Before the Apocalypse: The Jonah Factor

by Kepler Nigh

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Before the Apocalypse

Book One — The Jonah Factor

Copyright © 2008 by Kepler Nigh

All Rights Reserved

ISBN: 978-1-58158-115-7

Published by:

McDougal Publishing

P.O. Box 3595

Hagerstown, MD 21742-3595

www.mcdougalpublishing.com

Before the Apocalypse: The Jonah Factor

Book 1

Prologue to the Trilogy

Sometime in the future — Manta, Ecuador, South America

Sultry air and one more sunset — glowing spires of light rose to meet flaming clouds above the dark blue Pacific that stretched to a distant horizon. It might have been gorgeous in the eyes of another, but not now, not in Sandy's.

They've finally won? — she questioned herself, wondering whether it was a question at all. She had nothing to doubt about what her own eyes had witnessed. Her hope had vaporized with the boiling sea, and she realized that even a hyperdimensional DEEP Unit could sink.

She remembered another evening, as if it was a painting. It had been years before, on her wedding day, just a few miles offshore on the deck of Pepe's boat floating on the gentle waves of the Pacific, not far from where she stood. In her memory, she saw her prince — his golden hair agitated by a sea breeze and firm accents in his muscular limbs — lying on his side with his arm for a pillow. Scooting over, she had slowly lifted his head into her lap. He awoke, and she held and softly cushioned him, as she savored his excellence.

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She remembered yet another time when they'd been together — on a beach in Mexico. It had been a lovely night — stars glimmered and twinkled — and a moon that was over three-quarters full looked down on them with personality, as if to say, "So lovely the couple." Could it have been Paradise? Faint rhythmic waves with white edges, mildly churning, marked the season of their embrace. She thought it would never end.

But it did. A tear streaked down her face; then another, but she had to be brave — for Christopher and Christine. They stood near her, and two tropical palms — the sort travel brochures always show — arched above them. Softly, the Pacific swelled relentlessly. Life would go on. It had to.

Sandy dried the tears from her face with the back of her hand and then knelt down. She began to speak, and choking, she started to say, "Christopher…. Christine…." She tried to contain her grief, even for a moment, long enough to tell them, "Daddy won't—," but she couldn't — not yet.

They have their daddy's eyes — she thought, and continued to hide her own tears, while looking into their blue eyes. Fair hair capped their heads, and soft features adorned their faces. A puff of sea breeze swept Christine's locks across her tender face, and for a moment Sandy saw herself, as a youth, reflected in Christine's pupils, and she remembered when first they fell in love.

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The Jonah Factor

Chapter 1




Jonah — That's a Funny Name

When first we met we did not guess

That Love would prove so hard a master.

— Robert Bridges

May 1976 — London, England

A stately bronze lion gazed down on James as Nelson's Column cast a long shadow across the square.

Ashley invited, "Let me get a picture," and signaled James, and the others, to move into place. Bright red double-decker buses weren't far from them, and pigeons walked closer than people. As the other cadets fell in around him, he could easily see Ashley, who was about to raise her camera. Her dark blue school uniform, with its sharp-looking blazer and proper skirt falling to her knees, didn't hide her fair features, which he wouldn't have minded photographing himself.

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"Okay. Smile!" she ordered with a playful voice.

After Ashley took the picture, Master Teacher, speaking like a tour guide, called the group to gather around, and she began narrating, "We are now in Trafalgar Square …"

In James's mind, Teacher's voice droned on. It was the fourth day of the field trip, and it would be over soon, but there were no vacations from her incessant lectures — Teacher was always there, even when they were away from Novus Ordo, which wasn't very often. Despite the tedium of her instruction, he always enjoyed getting away, and he never liked the end of a field trip. In particular, he wished that this one would continue, especially because of the experience he had had the evening before, at the banquet, when he had occupied a seat nearly across from Ashley's.

Cosmokrator Sir Geoffrey Higgins had sponsored it, and had given the Alpha Academy cadets — all of whom turned fifteen that day — a birthday party. Higgins had greeted them, with formality, as they passed through the receiving line. When James first saw the elder man's face, perfectly wrinkled, it made him wonder whether the creases hurt.

James had been seated across from Ashley many times before, and really, all things considered, that night hadn't been a better time for him to gaze at her than any other during their years together. He'd seen her almost every day for as long as he could remember, but before that night, she was just another member of the group.

As he looked at her, he really didn't notice that there was little to attract his eye to her more than to any of the other girls. After all, he knew that they were nearly identical — genetically — so there was little difference between her profile, and the profile of the other girls, and all of them were dressed the same, in scarlet ball gowns (just as he himself and his fellow cadets were all dressed in black tuxedos). At some point, however, in the middle of Higgins's address on the coming New Age, and how proud the Committee of the Cosmokrator was of "its fine group of cadets," as James looked across the table towards the podium, his eyes found themselves straying towards Ashley. He

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could just as easily have looked at any one of the others girls, and for that matter, Nancy was closer — and she looked really good — but he focused on Ashley. All were poised and elegant, and silhouetted by light passing around their ideal figures, but even though the lighting didn't favor Ashley over the other girls, his eyes found that her profile made the most pleasing target.

Ashley ceased to be, in his view, just one of the girls. Cadet Brown was different, especially in the sense of the word better, or more pleasing, or, well … but he couldn't quite say. Whatever it was, enveloped him, and he became so absorbed in her — just staring mindlessly— that he didn't hear another word that Cosmokrator Higgins spoke that evening.

That's how the banquet had been, and because of the lighting, and the way she sat, turned away from him, he knew she hadn't noticed his impolite gaze from the evening before. Nevertheless, when the camera came down from her face, after she had snapped their picture and that of the other cadets grouped around Master Teacher, he knew that she had noticed him. Her eyes locked onto his, and he became self-conscious and forced himself to look away from her. He turned to follow the group.

With Ashley's blue eyes still visible in his mind, he wasn't focusing on Master Teacher's discussion of the history of Nelson's victory and, while distracted, caught a glance from a passing tourist. The casually dressed man reached out his hand to him and, as he walked by, extended a small piece of cheap paper that was faded in color, towards James, who received it, figuring he shouldn't have, but vaguely remembering an incident in his childhood when Teacher had reprimanded him for not paying attention, and for not receiving things politely when they were offered. Glancing at the paper, he noted that the title, printed in poorly typeset letters, read, "In the Whale's Belly."

He would have wadded it up and thrown it down, but he had been taught not to litter. Besides, he was curious. The title was bizarre. He thought — I wonder what it says? They never let us read anything they

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don't give to us. It's surely a joke — in a whale's gut? Imagine! But inspired by the silliness, James, who was standing behind the others, quickly devoured every word, even while his teacher spoke.

When he had finished, he thought — What a ridiculous story! A man named Jonah was swallowed by a whale and spent three days and nights in its belly. Talk about a fish story! And then another man, Jesus, said he would do the same thing. No wonder they prohibit outer reading material — he concluded with a silent chuckle. Outers must be naive. Looking at the title again, he decided — It has to be a joke. He took the tract with two fingers, and held it as he twisted his watch.

He recognized the name of Jesus, whom he had been taught was a deluded lunatic and the founder of one of the main outer religions, the most divisive, and the one that caused untold problems and hardship for its deceived adherents. The tract had mentioned that Jonah was a prophet from the Hebrew Bible. Of Jonah, however, he knew nothing. Concerning the Hebrew Bible, his training indicated that in the best of cases it was a collection of myths; and in the worst, part of a Semitic plot to rule the world.

When the group moved on, they passed a litter barrel, and having read every word, James crumpled the tract and tossed it handily away, with a little chuckle, and thought — Jonah, what a funny name!

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The Jonah Factor

Chapter 2




Infliction

Whilst shame keeps its watch, virtue is not wholly extinguished in the heart …

— Edmund Burke

December 1976 — Cordillera Real, Bolivia, South America

It was a pleasant day for a field trip. A green carpet of tiny resilient plants that looked like a field of recently cut grass crunched under every step as if it was fresh lettuce. They walked together in ranks, three abreast, but not marching; they had already done their drills back in the Dietrich Weller Coliseum.

This is great! — Ashley thought, as she looked to the sky, with its white clouds dispersed across the brilliant blue. On the horizon she saw jagged peaks covered with glistening white snow. The group marched toward a windswept lake that sparkled with crystal waves, teasing the shore's black sand.

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All the cadets were in their regular training uniforms: scarlet and purple jumpsuits. After they had walked about fifty meters, Master Teacher, who was visibly content, ordered, "Come, let's gather around for lunch." She instructed them to sit about on the tundra.

As Ashley turned to sit, she caught, in a twinkle, James's blue eyes. He was looking at her again. She bit her lower lip, and felt a blush coming. When she realized that he had managed to get right beside her, she wished she could hide, and she giggled. But she wished she hadn't made a sound. Everyone saw me — she worried to herself. She wanted to tell him, "James Smith, be careful! Teacher will notice if you stay close to me." The thought of what might happen if Teacher found out made her shiver. The cool mountain breeze on her flushed cheeks added to her chill.

Her heart rate increased a few more beats when she felt him gently brush her arm, as if by accident, as they sat. But she knew it hadn't been an accident, and she found herself desiring more than a touch, even if she shouldn't.

Before long, Teacher's assistants were serving them lunches in foam packs.

Ashley deliberately kept her eyes from turning towards James. She tried to converse with Nancy, who was beside her, but she could think of nothing but him. However, other than a few more inadvertent touches (or so they seemed), they had no further communication, until James, pointing towards the sky and glancing at her, excitedly exclaimed, for all to hear, "Look! It's a condor."

Everyone was looking up, except Ashley. After only a wink at the oversized vulture, she fixed her eyes on James, who looked at the soaring bird as if it were a god, or a Skotos. She allowed the instant to expand in her own perception, and studied James's chiseled features as though she was memorizing them for an exam.

After lunch they had meditation, followed by breathing exercises. Then Master Teacher began a lesson. It was only a review, and Ashley's thoughts sometimes slipped away to James's blue eyes. She thought it

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strange, though. Why his blue eyes? — she asked herself. We've all got blue eyes. Why do I only see his?

Teacher told them, "Today we will have a lesson that reviews much of what we have been learning in our history classes …"

She began at Babel, when their enemy, Asmina, had ruined the Skotoi's attempt to lead humanity to a higher cosmic consciousness. People were forced to flee in great hardship and suffering. She spoke of what would have been the glory of humanity if the highly evolved Skotoi had been able to continue, without interruption, their Plan. She spoke of the great civilizations, and how, inside of each of them, Aztec, Incan, Roman, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Chinese, and even before — Atlantean — the Skotoi had carefully, and secretly, established wise groups of men, the Cosmokrator, to guide each generation, and to one day establish Therion, who would save humanity from all the misery Asmina had brought upon them. Then she told the cadets that their heritage, as Alpha Force candidates, was greater than anything outers could ever know, and that the invested possessed the knowledge and wisdom, the scientific and technological virtues, of all the ages of humankind. It was an important part of their charge to hide this knowledge from the outer nations, to keep Asmina, their enemy, from disrupting the Plan of the Skotoi. Teacher finished, reminding them that Therion would come back to save humanity, and they, the invested, would reign over the world with Therion as their king.

Ashley had heard the lesson before; she knew it by heart. If she made Alpha Force, her duty would be to help establish the Reign of Therion. But her mind wandered to James's eyes. She caught herself, and told herself NO. If I keep thinking about him, I'll be divergent. I've got to concentrate on the lesson. Teacher might say something new, and give a quiz.

It seemed like the lecture wouldn't end, but afterwards, Teacher ordered all the cadets to fall in behind her, and in formation they started marching back towards the saucer-shaped DEEP Unit (Dimensional Electro Ether Propulsion Unit) that had brought them. Its black matte

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finish seemed to make a hole in the scene, as if the place it occupied was a cutout, for not even a ripple of heat rose from it — this despite the sun's intense bath. They marched towards it, about a hundred meters. It was hovering — floating — just above the ground. Late afternoon's honey-colored light made a stark contrast between the DEEP and the snow-covered sierras. The Unit was massive, standing three stories high, and extending more than twice that distance in diameter. Reaching the DEEP, they entered and walked up the ramp, through the bottom hatch.

Soon after the group was inside, the hatches closed automatically. Again Ashley saw James's eyes lock onto hers. She knew it was wrong, and would be considered divergent, but she started trying to think of some way the two of them could meet together — alone. She moved to one side of the large passenger area, wishing he could be with her, but knowing it would draw too much attention. Seating in the Unit's dome was arranged in a concentric pattern. She tried to get a seat where she would be able to see him, but at the last minute, someone sat in front of her and blocked her view. She had a notion to change seats, but by then, all were filled.

On the huge dome monitor that served as a window to the world outside, she watched as they levitated upwards, little by little, above the mountain peaks into the blue canopy. Minutes later they climbed to where there was a bright sun glow, which darkened into a black vault. Brilliant stars lined the hemispheric cupola. When they reached the apogee of their climb, the view changed rapidly, and fire started streaking into an apex over them. An outer would say it looked like a meteor. Only seconds later they stopped abruptly, hovering inches above the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. She knew it, since she was watching, but she didn't feel it when they came to a sudden stop, thanks to the DEEP Unit's inertial dampening.

We're back in the Triangle — she thought. She watched as the waves began breaking against the craft. Air bubbles boiled around the hull, and the DEEP began to dive into the abyss of the North American Ba

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sin. It took a few minutes for them to reach the dismal ocean floor, where an immense symmetrical entrance came into view. Its inside wall was outlined with strobe lights, which guided inward. As they floated a few hundred feet away from the entrance, another DEEP Unit exited. Once the path was open, they moved towards the suboceanic entrance. A couple hundred meters to starboard a specially designed submarine that looked like a cigar was moving into another entry, which was also outlined with strobes. Above them, she noted, another DEEP was descending along the invisible glide path in the dark water. They started to move again, and entered the passageway, a gargantuan U-shaped siphon, following arrays of multicolored lights. Coming up, out of the siphon, the dome of their Unit surfaced in a symmetrical lake in the middle of a sweeping underground hangar, which had been carved out of the rock under the seabed.

The dome lights (suspended from the superstructure) hung over a hundred meters above them. Their distant points blurred into swirls as the DEEP spun itself dry, throwing seawater back into the enormous artificial lake. Ashley didn't feel dizzy at all. She felt no motion, and heard no sound. Except for the picture on the dome monitor, she wouldn't even have known they were spinning.

Then, slowly, the Unit hovered and advanced towards the docking bay. A large sign, scarlet and white, marked the position they were about to occupy. It read, "Dimensional Electro Ether Propulsion Unit #14."

Exiting, Ashley looked up and saw the familiar sign: "Welcome to Novus Ordo."

Teacher dismissed them to their quarters, and just before leaving the hangar, she glanced at James. He looked back at her, and she could tell he wanted to keep looking, just as she did, but such activity would be considered divergent.

Before going to sleep, Ashley saw his wonderful eyes, and hated herself for having thought about him, but she wanted him to be close to her. Especially, she wanted him to touch her. Every time he had brushed

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against her, long-forgotten memories came to her — even the times he had touched her when, as children, they had played together.

She longed to feel him near to her. But how could it happen? It had been several weeks since the field trip, when she first noticed he was looking at her, and she realized that she didn't mind — even if their being together wasn't allowed by the mandates. As she lay between the covers, she held a small folded note close to her heart. It was written with a pencil on plain white paper. It said: Meet me. Block 12-98G. Utility. 4.72 hours. Come alone. Ashley.

She thrilled to think he might come, but despite her dreams, and his numerous glances and "accidental" brushes, she had no guarantee that he would even respond to her invitation. It would be dangerous. She even considered that he might even turn the note directly over to Master Teacher, but she just knew he wouldn't. He couldn't!

She tried to avoid the thought that her plan was a violation of the mandates. She was invested, and as the top female cadet in her group, she had never disobeyed, at least not so purposefully. So, why now? Why was she trying something so divergent?

Eventually, Ashley slept, and dreamed of James's blue eyes and his wavy golden hair. She saw him looking to the sky, with the condor soaring above.

After a morning of hard physical and mental activity — training — the cadets began filing into the mess hall. Ashley came up from behind James, and just before he started into the line she slipped her note into his hand, and quickly stepped by him.

He lifted it, unfolded it, and read the brief message, slipping it into his pocket. He looked at his watch: 4.70. What does she want? Does she want what I want? Could she be trying to trap me? Maybe she doesn't like the way I've been looking at her? But he couldn't resist the temptation to go to the closet, and as inconspicuously as he could, he moved out of the mess hall, thinking of some excuse to give in case he was stopped. Aware of the danger, and concerned that he might be noticed,

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he moved cautiously, but deliberately, and slipped out into the side hall. It was empty, as he had hoped. He had heard tales from other cadets of how some had managed divergents. But he wasn't one to disobey the mandates, so he had ignored their schemes. He didn't want to disobey, and he knew the consequences, yet he couldn't stop himself. He didn't know why Ashley was calling him to the closet, but he knew why he wanted to go — to be alone with her.

His trek wouldn't be long; even so, the two decimal minutes she had given him to reach the selected place behind the mess area didn't leave him much time. Luckily, it was a secluded area, and not many people ever went there, especially during lunch. When he reached the small door, he turned to look back, and then he looked around the other way. Satisfied that no one was watching, he purposely opened the door and entered the utility closet.

It was dark. It was small. And there she stood, dimly lit by an amber glow from the safety light. Her golden hair made a halo. She held her hand out to him. He needed no further invitation. Of all the words he had thought of saying, he spoke not a single one. Silence was her greeting, and he responded in like manner. Besides, what he dreamed of, and what her extended hand suggested, had little to do with words.

He felt her pulling him closer, and he assented. For a moment, he felt her warmth and breathed her breath. But he didn't try to kiss her; that was for outers. She didn't invite him to do so, either. He couldn't imagine why outers would touch lips; it seemed unclean. He was content to have Ashley near. The thought of how outers kissed was repulsive, but he did touch his cheek to hers. She was soft; so soft that it made him wonder how she could be so soft, and if all girls were the same.

Above them, on the ceiling, a small diamond-shaped point twinkled with a rainbow of colors. It was a SPARQ (Singular Photon Abstraction by Reflected Quanta). Every compartment in Novus Ordo had one. James knew it was impossible to hide from these sensors. Even with a thick black scarf over it, if any light got through to it, any at all, with the

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SPARQ they could make a full video from any angle that they chose. With it they could see under the cracks in the door, or even back out into the hall — wherever the light reaching its eye had been reflected. But he also knew that just having the ability to look into every little corner wasn't enough, since it was impossible for them to actually have time to see everything, everywhere. Novus Ordo was a big place — and all the computers in the world wouldn't have been able to make pictures from all the SPARQs in the submerged city. He figured — With so many places to observe, why would they bother looking in this closet? They've got more important things to look for.

But now he didn't want to let go of Ashley. His cares, concerning the SPARQ, and everything else, for that matter, were, during those few minutes, as distant from him as Ashley was close. And, for that matter, he almost didn't care if they got caught. Holding her was worth an infliction, if it came to that.

Every second they were away from the group increased the chance of being caught. When she gently pulled away, he was both relieved and disheartened. He released her as she whispered, "I'll go back first."

James accepted, and she was gone, but he still felt as if he held her closely. After an acceptable delay, he opened the door, walked back down the halls, and entered the mess area, but there was silence — and eyes. They looked at them: James and Ashley, who stood just past the entrance. On the large monitor a few seconds of video started — perhaps not even ten — but it seemed like it lasted for hours. It was clear to James that someone had seen them leave and had been suspicious, since they had had enough time to make the video.

All the cadets sat silently and watched the show. It was quite a crime — so divergent. James wondered how many of them had done worse, but hadn't gotten caught. He twisted his watch. Master Teacher pressed a button on the remote and froze the image. She ordered, "Step forward, Smith and Brown."

"It's not his fault," Ashley began, "I did it. I wrote a note and invited him."

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Why is she confessing? — James asked himself. Is she trying to protect me? He remembered that he still had the little note she had given him. He reasoned — If Teacher sees it, she'll inflict Ashley. He knew he couldn't let that happen, and rapidly lifted her note from his pocket and stuffed it in his mouth, quickly swallowing the poorly chewed pulp, which made him wonder if he would choke. Everyone stared at him; he knew he was making a show. Teacher yelled, "Smith! Stop! Stop! I'll inflict you!" But he wouldn't be distracted, and hastily finished his "meal."

James could tell by looking at the expression of the tall blond teacher, who was about thirty-five, that he had managed to make her go plasma — she looked hot. He would accept responsibility and hope for leniency, something he wasn't likely to get, but he might be able to save Ashley. With that in mind, he began speaking, after he gulped, and said, "It's my fault … Master Teacher." He gulped a second time, trying to down the rest of the fibrous material. It felt like it was still in his throat. He continued, "I did it. I invited her to the closet."

"Is that true, Brown?" Teacher questioned.

"No, he's lying," she said, and clutched her hands, as her youthful forehead wrinkled.

James watched as Teacher paused. He knew he would be inflicted; no doubt about it. The insubordinate behavior shown by the video was probably worth ten seconds, he figured, and she would give him twenty more for having eaten the note. He had acted blatantly contrary to the mandates. After thirty seconds of infliction, he figured he'd spend a week in sick bay, if the punishment didn't kill him outright. The only question that remained, in his mind, was if Ashley would be inflicted too.

"Stand forward, Smith," she ordered. Master Teacher was watching him closely. "Are you ready?" she asked, looking straight into his eyes.

James nodded. "Yes, Master Teacher," he answered, holding his hands to his sides, standing at attention with his chin held high. He knew what was expected, and he would do it.

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"Such divergent behavior is rare for you, James. I'm only going to give you five seconds. I hope it will be enough to teach you, and everyone else, a lesson."

Then Teacher took a little black box, about the size of a wallet, from an inside pocket of her jumpsuit. He had seen it before. But only twice had it been used on him, and then for only one second each time.

He watched as she pressed the buttons a few more times, programming the control, and he hoped she would get it right — over infliction could kill. Then she extended her hand, and pointed the control squarely at his eyes, sighting across its top. He felt as if his knees might buckle, but he knew he couldn't black out yet, or she would increase his punishment. He tensed. She pressed the button—

He felt himself shake in a violent seizure and cave in upon himself. He felt himself falling to the floor. Time lost its significance; each second could have been a lifetime — maybe like the "eternal damnation" some of the outer religions talk about. Pain that he couldn't describe tore him open — or so it felt. But pain wasn't the worst of it. No. The pain was mild compared to the shame. He felt like something that had been left to rot.

Teacher's infliction control had activated one of his implants, a bioprocessor, which directly controlled his brain's emotional center, producing a feeling of intense shame. The sensation was so refined that it became his only emotion, and yet, intellectually, he still knew he was a proud Alpha Academy cadet. Perhaps that was the worst part of his punishment: being so proud, and so humiliated, all at the same time.

Then it ended. Five seconds? Five days? Five years? Or five millennia? He had no idea, but when it ended, he distinctly felt himself go limp — exhausted. Darkness oozed down upon him like a mudslide — cold and heavy.

Ashley wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. She wanted to run and grab him as he fell, and hold him near to her. She told herself — Some of my friends have broken the mandates, and they weren't caught. Why

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did they get us? But she didn't have an answer. Her mind was racing, but she kept her expression hard, staid, like they'd taught her. She wanted to cry, to scream, to swear. Yes, even to curse Therion! But she couldn't.

Having finished with James, Teacher turned to her and asked, "Now, Ashley, do you need an infliction too?"

She felt weak, and began grappling for an answer. Knowing, however, that Teacher wanted a quick response, she spoke, "No, Master Teacher. It wasn't my fault." She knew that she had lied, but after James had taken it upon himself to protect her, she had no reason to say otherwise. Getting herself punished wouldn't help him.

Teacher smiled at her plea. Seeing it, Ashley wasn't sure what the smile meant. Had her plea been accepted?

Then Teacher said, looking around at the group, "Divergent behavior will not be tolerated…"

Ashley, for her part, had learned a lesson: She liked James, but she could see it would be better if she didn't. She wanted to run to him, but she couldn't. She hated leaving him lying on the floor. She felt remorse for him — as if he had died.

Later, during lunch, a classmate asked with bland expression, "Do you have your report for tomorrow?"

It made Ashley want to throw her plate of salad in the girl's face, but she didn't dare. Having narrowly escaped punishment on this occasion, she knew that Teacher wouldn't be lenient the next time.

"I have it ready. It was easy," she answered. And they talked, chatting about school, training, anything at all, but not infliction. Neither did they mention James, even though his limp, unconscious body lay only a few meters away.

Everyone knew the mandates — the inflicted were to be mercilessly ignored. The threat of punishment lay behind everything they did. She wondered — Will I be next? It was a question every cadet lived with. It made clear the words of the mandates: Invested is better than outer; do not be divergent. It made the words of authority as clear as a SPARQ's crystal.

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Again, she watched James, in the camera of her mind, as he fell to the floor. She wanted to shriek in disbelief and denial. And she thought — He did it for me! Why did you suffer, James? Why did you lie? Why didn't you protect yourself? Why didn't you tell Teacher it was my fault? Then I would've gotten what I deserve. It was my fault!

But she had learned her lesson: She couldn't let him come near to her. She told herself — I can't let him suffer. I'll have to show him I like him by hating him! The more I hate him, the more I like him. With this train of thought, she concluded — I hate him!

James began to grope, and slowly he came back around, as his wits and his senses started to function. The reality of his infliction turned into a nightmarish haze, and the haze that had been reality, turned into a cold floor. As he turned over, the sounds of his classmates at lunch greeted him. It took him some time to remember what had happened, and why he was there.

He wondered — Why don't they inflict outers? Aren't we supposed to be invested? Maybe being outer isn't so bad? But it doesn't matter. There's no way out. Alpha Force doesn't give any discharges, and there aren't any deserters. He felt strange comfort in the thought — Maybe I'll get to inflict an outer someday!

James sat up slowly, and got his bearings. Then he remembered it was his duty to walk over to the group.

He remembered one of his classmates, who, just a year before, thinking he could change things, became divergent, and even after heavy infliction, kept speaking outer. He eventually got himself inflicted to death, and became an example for the group. James would do well to go over to the group quickly, but his shame was great.

When he finally did get enough nerve to go back, they ignored him, which was the routine — ordered by the mandates — but his isolation would only last until tomorrow. With the new day, he would be treated, again, as a cadet — just like before.

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However, not everything was as it had been: Ashley was distant, unattached, as if she had never invited him to the closet, snubbing him, as though she'd never known him. He wondered — I saved her, and this is how she repays me?

However, he knew why she did it: Teacher would have inflicted him more if she had acted differently, but he would have gladly suffered again, just to see her smile kindly, but now her face was as glacial as the shame he felt.

How he liked her! How he wanted to like her! It wasn't any good, though. If he was going to be a success in the Force, he would do well to despise her.

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Chapter 3

Genocide

Iraq's use of chemical weapons in Halabja last March was condemned by the international community. As a result of the attack, Iranian troops have been gravely disparaged, even though most victims were Kurdish rebels, resident in Iraq. Speculation points to an attempt by Iraq's ambitious president, Saddam Hussein, to blame Iran for the aggression and thus gain international sympathy for his war against Iran. Until now, the attack has been kept so secret that reports are only recently coming to light.

NewsWorld, August 1988

"We'll let him gas a few thousand Kurds and blame it on Iran. The world will say, `Poor Saddam.' Then we'll give him more parts for his pet A-bomb. Unless he acts like an idiot, we can let him have the darling inferno machine he wants."

— Cosmokrator Irving Stonefell

"Spaceport Novus Ordo is one of several of our worldwide installations. It is the command center for all DEEP operations. As you can see, it is a marvel of

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engineering. We have sixty thousand inhabitants in a man-made cavern extending over sixteen hundred acres underneath the ocean floor. It's two hundred years ahead of outside technology. We built it while everyone was busy fighting Hitler. Despite its age, it is in first-rate operational status."

— Cosmokrator Hans Weller, introducing Novus Ordo

to a newly recruited scientist, 1986

March 1988 — Twelve years later — Novus Ordo

Captain James Smith had, over the years, resigned himself to life in the Force, and he had excelled in it. He had recently been promoted from commander to captain, and now stood before a large virtual monitor receiving orders for his next mission.

"Smith," Cosmokrator Hans Weller said, addressing the captain in a commanding voice. "You are to proceed to Iraq." Then Weller, who was sitting at his expansive command hub, paused.

"What's our mission, sir?" James answered, as he watched the near middle-aged, near medium-height Weller on the DEEP Unit's bridge monitor. (The clear picture was coming to him via EWB [Extreme Wide Band] which outers couldn't detect.)

"You are to film the operation in Halabja and ensure that Hussein's people do their job."

It took about an hour for them to get under way, but soon, Smith was surfacing his ominous DEEP, breaking through the gentle waves of the mid-Atlantic, just north of the Tropic of Cancer. It was night, and silent. Outside, according to their meteorologicals, there was only a gentle breeze. The placidly clear sky, with a myriad of stars, was visible on the monitor. James wished he could take a moment to enjoy the warm sea air, but readings from his sensors would have to do for now. With a silent sarcastic chuckle, he thought — It's like life in the Force, only to be experienced with sensors: the long-distance kind.

"Captain," informed First Officer Ashley Brown, "we are ready for ascent."

"Proceed," he ordered.

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He watched her "punch" in a command on her virtual console. Her shoulder-length blond hair was neatly pulled back from her oval face in a chignon. She momentarily looked up and caught his eyes, but quickly glanced away. It was the same old story. He remembered how she had treated him with disdain, ever since his last infliction. Officer Brown had ceased to be the fun-loving, youthful girl he had known. He tried to think she acted so aloof because she didn't want him to get in trouble again — and he sort of wished she would have told him as much, but he knew she couldn't. Just the same, her strict formality made him wonder if she hated him. Her refusal to look into his eyes made him feel ashamed — except, he had to be proud, Alpha Force proud. And besides, he admired her — she was the best first officer in the Fleet.

Ashley completed the captain's order, and their DEEP began rising at a leisurely speed of 180 kilometers per hour. "Ascent initiated, Captain," she advised, and continued, "stealth operational."

This maneuver took them climbing slowly into space without breaking the sound barrier, eluding the attention they might have attracted otherwise. DEEP Unit 1 was entirely capable of going halfway around the world in less than two minutes, but instead, Captain Smith chose to rise slowly, playing flying turtle (as he called it) to avoid becoming a UFO sighting. A DEEP could be concealed from outers in several ways, but in this case, the slow climb in the dark of night was a simple and effective option.

Half an hour later they sat, suspended on the edge of Earth's atmosphere. Having received orders from the captain, Ashley called Novus Ordo and solicited, "DEEP Control, requesting permission for hyperdrive activation."

There was a brief delay, and then a reply; "We have you on our screens at 90 kilometers."

"Affirmative," she responded.

"Permission granted. Good luck!"

"Do you have a course locked in for the lake?" Smith asked.

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"Yes, Captain," she replied.

"Proceed."

A soft blue glow in the bottom center of the Ether Craft turned into a shimmering violet. With an ample energy supply from the chemical fusion power source, together with the hyperdimensional drive powered by fusion plasma, DEEP 1 rapidly accelerated to a blinding speed. The covert powered dive into Iraqi airspace would be accomplished in moments. Their trace lit up radar screens across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Ground computers, however, eliminated the radar trace, classifying it variously as atmospheric disturbances, falling meteors, or some glitch in the electronics — after all, nothing could move that fast.

"Hull status?" Smith asked.

"Hull stable, supercooling operational and maintaining at forty degrees Celsius."

Through the monitors they could see the flaming trail of their own ship above and behind them, but the temperature inside the Unit was just right. It made quite a show in the area around the Mediterranean Sea, and someone lucky enough to be looking up, would have seen a streak blazing across the sky.

A few seconds later Ashley advised, "We're in Iraqi airspace."

James didn't bother to reply, because he knew she would be giving him their destination status before he could ask. Apparently defying almost every physical law known to man, DEEP 1 decelerated from eighteen thousand miles an hour and hovered just above the lake's surface — but inside the Unit the passengers could hardly tell their speed had changed.

"Submersion sequence initiated," were the words Smith anticipated and heard. "Submersion complete." And then Ashley asked, "Depth, Captain?"

"Five meters, and hold."

At eight miles in diameter, and a couple hundred feet deep, the lake had plenty of room for a DEEP Unit.

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"How long until daylight?" Smith inquired.

"Three hours."

"Good. Inform Jackson. When his people are ready, they can proceed."

Soon Jackson called from the upper operational deck, "We're `go' here."

Smith seemed pleased. The mission was ahead of schedule. He ordered, "Prepare to surface. Ready assault troops."

In response, the first officer "hit" a few buttons on the floating panel. Then she commanded the helm: "Acquire operational depth."

In the thick darkness it would have been impossible to see the black island forming in the middle of Lake Darbandi Khan as DEEP 1 partially surfaced, with only its dome protruding above the waterline. Slowly and silently it became an artificial island, not very big, just forty yards across.

Smith sat in the captain's chair, his own virtual panel stretched in the thin air in front of him. The onboard supercomputer announced, "Operational depth acquired."

Smith ordered, "Open dome."

There was a distant whine, and amazingly — as if seen in a time-lapse sequence of the petals of a sunflower opening — the large black fins of the DEEP's outer shell began to open in the darkness of the moonless night. When the doors had opened, and the dome's motors silenced, a familiar sound began to resonate from out of the DEEP's massive staging area.

"Force 1," Smith ordered, "proceed to destination."

"Roger," came the resolute reply through the COM center.

Through the open dome, one Soviet Mi-24 assault helicopter after another — each one filled with Alpha troops — lifted off the helipad and fixed a northeastern course. They moved swiftly, only a few feet above the lake, and reached the shore quickly. As they moved over land, they barely increased their altitude, remaining as near to the ground as possible.

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Alpha Force troops had advantages over outer soldiers. Their training had begun at birth, and they possessed advanced technology as yet undreamed of by outers. One such device was their sophisticated contact lenses, which gave them night vision with digital binocular enhancement. They wore them at all times. Each troop possessed remarkable physical skills. An average of only one minute and ten seconds on a one-mile run surpassed the best that outers could accomplish.

Having deployed the Mi-24s, Smith ordered, "Close the dome and submerge."

"Affirmative," Brown answered, questioning, "Depth, Captain?"

"Dive to thirty meters and deploy antenna."

"Yes, sir."

Three minutes later the swift black helicopters approached their mission's destination.

"Objective acquired," Jackson informed.

"Proceed with operation," Smith ordered.

They landed at four strategic sites around the small town. Jackson ordered, "Alpha Force, suit up and prepare to march."

Dawn's first light was breaking from the east and the muezzin at the mosque began summoning the faithful to prayer. Villagers were on their knees with their heads and hands pointed towards Mecca. Soon afterwards, the town's dusty streets began to fill with people wending their way to daily toil. The markets began to open.

Seeing that Hussein's pilots were late, Smith bristled to himself — Where are the devils, three minutes late? He glanced at his watch and twisted it briefly, looking at it again, as if in doing so he could make time itself obey his orders. Finally he said with a placid tone, "Get Jackson's status."

"He reports all is well, but he isn't sure how much longer they can keep their positions without being detected," Brown answered.

"Tell him to keep us informed."

Smith checked his watch. Come on! Hurry up! — he silently ordered. His facial expression remained calm and even, though he

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betrayed his edgy disposition by the number of times he checked his watch.

By the time Officer Brown spoke, announcing, "MiGs approaching from the west," Smith had looked at his watch almost as many times as she had patted her hair back.

"Six minutes late," he answered, tightly twisting his head her way, and ordered with an angry glare that he wished Hussein could have seen, "Tell Jackson they're coming."

Inside the helicopters, in response to the news, Alpha troops secured their suits and performed one last inspection to be sure there weren't any leaks. They heard the MiGs' deafening roar, three of them — sweeping over the target — just a hundred fifty feet above the ground, but the small town's residents weren't distressed. Combat's rage had been near-at-hand for years.

The first MiG swept back and dove, firing two small missiles that zoomed directly into the main plaza. Pulling up its nose, and kicking in the afterburners, the war machine accelerated to Mach 2, and a sonic boom shook the village. Then the other carried out its run on another plaza, and finally the third, on a different part of town. Three furious rogues pronounced judgment with thundering voices.

Each of the six gas canisters began hissing. Moments later, a few children started to run towards one of the impact sites. They didn't get very far. Some of them may have sensed a smell of bitter almonds, but the impression would have registered only a split second before a merciful unconsciousness overtook them. Their innocent faces contorted; they went into convulsions. The torment was less for the first victims since they didn't see the horrors of what was happening. But for the living who stood to watch the dying, the torment was far greater, at least until they themselves took a breath and fell into the same writhing death.

"We don't have much time. The show will be over soon. Get moving," Jackson ordered.

Alpha Force troops dispersed on their prearranged courses, and linked images from their on-site cameras to Novus Ordo, and from there to the world's monetary capitals, and to the Skotoi.

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Smith watched the scene on the large monitor, a blank expression on his face, but in his mind, he might have asked — Why? What's the point? However, from his perspective, he was only a soldier carrying out orders. He was incapable of any response to the carnage because the ability to react humanely had been inflicted out of him years before.

"Jackson reports unfavorable air current. Western portion of target has not been destroyed," Officer Brown reported. James heard the tightness in her voice, and glanced at her eyes to see what might have been interpreted as shock.

Smith looked away and pulled his hand across his brow. "We're going to have to complete what Hussein's incompetent morons couldn't," he half-exclaimed and half-asked. And then he commanded, "Initiate backup plan." He would have hated himself — if his trainers had allowed it.

"Roger," Jackson replied.

Moments later, two of the helicopters were in the air. They headed far enough to the west that when they dropped their canisters, the winds would be favorable for complete extermination.

* * *

Same time — Virtual reality, somewhere in cyberspace

A dire stillness compassed the Skotoi and the Cosmokrator while roaring dark winds swirled outside their perimeter. They seemed to be directly in the vortex of what appeared to be a cyclone, with its turbulence surrounding them.

3-D images, coming to them from Iraq via DEEP 1, began showing the convulsing and contorted Kurds as death visited them. Operation Death Breath was received with visual realism, and the victims' pictures were projected on the gyrating walls of the whirlwind that turbulently encircled the royal chamber of Therion. The screeches and groans coming from the throats of the living portended that they would be lifeless corpses in moments.

In the virtual storm that surrounded the gathering of the Skotoi and the Cosmokrator, the image of a deformed face, drained of life,

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was visible on the swirling "wall" of the bleak cyclone. Exactly as the little girl's eyelids separated in response to life's absence, behind Therion's throne a bolt of violet lightning forked its way upward along the spiraling wind that reached high above them.

Instantaneously, another bolt fired upwards as another pair of human eyes suddenly opened in a death stare. It began to happen rapidly, and with each death, tempestuous streaks rose forcefully.

As the operation that had been sanctioned by the Cosmokrator reaped its harvest, massive bursts of the strange lightning lit their solemn faces. They understood that with each death in Iraq there was a sudden release of consciousness energy. Violet pulses portraying each death rose violently and surrounded them. When the frequency of the blasts increased enough to create a continuous glow, the critical level required for their transcendental illumination would be achieved. This was the goal, the motive behind the countless acts of genocide they had perpetrated. It was as ancient as human sacrifice, as modern as Hitler's holocaust, as contemporary as fetal abortion, and as common as deliberate African famine or ethnic cleansing.

The effects of the gas were swift, and at the expense of the Kurds, the necessary brilliance was reached. Deaths numbered thousands per second, each one causing its own bolt to race up the sides of the cyclone towards the vortex above Therion's chamber. With the thunder roaring continually, and the violet lightning's electric pulsating into a radiant fluid, they had achieved the requisite sacrifice for illumination.

The Skotoi absorbed the consciousness energy as the Cosmokrator chanted to the roar of the constantly resounding thunder, "Receive our sacrifice, high Skotoi. Be appeased, Therion, with the energy we give you. Allow illumination to flood the being of your servants, the Cosmokrator."

After several prolonged moments of nearly continuous lightning, so full that no single bolt could be distinguished, their frequency began to slow and the thunder lost its power, eventually dissipating into clicking noises, like the sound of a Geiger counter, and then there was silence.

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The images coming from the death field of Iraq no longer showed any Kurds standing. Only twisted bodies filled the streets. A voice roared from one of the thrones of the Skotoi, "Well done, Cosmokrator! Your sacrifice has brought us abundant illumination. You shall be rewarded."

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Chapter 4

Bought

The more gross the fraud, the more glibly will it go down, and the more greedily be swallowed, since folly will always find faith where impostors will find imprudence.

— Charles Caleb Colton

November 1991 — Three years later — Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Pasadena, California

Energetically creating a computer virus, Atler moved his fingers smoothly over the keyboard. He added line upon line to the program that would secure his future, and the world's too — at least that's what he'd been told, even if he wasn't sure he believed it, but those who said so had shown themselves capable of paying quite well, and that, personally, was the future he found to be most rewarding.

The fluorescent light provided its bland hue, and it reminded him of the icy cash in his bank account, which made him pleasantly warm. It was tax-free (something he would have wondered about, but there

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was enough of it —the cash — that worrying didn't seem appropriate). His newly acquired wealth was enough to generate, for the time being, abundant motivation.

It could have seemed to him that there was something immoral about what he was doing, but no, he figured it wasn't so bad. He, according to his own reasoning, was at least as good a person as anyone else. I've even been to church — he reminded himself. And I'll go back — it's the right thing to do. At least — he told himself with a chuckle — just like everyone else, at least three times in a lifetime: when born, when married, and when dead. He chuckled silently.

Besides — he pronounced inwardly and self-assuredly — I need the money: A new car will be great and paying off my creditors will be too. I'll have some security for the future. And what I'm doing is for the public good. I have a right! Who can live on what NASA pays?

The neatest part of it, Atler judged, was that robbing computing cycles from the world's computers was blissfully easy. As easy as doing two jobs at the same time: NASA's and Nova Mundi's. NASA's, for now, was a control routine for a space probe, but Nova Mundi's chore was decidedly more exciting: the creation of a computer virus, a super virus to be sure, to make computers on the Internet work together (without the knowledge of their owners), linking them into one mighty supercomputer. Nova Mundi had told him that his system would be used to predict the weather for months, or even years, in advance. Then it would be possible to know when and where to plant crops, and thus prevent world hunger. Really, it was a noble idea — greed aside.

His foot tapped the carpet with about the same rhythm as that of a puppy wagging its tail at feeding time. But he was smart enough to know that his virus program could be used to do more than predict the weather. He had dubbed it VICE, for Virtual Internet superComputer Emulation. VICE, as an acronym, really gave him a kick — definitely worth a laugh. "Vice" would also be good at predicting lottery numbers, the fastest greyhound, the swiftest horse, or anything else that could be predicted. Certainly, vice could do more than predict the

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weather. It was, in his eyes, the maximum expression of what had made him fall in love with computers in the first place: power.

However, he didn't tell the Nova Mundi representative that he had dubbed his masterwork "vice." He had simply called it VIS (Virtual Internet Supercomputer), which was the name he'd chosen when he first thought of the concept, and it had been a good idea, too. It had gotten him his PhD, and had now landed him jobs with NASA and Nova Mundi. But it had taken years for VIS to gain any attention. Really, NASA still hadn't taken him seriously, but Nova Mundi had. Well — he told himself as he stopped tapping his foot, losing a beat or two (long enough to scratch his ear) — it's high time I have some income from it. He knew, of course, that without the inside information provided by Nova Mundi, his concept could never become a reality. Ultimately, he needed his friends from "New Money" (as he had dubbed Nova Mundi) as much as they needed him.

He wondered how they had acquired all of the technical details they'd given him — Surely they didn't steal them; surely there hadn't been any industrial espionage — he consoled himself — and it really doesn't matter. But for now, all that did matter was the two hundred thousand in his pocket, the forthcoming two hundred thousand, and the six hundred thousand that would be the icing on the cake, once he finished. With a grand total of $1,000,000 coming his way, he really didn't care what Nova Mundi did with vice.

With a few keystrokes, a couple of backspaces, a finalizing touch of the ENTER key, he concluded another line as smoothly as a master playing the piano. Besides having raw power, vice was endowed by its creator (a term he liked to use in reference to himself) with one other attribute: No virus protection program would ever find it or stop it. Atler's "New Money" friends from Novus Ordo had given him the secret codes to the new computer operating systems, and vice would effortlessly achieve its objective — control the Internet's power and turn it into a virtual supercomputer without alerting anyone, since it became part of the system — a sophisticated root kit.

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One thing bothered Atler, and as much as he tried to ignore it, it was getting the best of him. Vice was probably worth a lot more than New Money was paying. Sometimes, when that thought bounced into his consciousness, his fingers would stop, and he thought — If only I could find someone else to pay more, millions more, for the power of vice.

Sure — he figured — there are bound to be people who would love to run the world's computers simultaneously, and they'd pay millions. But I'll never find them. I can't just advertise: "Computer scientist willing to sell virus to create world's most powerful supercomputer by taking over millions of computers worldwide."

He sensed someone approach him from behind. He was caught off guard. His heart jumped, even though he had nothing to fear. No one could make sense of the code on his monitor's screen.

"Atler, how are you doing on the control routine for the solar panel?" Doug Burnside quizzed. He stood six feet four inches, was fair-haired, and had the trim waist, broad shoulders, and large chest of a body builder. All were characteristics that Atler detested, since they represented everything he wasn't.

"Doug ... Oh, it's you. Caught me off guard."

Doug thought — Catching him off guard — that's not a surprise. This guy is a pathetic nerd. Friendless genius! Doug considered that his own intellectual endowment was at least as high above Atler's as Atler's was above a vulture's — a creature which Atler resembled in Doug's eyes. With mostly brown, straight hair, hinting gray and grease, that partially covered his balding head, and a frame that (if it ever attained upright posture) would be a head shorter than his own, Doug could find plenty of reasons to loathe the creep. His physique, he estimated, was barely sufficient for lifting groceries, lugging a garbage bag, or engaging a hand brake. But Doug knew that hidden behind Atler's thick, black-rimmed glasses and green eyes, was a genius, albeit a unique sort of genius, but a genius nevertheless — and it was a genius that he

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didn't possess. Atler could make a computer sing. But outside of this particular expertise, Atler was a manifest idiot, or so Doug assessed, as he wondered if Atler could even balance his checkbook.

Atler turned around on his swivel chair to face Doug. He asked, "Micro-relay routine?"

"Just checking to see how you're doing. You know the deadline?"

"Sure, Doug. I'll have it done. By the way, what about the rest of the advance?"

That lowlife! — Doug thought. He should know better. "Watch yourself," he whispered. "We don't want this broadcast."

Atler thought — Micro relays, sure. And realizing what the real motive was for Doug's visit to his cubicle, he turned around and faced the man. After exchanging pleasantries, it seemed to Atler that Doug was already mad at him. But why? No one's listening, Doug. So why get so upset? Then Doug whispered, "We don't want this broadcast," in a way that sounded far more conspicuous, to his ears, than had his innocent question about the advance. But he had to keep Mr. New Money happy, so he apologetically answered, "I know. But no one's listening. Besides, you're the one who suggested we meet here, that it's safer to talk at work than act like spies."

And after speaking, seeing Doug wince at his word, Atler thought — You're strange, man: you and your New Age stuff — breathing exercises, meditation, and all. But I'm grateful to you, buddy. Thanks for your New Money. Just be cool. Don't get uptight. I'll give you "vice."

"Okay. Enough!" Doug declared in an authoritative way that was also nondescript, a manner of expression that annoyed Atler. "You'll have the rest of your advance as soon as you give me the primary flow charts, and the beta code," Doug declared.

"Fine, Doug. I'm ready. When do you want them? I can e-mail them to you right now."

"Atler, buddy, if you're going to work with us, you'll have to learn to be more discreet. E-mail is too public."

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"I've thought of that," Atler said, hoping to impress Doug. "Here's the polynomial."

Atler handed over a little slip of paper with a thirty-two-digit number, mixed with letters. He looks pleased — Atler noted. And then, he whispered, "It would take centuries for anyone to break the encryption, but with this polynomial, you won't have any trouble. I'll send you the goods. Just download them, and when it asks for the key, type in the number." As Atler pointed at the slip of paper, he added, "Just be careful you get it right the first time, or your goods will be erased."

"Okay, if this works, you'll find a new deposit in your Swiss bank account, but our people will check out your work. It'll take some time."

Atler liked the sound of "new deposit" but wasn't thrilled with "some time." That's just the way it had to be, however, he reconciled himself, as he asked in a muted tone, "Two hundred thou' — Right?"

He watched Doug's expression tighten as he answered, "Yeah. It'll all be there. Just think of it as something you've done for God and country," and he lightened as he added, "Remember, you're working for the people who make this country work, and keep it from falling apart. The president depends on them. And this job will secure your future."

Atler already knew the details from previous conversations — It's supposed to be patriotic, Doug had told him. It was for America, and the world too — but the money was all the propaganda that really mattered to him. So what! — he reckoned. Some group of well-meaning philanthropist types who run a foundation that's trying to help America. Sure!

Doug's indoctrination spiel had been good, and flattering. He'd said, "Atler, you're the man. You've got the smarts, and you're in the right place. Why, you're a noble person. You would've done it even if no one paid you, just for the cause of science. So, Atler, don't be bashful; take the money. Don't let opportunity pass you by. This way, you can be a part of making history. Future generations will thank you, Atler. Many lives will be saved when we can predict the weather months in advance. Your program will help us predict droughts — exactly!

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And predict hurricanes too, where they'll fall, and on what day too. Think of the lives you'll save! You'll get out of debt and a new car. You can't afford not to take this job — just keep quiet, Atler. Don't say a thing to anyone! But later, when the New Order is guiding America, the president himself will thank you."

With fame and, especially, fortune as enticements, Atler knew he'd never have said no. Their conversation had ended when Doug reminded him, "The people I represent don't want anything to go wrong. If you cross them, they can make life miserable for you, buddy. Understand?"

As Doug walked away, Atler scratched his ear.

Before turning his eyes back to the display, he noted a computer software advertisement from a large Seattle firm. He wondered — What would they pay for some advice?

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Chapter 5




One Small Step

"If you only knew what we can really do."

— Quote of an anonymous Air Force scientist speaking

about the capabilities of "Star Wars" technology to NewsWorld Magazine

December 4, 1991 — About three weeks later — Mars Base Aquarrian

Seven years had gone by since James Smith first set foot on the crimson planet, a long seven years. Across his resilient face a sunbeam burst, causing him to squint. DEEP 1 moved slowly upwards through Mars Base Aquarrian's huge air lock. Reflecting off the frozen red Martian desert, distant sunlight flooded the bridge with a rose tint.

He ordered, "Computer, engage Earth sequence." The intelligent voice recognition system obeyed before his lips had stopped moving. The Ether Craft began its self-check for return to the blue planet.

He easily remembered, as his mind flashed back, the first time he had seen the red countenance of Mars: June 6, 1984, Lunae Planum. His

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"one small step" had not been heralded, or even noted in the hometown newspaper. The Evening News did not report it, because none of the news syndicates had been informed. Smith knew that even if they had asked, his existence, and the existence of his mission, would have been denied. TerraNova's secrets simply didn't find their way into outer communications.

However, James knew the mysteries of Mars. "For the benefit of all humanity and to the glory of the Skotoi, we come to a New World," were the first words he had pronounced back when his foot first touched the ochre dust. Then he had continued to recite the words the Skotoi had ordered, "To awaken a universal consciousness of Therion and prepare humankind for cosmic citizenship…. Our inward focus…. The majesty within us…."

He had planted the flag — scarlet, purple, and gold — raising it in honor of their conquest. It was magnificently embroidered with the symbol of the All-Seeing Eye and the great pyramid. At the base of the pyramid was the Roman numeral DCLXVI.

Instead of a clear sky blue, the Martian sky was pale pink. Everywhere the expeditionary force stepped that day back in `84, they had made small red clouds of dust. James's vivid memory began to dim, as if he was looking through the reddish powder. His mind returned to the moment, and viewing the red planet, which was now several hundred feet below, he ordered, "Brown, take over launch disposition." He retired from the bridge as the surface of the planet, whose rose hue wasn't graced by a single flower, faded below them.

Smith sat in his quarters, attempting to meditate, but his mind was bombarded by questions — and none of them seemed to have answers. Perhaps the one thought that stood out was: This game is getting old, and I'm a pawn — trapped and blocked.

Later, after wrestling away his troubled reflections, which he had fought with for years, he asked himself — What would it have been like to be an outer? Would I have gotten a job and married a wife? Could she have been Ashley? He loosened his jumpsuit's golden belt,

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took the lotus position, drew a couple of deep … full … breaths and relaxed … deeply … comfortably … imagining himself at the top of a staircase … and going down, step by step … into that inner place …

He saw himself appearing on a stage, standing with a spigot attached to his side. A jester, with a painted face and large ears, jumped from behind and twisted the valve. James could see through the makeup, and the clown looked like his mirror image. He reached down and tried to close the valve to stop the flow that was red, like blood, but deeper and brighter. He reached to shut it off, but the pesky jester kept jumping back. As soon as he twisted it closed, the other-self opened it, laughing all the harder, until James, in frustration, grabbed the spigot and ripped it out of his side. The flow burst loose and he diminished into nothing. All that was left was the spigot he had broken off. The clown leaped back, reached down, grabbed the spigot, and stuck it in his own side. Only, this time, black slime came out, and no one tried to stop it. The clown smiled slyly, and imploded, as if he was a balloon — losing air. Heavy, dark liquid gushed out until the spigot was all that remained.

Some time later, James came out of the trance — feeling drained. He vaguely remembered the absurd vision, and it made him laugh to himself, but even so, he felt as if someone had been playing games with him — as if he had been robbed: like he lacked something he needed.

He arose and left his quarters to return to the bridge. Mars had shrunk in appearance to a size comparable to the moon when viewed from Earth, but it was clearly reddish in hue.

"It seems like we've done this before," he said, and briefly looked into Ashley's eyes, as if he hadn't wanted to do it.

She asked, glancing away from his look, "How many trips will this make?"

Momentarily, Captain Smith paused as her brief smile incited him. Her fair beauty was as vibrant before his eyes as it ever had been. He was attracted, but the threat of infliction spoke louder. He reminded himself — You are invested. Do not be divergent. Finally he responded, "We would have to look in the ship's log to find out."

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But the number of trips they had logged didn't interest him, and he knew it didn't interest her.

Though DEEP 1's supercomputer was capable of voice recognition, it was quicker to key in the coordinates of their destination. Smith's fingers bounced nimbly on the pad. He felt a momentary temptation to do something different: to program some new coordinates — and go somewhere and have fun. But what fun? — he questioned himself. A night on the town in New York? A quiet beach in the Caribbean? Skiing in Calgary? Whitewater rafting in West Virginia? A safari in Africa? Dining in Paris? Or even a trip to see the rings of Saturn? But no sooner had the temptation ignited than it was extinguished — the threat of infliction guided his every finger's movement.

More than once James had wondered why he even continued in the Force (as if he had a choice). There were answers: They had made him for their ends and he wouldn't make a good outer. Besides, things aren't bad enough for suicide — he supposed, even though, from time to time, some of his companions had exercised that option. It had happened, in one case he remembered, after a particularly shameful infliction. But he didn't want to think about it, and tried to change his thoughts to something more productive.

He asked on an impulse, "Ashley?"

Her blue eyes, feminine blond lashes, and brows looked somewhat surprised as he addressed her by first name. Seldom did he direct himself to his crew by first name, and wasn't sure why he had, just then.

She visibly hesitated before answering, "Yes, sir?"

"Have you ever wanted to visit the rings of Saturn?"

She laughed, and answered, "Don't be divergent, Captain."

The look on her face said it all. "I'm kidding," he replied.

Only a muffled rush of air from a vent was left to be heard. For an instant their eyes locked again. He really wanted to tell her something, even if he didn't know what it was. Stumbling for words, he asked a question that he knew was stupid before his lips stopped moving. It was out of character for him, and it didn't really make sense, but he asked, "Do you wonder what being outer is like?"

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The Jonah Factor

"No," she answered frankly. With a smirk, she added, "I'm invested."

From her surprised look he knew there would be no further discussion of the topic. She answered correctly, as programmed. It occurred to him, though, she could be afraid to say what she really thought. After all, she might think that he, as captain, had been testing her. On the other hand, she might be thinking she'd need to fill out a DBR (Divergent Behavior Report, usually pronounced Dee-bar).

He had no idea what she was thinking, but he knew that he had been mistaken to have supposed they could have spoken about something beyond the line of duty, like noting fusion plasma cycles or dimensional transference sets, or dictating and receiving orders. Even conversation during an occasional game of chess amounted to little more than "check" and "checkmate." After years of perpetual shame and silence, he had tried to touch her once more, but she showed no sign of letting down her guard.

He began to worry that she would think he was divergent. He had to say something, quickly, to hide his fumble. And he muttered, "I was only kidding." And with less enthusiasm than he had hoped to voice, he added, "I'm invested."

In answer to his excuse, she nodded, ruefully expressing her acceptance. For a moment he pondered whether she was thinking of opening up to him, or was she masking a fear of being involved, and was really ready to betray him. He had no hint. And since she had been so trained and conditioned, he knew she was entirely capable of filling in a DBR on him. She had surely forgotten the moments they had shared in their youth. If she did remember, her recollection would probably be little more than distant memories. And who would want to remember shameful and divergent behavior?

He wondered why he had even tried to show his true feelings. He had made an error. He hadn't become captain by making foolish mistakes. He wished he had never asked her the question. If she lacked all feeling for him, and filled out a DBR, he would end up in a retreat, or

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worse, he would be inflicted and stripped of rank — divested. He had seen others suffer more for less.

Twelve decimal hours (which was almost twenty-nine outer hours) after liftoff from Mars, James found himself sitting at a chessboard, squarely across from his opponent, Officer Ashley Brown. He really hadn't wanted to play, but if he had rejected her challenge, it might have given her more reasons to suspect him of divergence.

He generally won, but not always, and not this time. His mind was otherwise occupied; besides being generally disgusted with endless missions, he had been trying to understand Ashley. If her aggressive attack on the checkered board was any indication of how she felt about his personal disclosure, he could only surmise that she had no interest in him.

But he thought about her more than ever. What does life mean? For an outer, it's his woman and his family. Am I any different than an outer? I'm supposed to be. I'm invested — a captain in Alpha Force. But even as he reasoned within himself, it seemed to him that at best, life was a flavorless mush, and at worst, it was what mush became once eaten.

What if she does file a report? — James considered. She could betray me. She might even want my job? And if she files a DBR? They'll send me on a retreat and make me "rest" — he thought, sarcastically.

He glanced at her eyes, and they were glued solidly to the table.

Then he reconsidered — She won't file a report. I'm paranoid. He wondered — Maybe I do need a retreat. A vacation might be good. They'll send me far away to some distant place where there aren't any outers. But even as he sought to reconcile himself to the possibility of a forced repose, he became stuck on "far away" and "distant." Smith questioned — They always say it's to keep the Plan secret, but maybe it's because outers have answers?

He noticed her brush her hair back, and thought — I used to like those retreats. But now — he considered — they're obnoxious. You start

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The Jonah Factor

the day drinking a gallon of salted water, and then vomit up your morning mucus! "To cleanse your system," they said. It's revolting! — he told himself with a shiver. I probably need the rest. Maybe I should turn in my own request for leave. For a man accustomed to decisive action, he found himself repulsively tepid. He knew he should either get over her, or get out, but he found himself unwilling to do either, which added to his disgust.

"Checkmate," she gloated, as she concluded the trap she started seven moves earlier, and lifted her eyes to meet his, just as he glanced away.

He almost knocked the pieces off the board. Why do I feel like this? — he asked himself. I'm invested. Why can't I get my mind off of her? I'm too old for an infliction.

Standing, he almost left the game room in silence, but he knew he shouldn't act that way. He forced himself to speak to Ashley in the politeness of command. "I must go," he said and left the game room. DEEP 1 wasn't small, but it wasn't big enough for someone who wanted to get away from everything. There were six decks, used mostly for shipping. Automation made a small crew adequate. He would find a corner to himself.

Ashley noted how disgusted James had acted and asked herself — Is he like that because I beat him?

Not long after he left, Chief Nancy Jones, ship's engineer, with cool blue eyes, near shoulder-length blond hair curling slightly around her expressionless oval face, entered the game room. "Ashley, did you win?" she inquired.

Ashley knew she was beaming, feeling satisfied. On the board, the hopelessly mated king gave testimony to the reason for her cheerfulness. "I trapped him! You should've seen it."

"I see you won. Captain's game must be off?"

"Oh," she answered, feeling belittled. "The captain's game wasn't as good as mine," she clarified.

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"He's been acting strange, don't you think?"

Ashley nearly agreed, but measured her response, "Maybe a little unusual." She avoided saying "divergent," even if she thought it was the right word. After so many years of denying her own feelings to protect him, she didn't dare say anything to Jones that could harm the object of her adolescent fantasy, and who was now her captain, even if he did seem a little out of touch.

"A little `unusual,' " Jones answered, rolling her eyes. "You don't think he's being divergent? Shouldn't you fill out a DBR?"

"On who?" and she paused, as she asked, "You?" and then chuckled. Silence fell between them as their eyes met, and Ashley continued, "I'll consider your suggestion."

"I hope so. You know he spends a lot of time in cargo area 6. He sits there, staring … like … like he's empty."

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The Jonah Factor

Chapter 6




Compromised

Death is a shadow that always follows the body.

— English proverb (14th century)

Hours later, the next day — Between Mars and Earth

Lewis was checking the hyperdimensional drive and thinking about routine — his routine. Wonderful routine — he whined to himself, as if it was a curse. What would I do without it?

That particular thought would be his final one.

At 100,000 rpm, the spinning plasma inside the chamber looked absolutely still and harmless, just like Lewis had seen it thousands of times. Nothing but a brilliant white, almost bluish, ball of seemingly innocuous light that was suspended in thin air, as it were, or as it was supposed to be.

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What would happen during the following microseconds — between the time it took him to finish his silent soliloquy on the subject of routine and the time it would take him to routinely blink — began weeks before in Siberia when a defective polytitanium seal with a microscopic crack mistakenly passed inspection and made its way to one of the single most critical points in DEEP 1's drive unit. However, as often happens, the importance of the seal had been ignored, and it was not reexamined. It hadn't been identified as mission-critical, except in an obscure engineering addendum, lost nearly as soon as it had been published. Such an oversight soon ruined both the cold and high-temperature fusion reactors, not to mention Lewis's routine life and the status quo of the world at large.

A microscopic crack split into a canyon about the width of an insect wing and isotopic fuel leaked — first one drop, then another. No one noticed. It wasn't supposed to be happening on their flawless ship — not then, not ever. But the seal didn't care if contingency planning had been arranged to deal with the eventuality of its failure; it would fail anyway. With Lewis as the only spectator, the time for fireworks arrived. The sudden leak lowered the temperature, reduced the voltage, and caused a violent fluctuation in the field supporting the hyperdimensional plasma mass.

Lewis didn't stand a chance. The plasma crashed through the containment field, spinning faster than sound travels, and faster than he could think. When its outer surface was exposed to the air, it peppered, making a shrill whistle so high-pitched that even a dog's ear couldn't have heard it. However, the explosive, thunderous crash that instantly followed would have been audible, had Lewis lived long enough to hear it, but he was pinned to the floor, lifeless. By the time his eyes opened in a death stare, only milliseconds after the failure, DEEP 1 was doomed.

Alarms sounded and systems switched to battery power. Chief Nancy Jones rushed to Engineering, where she saw Lewis, charred and crushed. Before cooling to a harmless point, the plasma burnt through the reac

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tor frame and flew apart into thousands of burning pellets, each with torrid destructive power.

Hyperdrive shut down and the supercomputer became useless. Systems shifted to battery power and an automatic Mayday began sending all the remaining mission data — including complete reactor and mission telemetry — back to Earth. It would tell the grim story of their demise: byte by byte. In Novus Ordo they would know what had happened — exactly as it had transpired — albeit several minutes later.

Nothing could be done on the engineering deck. Nancy Jones realized that the craft was crippled. The fusion reactors were ruined and communication was impossible. She began to make her way back to the command deck. Lighting was low. Before she realized it, the two-minute backup for the artificial gravity ran out; there was a violent jolt. She began spinning wildly. Pain shot through her arm as she slammed into the corridor's white metallic wall; and though experiencing no gravitational force, she still had mass, and so did the wall. It took her a moment to collect her wits.

* * *

Novus Ordo

The technician, dark brown hair, something under six feet tall, with hazel eyes and a bushy mustache, moved about the control room, clipboard in hand, calculating resupply loads for Mars Base Aquarrian. He worked his way around the cramped area, checking to see that everything was in order.

Data from DEEP 1 had been normal, blandly routine, until now: It suddenly stopped. An alarm sounded, and an emergency transmission lit up the status board. On the monitor, this information appeared: MAYDAY, DEEP 1.

The technician's adrenaline rose. He lifted the handset, punched in a five-digit number, and with heart pounding, informed, "We're receiving an automatic Mayday from Unit 1."

"What information are you getting?" spoke a voice from the other end.

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"Negative!" he exclaimed.

"Get an analysis, NOW! I'll be right there," the supervisor barked from the other end of the line. He had a near Alpha Force physique, with blue eyes, but they were just a shade too dark to be a perfect example, a flaw that kept him from promotion. He thought to himself — This can't be happening. It must be a technical failure in the console. Nothing can go wrong with a DEEP.

He raced out of his habitation, a fairly comfortable living space, got on the electric vehicle that sat parked on the suboceanic street, and drove away towards DEEP Control as quickly as it would allow.

The design of vehicular passageways in Novus Ordo eliminated the need for stop signs and stoplights. In three minutes he reached Control and ran inside without bothering to park satisfactorily. "Have you gotten anything else?" he yelled, coming through the door.

"The high-temperature fusion reactor failed."

The supervisor began to perspire, as he thought — DEEP 1's the pride of the fleet. "Have we received any messages besides the automatic SOS?" he asked.

"None. Just what we had before it shut down."

Desperately, the supervisor wanted the computer to print out a message with an error, or something that would make sense out of the situation. He asked, "How long since the data stopped?"

"Four minutes."

The supervisor decided he had to inform his superior and picked up the handset. Punching a button, a long series of coded tones followed, and after several rings, he heard a response, "Yes."

"This is DEEP Control. We have a Mayday from Unit 1."

A moment of silence, perhaps indicating stunned disbelief, came from the other end. Finally Cosmokrator Weller asked, "What else do we know?"

"Very little. The high-temperature reactor failed and we've got an automatic Mayday, but nothing else. The Unit might be intact."

A sudden hush made the supervisor wonder if he had lost the connection.

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The Jonah Factor

"I want an uplink of everything as it comes in," Weller ordered.

"But sir, it stopped five minutes ago," the supervisor replied with unaccustomed gravity.

"NO DATA! What do you mean? NO DATA? How did you reach the conclusion the reactor failed?"

The supervisor explained, "The reading was part of the last transmission."

"A reactor failure shouldn't shut down emergency data?"

"Affirmative."

Weller shrouded his fright with a commanding tone, "But we're receiving a Mayday?"

"Affirmative."

Severity ripened in his reply, "Uplink what you've got."

"Affirmative." The supervisor could say little else.

* * *

DEEP 1

James Smith had been on one of the lower decks when the accident happened. Emergency systems considered the cargo area insignificant and cut it off. Attempting to return to Command, he had made some progress, but with difficulty. With the loss of artificial gravity, things floated and spun uncontrollably. Unexpectedly, as he floated in the darkness, he felt his shoulder and back dampen as he collided with a suspended glob of liquid. He continued drifting his way up the staircase, knowing the elevators were inoperable.

Ashley made it back to the helm and fastened herself to the seat before the artificial gravity quit. The sophisticated virtual panel had darkened and the keyboards were useless, since there wasn't any main super_computer, although they did have a few portables. She was having trouble with unidentified floating objects inside the cabin, and she was doing everything possible to oversee a situation that was beyond control.

She couldn't believe what was happening. Our machines are invincible — or so she had always thought. So much power and tech, but

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it's all futile. This can't be real! It's got to be a bad dream. It can't be happening. It's just some kind of advanced simulation.

Ashley had good reason to believe that there was a simple remediable mistake, or that there was a simple explanation. During the forty years that Ether Craft had been flying there had only been six disasters with fewer than one hundred deaths, making fatalities per kilometer lower for DEEPs than for any other kind of transportation. Doubts aside, she realized that super-tech could become a super-coffin.

Chief Jones arrived. Seeing her, Ashley questioned, "What happened?"

James also entered through the entrance to the bridge behind Nancy. The door wasn't automatic now, with the loss of power, and she had forcefully opened it. In the dim light, he looked like a bloody mess. Seeing his condition, Nancy pushed herself to his aid, and Ashley unbuckled. He was a horrid sight. The chief helped him pull back his jumpsuit, expecting to find a terrible wound, but the captain was not injured. Ashley examined the mysterious red substance. It wasn't blood.

James, looking startled, said, "It's nothing. Just something I floated into in the dark."

They laughed together, and Ashley wondered if she sounded as nervous to the others as they did to her.

During the next few minutes, other crew members floated in. Jones reported that the engineering technician had died.

"Eleven survivors!" Smith announced with finality, as if that's the way it would be, and nothing more would go wrong. Then he quizzed, "What about our oxygen?"

Ashley replied, "There's no way to know for sure, but we should have enough for the next four hours. By then we'll be close to Earth."

Jones began severely, "There's no time to repair the reactor. It would take weeks of work."

Ashley saw the look on everyone's face as Jones's words took hold. She wondered if her own face looked as distraught as the others. James, however, didn't appear to be shaken. And Nancy's expression was also

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The Jonah Factor

calm, but everyone else looked as if they'd just been ordered to stand forward for a compound infliction.

"Tell us our options?" Smith investigated.

Jones began slowly, and pronounced "RSBs," saying the "R," then the "S," and finally "Bees," as if they stung. She spoke of Reentry Survival Bubbles. They improved the odds for survival in an accident like the one they had just experienced. An RSB was made of multipolymer-aluminum3-polyasbestos, and each one was kept in a backpack the size of a large suitcase. Every DEEP carried sufficient RSBs to give passengers and crew one last desperate chance.

Smith turned his eyes to Randy, the computer officer, and asked, "What do we have left?"

"Battery-powered portable systems, but no supercomputer," was his terse reply. Randy had a studious look that befitted his office.

Smith continued, "Do we know where we are? What about our last course correction?"

Ashley saw the answers before Randy even answered — his face said it all. "We've lost everything. Our watches and the stars are all that we have," he responded with a forced solemnity that was betrayed as nervous anxiety by a higher than usual key in his voice.

They all knew that DEEP travel at ten million kilometers per hour demanded precision a watch couldn't give.

Randy continued, "If our last in-flight course correction was made correctly, and the explosion didn't change anything, we should still be headed right towards the belly button."

Randy's demeanor irritated Ashley, and she asked incisively, "What's that mean?"

"The equator," he replied, and then concluded, "RSBs only need forty feet of water, so it looks as though we should have a good chance. Earth is seventy percent water, and most of it's around the equator. We should have about seven chances in ten."

"Of what?"

"Survival."

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Before the Apocalypse — Kepler Nigh

"So, can you come up with an estimated reentry point and RSB trajectory?" Smith quizzed.

"I'll do my best."

"Get on it, then," Captain Smith ordered, and faced the communications officer and asked, "White, do you have any way to get a message back to DEEP Control?"

"Captain," he replied, "everything's dead. Maybe the emergency Mayday is working, but that won't help us now. We're too close, and without communication and some way to steer, at our speed, a rescue would be impossible."

Smith ordered the chief and two others back to Engineering to see if they could ascertain what had caused the disaster. This would be important information back on Earth, if they made it home. Then he ordered Ashley, and some of the crew, to come with him to find the RSBs. Tediously they made their way using emergency lighting. Because of overall DEEP reliability, they hadn't trained much in weightlessness, a fact they now regretted, some of them expressing their regret with a rapid emptying of their stomach's contents and words that epitomized their explicit opinions as related to their current situation. James, however, performed the job of captain perfectly, and made Ashley ashamed of her having even considered writing up a DBR and reporting him.

They advanced to within a few yards of one of the storage areas where a third of the craft's RSBs were stored. Its door was jammed, and there was a sea of floating debris. A survey of the havoc made it clear that it would be a formidable task to get inside, and could prove impossible under the circumstances. To get the RSBs would certainly take more time than they had.

"Shall we try deck 6?" White asked.

"It's too close to Engineering, and damage will be heavy. We'll go back to deck 2," Smith directed.

Initially they had skipped deck 2 because it didn't have an air lock, but with 6 in a ruin, and 4 blocked off, 2 was their best, and only, option.

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Gone was the normal low-level hum emanating from Engineering. Ashley knew it had been more of a feeling than a sound, but in the profound silence that followed the disaster, the noise of the crew breathing, with the racket made by their movements, was deafening.

Reaching their goal, Ashley helped crank open the emergency hydraulic door, which seemed as if it had an attitude about opening, sluggishly revealing what it hid. Having worked up a bit of a sweat, when the door was fully opened, Ashley floated back, and Captain Smith passed through first. "There it is," he said as he pointed.

They floated in front of the storage door and again, with renewed vigor, Ashley and a member of the crew continued working on the second entrance until it opened. It was a good way to get her aerobics for the day.

"What a beautiful sight!" she exclaimed, as the door opened enough for her to get a glimpse.

Neatly stowed away were forty RSBs. Each one was complete with a distillery, dried food, a hunting knife, a first-aid kit, and various miniature electronic devices, including a transceiver and a PLOT (Portable LOcator Tablet, which was an advanced mapping Global Positioning Satellite System — better than anything the Pentagon had dreamed of). Each pack had a total Earth weight of 275 kilograms (about 720 pounds).

Everyone took two backpacks each, but James grappled three. Ashley wondered how he did it; she could hardly wrestle her pair. Never had their brilliant scarlet and purple uniform jumpsuits looked so dull in Ashley's eyes. Even the bright reflective gold-colored packs, that under other circumstances would have made her think of a sunrise, brought to her numb mind a picture of goldfish in murky water. Movement was tedious. To return to Command took effort and time.

James had managed to juggle the three RSB packs he brought. Despite the difficulty, though, he decided to carry on in hopes that his example would encourage the crew. Seeing Ashley's face concerned him. She looked scared. Probably not as grave as the others, but she was an of

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Before the Apocalypse — Kepler Nigh

ficer, and needed to be an example. Although, as he thought about it, he had no idea what his own expression was like, he hoped it was sure and confident, worthy of his station.

As soon as he came through the door of the bridge, still pushing the packs that he'd tied together, Randy gave him the news, "Captain, there's a reentry window in the Pacific, but I don't know if we can hit it."

"Keep working on it," Smith instructed. "How much time do we have left?"

"About two hours."

"Do we have anything from Engineering?"

"It seems to be too early; they're probably working on moving things around to find out what happened."

Smith ordered White, with another crew member, to go see what was happening.

After he settled for a moment, James remembered the myth of Jonah in a fish's belly. He wondered, with a muted chuckle, if his plasma had fallen through the core.

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The Jonah Factor

Chapter 7


Outrage

Even on the most exalted throne in the world we are only sitting on our own bottom.

— Michel de Montaigne

That same day — Earth

It was prominently displayed on one of the walls of a dimly lit room — a plaque that hung against paneled mahogany. Its dedicatory, which was written in calligraphy upon a gold plate, read, "In Memory of Sir Geoffrey Higgins, Honored Cosmokrator, Distinguished Chairman of TerraNova…." Beneath the plaque there was a plush conference table, and sitting at its head in his penthouse in New York, Irving J. Stonefell — with tight lips and narrow dark brown eyes — occupied the position that had belonged to Higgins. Stonefell had been holding the office for more than twenty years. He wore a tailored black cashmere suit with a

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Before the Apocalypse — Kepler Nigh

maroon silk tie. His multifaceted-diamond-studded tie clasp dazzled, even in the somber light.

Stonefell was participating in a virtual meeting with the other Cosmokrator who comprised the Committee of TerraNova. He could see them as 3-D holographic images and it looked as if he was sitting with them at the same table. Each one was a powerful titan of finance whose personal wealth surpassed that of the richest nations. The other nine portrayals came from London, Paris, Toronto, Rome, Bonn, Brussels, Amsterdam, Tokyo, and Novus Ordo.

One of the ten, Karl Rennedy, sitting at his table in Toronto, said, "Irving, I'm confident I don't have to tell you the danger of our present situation." For a second the animated replica shimmered, as though it was projected on a breeze-swept sheet, and then continued, "DEEP 1 is hurtling towards a crash of monumental proportions somewhere over the equator." Rennedy's voice and partially wrinkled face graphically registered his unease. His wide, partially turned-up nose was the object of caricatures by newspaper cartoonists.

An image of Unit 1's trajectory appeared in all the conference rooms on large video display panels.

Cosmokrator Hans Weller, who was dressed casually, spoke from his office in Novus Ordo: "It looks like we need to get our people in Ecuador moving." He raised his right hand to his temple in a pensive gesture; his blue eyes were sullen and reddened after hours of surveying his computer's liquid ion display.

Hans was the youngest of the ten Cosmokrator and the only Aryan. He was the son of a former German SS officer, Dietrich, who had served at the highest levels under Hitler and had been a Cosmokrator during Novus Ordo's final phase of construction. Before Dietrich was appointed to the Committee, he had been its principal interlocutor with the Third Reich. By war's end, he had disappeared with some of his colleagues and allowed the famous ODESSA files to fall into the hands of the Mosad, whose agents eliminated the remaining SS officers who might have embarrassed TerraNova. Hans was born in the early fifties, when Novus Ordo first began operations.

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"Do we have a fix on what caused the disaster?" Stonefell asked, fastidiously raising his brow.

Weller, having completed his own investigation of the data, and proud of himself for having discovered the cause, responded with smug satisfaction, "A polytitanium seal failed and ..."

Stonefell cut in, "Weller, you mean this horrible catastrophe was caused by a piece of synthetic metal no bigger than a button?"

Weller, clearing his throat, continued just as if he hadn't been interrupted, "… the plasma not only destroyed the ship's fusion reactor, but it stopped their communications. The emergency data we received were sent back to us with their automatic Mayday, and that's how we know what happened. But the crew — if any of them are still alive — probably don't know what caused the reactor accident. It looks like they're going to crash in South America, maybe near the city of Quito, Ecuador."

Irving was overcome with disbelief and fury, especially because the pompous blue-eyed brat had snubbed him. "Excuse me," he spoke, while locking his eyes on the kid's laser picture, "you said it was because of a three-millimeter polytitanium seal?" Stonefell enunciated his words with disdainful inflection on "excuse me" and conspicuous belittlement on the word "you." And he thought — I know some words I'd rather use, but we must keep a higher consciousness.

Weller replied with a hushed chuckle, "That's the most reliable information we have." He knew Stonefell was hot under the collar, which gave him some amusement, but he also knew the unwritten rule — no defamation, but rather, a facade of mutual respect.

"What do you know about the seal?" Stonefell inquired with his lips and eyes moving in subtle mockery, while considering — It was a mistake to have made Hans a Cosmokrator. True, Dietrich was intelligent, but perverse (a thought that made Stonefell smile inwardly) — and Hans is a chip off the old block. But maybe he's been given too much authority too soon — he's so young. I despise him, but he's needed. None of us oldsters can run the computers as he can. I have to

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give Dietrich credit; his boy's a technical genius. How could we ever get along without Hans? All of those "cyber-something" words and the technical jargon — we're too old for that. We can recruit computer people, but to have one of our own, right here on the Committee, isn't easy. I'll just have to keep Hans in line.

"The seals were supplied by NHMI's Siberian factory," Weller answered. He spoke of New Horizon Multinational Industries.

"This is deplorable!" Cyril Cyzack steamed. He was in Brussels and the supercomputer provided simultaneous translation of his native Dutch. Stonefell had often been tempted to comment on his porkish physiognomy, but kept it to himself. Cyzack continued, "The seals are easily checked and they have never failed before. There are over two thousand of them on every Unit, aren't there?"

Stonefell roared, "What does all of this mean: Negligence? Sabotage? What are we dealing with?"

From the City of London, Lord Mallory Watkins, who was tall and thin and had the features of a wise old owl, with a full head of distinguished gray hair — a man who carried his office well — began to reason, "Negligence is the only possible explanation. Those who manufacture the seals are far removed from those who know what they are used for, and NHMI has absolutely no idea what they are making," he surmised, with characteristic British inflection, while lowering his golden-framed bifocals to the table.

It was Stonefell, Weller, and Watkins who routinely dominated most Committee meetings. Not that the other participants weren't important, but the three were the members of greatest influence, and had in their charge a substantial portion of the daily operations of TerraNova.

"Are we reaching a consensus that NHMI is responsible for the accident, and has provided defective components?" Irving questioned with thinly veiled hostility.

About the table, there were several nods of agreement.

Watkins, with unusual frustration in his voice, explained, "Quality control on the seal is simple, and every one of them should have been

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examined. Defective units always show up, but that is dealt with routinely. The rejects are identified by a simple holographic projection, and if there had been any microscopic fissures, the flaw should have been found. Human error is surely to blame." Then, pausing, he added with gravity, "It seems likely they have given us a bad batch. There could be more defective seals ready to fail at any time."

"But in the last forty years we've used hundreds of thousands, and this is the first one we know that's failed before regular maintenance. Perhaps the other seals won't fail," Weller defended.

Watkins emphasized his view, "True, Herr Weller, but a DEEP is an expensive item. You must note, not only does the safety of our DEEPs depend on this particular seal, but imagine replacing Novus Ordo, or Mars Base, or one of our other installations! I dare say, we can't afford to take any chances. What if a reactor fails while a Unit is passing through an entrance siphon? The consequences would be devastating. The power of fusion can't be allowed to escape our control. DEEP 1's incident is tame if measured against what could have happened."

In Tokyo, Heroshi Fujusha — Asiatic, short in stature and round of face, said, "These seals are so important they should undergo double inspection. The ones that are in use should be immediately inspected also." He spoke English well and lived in Tokyo, and owned much of it.

Watkins judiciously insisted on the earlier topic, "Gentlemen, our fleet is going to be inoperable until each one of the seals undergoes inspection. I should say, with upwards of two thousand of the little devils to scrutinize in every Unit, we will be at this for some time. Weller, what does your computer tell you on that one?"

Already anticipating the question, he answered, "I've given orders to begin inspection. Our best estimates show that we'll have the first Unit operational in six days, but it will be forty days before we're back to full strength. It will take at least six days of nonstop work by Engineering to inspect just one." He inwardly thought that it would be a waste to stop all DEEP flights. He reasoned — When one plane crashes,

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you don't ground all of them. But then again, planes and airports are cheap compared to a DEEP, or worse, a spaceport. An occasional incident — like Roswell — can be beneficial. We're still getting good publicity from that one. But you can't control accidents, and as Watkins says — making a new spaceport would really set us back. So it's best to ground them. Then, being convinced in his own mind, he replied, "It's painful, but I have to agree with Watkins — we'll have to ground the fleet. We have no way of knowing how many defective seals have been placed in service. "

Enraged, Stonefell jumped to his feet and slammed a fist on the mahogany table, the image of his head partially disappearing from view. His sudden outburst startled the rest. After a moment of silence, it seemed that Irving was too angry to speak, so the others broke into a rush of expression and intense conversation. Several paired off and some thrashed it out across the table. Finally, after a minute or so, Irving called for order. As he stood, his fuzzed white hair on his balding head disappeared from view in the holographic projections in the other conference rooms.

Watkins, seeing the "scalped" chairman, thought — He needs to have his viewer adjusted. And then he judged — Perhaps not. The angle does seem to flatter him.

"Six days!" Stonefell exclaimed. "Six days might as well be forever! How can this be happening? In six days we could lose the Soviet Union. That would be a major setback. Gorbachev will be — " but Stonefell's tongue refused to say more. He couldn't get it out — it was too grim.

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The Jonah Factor

Chapter 8

In the Whale's Belly

Electronic neutering of Alpha Force personnel is essential. We cannot have them making babies in space. By short-circuiting selected emotions and reflexes, using our sophisticated bioprocessors, we will obtain the type of control required for this purpose. If we decide to allow them to reproduce in the future, we need only shut down their processors. This should be much more effective than castration, giving us the option of directing their reproductive desires and allowing us control of racial purity.

— Dietrich Weller, in a communiqué to Dr. Himmler

Bioprocessors function well in the elimination of erotic impetus, and so long as Alpha Force troops have functioning implants with intelligent nerve pulse blockage, they will be unable to accomplish reproduction. Other complex emotions and their reflexes, such as crying and tears, love, hate, and rebellion cannot be controlled by our implants. We have achieved some control in these areas by conditioning. Using implanted electronic shock, infliction, we can create far more pain for the subject than by using traditional methods of corporal

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punishment: No ugly bruises are left and the subject responds to discipline quickly. With approximately ten inflictions, a child will be programmed for the rest of his life. Unfortunately it is likely that without our supervision, most Alpha Force troops will experience and react to the entire emotional gamut. I therefore recommend constant observation.

— Dr. Josef Himmler, in a report to Dietrich Weller

"Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights."

— The Hebrew Bible

That same day — Between Mars and Earth


Engineering's door
had already been cranked open manually, and White, with his companion right behind, came floating through.

Chief Jones hadn't expected them. "What do you boys think you're doing?" she asked with vexation in her voice.

They gazed on the ruins for the first time. With an obscenity, White blurted out, "Look what's happened!"

The other began to explain, "From back there it looked as if you could be in some trouble."

"We do have some trouble," Jones replied sarcastically. "But we can't find a sign of what went wrong. I'm guessing the problem started in the low-temperature reactor and caused the high-temperature one to fail, but I can't tell for sure."

White, the communications officer, could see why he hadn't been able to get a message out. An abysmal hole, two feet in diameter, showed where the plasma had penetrated Engineering's floor and boiled the EWB transceiver. "Who'd've believed it!" he exclaimed. "If the transceiver hadn't been there, the plasma would've melted its way into space."

"And I'd be as dead as poor Lewis, floating with him in ice-cold space," Nancy reflected. They looked and saw the badly charred re

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mains drifting in morbid posture. It wasn't a pleasant sight. If he had felt terror, his face never had time to show it. No one had bothered to close his eyes for eternal rest, leaving their fixed gaze to witness the swiftly approaching incineration of DEEP 1. His final cremation, began by the accident, would terminate with the destruction of the Unit, and wouldn't even leave any ash. None would mourn him, except there would perhaps be a minute of silence at Aquarrian, if they ever found out.

"Captain Smith sent us to see what was going on, and to see if you need help," White offered.

"No," Jones began, "we might as well get back. There's nothing here. It's too big of a mess."

White noted, "On Earth they probably know more than we do."

"They have the data, but it would've been good to take the blasted thing, whatever it was, back for study," Jones said with a sigh.

"I'm glad this old bird is so well built. That plasma was ten thousand degrees, and could have burnt right out into space." White said, as if he was thinking aloud.

They shook their heads in agreement and drifted, propelling themselves up through the stairwell.

White added, "We still haven't made it out of this mess."

***

Randy and Ashley, with the others who were back at Command, had started what was rapidly becoming a heated conversation. Randy commented, while staring at the numbers, "It's going to be tricky. I'm not sure we'll survive the initial impact with the upper atmosphere. We could glance off, like a rock skipping across water. If we hit a land mass, nothing can save us; we'll be flattened."

Ashley asked, "Can we do something to slow down?"

Randy looked at her, "What do you think? You know we have decelerators."

She snapped back, "Yeah, a black box, and no one even knows if it works! It's just old-fashioned physics — trying to make a flying blob

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into some kind of stratocruiser. It doesn't even have hyperdimensional capability. How could it work?"

James heard the incisiveness in her response, and quickly ordered, "Let's calm down."

"Okay. Fine!" Ashley responded harshly, as she looked into Smith's eyes, and then dropped her head.

Indeed — James considered — she should be scared. Decelerators aren't foolproof. He knew they depended on a miniature computer connected to powerful micromotors. By changing the length of the straps, the form of the individual survival unit, which was shaped like a large bubble when inflated, could be controlled; it could be made into a glider for reentry. An RSB didn't look like something you would want to trust with your life.

James was beginning to think that his confrontation with Ashley had calmed things down, but then Randy started, "So, what if we don't make it? We'll be fulfilling our karma, right? We'll be reincarnated?"

Despite his own reservations about survival, he was captain and this was the time to act as such. He touched Randy on his shoulder and ordered, "Calm down! Let's get back to work; we're going to make it."

James surprised himself. He felt conviction in his words, even if he wasn't sure he believed them himself. He had entered hero mode: running on training and programming, and he absolutely couldn't allow his crew the luxury of getting out of control — not as long as they had any chance of survival. So he instructed, "RSBs are designed to brake to terminal velocity. They should withstand a direct atmospheric hit." He spoke with all the conviction he could muster. "If we return at night, we'll look like a small meteor shower," Smith said. He could see that his words were effective, maybe because he momentarily felt that they really did have a chance.

He noticed that Chief Jones had arrived seconds before, and had been listening. He watched her position herself where she could see Randy and Ashley, and then she added to his pep talk, "Soon after we splash down they'll send a DEEP for us."

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The Jonah Factor

Ashley began to laugh, "You reminded me of a joke."

"What joke?" Randy asked contemptuously.

"About the airborne recruit."

James began hoping that she wouldn't ruin the calm he had achieved.

"What about him?" another of the crew asked, making the dialogue uneasy.

She laughed, and glanced at James, as she said, "A recruit, back in the old days, when they didn't take IQ tests, found himself preparing to jump for the first time. The lieutenant yelled out instructions: `Come up, jump, count four, and the parachute will open. If it doesn't, pull the safety cord. Once you're on the ground there'll be trucks waiting to pick you up.' The moment came. Reluctantly, and with a push, he went out, counted four, and nothing happened. He found the safety cord, pulled, and nothing happened. After thinking about it, he said, `Uh huh, `dem trucks wouln't be ther' eyeder!' "

James thought it was a sick joke, but seeing that everyone had laughed, he joined in. He was glad she told it, even if the message wasn't inspiring. He would take advantage of the moment of levity to organize their next effort. He began, "I'm glad to see you're back. We have the RSBs. What did you find down in Engineering?"

"Nothing. Back on Earth they probably know more than we do. There's too much damage down there to tell anything," Nancy answered.

Smith directed himself to Randy, "How much time do we have left?"

"Two more hours."

"Good, we can get down to deck 4 and clear a path to the airlock. It shouldn't be too hard," Smith instructed.

A little later they entered deck 4, RSBs on their backs, and quickly cleared the way to the airlock. The floating debris that had been blocking the RSB storage area were still there, but fortunately the way to the airlock itself was mostly clear, which had been his reason for choosing

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that deck. Once they were in position, he ordered, "Jones, activate emergency battery power."

Nancy approached the small panel beside the airlock and inserted the emergency key. With a quarter turn, it began to whine, but the sound quickly lowered to a murmur, and the entrance light came on. She pressed a button on the panel that activated RSB ejection mode.

"Randy, give me the coding," she requested.

He drifted over and began to read the information from his handheld computer. She keyed it in. If everything worked out perfectly, based on Randy's best calculation, they would splash down safely in the Pacific, between Hawaii and Galapagos, and would be spread out across hundreds of miles of ocean. But they had no way to know for sure. He had taken measurements from the stars, and confirmed they were probably on course, but at ten million kilometers per hour, even the best measurements can have a significant error, and in that error rested their life, or their death.

Chief Jones diligently keyed in the long series of numbers, knowing that one mistake could ruin everything. James could see the tension as all eyes watched her during fifteen unending minutes, until she and Randy finished.

She explained, "If something is wrong, Randy spread us out — to give us our best gamble."

James thought, with a hidden snicker — That really inspires confidence, Jones. So he added, "Randy's not going to dump us just anywhere. He's going to be flying one too."

Taking his cue from the captain, Randy advised, "We'll begin ejections in twenty-six minutes. There'll be one every four minutes. That means you'll have to get into your RSB, enter the airlock, and connect to the pressurization valve, quickly. The rest will be automatic. When it reaches the preprogrammed time, the airlock will open and release you."

It was clear they would have to keep moving to make it through on schedule. Seeing that his people were ready, Smith commanded, "Suit up."

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The Jonah Factor

Each troop opened his or her pack and removed the RSB — unfolding it and finding the bag's body-sized orifice (the electroseal) — which was a long slit in the material, giving it a "mouth." They would then float inside, opening the material as they went, to make enough space for them in the enclosure. The large bags looked grossly crumpled, like crushed aluminum foil. In the dim emergency light, their aspect was similar to large floating raisins with pale, wrinkled skins.

"There should be enough battery power for everyone to get out," Nancy said. "We designed it for fifty uses," she added, pulling her clipboard to herself and lifting her head.

Running the airlock was her job, so James didn't intervene. She began ordering each troop into the chamber. One of the technicians would be first, an inconsequential honor. Any of them could live or die; and there was no way to know if changing their order would help. They began ejecting, one after another.

Chief Jones would eject next to last. First Officer Brown would precede her. In the chain of command, Brown was higher, but protocol required the chief to operate the airlock. However, Smith, as captain, could position himself as he desired; he chose to be the last one to abandon the ship.

Through one of the tiny observation ports, Smith watched the ejections. Jones stared through another port as the bubbles, one after the other, inflated from crumpled cocoons into stunning globes.

The crew's escape proceeded quickly, until only the captain, Jones, and Brown (whose turn it now was) were left. As the airlock door sealed behind her, with a lump in his throat, James called behind her, "Ashley, see you on Earth."

Obscured inside the folded RSB, she showed a fleeting smile the instant before she was closed inside and she forcefully called out, "The trucks will be waiting!"

"The trucks will be waiting," James shouted back in affirmation, and after getting a glimpse of Ashley, he glanced at Nancy, who appeared unaware of everything except her control panel.

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He continued watching Ashley's progress into the airlock, feeling an increasing sense of doom as she maneuvered farther inside. When she reached the dual pressurization valve, he watched as she deliberately pushed the RSB connector (which she held from inside) onto its mate, while supporting herself against the wall. The large dual connector latched onto the valve. Liquid insulation began to rush into the outer shell of the RSB.

Ashley had one last glimpse of James through the electroseal before it energized. Her captain waved good-bye. He looked solemn and serene. Just hours before, she had questioned his competence, but when their situation had disintegrated, he had demonstrated his leadership. But she knew that she hadn't kept her composure. She felt crushed. With a lump in her throat, a tear escaped from the corner of her eye just before the electroseal hermetically closed her inside the RSB. Her tear happened so suddenly she wasn't able to keep James from noticing. She saw that his expression, which had conveyed firm assurance, dissolved into turbid anxiety almost as fast as her tear had fallen.

She knew that if their conditioners saw them acting this way, they would send them back for an infliction, or perhaps for an adjustment to their bioprocessors. Had the conditioners been condemned to what could be certain death in an RSB, they would have shed more than a tear, she was sure. She could imagine them trembling and unable to move, but her lone tear hadn't been motivated by fear. Rather, she felt like a failure — empty. And there was one other feeling: loneliness. It filled her as she thought — I'll miss him. This is the end. I'll never see him again. There won't be any trucks: It was a bad joke. I'll burn up. And then his name came to her — James. In that moment, she looked at him and thought — This will be the last face I see. In that moment the tear had slipped from her eye.

Inside the RSB, Ashley reflected — What's wrong with me? She took control of herself for a moment and thought — I'll have to cry later.

Dramatic transformation of her RSB began as the air, rich in oxygen, flowed in through the valve and forced the bubble to inflate. She

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The Jonah Factor

heard a rushing sound as the cooling liquid gushed into the unit's outer layer. An emergency light mounted on her helmet allowed her to see the suspension straps coming together, crossing above, as though they were making a gigantic series of intersecting webs. In their center they held a harness and a suit. They were completing a system that would allow the decelerator (a "black box," which in this case contained a small but powerful computer) to control her flight. Floating upwards, she slipped into the suit and into the straps that held her, suspended, in the bubble's center. She glanced at her watch; only forty seconds were left.

Having taken one more look to be sure everything was in place, without anything floating, she checked again to confirm that she was securely strapped in the harness. Inside the globe, she began to feel an eerie solitude. Abruptly, there was a metallic sound that snapped as if she was inside a large drum. The decelerator box — using a fusion battery for power — had turned on the electrorigidization field between the outer and inner shells of the RSB. Her watch indicated fifteen more seconds when she turned off her emergency light to conserve power. She began a countdown in her head. Three…. Two…. One….

The large door on the airlock opened to the chill of space. She could only imagine what it must have looked like, since RSBs don't have windows. First, there was a whoosh, followed by silence, and the elegant sphere, twenty-six feet in diameter, moved gracefully and majestically away from the black derelict DEEP 1.

James moved away from the viewing port — annoyed. Ashley's tear! He remembered all the tears they had forbidden him. He had been a good boy, overall, and they had only inflicted him a few times, but he remembered his tears of loneliness, and the times he had silently cried himself to sleep. He remembered his many fears and feelings of insecurity. Was he any better off than an outer?

They had always told them that their bioelectromechanical enhancements made Alpha Force invincible. But just then, facing death by

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cremation in an RSB, he decided — When it comes to death, we're all alike, we and outers too, like moths in a candle's flame. And worse, seeing her tear, he remembered his shame and he was angered by it. But for some reason, he felt especially angry with Ashley. Perhaps it was because her tear caused him to remember. To remember holding her. To remember infliction. To remember pain. To remember …

Then he realized that Chief Jones was trying to get his attention. When he became aware, he saw her smugly turn and float into the airlock in her RSB. When it recycled, and the display indicated that it was ready, Jones began to connect.

By now, however, James was just barely able to function — overwhelmed by the futility of fighting a losing battle — but he would continue to do his duty. He took his place at the control panel. The chief said nothing as she gave him one last look — her face was empty of emotion. The whole system was automatic and he only had to watch. In moments she was ready, and soon after, she ejected.

Only James remained, alone in the ruins of what had once been one of the Skotoi's glorious DEEPs. He had barely evacuated his crew, but now, the full force of his shame overcame him as he remembered Ashley's tear. Shame churned inside of him and engrossed him, carrying him into profound depression. He asked himself why Ashley's tear bothered him so much, but he didn't have any answer, except that it did.

"Two minutes until ejection …" the computer advised. It was as if his "plasma" fell through his own "core." "One minute until ejection …" Maybe I should go down with the ship like the captains of old? "Thirty seconds …" It was as if his bioprocessor was canceling the wrong reflexes — he just floated there. "Enter airlock now," but James didn't react. He had withdrawn into himself. His mind raced as he thought — I'll probably die in the RSB, so why don't I just go down with the ship. And he remembered Ashley. Her tear kept tormenting him. I hate her! — he told himself, as he felt her still shunning him, like all the rest. Remembering her cruel joke, he told himself — RSBs are a false hope. She won't make it. They're all lost. What's the use? I'll die here.

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The Jonah Factor

The computer gave another warning. For a moment the voice of his mind was silent. He ached. The control panel began to emit a warning. He told himself — It's pointless. There's no reason to eject. I can just die here. Besides, if I live through the RSB ride, they'll probably blame me for the loss of the DEEP. It's better to die here than to go back for an infliction.

"Ejection delayed! Ejection delayed one second …" spoke the computer's voice.

Self-pity, shame, hate, and now, fear of infliction kept him still. He began to think about Ashley — She's got to make it! Then he thought — But if she makes it and I don't, they'll inflict her. She won't make it, though. She'll die. It's impossible. An RSB is useless. But she's got to make it! I don't want her to die. So why do I want to die? If I want her to live, shouldn't I want to live too? What did her tear mean? Did it mean that she was going to miss me? Or was she just scared? The mortal conflict warring within him was like petal picking while doing a she-loves-me, she-loves-me-not, until reaching the last petal, but when picked, along with an answer, everything would blow up.

"Ejection delayed three seconds," voiced the computer.

Then there was another voice — not the computer's, and there wasn't anyone else. It really wasn't audible, but just seemed that way. It said, "Escape. You're going to live."

Like a slap on the face, the voice brought him back to his senses. He moved desperately towards the airlock, impelling himself with cool fury; his wits were restored. He latched the RSB's connectors onto the supply tubes and the door of the air lock sealed.

"Ejection delayed seven seconds" were the last words he heard from the computer. Air and insulation liquid poured into the outer shell of the bubble, drowning out the alarm.

He knew that his delay had made Randy's calculations useless. Seven seconds could have been eternity. His life, or death, now depended on the whims of chance, or the Skotoi, or the gods, or something: perhaps fate — whatever that was. But he knew — it was the inner voice that had started him moving. Maybe it was my imagination — he

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pondered — but it really doesn't matter: I'm a dead man floatin' in a flying coffin.

The RSB transformed itself into a large bubble. James readied himself, slipping into the suspension unit. But it wasn't fully inflated and he had to wait a while longer — for what seemed like hours.

Tugging gently, the harnesses pulled lightly against him as the bubble was pushed out into space. Darkness was all around him. He remembered one field trip when, as a youth, he had gone caving. He remembered the teacher told them to stand still and turn off their lights so they could see real darkness. How deep it was! Now space, in all of its immensity, surrounded his RSB, and inside his lonely sphere he closed his eyes and gloom encompassed him.

He only had thirty-eight decimal minutes left before reaching Earth. James's mind raced. He had heard it said that in the moment of death one's life passed before them. If true — he thought — I'm a dead man! Forget that dumb voice. I won't live.

One of his memories was the silly story of Jonah and the whale. He asked himself — Am I in a whale's belly? He chuckled, and noted that something had made him laugh. The Jonah message was so insane. Why had he bothered to pay attention to it? But now, as he pushed the envelope of death, the tract's common newsprint stood out vividly in his memory.

James didn't have time to remember much more — his RSB slammed into Earth's outer atmosphere. The roar intensified. He felt the suspension suit and the entire RSB react to gravitational and aerodynamic forces. Its shape changed into a glider. It would partially orbit while the decelerator attempted to force it into the lower atmosphere and slow it down without killing its occupant, and without losing control and flying back out into space. However, it had already dropped his speed to a mere one hundred twenty-five miles per second. Not a bad start, but it would have to do a lot better.

Fighting G-forces, James fluttered between consciousness and unconsciousness. If it hadn't been for his implants, which aided his circulation and his heart, he would have been senseless.

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