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Pans were clattering. Juices were being mixed. The smell of frying potatoes, sausage, and eggs came to Trennt. Breakfast. He swept a hand across her side of the bed and came away empty. She was already up. Just as he should be. But the covers felt extra inviting this morning, comforting in the security of his own house after all those crazy dreams.

Then she was there, calling to him. "Hey, sleepy head."

Lustrous red hair and liquid green eyes loomed in the bedroom doorway. Valleys and rises flowed in just the right spots of her silky nightgown as she breathed. Trennt ached with longing; like he'd been away for ages. He reached out, beckoning, needing to draw her in, to touch and be assured.

She came to him in that familiar, fluid glide. Smooth arms going about his head, drawing and cradling his ragged breath to the creamy warmth of her bosom.

"Say, Pard."

Trennt jangled awake.

There was no perfumed skin. Just the harsh clinic smells of rubber and carbolic. And again, as always, there was no Dena. Only a fast-fading image in the back of his eyes.

Looking about, Trennt discovered himself in a hospital bed. He ached all over. His teeth felt too big for his desert-dry mouth, and his head, somehow not firmly screwed to his shoulders. He tried to lift a bracing hand, but found it wired to an intravenous bottle. At the foot of his bed a familiar, spare figure had materialized—Baker.

Trennt settled back, reality sifting down through his cobwebs at an aggravating, molasses-like rate.

"Take'r easy, Jimbo," said the slim visitor with an unabashed Oakie twang. "You been through a heap."

Trennt licked crusty, swollen lips and closed his eyes.

"Where the hell am I?"

"Base hospital. Been zonked out for the last couple days."


"Car wreck, 'member? Took a fair crack on the head. Mild concussion. Needed some stitches on your leg, too."

The lean man smiled with a hint of worship, exhibiting square white teeth as he spoke.

"But you still brought home the bacon."

A plotter's grin spread across Baker's narrow lips as he leaned toward the bed.

"In perfect timin', too. Cuz, you and me got us a meetin' with the man—Corealis, hisself."

"Who?" Trennt asked, still groggy.

"Royce Corealis. Head of the U.S. Manna Project. Second highest fellah in the country, I understand."

Baker slapped the bed frame, jarring the patient.

"Come on now, up and at 'em. I'll get someone in here to lend a hand." He started for the door.

Trennt watched him go, suddenly remembering the courier run.

"Hey," he asked wearily. "What about the driver? The other guy with me. How's he?"

Baker shrugged. "Dead, I guess. Why?"

He waited at the front desk. Trennt's few belongings tucked under arm, his usual impatience was set a notch higher than normal.

"Got a jitney parked outside, Pard. Ready to drive us on up to the big house. Don't wanna keep those folks waitin'. Let's get a move on."

But Trennt stood focused on the late afternoon sun, streaming in blue rays through the solar-screened lobby windows. His destination still didn't register—or matter. He only knew he needed some fresh air. "Let's get a couple sun ponchos and walk over."

"It's a cooker out there," protested Baker. "And almost a mile walk. Nuthin' to take lightly in your condition. Besides, we got our own ride on call. And your leg . . ."

"You ride. I need to walk."

Baker gave a nod to the lobby clerk. "Rustle us up a couple sun ponchos and some UV specs, huh, sis? The man needs to work his legs."

Trennt donned his wispy tinted poncho with some effort. Sliding on the almost comical cellophane UV glasses, he exited the hospital door looking the part of some stiff, surreal scarecrow. But once under way, Baker struggled to keep pace.



Ivory Baker was a commodity the civilized world needed, yet wasn't really comfortable with: a back alley mechanic required to handle its dirty work, but never thought of as kin.

Teethed on cordite, Baker had a knack for weapons, explosives, and orchestrating key moves in those trifling and non-patriotic skin games that kingdoms wanted won by proxy. So while friendships were few, business was always good.

Quickening his pace, Baker spoke again of their good fortune.

"Pard, I got a good feelin' on this un. We done made the top ten list. Something big is in the wind and us two boys're on the cuttin' edge."

But with the sprawling capital grounds of State Sector Three spread free to his view, Trennt was too occupied to hear. The murky blue distance marked the boundaries of a latter day fortress—one designed to billet the core of administrative, technical, and military power drawn from its six-state realm.

This was the Midwest's governmental seat, storage site for all worthwhile plunder—and residence of the U.S. president. Made self-sufficient with an on-site nuclear powerplant, parts of the immediate grounds included a disbanded Catholic seminary and the University of Illinois campus. Both properties, as well as an additional 50-square miles of land had been appropriated and consolidated under the Decentralization Act of 2044.

Though the roads could obviously handle much larger conventional vehicles, more efficient motorized carts and economic tricycle mopeds comprised the bulk of daytime traffic. Functioning as personnel jitneys and freight haulers, they parted around a smattering of prowling staff cars like minnow schools about random whales.

Trennt's eyes roamed lustfully over a colossal motor pool. Gleaned from confiscated personal estates and bankrupt companies, acres of seized cars and trucks rested in outdoor cold storage, blocked and draped in protective styrene cocoons and awaiting their call to serve. Those already in use sat sheltered inside a run of pole-style buildings, prepped for their next assignment.

Equally impressive was the distant flight line of hangared tilt wing and ducted fan aircraft. Air travel was a rare commodity these days. Avionics required fantastic amounts of ion-deadening material above a few thousand feet; crew and passengers, even more. Only ultra-priority persons and goods moved at all by air and even less during high magnetic or UV daylight hours.

Farther off rose the silvered tops of huge geodesic farm domes. Heaped above the stunted treeline, they sat clumped like gigantic metallic mushrooms. Each was a separate miracle of terraced, germ-free hybrid farming. Covering a hundred acres apiece, their combined indoor output supplied all the crop and livestock needs for the compound's 25,000 personnel.

Trennt walked on in silence, also watching its people. In the harsh, direct sun there were few actual pedestrians. Most were mechanics and tradesmen moving from one repair job to the next. A few lab-coated technicians, sporting appropriate ID tags, scurried among adjacent research buildings.

With each passerby, Trennt felt a growing touch of anger, for every face was clean, rested, and well fed. All eyes were blissfully ignorant of the absolute despair piled high just outside their walled fortress.


His parents had been hard-working, simple country folk, who seldom ventured from their upper California home. Only once did they leave the state in the new century and that was just for a rare family reunion back east. His mother, near term with Trennt at the time, had had the incredibly poor sense of timing to deliver her baby during a layover in the Windy City. It was as brief a visit as possible and an innocent enough remembrance, one of those recounted lightly at many future holiday gatherings, but also a fact forever stored in some vast, indifferent government computer bank.


For the first time Baker's voice registered.

"I don't know 'bout choo,' Jimbo, but this is the only time I've ever really been inside this place. You know, some service entrance job stuff, tradesmen parties a time or two, but never a full, front door walk-in like now."

He looked at Trennt, but Trennt was silent.

"Here's one ole boy who could sure get usta' this style of living—in a hurry. You and me play our cards right and I believe we just might find ourselves full time management jobs right here in gravy city."

At this Trennt glanced over at Baker, unimpressed.

They passed before the president's trilevel mansion. Its many windows were sun-screened to near-blackness and the lot was patrolled by a select group of casual looking, yet formidable, military police. Considering its obvious importance as the acting White House, a forlorn simplicity still mingled with its grandeur.

Arriving at the admin building, clearance tags were assigned the visitors. The pair were then transferred to a civilian page, who wordlessly led them through priceless air conditioning, beyond numerous office cubicles, to an elevator and an electronically secured VIP meeting room two levels lower.

They passed through a range of comfortable smells: dim hints of cooking from some unseen private cafeteria. Leather, paint. And print. Side glimpses flashed rooms with books. Hundreds of volumes lined thirty-foot runs of floor-to-ceiling shelves. Research and records as well as history, philosophy, and science. Enough material to flood several small town libraries. A sight Dena would have loved.

An anemic administrative type impatiently awaited them in a lower level anteroom. Obviously uncomfortable with such coarse outsiders, he dared to chide their tardiness.

"Where have you been? You should've been here twenty minutes ago. The director is waiting!"

Baker and Trennt exchanged a glance as the aide ushered them into an adjoining meeting room. He swept a hand forward, indicating another man seated directly beyond.

"This is Royce Corealis, director of the American Manna Project."

The man made no effort to rise, and offered only the slightest of cordial nods. It was an exercise all too familiar to Trennt: checking the candidates' reach, setting a quick pecking order—the gambit never changed and whenever the game was played, big stakes were at risk.

Meetings such as this happened only when commoners were thought worthy of some lofty task, one where anonymity was crucial to top management and the agents generally expendable. The key in passing muster was to remain emotionally detached; impassive to the point of denying your very presence.

His genuine lack of concern made Trennt a formidable player. Focusing on a neutral point between them, he freely left himself open to scrutiny, yet peripherally scanned his captor in return. His assessment was unfavorable. The seated man was a whipping storm flag if ever Trennt had seen one.

Scouting his guests like a horse trader, the man's eyes stayed nonbetraying and impenetrable. But when a final try at overpowering Trennt failed, his stone face relaxed a bit. Quick fissures of amusement sliced the far corners of his hard gray eyes and the room's heavy mood thawed.

"I trust you gentlemen have been treated properly during your stay?" inquired Corealis in his rich baritone voice.

"Mister Trennt," he started, not waiting, thus staking his immediate claim to superiority. "You've recovered well enough from your car crash to consider a return to duty?"

Trennt shrugged, unaffected. "Yeah."

"And, Mister Baker, you're feeling properly?"

Baker nodded curtly, anxious to please. "Always ready."

The director settled back in his chair. "John, my friend, our guests might like some drinks."

He motioned the visitors to chairs. "Gentlemen?"

"Whisky and ice," gushed Baker, eagerly taking a seat.

"Water," Trennt muttered.

The product was offered him in a crystal glass with brutally clear ice. As a "Cee-Dee" family, his had once existed on bug-filled runoff, while here was a personal bar with its own ice cubes. A quick resentment of his hosts boiled up and out.

"Why are we here?"

The aide bristled at his forwardness, but Corealis welcomed the tone as a quick preamble to his subject matter.

"To perform a special, patriotic duty for your country. These times are different from any other in Mankind's history. Freak weather. Worldwide hunger, starvation, dead economies. Whole governments, dead for that matter. A large number even claim we're in the throes of heaven's own Armageddon.

But you know all that from personal experience. What you don't know is the broader picture of the biased political climate, which has put our nation at a serious disadvantage among its so-called allies. This has forced us to take certain drastic steps in the name of future self-preservation; not if, but when, Skylock comes to an end."

The director gave his aide a nod.

"Set on a remote plateau," continued the younger man, "is a covert research station operating outside the conventions of the global Manna Project. Shortly, we will be concluding its work and closing that station, removing and relocating its personnel. It's been decided to add some non-military specialists to the site as camp overseers—operatives, if you will, to expedite the final evacuation. That decision has put us in the market for skilled and reliable agents to handle the task. You gentlemen come highly recommended for just such an undertaking."

"For obvious reasons," interjected Corealis, "it's best not to give too many exact details. But I will tell you that the guardianship of the work being conducted at that station is of utmost value to the future autonomy of this country—and yourselves.

"If you're willing to accept the job, you'd be inserted by air, assist in the shutdown of the base and departure of its people. That will likely occur in a few days. Until that time, you will be our guests here in the regional center with all executive privileges."

Baker glowed comfortably, sipping his drink, but Trennt never relaxed as the director went on.

"Also understand that the mission requires strict secrecy. No flight plan would exist for your trip, nor any record of you. In the event of an emergency, you could likely find yourselves left to your own devices for survival. But you do seem to be thorough experts in that field."

"Be also advised," said the aide, "that if at any time during the course of the project—for whatever reason—it is deemed that the integrity of your work is jeopardized or compromised, or your relationship to it judged to have become a liability, you could be subject to termination."

Corealis scrutinized his candidates. But the only reaction came from Baker, who regarded his whisky, then huffed behind a bored smirk.

"Been there before, sonny. Ain't no big deal."

Corealis took back the reins. "On the other hand, your success would guarantee you substantial and permanent privileges higher in the organization."

Baker's glow heightened, but Trennt looked away.

"The entire task should be handled easily by men of your caliber," said the director from behind another sweep of calculating eyes. "Will you do it?"

For the first time, Trennt showed a sign of interest.

"How many people are on site?"


He set his water glass aside and stood. "No thanks. Bye."

Corealis blinked. His aide was staggered. For the first time, their authority was in question.

"Why not?"

Trennt hovered impertinently between them.

"Because I shepherd hard goods. Livestock is delicate and demanding. Intellectuals are worse; clumsy. They get afraid and lack survival skills. Makes extra danger for them and me, both."

"But we wouldn't be herdin' 'em, Jimbo," interrupted Baker hurriedly. "Just sharin' their bunkhouse and ridin' home on the same bus. Besides, it's our patriotic duty."

Baker faced his hosts, deciding for both men in a broad, honeyed smile.

"We'll take the job."

Trennt drew a measured breath, but did not object.

The aide offered up a photo package for inspection. First from the folder was an aerial view of a rugged, tree-covered mesa.

"The place you'd be going is this particular Wyoming tableland. Originally the site of an old Special Forces training camp, it was converted for the current research work. It's been made totally self-sufficient by its own power systems. Nine tenths of its diameter is sheer rock face and impossible to scale."

"And the rest?" asked Trennt.

"A very narrow band that was designed as an emergency evacuation route. It can be traveled upward in reverse, but not easily. The circumference is layered with an independent defense system, a mix of natural barriers and passive booby traps that are ringed and overlapped at various separate levels. Near the summit, an intruder alert system constantly monitors things through a laser gridwork, which is plumbed into a series of electric mines and an automatic gunnery system."

Trennt interrupted again. "What kind of gunnery system?"

The aide fumbled with his folder, annoyed and obviously unfamiliar with the mechanics of weaponry.

"Ah, 40-millimeter grenade dispensers and overlapping 7.62-millimeter machineguns."

"I want specs on the mechanism," declared Trennt brusquely. "Setup, range, and fields of fire. And whatever maps and pictures there are to detail every square inch of the terrain."

Corealis concurred with a benign nod.

"You'll have them. One other thing. You'll also be carrying a trigger mechanism to arm a small on-site nuclear device for neutralizing the grounds once you've departed."

Trennt gave the footnote a cursory shrug, then moved over to sift through the mug shots and attached bios. All those pictured were plant geneticists, but from the pile one photo stood out. A slim, middle-aged man with thick salt-and-pepper hair. He gazed out from intelligent, yet heavy-laden, brown eyes.

"This the top dog?"

"Correct. Doctor Martin Keener, project team leader. A humanitarian individual who has answered a personal call throughout his life to abolish world hunger. Much of the Manna Project's core effort was based on his wealth of studies on drought-resistant grains for the old Third World.

"One of his products you may have had practical experience with is the V3A barrier thorn-bush. A quite impenetrable living organism meant to contain livestock or prisoners of war."

"And what's he doing now?"

"Keener and his people are the best we have at plant cloning, cell fusion, and gene splicing. Early on in the Manna Project, they mutated a very critical amino acid-protein link that helped develop a saline tolerance for the world's inundated, rice-growing coastal areas. They're been working on it since."

Baker leaned over with a bolt of stirred personal interest.

From the packet he slid out a woman's partially exposed picture.

"Say now, who's the honey?"

Corealis exchanged a furtive glance with his aide. "The group's housekeeper, Geri Litten."

Baker lingered a moment on the photo before returning it to the pile. "Sure looks familiar."

Their meeting concluded and Baker and Trennt were dismmissed. Back outside, Trennt drew a worn breath.

"They're lying about something. Big time."

Baker shrugged it off in typical nonchalance.

"Shoot, Jimbo, all staff level folks do. What's it matter?"

"So why us?"

"Our track record!" cawed Baker self-indulgently. "They know who's good, when they see 'em. And, baby, that's you an' me!"

Still, the gunman scouted his cohort with bewildered concern. His words came solemn as the grave. "Jimbo, I know you're prob'ly still shook up from that wreck an' ain't thinkin' too straight yet, but listen to me; this here is our big score. And I say don't look no gift horse in the mouth. We ain't marryin' those folks back there. Just contractin' a job for 'em. Straight talk or no, the payoff's all that counts for us boys. And this 'uns gonna set us for life."

The gunner's smile returned as he glimpsed the area.

"We finally got us the brass ring, Pard. And what sounds like a couple solid go-to-hell days in this here kiddie park before we even need to dirty our hands. Let's us find those guest cottages and get started on some serious R 'n' R.

* * *

Back in the meeting room, Corealis settled deep into his overstuffed chair, rocking gently with pleasure.

"Excellent candidates, John," he complimented. "Commendable work in locating them so quickly."

The aide received the praise tentatively.

"Thank you, sir. I didn't feel it was my place to object at the time. But the abrasive one, Trennt—I may have been too hasty in nominating him."

Corealis dismissed the notion with a slow head shake.

"His aloofness? That's the ultimate sign of professional confidence. Besides, your report on his handling of that car chase tells me we definitely want him in on this project."

Corealis touched a thoughtful finger to his lips.

"Before I forget, make an appointment for Clausen and me to speak in private sometime tomorrow. I want to better understand the exact capabilities of his special airplane. In the meantime, see to it that our new agents are treated well while they're here. The best of everything—like you would any condemned men."


The expediters hopped aboard a courtesy jitney and rode out to a small neighborhood of private guest bungalows. There they matched housing assignments with numbers of newly received electronic security cards.

Trennt swiped his card through a computerized door slot and stepped into the narrow hallway. As was his habit, he lingered a few moments, comparing, recalling all the different places he'd weathered in. Some, just a pile of chilly straw in a long forgotten barn, his express pouch for a pillow. Others, like Mama Loo's old courier station, sparse in accommodations, but rich in a furious notion of family.

Then there were those rare spots like this—a wealth of sanitized booty and comfort, all waiting freely for his use or abuse. There'd been too few of these in his travels. But for all their warm showers, clean sheets, and precise comfort zones, they were indifferent places, which always seemed to solicit more than they offered.

The customary enameled shapes waited further on: efficiency fridge and stove, frosty air conditioning. Trennt ran a hand over their cool, clean surfaces and felt the uncommon pulse of electricity humming deep inside.

He followed his usual ritual whenever camping in rich digs. Both kitchen faucets were turned on full and left running. Water roared out, clean and fresh. No murky, half-pressure rations here. Maybe the clean flow would somehow flush into a faraway ditch and help a Cee-Dee family struggle through one more day.

Trennt wantonly flipped on every light he could find and cranked up a wall-mounted stereo. Cable music filled the air. Next came the bathroom. Piled thick with towels and scarce toiletries, an indoor crapper all to himself seemed vaguely obscene. Still, Trennt eagerly peeled off his threadbare duds and tossed them in a trash can.

He touched tender fingers to the bug bites and bumps from his crash, checked the stitching job on his thigh, still smeared bright orange with dried surgical soap. The ugliness of wounds had long ago ceased bothering Trennt. But what always would bother him and could not be avoided was his reflection in the mirror.

Looking at himself had become a stark confrontation Trennt abhorred. No longer did he see any face he knew; instead, one of a callous and indifferent stranger. A man bent on his own slow destruction.

Beneath the bleary, unshaven mess still lingered origins of a face once called handsome. Now though, his blue eyes, once said to have sparkled, shone back flat and drained of vigor. His skin had grown stiff as old jerky; his disposition, stiffer yet.

Trennt brushed an idle hand across his mandatory health department crewcut. Bits of dried turf skipped comically free of his dishwater blond hair, like fleas abandoning their dog in an old cartoon. Somehow, he still found the ability to grin.

A long scalding runoff did wonders for his aches. Minutes were spent soaking in the shower before Trennt even cared to soap up. Afterward, his skin blushed comfortably with the result. A couple aspirins fixed the rest.

On an adjacent table waited several full changes of clothes, casuals to relax in and, to the side, a separate packing of new field utilities and boots, made ready for his eventual trip. At the same time, his nose caught the unmistakable aroma of roast beef.

Sometime during his shower a stainless dinner service had arrived: tossed salad, heaped with shredded lettuce, tomato chunks, sweet onions, red cabbage, and green peppers. Hot biscuits, whipped butter and the pièce de résistance—a steaming, two-inch-thick slab of prime rib. Perfectly marbled and set in just the right shade of pink, it alone oozed more calories than an entire Cee-Dee family might see in a month.

German chocolate cake, coffee decanter, brandy flask, and after-dinner cigarettes were included. The only thing absent was a mealtime companion, but even that was covered by a small envelope tucked subtly between the dessert and smokes. Inside, was a business card offering a phone number for the "conversational companionship" of a VIP hostess. Though he wasn't at all comfortable with Corealis, Trennt admitted a true respect of the man's well-oiled operation. He devoured the meal.

Sometime after, a nap followed. Trennt woke about dusk, aware of the low, mellow sound of old fashioned citylike traffic. Outside, a splendid burble of expensive internal combustion engines had replaced the lesser whine of daytime electric carts.

He peeked through the curtains and down the street. Sure enough, heavy cars were about. A legion of old Caddys, Buicks, and Lincolns filled the pavement, all polished like brand new.

Suited doormen and elegant nightwear abounded. Calling to mind an old-fashioned Hollywood gala, the air was a spray of flashing sequins and crisp taillights, fine machinery and well-tuned female hindsides. Pretentious as hell, yet intriguing. A world of chemical suntans and healthy teeth, soap and perfume, square jaws and plenty of cleavage.

Thousands of families were living in stripped-out cars, thankful to be eating stale ration crackers and hoping just to survive the next ozone inversion. Yet here was a chunk of ancient society, its gold and diamonds undimmed by all the suffering just beyond these tidy grounds.

In the distance, Trennt recognized Royce Corealis, in the midst of a greeting line, pumping hands and grinning with heaps of plastic good cheer. Rubbing elbows with elitist strangers held no interest for Trennt. Neither did the invitation for an evening's personal female companionship. He had his work to fill the void. And strict penance to maintain.

Letting the curtain drop, Trennt lit a cigarette and spread the contents of his mission folder on the room's coffee table.


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