The Future's Only Hope

Lies in the Past ...

Chapter One

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

5:59 pm — EDT

      Sera Banks clambered up the rungs on the side of the Chamber, a six-foot diameter aluminum-coated sphere resembling an enormous fishbowl. Dropping into its hollow core, she crammed herself and the bulky parcel on her back next to the petite frame of her mentor, once renowned physicist Dr. Iggy Mikos. She grasped the handle on the hatch and creaked it closed, enveloping them in darkness. "He's coming. Punch it!"

      Iggy stabbed at backlit buttons on each end of the Converter, a twelve-inch-long barbell-like device with a handhold in the middle. Her finger slipped. Patience. Feeding on Sera's impetuousness could get them both killed. She steeled herself and counted off the memorized sequence. "Here we go!" They strapped on oxygen masks, and she entered the final keystroke.

     A blinding flash of light and a deafening roar consumed the Chamber. The two scientists shrieked in agony before passing out.

6:00 pm — EDT

      Captain Drew Sutherland sliced his access card through the magnetic reader to unlock the door and rushed into the lab, mouth agape. He circled inside the customary shabbiness of the blistered ocher walls, observing cracked lab benches cluttered with wires, circuits, and tools. Equipment hummed, while a familiar ionized smell permeated the air. All the apparatus for the project were present, but the researchers were absent. His decreasing spirals propelled him to the obvious destination, the shiny orb dead center of the warped linoleum floor. Cupping his palm on the convex surface, Sutherland flinched. The alloy blazed with heat. He stepped up on the ladder and heaved the hatch open with a massive forearm. The empty brass interior gleamed back at him in the fluorescent glare. He rubbed the back of his military buzz cut. Where could they be?

6:01 pm — EDT

      Hurtling through the sky two miles west of the lab at thirty thousand feet, Iggy woke with a start, the Converter lashed to her left hand. Freezing wind roared in her face, numbing her as she gasped into the mask. Of all the luck—displacement must have triggered a blackout. Struggling to orient herself with respect to gravity, she waited the requisite number of seconds and then pulled the ripcord. The parachute billowed out. Snap! She felt the sensation of being jerked upward by an unseen entity.

      Temporarily safe, Iggy scanned the atmosphere. No! Her cohort was tumbling in freefall, still unconscious. "Sera! Pull the cord!" she shouted into the mouthpiece installed in her mask, grateful that Jay had insisted on the communications gadgets. She continued calling over and over, her voice rasping with fear. Finally, the white disk of Sera's chute materialized, impossibly far below.

      Iggy closed her eyes and exhaled. How did she end up here? A fifty-seven-year-old widow and mother—a fugitive. She and Sera would survive, for now. But what about those in peril and those who had perished? What about Nick?

      Iggy's mind traveled through time and space to the day her world ended. She had briefly stepped out of the university lab when a powerful blast catapulted her off her feet and slammed her to the floor. Dragging a broken leg, she'd crawled back through the opening where the door had been blown from its hinges, but nothing could be done. Nick was dead. Her partner and best friend, gone. Her soul ached every waking hour since history was rewritten. The official report blamed her husband for his own negligence, but it was a lie. Nick never took chances. The government had executed him and tried to kill Iggy as well. The retribution had been enacted for the couple's refusal to develop weapons of mass annihilation. In an attempt to further the psychological damage, the administration had exiled her now fatherless son to a state-sponsored military academy. Iggy got to see Andreas only twice a year. Bastards.

      The physicist herself was remanded to the Secaucus Research Installation—a guarded facility in New Jersey derisively nicknamed the Gulag by inmates and jailers alike. Current law sanctioned her detainment under the auspices of The Traitor Act, which required uncooperative citizens to perform compulsory work for the benefit of national security. Other notable provisions included congressional review of the press, border control between states, and elimination of search warrants.

      It had to stop.

6:02 pm — EDT

      Captain Sutherland plodded toward the colonel's office, contemplating his options. Two prisoners—correction, two resident scientists—had vanished from the premises. The captain bore no blame. He had been punctual, made his rounds, and followed orders. But by delivering this particular nugget of bad news, he would be in prime position to receive his superior's full fury. A methodical man intent on his purpose, Colonel Zimmerman did not tolerate failure from his staff. Avoiding the disclosure seemed like the better alternative in the near term. However, delaying would aggravate the inevitable abuse.

      Sutherland straightened his uniform as he edged into the office. The cramped, dingy quarters amazed him anew each visit. "Sir? We have a problem. The inmates assigned to Project Vindictus are missing."

      Studying a printed report perched atop a calamity of open files, William Zimmerman shifted his ballpoint and clenched it in a death grip. "What? Who?"

      "Iggy and Sera. Their designated cell is unoccupied."

      The commanding officer angled his bulbous head as his bald scalp flushed. "Impossible. No one leaves my base without my permission."

      "With all due respect, sir, they're gone and no egress points have registered card access."

      "I don't have time for this nonsense. Do you hear an alarm?" Zimmerman threw the pen down and got to his feet. "If they had tried to escape, I would know, dammit!" He pounded his fists on the desk, and a pile of paper clips scattered.

      "Colonel, if you would just indulge me by reviewing the surveillance logs, I'll show you." The underling sat down at a terminal in the corner and began clacking at the keyboard. His boss strode behind him and hovered, snorting like a bull, but said nothing.

      The captain rewound the recording and hit play. In the foreground, he saw Iggy attired in her typical ensemble of tidy cardigan and pressed khakis. Her spiky wheat-colored hair skirted her ears. Leaning over the workbench, the doctor scribbled on a pad, her eyes narrowed in concentration. She checked her watch with cool deliberation and called to Sera. Unfortunately, the reel captured images only; the conversation was mute.

      Sutherland turned his attention to Sera. Her lithe form in the background reached up to high shelving, revealing a gap of flat midriff between her T-shirt and jeans. She pulled down a couple of parcels that appeared to be backpacks. His face spread into a grin as she approached the camera, scowling. Her features were strong, severe even, with a pointed nose, short black hair, and straight bangs, but she carried herself with a confident defiance that he found irresistible.

      The pair donned the backpacks and grabbed masks. Iggy seized the remote control barbell device before they inexplicably climbed into the Vindictus structure. After a brief pause, the fishbowl shuddered and the scene phased into white static. Seconds later, Sutherland's own unmistakable brawn entered, explored the room, and inspected the metallic globe.

      "Colonel, that Chamber is empty."

      "Absolutely not possible. Two explanations exist. Either they've gone and vaporized themselves by screwing up the Anti-Matter test, or they've altered this video and they're hiding."

      The captain stifled a comment. Even with his rudimentary understanding of the experiment, he recognized that if it had failed, no one would remain.

      "Knowing this duo, I'm betting on the latter." Zimmerman thrust his chin out. "They won't get away. Initiate a general alert."

      "Yes, sir!" Sutherland smacked a prominent red knob on the wall. Lights flashed as a klaxon sounded. Ahooga! Ahooga! He snatched the intercom microphone. "Attention all personnel. We have a code red situation. Two residents are currently unaccounted for. This is not a drill. All units report to your stations to conduct a section-by-section sweep of the facility and grounds. I repeat: We are in a code red situation. This is not a drill."

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Chapter Two

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

6:03 pm — EDT

      With sufficient height to land safely, Sera permitted herself to spread her arms and indulge in the thrill of soaring like an eagle. After the panic of being jolted awake while somersaulting through the air, she deserved a brief respite. Close call.

      She sucked in a lungful of clean atmosphere, drinking it in while resenting the foul stuff they inhaled on the ground. Looking down, she saw the tidal mud flat the locals euphemistically called the Meadowlands. What a joke. A field of rotting vegetation doubling as a garbage dump, the area generated a stench that penetrated their clothing as well as their nostrils. Coupled with the persistent pollution, she could practically taste it.

      Toward the east, Sera glared at the barbed wire surrounding the squat concrete blocks that composed the Research Installation. She pictured the tiny figures of Military Police swarming the compound, searching for her and Iggy. With a shoot to kill order, no doubt. But the scientists had outfoxed them.

      Fierce joy detonated within the thirty-two-year-old. She would never, ever regret the decision to escape confinement in the Gulag that robbed her of her free will and individuality, no matter what the cost. Prison life was tough, but life as an outlaw would be hazardous. Now, she commandeered her own destiny. There was nothing left to lose.

      In 1989, Sera's California home had engaged in a landmark event that became known as the Reagan Revolution. For a quarter of a century, basic human rights of Americans had been systematically trampled and eradicated. While the majority of voters seethed over the barrage of injustices, the bureaucracy used its sovereignty to manipulate outcomes at the polls.

      Fueled by indignation, inhabitants of the Golden State managed to nominate and elect a forward-thinking governor who, as a Republican, slipped beneath the watchful eye of Uncle Sam. Californians loved Ronald Reagan, especially Sera's parents. He would change the future, they said, and she believed them. A former B-movie star with little political experience, the actor's charisma rallied residents and galvanized them to secede from the nation.

      They almost succeeded.

      Aided by covert supporters in the military, the rebel leader organized mutinies at armed forces bases along the coast. He coordinated simultaneous demonstrations in the major cities—San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento, and San Francisco. On July Fourth of '89, the governor shut down state borders in preparation for the Independence Day uprising. Sera's mom and dad, both professors at Berkeley, gently explained their desire to fight for reforms to ensure a better tomorrow for their only child. Sera begged them to let her come, knowing they would not take risks if she were present. And, she wanted to help. They would not be swayed.

      Together with like-minded neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Banks locked arms and marched through Alamo Square Park on a hilltop in the City by the Bay. The Painted Ladies, colorful Victorian row houses, observed from across the street. At the same time, citizens stormed the Presidio, the fort at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

      Infuriated by the betrayal, President Oliver North ordered US troops airlifted into each of the traitorous cities to force the dissidents into submission. When marines began to beat back the protesters in San Francisco, the crowd surged. Sera's parents were among eighteen shot and killed.

      The men and women in uniform conquered California and oppressed its populace into compliance. An anonymous sniper assassinated Governor Reagan, although everyone recognized the administration's handiwork.

      Despite their devotion to their daughter and conviction for their cause, her mother and father's sacrifice failed to achieve liberty for their eight-year-old orphan. Sera gritted her teeth.

      If only she had been able to make a difference.

6:04 pm — EDT

      Sutherland leaned his back against the wall with arms folded as his superior finished scouring the lab in a futile hunt for clues. He had offered his assistance, only to be rebuffed. "I always knew Sera would find a way out of here one day. I mean, look at her, she's brilliant, resourceful . . ."

      Zimmerman whipped his head around. "Are you in any way implying she's smarter than me?"

      "No, sir!" The captain snapped to attention.

      Zimmerman frowned at him, as if sizing him up. "Nothing useful in here. Let's go."

      Sutherland followed him through the hallway. Of course the runaways had left no evidence as to their whereabouts; that had been his point. The men headed back to the colonel's office. The commanding officer started shoving papers across his desk, sending a half-drunk Styrofoam cup of coffee careening to the floor. The subordinate winced at the rank smell.

      Picking up a red folder marked Top Secret: Authorized Personnel Only, Zimmerman brandished it in Sutherland's face. "Project Vindictus is our single most crucial assignment. But I received a report today from the NASA review team that outlines how our physicists' progress has been less than satisfactory." His left eyelid twitched. "We have orders to produce a viable Anti-Matter warhead within two months. The government is counting on this weapon to turn the tide of the Stale War against the Russians. You know what's at stake. Iggy and Sera are the best Anti-Matter experts we've got, and their knowledge of the program alone makes them a high security threat. Since they reside in your section, I am holding you personally responsible for locating them and getting them back on the job."

      "Yes, sir. If they are hiding in this facility, they will be captured." Sutherland doubted it, but wanted to placate the man in charge. "Perhaps one of our civilian workers helped them to flee. I will conduct a full investigation of the surveillance tapes and interrogate the employees." He saluted and turned to the door.

      "Find them, Captain, or there'll be hell to pay."

      As Sutherland exited, his broad shoulders sagged.

Chapter Three

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

6:05 pm — EDT

      Jay Harding paced beside his blue Subaru station wagon on Paterson Plank Road in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Again he squinted at his watch through his round wireframes, and gazed skyward as the western sun descended toward twilight. He knew he stood at the correct coordinates, across the waterway separating Hudson County from Bergen.

      Hearing a rustle behind him, Jay jumped and turned. Ah. No need to be so high-strung. Stray trash skittered across the street in the cool, gusty breeze. He wiped his damp palms on his Levi's and ran his fingers through his unkempt brown hair. By acting as an accomplice to the convicts, he was literally risking his neck. If discovered, a lifetime sentence would be the minimum punishment, the death penalty more likely.

      After resisting the urge to check once more, Jay succumbed to temptation and glanced up. He was rewarded by the sight of two figures under white parachutes floating down over the fetid swamp. Finally. Relief flowed through the twenty-six-year-old industrial engineer.

      Employment as a project manager at the Secaucus Research Installation had allowed Jay to witness Sera and Iggy's imposed labor for the past twelve months. He shook his head. How naive he'd been in the beginning—spouting rhetoric and prattling on about patriotism while barely listening to the scientists. But over time, the job had proven to be a catalyst for change to his entire belief system. He learned first-hand how the government had betrayed his charges and manipulated their lives. Iggy's colorful stories about an early childhood spent in a free nation inspired him to think about the kind of existence citizens deserved. A life of choices and fair treatment. The way it was before the war.

      Fifty yards distant, Sera tumbled to the marshy ground, followed a minute later by Iggy. They ditched their parachutes in the tall weeds and labored to the station wagon, feet suctioning soggy earth with every step.

      "Did you, you know . . ." Jay hesitated ". . . purge the data files we talked about?"

      "Yes." Sera sighed. She grabbed the rear passenger door handle. "Come on. Let's go!"

      Iggy's eyes widened, and she lifted her fingers toward Sera in a concealed gesture. "Jay, we couldn't have done this without you. Please accept our deepest gratitude."

      "I wanted to help. The world, well, the world isn't the way it's supposed to be." He straightened his spine. "Both of you were wrongfully imprisoned in that lab. The hearings for your alleged crimes were crooked and the juries rigged. No one deserves to be locked up for advocating what is right."

      Sera nodded and opened the car door.

      "I mean, the military runs the Oval Office and Congress is for sale to defense contractors like Locklier and MacDowell-Douggan. My parents raised me to believe that this society is equitable and honorable, but that's a lie. They work at Locklier for crying out loud, one of the biggest weapons manufacturers in the US. I believed them when they said that nothing matters in this country but a strong offense to intimidate the enemy into surrender. They swore their efforts would bring peace."

      "Understandable." Iggy yanked open the front passenger door and climbed in.

      Jay observed them. "Oh, right, yes." He got in and started the ignition, then rested his forehead against the steering wheel. "I know what the consequences would be if we were captured. But this could be the most significant endeavor in the history of humankind."

      Sera rolled her eyes. "Since it's that important, maybe we should leave the scene of the crime."

      "Um, of course. I was just saying." Jay pressed the accelerator and they sped away.

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Chapter Four

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

8:00 pm — EDT

      The Soviet operative aimed his binoculars at the Secaucus Research Installation. Chaos reigned over the compound as Military Police combed the grounds with firearms drawn. Powerful searchlights swept through the dark night over the lawn, while guards shouted and rushed about. He chuckled. Typical American ineptitude. The scene hadn't changed for the past couple of hours, except that the sirens had ceased—a welcome reprieve. Evidently, an inmate had broken out of their allegedly secure empire.

      The spy had planned to wait until the evening shift change, but a better opportunity could not be manufactured. He deposited his field glasses into his nondescript Ford and grabbed a backpack from the passenger seat. Glancing down, he inspected his standard citizen work garb with satisfaction. In his home country, even civilian employees were required to wear uniforms. Here, his street clothes would blend in. He confidently began the short hike.

      The Russian had earned the right to his self-assuredness. When recruited to serve his motherland, he had felt honored. The Kremlin handpicked only the strongest, smartest, and bravest from among the faithful. After years of tenure, his unblemished record ranked him among the upper echelon of his comrades. At first, the privileges for himself, his wife, and his son seemed to outweigh the risks. They enjoyed fast cars, designer clothes, and a palatial home. His son attended an exclusive academy reserved for children of the elite. But being the best meant that each time he proved himself, the ante increased.

      However, through happenstance, this particular job had downgraded to one simpler than usual. With all personnel searching for escapees, they were focusing on anyone leaving the base rather than anyone entering. The infiltrator waved a fake badge at the gate and sauntered in, unquestioned.

8:05 pm — EDT

      Jay drove due west on Bridge Street through Lambertville, New Jersey, toward the Delaware River, the geographical dividing line between the Garden State and the neighboring Keystone State. He acknowledged his companions with a brief glance. "I've chosen this specific crossing into Pennsylvania because of its relatively short width and span, allowing only two lanes of traffic covering three-hundred yards of waterway. Therefore, as you know, that means fewer border patrols and you should easily be able to traverse underneath."

      In the backseat, Sera stiffened. Now what?

      Before Jay reached the New Hope Bridge, he turned right up North Union and parked in a side alley alongside a series of dilapidated houses. The depressed economy must have hit this town with malice. "I've brought the apparatus to suspend each of you beneath the bridge so you can scoot across." He turned off the car's headlamps and switched on the interior dome light.

      Sera and Iggy stared at each other.

      "Well, I adapted mountain climbing harnesses and ropes to end in clamps rather than grappling hooks so you can merely attach and re-attach to the steel girders to work your way across." He turned his head to one side and looked up. "Although in theory, you could probably just walk along the riverbed. The Delaware isn't deep in this region, and the recent drought conditions mean the water level couldn't be more than a few feet. Yes, yes, you could do that. But then, in the unlikely event there are scouts on the banks, you would be too visible. So this way is probably preferable. No, no, definitely preferable."

      "If you're done second-guessing, Jay"—Sera envisioned smacking him upside the head—"let's get this over with. Iggy, you ready?"

      She nodded, wondering why this challenge suddenly seemed more daunting than their prison break.

8:10 pm — EDT

      In the handicapped restroom stall at the Secaucus facility, the Russian disrobed an unconscious MP of a similar build and propped his underwear-clad body on the commode. As he dressed in the guard's uniform, the intruder tucked the inert man's key card into his breast pocket. He stuffed his own clothing into the knapsack and set out into the hallway.

      Using the stolen card, he entered the restricted area and scanned the perimeter offices, some ransacked, some intact. He furtively read each nameplate, looking for the man in charge. When intermittent army units marched past, the foreigner saluted in acknowledgement, face immobile. He finally zeroed in on the office of Colonel William Zimmerman. At first it appeared to be a ransacked room, but a second look revealed an inherent pigsty.

      The spy slipped into the vacant seat of command, unnoticed.

8:15 pm — EDT

      Sera goggled at the New Hope Bridge rising proudly on seven supports cemented with river stone—five in the water and one at each end on land. A series of six latticework canopies made of green steel covered its length, connecting each section one after the next like boxcars on a train. She observed a sentry parading back and forth perpendicular to the lanes at the nearest end, a machine gun slung on his back. What the hell was Jay thinking?

      As soon as the guard reached the far edge, Iggy crouched low. "This is it."

      The pair sneaked down to the shoreline wearing their cumbersome gear. To the requisite waist cinch and attached leg loops, Jay had added heavy straps. They crisscrossed over the shoulders and joined at the midriff to evenly distribute the climber's weight.

      Arriving at the first bridge support, they hoisted themselves up onto the ledge and paused, listening for activity above. A car passed overhead on the grated metal roadway, rumbling and shaking the bridge like an earthquake. Taking advantage of the noise, Sera donned work gloves, reached up and fastened first one, then the other clamp to the girder underneath. The mechanisms were tethered to a free-spinning ball joint on the belt, granting unfettered movement. Suspended, she began the monumental affair of crawling backward a few feet at a time by releasing one clamp and positioning it as far as possible past the other.

      On the Jersey side, Jay had reparked the Subaru in the lot at the Lambertville Inn, behind the former Pennsylvania Railroad station. With an unobstructed view, he watched their silhouettes make sluggish progress. The longer they spent exposed, the greater the danger. He perspired in spite of the chilly night air. To divert his attention, Jay mentally listed the names of the fifty states, in alphabetical order, with their capitals. He sighed. Too easy.

      Thirty minutes into the expedition, the restraints were digging into Sera's limbs. Her muscles ached from exertion and her legs began losing circulation. Fearing for her older companion, she hissed, "Great plan. Jay will pay for this one."

      Iggy balled her hand in a fist, demanding silence.

      Sera took this as a sign that Iggy was okay. When she finally reached the end, she pulled a laser pointer out of a zippered pocket and directed the beam across the river to Jay's car. She flashed it several times and witnessed his lights wink in confirmation. He would motor across and occupy the guards at the checkpoint as a diversion while they disengaged. Sera boldly swung the pointer to stick it back in her pocket, fumbled, and felt the device slip from her fingers. Splash! Both women froze as footsteps thudded across the bridge to investigate.

8:45 pm — EDT

      The Soviet spy tapped at Zimmerman's computer, completing the download of the Anti-Matter weapon information. The task had taken longer than anticipated. He'd had to hack through the elementary encryption and weed through innumerable files. Now finished, he ejected the compact data storage device, stashed it in his bag, and strode back through the passageway. The exercise had unfolded as fairly effortless, but it still constituted a risk. And for what purpose?

      The unending conflict between the world's two superpowers lacked logic. The crazy Americans instituted a strategy of Security through Supremacy. The Soviets matched their firepower and then exceeded it. Espionage blossomed into a huge enterprise, with each side needing to know what the enemy was constructing. The US built a bomb; the USSR stole the plans and built a bigger one. They sank a ship, we sank a ship. They destroyed a city, we destroyed a city. Where would it end? The operative felt increasingly impotent in this game of one-upmanship.

      Still wearing the pilfered uniform, he exited the complex. His son shouldn't have to grow up in the violent world that existed today.

8:50 pm — EDT

      Iggy held her breath as the patrolman shone his flashlight over the railing, sweeping it back and forth. Too agitated to even contemplate her emotions regarding Sera's carelessness, she simply waited. After a cursory and fruitless search, he switched the light off. She heard him mutter, "Stupid shad." He was referring to the seawater herring species that swam upstream in freshwater to spawn, similar to salmon. Of course, he was incorrect. As the fish mated in early spring, they were long gone by now.

      Dangling from the underbelly of the bridge, Iggy couldn't yet relax from relief. What a ridiculous scenario she portrayed. She wouldn't be in this predicament if the government allowed citizens to move freely between states. How had the situation deteriorated? When she was a child in the early 1960s, her family had taken a cross-country road trip. They cruised across the nation, sightseeing the mountains and farms of rural areas, as well as the skyscrapers and industries of the urban centers. No barriers had impeded their travels. Instead of checkpoints, each border boasted welcome signs. If only it could be so again.

Chapter Five

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

9:15 pm — EDT

      Sitting in a booth at the antiquated Logan Inn bar, Jay slurped a beer, willing the tension in his body to subside. Thank goodness his plan had succeeded. Granted, the excursion had proven more taxing and time-consuming than anticipated, but at least Iggy and Sera were safe. After navigating the border checkpoint on the bridge, he had proceeded to this tavern and lodge located on Main Street, a road running parallel to the Delaware River in New Hope. Fortunate to reserve two of the scant sixteen guest rooms, Jay had enjoyed an education on local lore from the proprietor.

      The oldest inn in town, the Logan was named after a Lenni-Lenape Indian chief regarded for his unusual camaraderie with Caucasian settlers. During his lifetime, the benevolent Native American developed a close kinship with James Logan, secretary to William Penn. The Quaker convert Penn had, of course, founded the Pennsylvania colony as a haven for those seeking religious freedom. According to legend, Chief Wingohocking abandoned his tribal name and adopted Secretary Logan's as a sign of admiration and respect. To pay him homage, the townspeople commissioned a metal cutout sculpture in his likeness. The ten-foot, painted sheet iron figure depicted a man in feathered headdress, nobly aiming an arrow. Displayed on a pole outside of the inn, the masterpiece had been a landmark and guardian of the township since 1828. Jay made a mental note to point it out to his companions when they arrived.

      He gazed around the dim interior—the authentic original structure of the dinky saloon—wondering about its appearance in its heyday. Suddenly, Iggy and Sera materialized through the smoky haze. They slid their disheveled forms into the booth.

      "How'd it go?" Jay avoided direct eye contact, feeling guilty about their ordeal.

      Sera glowered at him. "We're here, aren't we?"

      He declined comment and instead shoved a couple of menus at them. After a server took their order, Iggy cast about the room, seeking a diversion from the stilted silence. She indicated a grainy television behind Jay. "Look. They're reporting on the summit."

      Jay followed her line of sight behind him to the set he hadn't noticed previously. A perky blonde newscaster with a vapid smile spoke animatedly while gesturing to an inset map of the Russian capital. However, the volume was muted. He appealed to the barkeep, "Sir, can you please turn that up?" The scene switched to footage from earlier in the day showing the premier of the Soviet Union greeting Republican Vice President Jeb Bush for their historic summit in Minsk. The anchor gaily announced that the meeting had been planned for months as a first step in working towards an end to the Stale War between the dominant world powers.

      Iggy's mouth dropped in amazement. Did the young woman think it would actually happen?

      "They're talking about striking a peace accord while manufacturing Anti-Matter weapons back in Secaucus?" Sera shook her head. "The whole charade is ludicrous."

      "Every fledgling administration makes these same overtures. They do it as a public relations campaign to convince the voters that they aren't warmongers. But nothing ever changes." Iggy sighed. "Ever since the '64 Nuke War."

      Their meals were plunked down in front of them, and Jay wolfed down a few bites of his burger. "Well, I suppose it's really hard to get along with a country after they wipe out your major cities. Kind of makes you not want to play with them. I mean, where's the incentive?"

      "Yeah, well it's mutual. We destroyed their cities, too. And they never would have hit DC if we hadn't taken out Moscow first." Sera shrugged as she dug into her meal.

      "I was lucky enough to visit Washington DC as a child." Iggy's voice turned somber. "Before it was leveled. I remember a bustling metropolis with gleaming monuments and classic architecture. I stood on the Lincoln Memorial, looking up at the massive statue and marveling at how they carved it. Incredible." She focused on the far wall, reliving a scene from the distant past. "We toured all the important sites—the huge spike of the Washington Monument and its reflecting pool, the Capitol Building with its majestic dome and a million steps, the White House's towering columns and lush gardens. Even the Smithsonian museum resembled a fairytale castle. Now, it's just a wasteland of radioactive rubble. Tragic." Her vision alighted on her associates. "WB has none of the same character or charm. Frankly, it's seedy."

      "Well, that's precisely the point, isn't it?" Jay hit his stride on familiar ground. When the government had rebuilt the capital in Wilkes-Barre, they disallowed a viable target. Bunkers of steel-reinforced concrete were constructed and situated a distance apart. "The buildings are virtually indestructible. And why bother with memorials and monuments? You may as well paint a bulls-eye on them. Like the White House. The presidential residence is purported to be far underground, but it could be in another state entirely. Who knows?"

      The thought jarred him back to more tactical concerns. The military protected WB like a fortress within Pennsylvania. The perimeter had anti-ballistic missile defense systems programmed to blast anything in the no-fly zone. And the border checkpoints were heavily guarded. "What I do know is this. When we get to WB, we won't encounter any easy crossings like here in New Hope."

      "Easy?" Sera bridled and nearly choked on her food. "Sure it was easy for you. You drove across."

11:00 pm — EDT

      Later that night, Sera lay in the dark on a comforter folded on the floor, her irritation with Jay having abated. She rolled over in her blanket, trying to find a position conducive to rest. Although the cramped room held a queen-sized bed, she insisted that Iggy use it. Slumbering side by side with the more senior scientist would have felt awkward and somehow disrespectful. Besides, she preferred to sleep alone and hadn't even shared quarters since her days at the orphanage.

      Dammit. She hadn't meant to unleash those memories.

      Sera loathed chronicling her existence, but sometimes late at night the images crowded her brain. She often thought of her life as a series of chapters in a book. And in the midst of each one, she longed to reach the end, to open a fresh page that progressed to the next phase. Or better yet, to skip ahead to a more promising storyline.

      After her parents' deaths, she had suffered ten lonely years in a government school and boarding house. She was the smartest in her class, and pride pushed her to excel rather than surrender to her grief. Determined to attain independence, she played by the rules—behaved, completed her homework, and self-censored caustic comments. On only one occasion did a sarcastic retort bring her within a hair's-breadth of expulsion. Straight A grades and outstanding test scores eventually won her a university scholarship.

      College, however, merely provided a means to achieve her goals. She labored through, studying hard while supporting herself with various part-time jobs. This strategy seemed to work. She graduated to accept an internship with NASA, but the victory was fleeting.

      Sera thrived in the intellectual environment of the space program, despite its military leadership. And it could have led to a prosperous career. But her parental lineage stained her as politically unreliable, thus unemployable in a permanent position. Reduced to the private sector, she wound up at a technological innovation company called GenCorp.

      The firm engineered efficient, economical power sources for public consumption. Or so Sera believed. When she caught her superiors providing the data to a lieutenant, she discovered that the groundbreaking projects were being funneled to the armed forces. In the ensuing scuffle, she found her fist colliding with the officer's jaw in a swift punch. Sera grinned at the recollection.

      Her conviction for American Disobedience landed her a sentence in the Gulag.

      With that chapter now truncated, she eagerly anticipated a new direction for the narrative. But in order to move forward, she would be required to reopen a page from the past and reacquaint herself with an old friend.

      She plumped her pillow and tried to envision the story's end.

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Chapter Six

Thursday, September 19, 2013

9:15 am — EDT

      In the bright morning sunshine, Jay hummed a breezy tune as he navigated the station wagon west, away from the Delaware River.

      Sera wished he would stop. From the backseat, she glanced behind her at the New Hope Bridge, winced, and rubbed her day-after sore arms. "Hey, you know where you're going, right?"

      "I've got it." Riding shotgun, Iggy consulted a road atlas. "Head towards Doylestown. When you hit route 413, turn right until you pick up 611 north. Then it'll be local 412 all the way to Bethlehem."

      "Okay." Jay studied Sera in the rearview. "But are you sure we need to make this particular detour?"

      "Look, we need Frank Thomas." Sera was grateful he had stopped humming. "I've kept in touch with him and followed his career since I was booted from NASA. He's the best environmental space systems engineer in the country. He pioneered radically new water and oxygen recycling processes for the Sentinel Space Fort."

      Jay nodded, encouraging her to carry on.

      "He invented a way of harvesting all the water in an enclosed environment. That includes urine, washing run-off, and even humidity in the air. You know, humans expel a lot of moisture just by breathing. The continuous loop purifies the H2O and redirects it in two ways. Some is channeled for use as a liquid. The rest is split by electrolysis into oxygen and hydrogen. Astronauts breathe the O2, while the combustible H is vented out."

      "Brilliant. So why didn't NASA hang onto him?" Jay questioned.

      Iggy raised her eyebrows. "We'd all like to know that."

      "It's a mystery. He enjoyed a successful tenure. Promoted twice, presented with awards, that sort of thing. I interned for Frank in Houston, after I graduated college. Despite his genius, I found him approachable. A little high-strung, maybe, but practical. He tells you exactly what he thinks. A man with scruples, Frank drew a stark distinction between NASA's space exploration and its military tasks. He felt, like we all did, that they wasted valuable resources on offense and shortchanged the spend on science. And he always prioritized crew safety over mission objectives. Then a year ago he suddenly left and wound up in academia. He cited personal reasons, but said it with heavy irony. Something sinister must have happened, because he loved that job."

      "So why is Professor NASA going to help us?" Jay maintained a healthy skepticism for the stranger.

      "I'm trying to tell you that he has no love for the armed forces or the government. It's clear he harbors resentment. And his expertise is precisely—"

      "Shush." Iggy abruptly turned up the radio. "They're talking about the peace summit in Minsk."

      The male announcer continued in midsentence, ". . . preliminary reports indicate there are no survivors. Our correspondent is on the ground at the scene of this unfolding disaster. We go to him live where the time zone is seven hours ahead in the Russian capital."

      "Well, Bob, as you can imagine, it's pandemonium here. Witnesses to the horrific event claim that less than a minute after the Soviet premier's helicopter lifted off, an object that appeared to be a missile was launched. The projectile scored a direct hit on the transport, exploding it into a fiery ball that lit up the afternoon sky in a blaze of orange heat. Sadly, it is presumed that all on board perished in the inferno. The Communist leader and his entourage had been leaving the summit in high spirits following a promising meeting between the rival superpowers."

      "What is the speculation this tragedy will have on US — USSR relations?" The studio anchor volleyed the coverage back.

      "Any forward progress is clearly in jeopardy. The locals we have encountered are convinced that America is responsible for the carnage, and in fact have been openly hostile. The police are demanding that we vacate immediately."

      "And is there a perceived threat to our own VP?"

      "Vice President Bush left for the Minsk airport in a Secret Service-escorted motorcade over thirty minutes ago. Our sources reveal that he has boarded Air Force Two, and is currently en route back to WB."

      The initial newscaster voice interrupted. "We are receiving a bulletin over the wire. The White House Press Secretary has issued a statement emphatically denying any involvement in the incident."

      "I've heard enough." Iggy snapped off the volume.

      "Oh, this could be bad." Jay unconsciously rammed the gas pedal. "Very bad indeed. This catastrophe could ignite the planet into another world war. Even if the US isn't guilty of blowing up the premier—and I have no reason to think we aren't—the Soviets will retaliate. We can't afford to have that happen right now."

      "Cut it out." Sera clutched his shoulder in warning. "And slow down. If we get stopped for speeding, we're dead."

      "We must proceed as planned." Iggy spoke with quiet assurance. "We can't start questioning ourselves based on what might happen in the future. We need to concentrate on each hurdle as it comes."

      Jay eased up on the accelerator.

      "Besides"—Sera released her grip—"none of this will matter if we succeed in our mission."

Chapter Seven

Thursday, September 19, 2013

10:25 am — EDT

      Jay rolled the station wagon to a stop in front of the Lehigh University gatehouse. A burly guard barely fit inside the booth, and a pair of flimsy wooden arms formed a barrier across the road. A US college didn't require impenetrable security; visitors simply registered their official identification and license plate at check-in. Knowing that Sera had alerted Frank about their arrival, he handed over his card and tried to sound casual. "Jay Harding and associates. Here to see Professor Thomas."

      The uniformed man grunted in acknowledgement as he copied down the information and made a phone call. Then he exited to record the vehicle tag. "Professor Thomas is currently giving a lecture. Park in the lot and wait to be escorted."

      Jay nodded and drove to a lot at the foot of the hill.

      As they got out into the pleasant sixty-five-degree weather, Iggy curiously sniffed the sour odor of rotten eggs.

10:55 am — EDT

      Colonel Zimmerman sat in his untidy Secaucus sanctum, searching a vast government network for clues to the whereabouts of his two missing scientists. The Governet was an amazing resource for military personnel. With proper clearance, an officer could find out almost anything about a particular citizen: address, occupation, salary, purchases, affiliations, and movements through checkpoints.

      Zimmerman's logic told him the convicts had to have had help. No other explanation existed for their disappearance. He clicked through a list of all service members and civilians who had been on duty the previous day. Nothing irregular surfaced. He scratched his head, mulling that over. Tapping his pencil on the desk, he waited for inspiration. His slow synapses eventually burst forth with a new hunch. He called up a roster of employees not scheduled to work during the escape and pored over the records in alphabetical order. When he reached Harding, Jay, he saw that the young man was cleared for vacation in Florida. But what was this? A Delaware River crossing showed his car entering Pennsylvania yesterday. And thirty minutes ago he had registered as a guest at Lehigh University. Dammit! One of his staff had lied to him. Lied!

      The colonel jumped up and jogged out of his office, screaming for Captain Sutherland.

11:15 am — EDT

      Killing time next to the Subaru, Jay watched a man wearing a tan dress shirt and umber striped tie approach. A fringe of brown hair crowned his otherwise bald head. His face sported a close-cropped goatee and tortoise-shell bifocals.

      The professor had arrived.

      The forty-five-year-old educator greeted Sera with a warm expression and a hug. "Great to see you. And these must be your friends. Welcome."

      After brief introductions and handshakes all around, Frank led them through the main gate. Acting like a sightseeing guide, he related how Lehigh persisted as one of the few non-military schools in the nation. The learning institution had been established in 1865 by Asa Packer, an American businessman who pioneered railroad construction and participated in Pennsylvania politics. As they continued up University Drive, he pointed out that the campus lived on the side of South Mountain and their current location housed the most historic landmarks. He gestured to their left at Packer Memorial Church, named after the founder. They observed a massive nineteenth-century stone structure with stained-glass windows and a bell tower steeple. Wrought-iron lighting sconces framed the arched double doorway, crosses adorned the peaks, and gargoyles leered down from the roofs. Frank named two more buildings crafted in the collegiate gothic style—Linderman Library up ahead to the left, and the University Center uphill. He indicated the stone behemoths, each multileveled with lofty towers and intricate carvings.

      Jay was stunned. "I never imagined the grounds would be so beautiful. I mean, we drove through the shabbiness of downtown to get here, and most of the area has been ravaged by economics and pollution. But this fantastic architecture and the relative lack of fall-out or soot is just, well, amazing."

      "Luckily, the bombs landed far enough away that the impact was minimal. The worst we get here is the periodic sulfur stench from Beth Steel." Frank read their blank faces. "Sulfur is a by-product of Bethlehem Steel Corporation, which churns out durable metals for the war machine. Perhaps you can detect the smell of rotten eggs."

      Iggy recognized the stink now. She should have known.

      "Anyway, the administration spends truckloads of money on cleaning and maintenance. They need to keep the students, and by extension their parents, happy with the Lehigh experience. To accomplish that, they preserve the aesthetics. Most of our undergrads are offspring of rich moguls at companies like Locklier and MacDowell-Douggan. Only they can afford the staggering tuition."

      Jay glared at Sera.

      "Perhaps I should more formally introduce my colleagues." Sera grinned. "Dr. Iggy Mikos, renowned physicist, and Jay Harding, whose parents are rich moguls at Locklier."

      Frank cleared his throat. "My office is next to us in Packard Lab." He marched up the path and turned right to face the entrance. The edifice was built into the incline in a stepwise fashion so the top floor on the lower section sat below that of the upper section. "Notice I said Packard as in the automobile manufacturer, rather than Packer as in the father of these ivied halls. Alumnus James Ward Packard donated the funds for the premises in 1928.

      As Sera neared the stained-glass-inlaid doorways, she saw a pair of statues of stately gentlemen flanking the entrance. They peered down sternly, no doubt disapproving of these twenty-first-century ruffians.

      Inside, sunshine streaming in through the windows illuminated the expansive lobby. To the immediate right and left, staircases led downward. Surprisingly, an antique car in a glass enclosure stood dead center. They walked over to the main attraction, their footsteps echoing off the marble floor.

      Frank reverted back to the tour. "This horseless carriage is the first ever produced by the Packard Motor Company in 1899. It's a three-speed, chain-drive model powered by a twelve-horsepower engine, which reached dizzying speeds of up to thirty-five miles an hour." He smiled. "Nicknamed Old Number One, it was included by the benefactor along with his million-dollar gift."

      He continued to impart his vast repository of Lehigh trivia on the way to the fifth floor. Once inside his office, he invited them to sit while he settled into his leather wingback chair surrounded by walls of bookshelves.

      In addition to the expected scholarly stuff, Jay scrutinized remnants of Frank's prior employment. A detailed model of the Sentinel Space Fort and numerous NASA spaceships dangled from the ceiling like a child prodigy's mobile. A signed, framed picture of the Zeus 5 Astronauts hung on the wall.

      Frank abruptly switched gears, turning solemn. "Sera, what are you doing here? Last I heard, you were being detained in that forced labor research camp."

      "Yeah, I was there. Iggy and I got released yesterday." She looked him directly in the eyes.

      Iggy gazed calmly at the teacher, while Jay chose to study the ornate brass orrery on the credenza. It was the movable kind, where planets could be oriented around the sun in precise representations of the solar system.

      "Really," Frank replied evenly.

11:45 am — EDT

      Captain Sutherland gripped the passenger door handle as the government-issue Chevy Caprice rocketed west on Route 78 towards Pennsylvania. The colonel pinned the speedometer at eighty-five as he wove around slower cars. Sutherland remained speechless, while his superior muttered under his breath like a madman. The only audible words were the occasional obscenity thrown in for emphasis.

      Zimmerman eventually verbalized his tirade. "Those fugitives have made fools of us. They broke out, a guard was attacked, and my command is in chaos. We must capture them on this campus. You understand me?"

      "Yes, sir." Sutherland hesitated. "Wouldn't it be advisable to enlist the aid of local Bethlehem authorities? They could outnumber the felons and easily apprehend them. Without violence."

      "Absolutely not. This incident happened under my jurisdiction, and I will rectify it." Zimmerman freed his right hand from a death grip on the wheel and shook his fist. "I will not have this pockmark on my file. And you will ensure that we succeed. Because if we don't, it will be your ass that pays the consequences." Distracted, he swerved back and forth in the fast lane.

      "Yes, sir." At the moment, Sutherland feared for his life more than his job.

      "Do you have any idea how I ended up banished to that backwater research facility? I never intended to babysit snobby intellectuals at this juncture of my career. It was punishment."

      As the captain listened in astonishment, Zimmerman narrated an episode from his previous post, when he had been assigned to protect a prominent general. On the night in question, a suspected KGB marksman shot at General Strider through his dining room window. Fortunately, the bullet struck the frame, deflecting its path. However, wood fragments injured the general's forearm. The Russian got away. A convenient scapegoat, Zimmerman was blamed and reassigned to the Gulag.

      Avoiding eye contact, Sutherland picked at his fingernails.

      The colonel composed himself. "So, if these smug scientists think they can get past me, they can go straight to hell."

12:00 pm — EDT

      In Frank's office, Sera earnestly explained their status. "We're not criminals. You know my history and motivations. Iggy here is a premier Anti-Matter physicist. She and her husband discovered revolutionary ways to create AM."

      Frank regarded Iggy over the top of his glasses. "Yes, I've heard of you. I read your published papers. You were leading the team to create AM weapons at the Secaucus installation. Just what we need. Even more destructive firepower."

      "Not true." Iggy shook her head. "But we had to act like we were. You said it yourself—forced labor. In reality, we've been working on a project that could save humanity."

      He scoffed. "Oh, yeah? How do you plan to do that?"

      Iggy graciously deferred to her protege.

      Sera paused. "Frank, we're going to save Jackie K."

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