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JC Hutchins's sf novel 7TH SON serial, Part 8

Twenty-five

Imagine two eighteen-wheelers parked side by side. Now, imbued with the power of a giant, press them toward each other, into each other. Moosh the mess downward a bit, flatten out the trailers so they're the same height as the cabs. Lay a massive cylinder atop the monstrosity--a construction-site sewer pipe, maybe--where the two trucks meet. Spray-paint the thing camo green.

That would be a layman's view of the MAZ transport-erector-launchers currently stationed at the Tatishchevo Mobile Nuclear Missile Garrison.

Like most Russian vehicles, the MAZ was an exercise in angles. The only streamlined thing on it was the missile launch canister resting atop the truck's spine. The drivers' cockpits were actually separated by the girth of the tube: a trapezoidal compartment resided on either side of the canister (whose nose hung in front of the MAZ by about six feet), each of which allowed a single man to squeeze inside and drive the behemoth. The two large windshields cursed the MAZ with the appearance of a mechanical insect.

Doug Devlin admired the vehicle here, under the sputtering lamps of the garrison's garage. He strode past one of the front tires, gave the five-footer a kick with his boot, then climbed up the metal ladder built into the side of the MAZ. Devlin opened the eight-inch-thick door and slid into the left-side cockpit. He tossed his Primas and Zippo onto the dash and kicked on the heater. He eyed the chunky high-frequency radio built into the dash, the linchpin in what would unfold hours from now.

The MAZ driver in the other cockpit had once been named Boronov. Now, like the rest of the Saratov garrison, he was a Devlin, too. Thanks to countless drills during the past two weeks, Devlin knew what his copilot was doing: Boronov-Devlin was flipping switches, tapping gauges, and twisting dials necessary for start-up. For his part, Devlin jonesed for a smoke and made sure the Kalashnikovs he'd brought aboard were loaded with full magazines. They didn't expect trouble during their first (last) mission . . . but it didn't hurt to be prepared.

Behind both of the drivers' cabins--inside the sealed targeting/launch compartment--two other Devlins sat at the ready, undoubtedly fighting the pangs of claustrophobia, staring into flickering monitors and prepping their payload through a series of keyboard taps.

Again, Doug Devlin thanked himself for learning Cyrillic. It had been more than handy during this mission. From learning the computer targeting software to decrypting the Permissive Action Links--specialized computer chips built into the missiles that prevented an unauthorized launch--to laughing at Russian TV commercials, those lessons had been damned useful.

The MAZ started up just fine, belching its dark diesel fumes into the mammoth garage. In eight other garages, eight other MAZes like this one were filled with Devlins and roaring to life. An orchestra of bodies conducted by one mind.

Devlin felt Boronov-Devlin depress the clutch, shift into gear, and gently press the gas. From somewhere behind him, the eight-hundred-horsepower engine snarled like a tyrannosaur. The 120-ton truck rumbled out of the garage and into the November air. Inside the launch canister slept its payload: one RT-2PM2 Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile. Seventy-five feet long, six feet in diameter. Weight: fifty-three tons. Range: six thousand five hundred miles. In flagrant violation of the U.S./Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (a clandestine order by the Russian president last year), each missile carried three nuclear warheads, not one. Total yield: two thousand seven hundred kilotons.

The sun was just beginning to rise in Saratov; the fog was burning away in the morning light. The MAZ rumbled through the mist along with its brethren, all piloted by Doug Devlins. All hungry to make the biggest kill in history.

Three groups of MAZes were to drive sixty miles in three separate directions (north, east, and south) and, upon arriving at the predetermined coordinates, set up each MAZ for deploying its missiles. When it was time, they'd launch the nukes right into the history books. It would take them less than two minutes to do so.

Nine missiles. Twenty-seven warheads. Two targets.

Doug Devlin slipped on his helmet and activated its comm unit; this would enable him to speak to the NEPTH-charged men in the targeting compartment. "How are we doing back there?"

"Superb" came the reply. Devlin nodded. He couldn't see his two comrades; they were separated by two feet of wires, insulation, and steel. The voice crackled in his ear again. "During the big show, there are two seats back here with your names on 'em."

Boronov-Devlin's voice snickered into his comm line. "Don't you mean your names on them?"

All four of them chuckled at that. The MAZ rolled past the garrison's electric fence, past the minefields on either side of the road, out into the frosted countryside beyond. Eight other MAZes followed it. Combined, the missiles would launch 24.3 megatons of destruction--a blast hundreds of times more powerful than the weapon that had annihilated Hiroshima.

"What a lovely day for World War Three," Devlin said.

His comrades laughed and agreed.

That was the great thing about this gig. Everyone had such a wonderful sense of humor.

Twenty-six

Level Fourteen. Stalemate.

Father Thomas sighed and slid his back down the wall until his butt touched the floor. He crossed his legs. It felt good to sit like this. Not in an office chair or on a circular couch in front of a mountain of computer screens. Just here, on a concrete floor, with his back against a wall. It felt . . . appropriate.

"Mind if I just sit here for a while?"

Stone's eyes narrowed into slits. "I'm not going anywhere."

They sat and stood in silence for the next minute.

"You know, you remind me of a man I once knew," Thomas said finally. "Met him just before seminary, back in what I call my crotch-rocket days. Motorcycle, see. Fast one. Japanese."

Stone grunted. "Folks call 'em rice rockets where I'm from."

"That's kinda racist."

"Racist as hell."

Father Thomas smiled, then continued, "So, yes. This guy. He was a bouncer at this bar I used to hang out in, back in St. Louis. I'm human; this was my last hurrah before a life of the cloth. This guy? Nice guy. Big as a bear, but cool around his buddies and the regulars. But you didn't want to tick him off, you know? It's like there was an animal under his skin. A lion. He always seemed ready when a scrap went down."

Thomas exhaled. Stone looked down at him, imperious.

"Does that make sense?" Thomas asked. "When people came into the pub, this fellow knew which customers were the merry drunks and which ones were sad drunks and which ones were going be the mean drunks. He just knew. Like he could smell it. When you walked through that door, he knew if you were right or if you were wrong. Read people like a book, Knuckles could. I think he would have made a helluva priest, actually."

Stone harrumphed. "Knuckles."

Thomas looked up from the floor and laughed. "Ridiculous, right? But that's what everyone called him. 'Don't fuckles with Knuckles,' this one old lush used to say. Absolutely inappropriate, but that's what he said. And you'd think Knuckles wouldn't tolerate that . . . I mean, the one person you don't want to mess with is the bouncer, right? But it was okay for the geezer to rib him like that. Why? Because Knuckles knew the old lush was right. Not right as in 'correct,' but right as in the opposite of wrong. Cool, harmless. On the white side. Understand?"

Stone nodded slightly.

"That's who you remind me of, Stone. Knuckles. The man with a lion inside. The man who makes you on sight. The man who knows the difference between who's right and who's wrong."

The soldier crossed his arms. "I know what you're trying to do. Don't even think about it."

Thomas waved it away. "I'm not." He shrugged. "I am. A little. Okay, a lot. I have an agenda." He sighed. "Do you know what I am?"

"Yeah. A soulless freak."

Thomas flinched. Yes. An untethered monstrosity, the dark voice within him said. A parentless, godless thing . . . no right to exis--

Stop it. Stop listening.

"Ah . . . I think our panel of judges might accept that answer," Thomas said, recovering. "But I'm also something else, Stone. I'm just like you. I have a life and a job and bills and flaws and problems. I have baggage from my childhood--even if it wasn't mine, I remember it as such. The most brilliant things I've ever said I've never said, because the real zingers come hours after the cocktail party, yes? I've been a jerk. I've been a jewel. Most times I'm somewhere in between, though I do my very best to stay on the path and lead by example.

"I'm you, Stone. Just a man. Just another guy making his way in this wondrous and confusing world, dreaming secret dreams and praying they'll come true. And I've been dreaming about my dead father for fourteen years. I've been haunted, been lied to. What I thought was right wasn't. It was wrong. I'm going to learn to live with it. But all the questions I now have--the questions about this place and what it's really all about--they can be answered by only one person. He's six feet away from me, Stone. Just beyond that door you're guarding. Six feet, fourteen years, seven sons. Please. Don't be the man who denies me the right to ask those questions."

With a beeping sound and a gentle whoosh, the doors slid open. Thomas looked up, past Stone, into the open doorway of the living quarters.

Into the eyes of his father.

"Let him in," Hugh Sheridan said, and disappeared back into the dimness. Stone nodded.

Thomas stood up, dumbfounded. Stone hadn't opened the door. Thomas looked at the soldier, amazed. "I thought Kleinman and Hill . . ."

"Nope," Stone said. "The request came from Sheridan."

Thomas stood for a moment, his mouth open in surprise--then he threw his head back and laughed. Of course Sheridan had wanted to keep them away. You're not my son, he had said. You just think you are. It's what you remember. . . . It's too soon. Too soon.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Thomas asked.

Stone smirked. "You didn't ask."

Thomas looked into the soldier's green eyes. "You were never going to move. No matter what I said, you were never going to let me in."

"No. And you were never going to move, either."

"No."

Stone smiled. It looked out of place, there on his face.

"So we have two things in common," Stone said. "We're both black belts, and truly stubborn bastards."

Thomas laughed again.

"That thing in Oklahoma," Stone said. "It was business, you know. Nothing personal."

The priest nodded, his smile fading. "I'm beginning to understand that more and more." He stepped into his dead father's home.

The doors whooshed shut behind him.

Twenty-seven

In Los Angeles, Durbin was screaming. Screaming through what was left of his mouth.

Dr. Mike didn't know when it had happened, but the horror show unfolding before him didn't lie. Durbin had been shot in the face. A bullet--just one? surely more than that, surely more--had blasted off the man's lower jaw. Dr. Mike had seen it happen. One second, Durbin was screaming at Dr. Mike and John to run like hell for the glass-encased VIP lounge; there was cover there, tables and couches, and hurry the fuck up . . . and an eyeblink later, Durbin's entire chin had exploded in a mist of bone and blood.

It had taken another second for Durbin to realize something was wrong. That moment played out in hyper-slow-motion for Dr. Mike. Durbin's head rocked from the impact. His eyebrows rose, as if he were asking himself a question. The man had then looked into Dr. Mike's eyes . . . and the pain had taken hold.

Durbin screamed, was screaming now. Screaming without lips, without a tongue. It was a hollow, rattling noise; a monstrous, unfocused gurgle-roar.

Dr. Mike shrieked as another bullet blew out Durbin's left eye. And then Durbin the asshole, Durbin the fuckwit, Durbin the Ben Affleck look-alike who deserved much more than this, fell to the catwalk floor and lay still.

A bullet droned past Dr. Mike's head and exploded into the wall behind him. The world quickly resumed in real time. He leaped to the floor, next to Durbin's body. It was sensory overload: the strobe light and thunderclap of automatic gunfire, the wood and steel fixtures here in Folie á Deux exploding from bullet impacts. He spotted John's face in the darkness. He was to Dr. Mike's left, also lying low, taking cover, way out of his element, trembling like a leaf in a hurricane. Dr. Mike heard the screams of other men, from below--from the ground floor. And from the commlink in his right ear, his marine clone shouting orders to the men.

"Above! Above!" Michael was screaming. "Two on the second level! Two more at the skylight!"

Dr. Mike tilted his head up toward the skylight in the center of the nightclub's ceiling. What in the fuck is he talking about? he thought frantically. I don't see anyone up--

Guttural spurts of machine-gun fire suddenly flickered through what was left of the skylight windows. Someone screamed below.

"Fuck!" a cry came from the commlink. "He got me! Can't see--"

Another explosion of gunfire sputtered from the skylight. The voice on the commlink fell silent. But Dr. Mike still couldn't see the person up there firing the guns.

I should at least be able to spot something up there, he thought frantically. At least the blast from the gunfire should give me some kind of glimpse. But . . .

He glanced down at the PDA strapped to his wrist. The thermal imager on his helmet was still set to night vision. He could see the ceiling and the skylight in perfect detail, painted in liquid-crystal shades of green. The screen erupted into a flash of bright green as another volley of bullets was fired from the skylight. A dark gray shape--barely visible, blending into the night sky--loomed over the window. Dr. Mike reached to the imager on his helmet and clicked the rubber button several times. The imager finally switched to body-heat mode. The shape was still dark gray.

The fuck? How can--

"They're shades," a voice whispered. Dr. Mike looked to his left. It was John. The man's eyes were wide, manic.

"Do you see them?" Dr. Mike asked. "On your screen?"

"They're shades," John hissed. "Devils. Ghosts. We're being hunted by ghosts."

Dr. Mike shook his head. Goddamn civvy's lost it. The wall behind them exploded in puffs of plaster and wood. Splinters fell around their faces. We can't see them, but they can see us, he thought. Whoever they are.

One of the 7th Son soldiers on the ground level fired up at the skylight. What few panes of glass that were unbroken exploded as the bullets zipped through them . . . then the entire frame of the skylight suddenly sank inward and plummeted forty feet down, smashing spectacularly into the center of the dance floor.

"Jesus!" Dr. Mike cried.

He stared at the wreckage in the dim light from the full moon above. Parts of the metal frame flickered. Shimmered. He glanced down at the screen on his wrist. Hues of orange and yellow were popping in and out of the screen, like fireworks. Suddenly the screen revealed the glowing thermalized shape of a man. Mike looked from the LCD to the floor. A man, dressed in a skintight black suit, lay dead in the center of the crumpled skylight frame. His face was covered in a spandexlike ski mask and goggles. A box-shaped backpack smoked behind his shoulders.

"Shit, that's what I thought," said a voice over the commlink. It was the marine, Michael. "They're wearing light- and heat-protective camouflage. Vaporwear."

"How do you know?" said another voice. Maybe Lockwood's.

"Because I was one of the soldiers who test--"

But Dr. Mike didn't hear the rest of the transmission. Someone had yanked the commlink from his ear.

It was probably the same person who was now pushing a gun barrel into his cheekbone.

* * *

John tried to stop shaking, but his body had checked out, stopped listening to the commands his brain was transmitting.

Calm down. Calm down.

It wasn't helping. Just seconds ago, one of the shades--they're men, just men; look at the dead man on the dance floor, that's what they all are, just men wearing special camouflage--had pulled John off the floor. The man's gun dug into the side of the clone's face.

A second shade had done the same to Dr. Mike and had taken his commlink. The two clones were hauled over to what was once, in a former life, a movie-house balcony. Now it was a dusty VIP lounge, and just outside the doors of the glass-encased room, the shades shoved John and Dr. Mike toward the balcony railing.

It was strange, being handled by these things. Even here, up close, John couldn't see their faces and could barely make out their shapes. The Vaporwear really did make these men nearly invisible. A subtle distortion of the surroundings was the only giveaway. John's mind flitted briefly to Star Trek reruns, Romulans and cloaking devices. Vaporwear was clearly a cloaking device for a person. But nothing could hide the odor of these men--they reeked of filth and booze.

Why would soldiers smell like this? It doesn't make sen--

The shades shoved John and Dr. Mike even closer to the balcony railing. The expanse of the club lay below them, the mammoth silver statue glimmered directly ahead. John spotted several bodies in the moonlight.

Christ, how many of us are left?

John felt the barrel of a pistol gnaw into the base of his skull. One of the shades behind him screamed over the sporadic gunfire. "Anyone moves, anyone fires another shot--and they die. Anyone tries to call for backup or transportation--and they die. There are two of us up here. There's another watching from the skylight. The angles are covered well enough. Try anything . . . anything . . . and their pretty freak faces go bye-bye."

Silence. Somewhere, a splintered chunk of metal clanged to the floor.

From below, Michael's voice: "What do you want?"

The shade behind John laughed. "To give you a message. A message from John Alpha. But to hear it, you have to come out. And not just you, marine. All of you. Come out. Come out!" A chuckle, then a whisper: "Wherever you are."

John squinted past the statue, to the dance floor. Nothing.

Finally, Michael's voice boomed from the shadows. "I have wounded down here. Some of them aren't going to make it. They need a doctor."

"We've got one up here, faggot--though it's not the kind you need," the shade behind John cried. The clone flinched as the gun pressed harder into his neck. "Play cowboy, now. Round up your tin soldiers and bring them out here in the open. We know where you're hiding--we can see you. Can you see us? Can you see us well enough to risk taking a shot when these freaks here are standing so close? Come out, homo, and bring your wounded."

More silence. John felt a bead of sweat slide down his nose.

"We can't trust you," Michael called.

"Of course you can't," the first shade, who stood behind Dr. Mike, replied. "To wit."

Dr. Mike's right biceps exploded in a shower of blood. The gunshot was almost deafening at this range.

"FUCK!" Dr. Mike howled. "He shot me! I'm fucking--"

"Shut up!" the shade bellowed. "Don't you fuckin' fall down, Doc. You stand right there, stand straight. Shut your face and listen. That's what you're best at, isn't it? Listening to killers? Writing about killers? Take notes, pretty boy."

Dr. Mike clutched his arm now; blood oozed between his fingers, soaking his combat jacket. He breathed heavily between clenched teeth . . . but he did not fall. And did not speak.

"Blame the cowards!" the shade cried into the darkness. John could smell the alcohol on the man's breath. It was nauseating. "Blame the gutless ones who won't do as they're told! You're good at following orders, marine, so why aren't you doing it now? I need not remind you that the next bullet is going into someone's cerebellum. And wouldn't that be a shame, all those shared childhood moments spraying onto the floor?"

In the low light streaming from the hole in the ceiling, John spotted movement from below. Michael stepped out of the shadows, from behind Folie á Deux's smashed, shattered DJ booth. He was covered in dust and grime. He held a XM8 machine gun in each hand.

"Good dog," the shade behind John said. "Drop the guns. Order the other mice to come out of their holes."

Michael tossed his weapons and made a quick motion with his hands. Slowly, the rest of the squad emerged from their positions. They, too, threw their guns to the floor. Of the eleven soldiers who had flown here with the clones, only five were now alive.

"So." Michael looked up at John, then past him. "We've made one enormous leap of faith with you punks."

Faith, John thought. We all need a little more of that right now.

The gun barrel dug into his neck again.

"Aw, you're all almost ready for big-boy pants," the first shade said. "So here we are. Three clones, five soldiers who have a hard-on for suicide missions, and us. Us. Three men who have your lives in our hands. Amazing, how so many can be cut down by so few."

"Picking off the enemy is much easier when you're invisible," Michael called. "Who are you people? Where'd you get that gear?"

The second shade chuckled from behind John. "When your employer has a connection with DARPA, there's plenty to borrow."

From the dance floor, Michael considered this. "DARPA. That's what I thought. The suits work a lot better than when I tested the prototypes a year ago. You know, you're giving away an awful lot--how many men you have here, where you got your duds, tidbits about who's funding you. Sloppy."

"True. But are we giving away an awful lot . . . or are we spoon-feeding you hints?" the first shade said. "Am I feebleminded, or are we playing a game? I'm mum on the subject. And speaking of Mum, let's talk about her."

"That's why we came here," Michael said.

"Wrong," the shade snapped. "You're here because you followed the bread crumbs. You worked from a supposition that John Alpha kidnapped your so-called mother and that you'd find her here and save her. But, as I'm sure you discussed at some point, you had no proof of any of those things. You made, as you just said, a leap of faith. Here's another possibility: you may be here simply because Alpha wanted an economical way to murder you. Perhaps the failure of tonight's mission isn't that you didn't find your mother, but that we didn't get to kill all seven clones at once."

"That's bullshit," Dr. Mike said from beside John. Sweat was dripping from his face. "If you wanted us dead, you could've killed us weeks ago. Years ago."

The first shade whipped his gun into the back of Dr. Mike's helmet. The clone nearly collapsed from the impact.

"Keep quiet!" the shade barked. "Unless you want to eat another bullet."

"No, he's right," Michael called from below. "This isn't about bringing us together to kill us all. It's about playing the game. He's testing us."

"You're smarter than you look, faggot," the second shade said.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't call me that. That's my business, and my business ain't the business we're here to discuss. Is our mother alive?"

"She is."

"Is she in this building?"

The second shade behind John chuckled. "What's left of her, yes."

"Is John Alpha also here?" Michael asked.

"Indeed."

"Where?"

And on cue--because it's certainly on cue, John thought, Michael's right, it's a game, we're just little plastic cars in Alpha's board game of Life--a set of doors on the far end of the club swung open. The doors slammed theatrically against the walls. Out of the dimness stepped a man who looked just like John and Dr. Mike and Michael, only . . .

. . . only different.

His stride was measured. Confident. Deliberate.

The full moon shone though the wrecked remains of the skylight. The man stepped toward the center of the dance floor, now illuminated.

"Ta-daa," John Alpha said.

Twenty-eight

Jack, Jay, and Kilroy2.0 read the CDC report in silence, here in the 7th Son facility's circular Common Room. The report, filed by a CDC field agent five months ago, flickered on one of the hacker's five computer monitors.

That July, the corpses of ten men had been discovered in Heber Springs, Arkansas. Two maintenance engineers at Greers Ferry Dam had spotted the bodies lying on a maintenance catwalk used by employees. How or when these strangers had invaded the premises, no one knew. Also unexplained was how the ten men had received access to the catwalk, which was mounted approximately two-thirds of the way up on the 243-foot-tall dam wall.

According to Cleburne County Sheriff investigations, whose data was included in the CDC report, nearly all of the men had been reported missing by family or friends about three weeks before the gruesome discovery at the dam. Most of the men were friends, employees at a local metal-stamping factory. Reports stated that at least four of them had exhibited erratic behavior at home before their mysterious departure. The men acted as if they were unfamiliar with their surroundings, rejected favorite meals, and ignored family members outright.

What the ten men did during their three-week "lost time" was unknown, though at least one wife assumed her husband had left town to binge, purge, and "dip his wick into some sin-den hussy." The CDC agent did not elaborate on this accusation in her report.

The ten bodies were found at various places on the catwalk. Autopsy reports revealed no toxic substances in the bodies; in all cases, blood-alcohol content was practically nonexistent. No heart failure. No strokes. No long-term diseases. They had just died sometime in the night. Were they poisoned? The test results said no.

This dearth of explanations sparked the county coroner to call the CDC field office in Dallas. The bodies were flown to Dallas for further examination. The brains of all ten men were examined . . . and that's where things got spooky. An inexplicable pattern of cell and tissue damage had devoured their brains. Nerve centers had decayed. Entire lobes had lost their solidity. Their brains had liquefied. No carcinogenic or foreign elements were discovered after several tests.

The CDC field agent noted in her report that this discovery could not be classified by current CDC standards. No existing virus or illness--absolutely none--came close to describing the condition of these men's brains. It was as if the minds had physically burned themselves out and begun to cave in on themselves. A case of, as the agent put it, "brainrot." The cause could be environmental or viral, the agent wrote.

If the deceased are victims of an as-yet-to-be-identified environmental or viral invasion, the report concluded, the agency must consider further study of this incident and apply quarantine and outcome scenarios, if appropriate. However, this agent is reluctant to condone such an action at this time for the following reasons. (1) All ten subjects were found wearing an identical "dog tag"-style necklace featuring an unidentifiable symbol. (2) Each victim had a peculiar tattoo on the back of the neck featuring a unique letter/number combination. (3) Also found at the scene were inscriptions made on the dam wall by the men. These messages are either gibberish or in some kind of code.

These three peculiarities may imply membership in a local club or cult, a theory which is currently supported by local law enforcement. Attempts have already been made to keep the discovery of a so-called ritual suicide out of the local newspapers for this reason. Bearing these anomalies in mind, the results of this report should be considered once the lost-time activities of the deceased can be accurately determined by local law enforcement. At present, there are too many x-factors in the case to recommend an immediate course of action.

Included in this file are photographs of the bodies at the CDC Dallas office, and at the scene of discovery.

"My God," Jay muttered. He rubbed his eyes and looked to the others. "Is this . . . is this what we're looking for?"

"Could very well be," Jack said. "The NEPTH-charge symptoms that Kleinman told us about are all here, especially what this agent calls 'brainrot.' The personality change is evident in the men, too--a possible sign that the original memories were erased, and a new identity was downloaded into the mind. That may be the clincher. What do you think, Kilroy?"

Kilroy2.0 placed his hand on the computer mouse and directed it to the bottom of the page. The pointer rested over a link that read, Attached image 1 of 24: nu4446-ot-898vf-1.jpg.

"I want to see these photographs," he said, and tapped the mouse button.

It was a crime-scene photo, taken from one end of the dam's sixteen-hundred-foot-long catwalk. There they were, all of the men lying on the walkway. They didn't look dead. They looked as if they were sleeping . . . except for one strange detail. Each man held a fat permanent marker in his left hand. Near the body of each man was writing on the dam wall. The photo was taken from too far away for the messages to be legible, but one thing was clear: the writing looked like the chicken scratchings of a child, or of the elderly. Jagged, ghoulish. The men had written these words as their bodies went spastic, as the brains inside their skulls were rotting. Their last words.

"What does that say?" Jay asked, pointing to the message in the foreground of the photo. " 'Yg'? 'Ygcn'?"

"Let's find out," Kilroy said, and clicked another link.

"Jesus!" Jack hissed.

They stared at the photograph, the jagged red lines slashing across the slate gray of the dam's concrete surface. It was a madman's signature, a killer's taunt . . . in another language.

ygcn ygclj

"What the hell?" Jay said. "That's no language I know."

Kilroy clicked more links. The images appeared, and they looked at them in horrified silence. The rest were written in that same creepy nonlanguage.

"These were written by ten different men," Jack said. His face was pale. "But look. The handwriting is identical."

"So they were NEPTH-charged," Kilroy said.

Jay stared at the screen. His eyes were watering. He couldn't blink. "What does it mean?" he whispered.

"It means this is bigger than we thought," Jack said. "These are messages. For us. It's another goddamned puzzle."

* * *

Hugh Sheridan's quarters smelled of cigarettes and dust. Beneath that, an underlying aroma of mothballs. The place was a basement studio apartment, complete with kitchenette, dining alcove, and Murphy bed. In the dimness, Father Thomas spotted a couch and two comfy chairs; Sheridan was sitting in one of these. Most of the overhead track lights were out, either switched off or filled with long-dead bulbs. A single spotlight shone uselessly into a corner.

"Can I sit down?" Thomas asked.

The shadow of his father waved an arm toward the couch. "I certainly don't expect you to stand."

Thomas sat on the far end of the couch. That musty smell was everywhere now. He squinted through the dimness at his father. Most of the man's features were lost in the shadows, but the hair seemed familiar. So did the curve of his chin, his neck. His shoulders. The silhouette of his ears, of all things. Thomas stared at him. The sensation was like finding an old photograph in a closet-shelf shoebox--that feeling of discovery, of nostalgia, bittersweet, fragile, of emotions and memories furiously whipped together by a brain surprised with such a find. It was more than looking at an old photograph, of course. But for a moment, for Thomas, that's how it felt.

He cleared his throat. His palms were sweating. He pulled the pistol from his belt and placed it on the cushion beside him. He noted Sheridan's curious glance. The priest felt a moment of regression, as if he'd just been caught with a hand in the cookie jar.

"It was just for show," he stated, embarrassed. He sighed. "Okay. I know you're not my father. I know that I only remember you as my father, and that those memories are someone else's. I know that. But I don't feel that. Not yet. There's a difference."

Hugh Sheridan nodded.

"It's hard for me to look at you . . . to hear you . . . and not associate it to a childhood with you," Thomas said. "But I'm going to try. I have--"

"I heard some of what you said through the intercom. But let me be the first to ask a question. Which number are you?"

"Number? I don't follow."

The shadow-dad changed position in the chair; he was reaching for something in his shirt pocket. Smokes. Thomas heard the characteristic tinny chik-chik of a disposable lighter. His father's face glowed behind the flame, an orange portrait of not then but now: bags under blue eyes, wrinkles crisscrossing over eyebrows, trenches of crow's-feet above the cheeks. Thomas felt what all estranged children feel when they see a parent after years of absence: He looks so old. What happened while I was gone?

Sheridan's eyes flicked up from the cigarette and gazed into Thomas's. The flame hung between them for another second, then vanished.

"I guess Kleinman didn't tell you about that," Sheridan said. "The numbers."

Thomas watched the cigarette's amber tip, transfixed. "I think there's a lot Kleinman didn't tell us."

Sheridan smiled. "I wouldn't doubt it." His voice was low, acidic. "Complicity is best given by the uninformed. You clones were given numbers when you were plucked out of those plastic wombs years ago. When the Memory Totality of John--John Alpha--was downloaded into your vacant minds, each of you was given a number . . . the number being the order in which you received the data. Numbers. Unoriginal, I know, but we were excited new parents of septuplets. I suppose if we'd cloned only four of you, we could've called you Eenie, Meenie, Miney, and Moe. But '4th Son' just doesn't have the same ring, does it?"

"Stop it," Thomas said.

Sheridan's teethed glittered. "I'm being rude, I know. What you've learned in the past two days, I've lived with for the past thirty-four years. Pardon my insensitivity. So which one are you? Are you the oldest of them--the first to receive the mind of John Smith? Or perhaps a frustrated middle child? Don't tell me who you are. Tell me what you are. I'll tell you your number."

"What you heard from me out there in the hall. That's . . . that's me."

"That's who you are. You love, you dream, you put on your pants one leg at a time just like the rest of us. Eloquent, in an endearingly naïve way. But that doesn't tell me what you are. To wit: you don't look like a soldier. Or a U.N. analyst."

"I get it," Thomas said, crossing his arms. "I'm the priest. Enough for you?"

"Quite." Sheridan smirked. "Johnny Five. You're alive."

Thomas blinked, not understanding.

"I'm a little surprised it would be you to come here," Sheridan said. "Fascinating. This is behavior beyond what you'd typically do. You're a rule-follower, party-line LTP." He sucked a lungful from his cigarette, then exhaled. "I thought you might be the wild child. Lucky Seven, the youngest, the black sheep. Kleinman likes him best, you know. He admires the kid's spirit."

"Black sheep."

"Of all the clones, he was the only one who completely rejected the LTP we'd assigned him. A painstakingly devised and plotted LTP, I might add. He was called the 'failed experiment.' But not by Kleinman. He told us Seven was the triumph of human cloning and MemR/I integration. Independence. Free will, if there is such a thing.

"But you, priest. You followed the LTP to the letter. It's just as well. I'm sure you're doing good things for all those true believers in the heartland."

"Stop. Please," Thomas said. "I'm not with you. What is 'LTP'?"

"Life Template Plan." Sheridan took another drag of his cigarette. He blew the smoke toward the ceiling. "Your road map. Surely you've seen the significance of when you were awakened from your fictitious coma, all those years ago." Thomas stared blankly at him, and Sheridan tried again. "I'm referring to your age. Sixteen. The cusp of adulthood. The time when a youngster casts an eye to the future and to career--but also a time when he is still very, ah, impressionable. Malleable. The scientists here at 7th Son built a Life Template Plan for each of you Beta clones: careers in the military, psychology, biology--"

Oh. My God.

Thomas interrupted, finishing the thought. "And our respective Uncle Karls and Aunt Jaclyns pushed us in those predestined directions. And such a well-rounded childhood would have prepared us for almost any career. I get it now. I truly get it."

It felt as if Thomas's stomach were sinking in on itself, deflating his entire body. His mind quickly flashed to fragments of his junior year in high school, after the accident. Still a new school, still a stranger in a new city. Those first few years, he had clung to whatever advice his new foster parents had given him. And why wouldn't he? In a way, he'd known them his whole life--all the postcards they'd sent from those faraway places. Uncle Karl and Aunt Jaclyn were trustworthy. They were family.

They were anything but. You learned that yesterday, Thomas. But now you realize just how badly you and the rest of the clones were hoodwinked. They preached the faith, didn't they? Karl and Jaclyn practically pushed your nose into that Catechism. Just what does that mean?

"You took advantage of us," Thomas said, his voice rising, newfound anger coursing through him. "You woke us up in new cities with new parents and terrible news. And you had already plotted out our little lives for us. What a bunch of self-righteous pricks!"

"Tut, tut, Five. We had constructed the LTPs years before you were cloned and they were for career only. We based the Life Template Plans on future-centric social studies. What 'future' careers, technologies, and political climates would be like." Sheridan grinned. "Those projections were very accurate, I might add, considering that the future is now."

Father Thomas resisted an urge to reach over and smack the man's face. It would solve nothing. He fumbled for the rosary in his pocket.

"So I was destined to become a priest, in the great and powerful plans of 7th Son."

"Indeed. You didn't go rogue, like Seven. He charted a course into the unknown, damning any guidance thrown his way. You could have been anything you wanted to be, of course. We all have that drive. But you followed the plan. In contrast, Seven had the capacity to become a nuclear physicist. It would have rounded out the team quiet nicely, don't you think?"

"Team. Kleinman didn't say anything about a team." Thomas leaned forward; the rosary beads click-clacked, reassuring him.

"I don't doubt that, either."

"He said we were part of a grand nature-versus-nurture experiment. He said 7th Son was designed to observe what forms our seven separate lives would take, seeing how we came from the same 'past.' "

Sheridan threw his head back and laughed. It was a wicked, rattling sound. "Sounds like soggy marketing copy, doesn't it? Heh. Proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He's rewriting history. Changing the past just for you, Five."

"Stop calling me that. My name's Thomas."

Sheridan laughed again. "Of course it isn't. You're Five. Just as the marine is One and the geneticist is Four. Do you think something as insignificant as an identity actually matters in this place? A place where a lifetime of memories can be stored as ones and zeros . . . a place where we can grow a human clone to adulthood in two years? A place where we bent the will of you and five of your brethren to embrace the livelihoods we chose for them? Do you think something as dignified as a name has any place here? You're even more naïve than I thought."

Thomas shook his head. He's not making any sense. "What does that mean?"

"It means, my dear Thomas, that 7th Son was--and still is--something much more than a glorified master's thesis about nature and nurture. It's about teams. About creating . . . no, constructing teams. We're going to play a little game: I start the joke, you give me the punch line. It goes like this. Clone seven different children, give them the same memories, separate them, train them in different fields of study, and then bring them back together. After an adjustment period, what do you have?"

Thomas's head was swimming. "I don't know."

"Oh, come now. Think. You're a preacher. Think about allll of those Christian sects out there, across the world. Each of them uses the Bible as the foundation of their faith. Don't they?"

Thomas sat in silence for a few seconds. "Yes and no."

"Explain."

"There's different translations of the Bible. Different interpretations. Nuances. Variations on a theme."

Sheridan's eyebrows raised in approval. "Precisely. Variations. The same man--in body and in childhood memory--but in seven different adult incarnations. With seven different areas of expertise, brought together for a common purpose. Follow?"

And there it was.

"You're talking about building an army," Thomas said.

Twenty-nine

"Ta-daa," John Alpha said. The words echoed in the silence of the smashed Folie á Deux nightclub.

The killer wore a black business suit, Italian. Collarless white shirt. Alpha was pale, almost sickly, his blond brown hair slicked back. He grinned past a trimmed goatee and stretched his arms outward from his side, palms facing out.

John gazed down at the villain from the club's balcony. For a moment, the man looked like a car salesman. Or a mortician.

"I honestly didn't expect to see you here," Michael the marine finally said. His voice was low and calm. "I thought you'd be the hide-in-the-bunker type. The puppetmaster who doesn't get dirt under his fingernails."

John Alpha glanced down at his manicured nails, then folded his hands together. His eyebrows raised as he smiled. "Who says I'm not? But I couldn't let my little NEPTH-charged killers have all the fun."

"Fuck you," one of the 7th Son soldiers said. Fleming. John Alpha looked up at the ceiling, bored, as if he hadn't heard. John followed the man's gaze. He was looking through the hole in the ceiling, probably at the invisible sniper still posted up there.

"My shooters," Alpha said, turning back to the group on the dance floor. "I'm actually quite proud of them. They were all a mess when I found them days ago. Homeless and hungry, each one."

One of the Vaporwear guards behind John grunted his assent. The air was thick with that rancid, boozy smell again. John held his breath.

"But with a deep-fried personality change, even human garbage can become government-trained killers," Alpha continued. "You know a little something about that, don't you, Michael?"

"Who are they?" the marine asked. "Who'd you put inside their heads?"

Alpha laughed. That laugh sounds like mine, John thought.

"The direct approach is dollar-store material, marine," Alpha said. "It's tired, trite, and cheap--and it certainly hasn't gotten you very far today. Find the answer for yourself, if you live through this night." Alpha paused, and grinned. "That's called foreshadowing, by the way."

"We get it," Michael replied. "So I guess it comes back to one thing. We're here."

"Yes." John Alpha looked up toward the balcony, where John and a bleeding, wheezing Dr. Mike stood. His eyes met John's, and his face blossomed into a look of delight. John shuddered; it felt as if someone had poured ice water down his spine.

"Hello, walkabouter," Alpha called. "Untrained, untested--and yet you still charge into a battle zone such as this. Can I make a confession? Can I admit that I'm unsurprised by the surprise visit? That it's yet another fine piece of free will you--"

Suddenly, Alpha took a quick step backward. "Kill him!" he cried.

A single shot rang out from above, from the sniper in the skylight. John instinctively closed his eyes. He did not see Fleming's chest explode and spatter across the wooden dance floor. He did not see Fleming's body fall to the floor. He did, however, hear the knife Fleming had been holding clatter to the ground. John opened his eyes and watched the man's blood spread from his body, oozing across the floor, slipping past the fallen blade. Fleming had apparently intended to throw it at Alpha.

"Now where were we?" John Alpha said pleasantly. "Yes, the guitarist. It's only appropriate that you're here for the sacrifice. The highly exaggerated deaths of my parents hit you hardest, didn't they, John? Aimless wanderer you are, playing hopscotch all throughout your life, anchorless, wasting the gift the man-gods at 7th Son gave you."

Alpha smiled. It was a cruel expression.

"Oh, the life--the lives--you could have lived, Beta. And yet you idly strum and smoke away your existence, so confidently living in your leashless world, inventing the rules as you go, so damned driven to be something you know not what. You disgust me. You have no shackles like the others, and yet you're damned by your own mediocrity. You're not a triumph of free will. You're imprisoned by it. What a waste."

John felt a tittering doubt tickle at the base of his brain, a voice that insisted Alpha was right, so very right. Had he dedicted his life to being dedicated to nothing? It felt true, horrifyingly true.

But does it matter? he thought frantically. He's trying to break you before you can ever raise a fist to fight. Trying to . . .

"Shut up," John said, looking down at Alpha. "I'm not the damned one. I'm not a killer."

"Nor am I. I've killed no one. Not even Dania Sheridan, my--our--mother." Alpha nodded and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, toward the open double doors. "She's back there. In the cellar storeroom. The floors and walls must have shielded her thermal readings from your cute RadioShack toys. Well, that and the very special insulation I had installed. John, I haven't murdered a soul."

From beside John, Dr. Mike made a half-harrumph, half-groan. "No, you've just been the Bond villain calling the shots from the shadows," the profiler muttered. John turned to look at the man. The color was draining from Dr. Mike's face. The blood from his wound covered the entire sleeve of his jacket. Now one of the Vaporwear shades behind them was telling Dr. Mike to shut his yap . . . and John winced as Mike's head recoiled once again from a pistol-whipping. Dr. Mike swayed, then steadied himself.

And that's when John spotted the hand grenade hanging from Dr. Mike's chest holster/harness. His mind flitted to what Michael had said just minutes before--a leap of faith. John turned his eyes from his brother to the shimmering statue before them. He began to plan. He even whispered a prayer.

John Alpha laughed. "A Bond villain. That's nice," he called to Dr. Mike. "A compliment . . . if I thought what I was doing was evil. You see evil every day in your job, Mike. But I'm trying to save this world. Consider this: Only at the darkest hour does humanity pull itself together to become truly great. Only in times of calamity and chaos do signs of true unity and genius shine across the globe. Wars bring out the worst in mankind--but they also bring out its best."

John looked over at Dr. Mike, to the grenade strapped to his chest. I can do this, he thought. It won't take much. A distraction, just a second. He glanced behind Mike, trying to see the shade holding his brother at gunpoint. It was nearly impossible to make out exactly where the shade was. Whatever this Vaporwear was made of, it was doing a bang-up job--even at this close range. John squinted.

"Keep those eyes dead ahead," the shade hissed. John did as told. One fact played in his favor: he knew exactly where the second shade behind him was standing; the sour-sweet rank of booze was a dead giveaway. And John had a feeling he knew how the shade standing behind Dr. Mike did business.

Meanwhile, Alpha was saying, "Take World War Two. Axis powers decimate country after country, commit wholesale slaughter . . . and the Allies band together. Build the bomb. Win the war. Redirect the course of humanity."

Come on, come on, John thought. Wrap it up. Make a fuckin' quip. Just give me a second. Just one measly second.

"But we are complacent," Alpha droned, "lethargic, morbidly obese from our creature comforts. Humanity shines brightest when there is a problem to solve, but we no longer have problems. America's enemies are illiterates who live in caves and dream of suitcase bombs. There is no innovation of the human spirit. There are only sleepwalkers. I will wake them up, Mike. I suppose this would be my Bond-villain manifesto--the obligatory monologue the evil genius makes before the tide turns in favor of the heroes. What, pray tell, do you think of it?"

This is it. God, if you're up there, help us, help me . . .

Dr. Mike chuckled. "I think you're more Beale than Blofeld. You're mad. As hell."

The shade behind Dr. Mike snarled and again cracked his pistol across the back of Mike's helmet . . . just as John had hoped. Dr. Mike wasn't stoic this time--he couldn't be, not anymore--and staggered forward, toward the balcony railing. He cried out in pain.

You can't come back from this. Not ever. No takebacks.

John stepped over and steadied his brother. The shade behind him began to bark a protest, but John didn't let him finish. As he held Dr. Mike for leverage, John swung his leg backward in an improbable, ungainly arc--a downright ugly maneuver, graceless. But it worked. John's boot crashed into the shade's stomach. The shade belched a ridiculous sound--poooh!--and staggered backward.

In one smooth motion, John snatched the grenade from Dr. Mike's vest, pulled the pin, and threw it behind them. The grenade smashed through one of the glass walls of the VIP section, leaving a hole the size of a baseball. Somewhere far away, the first shade was beginning to shout.

"The hell?" Dr. Mike whispered.

John nodded quickly to the silver statue standing beyond the balcony.

"We're superheroes. Time to fly." He then pushed them both toward the waist-high railing. It wasn't much of a running start, but it was all they had. Just like track and field back in high school, John thought. Just like the hurdles.

They leaped over the railing, into the void, toward the shimmering statue. Behind them, all hell broke loose.

* * *

John and Mike soared through the air and slammed into the open arms of the Folie á Deux sculpture. Both men recoiled from the impact--the statue gonged its disapproval--and tumbled down the warped helix of its silver base. As they landed, the grenade upstairs unleashed its war.

The explosion was brief, but merciless. The glass walls of the VIP section exploded outward, flinging fire and millions of glass shards onto the balcony. For an instant, the air was filled with lost, glittering amber crystals . . . then they found their homes, slicing into the walls, the balcony furniture, and the Vaporwear shades. The blast shoved both shades forward, slamming them into--then over--the railing. They crashed onto the dance floor and flopped to rest like rag dolls.

Then both shades suddenly became men again, the technology inside their protective camouflage suits shredded by the shrapnel. Their bodies were covered in thousands of glass shards.

The diversion was more than enough for Michael and his soldiers. They dashed over to the pile of guns on the dance floor. The lone shade posted at the skylight began shooting at them. The wooden dance floor exploded upward from the gunfire. Lockwood's right calf disintegrated from a sure shot. Michael grabbed an XM8 and fired at the ceiling. Plaster snowflakes fell from above.

John Alpha scrambled back to the end of the club from where he'd emerged just minutes ago. The doors slammed shut behind him.

The sniper on the roof was going crazy now; his shooting was sloppy, unfocused. Several rounds ripped past John and Dr. Mike, who had taken cover behind the statue.

Michael sprayed more rounds toward the skylight. There was a shriek from up there . . . then silence.

Silence.

No, not quite. Police sirens were crying out in the distance now, getting closer.

"L.A.'s finest. My buddies," Dr. Mike croaked. His helmet was lost in the fall; a gash above his left eye spurted blood down his face. He looked up at John and grinned though the mess. "If we get out of here alive, I so owe you a beer."

Michael clomped up to John and Dr. Mike.

"Good work," the marine said. "Listen up. I just radioed both choppers to come and get us, emergency evac from the roof. They'll be here in about ten minutes." He nodded toward the center of the dance floor; what was left of the team was prepping the dangling rappelling ropes. He turned to Dr. Mike. "You're going up first, along with Lockwood. The rest will join you on the roof. If Alpha's goons were telling the truth, you won't have to worry about any more shooters."

"No argument here. I'm fucking over this place."

Michael then looked at John. "Anything broken?"

John shook his head. "We have to get Mom. She's still here."

"So's John Alpha," Michael replied.

Two of the four surviving 7th Son soldiers--Rubenstein and Weekley--ran up to the clones. "The gear's ready," Rubenstein reported. Michael nodded, and the soldiers pulled Dr. Mike to his feet. Dr. Mike slung an arm over each soldier's shoulder and was dragged off toward the skylight.

Michael stared into John's eyes. He pressed a Beretta pistol into the man's hand.

"We got ten minutes to find Mom and capture Alpha," Michael said. "We're not gonna have another shot, so don't hesitate. If you have to kill him, kill him. Understand?"

"Line's already crossed," John muttered. "Can't come back, not ever. No takebacks."

Michael's expression softened for a moment. He nodded.

They ran to the rear of the club, toward the closed doors.

* * *