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LAA: By any stretch of the imagination the things David Morrich saw in Washington, D.C. on October 19, 1973 far surpassed anything Judith had witnessed in the Nazi death camps, but somehow they affected him far less. Perhaps he was wired differently, or made of sterner stuff.

LAB: At seventeen, Dave was a good kid. Sure, he dropped out of school just before his senior year, to the great consternation of his father, but Dave figured the kind of work he could find after one more year of school wouldn't be all that much different from his situation now

LAC: Sure he was a skinny young black man with a wild afro, but nobody living in the Seventies would look back a few decades later and say they were proud of their hair. Dave's father had a civil service job, his parents were still together, and Dave loved both of them.

LAD: If he had been born ten or twenty years later, he would have been the exception rather than the rule. That Friday he was on the job site in a cavern dug under the city, a space intended to become an ornate Metro station when the system opened just three years later.

LAE: Overtaken by events, it never did open. Dave didn't have any construction skills per se, and he lacked the upper body strength in any event, but his job was simply to keep the area as clean as possible while the other men worked. He did so with much youthful energy.

LAF: On October 19 the lights went out and there was something like a long earthquake. An eerie white light reflected down one of the connecting tunnels and hot dust filled the cavern even as the light faded from purple to red. But the light never disappeared entirely.

LAG: The city above was on fire. Dave Morrich and his co-workers were lucky. There are very few survivors so close to the footprint of the Soviet fusion warhead. The yield and corresponding destruction is many times greater than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs.

LAH: In the Tidal Basin next to where the Washington Monument once stood was now a dry crater so hot the Potomac River continually turned to steam before it could fill the hole. Surrounding this was a ring of destruction where the White House and the monuments used to be.

LAI: When Dave stepped out of the subway tunnel and looked to where his home used to be he saw the view was largely unobstructed, yet there was no way for him to locate exactly where he was. All the landmarks were gone. In that instant he knew that he was an orphan.

LAJ: There was no point in even trying to look for his parents. They were as gone as anyone can possibly be. So he turned and began to walk in what he guessed was the next best direction, which was direcly away from the pillar of steam that was ground zero.

LAK: As he walked, he passed through a ring of human bodies that were almost recognizable, but they were charred black, and even the beer bottles and car windows lying at their feet were melted. After that he passed through a ring of half-standing blackened buildings.

LAM: These buildings had white "shadows" along their base that had been people blocking the initial flash. There Dave had to pick his way through the rubble of structures that had already been burned out just to find a hole to make his way to the next ring.

LAN: Dave passed through a ring of people who were still alive, but they were burned so badly they had no hope of recovery, and they were in such a state of shock that they feel nothing, made no sound, and would soon die. They were actually the lucky ones.

LAO: He passed through a ring of people who do make a sound, for each of them were immersed in a sea of absolutely unendurable agony that never stopped. They stripped themselves naked because clothes only made the pain worse. Their arms were held at a forty-five degree angle.

LAP: If their arms touched their bodies the pain of the contact grew too great. Dave was forced to remain in this ring until the fires of the rings farther away burned themselves out. He hasnt been injured, but even as he walked residual radiation did its invisible dirty work.

LAQ: With Washington DC and much of the surrounding area devastated, America went through a profound political shift. The United States was reduced to those states which remained loyal during the Civil War, basically New York, New England, and the swath embracing the Midwest.

LAR: The western half of the states of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California, including San Francisco, formed a new nation called Pacifica. Everything else in the south, the plains, and the mountain west was reorganized as the New Confederate States of America.

LAS: Tolson's DECON project still had a lot of surviving infrastructure and in the vacuum left by the FBI it became independent. DECON, in fact, grew to occupy the role of internal security in the NCSA. J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972 and Tolson died in the attack on DC.

LAT: But Special Agent in Charge Earl Roland, who was the technical director of the DECON project, survived. Tolson's obsession with the B'nei Elohim lived on in Roland. Every day for a half-hour or more he sat in an anteroom of the DECON headquarters in Greendome.

LAU: There he silently contemplated a glass case displaying the dessicated white shapes of the modified brains of Gabriel and Rebekah. The amount of science DECON had been able to obtain by studying the brains of the once-living subjects was maddeningly limited.

LAW: Images made with the electron microscope revealed that every molecule in every brain cell had been replaced with a kind of articulated plastic that did not degrade like the organelles and components of living protoplasm. Yet it remained beyond analysis.

LAW: The Hanford site where the Trinity and Nagasaki "Fat Boy" bombs had been assembled was itself nuked in Black '73 but it was about the size of a full county and large portions were still in use five years later. The "N" Reactors on the site was completely gone, of course.

LAX: Walla Walla and the tri-cities of Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland, all downwind, were still more or less ghost towns, but contamination levels in the southeast corner along the Columbia River approached the slightly elevated levels of just prior to the attack.

LAY: This corner was still in use. The New Confederacy was contemplating shutting the place down for good, but there was still a lot of useful infrastructure: a rail network, a power grid, a number of empty structures. Dave Morrich ended up here with two other individuals.

LAZ: A company called Pharmadigm told Dave he would be among the first human beings to receive an experimental drug. He had little choice. The cancer that developed after the DC strike was in his bones now. It was agonizing, and he had no way to manage the pain.

LBA: The isolation and security at the Hanford Site was attractive when corporations meditated doing something that isn't entirely kosher from a legal standpoint, even under the lax laws of the NCSA. Dr. Amanda Chase was fully aware of this state of affairs.

LBB: But she didn't understand why she had to leave her rented car parked at the checkpoint called Rattlesnake Barricade.

"Government or company vehicles only," said Dr. Ian Trochmann, her sponsor, as he drove her to the lab. "I didn't make the rules, Dr. Chase."

"And my visitor badge?" she asked.

LBC: He glanced down at his own permanment badge clipped to his front pocket. "There is a good chance you will choose to part ways with Pharmadigm after you learn a bit more. Your recruitment involved a number of necessary deceptions which, professionally, you may not accept."

LBD: "What do you mean?"

"First, Dr. Chase, tell me what you know, or rather, what you think you know about Pharmadigm."

She thought about that for a moment, or rather, she thought about how to get it across in a way that Dr. Trochmann, professionally, would accept.

LBE: "I know Pharmadigm is a pharmaceutical, as the name suggests. It's not one of the big ones, but it's been around for about thirty years. It began, so it is said, when government insiders privy to taxpayer-funded research met with venture capitalists to monetize it."

LBF: "So it is said. Do you think it is true?"

"Thirty years is a long time. Things change. There are prestigious organizations with much shadier pasts. Did you know, Dr. Trochmann, that many ballet schools in Europe centuries ago were really just fronts for cathouses?"

LBG: "Can you think of a major product that is produced by Pharmadigm?"

"Nothing in the literature stands out, but science marches on even through a string of failures. I recall a potential anti-anxiety drug that actually had a reverse effect. It caused a very intense anxiety."

LBH: "Oh, that compound has proved beneficial after all. Suppose you wanted to ask questions but you have a tough customer, so you bring out the standard toolkit for asking questions. Without the drug, you have to use the tools. With the drug, you can just show the tools."

LBII: That seemed to set Amanda back a little.

Trochmann said, "The company called Pharmadigm, which you imagine to be a pharmaceutical, is in fact a shell corporation, a front, managed by what used to be the Special Projects section of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

LBJ: Special Projects had always been run by the Deputy Director, Clyde Tolson, who insisted that we call it DECON, for Domestic Enemies Containment, Observation, and Neutralization, but Hoover was more in tune with the political niceties and never let him make that official.

LBK: But Hoover died in '72 and Tolson died in the '73 attack on DC, and there was, as you know, a re-org. Earl Roland was Deputy under Tolson, and he became Director concurrently with DECON stepping into the role for the New Confederacy the FBI formerly had for the US.

LBL: I worked for Tolson from the very beginning, during World War II. Back then there was a...well, we treated it as an outbreak. A contagion. The details are so bizarre that you will imagine we are having you along for a massive joke, but it is most certainly not a joke.

LBMM: You will have every opportunity to examine the subjects, the decades of accumulated research and all the other evidence for yourself, under any conditions you name."

"Is that why I was hired? You are reaching out with this information? You just want to be believed?"

LBN: "On the contrary, Doctor Chase. Your field is neurology. You completed your residency under Dr. Paul Brand, who was well-known to us. It was he who discovered leprosy patients were losing toes and feet due to their neuropathy rather than to the bacilli.

LBO: "I heard that Dr. Brand went over to Pacifica in the, ah, re-org."

"Alas, no one is perfect, Dr. Chase. If you choose to work with us you will find we are dealing with a disease of both the central and the peripheral nervous systems. You are well qualified to consult."

LBP: She said, "I was hired to oversee human trials of a new kind of anaesthetic."

"That much is entirely true," said Trochmann. "There will indeed be human trials. And you will find the subjects gain the ability to consciously choose to ignore any level of pain."

LBQ: "You said this 'outbreak' first happened in World War II? If it is still an issue why has nothing remotely like it appeared in the literature? I would have most certainly been alert to any reports of patients with the ability to voluntarily override pain."

LBR: "Between 1942 and 1950 I was able to examine only four persons afflicted with what I call White Brain Disease. We have the remains of two of these. We lost contact with the other two and we have been unable to locate them ever since, but we know they remain alive.

LBS: Four years ago, a woman named Judith Gervasi was brought to our attention. She presents the first confirmed case of White Brain Disease we have seen in nearly three decades. As with the others, we are exercising our authority to hold her in a mandatory quarantine.

LBT: Miss Gervasi was born in the United Kingdom, but she also holds an Israeli passport, for what that's worth, as there really is no Israel anymore. Like the four other subjects, she is most reticent when it comes to questions about how she contracted her strange ailment.

LBU: We recently learned, however, that a very dark fluid drawn from the patient is capable of inducing White Brain Disease in test animals after about a week. So it can cross species. And yes, we are now ready to commence human trials, which is where you come into the picture.

LBV: It was Director Roland who thought we should be 'reaching out' with this problem. He hopes that a fresh set of eyes and a fresh mind, one from outside of DECON, might help us reach a more productive state and finally discern what the hell is going on with all this."

LBW: They arrived at the desolate location where the town of White Bluffs once existed, before all the townspeople were ordered to move away in the spring of 1943. Only two structures existed here, the DECON lab, and a shack for the guards who watched the lab overnight.

LBX: "So here we are at the lab, and the Director himself is waiting for you inside, if you still want the position. If not, I will drive you back to Rattlesnake Barricade for a friendly parting of our ways, I'll hand over a check for your time already spent, and no harm done."

LBY: Amanda said, "I'll stay, Dr. Trochmann. You've certainly made me curious, and it would be a shame to waste the weeks of prep I went through for this job. But what puzzles me is the usual non-disclosure agreement seems to have been omitted. Or perhaps it was just forgotten?"

LBZ: Dr. Trochmann turned off the engine and smiled. "Think back to the anxiety-inducing drug, Dr. Chase. Somehow, DECON has never seen the need to get a formal non-disclosure agreement in writing. Somehow a informal understanding by all parties has always been sufficient."

LCA: In the conference room of the lab where Dr. Amanda Chase was introduced to Director Earl Roland her eyes kept drifting to what she thought were two detailed models of human brains cast in white plastic, sitting in the center of the long table. "May I have a closer look?"

LCB: "Most certainly," said Roland, grinning, as he pushed both of them closer to her side of the table.

Examining both of them quite thoroughly, she said, "They are both remarkably accurate, except for this structure at the back. I fail to see the point of making that."

LCC: Roland's grin became an full smile after that remark. "Ah, you must think these are sculptures of some sort, or perhaps casts made in plastic of a mold taken after the demise of a living person. But what you have in your hands are actual relics, Dr. Chase."

LCD: Amanda eyed both Roland and Dr. Trochmann with a quick flash of indignation, which they fully expected. She said, "The color is all wrong, no matter what solution you used to preserve them. Brains of this age would be an unsightly dark yellowish-brown. And softer."

LCE: Trochmann said, "Dr. Chase, do you see the pins inside the cup of bone shaped like the letter 'D'?"

She looked closely, but shook her head. "I see none."

"Oh, you must be looking at Gabriel Shybear," said Roland. "The other one belonged to Kimberly Shybear.

LCF: That one still has the pins."

Amanda looked at the other relic and saw rings of black pins arranged with geometric precision. It was the precision which spurred her unbelief.

"The pins you see would grow back if they were broken off, at least they would in a living subject.

LCG: There was a subject named Rebekah Redstar who was also afflicted with this change. She held Gabriel's brain in her hands even as you are holding Kim's in your own, and sabotaged it. She broke off all the pins. So we learned they do not grow in a subject who is dead."

LCH: She said, "Even healthy living things do not develop with such mechanical precision, yet you say this is a disease? Or perhaps a mutation? So much the worse for your claim."

Roland said, "If you look more closely, you will see where we cut tissue strips as samples.

LCI: We have examined these samples under extreme magnification, and there is always more detail. But it is the nature of the detail which is most interesting. How did Director Tolson put it, Ian?"

Trochmann remembered well. "He compared it to a bridge across a stream.

LCJ: He said that nature, with all the time in the world, still only made bridges by mindlessly rolling boulders into a rough line, or maybe having a log drift downstream and get caught by boulders, and that is what we see with how evolution made our nervous system.

LCK: But this is like someone poured concrete over the boulders, then cut up the log for timber to build a functional and efficient truss."

"So you think this is artificial," mused Amanda.

Roland said, "That is something I'd like to find out. And if so, who did it, and why."

LCJ: Dr. Trochmann asked a question. "Dr. Chase, in your professional opinion, what is the mechanism by which human beings store long-term memories?"

She thought about that for a moment, then said, "Even now, we only have a variety of competing models, all in a state of flux.

LCK: And when you talk about them, you have to specify what level you're referring to. For instance, I am of the opinion that what we call autobiographical memory is stored, at the highest level, in the dream format. But you may be asking about the lowest, physical level."

LCL: Trochmann nodded his head, so she continued.

"The brain has layers upon layers of neurons arranged in networks that are connected more or less randomly, but order can be imposed on them in much the same way you can tread through a field of grass and create paths.

LCM: So every time you get behind the wheel of a car, your movements seem almost automatic. You call it 'muscle memory' but it's really your mind rehearsing some well-worn paths in the grass. But other paths double back around and make loops. These are nagging memories.

LCN: You might find yourself rehearsing something you did in the past that was very stupid, something that nobody else in the world but you remembers, yet you process them with emotions of regret, or shame. Those are the loops. But they're important in making you who you are."

LCO: "Thank you, Dr. Chase. And would you find it safe to say that three years after death, a human brain could not, by any means, still retain memories in any meaningful way?"

"Not even three minutes after death," said Amanda. "It begins to turn to slurry almost immediately."

LCP: "And yet Deputy Director Tolson reported that a woman named Rebekah Redstar, who exhibited the same D-shaped cup at the back of her head, was able to connect herself to the brain of Gabriel Shybear with a cable prepared specifically for that purpose.

LCQ: Director Tolson reported that this Rebekah, after making contact with Gabriel's brain, knew about and reacted to actions and conversations that only he, Gabriel Shybear, and Director Roland had witnessed, words and events which had been conveyed to no others.

LCR: Amanda shifted her glance to Earl Roland, as though seeking confirmation, which he provided simply by not objecting to what Dr. Trochmann said.

Trochmann continued. "We have concluded that that these brains are preserved in both the external and internal sense."

LCS: Amanda chewed on that, then said, "Do we all agree these are not living brains?"

Trochmann and Roland both made affirmation of that.

"And you told me these pins at the back, if they were damaged, would grow back, but only if the subject was still alive."

Both men agreed.

LCT: "In that event, gentlemen, I fail to see how these relics can be, as you claimed, preserved in an internal sense. It takes a great deal of energy for neurons to propagate information. The brain alone consumes fully a fifth of all the energy used by a human body."

LCU: "Science has advanced quite rapidly over the last thirty-five years," said Trochmann, "but we knew, even in the beginning, the dynamics of this change. It moved from neuron to neuron and retained all the pathways, but the ion channels were replaced with something else.

LCV: Instead of atoms of potassium and chlorine and sodium being pumped in and out of cell walls to make a wave, like letters moving on a marquee, you have long gadgets with sliding rods. It's mechanical now, not electrical. Memories are stored in the position of the rods.

LCW: That, at least, is what we discovered when we put samples of these relics under an electron microscope, and if you care to take your own samples, Dr. Chase, and have a look for yourself, it is most certain you will find that to be true as well."

LCX: Amanda removed her glasses to rub her eyes as she shook her head. Director Roland interpreted this as an expression of exasperation. He said, "Dr. Chase, we are pleased that you have joined our project, and it is my sincere hope that you will help us finally crack this nut."

LCY: "But if you believe we are executing a complicated ruse for some obscure but nefarious purpose, we are ready to let you take all the time you need to investigate all the evidence for yourself, with any apparatus you require and under any conditions you name yourself."

LCZ: "There is no need," said Amanda. "I know how important you are, Director, and I cannot imagine why you would spend decades carrying out an elaborate practical joke. Besides, considering what you now have planned, certainly I will see the transformation myself, first-hand."

LDA: Judith Gervasi's door wasn't locked. At mid-day there came a knock, and Amanda Chase entered the area of the lab set aside as Judith's living space to find her eating lunch. Amanda herself brought a white cardboard box that had been given to her by Dr. Trochmann.

LDB: "Hello, Judith? I'm Doctor Amanda Chase. I came to have a look at you but they said you were having lunch, so I thought I'd have my lunch too before we started. If you'd rather eat alone just say so, and I can leave." Judith merely smiled and waved at a second chair.

LDC: Dr. Chase sat down and started unpacking what they had given her to eat. She looked across to Judith and asked, "What are you having?" "I'm having what passes for roast beef, in America," she said. "But I'm not really complaining. In the army I've had much, much worse."

LDD: "In the army? Were you in the British army, or the Israeli?" "I hold the rank of Sgan Aluf in the Tsva ha-Hagana le-Yisra'el, or the Israeli Defense Force. This puts me above a major but below a colonel, but none of that really matters if I'm the last one left alive."

LDE: Amanda's eyes sank to her food, and she said, sheepishly, "I'm sorry." Amanda saw that she, too, had been given a plate of roast beef wrapped in foil, along with potato wedges, greens, and a small can of pineapple juice. She ate for a bit, then laid eyes on Judith again.

LDF: "Your chart says you were born in 1928. I don't know how you managed it, Judith, but I was born in '48 and frankly, you look like you are my age." "I did not lie about my age, Dr. Chase. I have passports from two countries that were satisfied with other documents."

LDG: "Aside from that, after we have lunch and you give me the physical you came to do, you will find the indelible evidence of my stay at Ohrdruf-Nord, which would indicate I was born before the end of the War, at the very least. And you will be glad you ate first."

LDH: Amanda was much chastened. She said, "Please, Judith, I did not mean to imply you were untruthful. But your youthful appearance is absolutely remarkable. If I look like you do in twenty more years it would be a most happy state of affairs. I wonder, how do you manage it?"

LDI: "There is a trick to it," Judith said, "but Roland and Trochmann have already asked you to believe in six impossible things before lunch. You are here to evaluate my health, including my cognition, and if I told you my secret there is a chance you would misdiagnose me."

LDJ: "Very well, Judith, if my own cognition does not fail me I shall not inquire about this subject again, and your concern for a possible misdiagnosis, by itself, argues well for your mental health. I shall make a note of that. Fair enough?" And Judith nodded with her assent.

LDK: So they finished their lunch with only small talk, then Amanda, with Judith's permission, proceeded to the examination, starting with her vital signs. She was also checking for any damage Judith might have allowed to happen to herself by the ability to ignore pain.

LDL: "They told me you can choose not to endure pain," Amanda said. "Is that true?" "Yes, it's true," Judith replied. "It seems to be part of the position description for the B'nei Elohim." "The B'nei Elohim?" "Yes. That is Hebrew for 'offspring of the holy ones.'

LDM: Think of it as my coping mechanism. I like to think there is a purpose to what happened to me. At any rate it sounds better than White Brain Disease." "Well, Judith, pain is also a coping mechanism. It's how your body, once damaged, avoids further damage. It's a gift.

LDN: I can tell you that people born without the ability to feel pain rarely live to see their twentieth birtday. If you have the ability to turn pain off at will, it does not bode well for a long life." "I have learned that pain is a gift that can be abused," Judith said.

LDO: "So think of my adaption as a defense mechanism against that abuse." When Judith lifted her blouse to allow Amanda to listen to her breathe with a stethoscope the whip scars were revealed. Amanda could not stop herself from taking a sudden gasp of air at the sight.

LDP: There were at least a dozen cross-crossing weals, and some were raised as long unsightly ridges called keloids. "This happened to you in, where did you say it was? Nordruff?" "Ohrdruf-Nord," corrected Judith. "April 1945. Nothing in my life prepared me for this. Nothing."

LDQ: "Have you ever talked through this with anyone before?" "Oh yes, there is a certain acquaintance who has helped me in so many ways I cannot tell. After the war I wanted to hunt down the rats who did this and got away, but hy convinced me that the army was a better choice.

LDR: "But the one who did this." Judith made a gesture to the scars on her back. "I did her a treat, oh yes I did, on the day the camp was liberated." "How did you come to be there, Judith? Germany? Poland? I thought you were a subject of Her Majesty."

LDS: "My family lived on the Isle of Wight, in the English Channel. We were abducted, my mother and I, and taken to a camp in Cherbourg, France. That camp was just a camp. But before it could be surrounded by the invading allies we were taken further east to a work camp.

LDT: The allied armies kept coming, so we kept moving, and ended up in the kind of work camp where you were worked to death. And still Patton came on. That's how we ended up at Ohrdruf-Nord, which was a satellite of Buchenwald. No more work, just a living hell, until death."

LDU: "I'm not really a student of history," Amanda said, "but all this sounds so horrible, Judith. I don't know how you came through it." "I like you, Dr. Chase. I want you to remember that when this is over and I'm no longer here to tell you." "What do you mean, Judith?

LDV: "Do you imagine something is going to happen to you?" "You are going to add David and Jerry to the ranks of the B'nei Elohim, and after that we're all going to walk right out of here." "Do you really think so, Judith?" "Why not? Three others did precisely that."

LDW: Judith smiled at the sheer naivete of Amanda. "I'm here under official quarantine, am I not? How did Kimberly Shybear and Sofie Krause escape? Were they cured and released? And why did Tolson let Rebekah Redstar go? You're not asking the right questions, Dr. Chase."

LDX: "You must be mistaken, Judith, at least in part. I've seen what Director Roland claims are the remains of Kimberly Shybear. So she must have died in quarantine, no?" "No. Germany was not the only country to operate concentration camps. Kim was once held in an American one.

LDY: Weren't you even curious what happened to the previous subjects of this particular research project?" "Dr. Trochmann told me only that they 'lost contact' with two of them." "What a strangely passive way to put it," Judith said. "Wouldn't you like to know more?"

LDZ: When Amanda had no answer, Judith said, "I believe in your heart of hearts that you do. At the very least, it will keep you from being entirely blindsided when three B'nei Elohim walk out of here in our usual spectacular fashion, right under your very noses."

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Strangers In Paradise