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Fifteen hundred miles to the west Doctor Martin Keener sat alone at his lab desk. Struggling with both his composure and handwriting, the bioengineer swiped again at bunched tears of frustration. He braced himself with yet another deep breath and refocused on setting his coded script to the coarse yellow pages before him.

The frivolous adolescent behavior of keeping a secret diary was decidedly out of place for a man of Keener's educational stature, position, and clinical logic, not to mention just plain risky. Yet the nightly ritual he'd taken up in these last months offered the single vent to all his years of scientific captivity; the old-fashioned method of putting pencil to brittle pages became the sole confessor he dared share a desperate prisoner's deepest secrets with.

Even so, limiting himself to just this secondary exercise was no longer possible. A bizarre fury had grown within the soft-spoken man, one gone beyond the simple restraints of such a passive avenue. The stark truth of his labors had swelled to a boiling rage, which now demanded a much more radical and total closure.

Like so many researchers kept in governmental harness, Martin had for years turned a blind eye to the reality of his work. Leading a handful of learned disciples who had unquestioningly accepted him as their shepherd, Keener had slogged the way through scores of military-interest projects.

In the name of so-called national security, the doctor and his loyal troop had developed plant forms ranging from the very strain of antipersonnel thorn barriers encircling this camp, to crop poisoning viruses capable of starving whole nations into submission.

For three decades the plant geneticist had labored solely on dark government projects, hoping someday for a truly noble cause to materialize and be his ransom. The horror of global starvation arrived to grant just that wish.

But even mankind's threat of total annihilation couldn't disrupt military scrutiny of Keener's work. And eventually an object of covert value was detected in his reports—something powerful enough to forever divert and sequester his team from a key Manna Project conference trip those many months ago.

Given the simple explanation of having been reassigned to new and alternate duties, Keener's squad was severed from all further contact with the Manna Project and plunked down here, wherever this place was. And again, his obedient, if typically naïve team, followed Martin in complying.

But the doctor could stand no more. In his diary, he'd detailed the truth of his work. Subtly coded in the dog-eared commonplace notebook, he hoped, like a message in a random bottle, it would somehow be discovered by an honorable person, who would carry the truth forward. Yet, even if that never happened, Martin felt somehow cleansed by the exercise, purified for his next and final step.

Martin closed the book and spared a moment to reflect on the quiet night about him. He'd given his life to his work, forsaking even marriage in its name. Never sparing the time for anything remotely like love, until Geri happened into his life with her beautiful smile and gentle ways.

It was her presence here which gave him the focus to finally devise a stern course of action. Yet a gnawing wave of regret washed over Martin, as well. Regardless of the years separating them, given the means, he'd have grabbed her hand and abandoned everything familiar to run just as fast and far as he could. But there was no escape from this remote prison. And nowhere to run to. He'd been over that element too many times.

The doctor capped his thoughts and straightened. His task was at hand. Important work to be done. No longer in the devil's fashion, but finally an honorable, God-fearing kind.

For some time Keener had been intentionally altering and omitting key bits and pieces of data in his reports, dragging out the work here as best he could to help make time for his plan. With him gone, the records destroyed, and no product to reverse-engineer, the power structure sustaining this work would simply have to admit defeat and recall everyone to more ethical enterprises. There'd be no practical reason to retain the team. It would work, he assured himself for the hundredth time since morning. Yes. It had to.

Martin's plan was simple and direct, bold and irreversible. Wait until everyone was asleep. Gather up the electronic and hardcopy research files, along with the rendered catalyst samples. Place them all in the central vault storage, then smash and set fire to the whole thing.

Yet again, his thoughts slipped to Geri. His only regret was in keeping the truth from her. She at least deserved to know why. But he couldn't tell her for her own protection. Not to mention weakening his resolve.

Martin listened to the night. The research station was quiet about him. With everyone in bed he could start his chore.


The young woman leaned against a low, prefab building in a different part of the same lab complex. She drew another puff, indulging in her single camp vice, a late-night cigarette. Though the others never openly criticized, she knew they disapproved of her habit and honored their feelings by smoking privately, only at certain times of the day, and only at this place.

Tonight, though, there was another reason to be here, a deep and smothering gloom. The research program was fast winding down. And with that thought any hope of sleep was lost.

Geri exhaled another puff, gazing forlornly after it. From the darkened camp to the azure and vermilion waves of silent northern lights washed across the corrupted sky. Somewhere beyond loomed invisible Chicago and a return to her hated old way of life.

She so loved it here. As odd and isolated a place as it was, Geri had grown to prize the secluded tableland site as her refuge. After nearly two years, everything about its small cluster of camouflaged labs and living quarters had come to represent all things good and honorable. Her simple "housekeeping" chores for the group had gone on to offer so much personal reward.

Genuine friendship had been extended to Geri from the outset by this very exclusive fraternity of researchers. They had easily accepted the pretense of her arrival as a cook and housekeeper after she had struck up a premeditated friendship with Martin during a brief R and R recess those many months ago.

Unaware of her true purpose as a sentinel, they'd quickly come to enjoy Geri's cooking and conversation as a relief from their otherwise humdrum existence. And she had strangely found herself eager to reciprocate, furiously supporting a project she could never hope to understand, simply because of the eight wonderful people invested in it.

Then there was Martin. No more gentle-hearted, giving man had ever existed in her life, certainly no recent client. Had he asked, she'd have given herself over to him in total. But he wasn't the kind. So they shared a special love in subtle, platonic ways. But now that was unraveling as well. No, he wasn't the kind to lament. Yet Geri had felt Martin's melancholy grow as certainly as her own.

Geri drew a deep, slow breath of the cool, open country air. Out here, everything from before seemed part of someone else's life: the shattered society, the suffering, violence, and despair—her own degrading life as a tech center VIP "hostess." Now, though, it was all coming to a certain and quick end. With the work here complete, her separation from the place, her adoptive family—and doubtless return to the hostess "stable"—were inevitable.

Geri had suffered privately through each dwindling day, clinging to the fragile, impossible hope of some last-minute program extension. But in this eleventh hour, no such relief seemed likely. So she sat, helpless to change any of it.

Until maybe now.

Geri felt about her throat for the special necklace and chrome key given her those months ago. She remembered the specific instructions on its use. Using it now was still far premature. But her desperate fingers clenched its hard, tiny outline as the only life preserver she could find in her vast, churning sea of despair.

Geri crushed out her cigarette. Clasping the key tight, she started a determined pace toward the night-shrouded battery of humming camp machinery.


The post-dinner meeting convened in a comfortable guest bungalow. No introductions were required of its gathered members. Through allegiance and necessity, they knew each other too well. Their faces belonged to a tight-knit group of conspirators.

Staff economist, Hampton. Chief meteorologist, Shields. Medical officer, Ashton. Transport manager, Clausen. Quinsel of Census and Demographics. Marquart of Communications. Security head and chief intelligence officer, Welton. All reliable and efficient to a fault, they were the nucleus of covert power in modern devastated America.

Sitting in their midst, Royce Corealis never felt he could truly call any one of them friend. But that seemed a fair enough compromise for the monumental task they'd shouldered together in the name of their country—a task which now teetered, pointless and floundering.

"Just like that?" protested the first voice to thaw. "Warrington decides to surrender, so it's all over?"

"He can't!" joined a second. "It's  . . .  unconstitutional."

"The Constitution is a tired old piece of paper without much current relevance," snorted a third. "Like the man said, Emergency Order 8D966 puts him in the driver's seat on any decision of national concern he chooses to orchestrate. That includes surrendering the entire country for its believed betterment, unless somebody cares to stop him."

"Regardless of what he wants—or thinks he can do," returned the second, "ours is a project that doesn't officially exist in the first place. So he has no control over it."

"Maybe. But surrendering national sovereignty to the World Finance Council is something he has plenty of control over. There's no dedicated Congress or Senate to oppose things anymore. All the regional governing groups have gravitated to practical matters closer to their own homes—and that's their individual survival.

"Face it, through disregard, the presidency has reverted back to its original father figure supremacy. Just like a monarchy, with all the now tragically obvious potential for dictatorship."

"Wait a minute," said the meteorologist, Shields, walking over.

"Royce never really did bring up the project, did you, Royce? So maybe we're just getting the cart before the horse. If we take Warrington aside and explain things as a group, he'll see it our way. He's an objective person and, deep inside, still every bit a politician."

Welton, the intelligence man retorted. "Objective? Objective enough to have been totally bypassed up to now for the sake of project security. He's always been a borderline progressive. And from what Royce says, he's gone over all the way now.

"What happens if we do take the chance, show our cards, and can't bring him into the fold? We stand to lose a lot more than just wasted dollars and a lost cause if this comes to light.

"The world court is always looking to make public examples of covert actions detrimental to the Manna Project—let alone what might be considered an entire secret society like ours."

Clausen spoke up. "If we're really committed to this program, we can't allow either possibility. Until the opportunity presents itself for an organized election or some chance for us to replace him with a more agreeable successor, the man is in power indefinitely. We need to face the plain fact: If Warrington can't be brought in, he needs to be diverted."


"By any means required."

"And what do you suggest, lock the President of the United States in his room like some naughty little boy?"

Clausen's blue eyes iced over. "If it can be done simply that way, yes. If not, whatever it takes."

The implication smothered further talk.

Outside the debate to this point, Corealis' eyes rose slowly in the heavy silence. Looking back, Quinsel gave voice to the wall of flushed faces encircling the director.

"Royce? What do you say? You've spearheaded this project from day one. How do you call it?"

"Yes," Shields chimed in. "You know him better than the rest of us. You're the only one who he's ever gotten close to. Is he actually serious about this nonsense?"

The director nodded soberly.

"Blame me. There simply wasn't enough busywork to keep him occupied. It left him with too much free time on his hands. All his reading and radio room eavesdropping seemed a harmless enough diversion and it kept him from being underfoot. Who could've guessed where it would lead?"

"So, we have no alternative then," said Shields, spreading upturned palms and walking away. "No matter how close we are to the end, for the sake of our own skins we'd better just pull the plug on the program here and now, count our blessings, and not look back."

"And what about the country club members?" added another voice. "What do we do with them?"

"Same thing that's been planned all along. Parcel off the team and bury them in isolated labs."

"Uh-uh. That was the plan only once the work was successful. Think it over. If we abandon this thing now, we'd have a handful of people thought dead for three years just reappear. Regardless of where we put them, word would get out. Sure, we can stop, all right. But we can't quit."

There Corealis finally entered the fray. "The first thing we do is keep our heads," he declared. "It's a matter of finding some quick means to get and keep the upper hand in this problem. And we start by forgetting our individual emotions and remembering our pledge—to the project and each other."

His tone braced the group's flagging mettle.

"Okay, Royce," agreed Clausen. "What do we do?"

"The same as was planned all along. We let the team finish up their work. In the meantime, we make preparations for the close-down of the base."

Thom Ashton, the team physician, up to now removed from the discussion, spoke up.

"Once again, from a purely medical point of view, I vigorously emphasize the need for an immediate removal of the station personnel—regardless of how close to finishing up they are."

Marquart looked over impatiently. "You're not going to drag on again about their sniffles, are you, Thom?"

The medic kept an even tone in spite of the familiar antagonism.

"Minimize the situation if you like, Brad, but my primary responsibility has been to ensure the project's success by maintaining the physical and mental well-being of its researchers, not to mention their basic value as human beings."

The doctor's eyes moved accusingly about the room.

"I also remind everyone here that it's been anything but an easy chore monitoring those people long distance, like I've had to do. A smattering of periodic saliva dabs and respiratory felts is no way to do business.

"That research team has been working with very potent plant toxins out there. Their so-called 'sniffles,' Brad, are—again—elevated blood allergens. Trace alkaloids are present in many of the exotic grasses they've been blending; not to mention all the synthetic concentrates and extracts they've been subjected to.

"The heartiness of Sudan grass alone has made it a keystone in their studies. Yet, immature plants have toxic levels of naturally occurring prussic acid—cyanide. The country club has been distilling and genetically altering great quantities of that same grass extract since the start."

A couple of members groaned over the well-covered ground. But the medic continued: "Even with adequate safeguards, you cannot simply leave people continually immersed in an adverse environment. Minute amounts of compounds, as they've been working with, are bound to get absorbed into their systems. The body can flush out a certain amount of contaminants on its own, sure. But even so, trace levels have a cumulative effect. And after three years, those people have crested the limits of acceptable tolerance. For their own good, they must be removed from that environment and detoxified immediately."

Corealis exchanged a sidelong glance with Welton, the security man, then drew a breath, addressing the doctor.

"Thom, once again, I appreciate what you're saying. But you've just agreed yourself that this project has been an arduous maneuver. We've made the best balance possible under the circumstances facing us."

The security man joined in reassuringly. "That's right. We're so close to wrapping this whole thing up, surely a few more days can't matter. Besides, they're the experts who better understand what they've been dealing with than we ever could. Has anyone heard complaints? When they're done we'll give them all a nice long vacation."

The doctor wasn't swayed. "A few days lounging about some R and R center won't fix things. Long term, they may already be in line for a degree of irreversible liver or kidney damage."

Abruptly matching tones, Corealis cut to the chase. "And short term?"

Realizing his disadvantage, the medic remained determined. "At the very least, the distinct possibility of mental impairment, hampered decision-making—confusion. After the withering momentum and complete isolation of their last thirty-six months, it's not too late in the game for some sort of individual—or even group—mental breakdown."

"You're saying that this close to the end, they might actually become dangerous; destructive?"

"Unintentionally, yes; possibly. Anyone familiar with the psychological profiles of hard-core researchers know they are a narrowly focused bunch, individuals who have to be handled in a very sheltered and kid-glove sort of way. Most aren't equipped to deal with issues as commonplace and practical as food and shelter—let alone ever being confronted by the potential for a dark side of their work."

Economist Hampton muffled a snort.

"That's part of the reason they were stuck out in the middle of nowhere to begin with. We'd feed them. We'd clothe them. They'd have each other, but be totally dependant on us.

"Be realistic, Thom. These are lab nerds for Pete's sake, not dock workers. Keener's breed doesn't walk off the job or revert to savagery. If you know their kind as well as you claim, you'd also know the one thing they'd never do is abandon or sabotage their work. It's all they have in life. It is their life.

"Hell, if you pumped that whole garden party full of LSD I still doubt they'd know how to get rowdy. And remember, we threw in a 'housekeeper' to sweeten the pot. That fact alone has got to knock your data off kilter."

Nervous grins flashed around the room as Hampton finished.

But the doctor maintained his dignity, adding a final declaration. "Exhausted people in normal, healthy surroundings make catastrophic mistakes when pushed. We've taken already-spent persons and turned the speed up on them."

"Only through necessity," countered Quinsel. "You know Skylock's breaking, same as the rest of us. We're in a race to finish the product, get it in a can, and on the shelf."

There, the doctor jabbed an emphasizing finger to the table.

"The facts of what I say remain and I'm telling everyone here. Either we get them out now, regardless of how close the project is to completion or I swear I will quit this program and personally go to Warrington to get them out."

Brows raised and bodies stiffened.

"The hell you say!" challenged one voice. "You signed in on this thing, same as the rest of us!"

"In for a penny; in for a pound!" joined another.

Corealis got to his feet, diplomatically intervening.

"Easy, everyone, easy. Going at each other will serve no purpose. Let's all take a deep breath."

He patiently addressed the defiant medic. "No one is criticizing your ethics, Thom. I personally appreciate your professional concern and frustration. It means you care and that's the glue that's united us from the start. But we have to stay realistic, if we hope to finish.

"I also applaud what you speak of from a personal level. Doctor Keener has indeed undergone some obvious attitude changes, turned somewhat critical and antagonistic. I've had my own hands full trying to keep him on track."

Feeling the medic settle back, Corealis offered a morsel of indulgence.

"Would you be satisfied if someone was sent out to babysit them, Thom? It's the best I can offer."

The medic mulled it over, giving a reconciled nod. "That's a start, yes. But right away. Someone who could issue concentrated diuretics to start flushing their renal systems. And I personally don't care what kind of excuse is made for his appearance there."

Corealis nodded in return. He looked about the group, agreeably. "For starters, how about yourself?"

The doctor's eyes flared in surprise. But he didn't object.

"We need field agents to chaperon the base shutdown anyway," reasoned the director. "If you say we should have someone out there, okay. And I have no problem with sending people a little early—including you as the man best equipped to treat our scientists."

Royce watched a dazed sort of vindication settle over the now quiet medic. He then looked to the meteorologist. "Ryan, I understand the latest SHAPP data confirms that the ion storm we banked on is brewing prematurely over Greenland?"

Shields nodded. "It's also grown to a number ten magnitude cell that will slide right down over the east-west corridor in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. The usual high power EM forces will be dumped all along the route. But this one will also carry a lot of supplementary weather which will come down hard in the far west. The lead elements will definitely mask an excursion. But if your team can't beat it back, they'll have to find some place to weather out the secondary effects. And they will be rough. There still is some time left in the clean air window. But that's also closing fast. So any radio transmissions you might want to send in advance had better go soon."

Corealis shook his head. "Better that our people show up unannounced." He turned to Clausen, the transportation manager. "You're certain your special bird can handle something this strong?"

"In its stride," replied the lean hawk-faced man. "When we christened it an all-weather flier, we meant it. Including the worst-case EM hurricane. No need to risk a crew at all if you don't want. With its self-contained decision making, we can key in its flight parameters from here, let her go out empty and bring the people back. That bird is the closest thing to perpetual motion any of us will ever see."

Corealis had heard the proud litany before. But this time something new struck him. He tabled the notion for later, addressing the chief of security. "Refresh my memory on the base dismantling, Dick. Precisely, how is it to be handled?"

Welton, a stocky crewcut man, paused in lighting a cigarette. Their eyes touched speculatively before he spoke. "Nuclear clean sweep. A small fusion device was implanted to scour the area after the team extraction."

"How small?"

"A plum-sized chunk of Californium 252 packed in a conventional explosive tamper. Typical neutron-type result; total vaporization of a few hundred yards with little detectable radiation afterward. The magnifying effect of the upward sloping canyon walls about the station will act like a naturally drafting chimney. Complete incineration of the site.

By the time atmospherics would ever be normal enough for free travel, all anyone would see would be just another barren hunk of table ground somewhere out west."

"And you're sure this device is safe?"

"Buried beneath the foundation of the main storage vault. Safe as a baby. And to keep the research team from being nervous about it—completely unknown to them."

"But it does need to be triggered by an outside source?"

"Correct. A matching pearl of 252 set inside a mechanical detonator is to be brought in by an army ranger team when it's time to close up shop."

Corealis brightened. "Maybe we can kill two birds with one stone. Send out the detonator with Thom and the chaperones. But without a special forces team."

"It's their mountain."

Corealis shook his head. "Not anymore. Warrington's decision has changed the flavor of this whole thing. I want those teams disbanded and separated. Any files or records on them, regardless of how innocent, need to be destroyed."

Welton nodded. "I'll see to it personally. But non-military personnel means civilian field agents, correct?"

Concerned eyebrows raised about the room.


"Contract mules," Corealis replied. "From the courier stable. People with good track records, some military history, and no previous knowledge of the project. We'll keep them in reserve right here until the final details are ironed out, then fly them in to chaperon the extraction. I've taken the privilege of having a check made through our database. The field is narrowed down to some impressive semifinalists."

Corealis pointed to the crisp personnel folders held underarm by his aide and glanced about: "Everyone is free to examine the dossiers and cast their vote for a selection."

But spurred by his renewing shot of confidence, group members settled back wordlessly, Doctor Ashton included.

The director purposely singled out his security man.

"Dick? How about you?"

Welton declined. "Royce, I don't think there's anyone in this room who doesn't have complete faith in your choices. I'll have my inside people keep their eyes and ears open. Just let me know if there's anything special you need help with."

Corealis smiled. He patted the man on a shoulder, signalling him to remain, after the meeting's adjournment.

"We will proceed in our more public tasks as if this gathering had never occurred," Royce declared to the group. "In the name of our continued work, I will accept the president's appointment to the second office."

The director glanced at Doctor Ashton. "But we must keep our poker faces at all times."

The doctor lagged behind the others in leaving. His agressive tone was now flavored with contrition.

"I apologize for seeming harsh in front of everyone, Royce. My frustration got the best of me. But I do have a job and oath to uphold. And we all need to remember, that long after this project is over, those same people are still going to have years of life to live. They shouldn't be ones destined for crippling ailments or a bed-ridden existence."

Corealis nodded his concurrence. "Yes, Thom, I understand and agree. No hard feelings."

The doctor hesitated still. "What is our plan, Royce? We can't hope to keep Warrington in the dark forever. And those team members—they . . ."

Corealis clasped the man's shoulder with practiced ease.

"In all honesty, I haven't quite figured the answer out yet. But I promise, I'll come up with something quick and workable—on all counts. Meanwhile, you can get a bag packed and be ready to pitch in."

The director solemnly studied the physician's departure, coolly making an observation after the door closed.

"Our good doctor's reliability has become highly suspect. He seems bent on needlessly complicating matters at a time when we certainly don't need it."

The security man nodded. He knocked the ash from his cigarette in an empty coffee cup and asked, "We planning to stay with the girl for shutdown?"

"It's the best way."

Corealis pointed to the personnel records. "Since you're here, Dick, let's see what kind of candidates John's found us."

The aide offered two manila folders.

"The list came down to seven finalists. Of those, one's missing, another's dead from job-related injuries, and three are out in the field on extended assignment. Fortunately, that leaves us with the two probably most skilled."

Corealis shrugged. "As long as they're top mechanics."

"Best of the litter," pledged the aide. "Survivors and mechanics, both. One's a courier; the other, an expediter. Talked to the second already and, interestingly, they go way back. So they already know each other's personal ins and outs."


"Army infantry trained. Served together on long-range recon missions in the Peru-Ecuador police action of 2034. Both decorated for bravery. Neither has family. The courier saved a district boss's nephew from a mob beating during the big city riots and was rewarded with an entry level slot in the city messenger network. Worked his way to 'Special Ops' status in less than a year."

Corealis nodded, appreciating go-getters like himself.

"The other?"

"An efficient and methodical expediter. He's reliably handled a number of delicate personnel 'retirements' for other jurisdictions without any fuss. A trouble shooter in every sense of the word."

"How soon can you get them around for an interview?"

"Immediately. Both happen to be on the compound grounds this very moment. One is in the hospital, though."


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