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The harvesters were literally keeping the world alive.

And even at five hundred and thirty dollars per shift, some of them felt they were being underpaid.

Pared clanked down the last few steps and the two arguing harvesters looked up at him. “Hi, Joe.” Mercier said. Peggy smiled.

“Long shift?” she asked archly.

“Long enough. I’m whacked out.”

She stood a little straighter. “Completely?”

Pareti rubbed at his eyes. They felt grainy; he had been getting more dust in them than usual. “I thought it was that-time-of-the-month for you?”

“Aw gone,” she grinned, spreading her hands like a little girl whose measles have vanished.

“Yeah, that’d be nice,” Pareti accepted her service, “if you’ll throw in a back rub.”

“And I’ll crack your spine.”

Mercier chuckled and moved toward the staircase. “See you later,” he said over his shoulder.

Pareti and Peggy Flinn went down through sections to his stateroom. Living in an encapsulated environment for upwards of six months at a stretch, the harvesters had evolved their own social relationships. Women who were touchy about their sexual liaisons did not last long on the TexasTowers. There were seldom shore leaves for the harvesters—who referred to themselves as “the black gang”—and consequently all conveniences were provided by the company. Films, gourmet chefs, recreational sports, a fully-stocked and constantly changing library…and the lady harvesters. It had begun with some of the women accepting “gratuities” from the men for sex, but that had had a deleterious effect on morale, so now their basic shift wages and bonuses were supplemented by off-shift sex pay. It was not uncommon for a reasonably good-looking and harvesting-adept woman to come back after an eight-or-nine-month TexasTower stint with fifty thousand dollars in her credit account.

In the stateroom, they undressed.

“Jesus,” Peggy commented, “what happened to all your hair?”

It had been several months since they had been together.

“I guess I’m going bald. “ Pareti shrugged it off. He wiped himself down completely with a disposable moist-cloth from the dispenser, and tossed it into the incinerator iris.

All over?” she asked incredulously.

“Hey, Peg,” Pareti said wearily. “I’ve been out for twelve hours. I’m whacked out, and I want to get some sleep. Now do you want to or don’t you?”

She smiled at him. “You’re cute, Joe.”

“I’m a pudding, I am,” he replied, and sank down on the comfortable bed. She came to him and they had sex.

Then he went to sleep.

Fifty years before, the Third World War had finally broken out. It had been preceded by thirty years of Cold War Phase II. Phase I had ended in the 1970s, when it was obvious that War was inevitable. Phase II had been the defensive measures against overkill. They had sunk the subterranean cavern cities, the “canister cities” as the sub-urban planners called them. (They weren’t called anything as unglamorous as that publicly. In the press releases they were glowingly named Jade City, DownTown, Golden Grotto, North and South Diamond, Onyxville, Sub-City, East Pyrites. And in the Smokies they sank the gigantic North American Continent antimissile complex, Ironwall, two miles down.)

The breeding had started long before Phase I. Malthus had been right. Under the impetus of fear, people multiplied as never before. And in canister cities like Lower Hong Kong, Labyrinth (under Boston) and New Cuernavaca the enclosed conformity of life left them few pleasures. So they multiplied. And again. And geometrically the progression filled the canister cities. They sent out tunnels and tubes and feelers, and the Earth filled up with the squalling, teeming, hungry inhabitants of the land of fear. Aboveground only the military and scientific elite chose to live, out of necessity.

Then came the War.

Bacteriologically, atomically, with laser and radiation it came.

It was bad enough on the North American continent: Los Angeles was slagged. Ironwall and half the Smokies were gone, the missile complex buried forever under mountains that were now soft, rolling hills. Oak Ridge went up in one bright flash. Louisville was reduced to rubble. Detroit and Birmingham no longer existed; in their places were smooth reflective surfaces, almost perfectly flat like mirrored wafers of oxidized chrome plate.

New York and Chicago had been better protected. They had lost their suburbs, but not their canister subcities. And the central cores of the metropolises remained. Battered, but still functioning.

It had been just as bad, even worse, on the other continents. But there had been time during the two Phases of the Cold War to develop serums, remedies, antidotes, therapeutics. People were saved by the millions.

Even so…one could not inject an ear of corn.

Nor could one inoculate every cat and dog and wild boar and antelope and llama and Kodiak bear. Nor could one seed the oceans and save the fish. Ecology went mad. Some species survived, others died out completely.

The Hunger Strikes and the Food Riots began.

And ended quickly. People too weak from hunger cannot fight. So the cannibal times came. And then the governments, terrified by what they had done to themselves and each other, banded together at last.

The United Nations had been rebuilt, and they had commissioned the Companies to solve the problems of artificial foodstuffs. But it was a slow process.

What they had only dimly realized was that the Westerly Winds, carrying all the radiation and residue of bacteriological lunacy, had swept across the North American continent, picking up their additional loads at the Smokies, Louisville, Detroit, New York, and had carried the polluted and deadly cargo across the Eastern Seaboard, across the Atlantic, to dissipate finally in the jetstream over Asia. But not before massive fallout off the Carolinas had combined with sunlight and rain to produce a strange mutation in the plankton-rich waters of Diamond Shoals.

Ten years after the end of the Third World War, the plankton had become something else. It was called goo by the fishermen of the Outer Banks.

Diamond Shoals had become a cauldron of creation.

The goo spread. It adapted. It metamorphosed. And there was panic. Deformed exo-skeletal fish swam in the shallow waters; four new species of dog shark were found (one was a successful adaptation); a centipedal squid with a hundred arms flourished for several years, then unaccountably vanished.

The goo did not vanish.

Experiments followed, and miraculously, what had seemed to be an imminent and unstoppable menace to life on the seas, and probably on the planet as a whole…revealed itself as a miracle. It saved the world. The goo, when “killed,” could be turned into artificial nourishment. It contained a wide spectrum of proteins, vitamins, amino acids, carbohydrates, and even necessary minimum amounts of trace elements. When dehydrated and packaged, it was economically rewarding. When combined with water it could be cooked, stewed, pan fried, boiled, baked, poached, sautéed, stuffed or used as a stuffing. It was as close to the perfect food as had ever been found. Its flavor altered endlessly, depending entirely on which patented processing system was used. It had many tastes, but no characteristic taste.

Alive, it functioned on a quasi-vegetative level. An unstable protoplasmic agglomeration, it was apparently unintelligent, though it had an undeniable urge toward form. It structured itself endlessly into rudimentary plant and animal shapes, none viable. It was as if the goo desired to become something.