Higher Cause, Installment #4

Join the Laissez Faire Club and be among the first to grab a FREE copy of the complete e-book of Higher Cause, a serialized novel with timely sweeping themes, active free-thinking characters, conflicts affecting the world, spies, guns, explosions, new forms of energy, sinister conspiracies, government plots, nationalization, destruction, and hope.

Installments will be posted on Wednesdays.

For a full list of chapters, see the table of contents.

In the previous installments, Petur Bjarnasson successfully recruited three wealthy gentlemen — Joseph Onbacher, Thomas Standall, and Otto Wagner — to fund his project to avert global economic collapse. A group of men plan to block their efforts. Isaac Bonhoff recruits physicist Evan Harrigan to join the project. And DEA agent Jeff Baddori has fallen for Sophia, also a physicist, who specializes in fusion research and who is Petur’s sister.

The Second Year Begins

Chapter 8. Paradise Found (Year 2013)

Petur was flying again. It had been a full year since he had first met Joseph Onbacher, Thomas Standall, and Otto Wagner. Aided by virtually unlimited resources, the development of the Project’s physical infrastructure had proceeded more rapidly than he had imagined possible. But then it had to be this way. There was no time to spare. Every week, every day counted.

Each of the first three financiers had been completely committed to the idea of the Island. Most of the many financiers called it the “Island” now. Onbacher, Standall, and Wagner convinced several more wealthy acquaintances to commit personal financial resources to the Island. And Petur had been flying all over the world, working eighteen hours a day, to accomplish task after task.

During the past few years, he and Isaac had rounded up over one hundred leading researchers in various fields, all excited by the opportunity to play a role in mankind’s next great advance, and each bringing a team of the finest young minds to bear on the problems specific to the Island’s purpose. They had recruited the most successful entrepreneurs — entrepreneurs who created value by creating useful products that there were markets for. These entrepreneurs created wealth where there was none before. And by creating wealth, these men were on the front lines of the battle against poverty. With the funds now available, and construction of the infrastructure on the islands progressing, their unrestrained talents could, just possibly, dig the world out of the hole created by the profligate governments.

It had not been difficult to secure a long-term lease of the group of islands eight hundred kilometers due north of Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. They were owned by Mexico, entirely uninhabited, and had no notable natural resources. Mexico had no plans to use them for its military; World War II completely bypassed the area, and it was unlikely to enter into future conflicts. The islands were fairly useless for the Mexicans, but just right for the Island Project. No one had discovered them before the era of satellite mapping because they did not lie on the trade routes and so one ever passed that way before. A Mexican entrepreneur had rushed to claim the islands after they were identified on a satellite image, but he had died soon after and left the islands untouched and unnamed.

Petur never would have learned of the islands’ existence if Pitcairn Island were not so close. Pitcairn Island was home to the big man who knew the islands best and who had helped immensely with the Project. Petur had come across Jack Gaimey by chance.

Petur originally had picked Pitcairn itself as a possible location for his project primarily because of its geography. Although it was slightly small, it would have served most purposes. It was located along the Tropic of Capricorn and therefore surrounded by water at the appropriate temperature for the efficient functioning of the deep ocean thermal electric power plant that he planned to deploy.

Several years ago, he had flown to the Marquesas and boarded a large charter schooner for the long sail to Pitcairn. He had told himself it was just a vacation but he knew he would not have gone there just for fun. He had hoped he would like it, for it would be a week before the next ship would land on the tiny island. He had been told that people traveled to the island only by sea, and even that was not easy. Indeed, the schooner had been unable to approach close to the land; so local residents had had to row an aluminum longboat out to sea to pick up Petur.

Upon arrival, he had found nearly nothing — a small town, farmhouses, and fruit trees. Isaac, through some friends in the British Embassy, had arranged accommodations for Petur at Pitcairn’s inn, which was really just a house with extra rooms. The inn had had several guest bedrooms, lodgings for the innkeeper’s family, a dining room and bar area, and the living room, which the family and guests shared. The bar and dining area had been rustic — furnished in wood and rather dark, for the windows were too small and made of tinted glass. The short innkeeper and his wife had been friendly, and he had learned a great deal from them — most importantly that Pitcairn was not the place to establish his Island Project.

Pitcairn Island was not big, about six square kilometers, and it had perhaps seventy inhabitants — all with tan complexions. Almost all of them were descendants of the mutineers from the Bounty, who had mingled their genes with lovely Tahitian women. The island was overpopulated in the mid-nineteenth century and this led to a migration of all the inhabitants to an island near New Zealand, loaned to them by the British. In fact, the British forced the Bounty descendants off their home, supposedly for their own good. Some families subsequently returned to their home island, and it was those families and their descendants who nurtured the fruit trees.

The elderly innkeeper, Josiah Young, had informed Petur that the people of Pitcairn Island would not accept a mass influx of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, families, and support personnel. They did not want to become overpopulated again. He had patted him on the back, pried open his fingers, and slapped a huge mug of ale into his hand.

“My young friend, you should not attempt such an endeavor on a remote island.”

As he said those words, the door to the inn opened and a thunderous voice belted out, “Where is my beer, innkeeper? I have been here for almost three seconds and I am parched!” The accent was like the innkeeper’s, partly English, partly Australian, partly something else. Petur could only see the outline of the man in the brightly contrasting backlight of the inn’s open door. He was broad, tall, and wore a hat similar to those worn by Australians in the Outback. As he walked further into the relatively dark room, Petur could see sunlight reflect off the beads of perspiration that rolled down his arms.

The innkeeper laughed and said merrily, “Where have you been, Jack Gaimey? You’re nearly an hour past your appointed time. I would have been worried about you, but for that I never worry!”

“Ah, Josiah, it has been a day to remember!” said Jack Gaimey as one of the huge mugs was placed in his hand, this time a darker brew than Petur’s, with a significant head on it. “I have been to Paradise and back!” He sat down at the small bar nearby and brought the mug to his mouth, gulping colossal volumes of the brew. Petur could see him more clearly. He was large, well-tanned, muscular, and clean-shaven. He placed his hat on the chair beside him. This man was not a descendant of the British Bounty‘s crew — he was as dark- skinned as a man could be.

The innkeeper had begun filling another mug with beer.

The big man at the bar smiled widely and said, “Paradise is lovely today. Cool breeze, rolling hills, tall trees, gorgeous beaches, marvelous lagoons, and lovely women.” He sighed with exaggerated contentment, “Ah, Paradise!”

The innkeeper looked over at Petur and winked. “You can believe everything but that ‘lovely women’ bit. There are no women in Paradise.”

This seemed rather odd, so Petur had to ask. “How can there be no women in paradise? That’s a contradiction in terms.”

The sweaty muscular man looked over at him, as if noticing him for the first time, and said, “Perhaps it is not truly paradise then yet, mister, since it is shy a few X chromosomes. But those will come someday.”

Introductions followed, and Petur learned that Jack Gaimey was always called “Jack Gaimey,” never “Jack”, never “Mr. Gaimey.” Jack Gaimey wanted to know all about Iceland, so Petur complied. But it was not long before Petur was able to make a comparison between the incessant wetness of Iceland, and the regular rains of Pitcairn, thus channeling the conversation back to the large man’s pursuit of paradise. All three men had enjoyed several mugs of beer and were sitting around a pine table in front of the bar when Petur learned that Jack Gaimey’s “Paradise” consisted of a group of islands to the north. He went on to describe them: five small islands, of which the biggest was forty square kilometers, much larger than Pitcairn. The other four islands were nearby. All were uninhabited, and as far as Jack Gaimey knew they had never been tamed by man. He considered them his islands, despite the fact that they were Mexican possessions. He figured no one else seemed to have any use for them. So as long as nobody was looking, he would call them his own.

Petur was surprised to learn that Jack Gaimey was the local pilot. Petur clearly had been misinformed by the New Zealand office of the British Consular General (which oversaw the distant Pitcairn), for he had been told there was no aircraft access to the island. Jack Gaimey rebuffed the notion. With his special aircraft equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks, he shuttled people and goods amongst all the islands within a fifteen hundred kilometer radius. In fact, for the most part, his was the only means of rapid travel in this part of the world. His aircraft was a modified U.S. Marine Corps V-22 Osprey prototype, with dual propellers that swiveled to allow vertical takeoff and landing. The pilot had obtained this plane a few years earlier — intact and ready to fly — as surplus from the United States Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office, and news had not yet reached the outside world. For one thing, if some smart government officials in the U.S. figured out what Jack Gaimey had obtained because of the weaknesses of the U.S. military surplus sales system, they might attempt to get it back, even though he bought it legally. He had purchased it with its weapons intact and fully supplied with ammunition.

When demand for his services was low, the pilot would often fly up to Paradise, where he would set his Osprey down on a beach by the calm waters of the broad lagoon on the southwest corner of the largest island. He would swim among the coral and stroll through the lush vegetation, or perhaps just sit on a floating log and fish in the crystal clear aquamarine water. He could see the fish, tantalized by the bait on his line, thirty feet below.

Jack Gaimey had been exploring the islands for years, but there were yet many places he had not been. Certain parts of the two biggest islands were inaccessible because of the dense jungle overgrowth. Those areas might be navigable with heavy machinery clearing the way, but it was impassable for one man with just a machete. He had not even bothered to try. He could fly over the tops of the extinct volcanic peaks and see everything that he wished, anyway.

Jack Gaimey had regaled Petur with nearly endless descriptions of his beautiful islands. And Petur had hired him to take him there. In this manner Petur had found the Island Project’s home several years ago.

Petur turned his mind to the present and peered forward at the big pilot handling the controls of the sleek nine-passenger Bell-Boeing Tiltrotor — the commercial version of the V-22 Osprey. This was a company craft — owned by the Island Corporation. Although previously hangared in the Marquesas, its permanent home was changing during this flight. From now on it would live on the biggest of the five islands, which was now known as Paradise 1.

Jack Gaimey turned back toward Petur and pointed down through the window. Petur had not been to the island in months, and he was eager to see for himself the progress he had heard so much about. Most of the family housing was completed, as were major portions of the various research facilities requested and designed by each of the scientists who had joined the team. He mashed his face against the side window to get a better view down and in front of the plane. The islands were scattered ahead of them — bright splotches of green surrounded by white and pink rings, all swimming in the calm azure waters of the tropical ocean. They approached surprisingly fast.

The plane descended and began a gentle circle around Paradise 1, providing a glorious view to the passengers. Petur smiled toward Joseph Onbacher, who sat in the seat beside him. Onbacher had just now awoken, and was excited — but Petur knew that exhaustion prevented him from adequately displaying his giddiness. He did not travel much anymore, and certainly not on such long trips. It had been almost thirty hours since he had left Washington National — almost the entire time spent in a variety of aircraft. He may have been excited to see the island from above, but judging from the frequency with which he squirmed in his seat, he was even more eager to land and find a bathroom.

The airstrip had been completed several months earlier. Large enough to land a large passenger jet, its primary purpose thus far was receiving the propeller-driven cargo planes bought from the U.S. military, which carried many of the supplies required for construction of the extensive facilities. Much of the heavier material was brought in by ship and received by the pier in the lagoon on the southwestern corner of the island. There had been no need for dredging, for the natural channel out of the lagoon was deep and wide.

Petur was struck by the extent of the progress visible from the air. The large central academic facility could be seen rising through the tops of the trees about half a kilometer from the pier, with the center of the airstrip another kilometer further inland. To the north, south, and west of that large central construct, and connected by a series of walking paths, were the dozen buildings comprising the ancillary facilities. Further out were more than three hundred small clearings in the forest, many just barely visible. Within each was a separate house. There were several larger areas, treeless from the start, which had been, or were being, modified into playgrounds, athletic fields, and picnic areas. The well-worn dirt roads showed clearly that construction continued. The pace had been remarkable, in large part because of the skill of the foreman of the job — Otto Wagner’s executive facilities director, on a two-year-long sabbatical from his responsibilities in Germany.

Soon they were past the island, heading towards Paradise 5, which lay some five kilometers due west of Paradise 1. To the south lay three other islands. Paradise 2 stood high, with tall cliffs on all sides. The other two were smaller, appeared softer, and were surrounded by gentle beaches. Paradise 5 was Jack Gaimey’s least favorite island, for it was small, flat, barren, and ugly. It was an atoll, like Paradise 1, but compared to its lushly forested siblings it was a lifeless desert.

The pilot dropped the Tiltrotor to within thirty meters of the island’s rough ground. The tallest point on this island was just over twenty meters high. It was the smallest of the island group, as well as the shortest; not much more than a dirt-covered rock. It was a perfect place to set aside for the more destructive experiments that the scientists might devise.

Paradise 5’s lack of life was a mystery. It seemed to have had the same geologic origins as the other islands in the group — all born in a cauldron of fire emanating from a deep burr-hole in the Earth’s mantle, over which gradually slid the enormous slab of crust that was their foundation. It was reasonably close to the other islands, all of which had ample vegetation, and surrounded by the same pink beaches. There was just no vegetation. None at all.

A few stone throws to the west of Paradise 5, the water changed color suddenly — from a crystal-clear, glowing aquamarine, to dark green-black. The expanse reached out to the western horizon. Onbacher pointed down and called up to the pilot.

“Why the sudden change in the water?”

Jack Gaimey put his right hand up in the air, diagramming the topography of the undersea terrain below them. He indicated a sudden, severe drop-off at the place where the dark water began. “The depth drops from less than thirty meters to more than two thousand within a distance shorter than my grandmother could throw a stone. Some of Wagner’s German engineers discovered it when they came out to survey this island. I was surprised myself. I must say that has to be the biggest cliff on Earth!”

The group of islands had long ago moved away from their ancestral burr-hole, and at the surface little would remind anyone of their fiery genesis. But the evidence was there for anyone who might look deep down in the waters beneath. Far below and invisible from the surface, steaming plumes of jet-black sulfur compounds poured through funnels that seemed to grow as mushroom stalks out of the very narrow crust of the oceanic tectonic plate. Surrounding the funnels lived a menagerie of strange creatures that passed their time in the utter darkness of the depths. A dense growth of algae thickened the surrounding waters with a mass of life, unbeholden to the shining light of the sun whose beams never penetrated to these depths. Sulfur was their diet. Giant tubeworms, blind fish, albino crustaceans, and thousands of other fantastic creatures fed, in turn, on the algae and the higher levels of the food chain. Separated forever from the surface by a massive intervening layer of cold water, it was as if these strange creatures evolved on another planet.

Petur said, “That is one of the vital components of this place, Joseph. The water temperature gradients here will provide the primary source of our electric power.”

“Is this where the OTEC is to be positioned?” asked Onbacher.

“Not right here. We need it closer to the main island for now. This same drop-off extends southeastward past Paradise 3, nearly as close in to the shore as here. It’s there that we plan to put the OTEC.”

“I have yet to figure out how this OTEC thing works,” said Onbacher. “I just haven’t had the time to look into it. I must really trust you, to be putting all this money into something that I know absolutely nothing about.”

Petur replied, “You had the vision to support it, Joseph. The rest is in the hands of the engineers. The OTEC is just a simple source of electricity. I will go over it more when we land. Believe me, I have lots of good diagrams I can use to show you.” He patted his lightweight laptop computer, nestled snugly between his feet.

“Why does that not surprise me?”

The airplane had turned again and was now heading east, back toward the big island and the airstrip. Jack Gaimey steered the aircraft low over the runway, which was still under construction, and then out toward the eastern portion of Paradise 1. There was no tower to contact for permission to land, so the overfly was the agreed-upon method to assure that the runway and helipad were clear. He gently turned around, returned to the well-marked pad at the edge of the airstrip, and efficiently manipulated the tender controls that adjusted the propellers to the vertical. The plane seemed to rock like an infant in a baby swing as it settled into a hover and then gently nestled down on the tarmac. They taxied into a nearby hangar and once inside, Jack Gaimey shut down the engines. The sudden silence came as an unexpected and most welcome reward to the passengers, who had been exposed to the constant decibels of air travel for over a day.

Petur unlatched the door, pushed it open with his foot, and climbed out into the hot and stifling air inside the metal building. The place was thick with the exhaust from the engines. Onbacher had slipped from the rear of the plane and out the back of the giant aluminum shed almost before the rotors had stopped spinning. Petur was pleased that the elder man’s bladder would no longer be hindering his pleasure during his initial moments on the island.

Jack Gaimey had pulled the suitcases out of the Tiltrotor’s boot, and now silently drove up alongside them in a battery-powered golf cart. “Climb in, I can get you to your quarters within four minutes.”

But Onbacher shook his head, saying, “I think I need to walk, if you don’t mind.”

“Good idea,” said the pilot. “It’s down the road there — you will see a sign for ‘Guest House.’ They’ll be expecting you. Me, I have to head back out in a couple of hours. Promised I would visit my friends on Pitcairn.”

“You get around, don’t you?”

“I try!” Then Jack Gaimey pressed the accelerator and pointed the cart down the road. He was around a corner and out of sight in seconds.

Petur and Onbacher walked alongside the airstrip, turning left down a wide road. It was one of the few paved roads on the island, and clearly one of the most traveled. Tall trees with bare trunks and broad palm fronds lined the route. A look deeper into the forest further in from the road revealed a significantly less tamed region of thick and wildly overgrown underbrush, each plant vying desperately in a constant and selfish fight to claim one small bit of sunlight.

The sun was warm, but the cool breeze from the sea had no difficulty in reaching the two men, even as far inland as they were. It was nearly a perfect temperature for the brief walk to their quarters.

“Well, this is exciting, isn’t it?” Onbacher stated. “I vividly remember my first impression of you standing at my door in Alexandria. You seemed so young to me. Full of vim and vigor. I thought then that you were worth the risk. It is hard to believe that all this has actually begun.”

“This is the easy part, Joseph. Building houses and laboratories and recreation facilities on a remote island is an exercise in management — that’s all. The real beginning is when we get the scientists and entrepreneurs to actually come up with something that can help us. Until then, your money is not generating any real return of any kind. But, there are so many encouraging projects planned that you would think one would come through for us. We only need one big hit for things to start rolling.”

Onbacher chuckled. “One big hit will be a major accomplishment though, given the level you are thinking of. You are talking about a big hit that can could potentially change the world.”

Petur kicked a small round rock forward down the road. “Yes, that’s right. Actually, as you know, the hit we are looking for will have to change the world. Fortunately we have the people and the resources and the motivation, and we are creating the right environment every day.”

“Who is working on the most likely projects, would you say?”

The rock he had kicked was slightly off to the side of the road. Petur angled over to kick it again. It was as if they were having a conversation about collecting baseball cards.

“You know I cannot answer that. I only have my own insights. And it is the spontaneous thinking of many people, alone or freely interacting, that determines the best course. But if you want my admittedly biased opinions, you can have ’em. Most importantly, perhaps, is my sister’s nuclear fusion work. And Evan Harrigan is at the point of a breakthrough in finding the particle he has been seeking, which can distort the geometry of space. Isaac thinks that Harrigan has a chance of making a key technological breakthrough. Says it will be like harnessing the power of magic. Then, of course we have the OTEC under construction. When that starts pumping out oodles of electricity, it too will be an important contribution, although perhaps not the big hit we really need. Then there are some projects possibly never presented to you involving laser power transfer, force field creation, and several others. Each, if successful, could change the way the world operates, and create the vast new wealth that is needed to avoid the impending collapse.”

Onbacher sighed, saying, “I hope I have invested in the right projects.”

Shuffling his feet, Petur lined up his right toe to kick the round stone once again and commented, “You have been immensely valuable, as you know full well. Soon it will be time for you to reap the rewards of what you have sown.”

“When will people start arriving?”

“Next week. They start arriving next week. Joseph, it’s going to begin soon.”

Several dirt driveways, each leading to a house, branched off from the road. The houses were completed, but the landscaping had not yet started. The supporting infrastructure of fiber optics and pneumatic tubes was still under construction. This infrastructure would facilitate communication between the homes and the worksites. Scientists could do much scientific work from their homes if the communication pipelines were wide enough. These pipelines would also connect the island with the rest of the world. It was vital to the Island Project because many more individuals would work off the island than on it.

They approached the Guest House — large, attractive, and Victorian in design, like a Welsh inn. The scientists would have even more amenities on this remote island than they were accustomed to at home.

They walked up the staircase and crossed the expansive verandah to the entrance. Petur glanced over his shoulder as he opened the screen doors for Onbacher. The view of the lagoon struck him. One could see everything on the bottom of the sea through the azure water. The pier was busy with a cargo ship landing.

Inside, it was cool and comfortable. The manager of the inn, a restaurateur who Petur met in San Francisco years earlier, had volunteered to join the Island Project if it ever got off the ground. When it did, Petur offered him a position. Now he greeted the two men enthusiastically.

“It is good to see you, Gustaf,” said Petur. “Have you settled in well?”

“Wonderfully, Mr. Bjarnasson. This is truly Paradise. It is like a dream come true, you know.” Gustaf beamed from ear to ear, evidently as happy as could be. He seemed especially excited now that Petur and Onbacher would be staying at his inn.

Gustaf had them sign the guest book, which Petur noticed had entries from many earlier visitors — architects, designers, engineers, pilots, captains, and others. Another hotel facility near the pier accomodated visitors who wanted to save money. It too was very nice, Petur had heard. Many regular and visiting construction workers stayed at that facility, at the request of the cost-conscious corporations for which they worked. This island was not designed as a utopian socialist paradise. People would pay for their own expenses here. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Petur presented the desk attendant with his Island Bank card, which was perhaps the most common way that residents tracked and exchanged money when they didn’t want to carry hard currency around. Gustaf then guided the two men to their respective rooms, where each found their luggage waiting. The rooms were large and comfortable, well-appointed, and pristine. Petur’s room was directly above the lobby, with the same view of the lagoon as the verandah. Onbacher’s accommodations were down the hall, on a corner, overlooking both the lagoon and the large central academic structure, which the construction workers called Science Hall.

Petur was eager to go out and explore, and examine each of the new buildings. He planned to save Science Hall for last, for it was the core, the physical structure that would be central to the Island’s purpose. But the tour would have to wait, for he had promised Joseph he would postpone it until after the older man had adequately rested from the long flight. It would soon be dark, though, and the tour would not take place until tomorrow.

That evening, Joseph and Petur had a quiet dinner at the inn’s fine, quaint restaurant. Petur was amused that a building only a few months old could have a “quaint" restaurant within it. But the architects were good — very good.

Their dinner, created by a chef who had come with Gustaf from San Francisco, was magnificent and substantial. The bill for the dining was likewise substantial. The dinner was well worth the six pre-1965 silver U.S. quarters he paid. But because these quarters had kept their value against inflation because they were made of silver, they worth much more than their face value. These coins were just one of the many currencies people accepted on the Island. A few would even accept paper currency from the nations of the world, but the paper currency wouldn’t buy very much and was always quickly sent back to its country of origin to trade for gold or silver or some other needed commodity.

After dinner, Onbacher retired to recuperate from the flight. Petur, painfully abiding by his promise to postpone the tour, put a chair from the verandah up on his shoulder and carried it down to the flat area in front of the inn — a flat area that would one day be an expansive grassy lawn. He sat back in the chair and stared at the night sky.

As he gazed, his ability to perceive the dimmer stars slowly improved. The number of lights in the sky gradually increased from a few hundred to many thousands. The Milky Way revealed itself as a prominent band of white, so congested with stars that it almost choked the sky. Petur marveled at the vastness of the universe, as he had so many times in his life.

He imagined an astronomer in a distant galaxy with an infinitely powerful telescope. The astronomer might randomly pick out the Milky Way from the thousands of galaxies in its neighborhood. Focusing in on this spiral galaxy, he would search for stars with planets encircling them. There were millions to choose from, densely packed at the center, spread more thinly at the periphery. It would take eons just to locate the planet Earth. But after he did, he would focus down through the atmosphere of the shining blue planet, seeing continents and oceans. More finely tuning this extraordinary telescope, he would scan the land areas.

If, by some strange wonder of statistics and probabilities, he searched at just the right time — not too early, not too late — he would find evidence of civilization — burgeoning cities, bustling with human activity, creating faint glowing lights on the planet’s surface. Continuing his search, he would scan the oceans, identifying by sheer luck a tiny island in the middle of the largest ocean on the planet. Concentrating his efforts there, he would see individual structures, seemingly under construction. From among the six billion people on the planet, he would choose to view a single man, lying on a reclining chair on the grass outside an inn, staring upward toward the heavens and toward him. Using the finest calibration equipment available, the astronomer would magnify the image of the man’s face gazing back at him. It was a handsome face, with prominent and strong bones, capped with bright blond hair. The eyes had a color similar to the planet itself, a shimmering blue.

Petur looked upward at the night sky and winked one of his blue eyes at the distant astronomer.

Join the Club

“Bjarnasson and Onbacher are in the Paradise Islands.” The leader stated plainly. There was silence from the others. Seven oranges lay in the bowl in the center of the table. Each person stared at the bowl. This sort of news no longer astounded anybody. The frame of reference of the seven men around the table had changed greatly in the last nine months. No longer could they sit back and observe. They had gone from a defensive posture to a strongly offensive one. Every day there was something to be done.

The youngest and most impatient of the group spoke first. “And just what are we going to do now?”

The man directly opposite had a shaggy beard, just beginning to gray. He replied. “We are working hard on this. All is going according to plan.”

“According to plan? I don’t believe so. Not at all.” The young man shook his head assertively. “You — we — have made plans, yes. But each is risky, each relies on too many variables. What if they fail?”

There was no answer. So he continued.

“We are in the process of overthrowing a government. This is no small matter. Do you think such a thing is any more ethical or moral than murder? I say again that we should have killed them both, long ago.”

The leader interrupted. “Yes, perhaps it would have been best. But once we march down that road, our noble purpose loses it nobility. We become evil. Our job is not to destroy, but to protect humanity.”

The young man said quickly, “But we are failing to protect. Onbacher is on Paradise 1. Hundreds of people are on their way. How long do you think it will be until someone finds it? How long?”

“Why are you so certain it will ever be found?”

“Sheer numbers,” the solemn man across from the leader interjected. “It will happen accidentally.”

The leader said hopefully, “It will take long enough for such an accident to happen. We can proceed with our plans. Bjarnasson and his group will be out of the Pacific within two years.”

“That could be too long. Much too long.”

There was silence from the rest of the table, each man perhaps contemplating the future. After several moments, the leader spoke again. “Murder. Assassination. Would it have been right to kill Hitler before he began exterminating the Jews? How about Stalin? How do we define right and wrong? Gentlemen, these issues are addressed in our religion. As the situation worsens and the risk heightens, will we as a group be able to maintain our code?”

“We few men have an awesome responsibility.” It was the old man talking. He had been quiet until now. “We have sacrificed much in order to do our duty. Money, certainly. Safety, freedom, society, choice, the luxuries of modern life. Yes, these too. In some cases,” he looked around the room, “we have sacrificed our marriages. None of us chose to be here. This was thrust upon us. The question has been raised again, should we not just murder these two men? As our situation gets more desperate, that question will occur again and again, each time with more urgency. We need to step back now. Each of us needs to go home. Search our souls. Is it our duty to murder innocent men?”

The leader spoke, “I recommend that we reconvene tomorrow evening, after we have each thought about this. Let’s decide the fate of these men, once and for all, tomorrow night.”

The others nodded in agreement.

The old man showed the others out and then went walking in the windy night. It was cold and damp, as it so often was. “Tomorrow night,” he muttered to himself, “we decide the fate of our souls.”

Chapter 9. Exploring Paradise

Petur had fallen asleep on that reclining chair in front of the inn and dreamed of the stunning brunette with luxurious legs. Although he couldn’t see her face, he could tell she was laughing at him. He did not know why she was laughing, and it gave him the feeling that something was amiss. He awoke and staggered in to his room and the comfort of clean sheets on a firm mattress.

The next morning came soon. A loud knocking on his door pulled him to the surface from a deep and black sleep. Petur stretched the night’s stiffness away. The knocking continued. He glanced at the digital clock, glowing red above the video monitor. It was already 9:30. He shook his head and opened the door. Joseph was outside, a broad smile on his face, dressed in a khaki summer safari suit and a hat. It was obvious he had recovered from the arduous flight and was eager to begin the explorations.

“Petur, it is time to start the day! I am an old man, with little time left. Breakfast is on the table, let’s get a move on!”

Petur nodded approval, and Onbacher let him have a few minutes to wake up. A warm shower helped him to arouse completely. He got dressed and joined his elder companion for a superb breakfast. Then they were off to explore.

Several electric golf carts were parked in front of the inn, “Guest House” emblazoned on their sides. The two men climbed into the nearest four-person cart, Petur swiped his Island Bank card through the reader — electronically transferring twenty milligrams of his gold stashed in the Bank vaults to the owner of the cart, and headed down the road toward the pier. Along the way were several branching roads, all as-yet unpaved, which led to housing units and various facilities buildings, parks, playgrounds, and the small school building still under construction. They passed the road leading to Science Hall, which Petur was eager to tour most of all.

It was only a quick trip down to the head of the pier, where they intended to meet their tour guide. Petur pulled the cart alongside a pile of scrap lumber and climbed out. A ship was alongside, with men busily working to offload her. A tall man with black hair and deeply tanned skin stood at the bottom of the gangplank, smoking a cigarette. He turned away from Petur to look out over the lagoon. Petur noticed him only peripherally.

Petur himself rotated in a full circle, taking in the scenery. Straight out from the sizable pier lay the channel to the ocean. To its right, to the northwest, was a thin and short rim of natural sandy breakwater that lay on top of an ancient coral reef. Moving his gaze more to the north, Petur could see the lagoon perimeter become wider and higher, increasing in size and in quantity of vegetation. Continuing to rotate, he saw the land several kilometers beyond the airstrip rise to a sharp volcanic peak, the top of which was masked by layers of mist. Between him and the mountain, he could see Science Hall protruding high above the trees. To the east and south of the mountain peak, and all the way to the open ocean, was acre after acre of dense jungle growth. There was no evidence that anyone had attempted to traverse that area yet. But there was a narrow dirt road which skirted the eastern rim of the lagoon and curved further eastward on the outskirts of the dense jungle, heading toward the ocean. He had no idea how far that road went — perhaps around the whole island. Finally he completed his rotation, again passing his eyes over a sandy low-lying breakwater — this one lying to the southeast of the lagoon entrance, symmetric to the other side.

Two men at the far end of the pier were walking toward them, smiling. One gestured in a quick welcoming wave.

“I have been eagerly awaiting your arrival, gentlemen,” said the larger man who wore a clean short- sleeved shirt and a tie. He had a thick German accent and a shaven head and was built of pure muscle. “Welcome! Mr. Bjarnasson, I understand that you are staying for good this time. Excellent.”

Petur introduced him. “Joseph, this is Heinrich Poll. He is Otto Wagner’s second-in-command, kindly on loan to us. Heinrich — Joseph Onbacher.” The two men exchanged firm handshakes and pleasantries.

“And this is Tim Bellamy, a former member of the American Merchant Marine, and now the lagoon pilot.” Petur introduced the man whose job it was to guide the great vessels in and out of the narrow channel. He was ultimately responsible for the safe passage of any ship arriving at the pier. He had long blond hair, light eyes, and a dark tan.

“Heinrich, you have done amazing things!” said Petur, augmenting the comment with a firm slap on the German’s back. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of work being accomplished this fast and expertly. How have you done it?”

“German efficiency, Mr. Bjarnasson.” He laughed. “Actually I was not expecting it to be this way. I was anticipating delays in obtaining supplies, shortages of workers and equipment, lack of power, and bad weather. But luck has been on our side.” The German’s command of English was outstanding, though his accent was deep.

“Well, it is due in no small part to your efforts, I hear,” interceded Onbacher. “Thank you very much. I hope we are paying you well!”

“Mr. Wagner pays me well, I assure you.”

Heinrich turned, laid a gentle hand on each man’s shoulder, and said quietly, “Things are well under control here, are they not Tim?” nodding to the lagoon pilot. Then he turned to Petur and Onbacher, “Allow me to give you the grand tour!”

Despite the weight of three passengers, the cart easily climbed the long paved road that they had come down earlier. The high tree branches grew out across the road here and soon obstructed their view of the quickly receding lagoon behind them. Heinrich took them up the long hill to the airstrip. Jack Gaimey’s Tiltrotor was out on the tarmac, already back from its quick visit to Pitcairn, far to the south. Just beyond the strip, the road became dirt again, and serpentine, as it wound its way up the increasing incline of the volcanic peak. They had moved partway around the mountain and were on its northern slope. There was more wind up here, and the breeze was cool enough that Joseph buttoned up his collar on his safari shirt.

They were quite high now, and had a spectacular panorama of the Pacific Ocean. Not far away, he could see the low brown shape of Paradise 5. Closer in, the implacable ocean waves, unhindered by the sandy breakwater that rimmed the lagoon, crashed earnestly into the obstinate rocky cliffs that forged the northern base of the mountain.

Around a sharp bend in the tree-lined road, a clearing appeared. Within it lay the telecommunications station. Still in its infancy, the facility was already well-equipped. A substantial satellite dish dominated the area, casting an oval shadow upon the structures that lay below it. Several smaller satellite receiver and transmitter dishes lay along the periphery of the great shadow cast by the primary dish array. The overall appearance seemed appropriate for a science fiction movie thriller. The cart pulled up alongside the base of the big dish and the men climbed out.

While the three men walked around the colossal array of antennae, Heinrich received a call on his pocket satellite phone. The brief conversation seemed to end well, as he continued on a relaxed stroll.

Petur pointed to the enormous dish above their heads. “Orbiting directly above our heads is the Island Project’s very own communications satellite. Heinrich just received a call on his personal phone. His phone sends and receives signals directly to and from that satellite. That dish provides us with practically unlimited bandwidth to the rest of the planet. We are setting up a cellular system here next.”

Onbacher asked. “How about that monstrosity there?” indicating the white domed cylinder.

“Inside there will be a five-meter reflecting telescope. Although we’re not particularly high in the atmosphere here, the air is so clear and the artificial light so low that this turns out to be a reasonably good site for an observatory.”

“If we are aiming for the stars, it is good that we can see them clearly,” Onbacher said.

“And it will provide us value someday, Joseph.” Petur was astounded by this man’s eagerness to invest and trust in Petur. Likewise, Otto Wagner seemed a limitless source of support. Although he continued managing his corporation and was not planning on spending much time on the island, he had talked up the Island Project with the best and brightest of his employees and had convinced several to join the project; Heinrich Poll, for example. Otto was in touch several times a week by videophone. Thomas Standall was recovering the knowledge of medicine that he had forgotten while tied up in business, eagerly awaiting his move to the Island.

Joseph Onbacher had already been retired for some time, and had turned his full attention to the Island Project. His greatest contribution, other than his fortune, was his extensive love for and knowledge of history. Even projects as noble as this one had failed frequently over the several millennia of recorded human history. This might not be an exception if they did not learn lessons from the past.

This was Onbacher’s first visit to the islands, and actually only Petur’s fourth, but this time Petur was staying. Onbacher had been looking forward to this for months, but he would not be staying. Onbacher had a large extended family, all of which loved him dearly. His wife was long deceased, but he had several daughters and a son. There were also five small grandchildren. Petur suspected that it was his concern for his grandchildren that prompted Onbacher’s earnest and vigorous support for the Island Project. It was for the children that all this gargantuan effort had been initiated.

Petur did not know the other financiers so well, although he had met all but one. One financier, a woman whom Petur had only talked with on the phone, was mysterious. It made him uncomfortable, but she had insisted that she was to remain anonymous. He had sent her a copy of his recruiting presentation, and had been keeping her well-informed of the progress on the Island. She in turn had provided millions of dollars, obtained via an account in a bank in Grand Cayman. Petur had been unable to ascertain how she had come to hear about the Project, but enough wealthy folk had been approached that it was not a big surprise that word would get out.

The additional investors included the founder of an enormous American computer peripheral manufacturing corporation, a sheik from Saudi Arabia, a doctor who ran a construction company in Malaysia, and the Chairman of the Board of a Japanese automobile conglomerate. There were fourteen investors, now — although some had timidly committed only a small percentage of their resources thus far.

The financiers had all met together only once, six months earlier, just as the pace of construction on Paradise 1 had increased drastically. Everyone except the unknown woman gathered at the Hotel Washington, two blocks from the White House. Petur and Isaac were there, as were Heinrich Poll and several of the leading scientists. Petur had become a master at creating impressive presentations, and this was no exception. It had been a particularly easy presentation, Petur recalled, because the subject matter spoke for itself — everything was going smoothly, in a timely fashion, and there had been no serious hitches. Several of the financiers had never met, but by the end of the weekend had become teammates, everyone taking the same possibly insane gamble.

Obtaining the money had been his greatest impediment. With that behind him, he could now rest comfortably in his faith that the incredible gathering of intellectual and entrepreneurial geniuses, all dedicated to the Project’s goals, would be able to make the theoretical and technological advances that could pull humankind back from the cliff edge.

Petur was roused from his reflections by the voice of Heinrich Poll, who was swearing loudly into his cellular phone; the enormous satellite dash was backdrop to his reddening face. Together with Onbacher, Petur walked over to the electric cart. Heinrich needed to get back to the pier and deal with the captain of the cargo vessel. Apparently some of the cargo had not been received in good condition, and discussions were underway as to how to deal with this problem.

“I despise this part of the job,” Poll said.

The trip back to the Guest House was much quicker than the slow drive up the mountain. Heinrich flew down the narrow and bumpy dirt path as if he were driving a BMW through the winding mountainous roads of Monte Carlo. But they made it safely, and Petur and Joseph settled down on the verandah to await their tour guide’s return.

The two men sat in white wicker rocking chairs, one on either side of the front door to the inn. Each rocked gently, enjoying the refreshing breeze and tranquility. Petur had closed his eyes and begun drifting to sleep when the springed door of the inn slammed shut. Petur opened his eyes slightly to see a man walking briskly down the staircase. He had dark hair and a deep tan. The man did not turn around. Even when he rounded the corner to turn down the main road he faced away, as if looking into the jungle growth across the way. He lit a cigarette before he disappeared behind the trees.

After a period of perhaps thirty minutes, Heinrich was back. They trotted to the cart, and headed to the next site of the tour. Negotiations with the Merchant Marine skipper must have gone well, for the German was smiling.

The next stop was Petur’s personal pride and joy, and he was eager to examine and display the extraordinary building to Joseph. Science Hall — the largest building on the island — was completed in less than seven months, attesting to Heinrich’s organizational abilities and owing to its ample funding.

The road, the only approach to the complex, was not yet paved. IIt was broad because it had handled hundreds of truckloads of supplies and heavy equipment. Ahead rose a structure of steel and cement, with a reflective surface of marble from South America. Although standing only fifteen stories above the ground, its cathedral-like towers, spires, and buttresses gave the feeling of reaching for the heavens. Yet it was not airy. It was solidly rooted. Enormous blocks of the local basalt anchored the structure into the surrounding terrain. The anchoring was more than just that, however. Petur knew that the tendrils of the building skewered deeply into the Earth. It was deeper than it was tall.

The two men, led by Heinrich, walked up the glistening stairs leading to the main entrance. A ramp was there too, not tucked off to the side as an afterthought, but right in the middle, on a par with the stairs. The glass doors of the entrance were reflective, and one could see nothing of what lay within until the door parted when they approached. Inside it was cool. Electric wires, unpainted surfaces, and thick layers of dust on the floor suggested that the building needed important finishing touches.

From the start, this was a high-tech building — more than it needed to be, even. Petur intended this building to be the symbol of the Island Project, representing the fullest use of current technologies, combined with dreams and solid business sense.

The entranceway of the building led to a large round stadium with sloping rows of chairs in perfect concentric half circles. It would easily hold nine hundred people. Although it certainly could function as a theater, it was primarily designed for large group discussions or town meetings. In the front of this amphitheater, rising out of the center floor, was a monolithic structure as a large video display . Each of the seats was wired electronically, which gave access to the local island computer network and beyond. This was a meeting place for the Project staff.

On either side of the hall were elevators leading upward to various laboratories and offices, and downward to the special facilities requested by several of the scientists. One special elevator tunneled more than two hundred meters below the surface to the small laboratory dedicated to Evan Harrigan’s experiments.

The men then took one of the elevators to the top floor. As the three men stepped off the elevator, Petur knew this would be his favorite place on the island. It seemed as though glittering light was everywhere. Pink and purple and blue and green colors filled the air. They had stepped off the elevator into what seemed to be a fireworks display.

It was not a big floor, as it was the top of the pyramidal building. The walls were all glass, and they sloped inward toward the center. The ceiling was fifteen meters above their heads, and even the pinnacle was completely made of glass. It was hard to see the point where the walls of glass came together, for the brightly shimmering light of the afternoon sun was magnified and refracted by the apex of the roof — which was cut in the manner of an enormous, round, brilliant diamond — preventing even the shaded eye from seeing the exact structure. Tiny beams of light, intense enough to hurt the eyes if one gazed directly upon it, shot forth from the multifaceted surface.

It was an observation room and a dining area as well. It would be informal during the day, when the workers would eat their lunches with a glorious view of the ocean and surrounding islands. On weekend evenings, the room would be converted to provide a fine dining experience, again managed by Gustaf. As the sun set, it would emanate gentle tropical oranges and reds — as the other colors already had been refracted out of the sunshine by the rays’ long trek through the atmosphere. This was part of the great effort to make available on the island some opportunity to experience luxury. People who lived here would be a long, long way from anywhere.

After a time spent quietly staring out over the sea and lagoon, into the jungle, and over the various construction sites, the men returned to the guest quarters. As Petur lay in bed that evening, he fell asleep rapidly, completely calm and contented, assured that all this was actually, finally, happening.

But his calm did not last. His sleep was disturbed. He dreamed again that he was climbing down a ladder inside a tall shiny cylinder. It was a recurring dream since he was eleven years old, but this time it was much worse. Clank, clank, clank, went his feet on the rungs. Above, a tiny dot of light. Below, only darkness. The scent of salt air filled his mouth and nose. Then the sinister rumble began. This time, Petur knew why he could not hear the sound of his shoes on the rungs of the ladder anymore. Against his will, he looked up. The tiny circle of light was gone. In its stead was the tumultuous flood of broiling foam barreling towards him. But it didn’t seem to be water this time. Petur closed his eyes and awaited the painful deathblow from the crashing fluid. It came. It was warm. Why had he expected it to be cold? His heart was pounding. Slowly, irregular, loud. And the pounding was calling his name.

Petur awoke with a start. Someone was rapping on his door.

“Petur, open up!” It was Onbacher. His tone was urgent.

He pulled himself up and out of bed. His pillow was wet with saliva and he was drenched in sweat. Blood rushed through his eardrums, sounding like a waterfall but in slow, deep, unsteady pulses. His belly hurt as he staggered to the door, moving from his dream world to reality.

It took a moment for Petur to figure out how to unlock the door in the dark. When it opened, Onbacher pushed his way into the room, flipping on a light switch quickly. He looked at Petur and said, “Oh, God.” To Petur’s bewilderment, he moved right past and into the bathroom. A moment later, he came out.

“Petur, did you brush your teeth tonight?”

Petur was having trouble shaking off his sleepiness and sick feeling. He leaned against the door. “What?”

“You did brush your teeth, didn’t you?” Onbacher approached Petur again. His face revealed concern.

“I brushed my teeth. What of it?” He swallowed. His mouth filled back up with saliva almost instantly. He leaned further against the door. Petur realized now that he was very sick.

Onbacher grasped Petur around the waist and led him back to his bed. He picked up the bedside phone. In a moment, Petur heard him say, “Petur Bjarnasson has been poisoned. We need an ambulance quickly.” A pause, and then, “Well, then, we need medications at least. The stuff an ambulance would have. Who here knows medicine?” Another pause. “He’ll do! Get him here, quick!” He smashed down the phone and swore.

Feeling for Petur’s pulse, he said, “Petur, someone put some poison in my toothpaste. And yours too, I’m afraid. Your heart rate is slow. It’s a nerve toxin.”

“Joseph, I need the … ” Petur rolled out of bed, and stumbled toward the bathroom.

“It’s part of the toxin, Petur,” Onbacher called. “Lots of diarrhea. It’ll make you throw up, too.” This last met with an immediate response from Petur, who vomited loudly and groaned. Onbacher gave him a few moments, then went into the bathroom and helped Petur back to the bed. A minute later, Gustaf came into the room, followed closely be a man wearing an orange jumpsuit and carrying a large plastic toolbox. The man in the jumpsuit sat beside Petur and put his hand on Petur’s wrist.

“Sir, what happened here?” the paramedic asked.

Petur, face pale and soaked with sweat, only groaned. Saliva dripped from his mouth like a rabid dog. Onbacher said, “He has been poisoned. It seems to be a nerve toxin. Do you have atropine in your box?”

The paramedic opened the box quickly. “His heart rate is only 30. You could be right. Did he have seafood for dinner?”

Gustaf answered, “No, he had a cheeseburger.”

“This was an intentional poisoning.” Onbacher said. “Someone put something in my toothpaste. I assume it was in Petur’s too.”

The paramedic pulled an intravenous catheter kit from the box, twisted a rubber tourniquet around Petur’s upper arm, and placed the line into a vein in his hand. In a moment, he had squirted the entire syringe of atropine into his bloodstream. He then began connecting leads from a portable heart monitor to his chest. The heart’s electrical rhythm came up on a screen.

“Look, he’s responding already!” Petur’s heart rate was rising quickly to over 90. A bag of fluid was connected to his IV. “We’re going to need to keep him hydrated. Might as well start now.” The paramedic went about his business.

With better blood flow to his brain, Petur came around quickly. He reached up to wipe his face. Onbacher used a towel to mop away the profuse perspiration from his face and chest.

“This is awful.” Petur’s voice was weak. “Joseph, how did you know?”

“My toothpaste tasted bitter — rather like the stuff I spray on my roses to kill the Japanese beetles. I spit it out right away.”

Petur made an effort at a smile. “I thought I just had some leftover pineapple juice in my mouth.”

“A concentrated poison can soak right through your mouth into your blood,” the paramedic added. “It’s like a nerve gas. It works quickly, and is often deadly.” He turned to Onbacher. “Mr. Bjarnasson will be okay though. I’ll stay with him tonight. He’ll be as good as new in the morning, I think. You should get some sleep.”

Onbacher nodded his thanks. “Perhaps. But with someone trying to kill us, sleep may not come easily.”

Preview

Next week’s installment (Chapter 10: Conspiracy; Chapter 11: Fatal Shot) takes us globetrotting. In Mexico, a powerful group of men invite Juan Marcos, head of the Tijuana cartel, to participate in the overthrow of the Mexican government. Jeff is in Moscow, taking on the Russian mafia, but he runs into catastrophe.