Authors: Ken Kroes
Copyright © 2015 by Ken Kroes
All rights reserved.
Editor: Irene Kavanaghhttp://www.editors.ca/profile/7624/irene-kavanagh
Book design by Ken Kroes
Publisher 1779671 Alberta Inc.
No part of this book may be reproduced in anyform or by any electronic or mechanical means, includinginformation storage and retrieval systems, without permission inwriting from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, whomay quote short excerpts in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names,characters, places, and incidents either are products of theauthor’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance toactual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirelycoincidental.
For more information, please visit my websiteathttp://www.the2222book.com
Smashwords Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personalenjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away toother people. If you would like to share this book with anotherperson, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Ifyou’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was notpurchased for your use only, then please return to your favoriteebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respectingthe hard work of this author.Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - The Contract
Chapter 2 - DIR
Chapter 3 - Suspicions
Chapter 4 - Reconnaissance
Chapter 5 - Planning
Chapter 6 - Commitment
Chapter 7 - The Colonies
Chapter 8 - Start of Percipience
Chapter 9 - Discovery
Chapter 10 - Hope Dealt In
Chapter 11 - The Elders
Chapter 12 - Meetings
Chapter 13 - Secrets
Chapter 14 - Tension
Chapter 15 - Crisis
Chapter 16 - Assimilation
Chapter 17 - Survival
Chapter 18 - Plans Taking Shape
Chapter 19 - Hopeless
Chapter 20 - Final Preparation
Chapter 21 - Confrontation
Chapter 22 - The Deal
Chapter 23 - The Real Beginning ofPercipience
Appendix A - World Enigma – Idiots of MenKnow
Appendix B - Putting Things intoPerspective
Appendix C - Why Not?
2222Chapter 1 - The Contract
The assassin’s target stood near the rearentrance of the city bus. A week of observation revealed that theman’s behavior in the morning was always the same. He boarded thenearly full bus every morning at the same stop. There was usuallyno place to sit, so he stood with one arm around a pole to balancehimself while skimming through a morning tabloid. His attire rarelyvaried, and there were no surprises this morning in his choice of alight-colored jacket and dark jeans.
The assignment had started with a simplemessage from the assassin’s employer: Within a week, take out thisman in a public place and make sure that it is obviously aprofessional hit.
“So far, so good,” Hope thought, as shewatched her mark and kept track of the other riders on the bus. Shewould have completed her mission yesterday, but a man on crutchesat the rear entrance increased the chances of slowing her getaway.She changed her disguise daily as the police were sure to reviewsecurity video. They would see that the killer was a young man inhis early twenties, wearing a denim jacket, baseball cap, andglasses. If the security camera resolution was good enough, and thepolice reviewed previous days’ footage, it would show the week’sprogression from clean-shaven to scruffy with evidence of a slightscar on his right jaw.
As the bus approached the university, Hopestarted to close the distance between her and her mark, and withpracticed skill went through a checklist of items that wouldimmediately abort the operation. The jacket that the man wore wouldshield the blood spatter, and there was no unusual activity on thebus or at the stop it was approaching. She had picked the morningride for the hit since the crowd was comprised of universitystudents and office workers with no children present. She did haverules, including no killing of children or in front of them.
Satisfied that everything was all right, shetapped on the rim of her eyeglasses to turn on the camera for alive feed of the event. She waited a few seconds until a smallgreen arrow came up on the HUD of the glasses indicating that theywere functioning properly. The bus neared the stop and a smallgroup of people gathered around the rear exit door. The mark wasstill standing in his original spot as his stop came after thisone. He had progressed to the comics section and seemed obliviousto everything around him.
She moved passed the man, looking down as shelightly bumped against him. During this brief contact, she extendedthe long, narrow blade concealed in her sleeve and expertly plungedit into him at an upward angle just below his rib cage. After aslide twist of the blade, she withdrew it quickly, knowing that ithad punctured his heart. She moved swiftly towards the rear door,turned off her eyeglass video feed, and was off the bus and walkingdown the street before the man fully realized he had beenstabbed.
Thirty minutes later, she sat at a caféwindow seat across the street from the university waiting for alatte to be made. She rubbed her fingertips together to get rid ofthe thin, plastic film she had used to conceal fingerprints.
“Triple tall latte for Hope,” the baristacalled out.
She got up and collected her coffee andreturned to her seat. She noticed a fire truck go by, probably toput out the small fire burning her disguise in an alley a fewblocks away. After exiting the bus, she had followed a route thatavoided security cameras. She entered a washroom in one of theuniversity buildings where lectures would not begin for a fewhours. Ensuring it was empty, she pulled a doorstop from herpocket, jammed it into place to ensure privacy, and spent the nextten minutes transforming herself back from a mid-twenty, thin,unshaven man to a stunning thirty-year-old female with long, blondehair. She left the washroom and discarded the disguise near a trashbin behind the building, sprinkled lighter fluid on it, and strucka match.
At the same time, Mikhail also was lookingout a window, but instead of busy city streets his view was anocean panorama from his penthouse office. He had just watched thelive feed of the murder. He felt no real emotion; this wassomething that had to be done. He turned away from the sight oflapping waves on the sandy beach, hastily typed an encryptedmessage, and pressed Send.
At forty-five years old, he was a drivenindividual and would stop at nothing to achieve his goals. He hadaccepted this assignment even though it meant living halfway acrossthe world from his home in the Middle East because it was ideallysuited to what he wanted to achieve. As head of the researchdivision, he not only held the responsibility of ensuring thatschedules were maintained, but managed several aspects of theproject that were kept secret from the public and the government.For the first two years, things had gone well, but now, nearing thefinal year, there were increased opportunities for informationleaks.
He saw the acknowledgment that his messagehad been sent.Another six months and I’ll have all that Ineed.
Hope picked up her tablet, scanned herfingerprint, and logged into her crypto-currency account. Shewasn’t surprised to see that Mikhail, her employer, had alreadydeposited a good-sized bonus. With a few keystrokes, shetransferred ten percent to her favorite charity, The PleasantBelief Foundation. She smiled at the irony of the donation thenscanned the local news feeds to see if there were any headlines onthe murder that she had just committed.
Diane learned about her brother’s death fromthe Internet. At first she thought it was someone else with thesame name, but as she read further, she knew there was no mistake.In a daze, she checked her email and found a message from herbrother’s wife, Gwen, sent only a few hours before, telling her thenews and asking her to call.
As reality struck her, she felt the worldcollapsing around her. With both her parents gone for some years,her older brother was all the family she had left and had been thecornerstone of her life. He was always there for her, regardless ofwhat trouble she got herself into. She was almost the completeopposite of him. As she grew up, she never could fit into the moldaccording to the expectations of her parents and society. Now, attwenty-five years old, with a slim build, short light colored hair,piercings, and tattoos, things were not any different.
Throughout high school, she found little usefor several compulsory subjects and had been unable to convince herparents to enroll her in any extracurricular activities that shepreferred. After high school, she spent a few years at a tradeschool, taking classes that appealed to her, such as welding andfabrication. She worked at several part-time jobs to supportherself. She cringed at the thought of living within the rules ofestablished society but didn’t know what she really wanted either.She felt lost, knowing that there had to be some purpose to herlife, yet she had no idea what that was and had spent the last fewyears drifting in search of it.
Through her tears and sobs, she thought backto how her brother had been their parents’ favorite. He had workedso hard in school to please them, achieving a teaching position ata prominent university while doing microbiology research.Regardless of how busy his schedule was, though, he contacted herregularly, and she thought back to the last time she saw him a fewdays earlier.
She picked up her cell phone and called Gwento say she would be there in a few hours, after which she spent thenext few minutes picking loose items up. Then she went to the frontof her RV, started it, and drove away from the side street whereshe had parked overnight.
Who would want to kill my brother? Thethought ran through her mind over and over. Gwen had said“murdered” several times. Sadness slowly turned to anger, and asshe fought to stay in control, she clenched the steering wheelhard, vowing to find out who had done this and make them pay.Chapter 2 - DIR
The large, flat touch screen took up nearlythe whole wall in the director’s office. Displayed on it wereicons, documents, and other images.
“I don’t need a partner—I’ve worked on my ownfor the last ten years.” Sue stood and looked at the image of agood-looking young man. Sue was nearly forty and kept herself ingood shape by running several times per week. With her long curlybrown hair, above average height and faultless makeup applicationshe still was able to spin heads as she walked by.If I wasfifteen years younger then maybe it would be a different story butI don’t have the time or patience to train him, regardless of howgood looking he is.
“Well, like it or not, you’re going to getone now,” the director said as he flicked on the image, sending itacross the screen to where she stood. “It’s part of the new policythat everyone gets partnered. You and our whole department areoverworked, and we need to train new blood.”
“He’s just going to slow me down,” Sue said.She swirled her fingers over the image then tapped on it, making itcrumple and move to the trash icon.
The director sighed. “He’s one of our bestupcoming candidates and he needs to learn from the best.” As hespoke, he manipulated the screen to retrieve the image, uncrumpledit, and sent it back to her.
As she moved to return it to the trash icon,there was a knock at the door.
“That will be him,” the director said.
The door opened and a young man entered,appearing to be much younger than his twenty-five years. Shethought he could easily have passed for a male model but was mostimmediately struck by his blue eyes. He seemed taller and morehandsome in person.
“Spencer, I’d like you to meet your newpartner, Sue.”
“Hi,” he said. He stood at the entrywayunsure of what to do next.
She looked at him then glanced at thedirector to make sure she had his attention. With a mischievoussmile, she turned her gaze to the wastepaper basket by his desk andback to Spencer. She then walked over to his desk and the directorfelt relieved to see her pick up a pen and a piece of paper,scribble a few words and hand it to Spencer.
“Ask the receptionist for a print-out of thisform. We need it to finish your processing.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, glancing at the noteon his way out of the office.
“What additional form?” the directorasked.
“The IDT-ENT form. Let’s see how he does. Ifhe handles this properly, I guess I’ll keep him.”
The director looked puzzled for a few secondsand laughed. “You are cruel. Maybe I have this wrong, and it’sactually Spencer that doesn’t deserveyou. But he’s not apuppy you can just decide to keep. You don’t get a choice in thematter. He’s well connected, and I’ve already received two emailrequests from higher levels to find a position for him here. He’llbe your new partner. End of discussion. So tell me, what crisis ofthe day are you working on now?”
“No crisis today. I’m working on a summary ofAsia’s factory utilization. Pretty routine stuff. I’m compiling allthe data received from our agents in the field.”
“Maybe that’s something you can get Spencerstarted with. I have an urgent request that came across my deskthis morning and I want you to start working on it.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s from the intelligence agency. They wantto find out about The Pleasant Belief Foundation—all its activitiesand whether there’s any tie between them and the eco-terroristgroup CURE.”
“That should be simple. Are you sure you wantme to handle it? We could give this to Spencer or another juniorperson.”
“I chatted with a guy at the agency thismorning, and he’s heard of at least a half-dozen areas that thefoundation is involved in. It’s his feeling that they’re hidingsomething. I told him I’d put my best person on it, and that wouldbe you.”
Spencer knocked and entered looking flushed.He kept one hand behind his back.
Sue looked at him and raised an eyebrow.“Well?”
He grimaced. “The receptionist and severalothers were all too happy to get me an IDT-ENT form.” He pulled outa crudely made paper dunce’s cap and put it on his head. “ID10T”was clearly printed at the base. “I’m kind of mad at myself—Ishould’ve figured out this one much quicker.”
She chuckled. “Always be on your toes. It’llsave your life someday. Now take that damn thing off of your headand let’s get going and get you settled into a cube.” On her wayout, she spoke to the director over her shoulder. I’ll give you anupdate once I find out more.”
“Please do, and treat this withimportance.”
They headed down a hallway of office cubesand noticed several people standing and watching a special newsreport on overhead television screens scattered throughout theoffice. Sue stopped and questioned a staff member.
“CURE just released a new video and everynews station is playing it,” he replied.
“…Your continual abuse of the planet muststop. We will take action in the top ten abusive countries. Overthe next few months, we will monitor major consumption andenvironment statistics in all industrialized countries. Those thatshow the least improvement per capita will feel our wrath, and itwill be swift. Details of what we are monitoring will be given toall major newspapers.”
Shaking her head in silent disbelief, Suecontinued towards her cube. When she reached it, she noticed thatsomeone had put Spencer’s name plate on the cube opposite her own.I guess I didn’t have a choice after all.
Spencer went to his desk and dropped hisbackpack beside the chair. “That CURE group has really picked upthe hype over the last year,” he said. “What do you think they’regoing to do now?”
“Who knows? Last time they disrupted everymajor oil refinery in the country with strategically placedexplosives. The resulting fuel shortage undermined the nation fornearly a year.”
“Yeah, there was a lot of pain when thathappened.”
“Let me ask you—why do you want to workhere?”
“In all honesty, I wanted to start here aftergraduating because it’s an excellent stepping stone to getting intopolitics. Ideally, I’d like to work here for five to seven yearsand then try a run for public office.”
“Fair enough. With your looks, I’m guessingyou’ll do well, too. What do you know about this department andCURE?”
“The Department of Information Retrieval, orDIR, was formed right after the 2018 crisis that many people blamedon all the conflicting information published by various governmentdepartments, agencies, and commissions. It was set up so therewould be only a single organization, with no vested interestanywhere, responsible for providing data on any topic to othergovernment divisions.
“As for CURE or Curtail Unnecessary ResourceExploitation, I just know what I’ve seen in the news. They’re aneco-terrorist group that started to make headlines a few years ago.They’re against anything that harms the environment and committerrorist acts to punish the countries that are the worstoffenders. They’re loosely organized, so it’s been very hard totrack and stop them.”
She listened intently to everything he hadsaid. “Your general definition of DIR is good, but it’s missing afew things. First of all, we don’t publish data; we gather it, andthen we publish information. There’s a difference—information isprocessed data. We use several sources including plenty of fieldwork to see what’s actually happening.”
“That and some clever tools I’ll show youshortly. But all of this is only part of our jobs here. We’re alsoresponsible for enforcing the Internet Information Protection Actor IIPA that was put in place about three years ago.”
“Must be a nightmare to enforce.”
“It is, but it needs to be done, and there’sno better group than ours to do it. As political tensions havegrown over the last several years, and terrorist groups like CUREbecome more organized, the flow of information needs to becontrolled. The IIPA was put in place to prevent access to any datamovement from Internet sites without proper authorization whilestill allowing for e-commerce and some types of social media. Italso ensures that copyright laws are enforced, bandwidth isproperly paid for, and it filters things like child pornography.Since our business is processing data, it was a natural fit.”
“Yeah, but it messed things up too when itwas implemented. Now you need a government-issued passport to usethe Internet for practically anything.” He pointed to the braceleton his wrist. “And good luck trying to send or receive anything ona server that’s outside the country.”
Sue nodded. She remembered the countlessmeetings to develop protocols and going through endless technicaldetails. She hadn’t been happy with the final result but believedit was effective. Every individual in the world could request asmall RFID chip with the choice of having it implanted, put on aplastic card, or even on a piece of jewelry. All Internet deviceshaving data display and entry capabilities were given two years tocomply with the mandatory regulation requiring the ability to readthe RFID code and transmit it with any data sent from the device.Randomly, the DIR servers from each country challenged users, andthey were required to submit a fingerprint or enter a six-digitcode into the device. If the user was unable to respond correctly,the Internet connection was cut off, and if this happened too manytimes, a signal was sent to law enforcement centers showing theuser’s location and RFID information.
To address individual privacy concerns, andfor travelers to different countries, a temporary RFID card,similar to a burn phone, was developed to allow limited Internetaccess.
She had spent the most time on the datacustoms piece of the IIPA Act. All data transmitted over the webneeded to be tagged with the country of origin and a categorydescribing the nature of the data. If the data did not have thisinformation, or if it were incorrect, the Internet service providerwas compelled by law to block the data. Failure to do so wouldresult in a signal being sent to the server to shut down thehardware.
The IIPA was broadly accepted by governmentsand corporations; governments, because of the tight data thatcontrol allowed, and many corporations because of the boom inhardware and software sales that would occur to implement it.
“Wait until you’ve worked here a while to seehow deep this rabbit hole goes,” she said. “The IIPA not onlycontrols the data flow but is also used for monitoring who’s doingwhat on the Internet.”
“I can only imagine.”
“Hey, did you get notified that your RFIDcode has been updated for your new clearance?”
“Yes, though I haven’t noticed any bigdifference in access.”
Sue smiled and walked over to hisworkstation. “Click on this,” she said, pointing to an icon on hismonitor that resembled a poorly drawn vampire.
A simple screen appeared that looked like anyother Internet search engine screen with the exception of thevampire logo at the top.
“Now type in something to searchfor—something interesting, like black-market music downloads.”
He entered the words, pressed Return, and wassurprised when the screen instantly displayed links and summaries,most of which had a small vampire icon beside them. The bottom ofthe page showed an indication of several billion matching hits.
“What kind of a search engine is this?”
“This will be your best new toy. As you mayhave guessed, this isn’t a normal search engine. The links withoutthe vampire are normal search returns. But the links with the iconare from the dark web, the part of the Internet that’s not returnedby standard search engines and thousands of times bigger than theregular web. If there’s a web page out there, even passwordprotected, unlinked, on a corporate intranet, or with some kind ofhardware protection on it, our dark-web engine probably has itindexed.”
“Now for the bad news. With your new RFIDchip clearance and tools like this, you’ll be able to access a lotmore than before, but not everything. That will come with time andas your level rises. But because you have this increased access,they’ll be watching you more closely now.”
“The security team here at the DIR. They’regoing to be watching you all of the time. Your home, vehicles, andcell phones will be bugged, they’ll monitor your behavior, watchwho you’re friends with, and will keep close track of yourfinancial transactions.”
“They can’t do that! Nobody said anythingabout this.”
“You won’t find it written anywhere, butthat’s the way it is. We’re in charge of information. We need agreat deal of access to data and, hence, the super-searchcapabilities. But these could be easily misused, which is whyeveryone of us is under surveillance all the time. Do you stillwant this job? It’s not too late to leave.”
He paused before answering. “I’ve worked toohard to get here, and I’d be a fool to turn it down.”
“Itisa pretty cool job. You’ll seethings here that you’d never see anywhere else and find out aboutthings you’ll wish you never knew. And over time you’ll learn thatthe phrase “ignorance is bliss” can sometimes be true. But I thinkthat’s enough doom and gloom. Let’s get you working on somethingeasy—something that will introduce you to how things work aroundhere, and then I’ll get you involved in some of the work I’mdoing.”
“What do you want me to start on?”
“I’ve been working on a routine report thatwe compile every few months on Asia’s factory capacity. You canstart on that, and I want you to read through the first report wepublished on the 2018 crisis itself.”
“That factory capacity stuff doesn’t soundtoo difficult. Isn’t that information on the Internet?”
“Governments in Asia want people to believethe information seen on the Internet, but our job is to post what’sreally happening. We have hundreds of people across Asia monitoringthings like trucks entering and leaving factories and warehouses,counts of critical raw parts, and factory start-ups and closures.They all report back to us, and then my job, or actuallyyours,is to put together all the pieces to show an accuratefigure. I’ll send you the data and tell you where I’m at withit.”
“So you’re using spies to get your data?Can’t this vampire tool find it?”
“We can use the Dark Web search engine toverify data, but there’s nothing like having it come directly fromthe field. We do have information gatherers everywhere, or spies,as you so crudely put it. We’ve been suspecting for quite a whilethat Asian governments are onto our little vampire friend and areposting invalid data on their own internal networks. Part of thisexercise is to see whether that’s true or not.”
“Okay, I’ll start on the factory stuff firstand then read through that publication,” he said. “What are youworking on?”
“I’m looking up information on The PleasantBelief Foundation and checking to see if they have any ties toCURE.”
“Oh, I’ve seen some of the foundation’s ads!They’re really funny but make you think. I read somewhere thatthey’re involved in the colony experiment and in funding part ofthe Mars mission too. How long have they been around?”
“About four years—and came out of nowhere,but are well organized and very well-funded. You’re right abouttheir ability in reaching out to people very effectively. They havebeen so effective that they’re now getting the attention ofcorporations, unions, and governments. I’ve been tasked withfinding out all their activities. Should be quite routine given thetools we have at our disposal.”
From the outside, The Pleasant BeliefFoundation appeared to be another environmental group. Theorganization had been founded by an ultra-rich philanthropist namedRichard. At nearly sixty his outward appearance, bald head, shorterthan most and slightly overweight, did not give the firstimpression of the founder of several of the largest corporations onthe planet. Yet he possessed an uncanny ability to weave togethercurrent and past events and understand years before anyone elsewhere they would lead. He attributed his foresight to the power ofconcentration and his rigorous meditation schedule. Many were notconvinced, though, and believed he had paranormal powers or couldtime travel to see into the future.
As his wealth grew, his data gatheringresources increased and provided him with studies, trends, andinsider knowledge of government, corporation, and financialinstitution agendas. While he used this information to his owncorporation’s advantage, he also started to piece together a darkfuture for the human race. One where the planet was near, or hadalready passed, a tipping point in the areas of pollution, resourceconsumption, economics, as well as in the fabric that held societytogether.
He was certain that some type of correctionwas imminent though not sure of its magnitude. He felt that thesize of it would depend highly on the actions, or inaction, takenover the next few decades by the world’s population and would rangefrom a minor disruption to people’s lives to a catastrophicbreakdown.
To do something to slow or reverse thenegative trends he foresaw, he decided to form the foundation,which had two divisions. The first was the public front whose focuswas to prevent a collapse, and the second was the researchdivision, geared towards preparations for a major collapse. With norestraint on spending, these two divisions went to work on severalfronts, hiring the best and not caring much about regulations andlaws in achieving their goals.Chapter 3 - Suspicions
Olivia’s eyes snapped open following neithera slow nor calm transition from the weightless world of sleep. Shefound herself breathing hard and feeling panicked.Could I bethe reason that my friend was murdered?Her dream had been areplay of the last time that she had spoken to him. They werehaving their normal weekly video conference call and werediscussing recent breakthroughs in microbiology, their shared fieldof interest. Immediately before awakening, she remembered havingaccidently mentioned Virtuesh, the name of the top-secret virus shewas currently working on. As she sat on the edge of the bed, shethought about it again.Could that have done it?
Olivia had known the risks of her current jobbefore accepting it. She understood that a simple mistake couldkill her, or others and that all the work she would be doing washighly illegal. She had never considered, though, the lengths thatwould be taken to keep it secret.
The initial job posting she had applied fordid not outline the dangers involved. It was a simple ad from ThePleasant Belief Foundation looking to hire many people with manydifferent skills, including researchers like her. Like many othersconcerned about the current state of the planet, she had seen thefoundation as a breath of fresh air. Although it had started only afew years before, it had been particularly effective in getting itsmessage out. Simply put, people had to consume less and strengthenthe basic components that held society together. She had feltcompelled to help and responded to the ad.
A month later she received an e-mail invitingher to spend a week at the foundation’s headquarters where she wentthrough a battery of tests and interviews. At the end of the week,an interview was arranged with the head of the foundation, Richard,who informed her that she had done well and could choose fromseveral jobs being offered. He mentioned one in particular that hewould like her to consider.
He described a long-term experiment that theresearch division would soon begin; one that he hoped would lasthundreds of years. Four small villages were being set up around theglobe. They would be isolated from the outside world and theirinhabitants would live under very strict rules that ensured asustainable outcome. There would be no weapons created in thevillages except those needed for hunting and protection fromwildlife. This would work as long as the land that surrounded themwas protected by the local government. However, if there were acatastrophic societal collapse, and the government could no longerprotect the space, the villages would be left defenseless.
They would need a weapon so powerful that noone would try to overwhelm them, and the best defense that Richardcould think of was a lethal virus. Until that moment, she had beenkeenly interested in the experiment but now was in a state of shockafter hearing Richard’s plan to use a biological weapon.
She remembered the moment in the interviewwhen he had pressed a button on his phone and asked for Mikhail tobe sent in. He introduced her, explaining that Mikhail was incharge of the research division and that he would be explaining thedetails of the job he had in mind for her. Then he left themalone.
She had noticed that Mikhail was more directthan Richard and not as friendly. He told her that Richard hadhired him because he wanted to keep projects of this size in totalsecrecy. Rules needed to be bent, bribes made, and peoplethreatened in order to get the job done. These were areas in whichhe excelled. He told her that based on her psychological profile hewas reasonably convinced she would not tell anyone about the virusor anything else. If, for any reason, she did talk about it, therewould be consequences, and she clearly understood what hemeant.
Then he outlined the position. The virus,nicknamed Virtuesh, and its corresponding vaccine had already beenbioengineered in Asia. She was to work out a method for storing itsafely in the villages until needed, developing instructions formaking and administering the vaccine, and engaging with a few otherengineers on creating more of the virus and developing a gooddispersal method. He gave her a day to make up her mind.
She weighed the pros and cons of gettinginvolved and finally decided to accept the offer. Her reasoning wasthat they would go ahead with the plan with or without her. Atleast, if she were involved, she could make sure the lethal viruswould be handled and stored as safely as possible. She also thoughtthat if circumstances became too hazardous, she could contact theproper authorities.
It was this conversation that took place overa year ago that she recalled and wondered how far he would go. Shealso thought about whether she was really so closely monitored thatjust saying the word “Virtuesh” would be enough to get a mankilled. The call to her friend was on a private line so that shouldnot have been monitored. She spent several minutes examining herjewelry and various items in her handbag to see if she could find abug but found nothing. Still worried, and not knowing what to do,or whom she could trust, she decided there was little choice but toget ready and return to the lab.
The choice of clothes for the day always madeher feel better. She loved high-end fashion and since graduatingfive years ago she was able to get a position with a salary thatallowed her to build up an enviable collection. She finally decidedon a new blouse and skirt then selected the perfect pair ofhigh-heeled shoes. As a last indulgence, she stopped at the localcafé for a latte and croissant before heading towards thefoundation complex.
It took fifteen minutes to pass throughseveral security checks and enter her state-of-the-art lab. As shesuited up to enter the biohazard level-four lab, where samples ofthe virus were housed, her early-morning concerns were replaced bythe need for intense concentration on the immediate work at hand.On this day, she would perform some of the final steps in thecreation of a new batch of Virtuesh. As she ran through a mentalchecklist of the next steps, an unexpected voice erupted in herhelmet. She came close to dropping the sealed vial she had justpicked up.
“Good morning, Olivia,” Mikhail said.
“Good morning, Mikhail. What brings you to myneck of the woods?” she asked as calmly as she could. She was gladto be in her suit. The helmet would make it hard for him to see theanxiety she imagined that showed on her face, and the microphonecovered any tension that may have been heard in her voice.
“Just checking in,” he said. “I wanted to seehow you were coming along with the new Virtuesh sample. Today isthe day it should be ready, isn’t it?”
With his doctorate in microbiology, she knewhe had a full understanding of her work. She also felt that as thehead of the research division, he should have more important thingsto do than spend as much time as he did in her lab. “Yes, today isthe day. I was about to take a look at a sample. Give me a fewminutes, and you can view it as well on your screen.”
She went to a small chamber, placed the vialinside, and sealed it. With skilled precision, she operated themechanical hands inside the chamber and placed a drop of liquidfrom the vial onto the sample plate of the electron microscope.After a few minor adjustments, she could see several of the viruseson the screen. She flipped a switch that turned on the monitoroutside of the containment area.
“What do you think?” she asked.
There was a pause as Mikhail studied themonitor. “You do good work, doctor. We’ll need to perform thestandard set of tests on this batch, but visually, they lookidentical to the original sample.”
“Yes, I think so too,” she replied. Althoughreplicating the virus from the instructions given to her was arisky process, it was something any graduate student inmicrobiology could perform. The tough part was the originalbioengineering of the virus and she marveled at the work donethere.
Virtuesh was a derivative of the H1N5 virusenhanced for both length of survival without a host and for itslethalness. Calculations had shown that it could probably survivetwo hundred years or more if stored properly, and out in the open,would still be contractible after a few weeks. She was thankfulthat this strain was not airborne as that would have made it ahuman species killer.
“If this batch checks out ok, you’ll onlyhave to make one more, and then we’ll have enough to stock thevillages. After that you’ll be able to say good bye to thatspacesuit,” Mikhail said.
“I’ll be glad about that too. The rest of thework will be related to the vaccine and that’s not nearly asdangerous. I have assistants working on that now on the other sideof the lab if you want to see how it’s coming along.”
“Okay, I can take a hint and will leave youalone. When you’re done in there, have me paged; I want to discusssomething with you.”
All the fears from the morning rushed back toher. “Why don’t we meet in the cafeteria for lunch? I should bethere around noon.”
She stood back from the window for a fewmoments to ensure he was gone and then began to breathe again.
As she entered the small cafeteria thatcatered only to the in-house engineers and scientists, she remindedherself that she needed to act as if everything were normal.
The chef behind the counter greeted her. “Theusual?”
The cafeteria was one of the job perks.Unlike most company cafeterias, this one would make availableanything she ordered, and all of it was covered by the foundation.For more unexpected dishes, such as lobster tails for breakfast,prior notice was required, but no other questions were asked. Herusual lunch order remained simple and consisted of a fruit plateand a specific brand of European yogurt.
“Yes, please.” She sat at her customary tablebeside the window, turned on her tablet, and pretended to readwhile thinking more about that morning’s dream. She wondered if shewere becoming paranoid.
Maybe it was just a random murder. Shewanted to convince herself but knew this wasn’t the case.
The chef brought over her meal, and she madean attempt to eat. A motion her caught her attention, and shelooked up to see Mikhail stroll into the cafeteria and approach thecounter to get a cup of coffee. Then he walked over to her tableand pulled out a chair. “Hello, again.”
“You wanted to speak to me?” she asked,wanting to get to the point.
“Yes. I know that you were hired to work hereon Virtuesh and its vaccine, but you’re nearly done. Would you beinterested in working at the North America village site known asPercipience? Getting their laboratory established and making surethat everything is set up properly for Virtuesh.”
She hoped he hadn’t noticed her exhale withrelief. “For how long?”
“That’s up to you. The construction time isabout a year so you could be part of that, or you could join thevillage permanently. You have the personality profile for it.” Hestrongly suspected that she had leaked information on Virtuesh andhe wanted to monitor her actions. “But if you decide to stickaround, you have to make your decision formal very soon. Permanentmembers do help with the construction, but most of the next yearwill be spent training them on basic skills like farming, makingclothes, and building things in the on-site Fabrication Hub.”
“How long do I have to make up my mind?”
“Two, maybe three, weeks tops.”
“I’ll let you know in a week.” She stillwasn’t sure what to make of Mikhail and couldn’t help wondering ifhe was testing her to judge her reaction.Chapter 4 - Reconnaissance
Other than being with Gwen and helping withfuneral arrangements, Diane had not done too much in the daysfollowing her brother’s death. She contacted the detectivesassigned to her brother’s case, and although they were workinghard, they stood at a dead end with no leads to follow. The onlything they were certain about was that it wasn’t a randomstabbing.
Gwen had invited her to stay with her, butshe preferred her own bed in the RV. She had parked in the sameplace beside her brother’s house where he had customarily left hisboat in winter. After he had sold the boat, she remembered histalking about getting her to help him convert the space into lawnthe next summer. This memory along with many more helped to make upher mind that within the week she would leave the city and gosomewhere far away. Gwen showed her concern at the news.
“Are you sure you want to do this? You’vebeen living here your entire life, and all your friends arehere.”
“I’ll keep in touch with them, but I need toget away for a while. Everything around here reminds me of mybrother, and it’s too painful right now.”
“Are you going to keep living under the radarlike you’ve been doing for the last few years?”
“Yes—I can’t stand the thought of beingmonitored and controlled by the government, or for that matter,society in general. I’ll keep my two identities going—one forthings that I need, like vehicle registration and driver’s license,the other for day-to-day activities.”
“What about work?”
“I don’t think I’ll have much trouble.There’s always someone looking for a mechanic, or a welder, or ageneral laborer for odd jobs, and before you ask, yes, I can takecare of myself. I have a few guns in the RV, and my brother taughtme years ago how to hold my own in a brawl.”
“But you’ll keep in touch, won’t you?”
“Absolutely. I’m not sure if I’ll keep thesame phone number though as I usually try to get local area codeswith my burn phone. The best way will be via e-mail, which Ipromise to check every day.”
The moving plan gave her something other thanher brother’s death to focus on. She would first clean her RV,which she had neglected during the past few weeks. When she hadnearly finished, she discovered it—the laptop her brother haddropped off a few days before he was killed. He had complained thatsome virus had infected it and asked if she could get rid of it.She knew that she should turn it over to the police but decided toexamine it first and see if there were any pictures of her brotherthat she could save.
She turned off the switch that controlled thewireless Internet access. The last thing she wanted was to turn onthe computer and have any number of people see her brother appearonline in his social media feeds. She felt uncomfortable snoopingthrough his personal folders but soon was engrossed in thepictures. She was very pleased to find several recent ones of themtogether that Gwen had taken. Saving them to a thumb drive, she wasabout to turn off the computer when she decided to look at recentfiles, emails, and websites to see if she could find a clue to hismurder.
She accessed his email account, which,fortunately, had been set to automatically log in. She went througha few weeks of entries, as well as recent files, and other thanmessages from friends and advertisements, there was nothing ofsignificance. However, she did find something curious in hisInternet history. Her brother hadn’t used his laptop frequently andwas very predictable when he did. Almost every day, he visited thesame websites for news and banking and sports scores, but one entrystood out. He had searched for “Virtuesh,” found an unusual link,and then spent considerable time going through the site.
She didn’t possess a personal data passportRFID. She wanted no part of what she felt was another way for thegovernment to track the population. She reached into her purse andpulled out a temporary burn RFID then turned on her own computerand used an Internet search engine to look up Virtuesh. She wassurprised when only a single relevant link came up. Clicking on itproduced a website that described a new research project and manyjob positions that needed to be filled. She scanned the list andsaw a few positions she was sure she qualified for.
Mikhail’s computer produced a “hooray” sound,and a small icon began to flash on his screen.
“Looks like I’ve hooked another fish.”
He clicked on the flashing icon and an imageof a girl he recognized appeared, but one that he could not place.The trap was a fake website he had put up that could be found onlyby typing “Virtuesh” into a search engine then clicking on the onlywebsite associated with the word. When the site appeared, it firedup a script that activated the user’s camera, took a picture, andthen sent it with the IP address and other information directly tohim. This was part of his plan to keep the research division workunder strict secrecy and to learn if anyone from outside haddiscovered information about the virus.
There was no usable information in the RFIDinformation sent so he did a quick location search of the IPaddress, and despite being unable to get an exact address, he foundit to be in the same town as the professor he had just contractedthe hit on.
Of course!This was the man’s sister.He had seen a picture of her taken at the funeral. It made perfectsense. He had ordered Hope to get all the evidence the professorhad on Virtuesh, but something must have been missed.
He put the picture and a few details into anencrypted message and sent it to Hope, asking if she could takecare of the problem and to find out how the girl had learned aboutVirtuesh. He had enough to worry about without having to chaseafter people who would derail Richard’s project or his ownagenda.
Diane saw that the Virtuesh website wassponsored by The Pleasant Belief Foundation. She printed several ofthe pages then spent another few hours looking through herbrother’s computer but found nothing more out of the ordinary.
Packing up the computer and making sure thateverything was secure in the RV, she drove to the police station todrop off the laptop. As she suspected, there were no new leads, andgiven the shortage of detectives, she knew that unless there wassomething solid to follow up, her brother’s case would be filed asa cold case. At her request, they gave her a copy of the suspect’sphoto taken from the bus’s surveillance camera. She knew it was upto her to find the killer or at least give police a solid lead tofollow.
She woke up the next morning after a terriblesleep. She reread the printout from the Virtuesh website andnoticed the contact information on the bottom. Believing she hadnothing to lose, she called the number and was greeted by apleasant woman with a strong southern accent.
The woman explained that they had filled mostof the positions, but they were still looking for a variety ofskills. She went on to explain that not only was the pay quitecompetitive, but it was work for a good cause as well in support ofThe Pleasant Belief Foundation. The only drawback was that theinterviews were held at foundation headquarters, which was on thecoast of Washington. She thanked the woman for the information andcontemplated whether she wanted to make the fifteen hundred miletrip to the northwest state.
Hope hung up from a call, although hers wasno ordinary cell phone. It was one she had recently purchased froman underground electronics store. Many of its features, whileuseful, were also illegal. A dozen numbers could be assigned to it,each able to have the owner’s voice disguised with a differentaccent such as the southern one she used for the life insurancecompany or the British accent that she had assigned to Mikhail’snumber. The additional abilities of being able to record calls,read nearby IIPA RFID chips, and intercept text messages from anyphone within a one-mile radius rendered the device tailor-made forHope’s profession.
Hope had received the message from Mikhailonly the day before and was delighted that her new target hadcalled her. Since Mikhail’s message, she had worked hard at tryingto get information on Diane but had come away frustrated. She wasused to people trying to hide from her but never had been asked tohunt for someone hiding from everyone. With no recorded employer,phone number, address, or credit card transactions, she was runningout of options.
To be this well-hidden, Hope was sure thatDiane must have a fake ID for things like car registration and herdriver’s license.That would be the sensible thing to do.She herself held more than one passport and driver’s license.
Using the phone call as a new lead, she tookthe number that Diane had called from and was able to trace it toan area very close to the house of the last person she had acontract on. It matched the location that Mikhail had given her.At least I know she’s not moving and must be staying with hersister-in-law.She was not sure from the call if Diane wouldactually make the trip to the foundation headquarters, so decidedto book a flight to Diane’s location and then contact Gwen, Diane’ssister-in-law to see if she could provide information on Diane’swhereabouts.
Following her flight, she spent a few hoursdonning the disguise of a much older woman and booked a rental car.As she approached Gwen’s home, she parked behind an RV so that thecar would stay hidden from the outdoor security camera in thehouse. Then she walked up to the front door and rang thedoorbell.
“Hi,” Gwen said, pulling the door open. “CanI help you?”
“Yes.” She handed Gwen her business card. “Myname is Catherine, and I work for the EC Rusk Insurance Company.I’m handling a life-insurance policy your husband held that listshis sister as the beneficiary.”
“I didn’t know anything about this.”
“Well, it’s an old policy.” Hope looked atthe clipboard she was carrying. “Do you know where I can findDiane?”
“No. She was here but then left a few daysago. She keeps to herself, and I don’t know where she went.”
Hope hid her disappointment, “That’s too bad.If she does contact you, or whenever you see her again, could youplease tell her to call me? My number is on that card.”
“Of course I will,” Gwen said. “Sorry Icouldn’t be of more help.”
Hope smiled and waved as she walked back toher car. She backed up carefully, staying out of security cameraview.I hope Diane decides to try for a job at the foundation,or else I’m going to have a very hard time finding her.Sheheaded back to the airport.
Inside her RV, Diane had heard theconversation at the front door. When she saw the woman pull away,she went over to the house.
“Sales person?” she asked Gwen.
“No, she was looking for you. Something abouta life-insurance policy your brother had with your name on it. Heand I were pretty open about all our finances, and he never oncementioned this to me, so I’m suspicious. I know you like to keep alow profile so I told her that I didn’t know where you were.”
“Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
“She gave me this business card for you tocontact her.”
An intense feeling of fear came over Dianewhen she touched the card. Cold shivers rolled through her body andshe felt the hairs rise on her arms and the back of her neck. Sheknew she had to get away as quickly as she could. “I think it'sbest that I accelerate my plans a bit and leave soon, Gwen. I’mthinking of heading down south.”
“I understand. When?”
“No time like the present.” She carefully putthe business card in her hip pocket, gave Gwen a hug, promising shewould stay in touch, and within the hour pulled her RV out of thedriveway.
She drove to a nearby gas station and took afew minutes to plot a course into her GPS for the trip to thenorthwest coast. Then she bought some food and a new burnphone.
Still holding her old phone, she thoughtabout calling the life-insurance company but decided she would doso later and threw her phone into the garbage.
“Impossible!” Spencer thought as he made hisway to his cubicle. Quiet time in the office without Sue around hadso far eluded him. He had tried staying late but gave up after shecontinued to work past dinner time. He thought he would outdo herby showing up at six-thirty in the morning, but there she was, ahalf cup of coffee already consumed and working away.
Others around the office had warned him tonot feel discouraged. Sue was considered the best and the toughestamong them. They had tried to place partners with her and thelongest one lasted only a month before asking to be transferred toa remote location if only to get away from her.
It was neither the grueling hours nor theconstant pointing to his mistakes that irritated Spencer, but thatit seemed everything he was asked to do was a test, and over thepast few weeks, he was sure he hadn’t passed many of them.
“Good morning,” he said, pulling out hischair.
Sue looked up at him, shifted her gazeintentionally to the clock on the wall, and returned to her workafter a final, disapproving glimpse in his direction.
He settled into the work day and finallyfinished the Asia factory report to Sue’s satisfaction. Today’sassignment was to review the first paper that the DIR published onthe 2018 crisis, which had been the event that triggered thecreation of the department.
The event was caused by the sudden release ofthousands of pages of documents from government and corporatecomputer systems illegally obtained by a group of computer hackers.The stolen documents were related to a heavily used herbicide andits linkage to several neurological disorders like autism, ADHD,Alzheimer’s disease, and bipolar disorder.
Not only did this group get the documents,but they had also spent what appeared to be considerable timeexamining the data and organizing it to show that the evidence hadbeen available for many years. However, through mishandling, or, insome cases, blatant suppression, it was withheld from the public,and use of the herbicide was allowed to continue. There was nointervention even when GMO seeds resistant to the herbicide wereintroduced, such as maize, corn, and soybean, allowing farmers toapply more of the chemical to the crops to fight the weeds thatdeveloped a stronger tolerance to it.
The fallout was swift and on many fronts, butpublic reaction was the loudest and most severe. A worldwideboycott of foods that had anything to do with the herbicides andpesticides that were mentioned in the data leak went into place. Asa result, farmers scrambled to grow crops without them, whichturned out to be a disaster. Throughout decades, weeds and insectshad been evolving to resist the chemicals, and now, with theiropposition no longer in play, they attacked the crops with avengeance. Yields were cut drastically, and food shortages becamecommonplace.
The land-based food shortage created a higherdemand from the overused oceans, causing the near elimination ofcritical food stocks there as well. In short, it was a tragicmess.
The government formed the DIR shortlythereafter in order to avoid a similar information catastrophe inthe future. The mission of the new department was to not merelygather data but to process it into useful information. It wouldserve as the single source for all areas of the government, and itsmeasure of success was the speed and accuracy of the informationdelivered.
Shortly after his arrival, Spencer felt “thegaze.” He could sense Sue looking in his direction, and withoututtering a word, she expected him to pay close attention. A quicklook in her direction proved him right.
“Ready for an interesting problem?” sheasked.
“Sure!” He felt ready to do somethingdifferent.
She made a small, sharp gesture with herhead, indicating that he should come to her desk.
“Remember my telling you that I was lookinginto The Pleasant Belief Foundation?”
“Yes. What’s going on with them?”
“Several government departments are startingto complain, or are getting complaints, that the foundation mayactually be gaining traction in their efforts to slow downconsumption. That’s a problem since our whole system is built ongrowth and doesn’t handle reduction well.”
“What can we do about it?”
“We’re not going to do anything except gatherdata and report accurate information. I thought of going into theircomputer network and seeing what they’re up to.”
“Sounds reasonable. What did you find?”
“That’s the problem. Go to your computer andtype in Pleasant Belief Foundation, and tell me what you see.”
He returned to his workstation, entered thename, and studied the results.
“Hey, this can’t be right. There are onlyabout a hundred pages of information and no vampire icons. Thereshould be thousands, if not tens of thousands, of pages.”
She smiled. “Well, well—there’s a brainbehind those blue eyes after all. The only way that what you seecan be possible is if they’ve completely isolated their company’scomputer network from the Internet. Something pretty much unheardof these days. This is raising a big warning alarm for me, and Ithink they must be hiding something.”
“Maybe, or maybe they just want a reallysecure network.”
She made an impatient sound. “It would cost agreat deal extra to run this way. Most of the employees would stillneed access to the Internet so they would have to double up onnetwork costs. But that’s not all. I’ve also heard through reliablesources in the Department of Wildlife that the philanthropist isworking on acquiring a large piece of land up in the northwest.He’s asking for security around it—something similar to Area 51. Noone would get access or even be able to fly over it.”
“And he’s working on similar deals with atleast three other countries. He’s calling them wildlife preserves,which sounds good on the surface, but I think there’s much morebehind it. Then there’s the whole CURE thing. I keep thinking therehas to be a link between them and the foundation. They’re bothfighting for the same cause and started up at roughly the sametime.”
“Do you have a plan?” He swung his chair awayfrom his computer and leaned his arms on the desk.
“Yes, and this is where you come in. I’vealready checked, and their headquarters has very good securityaround it. But one of their projects, called The Colonies, is opento the public, and I think you should go there for a few days.”
“Really? What for?”
“Like I said, it’s important for us to knowthe truth. If we can’t get information on the colonies or on therest of the foundation from the Internet, then we’ll have to do itthe old-fashion way and actually see it in person.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
“Oh, and one more thing. If it’s possible,and only if there’s little or no risk, maybe you could install apiece of hardware into one of their computers, that’s tied to thecompany’s network. Somehow they’ve blocked our search engine, butwith a bit of hardware on the inside, we should be able to get inthere.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” he asked. “This soundslike more of a job for a different agency than ours.”
“I saidonlyif it’s easy to do. Ifnot, you’re right, there’s another division that’ll take care ofit. As for the legality . . .” She shrugged her shoulders. “We havedivisions that will take care of that too.”
He sat back into his chair and felt somewhatdazed.What have I gotten myself into?Chapter 5 - Planning
Mikhail waved Richard into his office andpointed to a chair in a corner grouping of furniture “I’ve justread that the Mars mission confirmed the rumor it’s on track fortwo manned missions this year—a few days apart. Is that due to morefunding from your foundation? I didn’t see any reference to it inthe press release.”
“You know I like to keep under the radar, butyes, an added completion bonus was all that was needed there,”Richard said as he sat down. “With the successful landing andoperation of the habitat, greenhouse, and supply modules, I thoughtit would be a good idea.”
“But why? There will be another open launchwindow in two years.”
“Because with the growing politicalinstability and eco-terrorism threats, there’s no certainty ofthere being more missions, and I want to make sure they’ll have achance from the moment they set foot there. That’s why I tripledthe habitat and other modules sent a few years ago and then doubledthe number of humans for this year. I’ve also worked with thedirector of the program and convinced him to include a few extrathings as well in this year’s launches.”
“Some of the surprises we’ve been developingfor the villages here on Earth. I think they’ll be particularlyuseful to the team on Mars; after all, they’re like any one of thevillages we’re building here, but on a smaller scale. I have alsosent hundreds of genetic samples from the residents of ourvillages. The Mars team will be able to use them to achieve thediversity in the population they will need if no other ships aresent.
“Well, hopefully you didn’t impose yourstupid rule about riddles on their computers,” Mikhail said,referring to a quirk insisted upon by Richard, not only for hisfoundation staff but throughout his corporations. Every workstationwas protected not only by a password, but the user also had toanswer a riddle. There had been more than one occasion on anafternoon when an employee left the office infuriated by aninability to access their station because the riddle couldn’t besolved.
Richard laughed. “I can’t promise that. Mycompany, my rules—and I love puzzles. Do you think that the name ofthe foundation or our virus, are random name choices? Each is ananagram, and pertinent too. That’s why I’m so passionate about thiswhole project. The challenge of getting us to a workable level withthe planet is the ultimate puzzle.”
Mikhail shook his head. “You’re right. Andyou’re the boss, but I think we’re doing more than puzzle solvinghere. On the subject of Mars—even with all the help you’reproviding the mission, will they stand a chance? Look at how muchwe’re doing for the villages here. On Mars, they’re going to haveto fight every day just to have enough air and food.”
Richard nodded silently before he answered.“I never said it would be easy. They’ll certainly need a portion ofgood luck, but who knows, Mars may have a secret or two of its ownthat’ll help them out. Let me change the subject for the moment.How are you doing at spending my money here on Earth?”
Mikhail smiled. “I have to admit I’ve neverworked on a project without a budget before and it’s taking somegetting used to, but it does get results. The three “surprises” forthe villages are either on track or are ahead of schedule,including the structures where we’re putting them in.”
“That’s good news. I’ll have to go and take alook.”
“I’ve also finalized the land deals for allfour village sites. Now, instead of just being long-term governmentleases, they’ll all be designated as wildlife sanctuaries with noaccess, including from overhead air traffic. By the way, thanks foryour help with the Asia site. I’m not sure what you did, butthey’ve been very cooperative lately.”
“The dictator in that country needed a favor,and I made a few phone calls. Kind of like the way you get thingsdone sometimes here. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Touché!” Mikhail said, laughing. “The sizeof the plots is perfect—about fifty miles square with our villageand other construction roughly in the center of each. I had toconcede to allowing inspections by government officials if they seeany unusual activity from their satellites, but that shouldn’t be aproblem.”
“Anything is possible, Richard, withsufficient bribes to get things moving. And then, of course, annualfuture payments with some additional persuasion.”
“You don’t need to know my secrets, and Idon’t want to know yours. How about the construction work on thevillage sites themselves?”
“The major construction activities, the towncenter, fabrication hub, and greenhouses are near completion at allsites”. He wondered about the kind of secrets a man like Richardwould have. “I already sent you the plans from the environmentalengineers on the design for the remaining buildings and villageinfrastructures.”
“They’ve done a good job. Hopefully, nothingbig has been missed.”
“No, they have the big stuff figured out. Thedesign of the clan huts, Air Chair, water-and-power systems alllooked good to me. We’re far enough along that I think we can startconstruction now. There’ll be things they haven’t thought of, butisn’t that the point of this whole exercise—to find what it’s goingto take?”
“Exactly!” Richard said. “I agree, let’s getthis construction going at all four villages. How about the initialresidents? Are they all at the sites?”
“They are. We’ve set up temporary trailersand kitchen facilities for the first six months, or until there’senough infrastructure built to live in. There are roughly threehundred residents at each site plus some five hundred additionalpeople to handle most of the construction. More than enough to getthings done on schedule.”
“How about Virtuesh?”
Mikhail unrolled several plan drawings andspread them across his desk. “I wanted to talk to you about that. Ithink we’ve got the details sorted out for the storage, vaccine,and dispersal, but Olivia, the lead scientist, would be a big assetto have onsite at Percipience to finalize things. Are you okay withthat?”
“Sounds good to me,” Richard said. “We havetime—it would only be used after a major collapse anyway, so let’stake the time to do it right. Move ahead if she’s willing togo.”
“She’s okay with it—I’ll send her and onelast resident up there within the week.”
“How about the pituitary gland research?”
“I still think this is one area where you’recompletely wasting your money. Telepathy, telekinesis, or any otherparanormal powers don’t exist, and throwing money at enhancing asmall gland to make them happen will lead to nothing. But I’m agood soldier and I’ve found the best researchers and am giving themwhatever they ask for. They’ve made some progress at enhancing theactivity levels in the gland, but without a real end goal, it’shard to say when they’ll be done.”
“I appreciate your honesty, Mikhail. You’llhave to continue to trust me. I’m convinced beyond a doubt thatthese abilities exist. I have to admit I’m probably guessing on thepituitary gland being the center of it all, but I’m willing to takea risk. If I’m wrong, then I’ll let nature find the answer throughevolution with the genetic pairing plan I have for thevillages.”
“Why are you so convinced?”
“There are a multitude of cases reported fromreputable people. The issue has been that events are notrepeatable. But what has me convinced is the traits and behavior inanimals that can’t be explained by modern science. For instance,animals sensing that their owners are coming home, their innatesense of direction, and so many examples of their premonitions. Ithink our bigger brains and higher cognitive powers override thesenatural abilities that most other animals appear to have.”
“I still don’t get it,” Mikhail said. “Iguess we’ll see where this leads, though.”
“We will! It sounds like things are goingwell here; I wish I could say the same for the public side of thefoundation.”
“What’s going wrong there?” Mikhailasked.
“We’re getting a lot of opposition fromcorporations and governments as we try to get the foundation’smessage out to the people. Nobody likes the negative-growthmessage. Take, for example, the Work-From-Home Initiative that I’vetried to get traction on at several levels of government.”
Mikhail raised his eyebrows. “What’s that allabout?”
“Simple really—provide incentives forcompanies to enforce a full-time or near full-time work-from-homepolicy. There are so many jobs and even whole companies that couldbe run this way.”
“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea—what’swrong with it?”
“Not too much. There would be fewer cars onthe road, less gas used, less infrastructure on highways, less timewasted on commuting, less office space, more family time. The listgoes on and on. Nonetheless, in all but a few places, I’ve run intowell-funded lobby groups from real-estate developers, carmanufacturers, and even from restaurants that have made enoughnoise to stop it.”
Mikhail nodded his understanding. “In otherwords, good for pollution, good for natural resource consumption,and good for society, but all trumped by economics and profit.”
“That’s the way almost everything works. I’mgetting lots of pressure to fund research on new vaccines, supportbetter farming techniques, conservation, recycling, and cleanwater. All of which, if you look at the big picture, supports theeconomic engine and exasperates the real issues by increasing thepopulation.”
“But those things don’t sound that bad. Mostof the green-earth foundations and rich individuals I know aresupporting these activities.”
“That’s the difference between them and me,”Richard said, poking the air in emphasis. We have the same end goalof living in harmony with this planet. But they believe thatconservation and increasing food production will prevent us fromliving beyond our means. Then somehow, we’ll all glide intosustainability.” He rose and got ready to leave. “I, on the otherhand, believe that we’re already living way past our means and thatthere’ll soon be a rude adjustment. Then after that, just maybe,stability will be reached. It’s the adjustment period and the timedirectly afterward that I’m preparing for.”
Mikhail escorted Richard to the door and theyshook hands.That adjustment period may come sooner than youthink.Chapter 6 - Commitment
Diane wondered if she was at the right place.She looked at the large, unmarked building. It was early evening,and she had driven for several days to reach the address on theVirtuesh job website. She stopped her RV at the edge of the roadand looked at the building. What she saw was not what she hadexpected. There were armed security guards at the front gate,several visible security cameras, and a chain-link fence with razorwire surrounding the structure. A searchlight regularly circled thegrounds around the building. It appeared more like a prison than anon-profit foundation headquarters.
She pulled away to find a place to park.Luckily, a nearby road led to the ocean, and though likely illegal,she parked her RV behind some trees to keep it hidden from the mainhighway.
She felt tired and looked at the clock.8:22—too early to go to bed. She decided to go for a walk onthe beach.
As she strode along the shore, she rememberedsummer vacations with her family and the fun she had with herbrother on similar beaches. A warm glow filled her and made herfeel as if he were beside her. She walked for several hours,unwilling to relinquish the mood. It was past midnight before shereturned to her RV.
Having slept later than she intended, it wasnearly noon by the time she approached the headquarters buildingagain. It didn’t look any less foreboding in daylight. She foughtthe urge to turn around and continued through the main gate untilshe was stopped by a guard.
“Are you looking for directions?” heasked.
“No, I came to find out more about the jobsposted on the Internet.” She held up a printed copy of the Virtueshweb page.
The guard examined it for a moment then askedher to pull over.
Olivia sat in the reception area outsideMikhail’s office hoping that she was doing the right thing. She hadtried to focus on work during the last week following herdiscussion with Mikhail. But her thoughts kept drifting back to herfriend’s murder as well as to Mikhail and the decision he asked herto make. After internal debate, she determined that her best courseof action was to stay close to the virus and vaccines where shecould be helpful to Mikhail. This may not solve anything, but itwould buy her time to figure out a better plan.
The large double doors to his office openedand he came out to greet her.
“Sorry to keep you waiting. Please comein.”
She had never been in his office before butwas not surprised by its opulence given that no expense seemed tobe spared on this project. He shut the doors and motioned to one ofthe leather chairs in front of his desk.
“Have you thought about your future withPleasant Belief?” he asked, as he sat down in the chair oppositehers.
“Yes, I have, and I think I’d be most usefulon the construction crew for Percipience. I could also trainresidents in both Virtuesh and its vaccine.”
“I just don’t think I’m ready for a lifelongcommitment the residents need to make. There are so many things Iwant to do, and I frankly think I’d die if I couldn’t buy newclothes and eat in restaurants.”
He laughed and said he understood. “I’m verypleased you’ll be on the team for a while longer. The site is a fewhundred miles away, and I was planning a trip there in a week. Youcan come up then if you wish.”
The phone on his desk buzzed, and he rose topick up the receiver. “Put him through,” he said, after a shortpause.
She fidgeted as he moved to the other side ofthe desk. He stood listening for a few minutes then opened severalprograms on his computer and stared intently at the screen.
Still listening to the caller, he turnedtowards her with his hand over the mouthpiece. “Something has comeup that needs my attention. Let’s get together next week to talkabout Percipience and the details about the work there.”
She felt grateful for the interruption andsmiled as she quickly stood up and left, closing the doors behindher.
He returned his attention to the computerscreen. “Yes, that’s her. Let her through, tell her to park nearthe front doors and that someone will be out to meet her.” Then hehung up and immediately picked up the phone again. He punched inthe code for the person in charge of testing.
“Mikhail here—I know that the candidates havealready been selected, but there’s someone driving up to the frontdoors right now. I don’t think she knows much about our program,but I want you to treat her like a VIP and convince her that sheshould take the tests.”
Then he then sent an encrypted text messageto Hope, telling her to stop the search as the person she waslooking for was now at the foundation. He received a text replyalmost immediately that asked if he could arrange for a trackingdevice to be put on Diane’s vehicle and said she would be there ina few days.
He put his phone down and stood to admire theview from his office.This must be a signthat the workI’m doing is on the right path.”
The guard was gone for ten minutes, and whenhe returned, he handed Diane the website printout. “Sorry for thedelay—applicants usually have an appointment. Follow this lane tothe other side of the building and park near the front entrance.Someone will be out to meet you.”
As she started to pull away, she noticed thata security camera followed her.
She waited five minutes until a well-dressedyoung man came out to greet her.
“My name is Gordon, and I’m the coordinatorfor the hiring program.”
“I’m Diane. There’s a scary amount ofsecurity here for a public foundation.”
“Yes, there is, and more inside. If you getinto the program, you’ll understand why. Please follow me.”
He led her through the main entrance and intoa lavishly decorated waiting area that led to a conferenceroom.
“Can I get you anything?”
“I’d love a coffee, black please.”
He returned in a few minutes with her coffee,shut the door behind him, and invited her to sit in one of thechairs at the large conference table. “What do you know about thisjob offer and the project behind it?”
“Nothing beyond what was on the website,” shesaid. “I have some free time now and love the work this foundationis doing.”
“Okay,” he said, smiling. “Let’s start withthe program itself, and then we’ll talk about the positions. Theproject is more like a long-term experiment in finding a way forpeople, say, a village numbering a few thousand, to live apurposeful life in a way that doesn’t ruin the planet. We’recurrently building four such villages around the world, one just afew hundred miles from here.”
“How long-term are we talking about?”
“Hundreds of years, actually. We started outlooking for two types of people. One we called builders, who wouldbe around only for a year or so and do the majority of the villageconstruction. The other group would be the residents, who wouldassist in the building while taking a rigorous one-year trainingprogram. They’d stay in the village for the rest of theirlives.”
“Yikes! People are signing up for this?”
He ignored the question, turned on theoverhead projector, and started to run some slides. “These arepictures of the village near to us under construction, calledPercipience, taken a few weeks ago. As you can see, things aremoving extremely well, and we’re not hiring any more builders now.But there are a few more openings left for residents.
“Getting to your question, we’ve hadthousands of people go through our week-long testing process for afew hundred resident positions. This wasn’t really surprisingconsidering the number of people that signed up for the one-waytrip to Mars. Or the many people who initially came to thiscontinent. Both these groups signed up for the new location and theadventure and knew they would never be coming back. We’re offeringall of that plus a new way to live.”
“And nothing is stopping these residents fromleaving if they want to?”
“Well, sure, they can leave. The hike out isonly about twenty-five miles, and, of course, they could never goback. They’d also be returning to the world with nothing since partof the agreement is that you sign all of your assets over to thefoundation.”
“I don’t think I’d ever sign a deal likethat. The girl I talked to on the phone didn’t mention any of this.I may have driven a few days for nothing.”
”All of this should’ve been explained to youbeforehand. Let me see what I can do.” He got up and left the roombriefly, returning with a grin on his face. “I feel bad that youwere misled during your phone conversation. Would you considerstaying for the next week and taking the tests that all candidatesgo through? I’ve just arranged for you to stay in one of our luxurysuites here on the compound, all expenses paid. Are youinterested?”
“No commitments now?”
“None at all. Take the week to get throughthe tests, and read up on the program. Then, if you qualify, youcan decide if you want to go for it or not.”
“I guess that’s a hard deal to turn down. ButI do have a question. What exactly is Virtuesh? That’s the websitethat I found all of this on.”
“It’s the name of the project. They wanted aunique name and that’s what they came up with.”
She didn’t believe him.Maybe I’m on theright trail to find out what happened to my brother
Gordon kept her busy for the rest of the dayreviewing promotional information and having her completequestionnaires and forms. He took her on a short tour of the campusshowing her the cafeteria, pool, and fitness center, and finally toher suite. She would be expected at the main entrance the nextmorning to begin the tests.
With the stress of the day and the troubledsleep of the night before, she lay down on the bed with theintention of taking a short nap and was surprised when she woke upat ten o’clock that evening. She debated whether she should try thecafeteria that supposedly stayed open all night, or return to herRV and make a meal for herself. She chose the cafeteria.
When she arrived, she was not surprised tosee the sitting area empty. The chef greeted her and noticed herVIP badge.
“Good evening. My name is Mario and I don’tbelieve I’ve seen you before. Bedtime snack?”
She smiled. “Yes, as long as your snacks arethe size of a steak.”
He laughed “A late dinner it is. Were youserious about the steak or would you like something else?”
“Don’t you have a menu?”
“Perhaps things weren’t explained to you. Youcan order anything you wish here. If you want something exotic, ora dish that takes time to prepare, you may have to order it a dayin advance. Other than that, everything is fair game, and my backroom is extremely well stocked. I can do a perfect steak in a jiffyif that’s what you want.”
“That would be great—medium rare,please.”
“I’ll pull together some extras for you, too.Would you like a cold Pilsner?”
“You’re spoiling me! I must admit that wouldbe fantastic.”
She found a seat by the window and calledGwen to let her know what was going on.
Mario brought her cold beer and a small trayof appetizers; by the time she had finished speaking with Gwen, therest of her meal was in front of her. She could tell that nothingbut the best and freshest ingredients had been used and that Mariowas a world-class chef.
She finished her meal and thanked him, askingif he could prepare ribs for the following evening. Then shereturned to her suite, took a bath, and slipped into the mostcomfortable bed she had been in for a long time. She set her alarmfor seven, turned on the news covering political unrest around theworld and the latest threat from CURE, and was soon fastasleep.
Only her unwavering resolve to find out whohad killed her brother kept her from jumping into her RV andheading back to Gwen after her next day at the foundation. From thetime she had met Gordon in the morning until nearly six o’clockthat evening, she was bombarded with tests. There were a variety ofwritten examinations in addition to medical, psychiatric, andfitness tests. The written topics were mostly those she never hadhad much interest in, such as biology and chemistry, and she feltcertain she had failed.
“Wow, it looks like you were trampled by aherd of wild hogs,” Mario said when she arrived at the cafeteriathat evening. “You just find a seat, and let me take care ofyou.”
Finding a seat was not very hard since shewas again the only diner. She selected the same table as theprevious evening. Mario soon reappeared carrying a tray ofappetizers.
“I was wondering,” he said, “instead ofeating alone, would you mind if I ate my dinner with you? Sincemost of the scientists have left, this has been a very quiet place,and you’ll likely be my last guest for the evening.”
“That would be wonderful!” she said. “I’dlove to talk to a regular person rather than psychiatrists andexaminers.”
“Great. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve made ourdinners.”
He returned within twenty minutes with alarge platter of ribs and a few side dishes and sat down. He waseasy to talk to and she found herself telling him about her past.She told him how she liked to live off of the grid and about howshe loved mechanics and building things. The one topic she avoidedwas her brother being murdered and her real purpose for being atthe foundation.
“Have you ever heard of Virtuesh?” sheasked.
“No, what’s that?”
“I found a website a few weeks ago while Iwas browsing the Internet. It was actually that site that led me tofind out about everything here.”
“Interesting,” he said. “You’re quite latecoming through for the tests. You should’ve been here a few monthsago when there were hundreds of people through here everyweek.”
When she finished her meal, she was surprisedby how much better she felt. The frustrations of the day seemedlike a distant memory. She thanked him for both the meal and hiscompany, and then returned to her suite. She turned on thetelevision to see if there was anything interesting on the news butsoon turned it off. Several countries remained in disagreement onhow to handle the CURE threat, resulting in more sanctions andtrade embargoes.
The first day at the foundation turned out tobe the routine pattern for the rest of the week: a grueling day oftesting followed by a recuperative dinner and conversation withMario.
She knew she had done well on some of thetests, including the repairing of a wheat thresher with a brokenattachment. The machine was situated in a well-equipped workshop,and she was given no detail other than it was broken and she hadfour hours to fix it. The first challenge was figuring out how themachine was supposed to work and then to identify the broken piece.She had never seen anything like this before, but after a briefperiod of trial and error had most of it figured out and alsoidentified the attachment that needed to be fixed.
The simple answer would have been to put aclamp around the broken part, but she went the extra mile and usedseveral tools as well as the kiln from the machine shop to cast abrand new one. When the examiners came to inspect her work, sheoverheard them say that no one had performed as good a job beforeand they wondered how she could have done it so quickly.
There were also tests that held little or nopurpose for her. During one, she sat across a table from theexaminer while he held up a card only the back of which she couldsee. From this image, she was required to state the first symbolthat came to mind—square, circle, or squiggly lines.
At the end of the final day, Gordon informedher they would have her results by the next morning. She pressedhim to find out if he knew more, or if he at least had an idea, buthe stayed tight-lipped and insisted she would have to wait untilmorning.
Convinced that she had failed overall, shestill allowed herself a glimmer of hope and headed to the cafeteriato enjoy what might well be her last meal there.
Mario greeted her encouragingly. “You madeit—congratulations!”
“Well . . . we’ll have to see about that,”she said. “Only around five percent of the people who applyactually make it.”
“I’m sure that youdidpass.”
“Only In some areas,” she said. “But in most,like the written tests, I did horribly, and I don’t even want tothink about my psychology scores or the paranormal trials.”
“Hold on. Maybe it’s time that I come cleanwith you.”
He slowly removed his chef’s hat anddouble-breasted apron, pulled out a chair, and sat down oppositeher at the table. “I haven’t been very truthful with you throughoutthe last week,” he said. “The first thing—I’m not a real chef andwasn’t responsible for the meals you’ve enjoyed so much. I’mactually one of the elders at Percipience; in fact, the lead elderof the village. I was here this week on other business when Ihappened to hear about one last person taking the tests.”
She stared him incredulously. “But why wouldyou lie?”
“You see, the results from the last five daysare taken into account for resident positions, but all residentsmust also be cleared by an elder.” He sat back, watching herreaction. “When the main group came through, we did it more like ascheduled interview, but I wasn’t happy with the results. For themost part, people came in prepared and answered with what theythought I wanted to hear. After a few weeks with them inPercipience, the other elders and I have already rejected severalpeople because they don’t fit the type of person we’re lookingfor.”
“So you decided to pose as a chef this weekand check me out,” she said tersely.
“I’m sorry for the deception,” he said, hisvoice softening, “but I’m very happy with the results. I’vereviewed all of your testing, and I’d be thrilled if you would joinmy clan as a Percipience resident. Don’t worry about the biologyand chemistry stuff; there will be people around who can train youto do routine tasks in the research lab. What I really like aboutyou is your integrity. Your natural abilities in operating,designing and repairing mechanical equipment is a bonus and you maybe surprised to find out that you did remarkably well in theparanormal testing.”
“I don’t know what to say.” She shook herhead slowly and looked at Mario as though seeing him for the firsttime. “I was so sure I’d failed, and I hadn’t really thought aboutwhat I’d do if I passed.”
“Understood,” he said. Think it over thisevening and let Gordon know your decision in the morning. I do hopeyou’ll decide to join.”
“Mikhail never told me any of this.” Oliviafumed to herself. She had procrastinated all week on getting readyfor her trip to Percipience and had just started to read throughthe sheet of paper that Gordon had given to her at the beginning ofthe week. It listed the restrictions for what she was allowed totake along and what she could expect for living conditions.
“This is barbaric!” she thought as she readover the clause indicating that overalls and coats would beprovided so other than undergarments, no other personal clotheswere permitted. She sat down on the edge of the bed in a state ofdisbelief and went through the pages in detail, thinking that notbeing able to take clothes along would be as bad as it would get,but she was wrong.
“No makeup! That does it.” She picked up hercell phone and called the number on the bottom of the page and wasnot too surprised when Gordon answered.
“Olivia, it is after six; whatever it is, canit not wait until morning?”
“It certainly cannot.” Olivia stated. “Isthis Percipience travel restriction list a joke or something? Itsays here that I cannot even take makeup along. I cannot go a daywithout makeup let alone for a full year.”
There was a groan from the other end of thephone. “You called me about that?”
“Well, other restrictions too. No personalclothes. No foods. No money.”
“Right, they provide you with great lookingpale orange overalls so you won’t need any clothes.”
“For heaven’s sake, why?”
“They want the residents to startacclimatizing right away to their new way of life. It just wouldn’tbe fair if the builders were allowed these things and the residentswere not. And they don’t want a black market up there, so there isno money allowed at all on site. If you are caught with any on you,your contract is terminated.”
Olivia sighed. “I guess. . .”
“The cafeteria up there is pretty differentfrom the one at the foundation too. In fact, it is different thanany cafeteria in the world as it will only serve up foods that theresidents would normally eat once the experiment has begun. I knowhow you love your custom made coffee. If I were you, I would go outand have three of them tonight since you won’t be tasting themagain for a year.”
“I can live without my specialty coffee,”Olivia conceded.
‘No, I meant no coffee at all. They’ll beserving a substitute up there. Made out of dandelion roots andginseng or something like that.”
“Now if you are over your panic attack, can Iget back to my dinner?”
“Yes, of course. Sorry to have called you, Ijust thought that this was a practical joke or something.”
After she hung up, Olivia took about tenminutes to pack what she was allowed to bring and then spent therest of the evening working on a plan.
Leafing through the results of Diane’s testscores, Mikhail found himself surprised. He was going to allow herto proceed regardless of how she did, but not only did she pass,she gained Mario’s approval as well. He started to realize thepotential benefits of being able to keep an eye on her inPercipience and how she might help him find out if Olivia was thesource of the information leak on Virtuesh. Maybe he wouldn’t havethis girl eliminated right away.
He typed an encrypted message to Hope to calloff the kill and changed her mission to monitoring Diane.Once Ifind the source or the leak, then I’ll have both of themeliminated.Chapter 7 - The Colonies
Not knowing what to expect, Spencer got offthe light-rail transit at the stop markedColony. He hadflown into San Francisco the previous evening to get an early starton the task Sue had given him. This location was one of two in thecountry that had been set up as prototypes, the other being in NewYork. He had read on the foundation’s website that after a fewyears of operation, the foundation would be taking lessons learnedfrom these two colonies and would be building more across thecountry.
He had expected the crowd on the platformwaiting to board the next transit car heading downtown but wassurprised at the number of people that disembarked with him. As hejoined the flow down the ramp, he guessed that most of them workednight shifts.
The path curved behind the platform andwithin a few hundred yards he and the others came upon a series ofturnstiles and a few manned booths. A sign was above one of thebooths,New to the Colony? Start here. He walked over to abooth and was greeted by an elderly man.
“Welcome to the Colony. You look a littlelost, so this must be your first time here.”
“Uh, yes,” he said. His plan was to stay afew days, and he had tried to dress the part by wearing worn-outjeans, an old shirt, and old shoes. He carried a small backpackthat contained one change of clothes.
“Okay—we need to get you orientated. How longdo you think you’ll be staying?”
“Just a few days.”
“That’s fine—here are the rules you’re toagree to,” the man said, passing Spencer a form page. “There’s alot of reading there, but I’ll give you the short version. Whileyou’re within the colony, don’t do anything illegal, keep thingsclean, and don’t be rude. There are people walking around withbright yellow vests; these are the building leaders. Do whateverthey say. If they think you’ve been misbehaving, they can banishyou, and you’ll never be allowed to come back here, or any othercolony. Their word is final, there’s no appeal process, so justdon’t mess up.”
“Sounds kind of harsh.”
The man nodded and spoke with an earnestauthority. “We run a low-cost operation here and want people tofeel safe. There’s no room for troublemakers. When we first openeda year ago, there were quite a few people expelled, but things havesettled down and it happens rarely now. There are security cameraswith smart software all over the place, so don’t even think aboutdoing anything sneaky.
“How many people stay here?”
The man became more animated. “It was crazyat first. There were waiting lists to get in, and the foundationhad to put in a lot of money to raise more buildings quickly. Wehave about five thousand in the rooms and around two thousand inthe parking lot right now. And we’re still expanding as more peoplekeep coming.”
“The parking lot?”
“Yes. We’ve got small rooms, which are fourfeet by ten feet for singles, and others a bit bigger for families.Then we provide parking stalls where people can park and even sleepin their vehicles if they want to.”
“I hadn’t thought about sleeping in cars.”Micro-rooms, sleeping in cars? Don’t these thousands of peoplefind it claustrophobic? I’m glad that I am only going to bespending a few days here.
“It’s illegal to sleep in your vehiclethroughout most of the city, so it’s pretty popular here since itallows you to live in your car, or an RV, or even a small house onwheels. We provide washrooms, showers, microwaves, and limitedelectricity in the parking area. It’s all monitored closely. If youbook a parking space, you have to spend at least eight hours a dayin the colony. That’s to stop people from just parking here andthen going to work.”
“Is it cheap?”
“For a single room, it's three dollars a day,parking space is two dollars, and each meal is a buck. If you can’tafford it, go over to the office and see if they’ll arrange for youto skip a few days. Also, if you have a drug or drinking problem,or maybe issues with anger management, this isn’t the place foryou. We don’t offer any treatment plans. There are organizations wecan point you to.” But we’re not set up for it.
Spencer thought about what he had just beentold. “That’s so cheap.”
“We set the prices to match our operationexpenses. The foundation picks up construction costs and taxes andthe rest. But with the room fee, you have to do things too. Like aone-hour chore each day. There’s a list of them in each building.The other is at least one-half hour of an activity you really enjoydoing—something that fulfills your purpose.”
“I really wasn’t expecting any of this.”
The man explained that the colony wasn’t aplace merely to eat and sleep, but required involvement to build asense of community by spending a small part of their day working indiscovering or fulfilling their own life purpose.
“What kind of chores, and what exactly do youmean by purpose?”
“Many people don’t expect any of this atfirst. The chores are nothing burdensome—mostly things likecleaning and food preparation. But take them seriously, and do themwell; otherwise, you’ll be asked to leave. As far as purpose goes,it could be as simple as playing a musical instrument, or teaching,or studying a subject. As long as it ties together your values,strengths, passions, and services.”
“I think I’m getting the idea,” Spencer said.“Can’t be too much food for a buck, huh?”
“More than you think. And it’s pretty basic,but it’s nutritious.”
“Okay, sign me up for two nights and sixmeals, I guess.” He handed the man some money.
“Here’s your receipt. Keep it in case thereare any problems. Doesn’t happen often, but you never know. Weshould get your identity registered, so I’ll need yourfingerprint.”
The request startled Spencer. “I don’t knowif I like that.”
“If you don’t want to give a fingerprint,I’ll refund your money, but you really have nothing to worry about.All that’s stored against your fingerprint is your payment, notyour name or picture.” He assured Spencer that the computer systemwasn’t connected to the Internet, and no one could accessinformation. It was used as an easy way to track meals and allowedfor room access.
Spencer thought for a moment then put hishand on the scanner.
“All set,” the man said. You’re assigned tobuilding forty-two and your room number is on your receipt. Headstraight down the path and follow the signs. If you have anyquestions, ask the building leader. They’re firm but reasonable. Ifyou’re sick and can’t do your chore for the day, they’ll let itslide.”
Spencer thanked him, picked up his backpack,and walked down the path that led to what looked like a maze ofbuildings. He passed a map showing the layout, and he stopped tofind out more about the recreation centers scattered throughout thecomplex. There was one on the way to his building, and he stoppedto look in. He was surprised to see it contained a gymnasium,lecture halls, music areas, and computer rooms. Schedules wereposted for all activities in each section, and he noticed a fewthat he would investigate later in the day.
Leaving the recreation center, Spencer walkedpast a playground area that was full of children and their parentsand then walked through one of the two green areas that were withinthe complex. The perimeter of the space had a young hedge around itthat within a few years would completely block the view ofbuildings. Within the space, there was a variety of winding paths,ponds, benches and play areas.
Without too many more detours, he found hisbuilding and wound his way through the hallways until he found hisroom. He put his hand on the scanner beside the door and heard thelock click. The man at the gate was right—the room was small. Butit was functional, with a bed, a clothes closet, and a desk. Therewas a uniquely styled sink that folded up with a toilet underneath.He tossed his backpack on the bed beside the stack of clean sheetsand blankets and then went to find the building leader, who stoodout in his brightly colored vest in the eating area.
Spender tapped his shoulder and he looked upfrom the papers he was going over. “The man at the gate told methat I needed to report to you for chores.”
“Yes—good morning. I guess this is your firsttime here. The chore list is on the computer inside the kitchenentrance. I think we’re good for food prep for lunch, but there arestill openings for dinner. Find something that fits your schedule,and then scan your fingerprint.”
“Sounds easy enough, thanks.” He was suddenlycurious to know more. “How long have you worked here?”
“My family has been here since the colonyfirst opened. I don’t really consider this work. It took a bit ofgetting used to, but we’re far happier now than living in the ratrace. My wife and I no longer have to work full-time jobs just toafford food and housing so we have much more family and socialtime. I have a small part-time job in the city doing something Ireally enjoy that more than pays for all of our expenses.”
“So this is not temporary for you then?”
The man laughed. “That is the impression somany outsiders have of life here and while it is true for some ofthe people staying here, there are many of us that have no plans onleaving.”
“How many people live in this building?”
“This is a singles building, so there areabout fifty people. The family buildings have a few more, usuallyaround seventy-five. They are setup a bit different too. Instead ofa bunch of small rooms like this building, the family buildingshave a few large sleeping areas and we use sleeping mats instead ofbeds. It’s a much better use of space since in the daytime we canroll up the mats and have a large area to do whatever in.”
“You all sleep in the same room? I don’t knowif I could get used to that.”
“It does take a bit of getting used to, butnow I can’t imagine going back to sleeping away from my kids andparents.”
“Your parents are here too?”
“Yes, they arrived shortly after my wife andI did. It’s far cheaper for them to live since they are retired andthey get to spend so much more time with their grandchildren.”
Spencer tried to envision living with hisparents and just shivered. He decided to change the subject andasked him about purpose related activities. “Where do I go forthat?”
“Our rec center—building forty-nine. You’llsee another computer at the entrance. It has a list you can selectfrom, or if you have another idea, come back and let me know, andI’ll get you entered.”
Spencer thanked him and went into thekitchen. He found the computer and signed up for dishwashing fortwo evenings. Then he went outside and found the recreationbuilding. The layout was the same as the one he had seen earlier.He signed up for classes in gardening, and while doing sodetermined that the computer, like the one in the kitchen, seemedto be only connected to a local network and not the internalcompany network.
On his way out of the recreation center, hepassed an open office door and saw that the room was empty exceptfor a desk, a book shelf, and a computer. He reached into hisbackpack for the DIR device that Sue had given him. From thehallway, he could see an open USB port on the computer and afterlooking around to see if anyone was watching, quickly stepped intothe room, fumbling with the device as he hunched over to insert itinto the open slot.
Got it!This was his last thoughtbefore feeling a violent blow to the back of his head.Chapter 8 - Start of Percipience
Diane felt calmer as she pulled her RV out ofthe foundation complex and drove out onto the public street. Shewas looking forward to the long drive ahead; it would give her timeto sort out everything that had happened earlier.
As expected, Gordon told her she had passedthe tests, and now it was time for her to decide whether or not shewanted to join Percipience. She had asked when she would beexpected at the site if she agreed to go.
“Most people would have had a few weeks toprepare before leaving,” Gordon told her. “In your case, you’d haveto leave right away. There’s a group of people going this afternoonin a helicopter, and you could ride with them.”
“No, I can’t leave that quickly, and I’mcertainly not going to leave my RV here.”
“Maybe you’re not getting it. You’ll never beusing it again. This is a one-way trip.”
“I still need time to get ready. I havepeople to call and business to clear up.” She knew that she hadalready made up her mind to join. “How about I drive up theremyself? I could be there tomorrow, and that would give me time tostraighten out my affairs.”
He picked up the phone on his desk, waited afew seconds, and explained the situation. He listened to theresponse and then hung up, watching her as if trying to seesomething.
“Well?” she said, breaking the silence.
“You must have made quite an impression onMario,” he said. “There are dozens of people I could bring in nowfor these few open positions, and none of the candidates have yetbeen allowed to drive themselves out there, but in your case, itseems they’re making an exception. So—are you in or out?”
She absentmindedly bit her lip as she weighedhis words. She had no intention of doing this for the rest of herlife, but she wanted to find out more, and this seemed the only wayto do it. She laughed inside at the foundation’s “threat” to thosewho decided to leave. She was accustomed to living by her own rulesso none of this would leave any significant impact on her. If shedrove up on her own, she would have an easy way to get out andwould have her possessions as well.
“In—if you give me directions or a GPScoordinate, I’ll be there by tomorrow morning.”
Gordon had given her directions and printedout a badge and paperwork. “Once you get there you’ll need to givethese papers to security. They insist that you wear this badge forthe first six months at least. After that, no more badge and nomore last name.”
“What? I don’t recall reading anything aboutthat.”
“I’m not sure why, but once the village is upand running, nobody will have a last name anymore.”
“That’s kind of strange.” She thanked him andwasted no time getting her RV out onto the highway.
Mikhail was a bit leery when he found outthat Mario had allowed Diane to drive up to the village site, buthe didn’t want to alarm her in any way so he let it go.. If shedidn’t show up, he reasoned, they would find her quickly throughthe locator he had put on her RV.
Later that afternoon, he headed to thehelipad and was happy to see his two passengers and Richard alreadywaiting to depart.
“I take it, Richard, that you’ve metHope?”
“We were just getting acquainted,” Richardsaid. “She’s been telling me how she is going to be working onhelping Olivia set up the laboratory.”
This was the idea that Mikhail had discussedwith Hope that morning. It was a good cover idea as she could keepa close eye on Olivia to see if she were the source of the leakedinformation. If so, Hope would arrange accidents for Olivia andDiane.
The takeoff was delayed by a few minutes asthe pilot wanted to inspect Olivia’s luggage which consisted of asmall suitcase and a sealed box with a hazardous goods sticker onit. Olivia let him look through her suitcase but stopped him fromopening the box.
“I have to inspect everything,” the pilotsaid, “I am responsible for making sure that no contraband isbrought in.”
Olivia leaned over to Mikhail and whispered,“Virtuesh.”
Mikhail nodded and then said to the pilot,“You can skip the box. I’ll take responsibility for it.”
The pilot just shrugged his shoulders and putthe box in the small cargo area of the helicopter. The trip toPercipience was quiet, and after they landed, Olivia and Hope wentto the trailers to get settled while Richard and Mikhail toured theconstruction site activities.
“Things are looking good, Mikhail,” Richardsaid. “You’ve done well here.”
“I’m glad you approve. Are you ready for yourbig pep talk tomorrow?”
“Yes—I think everyone here is prettycommitted to the cause so I don’t foresee any problems.”
Diane arrived later than anticipated. Thelast twenty-five miles of road was not much more than a temporarypath through the trees, and she had driven painstakingly slowlythrough most of it. When she arrived, the security guard at theedge of the village told her which trailer she would be staying inand advised her to move quickly before Richard began hispresentation.
She parked her RV in a parking lot that wasbeside the security entrance since they would not let her drive itright onto the site. She then grabbed her cell phone and put someundergarments into a bag and made her way to her designatedtrailer. When she arrived, she found that she would be sharing thetrailer with two other people. Putting her bag on the unclaimedcot, she left the trailer and joined the general flow of peopleheading towards a large structure she heard called “the towncenter.”
She entered the building, following the crowdinto an auditorium that was equipped with a stage, but that couldalso have been used as a gymnasium. She guessed that theretractable seating would easily accommodate two thousand people.On this day, however, there was a collection of several hundredfold-up chairs in the middle of the room, all facing the mainstage.
She found a chair as Richard walked onto thestage and welcomed the gathering. “I’m so proud of this moment, andstill find it hard to believe that it started only seven years agowhen a good friend challenged me to solve the ultimate puzzle: Howcan we live on this planet without destroying it?
“You’ve all had a few weeks to see how thephysical structure of Percipience is shaping up. I’m going to spendthe next hour going through the social aspects of the village.You’ll have already heard most of this, but as promised, we will gothrough it one more time and if you still have doubts that you’rein the right place, you can drop out of the program. There will bebuses available tomorrow morning to take you back to the foundationheadquarters. This will be your last chance to reconsider.Afterward, it’ll be full steam ahead.”
The large screen behind Richard displayed anumber of bulleted points:
Guidelines for the Percipience Way ofLife
1. Other than for hunting wildlife, no weapons willbe made or built.
2. Population control will be implemented once asustainable population has been reached (roughly 2,000).
3. Allow expansion only if resources are availableand if it will cause no stress to the environment.
4. Selective genetic pairing will be done and willbe overseen by the elders.
5. Everyone must rotate through all routine tasks inthe village for a set amount of time as specified by theelders.
6. Everyone must assist in large tasks such asplanting, harvesting, building huts, and repairs.
7. No currency.
8. No livestock.
9. No personal possessions other than clothes andwhat can be carried in a backpack.
10. No elected officials.
11. No attempts to communicate with the outsideworld.
12. Environment is on equal terms with humans.
13. Each hut will have one elder, and the elder’sword is law for the hut. Each elder will select a successor whocannot be a direct descendant.
14. One of the elders will also be the leader forthe village and his or her word will be law. The leader will selecthis or her successor, again which cannot be a direct descendant
15. An elder or the village leader can be replacedonly if the vast majority of the other elders agree.
He paused to give his audience time to readand then continued. “I’m expecting that during the years ahead,you’ll figure out the best way to run your village, but these arethe basic rules that should be followed. With no currency,possessions, weapons and no real privileges for the leaders Isuspect that many of the problems that are in today’s society willsimply disappear, but not all of them. It will be up to all of youto make this work.”
After finished answering a surprisingly smallnumber of questions, the crowd dispersed and he left the stage tojoin Mikhail.
“How’d you think it went?” he asked.
“It was a slam-dunk,” Mikhail said. “Everyonehere is fully on board with the program, and I’d be very surprisedif anyone boards a bus tomorrow.”
“I’m getting that impression. We’ll finish uphere with a meeting with the elders in a few days. Then I’m off torepeat this whole exercise three more times at the othervillages.”
That evening Mikhail was nearly asleep in hisbunk when he heard knocking on the door of his private trailer. Hestumbled out of bed, put on his robe, and opened the door.
“Richard! What’s wrong?”
“We seem to have had an issue at one of thecolonies. A computer has been tampered with, and the security teamhas a man in custody. They suspect he was trying to break into thefoundation’s network with some very sophisticated hardware.”
“What can I do to help?”
“I’ve had him sedated and flown up toheadquarters. I was going to talk to him myself after this trip,but now I think perhaps you may have a better way of gettinginformation out of him.”
Mikhail smiled confidently. “Sure, I know afew ways to do that. I’ll have a full report to you in a day orso.”
“Thank-you, Mikhail. I appreciate all thatyou’re doing.” He didn’t ask how the information would beobtained.
“No problem. Let me make a quick phone call,”Mikhail said. He picked up his cell phone and punched one of thespeed-dial numbers.
“Sorry to bother you at this late hour, Hope,but duty calls—can you please come to my trailer for a fewminutes?”
She appeared almost immediately. Mikhail wasimpressed; he knew he had woken her, yet she was fully dressed andappeared alert. He explained Richard’s problem and that the personapprehended at the colony had been flown to headquarters.
“Could you fly up there and see what he hasto say?”
“Of course—I assume since you’re asking methat you want the full story from him?”
“Do what is necessary. And if it’s possible,please return by tomorrow evening. I’ll make sure the helicopter isready within fifteen minutes.”
She returned to her trailer to gather the fewthings she would need. She had worked for Mikhail in the past onother projects, but nothing like this one. Here she would use herfull training. This would be the first time he had asked her tointerrogate someone, and she was looking forward to it.
Spencer woke in complete darkness with asalty taste in his mouth. He lay on a cot; after a moment, hedetermined that the room was not completely dark but had a dimlight coming from the baseboards. His eyes adjusted, and itappeared that the room was quite small, having only a sink andtoilet aside from the cot. There were no windows, and he had beenstripped of all his possessions. He had no idea how long he hadbeen unconscious.
The back of his head hurt severely, and hefelt nauseous. He managed to lift himself off the cot and reachedthe toilet before retching uncontrollably until there was nothingleft but dry heaves. He lay down on the cement floor, which wascool and felt good. After dozing for a few minutes, he felt strongenough to stand and moved to the sink where he washed his face withcold water and took a drink.
God—how’d I end up here?He rememberedentering the colony and talking to the building leader, but afterthat remembered nothing. He found his way back to the cot and fellasleep immediately.
He awoke again, this time with a clearerhead. The room was somewhat lighter now, and the door was open. Hesaw two people in the room with him. Wordlessly, and without muchcare, they picked him up, and with one on either side led him downa hallway.
They entered a room containing only a simplewooden chair with armrests and strapped him in tightly enough torestrain any movement. Then they attached various electrodes tohim, and when they were finished, he heard the door close. Helooked into the mirror on the wall and saw that besides the machinebehind him, he was alone. At least he thought he was alone; he wasunable to see the far walls with only the dim lightbulb hangingover him.
A voice came from a speaker located somewherein the ceiling. It was deep in tone but had a mechanical sound.
“I’ll get straight to the point. One way oranother, you’ll answer all my questions. The measure of pain andyour survival will be entirely up to you. Your answers will beverified, and if you don’t tell the truth, you will die.”
“Who are you? If you think you’re scaring me,you’re mistaken.”
There was a soft, deep laugh from thespeaker. “Brave words but the electrodes attached to you aretelling me that you’re already afraid. Now, although I do enjoythis, I don’t have the time that I’d like to completely break youdown. So I’m going to have to cheat a little.”
The door opened and the same two menreturned. One wrapped a rubber hose around Spencer’s arm while theother prodded to find a good vein. After a moment, he injected himwith a large syringe and removed the hose.
“This is my own special blend of truth serumthat I’ve found to be very effective,” the voice said. “I’ll giveit a while to take effect.”
The men left the room and the voice wasreplaced by a slow, steady drum beat.
Spencer broke out in sweat and could feel hisheart racing. He quickly lost track of time and tried hard toconcentrate when he heard the voice again.
“Let’s begin.” The voice proceeded to ask aseries of question that Spencer felt compelled to answer. He gavethem his name, information about his family, education, the DIR,and the people he worked with. Sometimes he offered too much detailor went off of the topic of the question and was given a smallelectric jolt to get him to stop.
The questions, drugs and steady drum beatleft him dazed, and he was unaware everything had ended until hefelt himself being untied and led back to his cell. He couldn’trecall what he had said during the interrogation and hoped hehadn’t revealed too much. He wondered what might happen to himnext.
Hope felt pleased as she analyzed the resultsof the questioning. Although some of the readings from theelectrodes were slightly higher than she liked, the young man wasno match for her questioning skills and had provided answerswithout hesitation. She validated several answers through a friendin the DIR and felt confident that she now had what Mikhail wanted.She looked at the clock and realized she had been up for thirty-sixhours. She gathered her things and headed to the helipad with theplan to be in Percipience in time for supper.Chapter 9 - Discovery
Sue reviewed the paper the director had justgiven her in his office. “This can’t be right.”
“I’ve had a few people go over the data andit checks out,” he said.
“But just thirty years—that seems such ashort amount of time. There’s no way to stop it?”
“It doesn’t appear so, once past the tippingpoint. At least not on a time scale that we’d like. The oceans arehuge but have a fairly delicate ecosystem. With increasedtemperature, pollution, acid levels, over-fishing, and recentmining activities, it’s been pushed over the edge. It’s not likethere’ll be no life in it, but things will change significantly,including losing most of the aquatic life that we rely on for abouttwenty percent of the world’s food supply, especially after theevents of 2018.”
“I’m sure once we release this information,the governments will do something about it. Stop the mining andfishing, for instance.”
The director shook his head. “I doubt it.Because of CURE’s latest threat, we’re getting slammed to supplymore environment information, but this isn’t the first time thisissue has been reported. The information has been out there foryears. But governments of key countries involved could never agreeon what should be done and kept pushing the problem to the bottomof the pile. This is the result.”
“I’ll review the data behind this myself,”Sue said. “I’ve been assigned a few environment informationrequests as well but will transfer them to Spencer. That is when Ifind him.”
“You’ve lost your puppy already?”
She sighed as she got out of her chair toleave. “I’m sure that he’s all right, but he was supposed to checkin yesterday after he arrived at one of the Pleasant Beliefcolonies, but he hasn’t yet. When he does call in, I’ll roll up anewspaper and give him a few swats.”
The director laughed. “I’m sure you will. Letme know if you find anything wrong with the data on that oceanreport.”
“I will,” she said.
Diane woke to the sound of movement in thetrailer. Following Richard’s speech after her long drive, she hadgone back to her trailer and fallen asleep. She opened her eyes andsaw one of her roommates emerging from the bathroom.
“Good morning, my name is Diane,” she said,sitting up in her cot.
“I’m Olivia. Did I wake you?” she said as shefinished drying her hair with a towel and looking in horror atherself in the full-length bathroom door mirror.No makeup andthese overalls, I hope no one that I know sees me.
“It’s time for me to get up anyway.” Dianepointed to the cot beside hers with its rumpled blankets. “I seethat our other roommate has already gone.”
“Yes—her name is Hope, and she left late lastnight. Didn’t you wake up when her phone rang? Must have beenimportant, because she shot out of here, and I heard the helicoptertake off shortly after. I don’t know much about her, though. Weflew up together yesterday morning, and I think she’s supposed tobe helping me.”
“Interesting that it was important enough forher to fly out,” Diane said. “At least we’re guessing it was her onthe helicopter.”
“The timing was too perfect. Hey, I’m goingto grab some grub—do you want to come along?”
“Sure, if you can wait a few minutes for meto get dressed.”
Shortly afterward, the two young women headedthrough the maze of trailers towards the temporary cafeteria. “I somiss my apartment and other things. Living in these trailers,wearing this and eating here is just not me at all. Thankfully, I’monly one of the builders so I will be out of here soon,” Oliviasaid as they joined the breakfast line. “What kind of work are yougoing to be doing here?”
“I’m a resident, part of Mario’s clan,” Dianesaid. “To be honest, I found out about this whole thing only a fewweeks ago, and since then it feels like I’ve been in a whirlwind.What area are you working in?”
“The research lab, setting up equipment,developing instruction guides for stuff, and helping to stock thelibrary with books on biology and chemistry. I’m very interested tosee how the whole education thing works out here.”
“Well, the plan is pretty different from thestandard education system and its current setup. Here, kids willget started on basics like reading, math, etc., but will go throughthe same training as you are now—learning the fundamentals of alljobs here. After that, they work with their elder to determine anarea of specialty and then will spend years working and studying.There’ll be no formal classes for advanced education; it’ll begradual learning passed down from others specializing in thefield.”
“Sounds better than the system I grew up in.I didn’t fit in well at all. Far too many topics I wasn’t at allinterested in. At the time, it was all about test grades, notreally about how much you knew on the topic.”
After breakfast, Olivia took Diane to thetown center. They walked past the entrance that Diane had usedyesterday.
“That goes to the auditorium, library, and afew offices,” Olivia said as they turned a corner and came toanother entrance. “This is the entrance to the research lab andnursing center.”
Diane was impressed on entering the researchlab. There were areas for working, a small lecture hall, and someequipment already set up together with many instruments stillwaiting to be unpacked. She watched as Olivia started heating upsome water with a Bunsen burner and then tore the packing tape offa box.
“I brought this up with me from thefoundation.” Olivia said as she proudly reached in and pulled out apackage of ground coffee.
“Oh my God” Diane said in a hushed voice.“May I please have a cup?”
Olivia laughed as she made two cups. “Withsteady shipments of equipment and chemicals coming in from thefoundation lab, I am making sure to get regular shipments in ofthis as well so at least we will have a few creature comforts.”
Diane just nodded as she took her firstsip.
“The hardest part of equipping this lab hasbeen the construction rules in Percipience,” Olivia said. “Unlessyou get an exception from Mikhail or Richard, everything here mustbe able to be built using the tools and materials available here.If you do get an exception, you must be able to store enough spareparts to last at least a few hundred years.”
“That must be tough, especially with some ofthe equipment here.”
“It was. There’s a full machine shop, soyou’d be surprised by what they actually can build. Though some ofthe electronics have proved to be interesting in that they won’tlast, even if stored properly, for more than a few decades.Thankfully, most basic electronic components, like resistors, canbe stored for a very long time so a great deal of the equipment yousee here had to be completely redesigned to be much simpler tobuild and repair.”
Diane nodded. “Have you ever heard ofVirtuesh?” she asked casually.
Olivia was about to take a sip of coffee andher arm froze. “Where did you hear about that?”
Diane went through the story of her brotherbeing killed and how she found the Virtuesh website on hiscomputer, which led her to Percipience.
Olivia only then noticed Diane’s last name onher badge and realized that her brother was also her own friend whohad been murdered. “Diane,” she said quietly, “I may know theperson responsible for getting your brother killed!”
“He was a friend of mine. During a video chatwe had shortly before he was killed, I accidently mentioned theword Virtuesh. It’s a secret virus that the foundation haddeveloped, and Mikhail warned me that there would be consequencesif I told anyone about it. There are only a handful of people whohave knowledge on it, and none of the residents do.”
“So when my brother looked it up on theInternet, it must have triggered something that signaled Mikhail.Of course! I looked it up too, and shortly after that, a suspiciouslooking insurance agent came around looking for me.” She dug out abusiness card and showed it to Olivia. “But why didn’t they finishme off when I was at headquarters? They treated me like a VIP.”
“Probably because as long as you were there,or here for that matter, you pose no threat. I can understand thatthey want to keep Virtuesh secret, but it’s not worth killing for,at least not for this project.”
“Do you think that Mikhail is up to anythingelse?”
“Possibly. I can dig around and see if I canfind anything. Maybe I should make up an excuse to go back toheadquarters after I receive the first batch of vaccines andVirtuesh that are expected to be here in the next day or so. In themeantime, I think we both had better be extra careful and notmention this to anyone else.”
“I agree, and I appreciate your help,” Dianesaid.Now at least I know I’m on the right track.Chapter 10 - Hope Dealt In
Hope was tired enough to sleep on the noisyhelicopter ride back to Percipience. It was late in the afternoonwhen she had caught up with Mikhail as he was about to leave histrailer. She handed him the report on Spencer. “Not much of achallenge, really. I was hoping for something a bit harder.”
“Give me the short version,” Mikhail said. Hetook the folder and sat down.
“He’s a junior member of the DIR and was atthe colonies to get more information on them since their Dark Websearch engine was coming up blank. He got caught when he tried toput a tracking device on one of the computers at the colony.”
“Harmless enough, at least for now. I’ll givethis to Richard tomorrow,” Mikhail said. “Care to join me for abite to eat?”
They headed to the cafeteria and settled at atable. She asked him if she should continue watching Olivia andDiane.
“Yes—for now, at least,” he replied.”
“You know, it would be a whole lot easier forme to keep an eye on things if I knew what you were lookingfor.”
He looked at her and decided that he coulduse an ally through the next few months. The more she knew, themore effective she would be.
“I guess that’s a fair request,” he said,glancing around to ensure that no one could hear him. “You dounderstand that the purpose of the Pleasant Belief Foundation is toprevent or prepare for a global collapse and to live in asustainable fashion?”
“I do—and I like the foundation; they’redoing great work.”
“I have a plan of my own,” he said. “Onealong the same lines but I think is better.” He describedRichards’s plan for four villages that would operate as experimentsin sustainable living while the rest of the world’s eight billionpeople systematically destroyed the planet. “If there were acatastrophic event, and all those people died, I think the villageswould be far too small to restart the human population. My planinvolves a much larger population of like-minded people, say a fewmillion. By now you’ve heard of Virtuesh—the virus that villageslike Percipience would use as a last-resort defense?”
Then he told her that he had instructed theAsia team designing the original Virtuesh virus to make a second,stronger airborne strain that would last longer outside a hostbody. “I call it Virtuesh-B.”
She shifted uneasily in her seat. “Thatsounds pretty dangerous.”
“It is. I’ve had enough produced to cover theearth, and it’s already in the hands of the people who will releaseit.”
“God!” she blurted. You want to take out thehuman race?”
“Not entirely,” he said calmly. “I had themmake a bit of vaccine as well to cover myself and my family and afew close friends. I’m now getting enough made in a separatefacility to cover a few million of the people who share the sameenvironmental ideology. Together, we’ll start a new, sustainableworld—one without wars.”
“It’s an insane plan and sounds likesomething that CURE would do. You can’t go ahead with this.”
“But CURE is exactly the group I’m referringto! I’ve been part of it since the beginning. We don’t have anofficial hierarchy, but I’m part of a small group that drives theplans and general direction.”
“They’re terrorists and radicals, for God’ssake.”
He raised his hands in mock horror. “From thegovernment’s perspective yes, but we are fighting for the planet.But before you get any heroic ideas and turn me in, or kill me, youshould know that the people around the globe in charge of releasingthe virus are devoted to the cause. They’ll release it even withoutthe vaccine, and certainly if they don’t hear from me every twodays.”
She said nothing when he finished talking andthought about what she should do next. There was still time tofigure out something to stop him, and she decided to play along fornow.
“How soon until the vaccine is ready?”
“About three months,” he said. “Another monthafter that to distribute it and let it take effect.”
“I see. Why are you telling me all this? Andwhat do Olivia and Diane have to do with it—are they in on it withyou?”
He sat back and laughed. “No, they’re nothelping me. Olivia is working on setting up the lab and vaccinesfor the original Virtuesh, and Diane has found out about itsomehow. She must have gotten information from her brother.”
“So what threat are they to you?”
“Here, in Percipience, they’re of littlethreat.” Mikhail said, “I was worried about Diane when she wasn’there in that she would alert authorities and put attention on usthat both Richard and I don’t want. Now, just as a precaution Iwant to keep an eye on them to make sure that they don’t somehowstumble onto my strain of the virus or any part of my plan. Therisk is very low since I’ve ensured that there are no electronicrecords of Virtuesh-B, but one cannot be too careful.”
“I want in,” she said. “I want some of thevaccine for this new strain of the virus.”
“Of course—I expected that you would. I’llget you ten doses—will that be enough?”
“I think so. How can I trust that the vaccinewill be genuine?” she asked.
“Listen, when all of this is over, I’ll be ina position of immense power across the world. A person with yourskills is very hard to find, and I’m sure I’ll continue to haveneed of your services.”
Olivia nodded and then agreed to monitorOlivia and Diane and report any suspicions findings to him.
Their conversation ended and she walked backto her trailer for much-needed sleep. As she approached, shenoticed lights inside. She opened the door and was greeted cheerilyby Olivia, who immediately introduced Diane. The two young womensat on the floor playing a game of cards.
“Where did you go off to last night?” Oliviaasked.
“I had an errand to do for Mikhail,” shesaid. There was no point in lying about that. “He’s a tough man towork for.”
Olivia and Diane looked at each other. “Idon’t care too much for him,” Olivia said. “If I were you, Iwouldn’t trust him.”
“I don’t” she said, lying down on her bed.“You two don’t have to worry about being quiet. I’m exhausted andwill be asleep in no time.” She put her head down on her pillow.You’re quite right. I can’t trust Mikhail.
Sue leaned back in her chair and closed hereyes for a moment. When she reopened them, she glanced up at theclock and then around the rest of the office realizing thateveryone else had left for the day. She had been so immersed ingoing over the data on the ocean eco-system that she had lost trackof time. As she started to pack up her things to go home, shelooked at the vacant cube across the aisle. Her initial anger atSpencer for not checking in with her was turning into concern.Though she had only known him for a few weeks, he did seem quiteresponsible, and she could not imagine a scenario where he wouldjust not get in contact with her.
She put her purse down and turned herterminal back on. With a few keystrokes, she found that there wasno activity on Spencer’s cell phone or bank records for the lastfew days and after a few more searches also found that he had noteven used any of his e-mail accounts. One final search againsthospital and police databases came up blank as well.Somethinghas gone wrong.
Her next move was to make a call to the WestCoast colony office, but they were of little help. They explainedto her that they did not keep names of anyone staying in thecomplex but offered to put a note on their bulletin boards with hisname and a message for him to call her.
Frustrated with her lack of progress, shepicked up the phone for one last call.He has to be at thecolony and must have gotten into trouble somehow. There is only oneperson I can think of whom I can contact to maybe get some answers.Richard, the head of the foundation itself.