The Last Human (a novel)
Modernizes THE LAST MAN by Mary Shelley and relocates her war to near-future Mesopotamia. A biowar agent gets loose. Humanity gradually succumbs.
The Last Human By Tom Slattery A Novel Derived From the 1826 Novel The Last Man, By Mary Shelley, Also Author of Frankenstein Author's Preface I began writing the screenplay adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man in 1989, before the first Iraq War. I finished a first draft in 1990 and received a copyright certificate for it then. Since 1990 when I finished it there have been two Iraq Wars, and my story modernizations and alterations seem eerily prescient. In 1989 I had found a 1920s Royal typewriter thrown away at the curb for the weekly city rubbish collection. It was a quaint little piece of history, a typewriter manufactured with a small beveled glass window on each side. It had belonged to a retired English teacher who had just died and it had never been used. The rubber roller was pristine with not even the slightest indentation from a typewriter key striking it. Moreover, it had a 12-point typeface so necessary for screenplays. My old typewriter had a 10-point typeface. So I decided to write a screenplay. Never having adapted a novel to a screenplay, I first adapted my short science fiction to learn how to do it. Then I tackled Mary Shelley's difficult early nineteenth century Gothic novel. My intention in 1989, when there was no Internet as we now know it, was not to write a novel plagiarizing Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man. I was interested in expanding popular awareness of the story by writing a screenplay that would hopefully become a film. In 1989 I had just finished writing the initial version of my novel End of the Road. It would be two years before I would be discouraged by themes central to that novel appearing in the ABC-TV series "My Life and Times" and thus to some extent diminishing its value. This is not to say anyone "stole" my material. It just happened that the material was similar. Several years later I would find that the Dreamworks film "Evolution" was terribly similar to my short story and short screenplay "The Spore." At very least I was creating stories so timely and interesting that conspicuously similar ones were being produced for the small and big screens. No matter what the reasons for the similarity between the ABC-TV series "My Life and Times" and my novel and screenplay "End of the Road," it banished my compunctions about using other writers' material and ideas. Everything that I had written up until then had been wholly my own. Now I felt somewhat free of that. I thought that by adapting and modernizing Mary Shelley's 1826 novel The Last Man I might eventually allow a wide-ranging and large movie going audience to become familiar with her fascinating, but by our time quaint, early nineteenth century Gothic yarn. So I dug into the screenplay adaptation and modernization with that kind of naïve enthusiasm. Many writers had transformed or modernized Mary Shelley's more famous novel Frankenstein over the years. It did not seem unethical for me to do the same with The Last Man. After finishing the first draft of my modernization in 1990, I tried for years to sell it — sell in the broadest sense of the word, meaning to get it produced as a film even if I might get little or no money. I even had a Writers Guild agent trying for a while. Some in the movie production community showed genuine interest and one or two suggested that they might buy it. I changed the title to a more intelligible The Last Human. But no one, in any sense of the word, actually bought it. In 2007, still with a urge to have this fascinating early nineteenth century yarn more widely known, I decided to take my screenplay and turn it into a modernized novel that might be disseminated as an e-book on the Internet. The Last Human is thus a modernization of one of Mary Shelley's lesser-known novels, The Last Man, 1826. It is said to be the original end-of-the-world novel from which later novels of the genre like On the Beach were drawn. In Mary Shelley's story a microorganism begins to spread as a result of a nasty war between Greeks and Turks centered on the city that had been founded as the capital of Christianity, Constantinople, now called Istanbul. In Mary Shelley's day in the early nineteenth century ancient Greece was considered to be the time and place where modern civilization had its roots. In my modernization The Last Human I have this nasty little war taking place near Baghdad, a city similarly founded as the new capital of Islam and the general location changed to the area of the earliest cities where we now believe modern civilization began and centering on ancient Sumer. I coined a newly created country, Somar al-Jadeeda, Arabic for New Sumer, to take the place of Mary Shelley's Greece. And the world power hovering in the background is not the mighty British Empire of Mary Shelley's time but the United States of our time. I "Americanized" the characters and the geo-politics. I also turned Mary Shelley's nineteenth-century female characters into modern, capable, and educated women. This novel is a very condensed version of Mary Shelley's tale and is told in modern American English written in short paragraphs to be read as an e-book. One more important point: the reader may be aware that a movie loosely adapted from Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man has been made by a small Tuscon production company, A.I.A. Productions. Their adapted story and my story are notably different, and I had nothing to do with either the writing or the filming of their feature-length movie. I did, however, make them aware of my quite different story. My sincere apologies to Mary Shelley. Her thoughts and her writing are of much better quality than mine. When I was writing the screenplay, I sometimes felt, with some guilt, that she was looking over my shoulder. And several times I thought I saw her in crowds on downtown streets, once getting on a bus where she turned and looked at me. This updated tale for our time I only humbly submit. THE LAST HUMAN INTRODUCTION Mary Godwin was born on August 30, 1797 and died on February 1, 1851. She was the daughter of an outstanding champion of women's rights and liberation, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and a minorly successful publisher and author of, among other works, early science fiction novels, William Godwin. Her outstanding mother died as a result of giving birth to her. She herself almost died like her mother, giving birth to a child. In the summer of 1816, Napoleon's empire had recently been defeated. British youth were suddenly free to roam continental Europe. Mary and her lover and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley were some of them. Analogous to modern hippies, they holed up in mansions along the shore of Lake Geneva in Geneva, Switzerland and apparently generated considerable gossip. When Mary was nineteen, she wrote the first version of her most famous novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus as result of a contest-of-sorts among a group of British friends who were living in mansions on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It was worked up into a novel and published in 1818 by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mayor, & Jones. The title has been in continuous publication ever since. She later rewrote the novel, and this version was published in 1831 by Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley. She kept the same title, and this is the version of Frankenstein that we know and that is available in bookstores public libraries. In between writing these two versions of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote, among other things, an equally spooky science fiction novel that was about the end of the human species on the planet. She titled it The Last Man. The title gives away the ending. She began writing The Last Man in 1824 when men's three-cornered hats were still being worn and Thomas Jefferson was still alive. She finished it and it was published in 1826. Devastating pandemic plagues were in recent human historical memory when Mary Shelley wrote her novel. A frightening and deadly plague had struck London in 1664-65. Daniel Defoe's The Journal of the Plague Year, titled A History of the Plague in its second edition, had been written a century earlier in 1721 and was still being read. People knew that it could happen again. Science was in style, and Mary Shelley was not only the daughter of a science fiction writer but attended lectures given by early scientists like Sir Humphrey Davy. She understood science. She could extrapolate the progress of science. She could understand the concept of biological warfare. Very likely the rumor that we hear about the Governor General of British North America having smallpox-infected blankets distributed to Native American nations prior to the American Revolution was known to her. By 1824 Mary Shelley's famous literary husband Percy had been killed in a boating accident. Their literary friend Lord Byron had more recently been killed in the war between Christian Greeks seeking independence and the Islamic Turkish Empire. And others she had known and loved were dead. Death might have seemed to dominate everywhere. Mary Shelley was thus uniquely qualified to write the initial end-of-the-world science fiction novel of the dying off of the whole human race and to set it in the distant future. Her story material takes place between the years 2073 and 2097. To us, already living in the 2000s, this might not seem a stretch. But in 1824, the year 2097 was 273 years into the future. By comparison, 273 years from 2007 will be the year 2280. Even in our age of ubiquitous science fiction speculation, few writers seem willing to set stories that far into the future. For a woman writer beginning a novel in 1824 it was a truly courageous leap. Moreover, 273 years before 1824 would have been the year 1551 when the boy-king Edward VI briefly reigned following the death of Henry VIII. In 1551 no British colonies had yet been established in North America and modern science's Galileo would not be born for several more years. I backtracked Mary Shelley's timeline. I set this story in the near future, the near future from our time. It seemed that Mary Shelley may not have grasped the exponential advancement of science and technology. We are now ready, ninety years earlier than she may have considered, for the awful scenario of her fiction to become a frightening reality. THE LAST HUMAN By Tom Slattery COUNTDOWN ZERO Sunlight streams in through tall windows of the Doe Library on the University of California at Berkeley campus. It provides the only light. The electric lights shine no more and have gathered dust. The large reading room dwarfs the lone occupant, Lionel Verney, an elderly man looking older than his years. The only sound is his pencil scratching on a yellow legal pad, and the emptiness and quiet seem to make it echo. He stops and looks wistfully toward the sunlight streaming in the windows. A great pain of monumental sadness is drawn over his face. In the vast reading room are dusty public access computers, dust-covered books, and undusted unused desks. It is a scene of eerie emptiness. On one end of the reading room are several glass-covered exhibit cases. Above them a poster reads: "HUMAN CIVILIZATION." In the cases are large glossy exhibit photographs. In one exhibit case there are photos of modern skyscrapers, photos of computer-terminal workspaces, pictures of Renaissance Florence. In the next display case are several very old antiquarian books, including an original Gutenberg Bible, representing the earliest books ever printed. In the next case projecting backwards in time there is a photo of a Medieval castle pared with hand-written parchment, a photo of Egyptian pyramids pared with a hieroglyphic papyrus, a photo of Mesopotamian ziggurat ruin pared with cuneiform clay tablet, and finally photographs of Altamira and Lascaux cave paintings. In the next display case are two labeled casts of human or human-like skulls. A printed label for one says, NEANDERTHAL (EXTINCT). A printed label for the other says, MODERN HUMAN. On that card is an added notation written in pencil. It says in large letters and hastily scrawled as if in anger: EXTINCT. But as if belying at least for now that notation, a human, Lionel Verney, continues to scratch words on a yellow legal pad with a pencil. He sits unkempt in denims as he writes at a library desk near a great tall library window. He pauses and gazes out the window. He is all alone in the great echoing library structure. He is all alone on the great campus of empty classroom, administration, and laboratory buildings. And he is all alone in the city surrounding it, and beyond. He knows that it wasn't always this way. He wasn't always so alone this way. And, in fact, he remembers that only recently he had enjoyed the companionship of friends and relatives in a world of multitudes of people. He looks up with an expression beyond grief and sadness and allows himself an audible moan as he pauses from writing about it in pencil on his yellow legal pad. And then he returns his thoughts to his writing and applies his pencil to the yellow pad. His eyes fill with tears. He turns gaze to the window again. Then he wipes his eyes and returns to writing. Farther down in the great old reading room a gentle gust of wind blows a curtain in. He notices it but does not give it another thought and continues writing. COUNTDOWN TWENTY-THREE Lionel Verney was not there when the following event took place, but he learned about it when he was later involved in intelligence gathering and analysis for the United States government. Because it was crucial to the awful events that followed, he never forgot it. He knew that the great tragedy that befell the human race began precisely at this particular time and place. At a combined commercial and military airfield in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley, a forklift unloaded several large industrial-sized cartons banded to a wooden pallet from a large freight aircraft. On the cartons a stenciled invoice destination read: BAGHDAD BABY FORMULA FACTORY #2. The forklift loaded the whole pallet into a large commercial delivery truck. The delivery truck then carefully drove off to an address in Baghdad, dodging holes in bomb-rutted streets and splashing through draining open sewer water. It pulled up to a drab-looking single-story facility surrounded by a chain-link fence and topped with razor wire. Guards in uniform and armed with automatic weapons opened the chain-link gate. The sign on the gate read: BAGHDAD BABY FORMULA FACTORY #2. When that was taking place, Lionel Verney was still an undergraduate at Berkeley. And Adrian Wyndeshour, then thirty-two, had only recently gotten his Ph.D. there. It was a mellow warm blue-sky midday on campus. A multitude of students in colorful garb had just broken free of classrooms and invaded the plazas and walkways. Lionel sat on a terrace wall near Wheeler Hall with other students eating lunch and talking on each side of him. His ancestry covered a range of human ethnic types, Asian, northern European, Afro-American, and Native American, and as a young man of average height, weight, and appearance he blended in well on the multi-ethnic campus. Students were coming and going on the walkway in front of him. Adrian was among them and casually strolling along while talking on his cell phone. Adrian was in appearance and social background quite different than Lionel. Adrian was a tall, almost aristocratic, blue-eyed blonde young man with a short proper haircut. He wore expensive and yet unpretentious tan slacks a white shirt. He and Lionel spotted each other at the same time. He concluded his call and snapped the phone shut. They both waved enthusiastically and then ran to each other and greeted each other warmly. They were two unlikely friends. Adrian's father had been President of the United States. Lionel had grown up in poverty — ironically a beneficiary of government social and educational programs his father had pushed through Congress. He was exceptionally talented and intelligent. He had gotten a scholarship to Berkeley. His sister Perdita, also exceptionally talented and intelligent, had gotten one to Stanford. Adrian's sister Idris had shared a dorm room with her. For a minute Adrian and Lionel did not say anything as they began to walk. They walked in silence under the Sather Gate. In the plaza in front of Sproul Hall there were saw a few protestors carrying signs opposing military genetic engineering experiments. Adrian and Lionel functionally ignored them and continued to walk. Not necessarily due to his father's political connections, Adrian had graduated into a top job at the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington DC. He did not, however, like Washington. He often found excuses to come to California to escape. They walked at a very slow and deliberate pace and did not walk far. When they got to a low wall with students seated on it, Lionel stopped and turned to look at Adrian. It was out of character for him to remain silent for so long. Adrian plopped down on an empty space on the wall as if devitalized. Lionel took a seat on it beside him. There was a pregnant silence. Adrian took a deep breath and then exhaled a deep sigh. "She's from Somar al Jadeeda," he said. She was obviously his latest flame. "Somar al Jadeeda — New Sumer!" Lionel exclaimed in a feigned effort to sound enthusiastic. "Must be an exotic wench. Do you have a thing for Middle Eastern types?" Adrian shot a sneer at his crotch. "I have a thing for this one!" Then he looked embarrassed at this retreat to his adolescence and shook his head to shake it off. "Trouble is: she's their ambassador's daughter. Raises political questions. I should politely back off. But I can't. Have you ever been passionately, madly in love with anyone?" Because Lionel had struggled to survive and get ahead all of his life, he had never had the luxury of being what one might call madly in love with anyone. But he sought to sound sophisticated about such things. "Not that bad," I said. "Does your flame have a name?" He visibly relaxed at the response that was not censure. "Innini," he said. He took a breath. "Ancient Sumerian goddess of love. Innini al-Zaimi. She had her first name legally changed to fit their new political mode." "Sounds awfully nationalistic, political," Lionel said as if in a cautious warning. "Yeah," Adrian responded with a nod and a gulp. Images of the first and second Iraq wars raced through Lionel's mind, images of hellish burning Kuwaiti oil fields, images of American military vehicles being destroyed with IEDs, images of captives being abused and beheaded. "There's surely going to be yet another extension of the old civil war there," Lionel told Adrian. "Wouldn't your relationship plunk you in the middle of it? Baghdad might use real nukes this time, or nerve gas, and biologicals." While Adrian pondered it, Juliet, a typical white female student in her mid-twenties, short brown hair and brown eyes and wearing a pullover jacket emblazoned with "Berkeley," approached from behind. Lionel acknowledged her presence, but Adrian, involved in the thought of the conversation, failed to notice her. She stood silently and politely listening. "I know. I know," Adrian finally said in response to Lionel's observation. "Haven't I told myself a million times. But… I'm hooked." Then he suddenly became aware of Juliet and was caught by surprise. He shot her an inquisitive look. "Hello, Lionel," Juliet said with a pleasant smile and a nod toward the young man Lionel was with. "Is this your friend Adrian?" Lionel was caught momentarily off guard. "Oh! Yes! Adrian, this is Juliet." Adrian waved an approving gesture with his right hand and shot a big smile. His voice boomed out. "My pleasure, Juliet." "Come-on, let's get lunch," Lionel suggested. "There's a good Japanese place down Telegraph Avenue." Adrian's face lit up with delight. Lionel put his arm around Juliet. "Sushi. Hot wasabi," Adrian shouted as he stood up. "Sounds great." The three of them jauntily headed toward Telegraph Avenue. Juliet, the youngest of the three, remained politely deferential to the two young men. She had, moreover, never walked anywhere with a son of a former president of the United States. So she walked silently with her arm around Lionel Verney's waist, happy to be a college girl in their company on such a fine bright sunny day. Adrian turned to Lionel with news he knew his friend would like. "By the way: gig when you graduate next week," he said. He waited for Lionel's look of surprise. "Business associates" need an 'observer' in Vienna. Report on OPEC. Want it?" Lionel could not repress his look of amazement. "Sure. Of course. Thanks." As he said it he glanced away at a nearby protestor carrying an anti-genetic engineering placard. COUNTDOWN TWENTY-TWO Raymond Gordon, colonel, retired, United States Army, looking athletic and younger than his fifty-some years, stood on the steps of the United States Capitol Building in the afternoon sun. He wore an expensive tailored suit. His clear pale blue-gray eyes had a penetrating quality that had served him well as an Army officer. He was, as always, cleanly shaven and his slightly graying brown hair was trim and neat with a fresh short military haircut. Lionel Verney, in a neat suit and tie, hurried up the steps toward him. It had been a year since that day on the Berkeley campus when Adrian Wyndeshour had offered him the government job that then had seemed lower-level and routine. It had turned out to be anything but that. Gordon nodded acknowledgment to Lionel as he approached and then set down his expensive designer briefcase on a step, accessed item on his Blackberry, looked it over, showed concern at it, then tapped it off and pocketed it. When Verney reached Gordon, the younger man and the older man greeted each other enthusiastically. "Good to see you, Colonel Gordon," Lionel said respectfully. Gordon grinned at it. "Former Colonel! Lieutenant Colonel at that! Just call me Ray," he advised. He shot the younger man a concerned frown. "Did you sneak back here okay?" "Yeah. No one knows I'm here," Lionel replied with a certain pleasure in the conspiratorial nature of it. Gordon nodded to indicate his briefcase. "NSC Director asked me to extend his appreciation. Information you provided on OPEC — and Somar al Jadeeda and Iran. Fascinating!" Lionel accepted it with a thin polite smile. "Thanks," he told the older man. He paused and took a breath. "I was worried about it." He paused again. "Since you were one of the founders of New Sumer." Gordon patted Lionel on the shoulder. "Good stuff! And gratifying to find I'm still well regarded there. Would have thought the big stench over the CIA and Big Oil might have boiled over onto me. But apparently not." Lionel recalled the Battle of Eridu where the armies of the regime of religious fanatics in Baghdad fought the armies of the newly founded country in the southern part of the Mesopotamia, Somar al Jadeeda. For all the loss of life, the battle was virtually a draw. Former U.S. Army colonel Raymond Gordon had been sent as an unofficial military advisor to the government of Somar al Jadeeda, a committed US ally. "Well, sir, you fought for them in the Battle at Eridu," Verney respectfully noted. "You got wounded in the leg." Gordon snorted a self-deprecating guffaw. "Glorified scratch!" After hesitating for a second he added. "But, plays well in their media." He frowned and shook his head. "Truth is, I made very little difference. New Sumer came into being because the industrial countries and big oil companies wanted it to." Lionel nodded agreement. "But it's one of the few secular democracies in the Middle East. And you did put some effort into that." Gordon shot Lionel an exaggerated smile indicating both appreciation and awareness that he was being buttered-up. "Genuine fan, I see. Well, I won't argue." His expression changed to serious. "Let's get along. Can't keep a closed-door House Oversight Committee waiting." They started up the Capitol steps. "Oh, by the way," Gordon said. "Did you hear about your friend Adrian?" Lionel stopped horrified in his tracks with a prescient cognizance. "No. I talked to no one since leaving Vienna yesterday." Gordon stopped on the step above Lionel and looked back. "They had to take him to a private psychiatric clinic. He was having an affair with the Sumerian ambassador's daughter. His family, the State Department, and Party cronies all put pressure on him to break it off. I guess he flipped." Lionel studied Gordon for a second. "How bad?" "Hospitalized," Gordon answered expeditiously. "That's all I know." Verney started up the stairs again. "Let's get this Committee thing over with. I've got to see him." Gordon nodded agreement. They both continued up the stairs in weighted silence. The hearing would be held a debugged and secure office where hearings involving matters of national security and necessary governmental secrecy took place. It was to be just an information gathering hearing and was not intended as confrontational. Gordon and Verney knew that what they had to say would be to people responsible for making changes and corrections. What they had to say concerned political, economic, and military events in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley and why they had deteriorated enough to threaten petroleum supplies and regional stability. Both Verney and Gordon knew a lot about that. Verney knew the economic figures and projections and psychological profiles of involved personnel. Gordon knew of the intelligence and military operations. It had begun in a nondescript office in New Sumer. Innini al-Zaimi, an exotically beautiful-looking young Arab woman in her twenties handed Colonel Gordon a file folder. He smiled to her with gratitude and opened it. As with most younger women in nominally progressive and secular New Sumer, Innini wore Western attire and no head scarf. Lionel had been surprised to learn that Colonel Raymond Gordon had known his friend Adrian's lover Innini for years. He had also been surprised and concerned at what Innini was and was capable of. Innini was very political and patriotic. In fact, she political and patriotic to the point of participating in terrorist acts against the regime of religious fanatics in Baghdad on behalf of her newly founded country in southern Mesopotamia. Gordon had by then told Lionel about Innini's participation bombing of the so-called Baghdad Baby Formula Factory. For cover and to blend into the fanatic Islamist Baghdad culture, Innini had worn an Islamic burqa, complete with face scarf with only eye-slits. It offered her a perfect cover of her facial identity and a very suitable disguise. She had surreptitiously sneaked photographs of the so-called "Baby Formula Factory." Gordon regarded Innini as "very nationalistic." He also made no bones about finding her "very attractive." And he found her attractive whether she was in her New Sumer military officer's uniform or in a bikini on a Gulf beach. Gordon had shown Lionel photographs of Innini in her officer's military uniform with its Arabic nametag and brass to indicate the rank of captain. Gordon had also shown him photographs of Innini in bikinis, but these were commonplace sexy-young-woman-inbikini pictures and impressed Lionel less. There had been one fuzzy photograph surreptitiously taken by one of Gordon's associates with a cell phone. Innini was handing a young male officer in a New Sumer military uniform a package. Another close-up photo was of the address. It had all of the proper and hand-cancelled American postage. The English return address said CHESAPEAKE SCIENTIFIC SUPPLY COMPANY and had an address in Baltimore, Maryland. Two more photographs showed the young male officer saluting Innini and then carefully picking up the package, already half-turned to head out the door. Several more photographs taken with professional-grade cameras for a record of a military operation and therefore quite clear showed a Humvee driving up to a gate. A civilian-attired man with a proper long Islamist beard gets out. Another showed him carrying the previously photographed mailing package past Armed Guards wearing army uniforms of the Baghdad regime. And another showed him going into building. Several additional fuzzy photographs, taken surreptitiously by an undercover operative, showed the inside of the so-called Baghdad Baby Formula Factory. Three Lab Workers, totally encapsulated in pressurized biochemical hazard suits, work at sophisticated chemical-biological apparatus. It is clearly not the kind of apparatus that might be involved in testing or manufacturing baby formula. Intelligence analysts in the United States and in New Sumer unambiguously identified the suited lab personnel and the apparatus as biological warfare research and development. Three final photo-printouts had been printed from a video camera recording of an intelligence and military operation event. Clearly in the foreground was the large sign in both Arabic and English, BAGHDAD BABY FORMULA FACTORY #2. Behind it the building is being torn apart by a powerful explosion. The next showed the same sign and building with the building exhibiting the effects of a massive internal explosion. These two printouts were from video footage taken in the bright afternoon sun. The last photograph, taken at dusk, showed personnel in army uniforms of the Baghdad regime either hammering plywood over windows and doors, covering it with plastic, or carefully heat-sealing the edges of the plastic. Other uniformed personnel could be seen in the background and partly off-camera laying out additional razor wire around the facility. Some of the testimony that Gordon and Verney were about to give the House Intelligence Committee involved this operation by operatives of the Government of New Sumer. The photographs would be included with that testimony. Everyone would be sworn to secrecy. Both Gordon and Verney knew of the terrible seriousness of the situation. COUNTDOWN TWENTY-ONE Dusk twilight illuminated the exterior of an apartment building near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. Pedestrians strolled the sidewalks and light traffic slipped by in the street. The apartments inside the building had been styled for Washington working women. They were functional but tastefully decorated. Inside one of them, perhaps neater and cleaner than the rest, lights already glowed brighter than the fading twilight outside. Two women sat in comfortable easy chairs near the living room's central coffee table and betrayed a certain tension and anxiety. They were Innini al-Zaimi, Colonel Gordon's military intelligence associate as well as Adrian Wyndeshour's romantic obsession, and Perdita Verney, Lionel Verney's twenty-something younger sister. Innini was a very attractive Middle Eastern woman with long black hair and dark sultry eyes who looked like Scheherazade plucked out of A Thousand and One Nights and dressed in modern attire. Perdita Verney, Lionel's sister, was herself a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty with the same well-mixed ethnic genes as her brother. Innini was older and more experienced in the world, but Perdita was clever and well educated and could deal with her. Dusk was rapidly fading into darkness. Perdita got up, stepped to a floor lamp, and flicked it on. Innini glanced at her designer wristwatch as Perdita sat down again. "I saw your father on TV last night," Perdita told Innini to break the heavy tension. "Ambassador's duty," Innini responded in a curt clipped reply. "His job is to get on TV." Her strained gaze turned to the fading dusk twilight through the window. She took a breath and cleared her throat. "It's very bad — a very tense situation." "What will you do if New Sumer goes to war? Maybe any day now." "Go back there. I'm an Army officer." "Oh yes, I remember. A nurse. You helped save my brother's boss — Colonel Raymond Gordon." Innini smiled for the first time. It was a slightly cynical smile and was followed by a tense faint laugh. "Saved?" she asked with heavy sarcasm. "Things really get exaggerated. No, I just took care of him for a few days." Perdita shot Innini a naughty grin. "Real hunk, isn't he?" "Yeah, nice 'hunk' as you say," Innini agreed in her slight Arabic accent. The doorbell chimes rang. Innini and Perdita looked toward the door. "Must be my brother," Perdita said. She exhaled as if a note of frustration. "Finally!" She stood up, strolled to the door, and opened it. Her brother Lionel Verney stepped in carrying a small gift-wrapped package. The sister and brother hugged. With flourish of ceremony, he handed her the package. She took the package more casually than her brother had expected. "Careful," he warned. "Cut crystal from Vienna." She glanced at it, held it more carefully, and gave him a welcoming smile. "Good to have you back here in this country. I worried about you." Perdita motioned to Innini. "I want you to meet the famous Innini al-Zaimi." Innini stood up graciously. "Famous am I now?" she said with a touch of sarcasm. Still tense, she extended her hand almost as if with professional diplomacy. Lionel Verney shook it politely. Perdita continued her introduction. "Innini. My brother Lionel." Lionel let go of Innini's hand and mocked the formality with a flourish to Perdita. "Innini, my sister Perdita," he announced. It broke the anxiety. They smiled at this attempted humor. After some breaths and nods, Perdita motioned for them to be seated. After they were seated and comfortable, Lionel frowned and shot both young women serious glances. "Now. What really happened with Adrian?" he asked. "And what's the outlook?" Innini glared guiltily, indignantly at him. She gave him a piqued shrug. "Ask your sister. They told me to stay away from him." Perdita waved her hand toward Innini and gave her brother a helpless expression. "She told him it was all over and she was going to Paris to get away from him. He followed her to the airport. Big noisy confrontation. Everyone looking. He stormed away." "And then?" Lionel asked. "And then I found him unconscious on his bed the next day. I called. No answer," Perdita told him. She studied him for a second. "I knew there was something wrong. I went over. No one answered the doorbell. I used his spare key and let myself in. I saw him on his bed and an empty bottle of pills on the bed stand." "Lucky you went over there," Lionel said. "Yeah, lucky," Perdita nodded. "He was barely breathing. I got an ambulance there in minutes." "I feel so guilty," Innini interrupted. Perdita turned and glared at her. "Now don't start the guilt thing again. It wasn't your fault," she declared testily. She turned to her brother. "I saw him yesterday — propped up in an oxygen tent, I.V. tubes in his arms, pale, a little glassy-eyed. But he's coherent. He'll pull through." "Should I go over and see him?" Lionel asked. Perdita thought about it for a second. "Not that there's anything wrong with it, but maybe you shouldn't right away," she told her brother. "I think it would embarrass him — partly because of the way he looks, partly from how he got to be there." She paused and looked away for a second. "I would talk to him on the phone — make some excuse not to go. Then go up and see him in a few days." Lionel nodded. But the doorbell chimes drowned his voiced "Okay" out. Perdita looked annoyed at the door. "Now who could that be?" she asked in a huff. She went to the door and opened it. Raymond Gordon impatiently let himself in, walking right by here. Innini was pleasantly startled to see him. "Colonel Gordon!" she fairly shouted. He gave her a big smile. "Innini! What a surprise!" He turned to Lionel. His expression returned to businesslike, almost military. The two women stood as if accepting being shut out of the picture. "Verney, an aide to the Committee wants to hear more," Gordon told him. "In depth, off the record. We're to meet him downtown in twenty minutes." Innini shot Gordon a smile. "Your wound doesn't seem to bother you," she said jokingly. "Not a bit — thanks mostly to your tender loving care," he replied in the same vein of humor. Then he turned with an expression of urgency to Perdita. "Sorry to rush your brother away — I take it you are Perdita — but we have to take care of this right now." He gave Innini a nod. "We'll talk another time, Innini. The government calls." Lionel knew he had no choice. He turned to his sister. "I'll be back later. I think you're right about Adrian." And he gave Innini a nod of acknowledgment. He joined Raymond in heading toward the door. Like a two-man squad of soldiers — but giving perfunctory waves and smiles — they marched out the door and left it open for someone else to close. It had seemed dark when looking out the window from inside the apartment. But outside the building they found themselves in the last fading light of dusk. They marched briskly toward the street, heading for Raymond's large new government-gray Lexus sedan. "Is Adrian's okay?" Gordon asked. "I think so," Lionel replied. "Dumb thing to do," Gordon noted. "A former President's son, no less. At least they did pretty well in keeping it out of the media. Top it all off, I've been dating his sister, Idris — pretty hot and heavy." Lionel shot a very surprised look, but Gordon ignored it as they continued to hurry briskly toward his car. He simply continued as if with a line of monologue. "Sharp cookie — like her father," he said. "Very political, too. Hint at marriage, and she replies with me running for Senator Bradford's seat. And her family political connections could probably swing it." He shot Lionel a dour frown and nod. "But that was before this thing happened." Gordon beeped the unlock on his Lexus as they reached it. Neither said anything more as they got in. "Only Senator? Not President?" Lionel asked as Gordon started the engine. The car sped off. "What would you do if you were President?" Gordon apparently had not given it any significant thought. He shrugged and shot Lionel a quick glance while driving. "Promote democracy. Give the Sumerians enough military assistance to crush the religious fanatics in Baghdad." Luck was with them. There was a parking spot near the coffee shop. Gordon seamlessly parked his slick expensive car, and the two of them hurried to the meeting. Gordon guided the off-the-record conversation in the coffee shop. Verney told everything he knew and offered new insights. The congressional investigator, Gordon, and Verney left the coffee shop feeling that something useful had been accomplished. COUNTDOWN TWENTY A computer-generated banner stretched across a wall in Adrian Wyndeshour's living room. It read: WELCOME BACK ADRIAN. Adrian's sister, Idris Wyndeshour, an aristocratic and very sophisticated blue-eyed blonde thirty-two-year-old woman with upper-class mannerisms looked out of place in dirtied housework clothes and holding a wiping rag amid furniture that had been moved in order to clean the room. Lionel Verney, also in work clothes, leaned lazily on a broom a few steps away from her. It was evident that they liked each other. It was also evident that they were guarded about liking each other. Idris, daughter of a former president, member of an almost aristocratic American family that traced roots back to the first Europeans to colonize what they called the New World, and strikingly attractive woman in her own right had learned to be careful with her emotions toward men. Lionel, descendent of extremely poor and desperate people, granted a good education solely out of his inborn intelligence and talents, and perplexed to have an establishment position in the mid-echelons of the United States government felt awkward in her presence. Even while they suppressed their attraction, they had her brother and his friend Adrian in common. And they had just learned that a brain tumor had been responsible for Adrian's recent strange behavior and that it had been surgically removed. "Anyway, they got the brain tumor before it got him," Lionel noted. "Yeah. It wasn't like my brother," Idris said. "It was almost as if at some subconscious level he knew the thing was growing in him, and it was all a crying-out for help." Outside in the patio in the afternoon California sun Raymond Gordon and Perdita could be seen chatting with hints of mutual flirtation. But both Lionel and Idris ignored them. Adrian was being flown to his home in northern California after being released from a Washington, DC hospital. "Now remember, don't look shocked when you see him at the airport," Idris said. "He's lost a lot of weight. And don't even mention Innini." "Why don't you and Colonel Gordon — uh, Ray — go?" Lionel asked. "Oh, Ray would like to be seen everywhere with President Wyndeshour's daughter," Idris said with a touch of sarcasm. "And while I don't mind being seen with him, his military mind gets on my nerves." She pointed out the sliding glass door to the sunlit patio. "Anyway, he seems to be having a great time with your sister." "Seems a little old for her," Lionel noted, only half joshing. "She's four years younger than I am. And he's still very attractive." "He said you talked about his running for Senator Bradford's seat." "He brought it up! I just played along with his grandiose schemes." "He said the opposite." "That's why I keep my distance. He's a climber," She looked for a second through the glass sliding door at him. "And his military training: use whatever tools available. And even that wouldn't be so bad. I wouldn't mind being a senator's wife — or even living in the White House again. But he'd be a political disaster — headstrong, selfish, power-hungry — a scandal waiting to happen." She shook her head. "To top it off, he's an absolute fanatic about New Sumer — which is really not our business." "He could get votes." Idris shot him an irritated look. "Sure. Especially with the mood of the country," she snapped. "That's the problem with his kind: get votes, get power — sound-bites, smears, any old thing. But no real policies. They land in office and don't know what to do — except reward campaign contributors." She pointed to the wall clock. "Getting late. We'd better get cleaned up and going to the airport." Adrian's large modern house had been built by his father in an isolated and forested part of northern California as a getaway from the stress of being President of the United States and a refuge from media ghouls. The only access was an unpaved road that went for some miles before connection to a two-lane paved state highway. Idris drove Adrian's black SUV to offer him something familiar for his ride from the airport. All went well. Adrian was in a wheelchair. Neither of them mentioned Innini. Most of the conversation on the way back was about the wildlife, the California mountains, problems that climate change seemed to be causing, and what had been found under chairs and the couch while cleaning his house. Adrian had only partially recovered and was exhausted from the cross-country flight. They took him to his improvised sick room in the mansion library. A hired health-care professional made sure the I.V. apparatus was working. With tubes and a needle in him they tucked him into bed, and he quickly drifted off to sleep. Lionel pushed the wheelchair next to his bed in case he might wake up and want it. Two weeks went by in the large house on the estate in the tranquil wilds of northern California. Adrian gained back much of his strength but still needed rest and watching. His sister Idris, the house and healthcare staff, and Lionel were pleased by his progress. Lionel returned as he had for weeks from a drive to the nearby town general store and carried full grocery bag into the makeshift sickroom. Adrian was at his laptop exchanging emails. Lionel gave Adrian a friendly nod. Without saying anything he patted the grocery bag, nodded, and went into the nearby kitchen and began putting away the groceries. Adrian put aside his laptop. "Thanks," he shouted to Lionel in the kitchen. "I really appreciate what you and my sister have done these last couple months." "You're welcome," Lionel shouted back from the kitchen. Shortly Lionel emerged from kitchen, pulled up a small chair, and sat with his legs straddling the chair's back. "We're glad to see you coming along so well." Adrian shrugged and grinned. "Miracles of modern medicine." Lionel glanced out into the adjoining patio. "Where's Idris?" "Walking around the estate." "Splendid day. Feel up to sitting outside?" "Sure. Let's soak up some sun." With Lionel's assistance, Adrian struggled out of bed. Adrian slipped into his slippers and Lionel handed him a cane. They moved slowly toward the patio. Outside in it, Lionel helped Adrian into one of several well-padded chaise lounge chairs. As Adrian struggled to stretch out in it, Lionel sat and stretched out in the one next to it. Adrian made an effort to relax in the sun and looked philosophically into the wild California scenery and apparently found himself overwhelmed by its beauty. "Beautiful out!" he exclaimed as he flung his arms wide to the scenery and sun. He turned more calmly to Lionel. "Our lovely living planet. Why should it take staring death in the face before we begin to appreciate life?" "Do you mean your own almost death? Or do you mean our whole environment in peril?" "Personal, spiritual, Lionel. Like nature was created for us humans to appreciate. Let me oppose conventional wisdom for the sake of argument: rather than our animal bodies evolving into appreciating nature." "Nah. No, I don't accept that. We adapted into it. We found ourselves an ecological niche. And now sit here appreciating." "Why should we find it so beautiful and pleasurable if we were just meant to exist for a brief span on this planet? Why appreciate these colors, scents, sounds of wind rustling leaves?" "Okay, have it your way," Lionel said with a shrug. "But we've damn-near destroyed it. Or will." "We're at a historical crossroads now. Eradicate misery and disease, or to make more of it. Make heaven on earth, or…" Adrian stopped mid-sentence when he spotted his sister Idris heading toward them carrying letters. "Oh, here comes Idris." Lionel looked at Idris. She had by then walked across the green lawn surrounding the house and had almost reached the patio. She waved and extended a postcard to him. "Postcard from the honeymooners," she shouted. "Your sister and Colonel Gordon are 'enjoying Acapulco.'" Perdita and Gordon had gotten married and headed for a honeymoon in Mexico two weeks earlier. Idris, Adrian, and Lionel had not been entirely surprised at the sudden impulsive marriage and honeymoon, but they were still adjusting to it. Idris continued her last steps across the lawn. When she got to Lionel she handed him the postcard. He took it with a whimsical grin and immediately read the message on it. "I still can't believe it," Lionel said with a touch of mock sarcasm while shaking his head. "My little sister's married." Idris sat on the edge of a chaise lounge next to Lionel. H sat up and flipped the postcard to the picture of the Mexican scene on the reverse side. While her ailing brother looked on, the daughter of a former President of the United States and a former First Lady put her arm around the mid-level government employee's waist with a saucy smile. "Or is it hard to accept that your little sister's married and you aren't?" she teased him. "You could do something about it." Lionel turned to her with a look between aghast and amazed and studied her intently. "I could? You sure?" he asked with a frown of doubt. Adrian grinned widely at his sister's assertive behavior. "You going to tell Mother? Or just do it?" Idris sighed and looked at the wild California scenery. "You know what will happen if I do that. Big scene. 'What would your father think?' Finally she'll offer some manipulative resignation and leave everyone feeling lousy. We'll just present her with a fait accompli." That revelation that Idris had been thinking it out and plotting strategies for some time left Lionel looking even more shocked. For some seconds he just looked at her with a gaping amazed expression. But he had considered the idea of marriage to her and had absolutely nothing against it. Idris was a charming and attractive woman if a couple years older than he was. So he recovered his composure and looked at her with a thin sarcastic smile. "Then I guess we're off to Vegas," he said with dry humor. "Whenever you're ready, of course." Idris leaned over and gave Lionel a big kiss. Then she playfully hit his shoulder and shot him a big sarcastic smile. "Oh, let's get some lunch first. We can sign up to legally procreate later." She stood up, extended her hand, and pulled Lionel up. Adrian expelled a cynical guffaw. "I worried that I was hallucinating when I heard footsteps pitter-pattering upstairs in the wee hours." All three of them shook their heads with mock scowls at the poor attempt at a joke. COUNTDOWN NINETEEN Two years later Adrian had recovered completely. He had updated computers and work stations in his library and had redecorated the kitchen. The former was to remove reminders of its use as a sick room as well as to keep up his contact and input in the cyberworld. The latter was as much for ease in living as for removing of reminders. But the new furniture, new shelves, and new cupboards also reflected his status and position in society, the image that an offspring of a former president of the United States felt obligated to keep. For all of its cutting-edge contemporary appearance and computer hardware, the library gave off an empty look and atmosphere. And outside the wall of floor-to-ceiling sliding doors in the patio, the darkening dusk seemed to accent the atmosphere of emptiness. The doorbell chimes rang. "They're here. I'll get it," Idris said from the kitchen. She walked briskly from the kitchen and headed across the library. Lionel and then Adrian joined her in heading toward the door. The opened door suddenly framed casually but expensively dressed Perdita and Raymond Gordon standing and waiting to be let in. Beside them is a baby stroller. In it baby Clara is carefully wrapped and tucked in. And all exchanged hearty, cheery hellos and greetings. "Well come in, get settled," Idris invited. The two married guests and their baby entered and Idris shut the door. Adrian glanced at his watch as Perdita pushed the baby stroller past him. "You just missed the news, but we put it on a CD," he said. "Hard to get the whole gang moving," Gordon apologized while Idris bent over the stroller and examined the sleeping baby. "Worse than deploying a battalion." "Just dozed off," Perdita cautioned Idris. "Don't wake her. Clara's hard to get back to sleep." Easy chairs and a couch were clustered in front of the large flat-screen television set. Perdita pushed the stroller near the arm of the couch, positioned it to see the baby's face, and sat down. Her husband sat beside her. The others then sat in easy chairs in front of the television. Perdita nodded to Adrian. He tapped the remote. "Here's how it looked a few minutes ago," he said. On the TV screen an announcer came on reading the news. "… the office of Prime Minister Mansour of Somar al Jadeeda issued a terse 'no comment.' Next in the news: The new Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs is Raymond Gordon. Despite Senator Ryland's stinging Senate speech yesterday, the President has made it clear that he will choose his own National Security Advisor." Idris, Lionel, and Adrian all shot congratulatory expressions to Gordon and to his wife Perdita. And the couple nodded back with large but self-conscious smiles. A file clip of Gordon in his US Army colonel uniform testifying before a Congressional committee came on-screen. And the announcer's voice filled in the description. "Gordon — seen here when he was Colonel Gordon testifying at the House Oversight Committee hearings — has been acting National Security Advisor for several weeks, following the resignation of Clark Mullen over strong disagreements with the President's Middle East policies. For all the turbulence surrounding it, this appointment comes as no surprise. On the local scene, the mayor…" Adrian tapped the remote and flicked off the television. Idris turned to Perdita with a warning look. "Now you're really going to have no privacy, Perdita!" the former president's daughter told the newcomer to American media and politics. "Just put up with it. Big step up for him." "It's what he wanted," Perdita said with a touch of reflection and somberness that offset the atmosphere of celebration. "I'm happy if he's happy." Raymond Gordon reached his arm over and gave Perdita a quick hug. "We'll tough it out." Idris, who had slipped into the kitchen, wheeled a service cart with an ice bucket, champagne, and champagne glasses. She lifted the champagne bottle, twisted off the wire, and popped the cork. The popping cork woke the baby Clara. She began crying even as Idris and Adrian handed out glasses. Perdita handed Raymond her glass and Idris filled both of them while Perdita leaned over and talked to baby Clara and soothingly brushed her head. The baby drifted back to sleep. Raymond Gordon then handed Perdita her glass. Adrian then raised his glass and offered a toast. "To it being more fun than trouble," he congratulated. "We hope," Raymond responded with a nod. "But it looks like it's going to be trouble. Baghdad's itching to have it out with New Sumer again." With the new National Security Advisor's mention of New Sumer, Idris shot him a snarling glare. "Just remember, your job is to prevent a nasty little war," she told him firmly. "And to keep the oil flowing." Raymond Gordon, with uncharacteristic meekness, nodded and then looked down at the floor. Gordon was a workaholic. He was an Army officer, a patriot, and a citizen utterly devoted to his country. These were the qualities that had gotten him his appointment as National Security Advisor. And he took his job as seriously as any before him had. And he enjoyed it. He enjoyed the prestige, the power, and the acclaim. Unlike some others before him, he savored combat with the media. And one thing that the media would not let up on was his preoccupation with the Middle East and especially New Sumer. It was not a wrongheaded or bullheaded preoccupation. Terrorists from the region had been threatening the United States since way before September 11, 2001. It was, in fact, his very duty to be somewhat preoccupied with these threats. Media hounds, however, sensed a pernicious preoccupation and focused on it if only to keep him from potential excessive comments or actions. National Security Advisor Gordon stuck to his job. It was a fine position with prestige and authority, but it was also a job requiring nose-to-the-grindstone work. Some would not have shunned appearances at prestigious gatherings and posh parties as much as he did. But he became, to his social and political detriment, a workaholic seduced by a job. And part of his job was to meet with knowledgeable people on the periphery of the official intelligence community to find out what was really going on below the surface appearance of things. Into his seventh month as National Security Advisor Gordon found himself in one of those situations at the Mayflower Hotel restaurant in downtown Washington DC. It was midday. Gordon and two businessmen with extensive business and business contacts in southwest Asia had just finished lunch were heading down the walk in front of the hotel. "Good lunch," one of the businessmen commented as they walked slowly enough to stretch out a conversation that had begun inside. "You'll have to slip out of the White House basement more often." "Not too often," Gordon responded with a joking smile and tone. "Secret Service frowns." But he changed his demeanor to dead serious in an instant. "Thanks for the intelligence coup. Biologicals are to terrorize civilians. But if you think Baghdad has a nuke, we'd better inform the President." "We're sure," the businessman said firmly. "Okay," Gordon said in a clipped reply that a military officer would use when launching a tactical operation that would surely involve cost in lives. "You both head back to the White House dungeon and get ready. I've got to contact one of our regional assets." "Okay, Ray. See you there," the businessman said tersely. Gordon headed in the direction of the National Geographic Society. He was not going there, only toward that neighborhood. In fact he walked hurriedly past it and continued on until he reached a small and clearly not too prosperous art gallery. Gordon came to a halt in front of it. He studied several large framed photographs of scenes of the Middle East displayed in the window. Leaning against one of them was a 3" x 5" white card with an asterisk written on it. The photograph had a southern Mesopotamia motif. It was signed: INNINI. Gordon looked into the gallery to make sure there were no customers. Then he went in. As he entered, the gallery proprietor, artistic-type woman in her mid-fifties approached him and greeted him. He acknowledged her but was preoccupied and otherwise ignored her. He went instead to the storefront window, reached down beside the photograph, and picked up the 3 x 5 card. "I saw you outside," the proprietor said. She waved her hand toward the back wall. "There's a whole wall of her photographs over there. Gordon did not even glance at them. He merely handed the proprietor the card. "I'm Ray," he said in a chilled monotone. "Oh, that murky intelligence stuff," the proprietor said with a nod toward the white card and a smirk at the games that adult play. "She put it there this morning." "Where is she now?" "Her studio… Here, let me get her business card." The proprietor stepped to a display case. From one of several stacks of business cards she took a single card and handed it to Gordon. He glanced at it. It read: INNINI ALZAIMI PHOTOGRAPHER. In a corner of it was her Washington address and phone number. "Thanks," he said preoccupied with a complex of thoughts and memories and not intending to be curt. With that, he hurried to door, went out to the curb, and hailed a taxi. He gave the driver the address on the card. On hearing the address, the cab driver shot a skeptical glance at his expensive tailored business suit. A fare is a fare. The driver drove off and kept going until he pulled up at a deteriorated building in a deteriorated neighborhood. The ground floor of the address had once been a small store but long ago had been converted into a combination studio and living quarters. Its large plate glass window had broken off at its lower right corner and a piece of plywood had been jammed in to replace the glass and keep out the weather. Gordon got out of the taxi. "Wait here. I'll be back in a minute." He walked briskly to the storefront door and knocked on it. In a second it opened as far as a security chain would allow. Innini looked out the crack, saw Gordon, and smiled a pleasant surprise. "Colonel Gordon!" she shouted in glee. "Innini. You're living here?" "On what your government's paying, you can't expect the Taj Mahal," she told him sardonically in her faint but charming Arabic accent. "But it's good cover." She quickly let off the chain and opened the door. Gordon noticed that she was wearing neat but utilitarian clothing. Having confirmed the address, he no longer needed the taxi. "Let me get rid of the taxi," he told Innini. He hurried back to the taxi, paid off the fare and added a large tip, and hurried back inside the storefront studio. The combination photography studio and living quarters was considerably less than palatial. "You're here on business," Innini said rather than asked as she shut the door and reattached the chain. "Always a pleasure with you, though," Gordon responded as a way of confirming her observation. He paused as if it might be needed out of respect. "Sorry to hear about your father." "I've gotten over it now," she told him. "People die. Life goes on." "I e-mailed a sympathy card. Got no reply." Innini ignored it. She busied herself with straightening a pillow. Then she picked up some papers from the coffee table and put them on a half-empty bookshelf. That done, she turned to Gordon. "It was his job," she said with a touch of reflection. "Lying to cover up for the government. Couldn't live a normal life because the terrorists. The threat of Baghdad invading Somar al Jadeeda. He had a stroke." She motioned toward the couch. "Would you like coffee or anything? Or at least take the load off your feet." Gordon shook his head to decline. "Got to get back. I literally sneaked out of the White House." "Only you could sneak out of the White House!" she told him sarcastically and with a grin. "Before you go, though, I have morsel of trade material." Gordon shot her a bewildered look. "The nuke?" "No," she said with a dramatic shaking of her head. "I hear the same rumors as you on that. This is something else. You remember Baghdad Baby Formula Factory #2?" "You blew it… " She cut off his words with a forceful shaking of her head. "I will always have to deny that." "Okay, your people — shall I say, put it out of business." "Maybe just in time!" she told him in an ominous tone and with a warning frown. "Whatever they were up to, the badly damaged building is still sealed tight and guarded day and night. But this is what's important. Before we shut them down, they had sent a team to Panama and brought back a rare rain-forest plant." "So you said. Anti-viral properties." Innini stepped to and old worn second-hand oak-veneer end table. While Gordon watched with an ever so slight creepy feeling of trepidation, she opened the top drawer and pulled out a scrap of paper. She wheeled around with a dead serious expression while holding it out toward him. "Hypothetical," she cautioned. "They seemed to be getting good preliminary results. We just found out the flora." She looked at the long Latin botanical name on the scrap of paper and carefully read it to him so as if by doing so she could emphasize its importance. "Codeaum fontinalis delicatissimus." Gordon understood the critical importance. He did not casually shrug it off. His technical people had done extensive research into Baghdad Baby Formula Factory #2, and he knew very well why the extensively damaged building was sealed and guarded. That one little botanical name clearly represented good intelligence that had been dangerously obtained. But the whole Baghdad biological program had now been destroyed, and what this new piece of information might mean had yet to be determined. "Seems moot now," he said partly to see her reaction. She revealed nothing. He looked dour and disturbed for a second and then sighed and showed a brighter side. "But good work. Maybe we can find out what they were up to." "We tried to find out," Innini told him. He knew that the "we" meant the intelligence services of New Sumer. "But we don't have your research facilities — and budgets, and people. You'll share it with us — if you find anything?" "Yes. If they turn up anything." "Thanks, Ray." She hesitated as if not wanting to ask, then knew that she had to. "Could you get me a green card so I can blend in better here?" "Okay. But keep a low profile. If the media finds I twisted arms for a double agent…" Innini was extremely relieved and pleased to hear it. Before Gordon could finish the sentence, she threw her arms around him and kissed him. "Oh! Thank you, Ray!" They looked at each other; their lips parted; they kissed — not as if for the first time. Then, guilty, they broke apart. Gordon looked shocked for a moment. "I'd better get back to the office. I'm a married man now, Innini. "My fault," Innini told him. "Just happened. Forget it." Innini nodded. "Yeah. Anyway, how is your wife, uh Perdita?" "Fine. Likes being a housewife. Loves our little girl, Clara. Being National Security Advisor's Wife makes her uncomfortable." "Worst combination. Being in the public eye and you're all wrapped up in secrets." "Yes, well put. But she tolerates it well." Gordon glanced at his watch. "I've really got to get going." He started for the door with Innini escorting him. There was a familiar closeness as they walked and she held his hand. COUNTDOWN EIGHTEEN That walk to the door, unfortunately, was not the end of it between Innini and Raymond. Old embers rekindled. Gordon found reasons to slip off and see Innini. Innini and Gordon found more and more ways to be together. It grew hot and passionate. Both had intelligence training. Both thought that training could be sufficient to conceal their affair. And it did, for months. If it had been just about anyone else, it might have gone on for years, maybe forever. But it was the President's National Security Advisor and an intelligence agent and military officer of a troubled Middle Eastern country. And when the media got a faint whiff of this story so unbelievably rich in scandal and tied into national security, their hounds began sniffing it. And after early increments had stirred real governmental integrity and national security concerns and had whetted appetites for a media feeding frenzy, they tore into it for all the newsworthy fear and gossip that it could generate. When it broke across the front pages and both large and handheld media screens, it wreaked disaster to Gordon's marriage and his career. It caused untold pain to Perdita. And it left their circle of friends and relatives terribly hurt and bewildered. Perdita would not even let her husband return to the house to get his things. It took all the cajoling and pleading that Idris and Lionel could muster to get her to the point of allowing Raymond Gordon to retrieve some of his things. And then it was only after they were packed into plastic storage tubs and set near the front door for him to pick up. So in the late evening of the day after the story finally broke in all of its gossipy and scandalous details, Perdita, Idris, and Lionel Verney sat near the coffee table in Perdita's living room waiting for him. On the coffee table was a newspaper crumpled with great amount of anger and other emotion. On its front page were the headlines of the day about the scandal involving the National Security Advisor. Idris had suggested as gently as she could that perhaps Raymond could stay in the guest room and stay out of her life. She was hoping that after the emotion wore off, they might get back together, if only for the sake of their daughter. But Perdita flew into a fury of spite and anger. "No! That's it!" she shouted. "He's got to move out. Now! Today! I won't have him in this house one more night." "Okay then, he could stay at our house tonight," Idris offered. "No!" Perdita shouted angrily. "That might seem like a temporary arrangement to him. He's got to understand that he's done here." "I'm sorry," Idris said with a pat on Perdita's knee. "I wasn't thinking." Perdita glanced down at the newspaper. The headline read: FORMER SUMERIAN AMBASSADOR'S DAUGHTER IN TRYST WITH NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR. "What hurts is that he wasn't honest with me," she said with tears in her eyes. I have to find out all the lurid details from the paper. I'm embarrassed in front of my friends. Good thing Clara doesn't go to school yet. Kids can be very mean." "She's sleeping?" Lionel asked his distraught sister. "Yeah," she half-whispered. Then she consciously pulled herself together. "He told me he was seeing her to straighten out her visa problem. Then when some juicy morsels started on TV, he said it was politics. 'Ignore it,' he told me." "He's done, you know," Idris said. "He was talking to the President just a few minutes ago." "Yeah. And I couldn't care less," Perdita said angrily. "I know," Lionel said with a sigh. "But politically, he couldn't have picked a worse person at a worse time. With the election coming up." All of them had seen the election season images and heard the rants and posturings from the packed field of candidates and their political action committees. All of them had heard at least half of the candidates shout scandal. Across the Internet blogs and columns strove for the loudest and most attention-getting spins on it. News magazine covers were already out showing Innini and Raymond. Newspaper headlines were on the order of: WHITE HOUSE SCANDAL! And: IMBROGLIO WITH NEW SUMER SPY-TEMPTRESS! "They'll have all the sound-bite artists," Idris said. As a former President's daughter, she was not unknowledgeable of campaign opportunism. "Implying there was a plot to sucker us into another Middle East adventure is just S.O.P. A great many people already regarded the National Security Advisor as a bumbling Somar al Jadeeda cheerleader. A scandal with Innini was just icing on the cake. The President knows he's got to go." "Well he did it to himself," Perdita said. "All I care about is he's out of here tonight. All heard the sound of a door opening and turned toward the front door. Perdita stood up and faced it with arm stretched out and her finger pointing like a weapon. "Ray, I don't want you in this house!" she shouted. Raymond Gordon, humbled, a little disheveled, stopped a step or two inside the door. He waved both of his hands beside his face. "Okay. That's what I expected. I rented a motel room. Just let me get a few of my things." Perdita nodded to two plastic storage tubs near the door. "Your things are in the tubs." "I still love you, Perdita," Raymond said. As he said it he realized it sounded like a bad soap opera line. "Just take your things and go, Ray," Perdita told him. "They fired me," he said. "What'd you expect?" she retorted. "Ray, my sister's furious," Lionel told his friend. "Let's go to your motel. We can talk there." Raymond hoisted one of the storage tubs on his shoulder. Lionel lifted up the other one. Idris opened the door for them. Raymond turned his head and took a last hopeless look at Perdita, saw that it was indeed hopeless, and went out. Lionel followed him out. Idris shut the door. Night had fallen by the time they reached the small and inexpensive motel on the outskirts of Washington DC. Gordon and Lionel carried the two plastic storage tubs containing some of Gordon's belongings into the motel room and set them on the floor. It was a starkly utilitarian motel room. Lionel and Raymond said nothing and looked glum. Before they could say anything there was a light k nock at the door. Gordon dragged himself to the door and opened it. It was Adrian carrying a large cardboard box. "Hi," he said. "Rescued some stuff from your office before they changed the lock." "Hi," Lionel said in the same manner. "Hi, come in," Gordon said as he cleared his throat. Adrian carried the large cardboard box with some loose papers and office equipment in it into the motel room. He handed it to Verney, who put it on top of a dresser. Absentmindedly or at a loss for anything else to say or do in the depressing situation, he picked up a scrap of paper that was on the top of the other papers and read it aloud. "Codeaum fontinalis delicatissimus." He looked up from it at Gordon with a blankness of puzzlement written all over his face. "A plant," Gordon told him. "It may have anti-viral properties. I had the CIA looking into it." "I'll bet they liked that!" Adrian snorted. "Did you also ask them to sing 'Where have all the flowers gone?'" Gordon sat on the edge of the motel bed and exhaled a long sigh. "Probably why they couldn't find anything. See if you can find this posy, Lionel. It's important. Supposed to grow in Panama. Lionel glanced at the scrap of paper and studied the words for a second. "Codeaum," he said with a frown while trying to remember and decipher. "Scientific for Croton, a common house plant. The rest of the name implies something rare, delicate." He looked at Gordon and shrugged to imply that it would be no trouble and he would do it. "I'll look into it." Adrian sought to get back to the present crisis and shot Gordon a questioning look. "Well, now what? Any plans?" "What would you suggest?" Gordon asked. "Forgetting the domestic situation for a minute, I'd get out of town — get out of the country," Adrian told him. "You're all washed up here for a while, Ray." "As far as your own domestic situation goes: you need a cooling-off period," Lionel added. "Maybe — just maybe — you can patch things up later. My sister is too deeply hurt now." "The way I see it, too," Gordon nodded. "I'll pick up the rest of the things from my office tomorrow. There are a few personal business things. Then I'm out of here in a couple days." "Where to?" Adrian asked. "New Sumer, I guess," Gordon answered. "Where else?" Adrian exhaled a long sigh of resignation. "Yeah, where else?" "No soldier-of-fortune things," Gordon added quickly. "Well, maybe military advice if war does break out again." And with that Gordon's mood of hurt and defeat changed and came alive. "It's where civilization began. It's a fascinating place. Do you realize that suddenly, five thousand years ago, in the span of a century, you had the first cities there. The first writing, the first metallurgy, the first wheeled carts, the first organized agriculture, the first real armies." All three men in the motel room had their own images of archeological digs at ancient Sumerian cities, cuneiform clay tablets, period oxcarts, archaeological metalwork artifacts, workers in Sumerian dress in agricultural fields, and ancient images showing Sumerian soldiers. Lionel was glad to see his friend's mood change. "So, what are you saying?" he asked. "Even the first representative government was there," Gordon continued as if lecturing a college class. "Fifty-five centuries later we have only extensions and improvements. We — what we are! — began there." He mulled it for a second and then turned to Adrian. "Why don't you come along, Adrian? I'll show you around." Adrian let out a satirical guffaw. "Ever consider working for a travel agency?" he said in a tone of dry humor. He looked at Lionel and then back at Gordon and then shrugged. "Okay. Why not? I'll go." Lionel just shook his head. "Send a postcard," he said with heavy sarcasm. COUNTDOWN SEVENTEEN Just a few days less than a year later, Perdita's living room was decorated for Halloween. Orange and black crepe paper bunting mingled with cut paper ghosts and printed paper pumpkins, all of these with varieties of jack-o-lantern faces. Hanging prominently on a wall was full-size a cardboard cutout human skeleton. Lionel, Adrian, Idris, and Perdita sat around a HDTV wide screen television-player. On its screen was a scene of children at a Halloween party in the same room a year earlier. Perdita pointed to the screen. "I can't believe that was last year," she said in a tone of reflection and melancholy. "Look at those kids." The others remained silent if only to allow Perdita to wallow for a moment in her memories. On the screen the Halloween-costumed children played musical chairs. "It looks so strangely "normal" now," Perdita continued after a pause. "I was about to go insane when this was taken. Marriage destroyed. Ray running off to Somar al Jadeeda." "And with my brother Adrian, no less," Idris added while nodding at Adrian to remind Perdita of her brother accompanying Raymond Gordon to New Sumer. Then she shot Perdita a sympathetic smile. "But you survived. And you got an M.A. this year besides." Perdita returned a scoff. "Master of Arts in Survival." New noise from the television set drowned out the brief conversation. The children were in a wild turmoil as another chair and player were removed and there was only one chair and one player left, a child standing alone as it were. Adrian looked toward his sister while he waited until the television uproar died down. "So you're over with it? We can talk about Ray now?" he asked. He looked at his wife Idris and then back at his sister Perdita. "Is it the war over there?" The home CD-movie came to an end with the children ambling away from the game. The television screen went to fuzzy background and scratchy noise. "Oh, that's the end," Adrian said of the obvious as if relieved for the momentary interruption. Avoiding answering her brother's question, Perdita got up and removed the CD. Before Lionel could stop her, she flicked off the television set. "Noon news?" her brother reminded her. She acknowledged the reminder and clicked the remote. She clicked the mute button to keep it silent. The television screen popped back on without sound. "Sorry. Got wrapped up in myself," she apologized to the others. She sat down with a sigh and a nod. "Yeah, we can talk about Ray now." "You worried about him?" Idris asked. "Sure!" she exclaimed loudly. "With the war, who wouldn't be?" Then she looked at others with an imploring expression, shook her head, and frowned. "And Clara understands things now. Sometimes in the middle of the night she comes to me insecure and worried." "Poor kid," Idris sympathized. Perdita's expression changed to a hint of anger. "What a strange father for that kid. I wish I understood what drove him." "It's not democracy," Idris said to guide her past her emotional baggage. "Somar al Jadeeda has dropped all pretenses. They're in a state of permanent 'national emergency.' now." "It's soldiering," Adrian interrupted. "That's all he ever did well. And he likes it." He paused for a second and considered whether he should tell more. "I didn't like it. I really can't understand how anyone can." He paused some more and contemplated it further. "The Islamist zealots in Baghdad are not completely unjustified. New Sumer was conducting a secret dirty little war across the Demilitarized Zone." Lionel had already heard the awful story. "Tell them that story," he told Adrian. Adrian gulped and gave Lionel a nod. But he frowned, unsure how to politely broach the story. Then he huffed a reluctant sigh. "Well, there were nightly forays by the Somar al Jadeeda Special Forces," he said with a touch of initial caution. "Ray often went as 'advisor.' Advisor, hah! He literally commanded those squads. One night he hauled me along." He became too choked up to continue and paused. The others waited politely and patiently for him to regain his speech and composure. He cleared his throat and raised a finger to indicate that he intended to continue. Then he finally got himself back together. "Two of their 'brave' soldiers raped a girl — maybe about twelve or thirteen. When her grandfather tried to stop them, they killed him. After they were finished with her, they killed her, too." The post-traumatic scene flashed before his eyes as if a hologram becoming real in the room. Several New Sumer soldiers in full battle dress were dumping the bodies of a young girl and an old man into the river. Raymond Gordon, in battle dress, was pointing accusingly at them. "Ray caught them dumping the bodies into the Tigris River," Adrian continued in a strained voice. "He held an instant battlefield inquiry and gave them a sharp reprimand. Then he let them go. He made a report. Nothing came of it." The others sat silently in shock. Perdita looked back at Adrian in deep anguish. "God! What's become of him?" she said as much to herself as to the others. Then she looked firmly at Adrian. "What's this world coming to?" "My feelings exactly," Adrian told her. "Ray and I had a long discussion — the whole thing. I flat out told him to quit. He asked, 'What would I do?' Nothing that I suggested was acceptable. So I told him I was leaving and wished him luck." Idris could see her brother was on the verge of emotional collapse. "Well, you got out of there just in time," she noted soothingly." She saw him nod and recover his composure. "I hope we don't get suckered into it." "Amen to that," Perdita put in. "Damn their oil. If we put effort into alternative energy, we wouldn't need it." Lionel shrugged and shook his head. "Would that really solve…" He was interrupted by the front door abruptly opening, then slamming. It was Perdita's now six-year-old daughter Clara dressed in school clothes. She came bouncing and skipping and carrying a homemade Halloween card to her mother. "Happy Halloween, Mom," she said. "Oh, thank you, Clara," Perdita said as she graciously accepted the Halloween card. Perdita got up. She led her daughter to the adjoining dining room. On the table was a shopping bag. Clara watched intently as her mother reached into it. Perdita pulled out a fabric Halloween skeleton costume and showed it to Clara. "Look what Mommy bought you for the Halloween party," she said while studying her daughter for all the fond memories the instant might some day hold. Clara jumped with joy. She had last seen it hanging in the toy store. "The skeleton suit!" she shouted. "Go upstairs and try it on," her mother told her. Clara started running toward the stairs. "And your lunch is on the kitchen table." Clara turned and nodded and then continued running up the stairs. The others pointed to the television set. A newsperson had come on screen. Perdita still held the remote in her hand. "Turn on the sound," Idris implored as the screen began showing a clip of a fierce desert battle involving tanks and infantry. With an apologetic nod, Perdita turned on the sound. The news announcer's cool detached voice suddenly cut in describing the scenes of violence. "…fierce fighting is reported in the vicinity of Ad Diwaniya. The Somar al Jadeeda High Command claims to have taken the city, but Baghdad radio insists that it is still in their hands." The television screen cut back to the talking head of the news announcer. "In a related development, Somar al-Jadeeda's ambassador to the United Nations, Jamil Ali, is claiming that the Baghdad regime's introduction of biological warfare weapons may be imminent." The television screen cut to New Sumer ambassador Jamil Ali, and the voice became his with a slight Arabic accent. "The outlaw Baghdad regime has partially reopened its damaged biological weapons lab cunningly called 'Baby Formula Factory Number Two.' Our government has reliable intelligence that these unprincipled religious fanatics are scheming to unleash a dangerous engineered virus into the war." The television screen cut back to the news announcer. "Most analysts dismiss this as more overripe war rhetoric of the type being generated by both sides." The news announcer paused, looked to the right then down at the desk, then back at the TV audience while holding a sheet of paper. "And we have some breaking news. Baghdad radio has just announced the capture of former US National Security Advisor Raymond Gordon. Gordon was known to be in Somar al-Jadeeda teaching at their new War College near the ruins of the ancient city of Ur. Military sources in Somar al Jadeeda confirm that Gordon may have been in the area of fighting as an observer." A look of horror came over Perdita even before she turned to the others. Idris, Adrian, and Lionel shook their heads in disbelief. They all looked at one another with helpless dumfounded expressions. On the television screen the news announcer put the breaking news printout down and continued with calm, collected demeanor and tone. "In Washington, the Albert Gray scandal continues to widen. It was…" Perdita clicked off the television. They all looked at one another, for a moment speechless. "As if I didn't have enough trouble already," Perdita said while looking at the floor. Just then Clara came bouncing with a pattering of feet across the room's hardwood floor to show herself off in her new Halloween skeleton costume. She abruptly stopped when she saw their ponderously serious expressions. "Something wrong?" she asked. Perdita got up and went to Clara. "Your Dad's in a little trouble." She looked at her daughter's skeleton costume and fought up a smile. "Great skeleton. Let's see the mask." "What kinda trouble?" Clara asked. Perdita looked hopelessly at Idris, Adrian, and Lionel, took a deep breath, and looked back at Clara. "Not the kind you ever want to be in," she told her young and now very worried daughter. COUNTDOWN SIXTEEN Only Raymond Gordon's stature and celebrity as a former American national security advisor saved him. The Somar al-Jadeeda military officers who had been captured with him had been tortured and then publicly beheaded in downtown Baghdad. A deal had been hacked out whereby certain ostensibly private American donors had flown in three cargo planes full of badly needed medicines and medical supplies into Baghdad airport. A few days later Gordon was released. But he was far too ill and weak from what must euphemistically be called "mistreatment" to fly all the way back to North America. For several weeks he remained near death in a clinic in Somar al Jadeeda. When he was deemed able to survive he moved himself out of the clinic and into a recovery room in a posh hotel suite that had been set up with the help of friends. It was decorated with Middle Eastern motifs and had large windows looking out over the capital city. After several weeks there he had adequately recovered to fly back to the United States. But by then the U.S. government and the government of Somar al Jadeeda had diplomatically persuaded him to stay in the region. Gordon continued living in the same hotel suite. It had originally been like typical sterile and neat hotel rooms, but after a time his had acquired a lived-in look. While he may have adequately recovered enough to handle a flight back halfway around the world, he was not completely well yet. So there were exercise machines and physical therapy devices cluttered around it. Lionel had come to be what help and company he could be and to keep an eye on his friend's mental and physical health improvement. Perdita and Clara had come shortly after. They had stashed themselves in less posh suites in a nearby tourist hotel, former tourist hotel now that tourists, as such, rarely showed up on this periphery of the intermittently active or hair-trigger imminent war zone. Wearing tropical clothing, Lionel and Perdita were for the moment the only people in Gordon's suite. He was not there. Bored and tired of waiting, Lionel stood looking out the picture window. Perdita, equally frustrated from waiting, sat back in a couch. The scene outside through the window was peaceful. But they both knew it might not be soon. The cease-fire that had been negotiated to allow the small fleet of cargo planes with medical supplies into Baghdad airport had held for an unexpected length of time, probably due to war-weariness and exhaustion of war materials on both sides. But it was now in the final stages of breaking down. "Cease-fire didn't hold," Lionel said to break the silence. "At least it held long enough for the prisoner exchange," Perdita reminded him. They had both seen the news clips and photos of the final prisoner exchange. Large prominent blue United Nations flags flew from a Humvee loaded with prisoners was dispatched across the desert landscape by a uniformed blue-helmet United Nations officer. In a cloud of dust in the distance, another vehicle approached. "Yeah," Lionel nodded. "At least they got Ray out." Gordon had reluctantly revealed some of his treatment to them. From what he had said, they had formed their own images of him, stripped to the waist in glaring spotlights, being waterboarded, and showing signs of beating. Each had their own ideas of the torturers applying cattle prods while Gordon screamed. "And he's almost back to normal," Perdita noted. "Normal as you can get after that," she added. She sighed and threw her hands up to show exasperation. "I was still so mad at him... But after what he'd been through..." Lionel turned from the window and strolled over to a physical therapy apparatus. He placed a hand on its handle and leaned on it with a frown toward his sister Perdita. She relaxed some, glanced at the apparatus, and shook her head slightly. "Well, it did help him to have me — and Clara — around and caring about him," she offered. Lionel sidestepped it. "Good to see him up and around." "Yes," Perdita replied tersely. Lionel sensed his sister's frustration and shot her an interrogative look. "So when are you going back to the States?" Perdita suddenly turned glum. "I don't think we are." She looked out the window then back at Lionel. "He's been in and out of the US Embassy here for the last couple weeks. Secret stuff. Won't talk about it. But I'm pretty sure they want him in New Sumer." Lionel looked back at her with a touch of anger in his expression. "You and Clara aren't going there, I hope? It's not only thoroughly bombed out, it's dangerous." Perdita sighed and shrugged. "It's about over. Baghdad's surrounded. They can't hold out much longer. She looked away toward the window again and then back at Lionel. "But no, we're not going there. School's starting next week. I've got to take Clara back to California." The door opened. Clara ran to her mother carrying a children's book. Gordon, aided by a cane, limped in after her. "Dad bought me a book," Clara happily announced. Gordon reached up with his cane and poked the door shut. Perdita deliberately turned away from him. Lionel turned to him and struck a confrontational stance. "Why do you have to go back, Ray?" he asked with no attempt to hide his exasperation. But even as he said it, he knew that it was useless. Gordon was deeply embedded in the intelligence community. He had already received his orders. "One really has to do what one has to do. I really have no choice," Gordon told him with ominous intonations that made what he was saying and implying perfectly clear to Lionel. Then he sighed and shrugged and changed to a more reassuring tone. "It's over. Baghdad's done. I'll be back in a couple weeks. They would very much appreciate your help. They liked your OPEC work. Your security clearance is still valid." "That's why you asked me over?" Lionel demanded in an irritated voice. Gordon glared at him with an implication that this was less than negotiable. Lionel angrily hit the physical therapy apparatus and it went through a cycle of movement. "Damn!" he said. "Okay, but when this is over, it's over!" "Should be, in a couple weeks," Gordon told him in a reassuring tone. Perdita wheeled around aghast. She showed the two men a very angry face and a bitter furious glare. "Clara and I are out of here! Give me a call when it's over, Ray," she shouted. Then she turned and stormed off. The next day and in time for school, Perdita bought plane tickets to take Clara back to the United States. She, Clara, and Raymond had breakfast together at the airport and parted amiably. As the plane lifted off from the runway she could make him out on the airport building observation platform waving his cane to wish them a fond farewell. Within several days the cease-fire completely broke down and the war in Mesopotamia was on again. The war, as wars will, dragged on and on. For all the abundant weapons of death, these were two Third World military machines. Casualties were high. But the battle lines stagnated into death traps with little significant movement. Each side, however, possessed crude but effective medium-range missiles and this made living in their cities absolute hell. A day earlier one such missile, fired by the Baghdad side, had landed in the government-office sector of Somar al-Jadeeda's capital city with a large civilian toll of dead and wounded. By no stretch of the imagination could anyone have called it "collateral damage." It was war-terrorism, done solely to cause civilian deaths and injuries. Everything from ambulances to pickup trucks to three-wheeled motorcycles brought badly injured people to the nearest hospitals. No one knew who any of them were at first. They were just badly injured people in need of immediate treatment. But it turned out that Innini had been one of them. And as soon as anyone found out who she was, the authorities contacted Raymond Gordon. The few remaining in her immediate family lived in remote towns a day's distance away or were out of the country on government business. Gordon was the only contact person in the capital city. As a result, military advisors Raymond Gordon and Lionel Verney, wearing the nation's military fatigue uniforms, headed into the damaged but operational hospital to visit her. A corridor was being used as a makeshift hospital ward. Blackout curtains hung from the windows. A doctor dressed in hospital greens with a stethoscope hanging from his neck stood waiting. Gordon and Verney came to a halt in front of him. Moans and cries of pain surrounded them. A harried receptionist, herself showing splattered blood on her clothes, pointed to a doctor. Gordon and Verney hurried to him and asked about Innini. The doctor turned to them shaking his head. "Sorry, very bad," he told them with a heavy Arabic accent. "Had to load her up with morphine." "Going to make it?" Gordon urgently pressed. The doctor shook his head. "Inshallah! Only a miracle..." He pointed down the row of beds in the corridor. "Last bed." Gordon marched determinedly in that direction. Verney and the doctor followed. Gordon turned only slightly as he rapidly walked. "Dammit! What was she doing here?" "She's a soldier," Lionel advised, talking to the back of his head as they hurried. "You should know." They reached the bed. Innini's head was wrapped in a bloody bandage. She looked like body in bloody sheets and lay deathlike with her eyes closed. Gordon went right up to the bed. Verney and the doctor stopped some steps back from it. Gordon stood for a moment looking at her while she slept, no doubt recalling all those times that they had shared. Finally he spoke softly. "Innini." Weakly and with some difficulty Innini opened her eyes. "Ray..." she managed to say in a hoarse whisper. "Good to see you..." Gordon interrupted so she would not exhaust herself talking. "Innini, I…" But Innini continued to struggle to speak. "Ray, there is something important. Remember the flower name I gave you?" "Flower?" Gordon asked puzzled. Innini was in pain. She forced herself to speak with great difficulty. "Scrap of paper... In Washington... Cure for... Their biowar virus..." Gordon knelt beside the bed, reached for her bloody bandaged hand, and held onto it. "Don't try to talk, Innini." Innini ceased breathing. Raymond failed to notice. "We had some great times, didn't we?" Gordon said to her while massaging her hand. "Remember when..." The doctor tapped Gordon on his shoulder. Gordon turned to see him shaking his head. The doctor stepped over to the bed, put his stethoscope on Innini's chest, and listened. He took her pulse and found none. He turned helplessly to the two Americans. "Nothing we could do," he said. Gordon, tears beginning to run down his cheeks, stood up. He closed Innini's eyes, kissed her lightly, and straightened up sobbing. They had been unlikely lovers and friends, brought together and torn apart by a world of politics, wars, and turmoil. For the first and only time in his life Lionel saw tears streaming down Raymond's cheeks. COUNTDOWN FIFTEEN That rocket attack had signaled an intensification of fighting between the regime of religious fanatics controlling Baghdad and central Mesopotamia, and Somar al Jadeeda to the south. The two American military and intelligence advisors were pressed more deeply into the war than they had bargained for. They were sent to the edge of a fire base and military runway near the front lines and found themselves working under a camouflage tent in the middle of the hot desert. In the heat of the day it was sweltering. But there was little relief outside. All around them desolate desert burned in the midday sun. There was no mistaking that it was a war zone. Sandbag walls surrounded the tent. Desert-painted military machines and equipment lay scattered about, some intact and usable, some blasted apart. Trenches had been dug for missile-attack contingencies but so far had gone unused because rudely surprised vipers in them were thought to present a greater hazard, and the sandbags seemed just barely adequate against blast flak. Under the tent and around a large collapsible military table, Gordon, Verney, and two Somar al Jadeeda officers, a colonel and a general, all wearing desert military fatigues, stood pondering aerial reconnaissance photographs. The colonel pointed to a photograph on the table, picked it up, and carefully examined it. It showed a partially restored building that had been bombed several years earlier. He turned to Gordon. He had graduated from Sandhurst and spoke English with an Oxford-tinged Arabic accent. "Baghdad Baby Formula Factory number two," he said. "The Pentagon told me to warn you not to bomb it," Gordon snapped back. He glared sternly at the New Sumer colonel and then the New Sumer general and then pointed an accusing finger at them. "Not to bomb it for any reason." "Your Pentagon does not tell me what to do!" the general snapped back while the colonel placed the photograph back on the table. "But, I do not intend to bomb it!" "Police Communications Center across the street," the colonel added. "Legitimate military target." "Cutting it close," Gordon said while shaking his head. "Smart bomb," the colonel offered. Gordon let out a loud guffaw. "Yours? Ukrainian-made? Indonesian guidance? Belize batteries?" "This is war," the general said with a hint of apology. "We use what we have." Hesitant and reluctant, Lionel Verney broke in. "We might be able to get you a stateof-the-art American." The general shook his head at the pathos of the offer. "Pentagon red-tape? Take 'till doomsday! I am responsible for winning this war — soon! Before turmoil topples our government." Gordon sighed, then shrugged. "Let the record show that I opposed it." "It will so show," the general nodded. He turned to the colonel. "You have my orders." The colonel turned to Gordon and Verney. "Not as good as American. But they have fifty-percent reliability." Gordon broke out into a brief coughing and guffawing fit over it. "Fifty-percent. Great," he finally said. The colonel barked some orders in Arabic into a military radio. That was all that was necessary to put the planned operation into motion. Pilots ran to two desert-painted Swedish-made New Sumer fighter-bombers protected from Baghdad rocket attacks by earthen barriers. Their jet engines roared and whined into operation. Ground-crew flags authorized take-off. The bomb-and-missile-laden planes sprinted off down the runway in tandem and shot off into the wavy hot air. The pilots had their targets. They banked and headed out across the desert toward Baghdad. Both pilots made their bombing and missile runs over Baghdad. Only one of them, however, had been given the police communications center target that was across the street from the partly damaged Baghdad Baby Formula Factory Number Two. He zeroed in his guidance monitor and pressed a button on his joystick. As he followed the missile in, he immediately sensed that something was wrong. It was heading off course. On the ground air raid sirens had been wailing for ten minutes. A few panicked Baghdad residents and military personnel still ran for cover. Those who might have taken a glance at the Baghdad Baby Formula Factory Number Two would have seen the wayward missile slam into it and explode. And it was a large and awful explosion. The missile had been filled with high explosives and designed to do maximum damage. The blast was deafening. A black-brown cloud of debris flew high into the air and began falling in a wide area around the Baghdad Baby Formula Factory. The pilot immediately radioed the missile malfunction and its consequences back to home base. Within minutes word had gotten to Gordon and Verney. As American military and intelligence advisors, their responsibility was to the Pentagon. Gordon immediately contacted his superior by cell phone. The news hit hard. Bitterness bordered on panic. Less than an hour later, in the command tent in the Mesopotamian desert, frustrated Raymond Gordon paced and talked into his cell phone. Verney could only sit and watch. "We told them!" Gordon shouted into his cell phone. He listened to the response. "They couldn't wait. At the other end of the phone in the Pentagon a U.S. nearing retirement age was shaking his head and trying to maintain some military composure as he talked on a "secure" telephone. "Well, make them seal the whole Baghdad siege perimeter," he barked angrily to Gordon at the other end. "I mean sealed! Nothing allowed through until we assess. No contact — of any kind — with enemy troops or civilians. Shoot to kill on sight. Including animals. Got that?" "Yes, sir," Gordon said. He flipped off the cell phone and turned to the general. The Somar al-Jadeeda general and Raymond Gordon had an immediate and very frank conversation. The general knew where his military support was coming from and he knew that the "requests" that Gordon was making were virtual military orders. He did not salute Gordon as a subordinate officer might after receiving an order. But there was every indication in his stance and demeanor that he felt a salute would not be improper. He issued immediate orders to seal off the Baghdad siege perimeter. He then called his government and received their unconditional approval for his action. There was no discussion, no argument, no hesitation. Everyone involved at these upper echelons of government and military knew the new seriousness of the situation, the new developing crisis. Rather remarkably for military operations in the region, within hours Baghdad was totally sealed off from the outside world. Two days later, halfway around the world in a folksy mom-and-pop eatery along the main drag in a tiny Nebraska town, several customers sat on stools at the counter and in booths lining the wall. They had their own concerns, and talked about them while they ate their home-cooked meals. Mounted on the wall behind the counter an old television set blared out the news. A sudden lull in restaurant noises and conversation allowed a blurb of news to fill the eatery. Some of the customers even bothered to glance at the television set for a few seconds and pick up a fragment of what was being said. The news announcer was continuing in a bland almost monotone. "...booted out of the United Nations six years ago, the Baghdad military regime has now filed a complaint with the UN over the new — as they put it — "inhumane Americanbacked seige-rules" by New Sumer. No one — including relief workers and remaining diplomatic personnel — is being allowed in or out. Reasons for this new draconian policy are unclear. The Pentagon has a "No comment." But..." Pops of the mom-and-pop eatery reached under the counter, grabbed a remote, and clicked off the television set. Some in the eatery applauded. Others had brief comments. "Hope it gets their damn nasty little war over with," one said. "Getting tired of hearing about it." "I hear ya on that," Mom of the mom-and-pop eatery shot back while she wiped the counter. Twenty-nine days later at the Pentagon, the same U. S. Army General that Gordon had been talking to and a US Army major that he had not yet talked to looked over satellite image photographs spread out on a large gray steel desk. The two professional military men had seen battles and death. But what they seemed to be seeing now went beyond all of that. For all of their cold hard military demeanor, they could not hide looking deeply troubled and appalled. They looked from the photographs of Baghdad that had been taken several days earlier to a laptop with current satellite views of that city. "Two days," the general said reflectively and puzzled while stroking his chin. "No discernable movement." "Worst catastrophe I ever saw. That has to be one bad bug," the major noted. "If, that is, what we see isn't some kind of an elaborate trap or tactic." The general stood up straight from bending over and concentration on the laptop on the desk while pondering what he had been looking at. He stroked a hand across his forehead and then blinked a wince. "Let's get our Bio-war boys in over there. Oh, and our man Colonel Gordon. Knows his way around. And toss in some experts from CDC and the UN for political cover." COUNTDOWN FOURTEEN In the command tent in the Mesopotamian desert Gordon and Verney were looking at the same satellite imagery of Baghdad. Gordon just stood there staring at the screen. He hardly moved a muscle. With a deep and growing frown, he carefully studied the image of the city. After some time he reluctantly broke himself away from studying it and looked at Verney with a terribly reluctant realization. All he could bring himself to do was utter a one-word exclamation. "God!" He looked at Lionel. Lionel looked at him. Identical thoughts were going through the two men's minds. And for a pregnant minute they just looked at each other in silence. "The whole population of Baghdad!" Gordon half-shouted, half-sighed. The New Sumer colonel had kept himself at a safe distance behind the screen and had looked on almost as an observer to his own war in his own country. "Another drone?" he volunteered. "Close-up lens?" Gordon turned to him with a look of pathos and shaking his head. "Been there. Done that." Gordon's cell phone beeped. He grabbed the phone from his ammunition belt and hurried it to his ear. For some seconds he only listened. "Yes, General," he finally said. "I'm ready." Gordon snapped off the phone and returned it to his belt. Lionel Verney and the New Sumer colonel knew that the call was from the Pentagon. Both waited for Gordon to either comment or go back to the satellite image of Baghdad on the laptop screen. "U. S. Army chopper's were dispatched from our Base Alpha across the border. E.T.A. here, ten minutes. Our Biowar aces and CDC and UN people are in them. I'm to go with them. Have to suit up." "Whoa!" Lionel blurted out as he held up his right hand like a traffic cop to signal stop. "If the Baghdad fanatics are pulling something, you could end up in a replay of last year's prisoner episode." Gordon emphatically shook his head. "No. They couldn't batten down a whole city like that." He shook his head again, but with a studied expression. "Ninety-nine percent of 'em would have to be dead." Gordon had only begun to suit up in his biowar protection gear when they heard several large helicopters approaching across the desert landscape. All three of them hurried out of the tent and headed toward the landing pad. Like dark giant insects beating their way across the dry desolate terrain the three helicopters presented an eerie foreboding spectacle. In another several minutes the three large desert-painted U. S. Army Chinook-type helicopters landed, quickly, incautiously, one after another. Through open doors Verney and Gordon saw people covered from head to toe in biological warfare isolation suits. Gordon clumsily hurried to the waiting helicopter as fast as his biological warfare protection gear would allow, crouching as he ran to avoid having his head removed by a wayward helicopter blade. About to board, he turned, pointed to Somar al Jadeeda Colonel and Verney. Both were wearing earpieces with attached voice-activated thin-tube microphones to communicate with Gordon, whose head was now covered by the biowar shield. Gordon pointed to the New Sumer colonel. "Khalid, if we start drawing fire, we'll head back. If we're hit, fly in and get me the hell out. I don't want them to take me alive again." He moved his outstretched arm and pointed to Verney. "Lionel, you keep your ear glued to the radio. Khalid may not catch English nuances — pick up stress, et cetera." Gordon began to climb aboard the helicopter. He turned and pointed to the colonel and Verney again. "Oh, one more important thing, Lionel! That posy I gave you in Washington. Look into it. Potential for a cure for this virus thing." "I looked," Verney shouted into the tube-mike to be heard over the helicopter noise. "No such plant." "Keep looking," Gordon shouted. "Must be there somewhere." Gordon pulled himself into the helicopter. It took off. The other two followed. Verney and the New Sumer colonel followed the three cumbersome flying machines with their eyes as they flew north toward Baghdad, diminishing over the desert terrain as the distance increased. Finally they disappeared over the horizon. Gordon's voice broke into Verney's earpiece with a scratchy sound. He apparently was being briefed as he headed toward Baghdad. "Plan is for UN and CDC to collect air and biological samples. Read me, Verney?" "Yes, Ray. I'm reading you. Go on." "Our Bio-war boys are heading for the ministries of War and Health to download and transmit everything they can in our time-window. Make sure our medics are suited-up if we take casualties." "They're ready and waiting," Verney said as he talked to something now unseen beyond the horizon. If he could have seen and heard the formation of helicopters he might have heard the whine of their engines, their rotors chopping at the desert air, their haste to cross the patches of desert and sites of habitations below. The helicopters crossed the front lines. On the Somar al Jadeeda side there was minor but perceptible movement in the foxholes and trenches. On the side of the Holy Army that was fighting for the regime in Baghdad nothing appeared to move. Back at the fire base command tent Verney listened intently for any sound from his radio ear piece. Scratchiness broke in to the long silence. "Can't see anything moving in their trenches," Gordon's voice declared. It was followed by a brief silence as if Gordon was intently studying the military situation on the ground. "Just nothing!" he finally announced in a perplexed voice. "Just nothing!" he repeated with a touch of bewilderment. That was followed by more seconds of silence. "We're heading into Baghdad!" he announced with military firmness. Lionel could only mull the wisdom of it. He had no control over their movements. For the moment he was glad that the Holy Army of Allah had not shot at the vulnerable helicopters. What might await the team in Baghdad was a big unknown. It might be a trap. They might be trying to capture some high-ranking officials to use as hostages for cease-fire negotiations. It was midday in Baghdad. There was no sign of movement. The three large U.S. Army helicopters dispersed and set down at agreed locations widely scattered over the city. The chopper carrying Gordon and U.S. CDC personnel, all suited in biowar protection gear, set down amid swirling dust and debris. The engine went to idle and the blades slowed to a flop-flop-flop. A dozen people in what looked like white space suits and carrying various kinds of equipment disembarked from the helicopters into Baghdad. One so suited figure, Raymond Gordon, pointed out assignments to some of the others. Some of them were clearly not under his authority and had their own assignments. They headed off without waiting for him. Gordon and the his people fanned out running toward their assigned duty areas while carrying various forms of research apparatus. Baghdad had been under attack and under siege for years. The eye could not avert the ubiquitous bomb damage and bomb craters. At first the research people walked gingerly as if expecting IEDs or something similar. In fact, no one quite knew what to expect. It soon became apparent that the logic of this was faulty. Daily commerce in Baghdad had been continuing right up to the end. They would not have planted booby traps that would have exploded under their own people. Moreover, they could not have expected U.S. and U.N. helicopters to land in the city and would not have known the locations even if they might have expected them. Nonetheless, there was something awesomely scary about the absolute absence of even the faintest sign of human activity. Even a risk-taker like Gordon was impressed enough by this to proceed with more caution than he had ever used. But as the minutes slipped by with nothing at all occurring near him or any of the others, Gordon began to relax some of his initial caution. While looking vigilantly around him for signs of enemy activity, Gordon spoke to Verney through the voice-activated radio device in his suit. "Bodies in the streets," he declared. "Nothing seems alive. Looks like a gigantic Jonestown. My chopper's just north of the old Baghdad War Memorial just in case someone has to come in." "Roger. I'm reading you," Verney answered. Gordon, weapon drawn, walked toward a body on the pavement in the middle of the deserted street. When he got to it, he stood cautiously studying it but without attempting to touch it. The body showed massive purple splotches like someone might have in the last stages of A.I.D.S. "I'm standing over a body in the middle of the street," Gordon said into the mike in his suit. "It's covered with massive purple splotches. I can't tell how long it's been dead. I'm heading toward a bomb-damaged building." A cat ran in front of Gordon and startled him into a loud yelp. "What was that?" Verney asked. "Cat jumped in front of me," Gordon told him. "Cat's alive, not affected. Whatever it is, it seems breathable. I'm going to be a guinea pig and take off my head gear." Gordon removed his head shield and tucked it under his left arm. The mike, however, was attached to his suit. Gordon shoved the ear piece deeper into his ear. "I took my mask off," he told Verney. "Air is breathable for humans, too. Clearly it's not nerve gas or anything like that." Gordon, gun ready, headed toward a damaged retail building while looking around cautiously as he walked. There were several bodies lying in the street and on the sidewalk. Memories of images of booby-trapped bodies in various Middle Eastern conflicts raced through his mind. These could conceivably have motion-sensitive detonators. He slowly and carefully approached one of them. He stayed a studied cautious distance back from it while he looked it over carefully. Not far away were two others and they looked the same. It adequately evident that the appearances of all of them were similar and probably had mortality significance. Everything around him seemed bizarre. The bazaar across the street seemed bizarre. Then he noticed that the lights were still on in it and he tensed up in defensive caution. He pulled his helmet with the voice-activated mike in it close to his mouth and spoke into it. "The body in the street has purple splotches on all exposed skin. Some lights are on in the buildings. It may be that the city generator is running on automatic. Or some people are still alive and running utilities. I have no idea." Gordon got to the front of a blasted-out store window. On a counter is a normal line telephone. He surveyed the inside carefully, then went in. "There's a telephone," Gordon told Verney. "I'm inside a small clothing store. I'm going to try it to see if telephones are working like the electricity." With his eyes squinted to detect the slightest movement and his gun ready to use on it, he carefully studied the small store. Then he stepped to the telephone, removed his right- hand protective glove and set it, his mask, and the earpiece-with-attached-microphone on the counter by the cash register. He frowned, looked around the store and the street again, and then picked up the phone. To his surprise there was a dial tone. If anyone might have been there to see him, they would have noticed an impish expression on his face. Playfully and licking his lips, he dialed a long international number. And while he waited for an answer with the telephone to his ear, he whistling a tune with the kind of anxiety one might have while walking by a cemetery. The phone at the other end was, to his surprise, ringing. As with the electricity, either there were personnel manning the phone system, or it was on automatic. Gordon had impishly dialed his ex-wife Perdita, Verney's sister, in the United States. Perdita, in her apartment living room, picked up the telephone to answer it. "Hello?" "Perdita, it's Ray." "Ray! Where are you?" "In Baghdad." "BAGHDAD!" Perdita shouted. "What are you doing in Baghdad?" "Explain later. Listen, this is important. Everyone's dead. The whole city is dead." "What happened?" "Can't tell you. National security." "Biological warfare?" "Theirs. Not ours. Backfired on them." Back at the fire base command tent Verney was growing anxious. He stood beside the New Sumer colonel. Just outside the tent was a small New Sumer helicopter painted with military desert camouflage that could not conceal the fact that it had been a television station news helicopter before the outbreak of present hostilities. Verney pressed the earpiece into his ear. His expression showed anxiety and worry over and above being puzzled. He spoke into the tube mike with urgency. "Ray. Ray, you there? Ray, come in. Answer me." He got no reply. He threw the colonel an apprehensive look and shook his head with a shiver. He could not know that Gordon had merely set his communications gear on the clothing store counter in central Baghdad. Behind Gordon was the helicopter and its pilot. The lazy flop-flop of the idling Chinook-type helicopter beat the air in the background. They all had to be back inside the helicopter in a matter of minutes. Gordon glanced nervously at his watch while listening on the telephone. Gordon could see people suited-up CDC personnel beginning to return on the run with their research gear toward the helicopter. There was a self-imposed very limited timewindow for the operation. It forced Gordon into a sense of urgency with Perdita. "Let me tell you, this is weird, Perdita," he said with undisguised anxiety. "I've been in wars. But I've never been scared like this. Look, got to get back. Love you." "Ray, just get back here," she yelled into the phone. Gordon shot a glance at the helicopter. It looked like the CDC researcher were now all aboard. He slowly hung up the phone, then quickly grabbed his gear and walked rapidly toward it. Back at the camouflage tent by the landing pad Verney started running toward the helicopter while urgently waving the colonel to hurry and follow. "Something's wrong! Let's go!" he shouted as he began donning his protective headgear. Both he and the New Sumer colonel ran awkwardly in their protective suits toward the helicopter. They climbed in. The colonel made a very quick pre-flight check, started the engine, revved up the rotor, and took off. The helicopter flew low across the desert as a precaution against enemy ground-toair missiles. It was so low that the whirling rotors stirred up dust on the desert terrain. They crossed dry desert stream beds and the pilot sometimes had to lift the helicopter for approaching mounds of sand or rock. After some uneasy time of this hairy desert flying, Verney estimated that they had covered a third of the distance to Baghdad. The helicopter dropped into a wide wadi and flew in it for a while. Just as it was emerging there was an enormous bright flash ahead of them in the direction of Baghdad. Immediately Verney knew that it was an atomic blast. Whether the colonel knew or not, he did not stop flying the helicopter low across the dry terrain. Verney shouted into the mike. But the colonel was intent on not crashing his chopper. Verney bailed out without parachute with the helicopter velocity equal to that of a racing car on a track. He hit the dirt hard and rolled into the wadi. The helicopter continued on toward the blinding bright light nuclear blast. Blast debris flew over the wadi. The helicopter was beaten by the debris and blast and knocked out of the sky. It hit the ground and exploded. When Verney hit the ground he was knocked unconscious. Sheer momentum rolled him into the wadi. This saved him from the blast. His battered suit saved him from much of the radiation. If he had been conscious he might have been able to see the top of the awful mushroom cloud. When he regained consciousness, he could not move. More bones were broken than he knew he had. He used his suit radio to call for help. Eventually a Somar al Jadeeda search team found him and brought him back in a medical rescue helicopter. After months of therapy and recovery in a hospital there, he was ready to go home. COUNTDOWN THIRTEEN Casually dressed, Lionel Verney sat in a wheelchair at the New Sumer International Airport. A pseudo-cast immobilized his right leg and his left arm was in a marginally necessary sling. He listlessly gazed through the picture windows at the tarmac and parked jet airliners. All around him in the waiting area heavy with Middle East décor were photos of archaeological artifacts from the time of ancient Sumer. In several glass cases were real archaeological artifacts from that period of the beginning of civilization. A neon sign in back of the nearby ticket area said WELCOME TO SOMAR ALJADEEDA AIRWAYS. He betrayed signs of discomfort and shifted in his wheelchair as he sat at the end of a row of plastic airport waiting room chairs beside Perdita and Clara. Perdita looked both stoic and realistic. Clara was, as kids are, restless and could not sit still. She got up and skipped and hopped to the picture window to watch the airplanes outside. Perdita turned her attention from Lionel to Clara. "Clara, stay near. We're going to get on the plane in a few minutes." Clara acknowledged with a quick nod and meandered along the window while running her forefinger along the smooth surface of the glass. "She seems to have taken it okay," Lionel told Perdita. "And you seem to, too." They had just come from burying Raymond Gordon near the ancient Ziggurat of Ur, according to Gordon's last wishes. If it had been anyone else, the government of Somar Al- Jadeeda would have forbidden it. But Gordon was a popular hero in that country. He had earned his unique final resting place. The marker was simple. It merely gave his name and the years bounding his lifetime in both Arabic and English. The wind blew desert sand and dust over it and some stayed on it. In the airport waiting lounge Perdita turned slowly to her injured brother. "Later I'll miss him terribly. But right now it's like a long ordeal that's over," she said. "My real awful stress was the divorce. And then, after that, that not-knowing hostage time." "Good thing he was wearing his dog tags," Lionel noted. "Half melted, but at least you know." Perdita gave her brother a quick smile. "At least you lived through it." Lionel bowed his head in memory and reflection. "Ray and Khalid didn't." "It's over, Lionel. Put it away." Perdita glanced toward Clara to make sure she was still nearby and then returned to her brother. "What's the inside dope about the atomic booby trap theory? Were they really going to do in the victorious armies of Somar al Jadeeda as they marched into Baghdad?" Lionel shook his head. "Inside view is they saw the awful results of their biowar agent. Last ones alive tried to halt the spread by blowing up stockpiles — hoping the heat and radiation would kill their virus cultures." He paused, looked around, and then shrugged. "But that may just be looking for a hint of some good in the human soul. Whatever, it's all over now." Perdita exhaled a long sigh. "All over. I'll be glad to get back to Kentfield. This may be where civilization began, but it sure isn't where it is now." Just then the airport PA system broke in. "Delta Airlines Flight Two for New York and San Francisco, with stops in Berlin and London, now boarding at Gate Four. Please have your boarding passes ready. The message was repeated in Arabic. Perdita looked anxiously toward Clara. "Come on Clara. We're going now." They gathered up their belongings as Clara hurried to them. All three headed toward boarding area. Clara hopped and skipped past a glass display case and stopped for a second to look at several ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets displayed in it. But her mother gave her arm a tug and pulled her on. The flight was uneventful if dreary and long. After the plane landed at San Francisco International Airport, Perdita and Clara took an expensive taxi ride to their suburban house in Kentfield, California. There, life continued on with a comforting feeling of normality for several weeks. Clara went to school. Perdita went back to her semi-professional interests in photography. An Internet publisher had given her a small advance for shoreline photographs around San Francisco Bay. She had leapt into the project with enormous energy and enthusiasm. Two-dimensional images, like words and language, stir only human sensitivities. Her images were evocative, interesting, and yet cautionary about intrusive human harm to the environment. Above all they were beautiful and sought for that. Clara went to school Perdita went out on her little carefully planned expeditions to capture fleeting images of reality on film. She always returned home before Clara returned from school. The days and nights were memorable if only for their normality against the backdrop of outrageous and terrible events that had happened. It was a good time to be living. The economy was good. The world seemed in a lull of peace for the moment. Medical and scientific breakthroughs promised to cure horrible diseases. The strange deadly apparent biowar virus appeared to be contained inside what had once been the old Baghdad siege perimeter and, funding presupposed, scientists all over the world were struggling to find out what it was and then find a way to stop it. Perdita had a marvelous job that she genuinely liked. She dove into her work with an intensity that obliterated everything around her except her subject matter. And that kind of creative intensity of focus is not always a good thing. Perdita and Lionel had not been back from the Middle East for even a month when the tragedy happened. Lionel had been called at home. He knew what had happened to his sister but was in denial when he pulled up behind a Kentfield police car parked in front of her house. Lionel had not completely recovered from his injuries in Somar al Jadeeda. He opened the car door and struggled to get out. As he got out, Idris, Adrian, and a policeman came down the walk to meet him. "It was her. We identified the body," Adrian told him. Lionel fought back his grief. "Is Clara still in school?" "For another two hours," Idris told him. She looked away lost for a second. "I don't know how to tell her." The policeman professionally inserted himself. "We're calling it an accident," he told Verney. Adrian and Idris had already explained by cell phone as he was driving over that Perdita's car was at the edge of a pier with the drivers-side door partially open. Perdita apparently leaned over back seat to get a camera that had fallen on the floor. Her foot may have knocked the gearshift out of park. The car rolled forward and plunged into the bay. "Her car wasn't in gear," the policeman said. "The emergency brake wasn't set. We think that she might have been looking for something on the back floor and failed to notice the car moving." Lionel Verney just looked at him stunned. Seconds went by. The sheer matter-offactness of the statement seemed as if from a different world. "You're her brother?" the policeman asked. "Yes." The policeman shook his head. "I'm sorry. You get hardened seeing these. I understand the personal tragedy." Lionel just stood there. A few more seconds went by. "Her car, by the way, has been released. You can pick it up at the San Bruno lot." Idris put an arm tenderly around Lionel's shoulder. He gave a quick nod and looked at the ground. Idris gave his shoulder a hug. "She was photographing scenes for the New Poets anthology," she told him. Tears now welled up in Lionel's eyes. His expression changed to frustration. "Leaves us to raise Clara." Idris gave his shoulder a tug. "We'll handle it." Lionel fought back tears. Emotions caught up. Idris let his shoulder go. Lionel took in a long deep breath and let out a sad resigned sigh. "I want to see her," he said. "Okay. Of course," Idris told him. "But there's no mistake. It was her." Lionel scratched his head and gave his wife a slow nod. "I know. But I have to." Lionel, limping slightly, went some steps down the sidewalk toward his car with Idris. She kept a protective arm wrapped around his waist. Adrian turned to the policeman. "He broke his leg in the A-bomb blast in Baghdad last month. That's why the limp." They watched while Lionel and Idris got into Lionel's car. But Idris got into the driver's side. Lionel limped over to the passenger side. The car doors slammed with two loud thunks. But Idris did not start the engine. Adrian, a few steps away, continued his explanation to the policeman. "His brother-in-law was killed by it. Now their girl has no living parents." The policeman was experienced at dealing with the early stages of grief. He had done his duty. In preparation to excusing himself, he reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a card, and handed it to Adrian. "I'm terribly sorry. I've got to get going. You can reach me here." The policeman headed for the police car. Adrian headed for Lionel's car. Idris started the engine. Lionel broke down when he saw his sister's body. There was no doubt that it was her and she was dead. While Idris held him, he wailed loud cries of grief. She guided him to a chair. And he sat in it crying for some minutes. And then he just sat staring and remembering as if it were the solemn duty of the living to remember the dead. And after he had recovered some, they drove back to be at her house when Clara came home from school. No one said a word on the drive back. When Clara came home they told her. Clara heard the words but with some limitations on what "dead" might really mean. It was, however, clear that her aunt and uncle would now be her effective parents. Life would be different for her for reasons out of her young control. She accepted the new reality. A memorial service was held at her church. A short motorcade of mourners accompanied the black limousine hearse to the cemetery. Respectful words were said by a clergyman as a small crowd of mourners stood around the open grave. "...and may she rest in peace," the clergyman concluded. The casket was lowered. The gathering of mourners broke up into smaller groups and individuals and walked toward parked funeral motorcade cars. Clara walked solemnly with Idris and Lionel. "Why did Mom have to die?" she asked. "It's part of life, Clara," Idris told her. "Everything dies. Plants, animals, people. Life goes on. Civilization goes on." "She's happy wherever she is knowing you're here," Lionel added. "You've got to carry on for her now." "Treasure her memory," Idris advised. "Someday you may tell your children about her." They walked the rest of the way to the car in that kind of troubled silence so familiar to those leaving funerals and burials. COUNTDOWN TWELVE Life with Clara settled into a routine for Lionel and Idris Lionel. Clara resented the loss of her mother but recognized the reality of her new situation. It was a good life in an unremarkable house in the Berkeley Hills. None of them could complain. As part of the daily routine, Lionel, Idris, and Clara, all with a just-got-up appearance, sat around the kitchen table. Clara ate breakfast cereal while Idris and Lionel sipped coffee. There was a thump-sound of a tossed newspaper hitting the front door. Idris got up. "The Chronicle. I'll get it," she said. Clara finished her cereal and drank the last of her milk. Idris headed out of the kitchen for the paper, and Lionel glanced at his wristwatch and looked at Clara. "You'll be late for school," he warned. Clara reluctantly got up from the table and pulled on her book bag. "Okay. See you guys later." She headed for the front door, passing Idris in kitchen doorway. Neither said anything. Idris unrolled the paper. Clara opened the front door and pushed it shut. It slammed from her haste rather than an intentionally hostile activity, and a patter of running feet across the front porch told that she did not want to be late for school. Idris sat down at the table. She and her husband looked at each other for a second. "How's she doing?" Lionel asked. Idris Lionel handed him the newspaper and picked up her half-full coffee cup. "Not bad, considering... She does remind me — from time to time — that I'm not her mother. To be expected, I guess. What's news?" He skimmed the paper. She took a sip of half-cold coffee. "Senator Ryland's announced his candidacy for President," he told her. "Ho hum." He scanned down the front page. "Greenpeace plans demos against all genetic engineering experiments, citing the Baghdad virus as an example. 'We don't really know what life really is,' they say." He opened the paper to a page inside. "Disturbing Blurb here." He looked over the top of the newspaper at Idris. She immediately saw the concern on his face. He tapped the newspaper as if to emphasize his cause for concern. "Looters! Again! Caught sneaking out of the quarantine around Baghdad!" he snarled. He reached over and with his forefinger pointed to the article to underscore its awful implications. She stretched over to glance at it. The article's headline read: LOOTERS CAUGHT LEAVING QUARANTINED AREA. And the headline of the article next to it read: BV DEATH TOLL NOW AT 106. They both knew that BV was "Baghdad Virus." Lionel scanned the page. There was another and even more disturbing small article. And he also pointed this out to Idris. She leaned to examine it more closely. Lionel read it to her anyway. "At least a hundred Baghdad Virus deaths in Somar al Jadeeda now." Idris took the paper from him and intently read the two inside-page blurbs. Then she looked up at Lionel and slapped the paper down in some anger. "Scares the hell out of you, doesn't it?" she asked him. He nodded. "Can Centers for Disease Control get a handle on this?" Idris was visibly upset. "Lionel, aren't you just damn scared? You really think CDC can come up anything?" She studied him for a second. "Look at how many years they've been fooling around with the AIDS virus. Or Ebola." Lionel shook his head and sighed. "Sure I'm scared. But what can we do?" Idris looked out the window and then back at her husband. Her expression changed to more hopeful. "Well, only a hundred. Almost a year now. Remember when they said the stuff would spread like wildfire — wipe out half the population of the planet? A hundred could be kept isolated. Even in New Sumer." "If that's all," he told her with a frown. "Two weeks after the UN reduced its armed quarantine forces around Baghdad we see looters caught, disease spreading." "World isn't set up to handle problems spilling over international boundaries." "Look at global warming." Idris broke into a sarcastic smirk. "Yeah. Senator Ryland promises 'to do something about it' if he's elected President." Lionel caught the sarcasm and returned the smirk. "Senator Ryland! Five years ago he said a little warming might not be bad for the planet." He exhaled a guffaw. He was ever aware that Idris' father had once been President of the United States. "What would your father have said about him?" "Several speeches." "Polls show Ryland way ahead. Could change before November." Idris nodded at the unhappy thought and took a drink of now cold coffee. Life went on normally. Clara had her school child life and typical kid problems. Lionel and Idris Verney adapted to being her new parents. There were ups and downs, but Clara was well taken care of and Idris and Lionel cared deeply for her to have as good an upbringing as possible and a good future that it and a planned good education would bestow. Idris and Lionel lived their own lives around the new adjustment. Their major occupation and preoccupation was the politics of the presidential election. Idris, as daughter of former president Wyndeshour, was, as always, heavily drawn into the politics of the political season. In the past she had been in demand in presidential campaigns. It was no different now. They wanted her at campaign events and for media appearances. This brought her husband at least peripherally into the political fray. Lionel was not by nature a political animal, but he could hardly stay out of it. If he stayed in the background as an analyst, he was always known to be there. He did not like constantly having to be politically on guard, but he knew that he had to be. Adrian, as son of former president Wyndeshour, also could not help but be drawn into presidential campaigns. The scandal with Innini and the rumored suicide attempt a few years earlier had all but been forgotten or at least forgiven. He was particularly in demand for this one since his father had significant differences with Senator Ryland going back to the days when he was Congressman Ryland and an outspoken opponent of President Wyndeshour's policies. Adrian and his sister had crisscrossed the country giving talks and involving themselves in activities opposing Senator Ryland's campaign for the presidency. And, as always with these enormous investments in energy, time, and effort, after it was over and clearly run whatever course it was going to run, they agreed to get together on election night. It had been a decades-long tradition in the very political Wyndeshour family, and now Lionel had married into it. This time the almost ceremonial gathering would be at Adrian's large house tucked away deep in the northern California mountain forest country, the same house where he had, years earlier, recovered from his overdose of prescription medication and his torrid romance with Innini. But it had been completely redecorated. Among other things state-of-the-art computer hardware had been installed in the library. It was hours into election night, past midnight and counting. Clara had long since been tucked in and gone to sleep in one of several extra bedrooms. There was nothing to do but sit around and talk. Networks had yet to project a winner in the presidential campaign. Adrian, Idris, and Lionel sat in easy chairs positioned around a large flat-screen television set and shot the breeze. The picture was on, but the sound was not. The screen showed a campaign headquarters decorated with bunting and political posters. People intently looked at the bunting-decked podium. No one was paying direct attention to the screen. Idris and Adrian had been children in the White House and had been immersed in politics for as long as they could remember. They had seen the polls. As much as no one in Adrian's library wanted it, Ryland had been expected to nudge by to win the presidency by a thin margin. Political realists Idris Wyndeshour Verney, Lionel Verney, and Adrian Wyndeshour had accepted the inevitable, the loss of the White House to the other party. Watching the television on election night was by now merely a lifelong ceremony clung to for tradition and memories. Idris was in the midst of explaining something about Clara. "...well, that's what her teacher said." But the scene on the screen abruptly changed, and she pointed to it. "Oh, there's something going on." Adrian had the remote and tapped the mute button. Sound came on. The screen showed a decked-out presidential campaign headquarters. The sudden invasion of television sound into Adrian's library was of a din of celebration of shouting by the crowd of political people. The newsman held a mike close to his face and had to shout to be heard over the din. His voice captured the enthusiasm of the crowd. "...and that was Senator Ryland — or now, President-elect Ryland — thanking his supporters. Among the campaign promises he reiterated was a one-thousand-fold increases in funding for the CDC Division of Global Migration and Quarantine. And to massively increase funding for the NIH, and other research institutions to combat BV, the genetically engineered virus that killed the people of Baghdad and is now spreading in the Middle East, with rumors of isolated cases now reported in North America." The screen suddenly cut to the network's news anchor. She revealed a concerned expression to the television audience. "In Somar al Jadeeda the government has just declared a state of emergency," she announced. A Middle East parliament building came on screen. The anchor's voice continued. "In the past week alone the number of deaths attributed to the Baghdad virus has jumped from under a thousand to almost twenty thousand." The anchor's talking head reappeared on the screen. Just over the border, however, the Iranian Health Ministry is reporting some good news. While the reported BV cases there have also increased, the separate Baghdad-engineered virus which released hallucinogens to cause panic appears to have died off. No new "panic" cases have been reported for five weeks." Idris, Adrian, and Lionel watched intently and without speaking. The anchor paused and then continued. "CDC confirms that this virus was responsible for the bizarre behavior of people in Iran and Somar al Jadeeda over the last few months." The anchor looked away and another TV camera picked up a different angle on her image to indicate a different news story. "In this country, New York quarterback Vernal Flower, arrested last week for cocaine possession, has..." Adrian hit the remote and turned off the television. The three viewers sat dejected for some seconds. Idris cocked her head with an indication of anger. "If we only knew what those little religious worms in Baghdad had done — before they incinerated everything with their nuke. CDC thinks they used genetic engineering to combine fragments of the AIDS and Ebola viruses with a common cold virus. The thing's highly contagious like a cold, highly lethal like Ebola, and totally shuts down the immune system. Kills in a week." "And only people. Animals and plants are okay," Adrian noted. "Designer military weapon." "They should have begun testing everyone entering the country when it started showing up in New Sumer. Not last month!" Lionel said. He paused, hesitated, then theorized. "The related thing people don't realize is the potential for economic disaster here. If half the population of that area ends up dead or hospitalized, there goes about two-thirds of the world's oil production. Inflation could hit a hundred percent here." Adrian firmly shook his head in admonishment at his brother-in-law. "Wouldn't worry about the economic effects," he said in a deeply ominous tone of voice. All of them knew exactly what he meant. They sat staring, shocked at the implication, at the growing reality. Still, the awful and scary events in the Middle East were agonizingly slow to stir concerns of government in North America and especially in the United States. After the election life continued pretty much as life had. In the long interim between the election and installation of the new American president authority became ambiguous and waffled. The lame duck president continued on with the motions and ceremonies of presidency but was not interested in asserting new initiatives. The newly elected president and his transition team restrained themselves from co-opting the prerogatives of the presidency and creating controversies before they actually assumed power. When Ryland finally took the oath of office on a relatively pleasant day for January in Washington, a storm front was moving toward the California coast. It struck with heavier than normal rain and worse winds than normal a couple days later. Many, including outstanding atmospheric and oceanographic scientists, thought this was due to forces unleashed by global climate change. Be that as it may, the storm howled against the Berkeley hills and torrents of rain came down. Inside the Verney house, Idris crouched in front of Clara and straightened up her rain gear. She then stood and guided the reluctant girl to the door and the awful storm outside. "No, Clara! You can't stay home," she said firmly. "You know how hard it is to make up schoolwork. Just put your head down and run. And watch out for cars." Clara had, of course, gone to school in bad rainstorms before. If this one might be worse, it was only a little worse. As if getting up steam and courage for the short run to the school, she hurried to the door, opened it to the howling storm, and ran out into it. Idris stood to see her off and watched as she disappeared around the street corner. Then she reached down and picked up the morning newspaper, took it inside. Once in, she closed the door to the whipping wind and pouring rain. Her husband, still in the transition from sleep to wakefulness and looking drowsy, took the pot from the automatic coffee maker and poured Idris and himself two cups. He looked up at Idris as she entered kitchen. She gave him a nod of acknowledgment and shot a glance at the newspaper as she sat at the table. "Anything happening?" sleepy-eyed Lionel asked her. While he took a sip, Idris examined the paper. "Well, two days in office and President Ryland has called a joint session of Congress to hear his program to insulate the U.S. from the BV epidemic." "Okay. As long as it doesn't ignite panic psychology." A singularly fierce gust of wind blew a small French window over the kitchen sink open and scattered items and paper around the kitchen floor. Lionel leapt up, slammed the window shut, and latched it. Idris quickly picked up the loose pages of the newspaper and other items. They stood looking at each other with concern. "Third bad storm in so many months," Idris said. "Global warming?" He nodded agreement. They sat. Idris reassembled the newspaper and laid it flat on the table. "Haven't we made a mess of our little blue planet?" Idris asked. But her husband's attention was on a small item on the front page. He pointed to it. "That thing about the New Sumer emergency airlift?" She looked at it. A photo showed a cargo plane on a runway. "So far so good. Planes land, unload, and then take off. Only then do the Sumerians go out and get things. No contact." He reached over, picked up the paper, and looked at it. "But the UN's cutting the number of flights," she told him as he read the article. "The population of New Sumer has dropped so sharply." He put the paper down flat on the corner of the kitchen table. "Over half of their population is dead as of now," he said shaking his head. "As far as we know, no one has survived BV." "If anyone did, it would make the headlines." He pointed to the newspaper. "Instead we have this." The headline read: PRESIDENT TO ADDRESS JOINT SESSION. Its sub-headline read: RYLAND TO TALK ON BV PREVENTION MEASURES. The headline of article next to it read: U.N. CUTTING SOMAR AL JADEEDA AIRLIFT. DRASTIC DROP IN POPULATION LOWERS REQUIREMENTS. "This is an unprecedented crisis," she said softly while shaking her head slowly with heavy seriousness. "President Ryland is going to have move right now to include the opposition party in his government." "I hope not just for show, though," he replied. "Given the Ryland predilection for photo-ops and sound-bites over commitment and substance, we may be in trouble." "Yes," Idris said as she clenched her teeth, took in a deep breath through her nose, and nodded slightly with a very concerned expression on her face. COUNTDOWN ELEVEN By spring no one doubted the unprecedented crisis. President Ryland had wisely installed a bipartisan cabinet and set the direction of government toward dealing with it. One of his several concessions was to make Adrian Wyndeshour, the son of his former bitter political rival President Wyndeshour, his White House Chief of Staff. And Adrian Wyndeshour lost no time in inviting his brother-in-law Lionel Verney into the White House. President Ryland was ostensibly at a vital free-wheeling policy and fact-finding discussion with the nation's top medical experts at George Washington University Hospital. That, at least, is what the media release said. As a result, Adrian had access to the Oval Office. He had, moreover, dispatched a White House limousine to pick up Lionel at Reagan Airport. Lionel was less impressed than Adrian had thought he would be. He was even less impressed when he found Adrian, shirt sleeves rolled up, tie loosened, suit coat draped over his swivel chair, sitting at the president's desk. Verney was ushered into the Oval Office and walked past a poster temporarily set up on a tripod. In large letters across the top it read: BV SYMPTOMS. A list of symptoms followed. Below those was an 800 telephone number and an additional email address. Adrian stood up as Lionel came in. He went around the desk to greet Lionel. But rather than a shake hands, Lionel put his hands on his hips and theatrically gave his brother-in-law a lookover. "White House Chief of Staff!" he said with a half-guffaw. "Lookin' at him," Adrian said as he threw out his arms in a gesture of resignation to it. He motioned to a chair in front of the president's desk. "Have a seat. Are Idris and Clara here yet?" Adrian strolled back to his swivel chair behind the presidential desk and audaciously propped his feet on top of it. He and his sister Idris had grown up in the White House among these awesome symbols of state and power, and the respect and deference to them that other people may have shown was not in him to show. But he also wanted to relieve Lionel of any inhibitions he may have brought with him about working in and for the White House. Lionel glanced at the soles of Adrian's shoes on top of the president's desk. "They'll be here in a couple days. Soon as school's out in Berkeley." Adrian clasped his hands together under his chin and pondered something with a frown for a second. He pointed a cautioning finger at Lionel. "Keep this very much to yourself," he said. "The Party pulled me in here so it won't look completely awful when — not if — it leaks. President Ryland's gone bananas — functioning minimally. Lionel's expression was somewhere between shock and surprise. "I saw him on TV this morning before I left. He seemed okay." Adrian gave him a chastising shake of the head. "They parade him out in front of the cameras. He can handle ceremonial functions for a short time." He studied Lionel carefully. "He fled up to his house in New Hampshire when cases began to pop up in Washington. It's more than understandable fear; he's mentally nonfunctioning." "So he's not at Camp David." "No. I'm running the day-to-day. The Party thinks when it hits the fan, it'll be less disrupting to the country if President Wyndeshour's son was running the government." "Whewboy!" Lionel winced. He shook his head and then scratched it while readjusting himself in his chair. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat. "I agree: whewboy," Adrian said with a shake of his head. "But that's what we're stuck with, and I've got to go with it." "Okay, where do Idris and I fit in?" Adrian pointed to the BV poster. "That. I need you to run it. I just got back from Atlanta — top-level meeting with CDC." Adrian took his feet off the desk and collapsed back into his chair in exasperation. For a couple seconds he just sat there, eyes blank, looking at nothing. Then he looked back at Lionel while shaking his head in frustration. "They haven't the foggiest idea what it is!" he blurted out. "No cure in sight. We decided on a massive public prevention campaign. It's partly PR to buy time. But we're not fooling ourselves." Lionel glanced at the poster on the tripod. "And besides posters?" Adrian got up and walked to an olive-drab modified chemical warfare suit draped over a chair and picked it up. "CDC came up with this," he said as he looked at the suit with a touch of disgust in his expression. "It's a cheap chemical warfare suit. There are a hundred thousand of them in storage. It just takes a simple pressure gadget to modify them to keep out airborne viruses." "And the gadgets are ready?" "Several thousand to start. Rest are on their way." Adrian tossed the modified chemical warfare suit on a chair. "We have to find everyone if we're going to stop this thing. I had to use the Bureau of the Census. They know everyone and every damn nook and cranny in the country." "The Census! Sacrosanct as that is? Even a minor scandal can topple this Ryland charade. At a very bad time." "I know. I know. I know," Adrian said. "But what can we do?" He turned to Lionel and looked at him with a frown for a second. "There's a real possibility that we can end up like New Sumer. Everyone dead!" He looked out of the Oval Office window. "Every damn human being, young and old, large and small: Dead! And now Asia, Africa rapidly following. Europe, Japan, Latin America starting to succumb." He turned back to Lionel. "This isn't any old national emergency. The world has never seen anything like this before." "Okay," Lionel nodded with a touch of apology and then a sigh. "Maybe if Europe and Japan had put something in place sooner..." Adrian waggled a cautioning finger at his brother-in-law. "Let's not kid ourselves. This just buys a little time. People will be people. Too many are going to slip through and spread it. They both turned to glance at the poster on the tripod. "Okay. I'll do my best," Lionel said. Idris and Clara arrived in Washington a few days later. Lionel had by then secured a house in Georgetown and was commuting from there to the White House every day. For a week, Clara, Idris, and he virtually camped out in their own barren house. Finally their furniture arrived from California. After another few days of unpacking and putting away, daily living was back to a semblance of normal. For the first several weeks the BV isolation and prevention program was in early organization stages and perfunctory. Lionel Verney put in normal days driving through Washington traffic to and from the White House. He spent most of his energy ironing out kinks over the telephone and in computer-generated messages. Adrian remained the visible White House Chief of Staff while secretly running the country as its effective president. It allowed him some freedom of movement that because of Secret Service security concerns would denied to a sitting president. He was able to avoid media invasions and slip out into the field. In Washington DC he saw first hand the state of readiness, or lack of it. He went across the Potomac to visit one of the thousands locations to which all medical units in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard and all available veterans administration medical personnel in the United States had been assigned. The visit did nothing to lift his spirits. The Army medical unit was spit-polished, perfunctory, untrained in handling civilians, marginally familiar with the disease, and not comfortable with their clumsy protective suits. Neither Lionel nor he had any delusions about the effectiveness of the program. They knew it was stopgap and ultimately futile. They merely hoped that it would buy time for researchers to find a cure, or short of that, to discover techniques that would stop its awful contagious communicability and rapid lethal transmission. The program was draconian. Health and police authorities were given power to arrest anyone suspected of being in the early stages of the disease and, if necessary, kill on the spot anyone resisting arrest. Those arrested were taken to isolation centers where, because there was no cure, they would simply die in a matter of days, a couple weeks at most. It was tolerated both because at first there were very few cases of BV in North America and because people believed — even to some extent Adrian and Lionel believed — that isolation of infected human beings might possibly stop the spread. No other countries had had the opportunity to try anything so thorough and drastic. The isolation of North America across wide oceans had delayed the spread for long enough to effect some kind of a government-enforced isolation and containment program to be structured and implemented. If it might be repulsive and draconian, it was also marginally credible and thus reluctantly accepted. So for several months life went on with a grim normality across North America. People went to work, went to school, went to sports and entertainment events, shopped in supermarkets and malls, and traveled to meet friends and relatives. But everyone was glued to the frightening statistics of increasing cases of BV and increasing "detainment" of those showing symptoms. There was a feeling that because it had to work, it might. The government was seen to be making a borderline credible effort to stop the spread. And from time to time the media would announce a "possible breakthrough" for either a cure or a method of slowing transmission. If none of these were later found to have worked, the mere possibilities that they might gave the average citizens enough reason to continue somewhat normal lives and hope that the so-far always fatal disease would not get to them. But after all too short a time patience began to wear thin. Signs of panic cropped up. Human nature and respect and concern for loved ones began to interfere with adherence to the strict isolation and containment protocol. Stores and supermarkets had been keeping up with small numbers of panicked shoppers stocking up on various supplies for the long run. As long as shelves remained full, though, the majority of people only purchased additional supplies for a potential short haul. In short, the program that Lionel assembled accomplished what it had been intended to accomplish. It bought time. Time was precious. The normal flow of goods and services, normal communication of research data, and normal manufacture of apparatus and reagents were vital to the effort to halt the spread of the pandemic. But time had been bought at an awful political and social cost. And time was running out. Life went on with some of what Warren Harding would have called "normalcy" as long as the awful fatal disease did not touch many American lives. Lionel knew that when it did begin to kill more than a few scattered people in North America, his stopgap program would begin to fail. Panic would set in. Cooperation would diminish exponentially. The cool deliberate pace of anti-virus research would start to come undone, then would become increasingly frenzied, and in the end would increasingly look to bizarre theories and unsound stopgap solutions. He had an unsought and unwanted opportunity to glimpse its demise when Idris and he took Clara to see a house in Georgetown that she had lived in when she was too young to remember. It began as a normal drive on a normal day in a normal if very anxious city to show a child a home that she had grown up in before she was old enough to remember it. Idris drove Lionel's government-provided new car with some bullet-proofing and security locks. She came to a halt outside a typical upscale Georgetown house. She, Clara, and Lionel got out and gathered together as a small family group. Lionel bent down toward Clara and pointed at the house. "It's where you lived when you were a baby," he told her. "It looks just like in the pictures," she said. It caused her to remember her dead mother and father and she pursed her lips and tried not to show emotion. "Mom showed me a long time ago." Idris crouched to eye level with Clara and pointed to an upstairs window. "That was your room. Up there." She had hardly finished say it, however, when there was a noisy commotion of several car and truck motors and a screeching of tires around a corner and an additional screeching to a halt. When they looked up the street there were two improvised paddywagon vans pulling up and screeching to a halt on the next block. Emergency lights atop them were flashing. Two additional Humvees deployed themselves at even distances from each other and the vans, also with emergency lights atop flashing. The Humvees had stenciled lettering: EMERGENCY BV CONTAINMENT FORCE. Four suited containment personnel carrying two stretchers, piled out of the back of the two vans and ran to the house. Two more unsuited containment personnel in military fatigues leapt out of the other van carrying automatic rifles and deployed themselves at both ends of the convoy. Then two officers sprang out of the Humvees and pulled pistols from their holsters. One headed toward Lionel, Idris, and Clara. The US Army officer raised and extended his hand to warn. "Stay right there. Don't come any closer. Infected person coming out." Keeping a distance, he stood politely but firmly with gun ready between them and the BV containment operation going on down the street. Lionel, with some care, pulled out his wallet and showed the officer his White House ID. The officer stepped cautiously forward and looked at the wallet without touching it. "Bet you never thought you'd run into your boss," he said while the officer pondered the identification. "No sir!" He saluted. He hesitated. "Sir, this is the eighth run we've made today. We're going to need more personnel and equipment soon." "It's on its way, Captain," Lionel told him as he pocketed his wallet. "We're procuring and training as fast as we can. Is this deployment typical?" "Yes sir. We're taking no chances." Lionel Verney turned to his wife. "Excuse us a second." He guided the officer out to the middle of the street and out of Clara's hearing range. Idris and Clara waited and watched. "You had to shoot someone yesterday?" "Not us, sir. Detail doing the north side. Guy broke loose and ran at one of the unsuited men. The officer defended himself. And all of us, sir." A block away, two of the suited containment personnel carried a stretcher with an ill person toward the van with the rear doors opened. The other two "suited" personnel led a woman and two children out of the house and toward the other van. The stretcher was loaded into the back of the first van and the suited containment personnel locked the door and went around to the front. The other suited containment personnel guided the woman and two children into the other van, locked the back, went to the front, and got in. The officer pointed to the operation in progress. "We take the infected person to a sealed room. Relatives and other persons-in-contact are quarantined adjacent to it." "Has anyone who has been in contact not come down?" Lionel asked. He entertained a vague hope that he might not have heard everything and that there might be a rare survivor. The officer shook his head with a touch of regret. "None, sir. They all get it." "And your personnel?" "None of mine, sir. But a couple in other units have gotten it." He looked at the vehicles now ready to go and waiting. "Lots of anxiety, sir. I have to get going." He turned a began a rapid double-time trot toward his Humvee. Two other officers in dress uniforms ran back to their vehicles. Doors slammed and engines started. The convoy proceeded carefully but rapidly down the street. Idris, Clara, and Lionel went silently to their car and got in. Idris, in the driver's seat, sank over against Lionel in the passenger's seat next to her. He put an arm around her and pulled her toward him. They said nothing. Clara said nothing. Idris sat straighter up behind the wheel, started the car, and slowly drove away. The terrible price with which they had been buying time was inscribed into the hush of air rushing by the car as they headed home. COUNTDOWN TEN As isolated cases of BV like that one began popping up around the greater Washington area, Adrian and his new national security staff insisted that the Verney family move into the White House proper. They would get guest rooms. Others in the White House staff only got former office rooms in the nineteenth-century Eisenhower Office Building next to the West Wing. There was everything that they might need, even a food service for the staff. The disease was beginning to spread inside the greater Washington DC community, and measures had to be taken to prevent its spread into the White House. National security required everyone associated with the White House to be confined inside the fenced-in and secure White House grounds. Food for a year was brought in. The water supply was double-filtered and a well was dug for contingencies. Additional emergency diesel generators and an enormous amount of fuel for them were warehoused in new temporary buildings on the grounds. Idris and Lionel left their furniture in their house in Georgetown and took only family items and items for daily living to the White House. There already had been several houses abandoned in their neighborhood. Prudent people who could afford to were fleeing to more sparsely populated areas and guarded and gated communities. Clara and two other children, Alfred, about her age, and Evelyn, about 3, were quietly playing with toys on the carper of the Oval Office. Alfred and Evelyn were President Ryland's niece's children. Their parents had died in a hopeless rescue mission to Vienna for the U.S. government. President Ryland had given them use of one of the presidential aircraft to bring out his other cousin, the ambassador to Austria, who had isolated herself in a room in the U.S. Embassy for several months while the contagion rapidly killed off the Austrian population. But on arriving at the otherwise empty embassy building they had found her already ill with BV and unable to be moved. And in doing so they infected themselves and thus stayed there to die. The only saving grace of the tragedy was that researchers in the United States became aware that the virus remained infectious and deadly months after everyone had died. Any future researchers going to totally depopulated areas of Asia, Africa, and Europe would have to wear isolation suits. No plans were made, however, for anyone to go there. Ryland's staff, beset with the difficulties of presenting the President as competent and in charge while working from his home in New Hampshire, thought it would be best for the time being that Idris, Lionel, and Adrian care for them in the White House. It was as much to present his continued connection to the White House for public consumption as anything else. Formalities were down to a minimum. There was no need for any charade of government protocol to impress foreign governments or U.S. citizens. Few foreign governments even existed anymore. U.S. citizens were too busy with survival schemes. Only a semblance of U.S. government remained for purposes of minimizing growing social chaos. Idris came in. "What?" she asked. Standing by the presidential desk, Adrian handed her a framed certificate. "President Ryland," he said with undisguised sarcasm. "He extends his sincere appreciation for the patriotic gesture — 'and for the risks you took' — in visiting the Isolation Facilities." Idris glanced cynically at the certificate and placed it on the Presidential Desk. "Well, thanks President Ryland." "But seriously, it did help," Adrian said. "President Wyndeshour's daughter. Seen on national television in those places. It did lessen anxieties." Idris nodded. "I knew it had to be done. You could feel the panic when the Vice President died of it." She looked at the children playing on the Great Seal of the United States on the blue carpet and then back at Adrian. "Anyway, it worked out. They kept me in 'safe' territory. I sense something is up here." "Yeah. Ruse is over. They're on their way here from Capital Hill. Ryland's been declared incompetent. The Speaker of the House was just sworn-in on the House floor." Idris and her husband had known this was coming. They had discussed it any number of times. It came as no great surprise to her, but it did come suddenly. She looked at Adrian for a second. "What about you?" she finally asked. It had not come as a surprise to Adrian, either. He had made his plans. "Here for another week — for a smooth transition. Then I'm — uh — free to go home." He leaned on the desk and looked at Idris with concern. "I want you, Lionel, and the kids to go with me. We'd better all be together. It's a big isolated estate. I'm assigned Secret Service. Stocked food for over a year." Adrian had brought it up before. Idris and Lionel had talked about it. She glanced at children and nodded affirmative. "Okay." The door to the Oval Office burst open. Lionel held onto the doorknob with one hand and waved warningly with the other. "They're here!" Idris knew that it was the former Speaker of the House who had just become President of the United States. "Clara, Alfred, Evelyn: important people coming. We have to go." She went into action to get Clara, Alfred, and Evelyn moving while at the same time picking up toys from the presidential carpet. Lionel let go of the door and joined in picking up toys. As she ushered out the three children, the new President of the United States came into what was now his Oval Office. A member of the House and a member of the Senate accompanied him. They marched in. The new President glanced at the children. He and Adrian exchange a perfunctory handshake. "Nice kids," he noted like a professional politician. "One's Idris and Lionel's niece. The other two are Ryland's niece's children. "Tragedy that," the new president said. "Good thing they left the kids. They shouldn't have tried to get the ambassador out of Vienna. She had enough food for a couple more months." Adrian had dealt with politicians and their political ways all of his life. He motioned to the president's luxurious swivel chair behind the presidential desk. "Yes. Well, Mr. Speaker — uh, Mr. President — would you like to have a seat." "Thanks. I've always wondered what it felt like to sit in that chair." The newly appointed and hastily sworn-in President of the United States strode to the swivel chair. Adrian waved his hand to introduce Lionel. "This is Lionel Verney, my Special Assistant for the Isolation and Containment Program." The president extended an arm across desk and shook hands with Verney. "Pleasure, Mr. Verney." They all took seats. The president leaned back in the presidential chair. "The country's deeply indebted to you both," he said like a professional politician. "Your quick action six months ago bought us needed time." "It was the only intelligent option we had, Mr. President," Adrian replied. "Even so, we've lost a good ten to fifteen percent of the population, and we're on the verge of complete social breakdown." He glanced at the Congresswoman and the Senator. "My directive this morning closes all buildings with internal air circulation, bans public gatherings, theater attendance. Gives an impression we're doing something." "Okay, I'll go along with that," the president said. "Can't seem to stop hoarding, gangs. But I think we can keep them from getting out of control." He leaned forward with dead serious frown. "What we really desperately need is a breakthrough from CDC, NIH, the others. Is there anything?" "Nothing!" Adrian told him. "Just nothing. Only some vague possibilities." The new president had obviously hoped that there might be some secret information to which he had not previously been privy. He slumped with obvious disappointment back in his chair. "Not good," he muttered. He took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. "Below a certain population threshold, it's the end of civilization. Maybe for a thousand years. The president looked away wistfully. The others remained silent and waiting for him to say something more. He had nothing more to say. "Well, the Isolation and Containment program has bought us time, and they are making progress," Adrian offered. "Yes. That's why I want to keep both of you around for at least a week," the president said. "I need the appearance of a smooth transition in this program." He swiveled his chair around and stared out the window for several seconds. "God, when you consider that most of the people in the world are now dead!" He swiveled around to face the others again. "Now don't let it get you like it got Ryland," Adrian cautioned with humor in his tone but serious concern in his mind. He waited for the others to end their guffaws and snickers at the bad joke and then spoke with seriousness. "The country needs you, Mr. President. And I need a vacation." The president was still smiling at the bad joke. He stood. They all stood. The president reached across the desk to Adrian, and they shook hands. He did the same to Lionel, and they shook hands. "Okay. I'll hang in there," the president assured everyone. He shot Adrian a firm glance. "See you tomorrow. Ten sharp." The charade was over. The president announced that he was replacing President Ryland's chief of staff with his own and that President Wyndeshour's son would remain as chief of staff only until that replacement had been selected. In fact, though, he had already been selected, and Adrian's only remaining duty was showing him the ropes for a smooth transition, a task that would take no more than a week. Lionel Verney had accomplished all that needed to be accomplished with setting up the Isolation and Containment Program. He turned the now routine operation of it over to the next in command and prepared to move to Adrian's rural estate in California with Idris, Clara, and their two adopted children, Alfred and Evelyn. The new president needed all of the space he could get for his own people coming into the White House with him. No one told the Verneys to leave, but Idris and Lionel felt an obligation to do so. They had security personnel in isolation suits check out their old house. The house was found to be still locked and not broken into. It would be safe from the virus. Idris, Lionel, and the children moved back into it for a one last week. Their only communication with Adrian and the White House was via phone and computer, but that was adequate. If something might vitally need their presence on the White House grounds before they left, they had been given special passes. But they never had to use them. Washington was not abandoned. A great many people took their chances and still lived and even worked there. For all their fear and apprehension, people still felt that finding a cure, or at least a way to stop the contagion, was imminent. Most had property that they had earned with years of hard work and were reluctant to abandon. Public utilities were being maintained. Stores and supermarkets were allowing people inside to shop if they wore surgical facemasks. On good-weather days some school classes were held outside in school playgrounds. Largely because of precautions like these the disease was not spreading like wildfire. Just about everyone knew someone who had gotten the virus and died. But most people felt that if they were extremely careful they could dodge the disease and become part of a population of survivors who would have one whale of a tale to tell their grandchildren. Verney knew that even then Washington was not the same city that he had come to in the spring. Very little of the "normal" life of the capital remained. Some dutiful civil servants still commuted to work. There was still morning traffic, but very light. Some shops were still open. Many people tried to live normally because that felt better to them than panicking. But everything was rapidly falling apart. Washington was always more than just a city, even more than just a capital city of a great democracy. It was a shrine to democratic government and civilized values, a sacred place to secular designs for tolerance of varied religions and philosophies, a vast outdoor temple to progress in thought, science and technology, and a memorial to those who had given their lives for all of that. Or, Lionel Verney thought, at least it had been that. But then, he reconsidered, it still was, or still was at least for a while. He took to walking around the monuments. The great museums were closed in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. The Library of Congress was closed, but its online operations continued. So Verney walked around the exteriors of great monuments, the World War Two Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the half-sacred wall of names of the dead from the Vietnam disaster, and finally, on the evening just before they were to depart, to the Lincoln Memorial. He drove to it and parked his car. He walked to the steps. He looked out across the reflecting pool toward the Capitol in the dimming dusk of the dying day. He imagined the great crowds that had assembled there when Martin Luther King had made his monumental speech. But it was empty now. He found a spot halfway up the steps and sat. He looked long at the lonely scene and finally sighed and shook his head. It was indeed all over. If anything might be salvaged, everything would be very different. Most of the people of the world were now dead. He was startled out of his contemplation by a raspy voice. "Looks like old Honest Abe'll be here when we're all gone, eh." He swung around to see an old lady, a classic homeless bag lady with a shopping cart filled with plastic bags containing her belongings. She wore less than clean and very disheveled clothes. She stood a cautious safe distance from him on the level area above the steps, still pointing to the giant white marble statue of Abe Lincoln. He stood, studied her for a second, and then stepped up the next step toward her. She moved her finger from pointing at the Lincoln statue to shaking it warningly at him. "No! Don't come near! I may have caught it," she warned in a raspy voice. Verney stopped in his tracks and stood in place. They regarded each other carefully. He wore a tailored sports coat and pressed slacks. She had on a tattered old black dress with a colorful but grimy woolen shawl draped around her shoulders. "There's lots of 'em dying — street people. 'Homeless' you call us." She dramatically waved her hands around the panorama scene. "Last night I was sleeping out here by the Monument. One of 'em grabbed my hand. 'Water,' he said to me." She stopped to clear her throat like an ill person might. "I jumped awake. He looked like Death himself. I think I fainted." She searched through a black plastic bag in her shopping cart. "When I came to, it was daylight. His hand was gripping my wrist. But he was dead — dead of the thing. Symptoms were plain." She had to clear her throat again. "I guess I've about had it." Verney was speechless. They just looked at each other. The old Lady lifted a bag and looked under it. "Lots of homeless have it?" he asked her. She continued to rummage through the plastic bag. She pulled out a bottle of cheap wine and took a big swig. After swallowing it as if to savor it for a second, she exhaled an ahh-sound and nodded to Verney. "Yeah. Lots. Ain't turnin' themselves in. No one's turnin' them in." She gulped another swig of wine. "They know it's all over. All over for all of us." She gulped down another swig and screwed the cap back on. "I mean, look at me. I lived this way for two years now. You really think they can find a cure if they can't even find us a home?" She reached down to the cart and put the bottle back in the bag. "Anyway, it's over for me, Mac. Better go before you catch it." Verney held up his right hand as a gesture of good bye and hurried back to his car. He took a glance to make sure the old lady had not followed him. He took another at the evocative scene of the dying dusk over the nation's capital. Then he got in and drove home. On the way home he called Idris on his cell phone. He explained the accidental conversation with the elderly homeless woman who was sure that she had become infected. No one knew what spread the disease or how much distance people might need between one another to avoid it. Wild theories were being banded about. There was one that claimed that the pre-virus attached itself to oxygen molecules in the air. Another claimed that it attached itself to ubiquitous organic pollutants now all over the planet. The CDC and other researchers faithfully followed even these leads. The only conclusions were that no one knew how it was being spread. Idris and Lionel quickly decided that he would stay in the vacant house next door for the rest of the week and test himself daily. The neighbors had fled to a vacation cabin in the West Virginia mountains and had left almost everything in their house. To avoid even minimal contact, Idris took the key that they had given her over to their house and put it in the front door for Lionel to find. She called him on his cell phone and told him where he could find the key. And so he lived there that way for a week, testing himself daily, gladly finding a negative reading each time, and calling Idris next door to tell her the good news. COUNTDOWN NINE In a generous gesture the new president had donated use of Air Force One to move Idris, Adrian, Lionel, the three children, and most of their belongings to Beale Air Force Base in California. Another reason was that with most of the countries in the world now gone and government and politics in the United States at a standstill, there was little use for the huge and impressive aircraft except to ferry vital personnel to desired new locations. Just to play safe, Lionel Verney rode in the back of a C-130 aircraft carrying their belongings and additional food and other supplies for a very long haul. When that plane landed at Beale Air Force Base two hours after Air Force One, Lionel drove by himself in an unused Air Force Humvee. They took no chances. It had been hosed down with a formaldehyde solution to insure it would not be carrying any infectious agents left by Two or three Air Force personnel that had succumbed to the disease. The others left Beale in a small convoy of trucks and cars headed up into the primitive California mountains beyond Highway Forty-nine carrying people and furniture, including a small contingent of Secret Service personnel. And Lionel kept himself very separate from everyone else and tested himself for another couple days. When everyone agreed that he was not infectious, he rejoined the others in what would become the normal routines of living in physical isolation from everyone, but in constant communication with the government in Washington and with other vital U.S. government bases and facilities, The did, however, dare to invite Adrian's old neighbors — "neighbors" being something of a euphemism with residences separated by miles. These were neighbors who had taken strict precautions, both by stocking up weeks and months earlier, and by not visiting or having visitors for at least that long. One of them was a retired Cal Tech astrophysicist, Professor Merrival. These people needed touches of human contact and occasional ceremonies from the old normality. But things were not, of course, "normal" anymore. And it could be seen in makeshift changes in Adrian's library. A large dining room table had been set up in it. The room appeared used, lived-in, and untidy. It had been used for purposes other than a library years earlier when Adrian was recovering from his overdose. But now there had been no professional cleaners or other household personnel taking care of it. Only the bookshelves full of books and an obvious high-end desktop computer over in a corner might remind one that it was, after all, a library. Around the table and just finished with lunch sat Idris, Lionel, Adrian, and gray-haired balding Professor Merrival. He sat prim and proper in a suit and tie, a conservative elderly scholar trying his best to look like one with his world falling apart around him. Empty children's place settings indicated they have gone elsewhere. They could be seen through the sliding glass doors to the patio quietly playing there. Idris related the incident on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the retired astrophysicist. "So my husband isolated himself in the house next door for a week, and had himself tested daily until we left. No one knows what happened to the old lady, but we're sure glad Lionel didn't catch it." Lionel raised a finger. "We had a scare the other night with Evelyn, the three-yearold. Got one of those kids' things. Kept us up all night with a fever. You can guess what crossed our minds." Idris nodded to the playing children. "Bounced back the next day. Fine now." She took a deep breath as if reliving the relief of it. "But we talked about it. We wouldn't have taken the kid to one of those isolation places." "No one voluntarily takes anyone there," Merrival said. "Understandable," Lionel said. "But the result: it's spreading like wildfire." He paused. The Isolation and Containment Program had been his baby. He had known from the beginning that it would not work, that it would only buy some time. And it did. "But, anyway," he went on, "everyone is now acutely aware and very cautious, even if the program is shot. Idris guffawed a scoff. "So now they're holed up in little urban and rural fortresses. And shooting their neighbors now." Merrival shook his head at the pathos of it. "As a scientist, I am forced to be cruelly objective. This is a threshold phenomenon and it would appear that we have reached a point of no return." He looked at the others for their reaction. They simply looked back at him as if with a grim understanding that he was a professor who got things right for a living and he had probably gotten that right, too. None of them said anything for a second. The elderly professor quickly grasped the mood that he had created and moved to change it with something he had come there to tell. "Oh, get this — speaking of threshold phenomena. What is left of The American Astronomical Society is publishing my paper on black holes next issue." He looked at the others with a pause for effect before he let them have his gallows humor. "Publish and perish." Idris pointed a warning finger at him. "Don't say that. It's not funny." Adrian was curious about the paper. "What's it about?" "Mathematics," Professor Merrival told him. "Take a lifetime to explain." Idris pushed her chair back from the table. Merrival had brought something vitally important, and the formalities of dinner had delayed looking at it. She nodded to Merrival. "Let's take a look at your Defense Intelligence disks." They all got up from table and went to the computer. Merrival sat at the keyboard. Nearby two laptops were plugged in to recharge from the house solar power generator. It was not sufficient, however, to reliably run the desktop computer and everything else. Adrian flicked a wall switch. The sound of a diesel-powered electricity generator came on. "Trying to save our good vegetable-oil-powered generator. We use solar to recharge the laptops and other things. It'll take a second to warm up." Adrian had traded one of his three redundant extra diesel generators for bio-diesel from an agribusiness plantation in the Central Valley. If they were careful, they had ample fuel for two years. Idris turned to Merrival. "Everything remaining of Defense Department files came from hackers like you?" "Yeah. Until the power went off," he said. Then after that they evacuated some disks and memory under fire. No motive for security. Enemy countries are all gone." Adrian glanced at the electricity flow indicator. "Okay, we can turn it on, now." Merrival turned on the computer. Its screen lit. He tapped several keyboard keys. The screen changed. Merrival did not take his eyes off of it while he rapidly tapped keyboard keys. "Your flower was in a tight code. By the way, these are Bio-war disks. I've got more..." "Whose tight code?" Idris interrupted. "Baghdad's," Merrival replied as he tapped the keys. A warning notice came up on the computer screen: Level one software cannot penetrate. Send to NOVO ICE. Merrival noted it and responded by tapping more keys. "D.O.D. made a perfunctory try to decode it, set it aside. Probably forgot it." The computer screen flipped several times. Merrival worked intently at the keyboard. Both impressed and anxious, Idris, Lionel, and Adrian could only watch. "Jungle florae were not high on their war-games priority," Idris sarcastically observed. "Seems," Merrival replied curtly. Lionel pointed to the screen. "That's it." Merrival read the screen out loud. "Codeaum fontinalis delicatissimus." He tapped a couple more keys. On screen came a botanical illustration of Codeaum fontinalis delicatissimus. It appeared somewhat similar to, but more delicate-looking than, the common Croton tropical house plant. Crotons were some of the few plants known to have anti-viral qualities. A small fragment of information ran across the center of the illustration: Some experimental antiviral agents have been derived from leaf material. A warning in large capital letters appeared under the illustration: ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT TOLERATE DIRECT SUNLIGHT! A window opened on the screen beside the illustration. It had a computer-map of Central America centered on Panama. Merrival tapped the keyboard some more. The computer screen zoomed in on location in Panama. Merrival tapped several more keys. The screen zoomed in on precise small area of Panama. All could see a tiny brook running through it. Merrival tapped the keyboard some more. "And here is the one lonely place in the whole wide world where your pretty posy grows," he said. "Nowhere else except here in this one small patch of Panama!" The screen zoomed in on the head of the little brook. An onscreen arrow pointed to the exact location. No one said anything. All eyes concentrated on the computer screen. Merrival tapped more keys. A box came up with precise latitude and longitude coordinates in it. Merrival pointed to it. "And there are the coordinates. Better print them out." He hit another two keys. The printer hummed with activity. Adrian picked up the printout. "Nowhere else?" Lionel asked Merrival. Professor Merrival turned as if to one of his students. "Nowhere else that the boys in Baghdad knew. No one else even knew it existed. So that's all that we know. Or might ever know." "How in the world did they know, and no one else?" Adrian asked as if he were another student. "Who knows?" the professor said like a professor. "All kinds of people were messing around with all kinds of things." "Inoculate their side? Offer the cure to the other side only if they surrender?" Idris asked as if yet another student. The professor just shook his head and shot her a bitter carping look. "War is hell. Let me guess that one of their bright researchers found the plant's anti-viral substance first, then they tried to genetically engineer a bio-war virus that would only be killed by that substance. But it could have been the other way around." "Their research at the Baghdad Baby Formula Factory was rather rudely interrupted," Lionel told him. "So I have been given to understand," Merrival said. He paused to consider all of the logical possibilities. "The only way to find out if they had a cure is to go to Panama and bring this plant back to whatever is left of our research capacity. And then only maybe." "And hope that the anti-viral substance is not in something like a flower that only blooms once every hundred years," Idris added. "Best we get down there right away," Lionel said. Idris immediately looked at her husband with alarm. "Who's 'we?'" Her brother Adrian stepped in. "Lionel and I can get there, get some of these plants, get them to our labs in Berkeley, and get back here within twenty-four hours." Idris was about to say something, but Professor Merrival, seeing inklings of an approaching domestic dispute, stood up. "Which reminds me," he said. "I've got to get back home. Data came in from Mount Hamilton. Got my day cut out for me. We through here?" "Yeah," Adrian said. Idris glared at Adrian, then sighed. Merrival started for the door. Adrian accompanied him. "Thanks, Professor Merrival. Might be the most important piece of computer work you ever did." They gave each other a friendly handshake. "Feel free to come around when you run low on food. We're well stocked." They stood by the open door. "Thanks for the provisions you already gave me. Should stretch me out for a time." "You know about the marauding gangs," Adrian said. "If you want to stay here, you're welcome. We've got a small security force." "I'll hold out as long as I can at my own place," Merrival said. "Take care, Professor," Idris told him. Merrival went out the door. When he reached his old dilapidated hybrid car he waved back. He got into his car, started the engine, tooted the horn, waved goodbye again through the window, and drove off. Idris glanced at the calendar by the door. It was September. She had crossed off several days on it. Idris, Adrian, and Lionel launched into a heated discussion before Merrival's car was out of sight. The main bone of contention was whether it was necessary for Adrian and Lionel to go to retrieve samples of the native Panamanian plant or whether that task might be delegated to others. The discussion got nowhere. It was tabled until they all knew more. But Adrian and Lionel did become involved in the design of an apparatus to insure that the delicate plant would survive the trip back to the Berkeley research facilities. At first it was simply exchanges of diagrams and information via remnants of the Internet still operating. Neither Idris, nor Adrian, not Lionel had any expertise in botany. They were merely kept informed online. Eventually though, Adrian and Lionel had to inspect the actual apparatus in a large abandoned warehouse in west Berkeley while Idris had to remain back at the estate to manage it and take care of the children. The Panamanian plant offered maybe not the last hope of finding a way to stop the spread of the disease, but certainly one of the last credible ones. As the early September dawn broke, they flew Beale by helicopter, to Oakland International by an Air Force general's Lear jet, and by helicopter from there to an impromptu pad beside the warehouse in west Berkeley. It the early morning light both of them could see that a small force of guards armed with automatic weapons surrounded the makeshift facility. Adrian and Lionel hurried from the helicopter into the old warehouse building. They wasted no time on niceties or formalities. With a Berkeley botanist they carefully inspected a compact device that was spraying a fine mist of water inside a small tent. None of them had yet seen a live plant. The apparatus was designed solely from what little was known about it. "The total we know is from a De Azuero Women's Botanical Club abstract on an evacuated Panama National Library hard-drive," the botanist explained. "It is apparently extremely delicate." Out of the domain of virtual images and into reality, the device looked complicated and cumbersome. It required numerous moving parts and a small water supply. While Adrian peered into it, Lionel turned to the botanist. "Does it really require all this?" he asked. "We're taking no chances," the botanist answered. "It only grows in misty rain forest shade by that one small waterfall. It grows nowhere else, not there or anywhere else in the world. It seems to need the mist and it can't tolerate direct sunlight." Adrian turned from inspecting the apparatus. "So what exactly do we have to do?" The botanist scratched his head. What he was about to say had been carefully worked out by a team of experts and had to be done precisely and correctly. There would be little room for error. "Dig a wide circle around each plant," he lectured. He pointed to indicate several complicated flowerpots. "Put them in these special pots. Shade from sunlight while you hurry to the chopper. Immediately put them in this tent and turn on the spray. And then hurry back here." "When do we do this?" Lionel asked. "We're ready right now," the botanist said. "We can load this device into the chopper within a few minutes. Plane's fueled and waiting at Oakland. He glanced at his watch. It should be early afternoon when you get there. If this anti-virus stuff works, we can't afford to waste any time." Adrian and Lionel decided not to call Idris. They would just go, get as many plants as they could, and come back. A forklift chugged over to the pallet on which the apparatus was resting. The workman inserted the lifting teeth into the pallet. "A note of caution," the botanist said. "We could not get clear satellite images of the exact location due to prevailing tropical cloud cover. Some of the area has been clear-cut by lumber operations." He kicked the pallet. "Ironically to make wooden shipping pallets like this." "You're not sending us on a wild goose chase?" Adrian asked. "If there's even a sliver of a chance, we've got to grab it," the botanist reminded him. "What we saw at the coordinates was several patches of old growth rain forest in steep ravines where they couldn't get their loggers and logging equipment." COUNTDOWN EIGHT The pallet was loaded onto a helicopter. Adrian was a licensed helicopter pilot. To avoid any possibility of contaminating vital personnel in confrontations with increasingly lawless civilians and outright gangs, they used the helicopter to fly the short distance to the all but abandoned Oakland International Airport. There had been no scheduled flights in or out of it or any other airport for months. At airport a large gasoline-powered forklift loaded the apparatus was loaded onto an Air Force C-5 Galaxy cargo plane with extra fuel tanks for the round trip. A relatively small Bell 210 helicopter was already strapped down inside the cargo area. A smaller electricpowered forklift was used inside the C-5 Galaxy to load the apparatus into the helicopter. It was then secured inside the plane in case it might be needed. The crew, Adrian, and Lionel boarded, and it took off with no tower clearance needed in the abandoned skies. They passed the time with bad jokes and even worse Air Force MREs. They tested their global positioning devices and from time to time went into the cargo area to make sure that the all-important apparatus that had been built to preserve the vital and delicate living plants was faring okay. The location for the only known living plants was in Panama. But it was closer to the San Jose, Costa Rica, airport than to any major Panamanian one. Moreover, the runways at San Jose airport were known to be clear from a trial flight several days earlier. The large Air Force cargo plane landed smoothly. The small helicopter was carefully slid down the plane's ramp. The small electric forklift was used to carefully place the plantrescue apparatus into the small helicopter. Adrian and Lionel got in. Adrian started the engine, tested it, checked the readings, and took off. Lionel kept a sharp eye on the portable global positioning finder and guided Adrian as he flew. In less time than either of them had anticipated, they arrived over a very small ravine with a stream running through the clear-cut slope. Stumps of clear-cut trees were visible everywhere. For some minutes the helicopter hovered over the spot. Adrian studied the terrain for a safe landing area. Lionel checked his satellite-generated global position device. Adrian wanted to get as close as he could to the only known location where the delicate plant grew in order not to damage it as the two of them carried it to the helicopter in the clumsy apparatus. But a safe landing spot was more important. Lionel checked maps, the global position device, and the terrain below. It did not look good. The rainforest protective cover had been clear-cut away for a quick profit in wood to be used for crating and shipping pallets. But there seemed to be some shade beside the half-crushed remnant of the waterfall left by the logging machinery. And there were some green plants growing in the shade. Lionel pointed down. Adrian lowered the helicopter onto a cleared area adequate for its skids and large enough for the rotors to circle freely. It was not a smooth set-down, but both of them were relieved that they had landed on firm ground and had not broken anything. Adrian shut down the engine. They clicked off their seat belts and jumped out. Holding a large topographical map being flapped around by a blowing wind, Lionel picked his way around the tree stumps. Adrian, right beside him and holding a iPod-like device with a screen, flipped through maps, pictures of Codeaum fontinalis delicatissimus, and global positioning coordinates. Because the wind was gusty they both turned from time to time to check the helicopter. They both trudged down the side of a ravine and stood by a small remnant of a waterfall sparkling in the afternoon sun. Bulldozer tracks had crushed through half of it. They checked the weeds around the waterfall. There was no indication of the delicate wild form of the common houseplant. They went up to the top of the waterfall. There was no indication of their plant. They climbed back down and followed the downstream flow in the bright hot sun for at least a quarter of a mile. They knew that the bright sunlight and lack of misty spray probably made it impossible for even an isolated seedling of the delicate plant to survive. But they searched thoroughly for one anyway. They went back to the half-crushed waterfall and again scoured through the weeds around it. Lionel checked the map. Adrian checked the coordinates. Both looked glum. "Looks bad," Adrian said. "Yeah," Lionel agreed. "This is where it was supposed to grow," Adrian said as he pointed to the halfbulldozed remnant of the waterfall. They compared the fold-out paper map to the map on-screen. Adrian checked and rechecked the global positioning device. "We're right on the spot," Adrian said. "You completely sure?" "This is it." "Was!" They looked glumly back up the slope. The clear-cutting had been done recently, perhaps even after the virus began to spread but before worldwide commerce ground to a halt. Frequent tropical rain had not yet washed away all of the bulldozer tracks. Bare stumps glistened in the bright tropical direct sunlight all around them. Adrian called up an image of Codeaum fontinalis delicatissimus on his hand-held computer. They had checked it against even the most vaguely similar specimens that they had found growing in the area. They looked at it one more time as if hoping that it might remind them of something that they had seen. Across the image was the warning: ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT TOLERATE DIRECT SUNLIGHT! With bright sunlight glaring on their faces, Adrian and Lionel looked at each other with despair that became resignation. They just stood there without saying anything and sweating in the tropical heat and bright sunlight for some seconds. Lionel pointed up the ravine of stumps and bare dirt. "Could grow somewhere else, but not exactly here anymore." "Yeah," Adrian agreed. They climbed again to the top of the ravine, this time to look around. As far as they could see there were only stumps and scattered undergrowth vegetation. There were no more obvious ravines like the one they had just been in. "No one knows anywhere else where it grew," Adrian said with his head hung down and shaking it. "But before we go we ought to make a quick check of the area in the chopper." "Okay," Lionel agreed. It was hopeless, but they were here and could spend a little time looking, fuel and daylight permitting. They got into the chopper. Adrian took off. They scoured the countryside for any sign of a clump of rainforest that had not been clear-cut. Lionel pulled out a pair of binoculars and looked all around to the horizon. Everything had been clear-cut. There was nowhere where the delicate, sun-sensitive, and mist-requiring plant could have survived. He shook his head. Adrian knew what it meant. Adrian threw his printouts out the helicopter and into the wind. Lionel threw his topographical map out and watched it flutter toward the stumps of the clear-cut ground. As Adrian jerked the joystick and headed the helicopter toward what had once been Costa Rica, Lionel watched as wind blew the papers across the clear-cut tree-stumps of the former rainforest. They got back to San Jose while there was still adequate daylight for the Air Force cargo plane to take off. They told the crew what had happened. Everyone was glum. "Even if they somehow find a cure, it's going to be a job getting it to people," Adrian said after a long silence. "Yeah. The whole country's divided into urban and rural fortresses now," Lionel agreed. "They're shooting everyone who approaches." The Air Force crew said that they were glad to be stationed at Beale, which had so far escaped with only a few isolated cases of the disease. Adrian and Lionel kept quiet about Adrian's isolated estate and their supplies of provisions. The fewer people who knew of it, let alone its location, the less likely it would be that they might have to fight off either the desperate or the criminals. When the plane landed at Beale at near dawn. To minimize contact and potential contamination they did not even go to the administration building. The present crew had been tested and found safe, but that might not be true of random military personnel that they might encounter. They immediately off-loaded the helicopter and used it to fly to Adrian's estate. Adrian's estate now had additional guardhouses at its perimeters. Like many important people either in or working for the government, Idris, Adrian, and Lionel had security personnel. Some were Secret Service. Others were from private security. None, however, were allowed to leave the premises and later come back. All had to stay on site in order to avoid contamination. None had anyone left out there to go back to as far as they knew. Housing, sustenance, and entertainment, such as it was, were furnished, and the secure area that they helped to provide was an improvement over anything else that they might find. Idris was, of course, upset at what her husband and her brother had done. But they had called her en route to Panama and had explained everything in excruciating detail. Idris was the daughter of a former president, a graduate of several of the finest educational institutions in the world, and a very practical woman. She accepted what had so desperately had to be done and was as crushed as anyone at the alarming unsuccessful results. The remaining people of the world, all of them in North America now, had no choice now but to hunker down for a long haul and hope that researchers working intently at several locations might find something in spite of thee setback. September became October. The routine of daily life at the secure compound in the California wilds had gotten back to tedious normal for just short of a month. At around midday one of the uniformed security guards was leisurely peering into surrounding terrain while eating a sandwich. It was good duty for him. He, like most of the other security people including the Secret Service people, had lost his immediate relatives and friends to the disease. Here he had security from the guarded compound and life's necessities were taken care of. Nothing had happened. The estate was isolated and few knew of it. He was not slack in his duty. But like all routines it had become habitual and tedious. In back of him toward the house Lionel was splitting firewood. Inside the house in the library, Adrian sat at his desk flipping pages in a book and occasionally studying one of them. Nearby, Idris sat on the rug reading to the three children. Several steps away from her and inside a locked case with glass doors were several handguns, shotguns, and high-powered automatic weapons, all of them loaded. They were inside the case solely to keep them out of the reach of the children because they were kept loaded for contingencies. The glass was thin so it could be broken to quickly access the loaded guns. No one wanted an armed confrontation. But social order had broken down and everyone in the compound was a realist. Adrian looked up from his book and glanced out at Lionel. Lionel was splitting firewood as leisurely as possible. It was as much as anything his entertainment. Beyond him Adrian noted the guardhouse and the uniformed security guard eating a sandwich with one hand and using the other to hold binoculars to his eyes while he scanned out beyond the cleared perimeter. Through a small guardhouse window facing the house Adrian could see another security guard casually looking over combo computer-TV screen. On it was showing an old black-and-white classic comedy from the 1930s. And at that minute, while Adrian was noting the black-and-white comedy, the large flat screen suddenly changed to a red-colored warning sign flashing: INTRUDER. INTRUDER. INTRUDER. Accompanying the visuals on-screen was a low BEEP-BEEPBEEP sound. It sounded separately inside the house, too. Even before Adrian could move, the highly trained security guard leapt from his chair and unsnapped his pistol holster. He grabbed two Uzi submachine guns and crawled out of the door of the guardhouse to a prepared spot behind several sandbags. The other security guard dropped his sandwich to the ground and grabbed an internal radiophone. His fellow guard tossed him an Uzi. He grabbed it and hit the dirt. In another second he had crawled behind the sandbags beside his coworker. The drill had worked. They had gotten into position just in time. Individual gunshots rapidly became volleys of automatic gunfire and bullets began ricocheting around them. Ducking his head, the first security guard spoke into his radio. It was a large estate. No doubt everyone had heard the gunfire. But some could think it was some kind of weird practice. He meant to disabuse anyone of that notion. "Post three! We're under fire! Stations! Stations! Stations!" Adrian had seen it coming. Even before the security guard announced it, Adrian had yelled to Idris. "Get down. We're under attack." The low BEEP-BEEP-BEEP sound emanating from the ceiling told her it was no joke. She pushed the three kids to the floor. "Crawl down into the basement," she told them. Adrian had already jumped up and run crouching to the glass case. He grabbed a nearby folding chair, swung it to smash the glass door of the gun case, and then extracted several guns. A bullet snapped through the sliding glass door to the patio. Outside it Lionel dove to the patio bricks and crawled on his belly toward the house. Idris crawled after the children. They knew where to go. She got ahead of them and yanked open a trap door. Then she virtually stuffed the kids down the steep steps below. "Keep quiet!" she yelled at them. "Don't turn on the flashlight." She slammed the trap door shut and pulled a rug over it. Gunfire from a variety of weapons echoed through the mountain air. Bullets struck walls inside the library. Crouching, Adrian handed crouching Idris an old M-1 rifle and clip. Lionel crawled inside. Still crouching, Adrian handed him a 45 automatic pistol. He kept an M-16 rifle for himself. They scurried off to pre-assigned battle stations. Maddening volleys of gunfire continued. Idris had gone up to a sandbagged position on top of the roof. With her rifle ready, she peered out at the surrounding perimeter. She saw a figure in the underbrush hurl a hand grenade at the guardhouse. She ducked behind the sandbags as it went off. The shouting and gunfire did not distract her. She aimed her rifle. The underbrush partly obscured a human figure. But he jumped out of it and ran toward grenade-damaged guardhouse. She squeezed the trigger. The figure cried out and fell wounded or dead. Adrian in the meantime had crawled on his belly through underbrush. When he saw anything he stopped, aimed at it, and fired, usually more than once. He heard one get hit and yell. He saw three more underbrush-obscured figures crouching around him. His and their shots rang out repeatedly. One by one, the figures screamed and fell. Lionel, meanwhile, had crawled into the underbrush in the back of the house. He remained on his belly in the underbrush, pistol ready. He heard someone moaning painfully in the distance. But the gunfire had ceased. He spoke into his radiophone. "I think that's all of them." Adrian crawled in underbrush on his belly toward Lionel. He spoke into his radiophone. "Stay where you are. I hear one moaning. Could be dangerous." But the moaning grew weak. Then there was a telltale gurgle. Then there was silence. Adrian spoke into his radiophone. "I think that's it. Anyone of us sprayed with the slightest detritus absolutely must go into isolation. All of you! Check yourselves right now." He listened, waited while they all checked themselves, listened some more. "Anyone?" No one responded. "Okay. Let's get into isolation suits and check these guys out." All of them, though, waited several more minutes. Lionel and Adrian threw some sticks and stones into the underbrush to draw fire. There was no response. Idris, too, saw no movement other than the security guards, her husband, and her brother. She came down off the roof. None of them wanted to put the security guards at risk. None of them had been wounded. Several had scratches and bruises from the haste of taking their positions. But that was not in any potentially contaminated area. Idris, Adrian, and Lionel merely inspected them to make sure none had been struck by any bullet-wound detritus. None had. Except for one, the biggest and strongest security guard, they sent them back to their posts or living areas. Idris, Adrian, Lionel, and the selected security guard suited up. Their suits were higher quality than those used by the military and white so as to show any spots of potential contamination. They went back out onto the grounds of the estate. Carrying shovels, the four of them approached a dead body. Cautiously inspecting it from several feet away, they saw that it was a male in his thirties. He was dressed in camouflage attire. The gunshot wounds were plain. All in all, they found four dead bodies, all fairly young, all in the same camouflage uniforms, all male. Thankful in their contamination suits that it was cool October instead of hot summer, they dug four graves. "Marauding band. Not people in need," Adrian observed as they dug. "All athletic males." "Probably found isolated houses easy pickings," Lionel added. "Didn't expect trained Secret Service guards." "Or well-drilled civilians," Idris said. She pointed to the bodies. All of them had been stripped naked to enable inspection for signs of the disease. "No indications of the disease on them." "Good sign," Lionel said. "But no way of knowing." "Yeah," Idris agreed. "So let's get them buried before animals track something into the compound." "And let's strictly keep the kids in the compound now — just in case," Adrian added. They buried the four bodies and their weapons, clothing, and gear. Handling the four contamination suits that they had worn with latex gloves, they buried those in a separate location just to avoid any spread of contamination in case one or more of the marauders had been in contact with the disease prior to their raid. They had more than an ample supply of contamination suits. Then they relaxed and wound down. They got out a favorite snacks and favorite movie for the kids. After that they played with them until dark. The kids were understandably tense as they were put to bed but reassured that the adults were not and everything was under control. The adrenaline rush subsided but everyone remained understandably tense and anxious. This did not quite wear off as the day ended, but daily routines set back in. By the next day the daily routines took over. And that went on for some days more. Days became weeks. Anxieties returned to the disease-caused dire situation in North America. No news on the greatly reduced Internet or remaining cable transmissions was good. No one completely understood either the virus itself or the reasons behind its ability to spread so easily and rapidly. Estimates of population became carefully tabulated actual counts and were broadcast daily. They showed nothing but continual decline. Marauders continued and news accounts of them and warnings to specific areas about them continued. But like the population in general, the marauders were succumbing to the disease, perhaps faster than other people because they were moving around and taking more chances. There were, at any rate, fewer of them. Incidents caused by them declined. Law and order broke down in urban areas and gangs took over. Lack of structure and discipline accelerated the spread of the disease there. What was left of combined regular Army and National Guard units had to be deployed around the few remaining research facilities scattered around the country that were struggling against great odds to find a cure or at least find ways of limiting the spread. COUNTDOWN SEVEN October became November. Idris, Lionel, and Adrian rotated duties of teaching the children, cleaning the house, inspecting and maintaining the grounds, and keeping tuned to the latest developments in the frighteningly deteriorating situation. They were down to saving fuel and carefully measuring out supplies. They still had enough of both for as much as another year. They had discussed raiding vacant properties where people had succumbed to the disease at least a year earlier when their own fuel or food ran out and they had gone out on similar raids. But the discussions all led to the same question in the end. How long did the virus stay infectious on items that infected people had touched? No one knew. Teams had been sent to Europe months after everyone died there and had found themselves suddenly ill and dying and as a result did not return. As much as anyone knew now, a year did not seem enough time. But they knew that if they wore contamination gear and scrubbed with strong substances like formaldehyde, they might be able to enter some locations and retrieve some things if they were very careful. One late evening in mid-November they were sitting around the fireplace discussing that and lighter concerns of housekeeping and educating the children. The only light in the library was from an oil lantern and two solar-recharged flashlights. They had turned off the laptop that they had been using to monitor confrontations between gangs and military remnants guarding research facilities on the West Coast. The researchers had been provided with food, medicine, and fuel and were carefully using them. In contrast in the gang-controlled adjacent population these had been exhausted or frivolously wasted. Gang leaders, reacting to demands by the population, were mostly seeking to replenish them. But these had been armed drug gangs before the Baghdad Virus crisis. Some were also attempting to access stores of prescription and illegal drugs in warehouses, abandoned police evidence rooms, and even in the research facilities' clinics. The government of the United States was now reduced to sites like Adrian's estate scattered around the country and keeping in contact by secure cable and wireless Internet connections. Two cable television stations were still operating. On a makeshift stand in Adrian's library was an ordinary car-battery wired to a large flat-screen monitor. It was recharged from solar panels during the day. Idris turned on the TV, and all of them, including the children, Alfred, Clara, and Evelyn, intently watched and listened to the scenes and sounds of an urban riot. The scenes of rioting seemed to meld into one. But there were actually several. One was happening in Washington DC around an inner perimeter surrounding main government institutions and stretching across the Potomac to the Pentagon and included the vital Reagan Airport landing strips. Another was on the Oakland-Berkeley border in the San Francisco Bay Area. Live coverage, such as it was, was being provided through cell phones and similar small devices. It was the only news, and there were no commercials. It had apparently been going on for some time before Idris had turned on the TV. The riot was what was going on and the riot was what everyone watched. A beeper attached to Adrian's belt sounded. He got up, hurried to a secure military radiophone, and answered it. The others watched him intently. "Yes," he said into the phone. There was a long pause while he listened. "Yes, Mr. President," he answered into the phone. There was a longer pause while he obviously heard out the president. "That bad!" he finally exclaimed loudly. He listened some more. "Yes," he answered more calmly. He listened while nodding. "Yes, I'll have the landing lights on and we'll be ready. We'll see what we can do." The others looked on anxiously as Adrian hung up the phone. Adrian did not immediately turn to face them. He stood looking blankly at the phone with his hand to his mouth and took a couple noticeable breaths. Then he straightened up, turned, and went back to the others while mopping his brow. "The President," he told them while considering his words carefully. "They can't hold the perimeter around downtown Washington and the Pentagon much longer. They're evacuating personnel and equipment to Los Alamos while Reagan Airport's still usable. CDC in Atlanta is under attack. They're getting what they can to Los Alamos, too." "Oh no," Idris said while shaking her head. Adrian took a deep breath. "But that's not why he called." He turned to Lionel. "He wants us to go to Berkeley. We need to buy time. Our forces around the campus are about to cave in. We desperately need the virus research labs there!" Idris shook her head and stared at Adrian. "Do you two have to go?" Adrian held out his arms to indicate how helpless he was about it. "Got to try. Lionel knows the scene there. They might deal with President Wyndeshour's son and an old Berkeley street person. They won't listen to anyone else." Idris stood and shot her husband Lionel a look of dismay. He avoided it for a second and turned to Adrian. "They're sending a helicopter?" Adrian nodded. Idris walked over to Lionel with tears in her eyes. It had been the president. She knew what that meant. But the whole country was in remnants and tatters and the presidency had little influence. Moreover, they had all survived until now by sticking together in their isolated location. She put her arm on Lionel's shoulder. "God, Adrian, Lionel. You're all I've got." Then she resigned herself to it and wiped her tears. "Just get back here in one piece — and uninfected." Lionel gave her a hard hug and a brave kiss. The children looked on with worry in their expressions. And almost immediately they heard the sound of a helicopter rotor chopping at the California mountain air. It had obviously been dispatched even before the president had called. They all knew that it meant the defense perimeter situation on the Oakland-Berkeley border was truly desperate. Adrian and Lionel turned and started toward the door. They went out and into the darkness. Adrian flicked a switch at the end of the patio and landing lights around a nearby helicopter pad leapt into the dark stillness. The chopper landed. Adrian and Lionel ran crouching to it. No words were exchanged. They simply climbed aboard, and it took off. When the sound of blades chopping the air sound grew faint, Idris flicked a switch to shut off the landing lights and save precious electricity. The chopper landed on a pad on a Berkeley campus building rooftop. As they emerged from it they were handed flack jackets and uniforms and quickly put these on. A US Army Humvee waiting below took Adrian and Lionel to a barricade near the BerkeleyOakland city border. The Army had set up a barricade of partly wrecked automobiles and sandbags. Troops in US Army combat uniforms and gear manned it. It was indeed a war zone, and occasionally shots rang out from the undisciplined other side. Out in front of the barricade was a burned-out vehicle. Beyond it were campfires of the motley opposing forces. The Humvee pulled up to the barricade. Army searchlights prowled the street. The Humvee stopped in front of a California National Guard general. Adrian and Lionel climbed out. A bullet zinged by and was answered with automatic weapons fire from the general's troops. The general waved contemptuously out across the barricade toward the opposing side. "Military amateurs. Waiting for daylight to attack." He glanced at his watch. "About an hour." "Can you hold them?" Adrian asked. "Can't promise," the general answered. "I've got a thousand troops. That's the whole damn California National Guard. Army can't spare one man from the Washington perimeter. Whole damn US Army's down to fifteen thousand." Adrian motioned past the barricade. "How many do they have?" The general shook his head and shrugged. "Don't know. They're dying like flies. No discipline. Isolation and Containment abandoned." He wagged his forefinger warningly. "I'll tell you this: it's got to be dangerous to even go out there and talk to their head honcho. If he doesn't have it, I can't imagine why not. Sure you want to?" Adrian sighed, frowned, and scratched his head. "He's probably not the kind of guy to take unnecessary chances. Anyway, we've got to make some kind of a deal. We've got to keep the research labs open." "Okay. Good luck," the general shrugged. "First hint of daylight, you go out there carrying a white flag. He'll meet you halfway." Adrian nodded agreement. They waited for dawn. The general was having his troops tested twice per day. He had no new cases in two weeks. Three weeks earlier he had been a captain. In civilian life he had managed a fast food restaurant in Redwood City. He, Adrian, and Lionel discussed the deteriorating situation in Washington DC. They were evacuating scientific personnel, their equipment, their reagents, and their computers first. Other civilians were next. The military had an orderly evacuation plan for its troops. The first hint of dawn arrived. Adrian and Lionel could now make out the situation on the other side of the barricade. The motley forces on the other side had three large frontend loaders and over a dozen pickup trucks with armed men ready to crash into the barricade. Even if the California National Guard forces managed to hold firm, there would be considerable loss of life. From among them the indistinct shadowy figure of what was obviously the rebel leader approached carrying a stick with an impromptu white flag and waving his free arm. The general handed Adrian a pole with white flag. "Okay, you're on. Good luck." Adrian, carrying and waving the white flag, headed out from the barricade. The rebel leader appeared to be in his thirties. He wore a red neckerchief. He was dressed in blue jeans and a blue denim motorcycle-club jacket. He began yelling across the distance separating them. "President Wyndeshour's son Adrian?" "Yes," Adrian yelled back. They continued to walk toward the presupposed meeting place halfway between the barricades. Neither said anything more until they were face-to-face. By prior agreement they did not shake hands in order to reduce chances of contracting the disease. By prior agreement both wore surgical facemasks and stood looking at each other for some seconds. The meeting was as much for political show as it was for genuine negotiations. Much of it might have been done by radio and telephone communications. But a face-toface meeting gave whatever agreements they might reach a greater credibility, especially with the unruly mob. More importantly, both of them were out of range of hearing and could talk freely with little chance of being monitored and then sabotaged for political infighting. After several seconds of sizing each other up, the rebel leader spoke. "Look, man. I'm glad you came," he said. He hesitated while he considered how to broach delicate subjects and terms. "Word is, they found a cure and they ain't lettin' us have it. We just want to live." He hesitated again for the same reasons. "Besides, food's gettin' scarce. Electricity's off and on. Can't trust stuff from freezers." Adrian shook his head. "There's no cure. There's no vaccine." He pointed back of him toward the Berkeley campus. "Might be if your people let the researchers find one. But it will take time." He took an apologetic stance. "Look, we have no reason to keep it secret. The whole human race is counted in the thousands now. We need everyone. If they find a cure, we'll get it out fast to each and every human being." He let that soak in for a second and then shrugged. "As far as food goes, we can have some trucks full of canned food and military MREs over here this afternoon." Frowning and fingering his surgical mask, the rebel leader considered it. "I hear what you're sayin'. I'm with you." He waved an arm toward the barricades and waiting armed combatants behind him. "But I can't say how they're going to buy it. Look, can you get me some kilos of coke and weed? That'll quiet them down." He held out his arms pleading. "They're all going to die anyway. It's humane, man." Adrian had been ready for anything and had considered that possibility beforehand. But he thought over the implications for a second. "You know what's going to happen," he said. "It's the end. They get high; they don't care. It'll spread even faster." The rebel leader glared back. He was losing his patience. "The thing is, do you want this confrontation to end or don't you? I gotta take back something they want. That's what they told me!" His voice was tense and his glare was admonishing. "Far as the disease spreading? Everyone knows the score. What's a few weeks one way or the other?" He relaxed and held out his hands in a final plea. "It'll buy you some time, Man." Adrian looked down at the pavement with regret and then looked back at the rebel leader. "Okay. Hold 'em off for a day. We'll get what's around — police evidence, medical, whatever. And we'll get food here this afternoon." The rebel leader looked relieved. He nodded acceptance. He turned and started back. Then he turned his head and waved. "Got a deal," he shouted so that not only Adrian might hear him but his own ragtag armed forces. Adrian turned and started back toward the National Guard barricades. "Hey," he heard the rebel leader yell. He turned to see the rebel leader, now halfway back to his own forces, standing in the middle of the street facing him. "My parents both voted for your father," he shouted. Adrian waved a terse acknowledgment. He and the rebel leader turned and continued back to the waiting forces of their sides. Adrian got to the barricade and climbed over it. The general stood waiting to be briefed. But in addition, he took a slip of paper from Lionel and handed it to Adrian. Adrian's first concern was to relay the results of the negotiations and took the slip of paper but did not look at it. "They want dope," he said. "Lots of it. Crack, weed, whatever you can find. Police evidence rooms, prescription stuff in warehouses, whatever you can find. Buys us time." "Drugs?" the general questioned while shaking his head. He shrugged. "Sure, we can scrape up a truckload." He pointed at message in Adrian's hand. "Can I help with that?" "Idris radioed," Lionel said. "Professor Merrival called her. Said he had the disease. Didn't know how he caught it. Was leaving his will on the kitchen table." Adrian glanced at note and shook his head with a snort. "His will? Just like him." He turned to the general. "We want to have a look at him. Can you spare two isolation suits?" "Sure. Be my guest," he said. He turned. "Sergeant, get us two suits." A battle-uniformed sergeant sprang up from the barricade and weakly saluted. "Yes sir!" Adrian was concerned that the more urgent task might be delayed. He nodded to the general. "Put someone on getting them their dope right away, too." "Right away," the general agreed. "And they want you to take a chopper and fly it back yourself and keep it. So you can move quickly if you have to." Dawn became day. The flight back was over now largely uninhabited California countryside. Professor Merrival had cleared a helicopter landing pad for his astrophysics and NASA colleagues in case they might need a refuge or even just might want to visit him. But before they could, they had all died off. And now he was gone, too. Adrian landed. He and Lionel suited up and hurried to Merrival's front deck. They peered into the front windows one by one. Adrian spotted something. "That's him on the bed. I'm going to go in. Wait out here. Adrian found Merrival lying dead on his bed with a suit, white shirt, tie, and polished shoes on. There was a laptop computer beside him. Adrian went up to him, looked around, picked up a mirror from a dresser and held it over Merrival's mouth. There was no breath. He turned to see Lionel looking in the window. Adrian shook his head and held up his arms to indicate there was nothing he could do. Adrian emerged from the house carrying a sheet of paper, in the gloves of his isolation suit. Due to the bulky suits he could only clumsily hand it to Lionel. "His will," Adrian said. "Leaves his estate to Letters and Sciences at Berkeley." Lionel glanced at it and handed it back with a helpless gesture. Adrian put it on a chair inside and shut the door. He had grown up with the professor and NASA scientist as a neighbor. "Goodbye, old friend," he said before turning from the door to Lionel. In his clumsy isolation suit he pointed back toward Merrival's house. "He taught me to appreciate the vastness of the universe — the great mystery of it." They hurried toward the helicopter. Halfway there they removed their isolation suits and just left them on the ground. They had plenty more back at the estate. Adrian and Lionel took off. It was just a short hop to the estate. Idris and the children were extremely glad to see them back safely. COUNTDOWN SIX The daily survival routines continued on at Adrian's secluded California estate into early spring. Food and supplies were running low, but not alarmingly low. A large garden plot had been planted to help stretch things out. More serious plans were discussed about raiding surrounding habitats from which residents had clearly fled rather than had succumbed of the disease. But there was no crying need to initiate the risky forays. Everyone was aware of the insidious decline in population and kept track of numbers provided by the increasingly bewildered and demolished government. By spring the best figures available indicated that in all of the world there were only a few thousand people left. And as far as anyone knew, all of these were now living in North America under the authority of what remained of the United States Government. No faint suggestion of a cure for the disease had been discovered, but reliable statistical analyses had been done on its latency period. More was known on how it spread. And it was now known that a ten-percent formaldehyde solution could if not kill it, render the virus non-contagious where it had been deposited on materials by infected people. The virus appeared dead. But after all the terrible experience with premature assumptions, no one was willing to say for sure that it was completely dead and not just long-term dormant. But there were now ways of if not controlling it then at least dealing with it. These included frequent testing of everyone to nip the spread of the disease in the bud before the infected person actually became contagious. All of this had not completely brought the spread of the Baghdad virus to a halt, but it was offering some hope that what was now left of the human species might survive, reproduce, and in several tens of millennia repopulate the planet. The virus did not affect plant and animal life. Spring came to the California mountains as it had for eons. And blossoms came out in the patio outside Adrian's library. It was midday. Emergency night-lighting equipment was turned off but looked as if it was intruding on the bookish atmosphere of the library. And all in all, the once posh modern mansion had a weathered emergency look. Adrian was sitting at a laptop and sat back in his chair as if finished. He took a deep breath and frowned. The screen was still on. He tapped it off stood up. He began pacing back and forth while Idris and Lionel sat in chairs facing the patio. "Kids outside?" Adrian asked while he paced. "Playing," Idris said. Adrian stopped, looked outside, looked at Lionel and Idris, and continued pacing. "That messaging was the President," he said. He stopped pacing, saw that he had their attention, and began pacing again. "Now that there are only a few thousand of us left, they want to consolidate everything in Los Alamos." He took a deep breath and continued pacing. "He messaged us because Beale Air Force Base Center went off the air this morning. Everyone's dead." He saw their shock, but they had been expecting it. He stopped pacing. "That leaves two centers besides Los Alamos. He wants us all at Los Alamos." "Why?" Idris asked. "We're safe, isolated up here. Look what happened at Beale." "The Beale contamination began before they figured out the virus's latency mode," Adrian replied. "The latency's still there," Idris argued. "People with no contact with it for months have suddenly shown symptoms, spread it. Why put everyone in a few locations?" Lionel was aware of new testing procedures at Los Alamos. "Unlike Beale, they're testing everyone twice a day," he told Idris. "They catch it, isolate them before it reaches infectious stage." "That sounds good on paper," Idris noted. "But..." Lionel interrupted. "Data from Los Alamos extrapolates birth rate slightly exceeds death rate from all causes — including the virus." He saw that she was thinking about his argument. "Besides we're going to run out of food." Idris shot him an admonishing frown. "We've got food for months yet. And it's safe here." "Not that safe," Lionel told her. Adrian interrupted. "They want us in Los Alamos because they've decided to evacuate the remaining population of North America to Europe — southern France." Idris and Lionel could only exchange astounded expressions. "All three thousand of us?" Idris asked. "What in the world for?" "Yeah, what for?" Lionel asked. "The map," Adrian said. "Our human ancestors emerged from Africa and spread out through the Eurasian landmass." "For a lousy map?" Idris asked. Adrian scratched his head. "Reasoning is: remnant survivors of the human race will have a much better chance to link-up on the large Eurasian-African landmass. Maybe centuries from now." Idris frowned and rubbed her hand across her mouth. She shook her head with noticeable distress. "Oh, I'd rather stay here." "Why southern France?" Lionel asked. "Lascaux cave paintings. Things like that," Adrian answered. "Their argument is: the human race survived the Ice Age there. First hints at civilization came from there during that time — cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira, so-on." "Interesting concept. Reduced to cave-dwellers," Idris noted. "But are we going to make this dangerous long move just for that?" "For what that represents. In a generation or two that's about how the human race will live," Adrian told her. "Fred Flintstone and family. And that's how they could remain into the next Ice Age." "Sobering," Lionel said. Idris knew the finality of government decisions all too well. "What's our deadline for Los Alamos?" "Couple weeks," Adrian told her. For two weeks Idris, Lionel, and Adrian sorted through their things and packed what they might want to keep and what might be worth keeping for the future of the human race in Europe through the next ice age. It was not easy to pack up and go into the unknown. Adrian's isolated estate had thus far provided security from the breakdown of society and more importantly freedom from the spread of the disease. So there was grumbling and there were arguments about the move. And there were the understandable disagreements about what to take to Los Alamos and then to Europe from there and what to leave. It was agonizing to have to decide, made all the worse by the reminders that they would never be coming back. But the logic of it was clear. And they still respected what remained of the United States government. The decision had been made. They felt a duty to fall in line with it and not break ranks. That might set an example and cause other to balk, and if even a few others balked the whole seriously thought-out plan would come unraveled. There might not be time to hack out a new plan. So in the end they strapped cartons on shipping skids and put them hear the helicopter pad. Then one day in late spring they loaded everything onto two Chinook helicopters sent from Los Alamos. The first stop was Beale Air Force Base. It's runway was wet from being sprayed with formaldehyde. A C-130 cargo plane had landed, turned around, and waited at the end of the runway. A forklift hoisted skids and bags onto the waiting cargo plane. Idris, Adrian, Lionel, Clara, Evelyn, and Security Guards boarded. The helicopters then went on to evacuate several other estates in northern California. "Well, this is it," Idris said glumly. "Yeah," Adrian nodded. "We'll do what we have to," Lionel said. The flight went well. Pilots were being hastily trained, but the president detailed his best ones for the consolidation mission. If anything had gone wrong, some crucial people would have balked. The whole consolidation and evacuation-to-Europe program might have been over. For the moment the government had no plan B. But thanks to care and planning things went well. Everyone, every remaining human being in the world as far as anyone knew, was evacuated to and consolidated at Los Alamos. Monitoring of southern Europe and planning to evacuate to there could begin. From its beginning in the early 1940s as a super-secret lab to create and produce atomic bombs, Los Alamos had always been an isolated quasi-military government outpost. Its present use as a launching pad for the total evacuation of all remaining human beings from North America took on a military base atmosphere. But this was not due to excessive military presence. It was simply necessary to run a disciplined base. Discipline was not only necessary to prepare for the total evacuation of North America but to maintain the present level of effectiveness against the spread of the Baghdad virus. Los Alamos was not only the last vestige of the United States Government, it was the last holdout of the entire population of North America and as far as anyone knew of the world. If the present level of progress against mortality could be maintained, the continuation of the human species had better than fifty-fifty odds. No one was unaware of this. Discipline, as such, became less necessary than voluntary efforts. But Los Alamos was a U.S. government facility and had its government ceremonies. An American flag flew from a central flagpole standing in a well-manicured circle of grass. Government buildings had stenciled labels and neat little brass signs. As a result of their roots in United States government prior to the virus outbreak, Idris, Lionel, and Adrian were part of this brave last minimal remnant of government that almost made a caricature of President Lincoln's "last best hope of mankind." Plans had to be carefully considered. All forms of remaining satellite and other surveillance of Europe had to be carefully monitored and evaluated. If any signs of human life might become positively identified, these would represent a double-edged sword. On one had it would be encouraging that human life survived there. On the other, live humans would represent potential live carriers and latent transmitters of the disease and potentially prolonged its latency period there. Finding live humans would at once be a great joy and a great hazard that would bring a temporary or permanent halt to the evacuation program. There was, of course, more work to go around that there were surviving human beings to do it. So Idris, Lionel, and Adrian were kept busy. Life again sank into new routines. There was one dreaded stenciled US government sign. It read: WARNING! LOS ALAMOS ISOLATION FACILITY. GUARDS HAVE ORDERS TO SHOOT. Even more dreaded was the isolation facility itself. While it was vastly better and more humane than many, if not most, of the ones that Lionel had originally established in the early days of the spread of the disease, it was also a terminal facility. No one sent there had yet survived and come out alive. It was essentially a prefab Quonset hut surrounded by barbed wire. Outside the barbed wire armed guard patrolled. The inside of the facility was completely sealed from the outside. A series of filters and finally high-temperature sterilizing tubes, separated the outside air from the inside air. Standing at a distance, Idris and Lionel, arms tightly around each other, looked at the dreaded facility. If nothing else, it represented the terrible events that had consumed virtually all of their married life. Even at the very beginning when Idris virtually proposed to Lionel while Adrian was recovering from the overdose on his patio, the virus was lurking in the partially destroyed so-called Baghdad Baby Formula Factory. Alfred, one of the three children under their care had caught it and had been taken there only to die. He had been well cared for. But like everyone else in the world who had ever caught the disease, he had died. There was nothing that anyone could have done about it. But because of everyone's intense awareness of symptoms and the rigorous testing program, people who had contracted the disease were being discovered earlier and earlier, early enough, in most cases, to prevent others around them from being infected. Now the last best hope of humanity was to catch the infection by testing in the hours before it became contagious and isolate the infected person, albeit to die, but at least not to spread it. And even this did not totally halt the spread. It seemed to spread through the very air, carried by some yet unknown vehicle. This had lessened considerably as population declined, including, of course, infected population. And now the entire global population was counted in the thousands. The several billions of people who had presumably breathed the Baghdad virus, or some contagious component of it, into the air were now gone. The mysterious spreading that seemed to be through the air itself had almost, but not quite completely, come to an end. With the rigorous testing program and isolation in air-sealed quarters of anyone found to have been infected, the virus was now almost completely under control. Population had stabilized. And there were even some untested hypotheses for cures being circulated. Therefore as dreadful as the isolation facility was, it also represented a small hope and success. Idris and Lionel were casually looking at it with that in mind. "Twice-a-day testing caught it," Lionel said. "Funny how Clara noticed something strange." "I guess," Idris said sorrowfully and quietly. She looked at the isolation facility and then back at her husband. "When my mother died in one of those about a year ago, we didn't find out until a telegram came." She let go of Lionel and stepped away to point at the facility building while shaking her head. "But this! Watching Alfred die day by day through a window and not being able to touch him." "It's over, Idris. At least the rest of us tested negative." "They're not going to find a cure now anymore, are they." "No. I doubt it. All they know is it's not spore-forming. But it's able to survive on things and apparently in the air for up to six months." "So Europe's safe now? Because everyone's been dead there for over a year?" "We're pretty sure." "What about a few people wandering around out of communication with anyone, out of satellite image view? They could catch it. You'd have viruses alive and active for another six months." Their exchange of questions and conversatio0n was suddenly broken when they saw two Containment personnel in isolation suits escorting a man in everyday clothing going toward the Isolation Facility Building. "Another One?" Lionel asked as he nodded toward the facility building. "Probably," Idris said. "I don't know of anyone ever going in without an isolation suit and coming out." They returned to their conversation. "They're keeping an eye on it," Lionel said. "They moved most of the spy satellites over Europe. So far no signs of human movement." "Still, as I said..." "They're being extremely careful." "I hope. The airlift to Toulon has been going on for two weeks." "They covered every possibility. Sprayed formaldehyde. Scrubbed everything." "At least they got rid of our resident religious fanatic." "He'll be there when we get there." Idris looked over at the distant procession and pointed to it. The two suited people and one man in regular clothing went in. It was clearly not a spot inspection or anything benign like that. Someone else had been showing symptoms and had tested positive. It was too far away. They could not see who it was. Volumes of death beyond comprehension had made everyone ever so slightly more cynical about death and loss. "One less of us going to Toulon," Idris said with no attempt to conceal sarcasm. "Yeah," Lionel nodded. They watched as the three figures went inside the distant isolation building and the pressurized door hissed shut. COUNTDOWN FIVE Only two hours later they were summoned to the office of the President of the United States, a title left intact to provide historical continuity and the discipline necessary to carry out the project. In fact, there was no United States of America anymore. The only inhabited state was New Mexico, and everyone there lived in or near Los Alamos. It was midday. The president's office was in a small separate structure once used as a maintenance garage. Idris and Lionel entered the office and were surprised to fine Adrian sitting behind the president's desk, a utilitarian standard government-issue gray steel desk with a gray rubber top. Behind him was an American flag on a brass standard and pole with a gold eagle on top. Without invitation, Idris and Lionel sat in two chairs facing the desk. Both did nothing to hide their anxiety. "Yes, that was the President going to the Containment Building," Adrian said. "A few minutes ago the 'Cabinet,' such as it is, appointed me Acting President of the United States." "But that's not why you called us in here," Lionel said. "No. We've got a problem," Adrian replied. He took a deep breath and exhaled it. "Lionel, you were seen to shake the President's hand last Tuesday. Even though it's a day beyond the known incubation time..." Lionel interrupted. "You think we should go into isolation?" "Yes. Doctors insist," Adrian said. "But not only as a precaution. The President had himself tested twice daily, and this is the earliest we've ever caught someone possibly infected." "They think they can save Lionel?" Idris asked. "Not sure. Just ultra-precaution," Adrian answered Idris. "Not even sure the President has it. But it was minimally positive. So it probably is too late for him." He turned to Lionel and paused for a second. "They want to try an experiment. They think only a few of your T-cells may have been infected. They want to replace your blood with artificial plasma, remove your white cells, massively radiate your body, and try a new antibiotic. Then they'll replace your blood and keep you in a germ-free bubble for three weeks. Real risk's a shortage of doctors." "Do I have time to think about it?" Adrian asked. "No. Medical people are in the hall," Adrian said. "Minutes may count. A potential for a breakthrough here." Idris buried her face in her hands for a second and then looked up. "Me too?" "You didn't touch the president, and Lionel is not at the infectious stage yet," Adrian said. "But just to be safe, you really should. Couple weeks. You'll be in separate bubbles in the same room. I'll take care of Clara and Evelyn." Idris let out a long sad sigh. "Okay. Just to be on the safe side." "This could lead to the immunology miracle that we've all been looking for," Adrian offered. Idris and Lionel exchanged glances, negative head-shakes, half-shrugs at the inevitable, and then they both nodded to Adrian. He pushed a buzzer on his desk. Three officers in containment suits entered. Idris and Lionel reluctantly stood up and started to the door with them. Instead of being led to the dreaded and always terminal Isolation facility, they were driven to the Los Alamos hospital and then taken to a special area that had been under construction for weeks. The treatment theory itself was sound and they had been preparing for just that situation where they could get someone in the pre-early stages of the infection and quickly treat him or her. So planning and preparation had gone into the operation, treatment, and recovery area. It was ready and waiting. The best medical personnel remaining in the world participated. In normal times, though, they would at best have been considered marginally qualified, especially for such a difficult and experimental procedure. Still, they were the only ones left, the only ones who might produce the magic reversal in human misfortunes. So the complex medical procedure went forward. Idris and Lionel Verney were at once patients and guinea pigs. When the procedure was over they were moved to beds covered by airtight plastic bubbles that isolated their breathing air from the outside environment. Their immune systems had been wiped out and the first steps of restoring them artificially had begun. It was an unappealing room with two hospital beds, each with a separate large inflated plastic bubble over it and air-purification machinery attached and humming. Lionel lay in one bed, Idris in the other. The first week went by as expected. Neither patient had much energy. The medical staff kept them as comfortable as possible and attended to their needs as best they could. As the first week of treatment drew to a close and the second one began, disturbing signs that all had not gone well began to make themselves known. While Lionel could sit up in bed alert, Idris continued to lie exhausted. By the end of the second week her condition had not shown any improvement. A woman doctor in a transparent plastic suit over his surgical greens leaned over and looked at Lionel's chart. "How's it going?" Lionel asked her. "You: excellent!" the doctor answered. "Couple more days, you're out of here." Lionel looked over at Idris sleeping under her bubble. "My wife?" The doctor glanced at the chart and dropped it to her side with exasperation. "Not so good. We're trying." But trying was not enough. And they did try, heroically. Idris kept slipping. Lionel was deemed not only ready to be released from the bubble but cured of the Baghdad virus disease. His first act was to go over to the bubble covering Idris and look at her. She did not look well. A medical technician had allowed her to be over-radiated. Another had given her a larger dose of the experimental drug than had been planned. Both had been first year medical school students when all of the colleges and universities in the country had been closed to curtail the spread of the disease. Their additional education and impromptu internship had been a several-hour run-through of the special procedure. An attempt was made at a two-day crash course in what they might have gathered from a several more years of study, internship, and residence. Meanwhile the various planned stages of the evacuation of all of the remaining residents of North America to southern France had been in continuous progress. The airport tarmac was a scene of rows and rows of shrink-wrapped packages strapped to shipping pallets. Rows of cargo planes were parked out beyond them. There had been some hope that Idris might recover. Using his authority as Acting President of the United States, Adrian had delayed the departure of the final contingent to Toulon. Medical personnel, personnel to support and protect them, and all of their families and some of their circles of friends had been held back. It had not all been to the negative. Some last-minute discoveries and necessary changes had been acted upon. But in general the delay had not been good for the carefully planned mass-departure. Lionel looked strained and distraught. Idris was getting worse and probably could not survive the long flight to Europe. There was nothing that he could do for her, and that made it all the more painful. Knowing that the evacuation of North America had a crucial narrow time-window and now desperately had to continue bothered him even more. He knew as well as anyone that civil order requirements for discipline and services dictated that essential personnel could not be divided by an ocean for long. In the original planning potential delays had been factored in. But the present delay had stirred some political dissatisfaction and caused some unraveling of civil order. Lionel and Adrian stood by a pallet. Adrian nodded. "They're right. If she wasn't the sister of the Acting President, we'd all be over there now." A gust of wind blew up some dust and they turned to shield their faces from it. "On the other hand, your complete recovery has encouraged everyone and has kept things together." "We thought she might get better," Lionel said, more to remind himself than to convince Adrian. "At least it wasn't the Baghdad virus. What could anyone do?" "Nothing. But the delay has caused a serious breakdown at Toulon — fighting, squabbling, and a religious fanatic. Just what we don't need! Now we need to get the rest of us over there as soon as possible." "Are we talking about the group that broke off and went to Rome?" "Exactly. If I had been there, I would have forbidden it. Toulon had been scrubbed down. No one was supposed to even venture out of the Base area for six months. My guess is that the pilgrims to Rome may be all dead." Lionel happened to turn and see Idris, bundled in blankets in a wheelchair, being pushed by a woman in a nurse uniform. Clara walked with them. "Here they come," he told Adrian. For some seconds they watched their slow and careful approach. "It's so heartbreaking, a mother trying to give a daughter a lifetime of wisdom in her remaining weeks. And Clara, about to lose her second mother." "Idris looks worse," Adrian noted. Idris did indeed look frail and weak as the woman in a nurse uniform wheeled her to her husband and her brother. Clara did her best to look normally girlish as she accompanied them. Adrian and Lionel strolled toward Idris, Clara, and the apparent nurse. When they all got together on the windy airport tarmac, no one said anything for a second. Idris beckons feebly to Lionel. He crouched beside her and held and gently rubbed her hand. "Can we go for a ride?" Idris asked Lionel in a voice so weak that it was almost a whisper. "Just you and I?" "Sure," Lionel told her with an assuring nod. "Can I go too?" Clara asked. Idris weakly shook her head. "Not this time, Clara. Dad and I have to talk about things." Lionel, from his crouching position, took Clara's hand. "Just a very short ride. We'll be right back." He stood up. He studied Adrian, then the woman in the nurse uniform. They both nodded their assent. Clara pursed her lips, shifted her stance, and accepted it. Lionel pushed the wheelchair and Idris toward a late-model fuel-efficient automobile. Neither of them said anything. Idris had difficulty speaking and it took much of her energy for her to do so. Lionel did not want to oblige her to speak. Adrian and Clara walked several steps behind them to the car. When they got to it, Adrian opened the passenger-side door. He and Lionel bundled frail and weak Idris into the passenger seat. Lionel went around to the driver's side while Adrian fastened Idris' seat belt. Two car doors thunked closed. With Clara and Adrian looking on, Lionel drove off. Lionel drove up to the main gate of the Los Alamos compound. A guard in uniform stepped out and saluted. In an apparently successful attempt to minimize the spread of the disease among the remaining few thousand of the world's population, Los Alamos Base was frequently scrubbed with formaldehyde. The guards were there to insure that no one went outside the scrubbed area to potentially bring back the disease. They had been needed only as a reminder. Everyone had cooperated. Lionel had been authorized to drive outside the gate with the understanding that Idris and he remain inside the car and therefore avoid any contamination that may have come to rest on the soil. Lionel rolled the car window down to talk to the guard. "Okay?" "Yes sir," the guard responded. "Just keep your windows closed." Lionel rolled the window back up and drove out into the New Mexico countryside. He drove very slowly to keep Idris as comfortable as possible as well as to let her enjoy the scenery and hear the wild birds. There was no traffic because there were virtually no more people. Wild flora had begun reclaiming the pavement for nature. The virus had only affected humans. The countryside was totally devoid of human population. Lionel said nothing and let Idris take it in and enjoy it. Idris finally turned slowly to look at Lionel. "Ironic. I'm dying because they tried to save me from something I didn't have." "If only the Volvo mechanic..." He stopped mid-sentence and laughed cynically. "Twenty-minute run-through to make up for five years of education and training." "Can't be changed, Lionel. It's good to know you came through — maybe even you're immune to it." She coughed feebly. "Maybe it can be cured if caught in time." Lionel drove on slowly on the desolate highway. He said nothing because it would cause very weak Idris to respond. After about another half mile they came to a touching and beautiful spot. Idris spoke with a wheeze. "Stop here, Lionel. It's beautiful." Lionel turned the car slightly to a good viewing angle as he pulled it to a stop in the middle of the unused road. Idris and he took in the scene and its natural beauty. "Beauty. Life," she said with difficulty. "Goes on with or without us." He nodded but said nothing. The sky was blue and cloudless. The sun was high and bright. A gentle breeze blew by the car. He looked at Idris and then out at the scene. In the distance several antelope bounded away from them. Small birds flitted and flew across the arid country landscape. He let her take it in. In the silence he became enraptured with the sheer beauty of it and let it infuse his being. Minutes went by. The only sounds came from nature around them. There was no hurry, but Lionel wondered if Idris might want to go back soon. Moreover, he did not want to worry the people back at Base Los Alamos about the car breaking down or getting stuck. "Should head back," he said. "They'll worry." He looked at Idris. She sat motionless. There was no sign of breathing. He instantly knew. Tears welled up in his eyes and streamed down his cheeks. He took her hand and held it. And he sat there for some minutes remembering their times together, being with her for what he knew would have to be one last time, wanting beyond reason to have her back to talk to, and then finally letting out a loud sigh of resignation and acceptance. He started the car, turned it around, and slowly and carefully headed back. He turned to Idris. "We should have had more time together." The dreadful silence that followed so disturbed him that he said nothing more to her lifeless body the remainder of the way back. COUNTDOWN FOUR A brief graveside service was held for Idris early the next morning. A security guard who had been a stone mason had created an attractive but small and simple marble grave marker that read: IDRIS WYNDESHOUR VERNEY. Everyone knew that it would be the last carved-stone grave marker place by a grave in the Americas, that Idris would be the last human being to be buried in the Americas. Millions of stone markers going back centuries now went unattended in cemeteries across North America. Even as Idris' mourners were gathering, engines of cargo planes were being tested for take-off nearby. Only a small group of people had gathered in the early morning light. A remaining Army chaplain presented a brief secular service and offered a widely acceptable prayer. Clara, Evelyn, Adrian, and Lionel stood for a moment with heads bowed even as the others began to leave. Adrian and Lionel started to leave and noticed Clara and Evelyn hesitating. "We don't want to leave just yet," Clara said. Lionel understood. "Okay. But stay with Evelyn." Adrian and he walked back toward the Airport Building. Morning was becoming day. The time window was closing fast. "Got to get going!" Adrian said as he picked up his pace. "This morning's tests: everyone negative. Got to go today before anyone can turn infectious in those crowded airplanes." Lionel was concerned about the religious fanatic now in Europe. "And the Prophet of Doom over there?" "He's going to be a problem. But the problem now is to get things loaded and going. Weather satellite shows good landing conditions at E.T.A. in Toulon. Can't miss this window. Six aircraft carrying a third of the known population of the world." "Let's skip the ceremony." "No. Ceremony's important for morale and memories. Ages from now." They continue walking at a fast clip through the field. The grass had been mowed one last time. No one would be around to appreciate it in a few hours. A motley band made up mostly of musical amateurs stood in front of a flagpole at the approach to the Los Alamos Airport Building. At the top of the pole flew a large and proper American flag. When their conductor saw the Acting President of the United States and his administrative assistant approaching he waved his baton. Not entirely in sync and sometimes slightly off key, the band struck up John Phillip Souza's "Stars and Stripes Forever." Lionel turned and looked back. Clara and Evelyn were hurrying toward them. Adrian slowed his pace and reached the band as they finished Souza's stirring anthem. Clara and Evelyn caught up. They faced the flag and assumed a respectful stance of attention. Clara raised her arm in a salute. Evelyn copied her. Adrian and Lionel also stood at attention and saluted. The band stuck up "The Star-Spangled Banner." A United States Marine sergeant in full dress uniform and a high school girl in a Bay Village, Ohio, band majorette uniform began slowly and ceremonially lowering the flag. Clara, Evelyn, Adrian, Lionel and a small crowd remained saluting at attention. Everyone was aware that nearby on the lawn were everyone's last personal goods in tote bags and suitcases. Beyond these were a row of buses waiting to carry everyone and their bags to the cargo and passenger planes. The music finished as the flag reached the Marine sergeant's arms. He and the high school girl removed it and professionally folded it. Adrian, as Acting President of the United States, stepped over to the Marine sergeant and received it. The Marine sergeant saluted, Adrian returned a salute. The ceremony was over. No one wasted any time after that. Out on the tarmac and runway passenger and cargo plane jet engines were revving up. The band and the crowd broke up. They hurried to pick up their bags. Carrying them as best they could, they headed toward the buses and then boarded them. Clara, Evelyn, Lionel, and Adrian waited for some minutes. Adrian nodded to the folded American flag and held it up slightly. "Land of the Pilgrims' Pride, goodbye," he said. The shrill sound of a jet plane revving up nearby cut off whatever more he might have said. The buses were all loaded and began moving toward the tarmac. People boarded the planes, some crying. There was no mood of celebrating the evacuation of the Americas. The boarding was simply glum and orderly in the bright morning sun. Even small children, sensing the mood of necessity, behaved themselves and contributed to the orderliness. Planes took off one after another. Lionel stayed in the control tower until all but the last plane had taken off. Then he shut everything down, ran to a bicycle, peddled furiously for the last plane and boarded by climbing up under the nose wheel. It was the command aircraft of the squadron of passenger and cargo liners destined for southern France. The pilot, a middle-aged man named Bill Ridgeway and wearing a leather flight jacket, had been flying scheduled commercial aircraft since he had been in his twenties. In addition to Lionel Verney, Acting President Adrian Wyndeshour was aboard. Ridgeway lifted the fully loaded plane carefully off the runway. And at that moment there ceased to be any human beings on the land surface of the Americas. When the formation had formed, the plane droned on eastward over the vast depopulated expanse of North America. Lionel looked longingly down on his native land. Towns and cities fled by under him, all devoid of humans. Great highway systems sprawled unused across the landscape. The East Coast came up and then disappeared, and the formation of planes droned out across the Atlantic Ocean. Day faded with a dull distant glow from the midnight sun over the Arctic north. The pilots and crew constantly monitored one another in the darkness. Satellite navigation still operated and they constantly checked their locations and progress. Adrian and Bill Ridgeway sat at the controls in the cockpit. Adrian as well as some other with previous pilot training, had hastily learned to fly the huge cargo aircraft. Pilots were all certified commercial pilots and copilots had all participated in at least three takeoffs and landings. Adrian had taken-off and landed this plane seven times. Lionel, who had briefly flown single-engine planes and gliders in college, had done it three times. Ridgeway leaned back in his pilot seat. "You both did better on takeoffs and landings last week. You should be copiloting the two C-5s." "Had to have an old pro like you fly me," Adrian said. "Our deal with the cabinet was that you fly the president. And Mr. Verney's on board because he and I have a lot to talk about." Ridgeway shrugged. He tapped his tube mike closer to his mouth and spoke into it. "Zero-Zero-six, can you see all of us?" A voice responded over the cockpit speaker. "Right, zero-zero-one. All in sight and holding formation." "Good," Ridgeway said. "Keep an eye on 'em. Let me know if you think anything's amiss." "Roger. Copy that," the cockpit speaker responded. Ridgeway unfastened his seat belt and crawled out of the seat. "Take over. I need a stretch." Lionel moved from the extra navigator seat into the pilot's seat. "Get some rest," he told Ridgeway. "Yeah. Okay," the pilot nodded. Adrian did a quick check of the instruments. Then he and Lionel sat back in their seats. The autopilot kept the plane droning on eastward through the night. Everything was peaceful, but they both knew that serious political problems awaited them at Toulon. "The calm before the storm," Lionel said. "You mean The Prophet of Doom?" "Yeah." "I'm going to have to deal with that religious nut as soon as we land." "But how?" "I wish I knew. They're armed. We can't afford a war and lose more people. He has half the people on his side." Adrian looked out the cockpit windshield into the night. "I could even live with his antics, but they're letting the anti-virus discipline get lax." "Have to do something." They both stared out of the cockpit windshield into the night wondering what might be done. They had little to say after that except instrument readings, radio exchanges with the other aircraft, and noting the elapsed time and fuel readings. The planes flew on through the chill rare upper atmosphere where no human could live for more than minutes outside the pressurized aircraft cabins. Below the planes was the thin delicate covering of air, water, and land surface that made up the planet's biosphere, an almost self-regulating living entity in itself. Without it the small blue planet would be another dead gray rock hurtling through space. Adrian and Lionel took turns sleeping, but slept restlessly. No only did the fate of the human race depend on everything going well with every plane and every plane landing safely, when they landed, they would have to confront the religious fanatic who called himself The Profit of Doom. Much would depend on the success or failure of that confrontation. The planes landed without incident in the daylight the next day. Tired passengers and crews went to their new homes. Groups of workers with forklifts and other machinery unloaded the cargo and took it to storage. But as acting president, Adrian could not even stay long enough for the unloading to be completed. He and Lionel hurried to negotiate with The Prophet of Doom, a bearded and charismatic religious maniac who had persuaded desperate people to follow him as the disease spread and fear took hold. He had now set himself up as a separate political entity outside the jurisdiction of the main body that euphemistically continued to call itself the government of the United States. It would be difficult if not impossible to maintain security against the still mysterious and deadly virus if there were two sets of directives being given. Adrian and his cabinet were willing to let The Prophet of Doom continue with his bizarre religion as long as they agreed to rigorously follow government directives, especially those concerning halting the spread of the disease. Already the delay at Los Alamos had allowed The Prophet to establish separation and independence. Rumors flew that things in his area of control were to say the least getting out of hand. There was very little left of the human race and there was no time to waste. As the planes were over the Atlantic Ocean a member of Adrian's staff had called the Prophet of Doom's offices in Monaco and set up a meeting at a halfway point in Cannes. It had taken some persuasion to get The Prophet to agree to this meeting, one of them being that it would be a one-and-only disturbance of his all-important religious life. Anything was better than nothing, and the staff member agreed to it. Adrian and Lionel took a Humvee and drove the empty road from Toulon to Cannes. They had no idea of how to deal with The Prophet of Doom except to be as pleasant as they could and try to talk him into reinstating the anti-virus measures that had been working so well to preserve lives. If he would not listen to reason, they had no Plan B. Adrian and Lionel had slept some on the plane, but in general they were tired from the long flight. Neither said much. Once in Cannes they slowly drove the Humvee down the middle of what appeared to be a main street. Two white vans were parked in the street ahead of them. Adrian stopped the Humvee a respectable distance from them. Both white vans had the words REPENT SINNERS painted in large letters on their sides and below this was the logo of The Prophet of Doom. Rear and side doors on the vans were flung open. Armed guards in cult garb sprang from them and stood militarily at-ready. The Prophet of Doom then slowly and with a flourish of ceremony emerged from one of the vans. Adrian and Lionel noted that he was in his late forties and looked as insane as anyone could possibly look. He wore elaborate cult robes and had a gold headband holding his unruly black hair in place. He drew himself up to a pontifical authoritative stance, folded his arms over his chest, and glared at Adrian and Lionel. A man and a woman in cult garb then emerged from the other van and stood behind him to each of his sides. For some seconds Adrian and Lionel remained in the Humvee and studied The Prophet of Doom, his armed guards, his apparent religious advisors behind him, and the situation in general. Adrian turned to Lionel. "Wish me luck," he said. He climbed out from the driver's side and began walking slowly toward The Prophet of Doom. The guards did not move. The Prophet stood firm. Adrian walked up to him. In silence they sized each other up. Adrian motioned to the armed guards. "Can we talk more privately — away from the guns?" The Prophet of Doom raised both arms high to the heavens. Adrian stood firm tolerating his shenanigans. "Repent sinner!" The Prophet intoned in a sacerdotal flourish. "Obey the Will of the Most High made manifest in his chosen Prophet! Oh generation of unbelief, We demand repentance and obedience!" The Prophet lowered his hands, folded them across his chest, and glared at Adrian. Adrian resisted an urge to point a finger at the bizarre nut and demand that he cut the horsing around. Instead he took a deep breath to calm himself and gave as friendly a smile as he could manage to the religious maniac. "I am the Acting President of the United States," he said in a calm even voice. "I am not one of your followers." The Prophet pointed an accusing finger at him. "Beware! You speak to the Prophet of the Almighty! He will smite your stony heart! His Dogs of Death have been unleashed! He descends in visible majesty, nothing but destruction awaits you!" Adrian sighed and shifted his stance slightly. "My good man, all I ask is that you try to understand my situation. I am trying to save the human race, too. None of us is against you or your religion." Adrian held out his hands pleadingly. "We don't mind if you and your followers want to live in Monaco. What we care about is that you adhere to the anti-virus procedures." He shook his head to emphasize his plea. "There are too few of us left." The Prophet took a step back and placed an arm around the waist of woman advisor and placed his other hand on man's shoulder. He stood there for some seconds glowering at Adrian. Then abruptly The Prophet turned and stormed back to the van with his two followers. He climbed in. They climbed in after him. He slammed the van door. For a terrifying several seconds his guards fired their automatic weapons into the air. Then they piled into the vans. Adrian heard the van engines start. He turned and walked back to the Humvee. Lionel had slid over into the driver's seat and had kept the engine running in case they might have to beat a quick retreat. The Prophet's vans, peeling rubber, Squealed off down the road away from him. Adrian did not turn to look at their attention-getting display. He continued to walk to the Humvee while throwing out his arms in a gesture of both helplessness and resignation. Lionel, at the wheel, shook his head and shrugged. Adrian got into the passenger seat. They drove back to Toulon saying little. Over the next several days Adrian held cabinet meetings. He consulted the best remaining psychological experts. He talked with his military advisors in case it should come to that. He discussed economic pressures, such as they might be. He even discussed assassinating The Prophet of Doom with Lionel and his inner circle. The last was deemed to be only a last resort, largely because should it fail it would immediately precipitate a war of death and destruction between the few remaining people on the planet. This in itself would be bad enough, but such a war would in addition only allow the now largely controlled virus new inroads. Over those several days Adrian received more intelligence than he had been given while he was on the other side of the planet in New Mexico. And the intelligence about The Prophet and his compound in Monaco was not good. On the fourth day discussions had continued on into the night until all gave up and went home except Adrian and Lionel. Solar recharged flashlights illuminated the impromptu presidential office. Adrian sat behind a gray steel government-issue desk with a presidential seal glued onto the front side of it. Lionel sat in a modest wooden chair in front of the desk. The small room had a shabby but tidy look. Adrian leaned back in his government-issue gray swivel chair. "He's using torture, holding hostages. Women are used in bizarre orgies. People may even have been executed. What can we do about this Prophet?" "We've been through this," Lionel said. "Can't arrest him. It would cause a war!" Adrian got up and paced the floor. "I can't hold back our people's demand to do something. Escapees claim they've abandoned the anti-virus procedures. Our people have relatives or friends who took off to the cult, and they're getting vocal. Moreover, they may be religious fanatics, but they're about half of what's left of the human race. Gene pool considerations alone demand action." "What action?" "Dammit I don't know!" Adrian stopped pacing, scratched his chin, and turned to Lionel. "Could you drive over there? Alone? Non-threatening. Just look around. Maybe, possibly, you can get an audience with him — plead with him about the anti-virus regimen. Would you give it a try?" Lionel winced and then sighed. "I'll see what I can do!" "Thanks, Lionel." Lionel saw his cue and stood up. Adrian accompanied him to the door. COUNTDOWN THREE The following day Lionel had his choice of cars, and he chose a Lexus convertible. Everyone at the Toulon base was sure that by now the air itself was no longer contaminated. If it had be, there or in Los Alamos, air drifting over and through the compound would have contaminated everything. Either the air itself had never been the source of contamination, or it no longer was. So an open-air convertible was deemed safe. Moreover, it offered Lionel a three hundred sixty-degree view if trouble might develop. Adrian told him to be careful and wished him success. Off he drove. The guards at the gate of the Toulon compound waved him on and wished him well. Top down at sunny midday, he drove along the empty coastal highway. If the drive over the still good road and by the beautiful stretches of scenery might have been hauntingly pleasant, its all-important purpose hung heavy on his mind. But he found the car, a marvel of automotive engineering from when there were still multitudes of humans to engineer, manufacture, and purchase such marvels, a pleasure to drive on the beautiful, scenic, and totally empty road. Gulls might have looked down on the lone car handling the curves and twists of the highway and wondered where all of the others had gone. Off to Lionel's right was the blue Mediterranean as it had been in times that Achaean-era Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Turks, French, and Americans had traveled it in ships. It looked odd without the multitudes of yachts and commercial ships. For a moment Lionel relaxed to the purr of the fine-tuned engine and the sheer beauty of the scene. Then the Lexus convertible zoomed past a sign that read: MONACO 17 KM. It jolted him back to the terrible task lying just ahead of him. He had neither Plan A nor Plan B. He had now seen The Prophet of Doom in person and knew that the man was crazy. But he had no experience in dealing with charismatic religious nuts, or nuts in general for that matter. Being kind and civil certainly had not worked for Adrian. But someone had to get through to him. Lionel drove into Monaco with agonizing feelings of anxiety. He hoped that there might be a remote possibility for some kind of reasonable dialogue, if not with the Prophet himself, then with one or more of his administrators. He slowed the car to a crawl. He had chosen a convertible partly to be able to sense dangers all three hundred sixty degrees around him. The street scene made him glad that he had done so. Unkempt men and boys in cult garb and toting automatic weapons slung over their shoulders ambled around in day to day activities. They seemed drugged or mesmerized. But that was not so with two armed cult guards who stood in front of The Prophet's religious temple and headquarters building, a former gambling casino. They were alert, watching him with eagle eyes, and primed to react with Uzi submachine guns at the ready. Lionel slowly and carefully drove up to the building entrance and came to a stop in front of the two Uzi-armed guards. He waited for a second. The guards did nothing threatening. As he got out, however, one of the guards approached him. "You have no business here, accursed one," the guard told him with a threatening glare and then spat at the pavement to emphasize it. "Would you tell The Prophet that we need to talk," Lionel said as calmly as he could. Clicking his heels, the guard gave a Fascist salute. "I shall inform him that evil wishes to speak with him." "Thanks a lot," Lionel said, making no attempt to hide his sarcasm. Then he changed his tone to serious. "It's official. I represent the President." The cult guard clicked his heels, turned, and literally marched off toward the building. The other guard eyed Lionel with suspicion and kept his Uzi ready to fire. Lionel gulped and tried not to look at him. The first guard emerged from the doorway and contemptuously beckoned. "The Prophet permits you to enter." Lionel got out of the car and followed him in. There was a strong smell of burning incense. They continued down a corridor and entered the cultic sanctuary. There, heavy gaudy drapes blocked daylight from entering the windows. Burning candles provided the only light. The altar was a mixture of grotesque cultic symbols, patterns of burning candles, and smoldering incense. In addition to drapes covering the windows, heavy gaudy drapes covered all of the walls. As the guard led him deeper and deeper into the cultic sanctuary, Lionel's eyes had to adjust to the dim light. When his vision cleared he saw The Prophet, in an elaborate golden-colored cult robe, standing on the altar and glaring madly at him. As the guard led Lionel up to the altar, a haggard-looking woman wearing cult garb emerged from behind a drape. She bowed low before the Prophet and then stood beside him at the altar. The Prophet folded his arms over his chest. "Dear Juliet, explain to the accursed one that The Prophet does not speak with Evil." Lionel, anxious that this nonsense did not begin to interfere with his mission, looked directly at The Prophet. "All the President asks is that you restore the anti-virus regimen," he said. He paused for effect. "Even just for a few more months." The woman bowed her head to The Prophet as if making an apology for intruding upon his holy presence. Lionel felt that there was something familiar about her but could not place it. But he had no time to mull it. The Prophet's eyes flashed rage. His right arm extended and he pointed an accusing finger at Lionel. "Your president has no authority here," The Prophet thundered, breaking his charade of not talking to evil. "Sinner, this is the Sacred Dominion of the Almighty and trusted only to His Prophet." Lionel stood firm. The woman shifted nervously. Rumors that The Prophet had carried out executions for blasphemy had been confirmed. Adrian had insisted that he tell The Prophet to stop these. "The President also wants to remind everyone here that the human race has become too small for executions," Lionel said directly to The Prophet. "Executions for crimes, or for anything else." The Prophet inhaled a huge breath, leaned backwards in outrage, raised a fist to the heavens, and stomped his right foot. He straightened up and pointed a finger at Lionel's face. "You dare accuse... SINNER!" He turned to the guard and to other guards who emerged from behind drapes. "Guards! Guards! Take him to the dungeon! Leave him there until the Sacred Day of Human Sacrifice!" Several cult guards rushed to Lionel, grabbed and manhandled him, and dragged him kicking and screaming out of the cultic sanctuary. They dragged him down two flights of stairs into a cellar. In the cellar was a prison cell made from hastily welded steel bars. The guards rudely threw Lionel into the cell and slammed the cell door shut. One of them pulled out a key and locked it. Grim and saying nothing, they marched back up the stairs and slammed the door at the top. Lionel got up off the damp floor of the cell. A shaft of sunlight came through a small crack near the top. There was a wooden platform for a bed and no blankets. He sat down on the platform. Then he got up and began pacing. It was clear that he was going to be a human sacrifice for The Prophet's warped belief-system. And it was clear that it would be sooner rather than later. He went over to the cell door and tried it. It was indeed locked. He felt around the lock to see if he might disengage it. There seemed no way. He jiggled it and jerked the cell door to see if it could be shaken loose. I could not. He went back and sat on the wooden platform. There was nothing to do but sit and think. And after some time he began to wonder why the woman with The Prophet seemed familiar. And he was thinking about it when her heard someone outside the cell calling to him in a very careful and quiet whisper. "Pssssst. Hey." It startled him and he stood up. "What..." He hurried to the bars of the cell. Outside them, in cult garb, the woman who had seemed strangely familiar held a finger to her mouth for silence. "Shhhh!" she cautioned in a quiet whisper. "You don't remember me, do you? Juliet. Berkeley. Remember Telegraph Avenue? Sushi? History of Tokugawa Japan?" Lionel was astounded. He studied her for some seconds. She had grown much older way before her time. He had last seen her with Adrian on the Berkeley campus. "Juliet!" he whispered. "How did you get mixed up with this crackpot?" "Got into his cult. Couldn't get out. My kids are hostages. If I leave, he'll kill them." She showed him a key. "Anyway, I came to get you out." She inserted the key and quietly unlocked the cell door. Lionel slowly and quietly pushed it open and quickly slipped out. "Can we get your kids and you out of here?" he asked her. "No. They're in a guarded nursery. I'll handle it. Thing is, you got to get the hell out of here. Fast. Now, they're guarding the roads so I got this." She took a step toward the stairway and picked up a large sporting-goods store package. Quickly and with no time to waste, she handed Lionel a diver's wet suit still in manufacturer's shrink-wrap. She saw Lionel looking at it puzzled and explained. "I found a wet suit in a store. It was the third one back on the rack. Probably never touched. Clearly never worn. So probably no viruses. Same with the air supply. But you'll have to take your chances. The alternative's worse. Okay, let's go." They began running as quietly as possible down a corridor that led from the stairway toward the outside of the cellar. Juliet carefully and quietly opened the latch of a large iron door and then the door itself. When it squeaked she stopped and pushed it more slowly and carefully. When it was open enough, they both slipped outside. An overgrown stone stairway led down to a beach on the Mediterranean, and both of them hurried down it. On the way down Lionel tore the wet suit out of its shrink wrap. As soon as they arrived on the beach he hurried to put on the wet suit. Neither of them was aware of a cult guard farther down the beach. But the guard was apparently also unaware of them. Verney zipped up wet suit as quietly as he could. Juliet pointed westward down the coast. "Head west for five miles," she whispered. There are some rowboats in a boathouse there. Keep the suit and mask on. Should protect from the virus. As she finished saying it, Lionel realized that she had planned this carefully, much earlier, not for him but herself. He pointed to the wetsuit that he was now wearing. "You were saving this for yourself," he whispered. "Yeah," she whispered. "Then I realized there's no way out for me." She shot quick glances all around them. "Okay, better get going." "I'll see what I can do for you and your kids," he whispered. He pulled on the mask, waded out into the sea. When the water was deep enough he slipped into a swim and did not look back. He did not use the air supply. It and the wet suit were meant mostly to isolate him from the land environment of southern France much as an isolation suit might have in case he might have to enter potentially infected premises. The escape took more time than Lionel had thought, but went well. He swam quietly to where Juliet had told him the boats would be, took a rowboat, and rowed. When he got within sight of Toulon, he beached the boat and walked. When he got to the compound gate, he took off his mask and showed the guards who he was. Adrian brought him some of his clothes. Lionel peeled off the wet suit outside the gate and Adrian instructed the guards to put on isolation suits bury it. "You don't know what happened?" Adrian asked when Lionel was almost dressed. "No," Lionel said while he buttoned the shirt that Adrian had given him. "Let me tell you what happened first. It's important." He quickly related how he had gone into the cult sanctuary, made an error in judgement in bringing up The Prophet's human sacrifices, and was thrown into a makeshift jail cell, only to be rescued by Juliet, the same Juliet that Adrian knew from Berkeley. Adrian began guiding Lionel back toward his makeshift president's office. "In a nutshell here's what happened after that," Adrian said. "A guard saw Juliet helping you to escape. He reported it to The Prophet of Doom. The Prophet ordered the guard to take Juliet to the cell to await human sacrifice. But one of the guards had grown fond of her and weary of the sexual abuse of his children by The Prophet. Instead of hauling Juliet to the cell, he pointed his automatic rifle at The Prophet. Juliet could not be sure that he would not change sides again so she jerked his gun ins such a way that he pulled the trigger. An automatic volley of bullets struck The Prophet. Other guards shot him and Juliet. All this happened only a few minutes after you escaped." "Without him, there's no cult." "Exactly. Some of them contacted us right away, probably while you were still swimming. We sent investigators with test kits. Almost all of them tested positive. They're done. We have keep them isolated. The few who did not are coming in a separate bus. They will be kept in a separate area away from our people." "Why not just leave them in Monaco?" "Most of them don't know they're sick yet. They've got weapons all over the place and vehicles to get here. No one wanted to risk them blaming us when they start to get sick tomorrow or the next day and attacking us." Lionel shook his head, looked down at the ground, and then looked up toward the road. "Here come the buses." A row of buses pulled up near the barbed-wire compound. Armed guards from the Toulon compound ushered men, women, and children in cult garb off the buses and into a special building behind a separate barbed-wire compound. Adrian pulled out a camera cell phone and flicked it to a photograph. He handed it to Lionel. "Sorry about Juliet," he said. Lionel looked at the photo. It showed Juliet lying in a pool of her own blood. He was too numb to react. "Juliet! Once we slept all night in a storefront doorway on University Avenue to see how it felt to be homeless." He glanced again at the photo again, then he tapped the cell phone and flicked to a subsequent photo. It showed three dead bodies on the cultic sanctuary altar floor, a cult guard, the Prophet of Doom, and Juliet. "At least she got him," Lionel said. "Yeah," Adrian nodded stoically. "Had to leave all three bodies locked in the building. Monaco's too contaminated to even risk personnel to bury them." Lionel handed the camera cell phone back to Adrian. "At least that's the end of the goddamned Prophet." "Did his damned damage. A lot of cult members are dead. Most of the rest are infected. We may save a very few for the gene pool." "Lost some here, too," Lionel reminded him. People safely inside the Toulon compound sometimes got the disease. "It's still very active around here." Adrian shook his head. "All those were due to carelessness." The cult members had all disembarked from the buses. Bus engines were started and they began to depart, empty except for their Containment-suited drivers. "I've ordered them to drive the buses a couple miles up to a schoolyard and leave them there," Adrian said. "They're all contaminated." "This whole area seems more recently contaminated than we thought." "Yeah. Got to keep up the testing and disinfecting regimen." They watched as the last bus drove away. When the drivers came back after a long walk, they carefully removed and buried their containment suits. As expected, every cult member who had tested positive died in the isolation compound. None of the seven cult members who did not test positive later tested positive. All were then given a clean bill of health and allowed to mingle with the others living in the Toulon compound on the condition that they keep their religious beliefs to themselves. More rigor was put into the testing and disinfecting regimen. Life went on normally with no new cases of the Baghdad virus occurring. A sense of optimism that the disease had been brought under control pervaded the Toulon compound. Daily attempts were made to find or contact other humans in the world. But it was like the SETI program. Messages were sent out. All possible modes of communication were tested and listened to. There was nothing. No one out there initiated anything. No one replied. Ideas were batted about that there might be a few isolated people who had shut themselves inside for months until the main wave of the virus passed and that these people simply had no way to communicate over any distance. Intense studies of satellite images failed to find telltale signs of human life like smoke from small fires, moving vehicles, even washing hung out on lines. There seemed to be nothing out there. But it was thought that image resolutions might be too poor to detect some things. Adrian sent pilots out to fly fuel-efficient light planes around the immediate area to look for isolated signs of life. They all came back with negative results. He dispatched fuelguzzling larger planes with long ranges to scout around Europe for any signs. They saw nothing, either. COUNTDOWN TWO Then one night things changed dramatically. On that night the compound guards were sitting lethargically at the gate. Solar-recharged spotlights shined out beyond the gate as if to welcome even the most undesirable of humans. All was routine and uneventful until one of the guards heard what sounded like horse hoofs hitting the soil. He and the other guard peered out into the night. They were not the only ones to hear the sound. A small crowd of people from inside the Toulon compound gathered near the guardhouse and peered out through the fences and razor wire into the night. There was a sound of a horse galloping to and fro, something that suggested a horse with a rider. Lionel was alerted and ran out to join them. Adrian ran to him. "What's going on?" he said out of breath. Outside the gate a ghostly figure on a horse galloped by and disappeared into the night. "Someone on a horse is out there," Lionel said of the obvious. "One of us?" Adrian asked incredulously. The compound had no horses. But it was absurd to think that a human being had survived the pandemic out there and had found them. Lionel shook his head. "All accounted for here." The horse and horseman galloped and then trotted up to the gate and came to a halt in front of it. Everyone could see that the horseman looked northern European, even Scandinavian. The horseman sat in the saddle and shouted down to the others, "I am Gunnar Eriksen. I've come from Denmark. Can I come in?" Adrian and Lionel hurried to the gate while the guards indicated to the horseman that he should stay back. Adrian waved to the man. "You are very welcome indeed Gunnar. But we have an isolation requirement. You have to stay in quarantine until your tests for the Baghdad virus prove negative." "Agreed," Gunnar shouted back. He patted his sweating horse. "But that is if I can remain with my horse. I am very tired. I have come a long way." Still climbing into Contamination Suits, two residents of the Toulon compound hurried toward the horse and horseman. "You can stay with your horse," Adrian told him. "We'll have a hot meal for you. Go with those men." Gunnar Eriksen dismounted and held the reins. The two people in isolation suits began leading him and the horse to the special area where the cult members who had not tested positive had been kept. Gunnar turned and waved. "Thank you. I have a lot to tell you." To make sure that no timely or valuable information might be lost, Adrian and Lionel suited up and went to the quarantine area. With a tape recorder they interviewed him for essential material he had. Finally after several days of testing negative and showing no signs of illness, they decided to let him out into the compound. There was some grumbling that he might be a "typhoid Mary," but that was overwhelmed by the huge relief that someone had survived and therefore that there may be more. Adrian immediately invited him into the presidential office, such as it was. Adrian, leaning back in his swivel chair, sat behind the makeshift presidential desk with his feet propped up on it. Lionel and Gunnar sat in wooden chairs in front of the desk. Gunnar, to everyone's relief, including his own, had just been given a clean bill of health. "Well, I'm glad I did not have it," he said. "But can you be sure? Are your reagents still good three years after manufacture? That's when they stopped making them, when society was breaking down." "So far they've been accurate," Lionel told him. But Lionel knew the story better than anyone. "But you're right. We're running increasing risks." "We'll use it until it's used up," Adrian said. He threw his arms up to indicate helplessness. "Nothing else we can do." "Well it may be fading," Gunnar said. "I was, of course, very careful. But I got here from Denmark without getting it." Gunnar sat back with a twinkle of pride at his cleverness in staying alive. He postured himself to relate his story and Adrian and Lionel relaxed and prepared to listen. They had heard it before, but as a debriefing. They wanted to hear it again because they knew that there was more. Gunnar scratched his chin and then scratched his neck. "As soon as cases appeared in Denmark, I stocked my castle and locked myself in it. Friends and relatives thought I was crazy. Well, slightly more crazy than usual." He sniffled and stopped himself to fight back a tear. "They're all dead now." "What about those people you met?" Adrian asked. Gunnar shook his head. "Just a few. And that was last year. They may be dead, too." He paused, looked at the floor, and looked up again. "All had locked themselves inside, somewhere, for about a year. All old people, like myself. I saw no children." "Why was that?" Lionel asked. "Probably young people couldn't sit still," Adrian offered. "Old people get used to sitting around, anyway." "Did any of them know of us?" Lionel asked. "None," Gunnar said. "And I interviewed all of them at length. I speak four languages. Two had seen your search planes, an old lady near Kaiserslautern and an old man near Strasbourg. Possibly the same flight." "Did you make your own isolation suit?" Adrian asked. Gunnar nodded. "I covered my house with plastic. Put micropor filters in my airconditioners. It all worked extremely well until the electricity went off. By then six months had gone by. I remained enclosed in my plastic-covered house until I thought I might suffocate." "Did you keep in touch with anyone?" Adrian asked. Gunnar shook his head emphatically. "No. no. no. I was in stark fear of getting infected. I didn't want anyone to have an excuse to come over." "E-mail?" Lionel asked. Gunnar laughed. "No computer. Don't know much about them." He became serious again. "I stayed inside three weeks after the electricity failed. Then I opened some windows and cut the plastic with a butcher knife. Even after I opened the windows I stayed inside my house for another six months." Gunnar got up and walked around the office. Adrian and Lionel said nothing and waited for him to continue. After some pacing back and forth, Gunnar turned to them. "Then I cut the plastic from my house. I cut it into large patches and made an air-tight suit with plastic glue. I created positive pressure with a battery fan behind micro-pore filters." "Like our Contamination suits," Lionel suggested. "Yes," Gunnar acknowledged. "I raided a hospital storage room first and got some formalin and rubbing alcohol. I carried formalin and alcohol with me. When I raided a grocery store, I washed food cans before I touched them. I did that all the way here." Adrian leaned forward. "When was the last time you saw feral dogs?" "A year ago," Gunnar answered. "About two years ago — before I got here — some of our people left for Rome," Adrian said. "There's some indication they were killed by dogs." Gunnar shrugged. "Possible. Two years ago there were still bodies, still some food. But most of these dogs were pets. Couldn't hunt to survive." He paused, frowned, and then continued. "When I was traveling here on my horse, I heard of others going to Rome. Mostly Catholics hoping for a miracle. Might be some surviving there." Adrian turned to Lionel. "Maybe we should take a look?" "We'll have to look around Europe one of these days," Lionel said. "Why not Rome?" The next day Adrian announced that he was holding a cabinet-level meeting. Anyone who wanted to attend and contribute was welcome. For several days they debated the pros and cons of an expedition to Rome to not only look into the fate of people from the Toulon compound who had set out for there but to see if there might be a few isolated survivors of the pandemic. No one was really against the idea of an expedition. Resistance to it was around the matter of timing. There seemed no hurry. There had been no new cases of the Baghdad virus disease for months. An expedition could wait for some months. But everyone was also curious and hopeful. The arrival of Gunnar on his horse had demonstrated that people had survived. More importantly, it demonstrated that if proper precautions were taken one could now travel great distances across Europe and not become infected and contagious. If a few people were willing to take the risk, the benefit of knowing something seemed worth it. If they did become infected and test positive, they would simply not be allowed into the Toulon compound. When the vote was finally taken after a week of presentations and arguments, it was close. But those who favored a discovery expedition to Rome were the winners by two votes. Moreover, it was decided that Adrian and Lionel would be accompanied by Gunnar, who had experience with taking careful precautions and traveling across the width of Europe. Clara, not wanting to be left alone, insisted on going. Her excuse was that some young person should go along so that years into the future she could related it to a new generation of young people. It was just a clever excuse by a smart girl. Adrian and Lionel relented. Clara was included. Preparations were made. Not only were materials and equipment assembled for the expedition, preparations for contingencies were debated. Weapons, extra food for possible survivors, radio communications equipment to be left with possible survivors, and loudspeakers to call out to potential survivors were all packed into the expedition vehicles. On a sunny morning in early fall a small caravan of three vehicles was lined up and ready to go just inside the gate. There was a passenger car, a van with loudspeakers mounted on top and pulling a house trailer, and a bus van pulling a small fuel-tank trailer. Bill Ridgeway, the pilot of the plane that had flown Adrian and Lionel from Los Alamos, stood by the van-and-house-trailer parked at the center of the caravan. To cover the absence of Acting President Adrian Wyndeshour, he had been appointed Acting Leader of the Toulon compound. His instructions were not to make any waves. The expedition would be gone for a week, at most for two weeks. Ridgeway handed Adrian four small packages. At the same time, Lionel took Clara and Evelyn to a man and woman with two children of their own. He handed over care of Evelyn to them. Adrian accepted the four laundry-wrapped bundles from the Ridgeway and put them through a window into the van. They were additional isolation suits. "You're right," Adrian told Ridgeway. "If the other isolation suits get ripped or — heaven forbid — get bullet holes in them, we'll need these." "Just make sure you're wearing one if you meet anyone," Ridgeway advised. "Just keep up the daily testing," Adrian told Ridgeway firmly. "Stick to the isolation discipline. Don't let anything get lax." Ridgeway nodded with a proper expression of gravity. "Will do. Just keep in contact." "We should be back from Rome in a week," Adrian said. "Keep someone at the radio 24/7 for emergencies." Ridgeway nodded. The two shook hands. Adrian headed for the passenger car. Lionel, at the rear of the caravan, watched as the woman he had appointed as temporary caregiver took Evelyn's hand. He shot her and then her husband smile. Lionel crouched and looked Evelyn in the eye. "Be good. We'll be back in a few days. Mr. and Mrs. Boswell are going to give me a report card on your behavior when we get back. Okay?" Evelyn gave a reluctant nod. Lionel stood up and Clara and he headed for the vehicles. Adrian was already in the driver's seat of the passenger car. He waved to get the expedition moving. Gunnar started the van with the fuel trailer. Lionel got into the driver's side of the loudspeaker-van pulling the house trailer. Clara got in the passenger side. Lionel started the engine. That prompted yells and best wishes. Virtually everyone in the Toulon compound had come to see them off. The expedition started to roll through the gate. Everyone in the compound watched until the last vehicle disappeared around a bend in the road. They hurried by Monaco if only because it might still be infectious. They stopped only briefly at San Remo and Savona, used the loudspeakers to alert people that they were there, and went on when they saw and heard no responses. They bypassed Genoa because there was evidence that roads had been blockaded in fighting between authorities and gangs. But on down the coast, especially from La Spezia through Livorno to Tarquinia, they stopped frequently and used the loudspeakers to try to get a response. They got none. North of Civitavecchia they stopped in the middle of the road and camped there for the night. In the morning at Civitavecchia they made one final attempt before going on to Rome. The caravan came to a stop in the middle of the street. Adrian, Lionel, Gunnar, and Clara stood by the van with the loudspeakers. Adrian held the microphone up to his face. "Is anyone there?" he said. The booming loudspeaker sound echoed through the empty city streets and structures. "We are Americans. We have food and medical supplies." He read the same message in Italian from a card that he carried in his shirt pocket. All four of them listened carefully for any distant voices. There were none. There was no response Adrian put the mike aside and looked at the other three. "Try one more time?" "Once more," Clara said. They all scanned the area looking for movement, listening for a human voice. Adrian picked up the microphone. "If anyone can hear this, we will return here in a few days." There was no response. He read the same message in Italian. There was no response except echoes. Adrian put the microphone back inside the van. "No one," Lionel said of the obvious. "Let's head on to Rome." They went back to their vehicles dejectedly. This was the last town that they had intended to stop at, and in none had they received any hint of a response. They started their engines and the caravan rolled on out of town and headed for Rome. They were relieved to find no barricades of turned over cars or debris as they headed through the suburbs and into northern Rome. They had no equipment to remove anything large. At midday they pulled the car, the van pulling the house trailer, and the van pulling the fuel trailer into the Vatican's Plaza San Pietro and came to a halt. They got out while Adrian used the loudspeakers to call attention to themselves. As always, they got only echoes. A new twist was that the loudspeakers frightened flocks of pigeons who flapped their wings wildly and flew in circles around the awesome but empty Vatican buildings. Clara and Adrian strolled some distance from the vehicles, stopped, and scanned the great empty Plaza. Lionel stayed by the car while he radioed the Toulon compound for the agreed daytime four-hourly check in with them. Gunnar stayed with him to hear any news. As with the previous contact, it was a quick perfunctory exchange of information on the expedition's location, their failure to find anyone, and a quick response that nothing had changed at the Toulon compound. Lionel signed off and he and Gunnar caught up with Clara and Adrian. Lionel gave Adrian a concerned look. "Ridgeway sounded concerned on the radio," he said. "He said everything was okay, but you could hear strain in his voice. You better talk to him next time." "Okay," he said with a nod. He scratched his head nervously. "Not much we can do from here. Let's have a look inside, if only to say we did." They all reached into their pockets, extracted plastic gloves, and put them on. Then the four of them began walking with echoing steps across the empty Plaza. Once inside, they touched things as little as possible, even with their gloves on. That drill had kept Gunnar alive. Care like that had kept everyone at the Toulon compound alive. They found the Sistine Chapel and went in. They looked admiringly at Michelangelo's famous mural of God touching Adam. "The First Human," Lionel said. "So the story goes," Gunnar responded. Then no one said anything for some minutes. Still wearing transparent plastic gloves, they stood looking at the awesome art like tourists. "Let's hope there's not a last human," Gunnar added belatedly. Adrian anxiously looks at his watch. "Getting close to six. Got to report in to Toulon. Let's go back." "Be careful not to touch anything," Clara said. She had been drilled over and over about it. "Right. Especially you," Lionel told her. With footsteps echoing in the great forsaken empty chambers and corridors, they started back to the expedition vehicles. COUNTDOWN ONE Out in the bleak empty Plaza evening shadows had begun to lengthen. Adrian opened the door of the car. He sat in the driver's seat with his feet outside on the pavement. He reached over to the glove compartment, picked up earphones, plugged them in, and put them on his ears. "I don't want to miss any nuances," he told the others. He picked up the mike and razed the Toulon compound. The indicator showed someone there responding. Adrian's expression became one of extreme anxiety. Clara, Lionel, and Gunnar could only look on. "No," Adrian said into the microphone. "No, there's no one alive in Rome." He paused while he listened. "I said no one. Now what is the situation there?" He listened and his look grew frantic. "That's half the population! All positive? Did you have everyone tested?" Adrian held the microphone away. He shook his head and looked blankly at the others. Then he spoke into the mike again. "Yes. We're starting back right away." He paused and listened. "We aren't going to risk twenty-four hour driving. No night driving." He paused and listened. "Be there in two days." Adrian angrily shut off the radio. Lionel literally shouted at him. "WHAT?" Adrian just stared out in space for some seconds. Then he looked up at Lionel. "Kids," he said quietly. "Including yours." He gulped and cleared his throat. "Sneaked out through the fence. Somehow got into the sealed buses we brought the cult back in. Didn't tell anyone." Lionel, Gunnar, and Clara simply stared at Adrian. They all knew what it meant. "Your kid's dead," Adrian told Lionel, meaning Evelyn. "Half the base is in isolation now." He looked up at the sky, shook his head, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "The rest probably have it, too." There was a long silence. No one said anything. "Anything we can do?" Lionel asked weakly. Adrian shook his head. "Probably nothing. Let's get back." They all sauntered dejectedly to their vehicles. Engines started. In the dusk of long shadows, the small caravan drove a semi-circle around the great empty Plaza, and headed out for Toulon. It left a great emptiness in the Plaza. On their way back the sometimes stopped at an Italian town and used the loudspeaker. If anyone might have heard the first call from the loudspeaker, they might have come down into the town to wait. But no one was there, and no one responded. Adrian reported back in to Toulon. He left the speaker open and they all heard the bad news. Apparently everyone was infected. "No use pushing to get here and risking your lives," they heard Ridgeway's voice say. "Maybe you could leave before dawn tomorrow and get here in daylight. And wear the suits." Adrian angrily shut off the radio. "Not good," Lionel said. "Not good," Adrian agreed. "Hah! Wear the suits, he said." "Says it all," Lionel sighed. "Every single one of them tested positive," Adrian said. "What are we going to do if everyone's dead?" Clara asked. "I don't know, Clara," Adrian told her. "We could head north," Gunnar offered. "Some of those people I met might still be alive." "Maybe," Adrian said. He looked at the others. Everyone looked defeated and tired. "Let's all try to get some sleep. Long day tomorrow." No one moved. He looked at them. "We'll have to see what we can salvage." They headed for their vehicles. No one slept well. No one had much to say at the pre-dawn breakfast. All of them got into their vehicles and drove north and a fast but reasonably safe clip. It was still daylight when they reached the Toulon compound gate. They got out of their vehicles. All four of them donned their isolation suits. Then they walked to the gate. As they approach the gate, Ridgeway, wearing his airline pilot uniform and looking very ill, came out of a nearby building and waved them back. All four stopped in their isolation suits and waited as Ridgeway, coughing badly, struggled toward them. He stopped some distance from them. "It's no use," he said. "We've all got it." "Could the old reagents be giving false readings?" Gunnar asked. "That would only mean false negatives," Lionel told him. "Any doubtful results at all?" Adrian asked. "None," Ridgeway said grimly. Adrian looked around. There was no one in sight. "Where is everyone?" he asked. Ridgeway coughed some more. "Dead. Dying in their beds." He coughed several times more. "Some went down to the beach to enjoy their last hours." "What do you think we should do?" Adrian asked. "I thought about it." Ridgeway coughed violently several times. "I think while we still have a few alive for ground crew and to relay satellite weather, you should immediately fly back to America." He coughed several more times. "That means you have to leave no later than tomorrow. If Gunnar found people here, there could be some in North America." Gunnar turned to Adrian. "I would prefer to stay here." He thought for a moment. "I could keep in radio contact with you in North America — tell you if I find anyone alive here." Adrian gave him a nod of okay and then turned to Ridgeway. "What's the weather like? Have you been monitoring the satellite?" "Keeping an eye on it," Ridgeway told him. "Cold front's moving toward the East Coast of North America." Adrian turned to Clara and Lionel. "Should we go back?" It was abrupt, but there was no time to lose. "I say yes," Lionel said. "Might be some alive back there. We were more careful than they were over here." "I'd rather go back to America," Clara said. "Okay, we go," Adrian said. "Let's get radio frequencies and times written down," Gunnar told Adrian. He waved angrily. "I'm not going to stay in this infected place. I'm going to Strasbourg right now." He strode to the van with the fuel trailer. In the van were provisions for a number of never-found survivors for several weeks. There was enough fuel to take him to Denmark if he wished. Still in his isolation suit, he pulled a pad from the glove compartment, wrote down radio frequencies and radio contact times in GMT in duplicate. He took one copy back and handed it to Lionel. "Okay," Lionel said. "No reason to stay here now." "Agreed," Gunnar said. He hurried back to the van, got in still wearing his isolation suit, and drove off without a word more. The bluntness of it made it plain to Adrian that there was no use staying another minute at the Toulon compound. "Come on, let's get to the 747," he told Clara and Lionel. "Before we left it was fueled for a circular search flight to Sweden, Moscow, south to Egypt and North Africa, and return to here. That's enough to get us back." They drove the car and the van pulling the house trailer to the plane and stocked it with the remaining packaged food, bottled water, and survival goods. Then while Lionel sat at the controls, Adrian used the ground equipment to start the engines. Once they were going, he cleared the ground equipment from the plane's path, climbed a wooden ladder into the rear door, sealed it shut, and got in the pilot's seat. With Ridgeway coughing madly while guiding him from the Toulon tower, Adrian took off for North America. Adrian and Lionel stayed at the controls. Clara sat in a spare seat near them. The plane rushed westward through the high-altitude air. The cockpit kept in touch with Ridgeway at the Toulon compound's control tower. Ridgeway sounded worse with each transmission. Adrian spoke into the microphone. "Ridgeway, are you still there? "Just barely," Ridgeway answered. The three people in the cockpit could hear him cough violently several times. "Latest satellite shows the cold front has moved over New York." They heard Ridgeway cough several more times. "Head for Washington. Don't try a wet windy landing without a control tower." Lionel glanced at the fuel-gage and pointed a finger to alert Adrian. Adrian checked it, and he and Lionel exchanged concerned glances. Fuel was low. Ridgeway, however, had been a commercial airline pilot all of his adult life. Adrian spoke into the mike. "The worse-than-expected headwind has taken a lot of fuel, time. Getting dark, too. Are you sure?" "Don't try New York," Ridgeway said. He coughed some more. "You have several good military and civilian airfields around Washington. Satellite imagery is showing it's the only clear spot now. Go for it." Adrian and Lionel exchanged don't-like-it looks. "He knows what he's talking about," Adrian said. "Okay, let's go for it," Lionel said while pursing his lips and shaking his head. Adrian banked the plane south and headed toward Washington. As the plane approached the North American landmass in the twilight, Adrian, Lionel, and Clara strained to look out the cockpit windows. Dulles runways had been intentionally blocked by overturned cars. It was the same with Reagan. So, too, it appeared was the same with Andrews and other area airports. "Yeah, there are things on the runway here, too. Just like Dulles," Lionel said. "It's probably from when Washington was being evacuated," Adrian said. "Rebel forces blocked the runways to keep government forces from coming back." Lionel pointed to the fuel gage. "We're running on empty. Only a few more seconds." Clara pointed out the cockpit window. "Look. An opening." Adrian strained to see clearly. "Yeah. Grass left of main runway." "This isn't a Piper Cub!" Lionel told him. He meant that a small light plane could land on the grass, but a large heavy 747 might not be able to. Adrian shook his head as he turned the huge aircraft and engaged the spoilers and flaps. "No time. Has to be it." He waved emphatically. "Lionel, Clara! Quick to the back of the plane! Buckle in tight!" Clara and Lionel hurried out of the cockpit and ran to the back of the plane. Adrian shouted back to them. "Keep your heads between your legs!" Adrian, straining to look out the window, guided the plane in for what he knew would be a crash landing. He apparently did the best he could in the dim light of dusk, on the grass beside the runway, and with an empty fuel tank causing him to glide into the final approach. But there were some natural ruts or perhaps intentionally dug ditches. The plane ended up in a disastrous crash landing, so bad that it broke apart. If there had been any significant amount of fuel, it would also have burned. As it was, small fires had broken out in flammable items like seat covering and insulation. Lionel managed to free himself from his seatbelt and crawl out a large crack in the fuselage. There he experienced the sights and odors of small smoldering fires. Some of these were providing more light than the dying dusk. He had a tiny key-chain flashlight in his pocket. Stumbling and limping, face and body cut and bleeding, clothes torn and smudged, he crawled back in and found Clara. She was dead. He took her pulse. She had none. He tried gently slapping her to see if there might be a reaction. There was none. He picked up an arm and let it go. It fell dead. He made his way forward to the cockpit. He found Adrian dangling from a ripped seat. He tried Adrian's pulse. There was none. He dropped Adrian's arm and it fell dead. He stumbled out of the wrecked plane and turned and looked at it. He leaned against a fuselage fragment. He banged his fist against it. Then he banged his head against it. "Why?" he yelled to the heavens. "Why?" Then he began crying. And for some minutes he cried great sobs. He pulled himself together and took a deep breath. "Why did all of this have to happen?" he asked in a soft mannerly voice. Dusk gave way to night. The plane provided shelter. And he needed daylight to do anything more. He found an airline blanket and pillow and slept on the carpet between the rows of seats. At the break of dawn he went out to the airport maintenance hangers. He no longer cared whether he got the virus. He found a forklift with fuel, drove it back, used it to retrieve the bodies of Clara and Adrian, and drove them back to the hanger on its forks. He placed them inside a storage container and latched it shut. He said a brief word for them, and then he went looking for survival goods and equipment. He found some on the airport grounds, enough to keep him going for a while. He found remnant pressure in the water system, enough to take several cold showers. Mostly he was in shock. It took a few days before he pulled himself together. People had died off too fast to consume all of the canned and packaged food. Animals had gotten into that which was not well sealed or in cardboard packaging. But many stores still had backroom storage areas full of canned food, bottled oils and vinegar, canned maple sugar, and shrink-wrapped noodles of all kinds that had given off no odor to attract animals. There were barrels with all kinds of food. Lionel set about making a van that had a trailer for goods and a fuel trailer. He stocked these full. He remained in Washington for a month. He did not catch the virus. Either the virus was no longer infectious or the anti-virus effort in Los Alamos had worked. It did not matter. He apparently was not going to catch the virus. He checked himself into a posh hotel. He literally checked himself into it, handwriting his name and the date on a pad at the reception desk in case any survivor might come along later. He devised a hand-pump apparatus to extract gasoline from underground tanks at gas stations and used it to drive a government minivan around the city. He stopped at the house where Idris and he had lived with Clara. He stopped at the house where Perdita and Colonel Gordon had lived when Clara was born. He found it difficult to feel any emotions, as if feeling emotions required living human beings to share those feelings with. He drove to the White House where Idris, Clara, and he had literally lived while Adrian had secretly run the government. Just inside the gate it became obvious that there had been a last fierce gun battle there, uniformed White House security against unruly and probably looting mobs. There were skeletons of guards with bullet holes torn into their uniforms and there were skeletons of civilians with bullet holes torn through their clothes. Apparently in the final days some of the guards were dying of the disease but still protected the White House. Lionel proceeded cautiously. He was not quite sure whether all of the various protective service members might be dead. He did not want to get shot. But as he got closer and then finally, cautiously, went inside, it became obvious that there was no one alive there. Lionel wandered over to the Oval Office. It was abandoned and dusty. The president had written a note and placed it on the presidential desk. Lionel picked it up. "Leave everything as it is until I return," it read. Lionel laughed and put it back. He shook his head. "Babylon! With no one left to dig it up," he said loudly to the abandoned walls. It was a nice day. He walked from the White House to the Smithsonian Aerospace Museum. The body of a dead museum guard blocked a half-open door. His arm was stretched out with a 9-mm pistol in firing position. He had apparently been successful in his last attempt to guard the museum because no one had pulled the door open. He went in. His footsteps echoed hollow and empty. The great human achievements in aviation and space were all around him. There would be no more humans walking on the Moon. There would be no more human-made robots scooting around Mars. It was still midday. He copped a crowbar from the museum maintenance room and walked over to the Natural history Museum. He used the crowbar to pry open a back door. After ambling around inside for some minutes he went over to a skeleton of a mammoth and stood studying it. Then he went to a skeleton of a dinosaur and sat by it. He went back to his car at the White House. The next day he broke into the Corcoran Art Museum. In exhibition halls lit only by daylight, he ambled past hanging paintings and standing sculptures. After he left, no one would again find pleasure and meaning in these. He left the art museum and drove to the Library of Congress. He found it open and looted of some fixtures. But no looters had wanted any books. They remained, shelves and shelves of them, countless books containing the whole of human knowledge and aspirations. He strolled down aisles of books. Every now and then he pulled one and carried it. He took these back to the circulation desk and sat on it leafed through some of them. It made him angry that there was no one left to read them but him. With an angry swipe of his arm, he swept them off the desk and put his head in his hands. But he relented. He got up, stooped down, and picked up the books that he had chosen. Lugging them with both hands, he carried them out to his car. He and Gunnar exchanged brief daily reports. He was glad to have someone to talk to. Both of them were disappointed to hear that no people had been found so far in Europe or North America. The Library of Congress was his last stop. The next day he worked on final preparations to leave Washington and head across the country. He entertained no hope that he might find anyone alive. But since Gunnar had survived in Europe and had found a few other survivors there, it was not entirely impossible that he might run across a survivor or two. Whether he found any or not, his destination was the San Francisco Bay Area with its tolerable summer and winter climate. He expected to find a comfortable spot on the Berkeley campus and keep in contact with Gunnar from there. Life-threatening cold or hot climate had to be avoided. There were no more rescue or medical people. COUNTDOWN ZERO Lionel assembled the three-vehicle train that he had been putting together for weeks, van with loudspeakers bolted to the roof, trailer with goods and food, and trailer with fuel. He drove out past Silver Springs where gas stations were likely to still have fuel. It meant exhausting hand pumping with the little pump that he had built, but he used his hand pump to fill his van tank and then topped off the several tanks in the fuel trailer. If fuel ran low, he was reasonably certain that he could us the hand pump at gas stations farther west. He drove to Breezewood and got on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was a lonely and desolate road. He only drove in daylight and parked the three-vehicle train at the side of the Interstate when the sun went down. He had difficulty believing that everyone was dead. He deluded himself that some vehicle might come barreling down the Interstate in the dark and run into him. No vehicles ever appeared, night of day. Every morning he started the van and headed slowly westward, alone and feeling so lonely. At city and town turnoffs he drove off the Interstate and some distance into areas where there were clusters of houses and other structures. He stopped, used the loudspeakers to call attention to his being there, and waited a respectful amount of time for a sign of reply. There was never any. He looked into buildings and houses, again deciding to take care not to catch and active virus. He had a goal now, a mission. He was going to get to Berkeley. He was going to stay alive long enough to find someone else alive. He wore plastic gloves when entering buildings. He began to worry that his stops just off the Interstate might not be the best way to locate people. So in Iowa he drove off the Interstate and took a parallel two-lane road. Roads were still marked. Highway signs were still clear. He went into and stopped at every town. They began to seem monotonously all the same. As wind blew debris down lifeless streets, Lionel stood outside the rigged-up sound truck holding a microphone and looking around. He put the speaker up to his mouth. "Hello. Hello. If anyone can here me, make a signal. Bang some pans. Shoot a gun into the air. I'll wait here an hour." And monotonously, in town after town, no one responded in any way. And Lionel reluctantly got into the van and started down the long lonely road again. With each empty town his hopes dimmed. He pressed on toward California with an increasing realization. He was the only human being alive in North America. The farm country of Iowa gave way to the flat range land of Nebraska. The flat plains of Nebraska gave way to the mountains of Colorado. And Colorado gave way to the desert country of Utah. In all of the many towns where he had stopped and called out through the loudspeakers, no one had responded. Temple Square in Salt Lake City was a barren, desolate, and abandoned as the Vatican had been. He left there and drove on past the slat flats and into Nevada. He stopped at every Nevada town. No one responded there, either. He left the Nevada scrub brush country, ascended into the Sierra, and then descended into the lush California central valley. It was no longer lush green with irrigated crops. Now it was overgrown with semi-desert weeds and wild dry grasses. No one had tended to the irrigation systems for a couple years. He drove on past Sacramento. He planned to make a side trip back there later. He had grown anxious by then to complete his trip to Berkeley before there might be the slightest chance of vehicle breakdown. He pulled into deserted Berkeley. It was totally deserted. There weren't even any street people. It was just dusty and vacant. He drove his three-vehicle train up onto Holy Hill, the location of graduate several theology schools associated with the university. He chose a large house near the Starr King Religious School and parked there. That would be his home. The marvelous, if weed overgrown, campus and its several libraries were a short walk away. He found that innovative solar power had kept several refrigerators in the campus food service system running for over a year and there was some fresh frozen food to be had to add some variety to his canned and dry food supplies. But mostly he found depressing loneliness. He contacted Gunnar, now in Kaiserslautern, twice every day. Twice every day he found that there were no new people turning up in Europe any more than there were in North America. He and Gunnay actively scanned a wide range of frequencies every day. There was nothing. And it was a depressing nothing. To keep his sanity, Lionel devised a strategy of writing, in pencil on many stacks and stacks of yellow legal pads that he lifted from the university law school, a history of what had happened to bring such a sad and complete end to the human species. He found himself a comfortable writing place in the campus main library and set himself to work at it. He thought that perhaps someone might, eventually, maybe generations later, come to the campus and its large old library building and find his writing. He had little hope that anyone remained alive who would find it, but a writer has to have someone to write to. He wrote, however, mostly to have something to do and by having something to do, to have something to live for. He grew older, perhaps older than his biological age from the stress of the previous several years and in the new stress of sheer loneliness. He took scrupulous care of his dental and physical health to avoid the pain of illness and maximize his life span to possibly locate some more humans. There was plenty of food to eat healthy. And in the northern California climate there was no need of heating in his house or in his library workplace. His had a log fire place for very cold nights, but he used it very sparingly. Blankets and feather comforters were adequate for warmth at night. He often talked to himself as he wrote. He also talked to himself when he was not writing. It was good to hear a human voice, if only his own. Sometimes he sat back and read what he had written. Verney reads the notebook at the desk. The wind blows a curtain in from an open window. Lionel leafed through some pages on the yellow legal tablet and sat back and read aloud from it. "I found no one alive, and when, six months ago, Gunnar broke radio contact after saying that the last other European had died. I assumed he had also died soon after. I seem to be, then, the last human. I write and rewrite this less to provide a record of what happened as to keep my sanity amid the awful loneliness." Lionel looked up from the pad and looked toward the display cases with the skulls of the extinct Neanderthal and the human side-by-side. In the echoing depth of the great library hall he seemed to hear a solitary musical instrument begin a lonely wail, then transition into wild lively dance music. He knew he was not really hearing it, that it came, as it often does to musicians and composers, from an inner hearing in his mind. But he did not care. He tapped the desk and tapped a foot to the time of the orchestrated tunes. He let himself immerse in the rapture of it. And he let it become frenetic orchestral dance music rising to a frenzy. And while that was passing though his inner mind he remembered scenes of great worldwide human crowds — at sporting events, concerts, political rallies, and religious gatherings. He remembered highways heavy with hurrying traffic and reduced to honking frustrated traffic jams at rush hours. He remembered crowded beaches and picnic areas on hot summer days. And then the concert that he was inventing in his mind began to fade and slow as his mental energy for it grew thin. And as it faded so did the images of crowds of people. The music in his mind slowed and evaporated into a solitary instrument like a flute playing a solo lonely refrain. He became aware of himself and looked at his hands. They were old man's hands. He looked contemplatively toward an open window. A gust of wind blew the curtain in. It reminded him of an Andrew Wyeth painting. He put the yellow legal pad down. It was a good place to stop. And it was time to walk back home and make himself some supper. He decided to call it a day and stood up. END Tom Slattery Bay Village, Ohio 7/7/2007 A feature-length screenplay version of this novel in standard screenplay format is available. Reply to: Tom Slattery email@example.com Books by Tom Slattery published by iUniverse.com in 2000 and 2001 1. End of the Road By Tom Slattery ISBN 0-595-15902-8 / Paperback Kent State University students interview a 110-year-old man in a nursing home in 2050 about his drive around the USA at the turn of the century in a $200 car. 2. The Goddess of Love and the Angel of Death By Tom Slattery ISBN 0-595-10070-8 / Paperback Begun as a modernization of the Adam and Eve story, this novel eludes to nudity and pornography, but is not in any way a porn novel. It is a love story about two nude models who are thrust as artists into the world of art, attempt to become successes, but succumb to tragedy. In the end their art becomes more of a success that they ever would have dreamed of. 3. Immodest Proposals Through the Pornographic Looking Glass By Tom Slattery ISBN 0-595-15974-5 / Paperback This is a nonfiction work exploring pornography from its historical beginnings and questioning its impact on the modern world. 4. Norikaeru By Tom Slattery ISBN 0-595-15248-1 / Paperback This is a short science fiction novel playing with crossing dimensions and largely set in a dimension where the American Revolution failed because Thomas Jefferson had a horseand-buggy accident at a critical time in its beginnings. Prime Minister McKenna of British North America is assassinated on November 22, 1963. 5. Open 25 Hours Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Ghost Stories By Tom Slattery ISBN 0-595-14022-X / Paperback This is a collection of science fiction and ghost short stories by Tom Slattery. It contains “The Spore,” a science fiction yarn not without some satire that is remarkably similar to the much later movie “Evolution” starring David Duchovny. 6. Preshrunk Ponderings and Rumpled Rememberings By Tom Slattery ISBN 0-595-16349-1 / Paperback . This small book is a collection of largely autobiographical essays around technology and social change. 7. Sinking Into Summer’s Arms By Tom Slattery ISBN 0-595-09673-5 / Paperback This is a short science fiction novel that opens with the discovery of a body of a Neanderthal in a rapidly melting Alpine glacier in the early 21st century. The body is secretly taken to a lab in the Netherlands, but the group of scientist there become entangled in a plot to assassinate the new United Nations Secretary for Global Warming. Simultaneously this United Nations Secretary learns that global warming is about to precipitate a new ice age. The Neanderthal does play a part, but not what one might expect. 8. The Tragic End of the Bronze Age A Virus Makes History By Tom Slattery ISBN 0-595-12146-2 / Paperback This is a nonfiction book centering on the author’s apparent discovery of the initial smallpox pandemic that wiped out bronze-age civilization in the mid-twelfth century BC. In addition, the politics and economics of comparatively rare tin ore, the strategic mineral of the Bronze Age, similar to the strategic mineral petroleum today, are explored. 9. In the Year After Mom Died By Tom Slattery To be published in 2008 by iUniverse.com as a paperback book. This nonfiction book is a mix of biography of a woman born in the early years of the twentieth century who lived into the twenty-first century and additional autobiography of her son. A very famous American author and a moderately famous American author in the family had minor influences on their lives. But mostly it is a piece about dealing with grief after the death of a loved one. 10. Forethought by Tom Slattery This full-length one-act stage play modernizes the ancient Greek drama Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. It is being posted simultaneously on scrbd and may be read there for free. 11. Kennedy Assassination: Oswald As Manchurian Candidate by Tom Slattery (nearing completion) This short nonfiction book compares some of the CIA’s so-called mind-control experiments with events in the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and suggests that Oswald may have been a subject in these experiments to create an unknowing assassin or patsy for an assassination.