible. It was for a deeper meaning. A higher spiritual awareness. She was looking for a connection beyond earthly things. There were only a few members in the online book club, but she did not mind. It felt easier to communicate. When a group had too many members, there inevitably also came a disconnect which was the opposite of what she was looking for. They shared book memes, links to motivational speeches and TED talks.
After the mushroom cloud over Arelbus, where almost 2 million people were just starting to wake up, turned the sky back into night, petrol stations exploded adding fire to fire to fire. What was left of the city was hotter than Hell.
Up to twenty kilometres away, a tsunami of wind shattered windows making it rain splinters of glass from the sky and flattening trees in its wake.
Lerato was angry. Angry was not the right word. She was furious, indignant, and resentful. She was sick and tired of hearing how Christmas was all about the three Fs – family, fun and feasting! She had a family she would love to have fun with while they were all feasting at their own table groaning under the weight of all the dishes she liked to like on her social feed. However, without her job there would be no food on the table for her family. Feasting would never be an option.
Last week, the Chef told her she would oversee the kitchen on Christmas day, an opportunity she had been waiting for since she started working at the restaurant at the age of sixteen and clawing her way up the ranks from dishwasher. She wished the long-awaited opportunity did not come on Christmas day.
She decided last night she was not going to go through with the project. This morning when she caught the taxi to go to the fancy restaurant in an affluent suburb of Ashebronjung, where she worked, she decided that she was not martyr material.
Since four o’clock this morning, the kitchen staff had been working hard for the customers who were booked in to enjoy the feasting part of Christmas without all the time-consuming preparations and clean-up afterwards. Diners who would spend this special day indulging in cheerful meals complete with all the trimmings. People who would not give a second thought to those working behind the scenes on this Christmas day, for minimum wage.
At 06:15 she got a call from the founder of the book club she joined a few months ago. She only answered because she recognised the phone number. A voice said, “My number is six hundred threescore and six.”
She ended the call and walked out the back door of the kitchen to the end of the street where an 18-wheeler was waiting for her.
With a smirk on her face, she tuned out the angry hooting of the cars around her on the inner-city roads. The roads were hardly wide enough for the 18-wheeler, but she did not care. Not anymore. She did not care when she looked down from the cab and read their lips calling her every filthy word under the sun. Soon they would all be dead. Good riddance.
Ashebronjung was the largest city in Foursithaca, on a continent in the southern hemisphere of Rheta, and was classified as a megacity. One of the hundred largest urban areas on Rheta. Most of the major Foursithacan companies and banks had their head offices in Ashebronjung, and at 6:54 it was all gone.
It was 1:30 in the morning in Aríbails, and José was leaving his home where he had celebrated Christmas with his family and friends. Standing in the door frame of his house, his sister called him back, but he gave her a smile over his shoulder and a wave of his hand as he continued walking away. Their Christmas feast started at midnight and finished only a couple of minutes ago.
When he joined the book club a couple of months ago, he knew he had found his place on the internet. He became fast friends with Gloria, Aanan, Ava, Lerato, and Joseph. When the administrator of the group made it private, he was happy because he preferred it to be just the six of them. Too many people, and he was sure they would not have become as close as they did. They were like-minded people looking for a deeper meaning in life. Searching a higher spiritual awareness. They were all into motivating each other, meditation, journal writing and yoga.
Although he did not know who the administrator of the group was, but he had a suspicion it could be Joseph, he did not think twice before downloading an audio file posted by the administrator about a month ago.
The audio file was titled Awaken the Beast, and the post description said, Take control of your Spiritual, Emotive, Sensual and Economic Destiny. He opened the file straight away and had listened to the calming chanting sounds every day since then.
His sister, Adriana, kept asking him how he could listen to a hypnosis audio book he had downloaded from the internet. She often teased him by saying, “What if someone planted weird suggestions under all that chanting sounds, and one day when you least expect it the most random thing could change your behaviour? You shouldn’t just download stuff off the internet and listen to it, you know? You are too gullible, José.” Sometimes she laughed when she saw him with his headphones on, and she pretended to be a chicken, pointing at him. He did not care. He did not think there was anything sinister about the audio file. He trusted all the members of his book club.
It was not like he was being hypnotised. He listened to the audio while he did his daily tasks. He was even listening to it now as he reached up to step into the cab of the 18-wheeler. He was wide awake, able to hear the city noises, the sounds of laughter and celebrations through the open windows of the houses around him. The audio did not put him in a trance. It was just calming sounds to help him reach his full potential, to lead him on the path to his destiny.
At exactly 1:54 the bomb in the trailer of the 18-wheeler José was driving through the city streets exploded just like the five other similar bombs in various parts of Rheta. All at the same time in different time zones. All on Christmas Day.
On this day of our dear Saviour’s birth, six cities were wiped off the face of Rheta. Not from a natural disaster like a hurricane, or a wildfire, or an earthquake. Not from a nuclear accident. It was all these things, all at once, but so much worse.
Copyright © Stephen Simpson (published by Fiction for the Soul). All rights reserved.