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Atmospheric anomalies had become commonplace during the nine years of Skylock. Whipped into a frenzy by a continuous spectrum solar flare, cantankerous skies chewed away at both wireless and cable-strung communications. Also stalling all commonplace electronics, Skylock had generally ended Mankind's grand dominion over electricity.

But throughout the event, a tiny spot of the sun's exterior remained oddly uncontaminated by the churning disturbance around it. That same calm eye orbited continually within the solar storm, never dissipating and offering a brief window of electronic stability that fell on the earth with a tidal rhythm.

This "clean air" window ran on a 21-day cycle, allowing a nominal 72-hour period free of EM interference. In its eclipse, everything of electromagnetic origin functioned normally. Pocket compasses to computer circuitry came back on track. Earthbound radio signals shot as far as their surviving transmitters could hurl them. And listening posts worldwide eagerly trained on the sky, gobbling up news, scientific updates, and just plain eavesdropping.

Then all too quickly, the tide of interference would rise. Radio receivers would once more clog with white noise. Compasses would grow confused. Electronics would stall.

As expected, that familiar monthly window was again drawing shut. Yet in these early morning hours one faint distress signal struggled among the thickening static waves. Aided by fluke solar currents, it hopped about the atmosphere, was magnified and reached out to any and all listening ears.


Director Corealis had lain awake for hours. But his sleeplessness went leagues beyond the simple strangeness of a guest-room bed. His mind was in high gear.

Even with adequate babysitters on line, he still wasn't comfortable rushing the camp shutdown. Time was against him. There wasn't enough to iron out details—or devise an adequate reserve plan. And too many bodies, too many trails, too much evidence. How to contain Warrington's new utopianism—or Doc Ashton's weak knees?

Royce had spoken with Clausen in depth on the nuclear airplane's intriguing capabilities. Its blending of self-contained intelligence and unlimited flight potential were priceless commodities, but its best employment hadn't yet come to mind when he finally dropped off from pure fatigue.

Even so, the director's sleep was anything but restful and he bolted fully awake when the phone rang. Three-forty shone on his bedside clock.

He rolled to its shrill buzz and grabbed at the receiver.


On the other end was Marquart, the communications manager. His voice sounded recently raised from its own sleep, but also tense and frazzled.

"Royce, we've got big trouble. Something's come in over the radio that sure sounds like a mayday from the country club."

Corealis shot erect in the darkened bed. "What!"

"About fifteen minutes ago."

"Are you sure?"

"Not absolutely, no. It was fragmented and not in any wording they were instructed to use. But team members were mentioned by name in a woman's voice screaming for help."

Ashton's words rang cruelly prophetic.

"It can't be. We're too close!"

"The ion wash did smother it," added Marquart. "But even worse trouble may be right here. Warrington's damn insomnia was acting up again. He was camped out on the radio room graveyard shift with my boys tonight. He heard it come in, same as them, over an open speaker."

The director felt an icy grip take hold deep in his gut. "He did."

"My guys didn't even know what they were hearing. So there wasn't a thing they could've done to conceal it."

Corealis felt the ice climb up his chest. "Did Warrington?"

"The names clinched it. He ordered my boys to make a tape copy and stormed out of here with it a few minutes ago. I wouldn't be surprised if he shows up at your door any time now, wanting answers."

Corealis nodded uncertainly. "That's okay. Might be the best way to finally bring this whole thing into the open."

The director hung up and waited. Within moments a hard rap of knuckles rattled his door. Outside was the president's voice: Curt, firm.

"Royce, wake up. I want to see you."

"Just a minute."

Corealis grabbed his robe. Opening the door, the president brushed passed him. A cassette player was clenched tightly in his hand.

"What's the problem, Eugene?"

Warrington tossed the player onto the director's bed.

"I had insomnia again tonight. So I sat in with the night shift radio boys. Not long ago, pieces of a message came in. One you should find interesting."

The president keyed the machine and a hysterical female voice filled its speaker.

" . . . you . . . please hurry . . . ible acciden . . . plosion in . . . Carringer, Vonchek, Keener . . . may be dying . . . please! . . ."

Even somewhat prepared, Royce flushed as the voice faded. Most of the words were garbled. But every syllable of the researchers' names had come across clear as a bell. The two men stood in stark silence as the tape ground quietly on.

"That's it," said the president. "A grand total of seventeen seconds. Just a voice in the middle of the night, coming from nowhere, addressed to no one; accidently heard by a casual listener with insomnia.

"Not much different than any number of distress calls heard by any number of listening stations—except for the names in this one. Knowing them and looking at you now makes a lot more sense of your demeanor in our talk yesterday, doesn't it?"

Corealis settled back. A bit frayed by his sudden unmasking, he also welcomed the sudden opportunity for full candor.

"All right, Eugene," he began. "Maybe this is the best way to bring the matter to light. Lay out the truth, here and now. No pulled punches."

He pointed to the silently turning machine.

"I can't imagine how this message was sent or what, if anything, it really means. But yes, the names you heard are true. Those people . . ."

" . . . were supposed to have died three years ago in a plane crash!" snapped Warrington. "On their way to a Manna Project summit meeting!

"The whole world, including myself, knows of and grieved at their terrible loss. Now, that doesn't seem the case at all. And I demand to know what is going on!"

Corealis stood rigid to the truth.

"The crash was a ruse, the personnel diverted to a secret location to work on a project dedicated strictly to the future welfare of this country."

"Project!" bellowed the president. "On whose authority. . ."

But throwing his spread hands between them as a quick barrier, Warrington stopped Royce before he could answer. "No! I don't want to know. Good god, I can't know! I'd be going to the World Finance Council aware that my country has been part of a covert operation entirely opposed to the Manna Project!"

The president's hands wilted and plopped to his sides. A weariness stole his wind as he gazed at the director, disbelieving and totally deflated. "But what does that matter now? Just knowing those people are alive makes me and the whole country an accomplice. Royce, how could you, above all, ever be party to something like this!"

The director gazed back candidly.

"I could because I saw how that self-righteous U.N. steering committee was selling out on their pledge to this same country. And yes, to answer your next question, I'd do it again."

Warrington stood looking on, mute and pale. Without invitation, Corealis expounded.

"Shortly before the summit they were off to, Keener and his team stumbled on a unique alkaloid property in their work, blending Sudan grass with sorghum. Trying to merge the heartiness and saline tolerance of one with the millet production of the other, they inadvertently uncovered a whole new vista in population control.

"Just a couple of innocent paragraphs scribbled in a call report spoke of an unbelievable attribute: the likelihood of producing a grain catalyst which could, at will, be blended into select generations of cereal grasses and command the first ever workable balance of a country's birthrate.

"But maintaining Keener's team was essential to preserving and continuing the work. And they were marked for reassignment by the global board. So I took some drastic steps."

"Yes!" roared the president. "By staging their deaths, lying to the steering committee, and making this country party to a wholesale criminal action!"

Corealis matched stares with the man. His explanation marched on in a calm, reasoning tone.

"There's no call to go over the edge on this, Eugene. It was a brief message that we can investigate easily enough. No one knows what it regards or who even may have heard it."

Corealis shrugged indifferently. "From the start I've known that the existence of those researchers might become common knowledge. And when that happened the world alliances would certainly censure us. Considering their mentality, it's inevitable and expected. But a small price to pay and nothing to concern ourselves with—if we stick together on this and see it through. This undertaking has been methodically planned out from square one, Eugene. Certainly it's radical. Economic tactics are cutthroat by virtue of expediency."

"The world court—"

"Be damned!" snapped Corealis, barging forward to take the offensive. "That phony high and mighty rabble has no claim to any loftier moral ground than we do! Our researchers have dutifully submitted every nutritional benefit they've discovered. So we found a little something extra in the works to save for ourselves. So what? If we were discovered and refused to allow our own prosecution by their kangaroo court, what could they do? Blockade us? Cut off our foreign holdings? Refuse us aid?

"All the forfeitures imposed on us as so-called Manna Project support payments have already siphoned off a king's ransom in technology and scientific expertise. The truth is we've been nothing but a cash cow and sorry stepchild to that global clique since the beginning. And it's damn well time we stood up for ourselves!"

Corealis looked Warrington hard in the eye.

"Has it ever occurred to you why they've been so continually tough on us, Eugene?"

Somewhat cowed, the president stammered indignantly. "B-because we were the most affluent of the pre-crash nations and should rightfully bear the heaviest taxing!"

Corealis shook his head woefully. "Open your eyes, Mister President. They're jealous of us. And have always been. Their only real hold was through our own volunteer subscription to the almighty Manna Project. If we broke that, what would they have?

"We enlisted in what was to be a noble campaign. Instead, we made ourselves prisoners to our own oath for a cause that was soured by petty greed and outright hatreds from the start. But if we cancel our membership and don't yield to their pressure for self-prosecution, we can stay solvent and in control of our own existence when Skylock relaxes."

Corealis drew a resolute breath. "Our SHAPP reports continue to indicate a steady decrease in the rate and intensity of the solar storm. Skylock is showing the first real signs of weakening. They're staying mum on the fact. But the U.N. Disaster Relief board knows it too. That's what has them keeping the screws so tight on the old USA, because they want us under their thumb completely before things clear up. And asking their financial help now would only make it that much easier for them."

Warrington fell quiet, drawing Corealis closer with a softer, conspirator's tone.

"Eugene, I've studied this thing from every angle. With a population staying regulated by this new discovery, we could live indefinitely within existing, domestic resources. Think of it. Enough food and jobs to go around. Comfortable living, adequate petroleum, and technology for everyone to share in.

"No one is asking for an indiscriminate, mass sterilization of any one group, just a tactical application when and where future projections dictate the need.

"For a time, no action at all would even be necessary. Heaven knows, as ghastly as it was, the N.A. Flu itself was a good enough interim thinning mechanism. We suffered our own losses here, but populations recover from mass diseases. Then they crowd and cramp themselves until terrible wars of expansion break out and thin things back. This is a fact, just like history has proven time and again.

"An ongoing reliable and workable population ratio is the only practical way to regulate fair shares for each citizen. And if we can't force legislation on them, then we need to take bloodless action on their own behalf—and that of this country's posterity."

The president blinked free of his trance. His eyes widened in somber disbelief. His words came slow and barely above a whisper.

"Just like that. You can reduce a horrific plan of conquest to a few simple mechanics?" President Warrington straightened with fresh resolve. "I am still going to petition that World Finance Council. I am going to ask their forgiveness and help, like I said. And I am going to surrender this illegal, secret project to their authority and bear personal consequences if that's what it takes to absolve my country of any involvement.

"In the meantime, I want a rescue party mounted and sent out to wherever that radio call came from, as soon as possible. I also want full particulars on this 'project' compiled and in my possession by tomorrow night."

Warrington turned from the now silent project director. Reaching for the door he paused, adding a last mandate over his shoulder.

"I want something else, too, Royce. The names of everyone involved with you in this—and your immediate resignation from your post."

Leaving the tape player behind, the president opened the door and was gone.

Corealis stood grim in the aftermath. He raked muscular fingers through his coarse graying hair, thoughts colliding at light speed deep inside his head.

Was the call real—or just some bizarre illusion? Had damage been done to the refining work? The plans? The product? Had any foreign legion posts heard the call and homed in on it? A serious push with ground-effect vehicles could put adversaries in range of the station within days.

Corealis did realize he had one single, large advantage. No matter how close anyone might get through sheer luck, only his people knew exactly where and what was going on. He also had the EM storm coming and a "react" team on standby.

An overdue switch closed in the director's mind. He grabbed at the phone.

"John, trouble. Wake up the agents and pilot. Doc Ashton, too. I hope Clausen's plane lives up to its billing, because I want it flying within the hour. But first, hook me up with Dick Welton."


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