My life was spiraling inwardly into thoughts and dreams which conspired to drive me to self-annihilation. Where did reality begin, where did it end? I swear I couldn't decide. I was no longer sure of up nor down, right or wrong, sanity or insanity.

I could no more stop the accelerating inward spiral than a swimmer can stop the motion of an ocean whirlpool. All I could hope to do was swim cross the rip tide and hope I wouldn't be washed away in the swells. I resolved to stop doubting the strangeness of my existence, I resigned myself to being a voyeur of chaos.

Late into the night I tried without success to discover a path back into the virtual reality world that had presented itself to me. I needed to find a door into this new dimension, I needed to find Ell! But try as I might I could find no trace, no dangling fragment of executable code that might draw me back into the abyss.

Again, I could not allow myself to sleep, and in my paranoia I began to fear that perhaps the doorway into virtual reality was not through my keyboard and the software of my computer, but through some back door in my mind. As if my soul could drain through some vent into a cyber dimension.

I dozed fitfully before dawn but woke with a start just after sunrise. I had promised to meet Laura at Ultima Pharmaceuticals and for some reason this thought proved enough of an alarm bell within my system to wake me with a jolt.

Just before noon, I drove Mahdi Ahmadi's sleek midnight blue Maseratti onto the manicured grounds of the Ultima corporate headquarters. I kept the car in second gear the entire way up the wooded hills so I wouldn't be tempted to drive faster than thirty miles per hour. I'm really not an adrenaline rush junky, fast cars make me nervous.

Laura and the Mahdi were waiting at the Ultima corporate entrance. Crowned by a garish Ultima sign, there motto was "Save The World". The pharmaceutical campus was an airy glass structure with suspended walkways and foliage. The polished high-tech architecture made the site cold as ice, a structure whose architecture showed no link to the salvation of humanity. Qin Huang also appeared there waiting , etched against the black marble entryway in a black-suit/red-tie business power suit as though he were part of the architecture as well.

"Hello, Laura. Qin. Ahmadi." I greeted the three a bit sheepishly.

"I hope you liked the ride," the Mahdi commented with a wide smile, as if to disarm me, which of course he did. "You are certainly a connoisseur of fine things." And Ahmadi gave a glance towards Laura, as if to imply I had stolen not only a fine car from him, but a fine woman as well.

"Qin Huang, you old son of a bitch! So this is the palace you built!" I changed the subject from the stolen car to another more disagreeable. "I remember when you started in the old student labs behind the physics department, I think you used real rats back then. But look at you now, you haven't disappointed me."

"Yes, my mother would be proud, if she were alive," Huang smiled thinly. "We use aborted fetal tissue now, it works much better than rats. But I must tell you, you look tired. You must not have slept for weeks."

"Good old Qin, he is always joking," I tried to brush off his comment, but I FELT like hell.

"I was worried about you," Laura interrupted with real concern, coming to my side and taking my arm. "You left without telling me the other night and I didn't know if you were hurt or not."

"We need to talk about this somewhere else," I muttered, embarrassed to be discussing my unstable psychology and love life in front of Huang and the Mahdi when it was none of their damn business.

"Please, you must not go so soon," Ahmadi interjected. "We have much business to discuss. . ."

"Yes, certainly," Huang added. "Important business."

I looked at Laura. "I thought I was just going to meet you here and we could leave," I pleaded.

"I thought so too," Laura apologized. "But maybe you could hear what they have to say for my sake and then we could go."

A tour of Ultima headquarters covered the next hour. A sizable amount of basic research went on at the headquarters in clean white bio labs covering three floors over a sprawling complex. Besides the usual rooms filled with test tubes and bio reactors, all labeled with bio-hazard signs, Huang was particularly proud of his gene sequencing equipment.

"We can sequence any DNA or RNA strand, from an AIDs virus to COVAIDS to a complete human genome," Huang bragged. "With the SuperGrid, even a complex genetic system can be analyzed in hours and translated into a production synthesizer within a day."

"But where do you get the raw material?" I asked naively.

"Some of it we culture here, essentially from broths of raw amino acids and genetically modified bacteria. But a lot of what we do depends on access to bulk human tissue, something we take immense pride in having established," Huang beamed with pride. "Our close with the Planned Parenthood abortuareums has allowed us to cut costs dramatically compared to our competition."

"This makes me queasy," I spoke honestly, even as I was shown into a lab where human foetuses were being grown in shelf rows of glass of glass containers. It made me a squirm to see what looked like babies in suspended medium, though the ethics of foetal research had been decided decades ago. What seemed truly bizarre was that the foetuses had compressed skulls, bred to be brainless for ethical reasons. "Doesn't that pose ethical problems?" I asked.

"Don't be idiotic, of course not! Huang huffed with a sense of moral indignation. "Until the abortion laws were ruled illegal, as well as the stem cell controls, we had trouble producing final product at scale. Think of all the humans who suffered for lack of appropriate vaccine production facilities! And all because despicable troglodyte evangelicals were squeamish about advanced science! But now with decerebrate foetuses grown in vitro, production is no longer a problem. We can milk the foetuses for viral antibodies, or harvest organs as needed."

"I see," I admitted still somewhat weakly. I'd been taught all this in school, but seeing it in person was always different than book learning. "A veritable cornucopia of benefits."

"You seem to have more research firepower than is necessary just to produce a standard COAIDs designer drug," I queried Huang, trying to probe what his company was really up to. "Can we see your production facilities?"

"Ultima's manufacturing labs are further up the beautiful California hillside," Huang seemed intent on redirecting my question with a speech from a nature tour guide. "The scrub wood in the area is quite beautiful for a walk. So many California poppies in bloom!"

So without seeing more of the production facilities, we ended our tour in the opulent CEO's office, panoramically overlooking the foothill countryside. Nestled at one end of the research complex with the accounting and bookkeeping section, Huang's name hung on the CEO door. Huang knew where the real action was, closer to the money flow than the laboratories.

"We have 27 genetic patents currently in production, in conjunction with the California Institute." Huang beamed as we walked in and sat down. "That helps pay your wages. Thirteen research contracts are with the National Institute of Health, five co-development contracts with multinationals and even some contracts with the Pentagon."

"You've got a lot to be proud of," I congratulated Huang obtusely. "And your business partner, uhmm, venture capitalist, should be proud too!" I nodded towards Ahmadi who sat down opposite me. "You and the Mahdi seem such an odd couple though, how did you two ever get together?"

"You will be surprised at how similar Qin Huang and my life tracks are," the Mahdi replied.

"You see us as businessmen drawn together by the material profits of a pharmaceutical concern," Huang added. "Ahmadi and I are more driven by a desire to promote human happiness than just make money. That search is what brought us together years ago."

"You met here at Ultima?" I asked naively.

"We go back much further than that," Huang explained. "Back to my days in China, working for Wuhan Lab under a Chinese Communist Party order to eradicate childhood diseases. The Mahdi came there to study and bring the Islamic Way of Peace to the Taliban. In fact, The Mahdi saved my life, by connecting me to my existence."

"He's your guru?" I conjectured. "Like with Laura?"

"Yes, that's the naive way to look at it. The Mahdi has changed my world. Years ago we worked together Wuhan. Eight years ago we met here again at a fundraising event of your President Williams, though he was Governor of California then."

"I was representing Islamic immigrant interests," Ahmadi explained. "Dr. Huang was searching for grant money to continue his valiant cause to help children. We were attending a get together at the Bates Foundation. The three of us, myself, Governor Williams and Dr. Huang, obviously had mutual interests."

"Philanthropists, all three," I commented hoping there wasn't a note of sarcasm in my tone.

"Exactly," Huang took his turn. "We try hard to make the world a better place. Governor Williams and Ahmadi later found California State government venture capital when Ultima was in the first stages of developing a new COVAIDs vaccination. The money had originally been set aside to do stem cell research, but became available when that research didn't pan out. Governor Williams was instrumental in accelerating our grant to obtain California money and money from Gil Bates himself at MicroByte. Clint Williams he later fast tracked FDA clearance of our drugs when he first became president."

"And from this grew Ultima," Ahmadi finished the success story. "Of course, there was much sweat spent in the pursuit of our dreams."

"You've taken great risks," I commended them, though it was obvious they had mostly risked taxpayer money and money from the Bates Foundation rather than their own. California taxpayers had backed everything from electric cars to windmills to stem cell research, all with a glaring lack of results - energy blackouts were often daily when the weather surged. Yet, I was more envious of Huang and the Mahdi's ability to suck up these slush grants than not. "The taxpayer should be proud, Ultima Pharmaceuticals is a sophisticated complex," I continued to flatter.

"Yes, but sophistication is its downfall," the Mahdi explained philosophically, not displaying the reticence of a silent partner.

"What do you mean by that?

"Steve, corporations are only as strong as their human capital, you know that," Huang spoke as though this were a prepared presentation. "You're a man of action, you accomplish what you want through shear intellectual will, not through sophisticated facades of glass and mortar. We could use a man like you here at Ultima. Our SuperGrid computational modeling section needs your genius!"

"I'm honored at the offer," I hedged. "But Qin, you know my devotion is to artificial intelligence and fractal spaces, not to manufacturing organic bugs," I reflected peevishly, I'd been made offers to jump ship before, even by the Feds.

"But there is a way you could do both." Huang continued. "Ahmadi and I see a need for, um, your skills."

"You and Ahmadi both need my skills with fractal algorithms?" My one eyebrow rose suspiciously. "I sincerely doubt that."

"Steve, we've been investigating a certain type of virus we believe can be built using our industrial bio-synthesizers." Huang explained.

"Well, that is the business you are in. . ."

"Ah, but this is a special virus, a gene sequence only the Center For Disease Control has access to," Huang continued uncomfortably.

"Pretty deadly virus, I bet" I pondered. "The CDC deals with viruses that can wipe out the entire species. But why in the world would Ultima want to build a dangerous virus? I thought you were in the business of saving lives, not genocidal killing!"

"You insult us if you think we have destructive motives, Steven," the Mahdi chided. "Ultima saves lives, not takes them. But this virus has properties that are specially important in creating a new type of virus host, one to transport what we think is a miracle DNA strand to thousands, perhaps millions, of people."

"Well, good luck to you. I still don't see how this connects with me," I answered hyper suspiciously. "There are a lot of bio-tech firms in the same position."

"We want you to, um, obtain samples of this virus DNA sequence for us." Huang interjected.

"What are you getting at?"

Ahmadi looked straight at Huang, the turned a cold stare at me. "We need you to, uhmm, borrow this viral genetic code from the Center for Disease Control." Ahmadi stated as dead serious as a corpse.

My jaw fell open. "There is obviously more to this than just a friendly request," I started but checked myself from making a stupid reply. "You must holding back something I'm unaware of. If you are so smart, why can't you just synthesize this virus on your own??"

"And play God?" Huang retorted, "Oh how I wish we could create viruses out of thin air! But unfortunately this virus has taken mother nature millions of years to create! It is a fine watchwork of Allah, it targets brain cells specifically, something we desperately need for humanitarian research."

"Well, last I looked I lost my humanitarian nerve cells in my sock drawer and can't seem to find them," I cracked, none too eager to get involved in some touchy feely scheme. "Yes, but there is a much better reason to do this," Ahmadi interjected. "Bluntly, Laura's life is at stake, the woman you love.


"And Crystal, her daughter's life," Huang added bluntly. "Thousands of other lives are also in danger of slow grim deaths."

"I think you have a lot of explaining to do." I barked, though with a sick gagging feeling slowly filling my gut.

"You see, Laura has a chromosome damage," Huang explained. "It's been chemically induced by her former addiction to the underground drug called Black Orchid. Everyone thinks of this as a designer opiate, but Black Orchid is unfortunately an extremely strong mutagen that causes something called neurotropic dementia. The disease attacks the central nervous system over time, I am sorry to say it is 100% fatal, it is related to the prion infections of Mad Cow disease. There is no known cure."

"Oh - my - God," I muttered shocked and sat there for an unpleasant moment in silence. "But why are you telling me this, if its incurable?" I spoke haltingly as I came to my senses. "My feelings for Laura aren't going to change knowing this!"

"But perhaps they will as you watch her slowly melt as a human being," The Mahdi replied steely. "You know, on autopsy, her brains will be the consistency of a jellyfish,"

"You are heartless!"

"On the contrary, Dr. Heller." Huang countered. "We are just trying to see how much heart you have. You see, you are perhaps the only one who can save her!"

"Me? ? ?"

"Let me explain the entire situation," Huang continued sympathetically. "Laura has a neurological disease that affects the transfer of neurotransmitters like dopamine in the brains pleasure centers. It is a chromosomal abnormality caused by addiction to the designer opiate, known on the street as Black Orchid. Black Orchid, unlike other opiates, does not work at the neurotransmitter level to change dopamine uptake, it works at the genetic level, ultimately causing changes in the nervous system dopamine receptors themselves. It is a genetically induced euphoria."

"Oh God," I responded weakly. "Laura told me about her addiction, but she never told me how far this had gone!"

"No one knew at first," the Mahdi consoled me. "Black Orchid came out of Afghanistan, so everyone believed it was simply another version of heroin derived from poppies, though it iss far more powerful. In truth, it came from elsewhere."

"Ahem," Huang interjected. "It came from Wuhan Lab, a leftover from the Cold War days many decades ago. It was meant to be a euphoric, used as a benevolent bio-warfare agent that attacks the brains pleasure centers. I knew about it because of my father's work at Wuhan Lab."

"And you condoned this?" I asked incredulously.

"Of course not," Huang replied seriously. "In fact, it is one of the reasons I came to America, to fight abominations like this. It's also why I needed control of the SuperGrid department, so I would have the resources to devote to designing a cure for this addiction. Drugs to help COVAIDs has just been a fortunate coincidence of my research."

"I may have made some grim errors in judgement about you two," I slowly began to admit as the situation began to clarify. "You, Ahmadi, are the one who pulled Laura away from her addiction to Black Orchid. I'm afraid I have been guilty of stereotyping your intentions."

"I don't hold you responsible for something you could not have understood," Ahmadi graciously acknowledged.

"And you, Huang, I am guilty of accusing you of selfishly sabotaging my career, when I have been the one guilty of far worse selfishness. I have devoted myself to inanimate objects while you have been a humanitarian from the start!" I felt quite humiliated at the turn of events.

"The past has no relevance now," Huang continued graciously. "The genes and proteins involved in restoring the dopamine receptors have already been identified and sequenced, that's the kind of work Ultima does best. But to save Laura, Crystal and others with this disease, we need to insert the genetic code for these genes into the specific nerve cells affected by the disease. Unfortunately, this requires a special virus, one of a kind. It is extremely rare."

"But the virus does exist?" I questioned rhetorically. "So why don't you pay whatever the price is to get hold of this virus?" I asked incredulously.

"That's why you're here, to see if you are willing to pay that price," the Mahdi explained, his eyes drilling right through me. "Only the CDC has any samples of the virus. It has been eradicated in the human population by the unfortunate fact it is 100% deadly and extremely contagious. It kills so quickly there is little chance for it to spread beyond its initial contacts."

"But I still don't understand!" I asked in confusion. "How could I be of any help? Can't you just call up the CDC and explain the situation?"

"There is an uncomfortable political situation involved," the Mahdi continued. "It has to do with certain presidential sensitivities during the election. No one is supposed to know about the virus because it was also used in biological warfare by your CIA, it makes Ebola look like a common cold. Even the president only knows about its existence but not where it was produced or where the last remaining samples are hidden. The only reason we know anything about this is because Dr. Huang was involved in some of its genetic sequencing ten years ago."

"But couldn't you just build the virus you need with the equipment Ultima has? We're not in the ice ages of biomanufacturing. You guys can synthesize massive organic molecules."

"We're very sophisticated, but not infinitely sophisticated. You, on the other hand, have the knowledge of computer systems needed to crack the entrance codes into the CDC. And you are physically the only one capable of breaking into their security system without leaving a trace."

"Me? But I'm hopelessly crippled. You need some professional thief to pull this off. You guys are crazy." I couldn't believe we'd jumped so quickly from a tour of a pharmaceutical company to my being a part of a robbery of a deadly virus code. "I can't believe we're even talking about this!?"

"You underestimate your physical abilities." The Mahdi replied. "You demonstrated them to me at my compound. . . ."

We were interrupted by a distant popping sound, muffled through the hallways and office. An alarm of some sort began to buzz and a dark suited aid open the doors and motioned to Huang that he needed to speak to him.

"Unfortunately, our discussion must wait," Ahmadi explained matter of factly. "We seem to have a security problem," he understated as he also took his leave.

This interruption was a fortunate excuse, hopefully it would give me time to think. The Mahdi and Huang had stunned me, I had had the suspicion that they were acting in only their own selfish interests, when in reality they had more heart than I could ever have. I guess I'd just been paranoid because Huang held control over the SuperGrid center and therefore over the kernel of software code I had written that controlled my lightsuit. Apparently I was living my life as though everything centered around me, myself, and I.

But these thoughts were interrupted by what I saw on a security monitor in the office. They showed me a picture of Laura in the outer office, pacing back and forth. My heart went out to her like never before.