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RANCHO SANTA FE, California: The Benedictine monks painstakingly hand-copied manuscripts so that their order could sustain itself self-sustaining revenue from within its walls. The Higher Source made web sites. In a sprawling, spotless mansion packed with bulk food and computer hardware, at least forty modern-day monks designed and built web sites for businesses on the outside, including the San Diego Polo Club, a movie company, and a British maker of airline parts. On Wednesday, in three neatly planned shifts, they died. The world saw Jonestown, felt Waco, and cried cult. And this time, a cult for the information age. These days, the stereotype of the computer nerd has grown a bit stale. But it is precisely that stereotype--young, intelligent, socially inept--which stencils nicely onto the classic profile of a cult victim. Yet these 39 men and women were not hacking neo-Mansonites, shaggy, reclusive stock characters out of a paranoia movie. With their matching, unisex crew cuts and Henley-collared blue shirts, they resembled the modern SoCal monks they claimed to be. While the mansion was itself hardly monastic with its tennis courts, putting green, and indoor elevator, its residents practiced celibacy, and neither smoked nor drank. They followed strict rules of diet. Neighbors never saw more than a few at a time, coming and going or perhaps at the local pancake house. No one was ever playing tennis. The thirty-nine dead computer monks at 18241 Colina Norte were not all young. They had their elders; "Father John" was in his sixties. But whatever influence that elder had, it was not dictatorial. Police confirmed that the sixty-year old "Father John" was not one of the two who died last. Instead, President Clinton, in the usual spray of condolences, may have hit the mark when he called the suicides "so isolated that they can create a world for themselves that may justify that kind of thing." Create it they had. And each had taken his hemlock, to a degree, independently, to avail themselves of a rare opportunity to attain the afterlife. "We fully desire, expect, and look forward to boarding a spacecraft from the Next Level very soon (in our physical bodies)," reads the "Heaven's Gate" website. "Hale-Bopp's approach is the "marker' we've been waiting for. . . We are happily prepared to leave "this world' and go with Ti's crew." That craft was to be lurking in the wake of the Hale-Bopp Comet, apparently ready to take willing members along on a passage to bliss. But as with all religions, the site acknowledged, "what happens between now and then is the big question." "Rio," the ex-member who discovered the bodies, said members spoke of leaving their bodies, their "shells," behind for the journey. Yet the thirty-nine seemed determined, if only symbolically, to take it with them. Each, according to police, carried identification, along with some money, in the front pockets of their nearly identical shirts. Suitcases were packed. The house was immaculate. They were ready to go. But on the sloughing off that mortal coil, the "Heaven's Gate" is decidedly cryptic. "The true meaning of "suicide" is to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered," it reads. It was an offer they could not refuse.