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Clinical experts had long claimed that extinction through starvation was simply the natural avenue man was choosing for himself. His persistent meddling in the earth's basic crop stock through splicing, hybrid development, and chemical dependency had diluted rudimentary genetic codes in each succeeding generation of foodstuffs.

Of equal consequence was a secondary trespass into the arena of socioeconomics. For hybrids meant higher yields from less ground. Higher yields insured a mounting birth rate with more need of land dedicated to housing, education, and commerce; and a natural reduction of the ground reserved for farming.

And so, a mighty doomsday machine was born. One which grew larger with each new decade, until civilization's entire presence came to hinge on a collection of high yield, fertilizer sensitive weeds—themselves existing in an ever narrowing band of production and fertility.

Warnings of potential catastrophe had surfaced periodically throughout recent years of industrialization. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845, the corn leaf blight of 1970, the worldwide wheat smut and soybean leaf rust epidemics of the late twentieth century all hinted at a mounting likelihood for disaster.

With each new growing season, the firing mechanism of the great doomsday machine drew a little tighter. At the turn of the new century, it was finally set fully cocked and awaiting just the right trigger to start it in motion.

That trigger arrived by way of chance solar convulsions early in the new millennia. Fickle spasms of mass and energy in earth's distant benefactor that bombarded the solar system with immense gravitational, magnetic, and ultraviolet fluctuations. Given the innocuous nickname of "Skylock," the event itself would not be anything as trivial.

A consequential fluxing of its poles resulted in a minute reduction of the earth's rotational speed. The varied densities of planet crust and core fell ever so slightly out of synch with its atmosphere, rattling tectonic plates worldwide and giving rise to a subsequent increase in earthquake and geothermal activity.

Erratic and violent weather grew commonplace. Besides obvious land damage, resulting high-altitude soot layers also changed the specific light bands necessary for proper plant growth. Radical ozone generation at ground level impeded crop ability to absorb nutrients, making root systems easy prey for disease and hearty droves of mutant insect strains. Contagion ravaged the planet and worldwide crop harvests fell off by forty percent.

Enter the Manna Project, a global research campaign created by the United Nations and run under license of its Disaster Relief Foundation. It parceled out assignments in plant genetics and was regulated by a world governing board with total project sovereignty over all governments and powers.

But too many jealousies had been fostered for too long a time. And even united in the starkness of their common need, what surfaced among countries was a gaggle of uneasy alliances, which held little trust in their counterparts and gave birth to the inevitable secret societies.

* * *

Royce Corealis pumped through the last of his midmorning push-ups. He drew a deep breath and snapped to his feet, savoring the exhilarating rush of fresh blood through his system. Eighty hard ones, like clockwork. Just the right finish to his daily regimen of weights, running, and bag time.

Checking his profile in a gym mirror, the USDA director and head of American Grain Studies was well satisfied with what he saw. At fifty-six, Director Corealis still cut a dynamic figure. Steel gray eyes set in a square, powerful face returned his stare. A set of broad shoulders, firm arms, and flat stomach boasted a man willing to expend whatever personal exertion was required to achieve his goals.

As appointee to the American chapter of the Manna Project, Corealis proved as hard a charger in his professional labors. Under his capable direction, the main research station at Fort Collins, Colorado, and a smattering of contributing countrywide sites delved headlong into their world-class assignment.

Through their studies of plant cloning, cell fusion, and gene splicing, the Crop Research Division of the USDA searched for the isolated traits which would strengthen the UV and ozone resistance of cereal grasses.

A spartan life had toughened Royce Corealis and forced him to achieve things in the old-fashioned way: with smarts and drive.

The eldest of a struggling Iowa farm family, Royce had had nothing else to help him along. No godfathers or family-paved avenues waiting in business or politics. Just a harsh awareness of economics made early in life, on those humiliating Saturday trips to town. Hellish little journeys from near poverty to a voyeur's world of new bikes, clothes, and treats; all belonging to other, more prosperous children.

The message burned bright to the gawking nine-year-old standing empty-handed in his tattered bib overalls. One which became his fuel and rose as his herald: Success was what you clawed out for yourself.

Scholarships got Royce started and personal savvy held the compass for his upstream fight. In 2021 he became a grain broker for the Japanese, eventually gaining exclusive rights to procure all the American buckwheat so craved by that wealthy island nation.

But these current global hard times proved Corealis' best working medium. His business savvy helped penetrate the newly formed CRD. There, he maneuvered himself with timely favors and adroit flanking moves, eventually standing as chief of the restructured USDA itself; a force to be reckoned with and—once federal decentralization had taken place—a position grown to parallel the very presidency itself.

At first, only the power was his motivation. But, slowly, a greater feeling of responsibility awakened in the man: accountability of what he controlled and stewardship for his country's best interest. So driven, the director shouldered a total patriotic acceptance which made him expect no less from his peers. In mind as now in body, Royce Corealis was a force nothing would be allowed to obstruct.

Today found the director far from his Fort Collins home base. He was in Illinois, attending a quarterly staff meeting at the regional capitol and interim White House. Along with the other regional governors and various department heads, Corealis spent the three-day assembly delivering progress reports to the president-in-exile and compiling notes for distribution through subordinate channels back at home. Unknown to the majority, however, another private order of business still remained for Corealis and a select few.

Through a scattering of other exercisers, the director caught sight of his executive assistant. Toweling off, he awaited the man's approach.

"Morning, sir," said the aide quietly on arriving. "The latest encrypted progress report from the country club was finally deciphered. Also, a special SHAPP update arrived by courier this morning."

"How do things look?" asked the director.

"The final steps in the catalyst rendering process are nearing completion. Keener reported station personnel to be condensing the first sample batches from prototype refining equipment. They should be completing all their process documentation for actual production manufacturing in the next couple of days. Then it's just a matter of striking camp."

Corealis nodded pleasurably. He added a guarded sigh of relief.

"Excellent, John. The uncertain pace out there lately has had me a little concerned. For all his whining, it seems maybe Doc Ashton has been on the mark all along. The project's ending just when things are starting to get a little too spooky with Keener." Corealis searched the young man's eyes. "What about the SHAPP data?"

"Mixed news there. The report confirms a big EM storm brewing up over the North Pole. Its projected pathway is still holding steady across the Midwest and out over the country club, as we'd hoped. But its ETA has been moved up appreciably."

"How much?"

"Nominal projections are revised to thirty-six hours."

"I assume solar recovery is also still proceeding."

"Unfortunately. And with an accelerating pace."

Corealis pursed his lips. "We were banking on the pre-storm margin for a gradual shutdown. But we'll just have to expedite things. Do you have a list of finalists for an extraction team?"

"Yes, sir."

Corealis swept his eyes about.

"The time's also come to bring the president in on this. Guess I shouldn't really mind that part so much. It's been a long three years, keeping things secret. I'll be glad when he's finally on the inside. Sometime after tonight's dinner I'll get him alone and break the news."

At that point, the aide conjured up a sheepish grin.

"One other thing I have to report, sir. Seems there's been a minor change of plans regarding the normal send-off dinner."

A note of special attentiveness rose in Corealis' voice.


"Yes, sir," replied his aide. "The regular dinner is still on. But the president has sent word of a meeting he wants to schedule with the regional governors and staff directly beforehand. In advance of that, he also sent word he'd like to see you alone in his private study."

Reading the young man's face, Corealis huffed self-consciously. "Those tired old rumors again?"

His aide shrugged coyly.

Since Royce could remember, there'd been noise of filling the empty vice president's slot. His loss to the N.A. Flu had left the unmarried President Warrington with no executive backup or personal sounding board. And though decentralization of the federal government had reduced the presidency to a shadow of its former self, Royce knew reams of due-process laws still had to be reviewed before any could be modified to fit the circumstances. That would not only take time, but a gathering of lawmakers reluctant to invest it outside their own devastated state sectors.

Besides, Royce Corealis was far too busy with important matters to spare much thought of appointment to the second-highest office in the land. Still, something struck him.

"I will admit that personal audiences are a little out of character for our Commander in Chief."

The aid dropped his facade and stepped closer. "So what else can it be, 'Mister Vice President'?"

Corealis smiled uncertainly. "You never know."


His invitation for cocktails that afternoon took Corealis deep inside the president's mansion. Eugene Warrington's study and private domain was a cavernous affair. Rough hewn, ancient native timber rose up the textured plaster walls to brace and cross the lofty, cathedral ceiling. Thick glazed tile ran cool and solid underfoot. At strategic points sat a thousand-gallon aquarium, a broad tapestry depicting a medieval boar hunt, and a glassed walnut case of assorted long guns. Everything was engineered for his comfort and tailored to project exactly what a proper, refined leader's abode should be.

The president was preparing gin and tonics as Corealis entered. He looked up from his bartending to present a cordial smile. But something in his over-precise manner seemed preoccupied and distant. His greeting offered little more.

"Rest easy, Royce," said the man in a neutral tone. "Just us and a couple drinks. No fanfare, no charts. Nobody else. With our jobs taking us in opposite directions so much of the time, we seldom talk these days. And we need to. Please, have a seat."

Doing so, Corealis was reminded of just how much an unlikely team they made: he, with his blue collar, mechanic's approach to work, and Warrington, with his cultivated presence and progressive views. They stood galaxies apart in background and social ranking. But together, the pair gave order to and aligned everything in between like the poles of a singular guiding force.

Corealis settled in one of the plush leather reading chairs. He quietly followed the vintage green bottle pouring hefty dual shots of juniper. A squirt of lime impregnated them and a splash of tonic made their universe. A clink of ice topped off the effort.

The director received one of the drinks. Its light steel color held murky, ancient visions as the president raised his glass in a toast.

"Better things for our people—quickly."

Corealis nodded and touched glasses. His eyes stayed on the lean man, though, who didn't sit. Rather, after a perfunctory taste, the president abandoned his drink entirely.

"Royce," he began, "one of the big failings in my life has been a lack of complete faith in those around me. Throughout, I've relied on too few people or councils to help me properly shoulder my tasks. That same lack of proper utilization has penalized me and our country. And especially, that means in regard to you.

"You're a human bulldozer, Royce. A heads-up taskmaster that takes a job by the horns and doesn't let up until it's done. No one or no thing stands in your way and that's what I'm badly going to need shortly. Because I'm about to undertake a new burden, which I can't possibly shoulder alone.

"I've asked you here as the first person I want to share some momentous news with."

Ablaze with sudden anticipation and his own purpose, Corealis felt himself eager to reciprocate. "Very well."

Warrington raised his face to a run of UV-screened French windows. He surveyed the sprawl of the regional-capital grounds silently, as if looking miles beyond. The muted light colored his face a cadaverous gray and Corealis was suddenly made starkly aware of just how much the man seemed to have aged.

"This poor country's been through so much," began the president. "Dealing with its own ruin. Adjusting to all the new burdens placed on it by the world board. So much has forever gone away from what we thought we knew, myself included.

"It was five years ago today that I was evicted from our bankrupt capital and brought here as a charity case. My office was removed from any active diplomacy or practical policy-making to endless days of confinement in this"—his tired eyes swept shamefully about—"this wonderful house arrest I've endured. With no election to remove me and no vice president to share in my predicament, I began seeing myself as the last curious zoo specimen of a dying species. But it doesn't have to be so. I realize that now."

His own drink went forgotten as well as Royce listened uneasily to the man's strange and evangelic tone.

"Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because they chose knowledge over life," Warrington continued from across the room. "The exact thing mankind—our very own society—has blindly done time after time since. And maybe through the ages we have been punished deservedly with wars and pestilence.

"But even as horrible as they've all been, has anyone really seen what those, or more importantly, these newest hard times might actually be? Just another pointless tragedy in a chain of events that happens along every so often? Or, a God-given chance to start over and make things right? As countries and men.

"Amid all the current global destruction and chaos, I see that opportunity for America now, Royce. A time for us to come clean from everything done wrong in the past and make a new start.

"I hope you might stand with me to see it, too."

The director nodded hesitantly, perplexed and lost as to what he was actually witnessing.

"I'd like to, Eugene. But I'm not sure I do see it."

Warrington finally took a chair. He leaned forward as he sat, hands wrapped about each other, in the posture of someone giving deep council.

"America used to claim that it set the standard for the world, though maybe 'dictated' is a better word. In the past, our nation forced changes on fellow countries that they didn't need or want. It justified its power-hungry greed with the simple-minded claim of eminent domain. Balanced the scales between acceptable losses and worst-case scenarios, instead of pursuing what was truly right. Or disarming what was truly wrong.

"Then Skylock settled in. Shook America like it's never been shaken. And Royce, things are going to be forever different.

"Just like the times, the power has shifted and to exist now we've got to adapt. We're not the big dog on the block anymore. From the food crisis, global destruction, and depression has come a new world order, like it or not. The consortiums. United Europe; the South American Federation. The African Order and the Asian Alliance. Any one of them alone dwarfs our place on this planet.

"Our own state of Alaska and the slivers remaining of Hawaii have, for all intents and purposes, quit the union. And who can blame them? What's left of the West Coast states is nearly open frontier since the Quake. And we stand powerless to correct or help in any case."

The president drew a slow breath.

"Royce, I want to believe that it's all part of a long deserved wake-up call, which will only do us future good. Force us to concentrate more on our own problems and quit meddling in foreign matters. Make us do with less, instead of monopolizing and squandering world resources on some snobbish whim of manifest destiny."

President Warrington nodded woefully.

"For so long I was no better than the rest. I came into this position thinking that public office was just a sales pitch; no matter where you went or who you met. Try to do some good, sure. But more importantly, exploit whatever personally profitable avenues might materialize.

"I was supposed to be the country's leader. And yet when hard times hit, I abdicated. I was disgusted to look at the nation's wounds and wouldn't tend to its injuries. When the offer came, I gladly took up residence here. Hiding out amid all these illegitimate trappings as if they were something my position automatically deserved.

"But, through the grace of God, instead of languishing on in such a wretched condition, my eyes were gradually opened to what I can and must do."

Warrington rose from his chair. Again, gazing beyond the compound walls, his voice rang in a vigorous oath.

"No longer will I stay dormant, biding my time in unqualified comfort with my books and memories, while an entire population does without, just miles away. No longer will I wait for the old government to be reinstated—if that day ever comes—only to have it return to its sorry old path of compromise and favoritism. No. No longer for any of it.

"True leadership isn't making promises that die on the vine. It's not just rubbing elbows with those few clean and well-fed audiences still to be found. It's giving justice to and caring for the real majority—those faceless voices I've heard begging for help so many times over the radio late at night. The ones with their dirty faces and ribs showing.

"Leadership is making decisions that matter in their regard and following through on them. It's sidetracking the lip service and doing what's truly in the best interest of those who might never even know I was behind it."

Even the battle-hardened Corealis began feeling uneasy in the obscure and growing vacuum of the president's rhetoric. Tiny cold fingers played up his spine as he listened further.

"We owe the American people decent care, Royce. Things we can no longer supply or afford on our own. So after months of personal agonizing, I've decided to convene the regional governors here in the next few weeks and tell them of a plan I've developed.

"I'm going to start by paring this whole bureaucratic mess down to the thin veneer our forefathers originally meant it to be. We'll knock down the walls of our separatist mentality, enter into and really share in the global community. Submit to a world government, if that's what it takes. No longer will we be satisfied by setting a standard, but for once and all, by setting an example.

"I'm then going to make a bid to the World Finance Council for help in restructuring our land. We will recant our nationalization of worldwide holdings. Ask forgiveness for the bad manners of all those before us and implore combined global assistance in taking care of our people. Our meager coffers, as well as our bankrupt ideals, will be offered to their total management."

Royce Corealis felt his wind leave him in a ragged puff.

Bowing to the project's scope, Warrington's tone softened. "Yes, I know," he said, reading his colleague's mind. "It will be humbling beyond belief to the memory of such a once proud and mighty nation. And overwhelming for myself alone to bear.

"That's why I'd like you by my side, Royce, when I reveal my plan. And afterward, to help me orchestrate whatever mechanics are required to make it happen. Become my vice president, and partner, for as long as either one of us is truly needed.

"Will you?"

Corealis fought to regain control of his swimming senses. Just finding his voice took a Herculean effort.

"I . . . don't know what to say," he mouthed in a near whisper.

" 'Yes' is all I need for now," encouraged the president. "Please."

The director swallowed a hard, rough knot.

"Something this drastic . . ."

Warrington vigorously nodded. "I know and agree. But together, the two of us can make something good happen. And it would be the two of us. Side by side in joint leadership. No longer would the vice presidency languish in a pointless role."

Royce blinked. "I'm not even sure how such a plan could come about. With the Fed broken down and so many congressmen and senators lost to the Flu, could any kind of proper quorum be reached? Or even be legal?"

"We'd call together whomever we could," said the president. "Try to do things by proper procedure. But, if not possible, it might very well boil down to invoking Emergency Order 8D966; allowing my final decision on all matters of national emergency."

"Maybe," Corealis suggested cautiously, "there're other . . . avenues."

The president paused, his voice spent and dry. "If you know of any, please tell me now, because I've searched long and hard without success."

Corealis wet his lips. His next words came calmly.

"The slot you've ask me to fill is the greatest honor, Eugene. And I agree in part with what you say."

"But?" asked Warrington.

"But this country is not alone in any of its so-called sins. We joined the Manna Project of our own volition and in good faith. And even as its largest single player, we did not force our dominance on the leadership.

"Instead, we submitted to a project steering group comprised of countries with the least funds or technology to contribute. We pledged ourselves to abide by any and all decisions made by that group in the name of our common survival. And we've stood by that pledge, even as the marginal integrity the project's governing board had at the outset was eroded further by bias, favoritism, and pure conniving."

"Only years of greed by our wealthy citizens put us in bad stead to begin with," Warrington declared. "Long before times ever got bad, they were let run wild like spoiled children; selling off their companies and private land. Taking foreign money indiscriminately with no qualms of conscience or thoughts of patriotism. Nationalizing property which was no longer ours only brought on the financial censure we rightly deserved."

Corealis gently shook his head.

"I don't see it that way, Eugene. And I certainly don't see us as having cheated on our pledge to the global program.

"We nationalized foreign holdings, yes, but only after the closeout of accounts by overseas holders made doing that our only means of survival. And how did it vary from what the U.N. ultimately did itself? The only difference was their pseudo-parliamentary approach to make the maneuver look legal.

"Coincidentally, those same funds we 'commandeered' were dumped right back into the common pot by way of USDA contributions to the Manna Project. So we haven't shortchanged anybody."

The president sighed. "Like it or not, Royce, the alliances you object to are now, and possibly forever, in control of all meaningful finance. We can only hope they'll be willing to step in and help us out."

"Of course they'd bankroll us," retorted Corealis. "Only a fool wouldn't. Question is, what do we have left for collateral? Terra firma. If we'd throw wide our doors, we'd be parceled out and turned back into the very colonies we started out as.

"Look," he continued. "You mentioned foreign legion outposts currently established on our West Coast. That's correct. Between the South Americans, Orientals, and Soviets, it's open season out there, already. Could this not only make things worse?"

"I am aware too," replied Warrington, his voice slowly filling with iron, "that they're doing the only real job of tending our people. I certainly haven't heard of anyone on the receiving end complaining. Have you?

"In addition, can you tell me when was the last time anyone from back here even made an effort to venture forth and dialogue with those folks? Never. They were just written off and put out of mind. But not anymore. Because I intend to go out there and do just that.

"Furthermore, if we were to be 'parceled out,' as you claim, would the pride of a starving so-called free man be better than the full stomach of a colonist? Which would the average Common Displaced family just outside these fortress walls rather have—a foot of earth or loaf of bread?"

The president drew a bolstering breath.

"My mind is set. If a world government is what it takes to finally put mankind on a level playing field, then I say let all countries tear up their flags and truly become one under God. And by that same God, let us lead the way."

Straining to preserve his last threads of objectivity, Royce dared to contradict one final time.

"That's a grand notion, Mister President. But there's more to life than scraps from a master's table. There's dignity and pride of independence—also God-endowed traits."

"Again," countered Warrington, "values mattering only to those with full stomachs."

A leaden, icy silence wedged between the men. Feeling its heavy chill, the president sought to mitigate the distance separating them. "I so wanted this to go easy and well between us, Royce. Hoped you'd embrace my concept outright and pave the way for converting other department heads. But I also understand what impact such a strategy must have when dumped unannounced on the table."

Warrington reconsidered his glass. He didn't drink, but slowly spun its condensation into wet circles on the polished surface beneath.

"Do me one great personal favor," he asked Corealis. "Don't make any decision on the matter until you've at least had time to sleep on it. Take more time if need be. I do need your help on this."

Warrington dropped his gaze and turned away, ending the talk. But recalling an earlier item, he swung back with renewed vigor.

"Royce, a moment ago you mentioned the possibility of alternatives. Do you have any such in mind?"

Corealis looked up, then away. "No," he said quietly and left the room.


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