Father Thomas wandered the halls of the 7th Son complex with Hugh Sheridan. The old man led them up and down dangerously steep, dusty stairwells (apparently reserved only for emergencies), past a small gymnasium, countless doors and floors. The place seemed an exercise in excess; since the apparent heyday of the experiment, not much of the facility was used anymore.
"I knew you'd ask me that. I knew you'd ask me about Dania," Hugh Sheridan said as he stopped, and cupped his hand to light his third cigarette of the hour. He blew the smoke up at the hallway's ceiling. "I'll make you a deal. You tell me what you know about my ex-wife and her disappearance--the information you got from Kleinman. Then I'll tell you the truth."
Father Thomas slouched against a wall and rubbed his eyes. God, I'm tired.
"What we learned was told to us in Ops, after you were thrown out," Thomas said. "After you tried to warn us about Bregner."
"I remember that all too well," Hugh Sheridan said, blowing a ring of smoke.
"Kleinman and that up-and-comer intel guy . . . Durbin . . . explained how NEPTH-charge was accidentally created during the early stages of the memory-recording process. Told us all about it in that storage area, the Lock Box. They called it something like a bioelectric kickback. Michael said it was like a neutron bomb for the mind."
Sheridan nodded. "Accurate, if simplistic. Continue."
"They said Dania Sheridan was the first to identify the cause of the kickback. She also realized the NEPTH-charge effect could be duplicated and used again and again. She realized it could be used as a weapon. But Kleinman said the 7th Son team had no interest in pursuing that."
"Also true." Sheridan motioned Thomas to move again, and they continued down the hall to a stairwell door. Sheridan opened it, and up they climbed, their footfalls ringing in the stairwell. "The secret of NEPTH-charge was placed in our archives, presumably to be forgotten." Sheridan gave a cynical smile. "We were shooting for loftier goals in the annals of amorality."
"You sound sick about the whole thing."
The old man nodded, sucked down another lungful of smoke, kept climbing. "When Dania and I came here in '73, we were told the stakes, took our vow of secrecy. I was your age when Dr. Kleinman recruited me. He promised me the things young people want to hear: unlimited resources, an obscene salary, research in a cutting-edge field of study. How could I say no?"
Thomas shrugged. "By saying no."
Sheridan stopped at a landing and eyed the number designating this level. He opened the door. Thomas realized they were now on the Ops level. While the Ops center was located somewhere down the winding network of halls and T-junctions, the door to the facility's Lock Box warehouse was mere feet away.
Sheridan punched in a code, and the door opened. They stepped inside.
"I tried for so long to not think about what we were doing here. It wouldn't rest. I finally left. They were glad to see me go. After seeing Kleinman and me earlier today, that should be obvious."
"Got the T-shirt," Thomas affirmed.
Sheridan smiled slightly. He wandered farther into the cavernous room, and Thomas understood why his father was doing this. He understood it as much as he did their destination. "You have a wit about you, Thomas."
"It's my defense mechanism. Listen. I can't wrap my brain around how you rationalized any of this. But somewhere in the game, you tried to make it right. You left."
"Far too little, far too late," the old man whispered.
"Maybe. And maybe this--this here, this conversation--is part of your confession, your penance. That's not insignificant--at least not to me." Thomas shrugged. "So. Back to what Kleinman told us. He said that five years ago, Mom left the 7th Son project to pursue NEPTH-charge research for the Department of Defense. This was after you two had divorced because you were resentful of Bregner's talent and position. His brilliance."
Sheridan chuckled bitterly. "Kleinman told you that?"
Sheridan stopped in midstride and spat on the floor. "The old man's a liar. I didn't divorce her because I was jealous of Bregner." He said the name as if it were a slur. "In fact, I left 7th Son a year after she did. If anything, I divorced Dania because she was becoming Bregner."
Thomas sat up. "I don't understand."
"You don't understand because you haven't been given any understandable information. After the 'car accident,' Dania and I continued to raise John Alpha here at 7th Son. We convinced him to participate in the project: to learn from us, to watch you Betas grow, to give his perspective into your actions."
Sheridan looked up at the ceiling and shook his head. "It's very easy to manipulate a fourteen-year-old boy. Fourteen-year-old boys can't fathom the ethics of something like 7th Son. They think they know so much, but they know nothing."
"The same could be said for 7th Son's scientists," Thomas said.
"Indeed." Sheridan shook his head, and they resumed their trek to the device the clones had seen earlier today: the little machine that recorded the mice memories. The thing that created the bioelectric "hiccup" that eventually inspired the assassin-making NEPTH-charge technology.
"Alpha took to the science and mission of 7th Son with relish. He delved into the technologies, the way of life, became a team member," Sheridan said. "He was also educated here. Imagine having the world's premier researchers as your personal tutors. Imagine learning information technology from the man who designed and maintained a hypercomputer the size of three football fields. Imagine taking biology lessons from men and women who'd perfected human cloning."
John Alpha took an immediate shine to the cloning and MemR/I technologies, Hugh Sheridan explained. When Alpha wasn't being tutored by 7th Son staffers, he was in the Womb or Ops or the MemR/I Array with Bregner, immersing himself in the culture and mission of 7th Son.
"Frankly, I was glad he had so many diversions," Sheridan said, staring down at the peculiar machine that sparked the research for recording human memories. "I loved John, I did. He was my son. But he was my son with a caveat. We had groomed him; groomed him not for his future, but yours. Having the truth out in the open, and with John so understanding of it, made those first few years back here in Virginia some of the best years I experienced during the project."
Thomas nodded. "The secret was out. The pressure was off."
"That's how I thought of it back then. Though now I think John Alpha was grooming us, pumping us for information about the project. Taking mental notes."
"Did you--" Thomas stopped and shook his head. "I keep saying you. What I mean is 7th Son."
"I'm the ambassador. Completely understandable. Come, walk with me again."
The made their way to the entrance of the Lock Box.
"Okay. So did 7th Son ever examine Alpha? Do a psych test? Did anyone ever suspect him?"
"He underwent annual psychological tests, just like the rest of us. There were the occasional gripes about the establishment, and feelings of disconnection from the rest of the world . . . but what teenager hasn't gone through that? Alpha was allowed to go topside and join the rest of the world. We encouraged him to do that. But he never did. Of course, we thought it was because he was so enamored with the project and the people involved in it. He was fascinated with you clones. We fell for it, we really did. But the psych tests never revealed anything abnormal."
Thomas laughed at that. "But his whole existence was abnormal. He never had a chance to live. He spent a lifetime under a microscope . . . and above a microscope, scrutinizing us. We were the ones playing on the basketball team, joining the debate club, going to the prom, cutting class, getting stoned, getting laid, whatever. We were the ones living his life. How could you people miss that?"
"Such is the blessing and the curse of hindsight," Sheridan replied. The bright lights of the hallway made them squint now. Thomas was grateful to be away from that room of secrets and bad history.
Thomas leaned against the wall. "So John Alpha gets cozy with the world of 7th Son, and history tells us that he secretly plots revenge. So what happened to you and Mom?"
"What do all divorced couples say when they're asked that question?" Sheridan sighed. "It's simple. I changed. She changed. Trite? Predictable? Certainly. But it's true. We worked together, spent nearly every waking hour together."
Sheridan absently waved his hand. "Things became uninspired between Dania and I, and neither one of us was willing to do anything about it. Why expend the effort? I became more and more distraught with 7th Son and and my role in it. I was alarmed by how much time John Alpha was spending with Bregner. I watched you seven grow older . . . began to see you as something more than test subjects . . . and realized that I had checked my morality and ethics at the door long ago. And then Dania began going back to the origins of the project. Digging into the archives. At first, I thought it was nostalgia. It wasn't."
They abandoned the doorway, Sheridan taking the lead once more. Thomas was far too engrossed to care where they were going now.
"This was just before we divorced," his father explained. "She never forgot about her discovery, and her realization that it could be controlled. She became obsessed with the science of NEPTH and occasionally shared her thoughts with me. That's when I knew the woman I married was long gone. She was talking like that goddamned Nazi. She spoke of NEPTH-charge applications in espionage, assassination, impersonation. She saw how, if the technology could be tweaked, it could have even greater potential as a weapon. I left her. She left 7th Son not long after, taking her research with her--and the secrets of the MemR/I technology. She went to the DARPA and received funding to continue her research. I stayed here."
"So she started working for the Department of Defense," Thomas said. "I understand that. But let me get this straight: she wanted to improve the NEPTH-charge technology? How's that possible? It wipes a human memory clean and allows you to download another memory in its place. What's more powerful than hijacking a brain?"
Hugh Sheridan looked up at Thomas.
"Psyjacking a brain."
Back in the Common Room, Kilroy2.0 downloaded the other nine Greers Ferry Dam reports from the CDC Web site. He transmitted a message of thanks to his flock, insisting he'd found the needed data. He logged out of the chat programs.
"Let's see if our excursion has made headlines," Kilroy said, grinning at Jack and Jay. The hacker double-clicked an icon on the computer's desktop. A Web browser opened and loaded its default Web page: a compilation of the most recent news stories from around the world.
The assault on the CDC's Web site hadn't made headlines. But something else had.
A still photograph glared at them. Sunset Boulevard--blocks and blocks of it--was an inferno.
"What happened?" Jack whispered.
No one could answer. They read the story.
NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (AP)--Nearly a mile of this city's historic Sunset Boulevard is in flames after a building exploded, causing a helicopter that was hovering overhead to crash onto the street. More than 50 people have been hospitalized due to the incident. More than a dozen are feared dead.
According to police and rescue workers on the scene, the abandoned building . . .
"Are they dead? Are they all dead?" Jay asked.
Jack slumped onto the circular couch. "I don't know."
Kilroy2.0 was clicking to other news sites now. His eyes jittered back and forth as he read the copy. "Same story, over and over." His voice was flat, disconnected.
Jack slumped forward, his potbelly sagging between his thighs. He ran his fingers through his hair. "Why? Why did the team have to go there?"
"They didn't," Kilroy said, still clicking through his bookmarked news sites. "They chose to go. They knew the risks."
"Bullshit." Jay's voice was nearly squeaking now. "They didn't know this was going to happen." The orange-and-black photo of Sunset Boulevard glared back at them.
"Yes, they did," Kilroy said. "They were willing to die to save Mom."
"She's gone, too," Jay said.
"No, she isn't," a voice called to them. It was Dr. Kleinman, standing in the Common Room's doorway. General Hill loomed behind him in the hall. How long they had been standing there, the three clones didn't know.
Jay stood up. "What? Tell us!"
Kleinman shifted his feet and took off his glasses. He was polishing them furiously with his wrinkled necktie. "Ah . . ."
"What is it?" Jay screamed.
General Hill stepped past Kleinman into the Common Room. Kleinman shuffled behind him.
"Dania Sheridan has been rescued, Jay." Hill's baritone voice was unsettling here in the newfound silence. "Most of our men didn't make it. John and Dr. Mike . . ."
"Dead," Kilroy2.0 said.
"No. Alive," Hill said. "Both were wounded--Dr. Mike was shot--but they'll recover. Dania Sheridan was tortured by John Alpha, apparently, but she'll live."
Hill looked at Jack. "I'm sorry."
"Are you sure?" Jay whispered, his voice trembling.
Hill nodded. "He was in the chopper that crashed, son. He's gone."
Jay put his hands over his face.
Kleinman walked over to the circular couch and sat down across from Jack. Hill worked his way toward the computers.
"They're already on the plane, on their way back," Kleinman told them. "They videoed us just after liftoff. It was a mess. The story isn't very coherent. John made the report."
"What happened?" Jay asked softly, wiping away the tears.
"And Alpha?" Kilroy2.0 said. "Did they capture him?"
"They did," General Hill replied. "Michael did that. Alpha was also aboard the chopper that crashed."
"John Alpha is dead," Kleinman said, nodding.
They sat and stood in silence for a moment.
A hopeful look emerged on Jay's gaunt face. "Then it's over. We can go home."
Kleinman smiled nervously. He was about to say something when Kilroy2.0 turned to his clone.
"Query," Kilroy2.0 said. "What about the documents we've spent the past two hours downloading? What about the data from the CDC?"
Hill stiffened. "What data? What messages?"
Jay waved away the questions. He was smiling now. It was a desperate, manic smile. "No. Alpha's dead. That means it's over. Don't you see? Whatever he planned, whatever he wanted to do--"
"What's this about the CDC?" Hill demanded.
"No, Jay," Jack said, ignoring the general. "Kilroy's right. We still don't know what Alpha wanted. There are dozens of people who've been brainrotted by NEPTH-charge. They died becau--"
"But it's over," Jay insisted.
Another voice, from the far end of the room: "No, it isn't."
The five men--Jay, Hill, and Kilroy2.0 by the computers, and Kleinman and Jack, on the couch--turned to see who'd spoken. Their eyes leveled on the two forms now standing in the doorway of the Common Room: Father Thomas and Hugh Sheridan.
"Tell them, Hugh," Thomas said. He glanced at Sheridan, then back to the group. "Tell them about Psyjack."
Kleinman stood up slowly. He glared at Sheridan.
"What are you talking about?" Kilroy2.0 asked. His eyes glimmered, curious.
"We're in it for the long haul, Mad Hacker," Thomas said. "You may be everywhere, but Alpha can be anywhere, or anyone. It's worse than we thought."
The priest gazed upward, to the room's circular skylight. His eyes were lost in the darkness.
"He's still out there."
John Alpha placed a pearl-handled comb on the executive-washroom sink and smiled. In the mirror, the face of Vice President Charles Caine smiled back. Now this was a sensation that was going to take some getting used to. Seeing someone in the mirror other than yourself, it was positively bizarre. The stuff of fun-house mirrors.
Alpha told Caine's brain to smile. To frown. To look surprised. The Charles Caine in the mirror did all those things. The elderly mime mimicked his every expression.
He could easily live with most of the strange machinations of Caine's body--the constant dull throb of arthritis in the arms and hands, the sagging flesh, the slower reflexes. All things considered, it was a fair trade-off: this mime was the secondmost powerful man on the planet.
John Alpha glanced away from his wrinkled face. He washed his hands, dried them on a plush hand towel, and stepped out of the restroom, into Charles Caine's private office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It was 11:00 p.m. The White House glowed spectacularly through the windows just behind his desk.
He slid into the leather chair, switched on the PC before him. He closed his eyes for a moment, searching for Charles Caine's security-clearance password. It came quickly. USERNAME: talon15, PASSWORD: willingandabel.
The fingers of Charles Caine moved across the keyboard, punching in the information. The CPU powered up. At the bottom of the screen, headlines crawled by in ticker-tape style. Another Iraqi oil pipeline was spewing fire into the sky. Good news.
Alpha clicked an icon and scanned the other stories. There it was. Helicopter Crashes in West Hollywood, Dozens Killed, Fire Rages on Sunset Boulevard.
Aha. So that was that. Time to prepare the main course.
Alpha pulled a small silver key out of Caine's pants pocket and gazed at the two telephones on his desk. One was a sleek, corporate thing. The other was white, positively plain-Jane in comparison. Aside from the key slot embedded just above the number buttons, it resembled a chunky office phone from the 1980s.
Alpha inserted the silver key into the slot, twisted it clockwise. The STE-VII, Secure Terminal Equipment, model VII, activated. Beauty. Outbound calls could not be traced or tapped. These conversations could be made in a bubble of anonymity.
Alpha dialed the first number. The phone on the other end rang once.
"Is the line secure?" a female voice answered.
"I'm calling from my office."
"Nice." Her British accent was nearly a purr. "How was your first day?"
"It's peculiar, getting used to another voice coming from my mouth."
"It gets easier, but not much," replied the nurse once named Mira Sanjah. A car horn blasted in the background. "We're on the Strip, looking for him now. I'm enlisting a few Devlins to cover more ground."
"But you'll find him," Alpha said. "The timing on this is--"
"Of course we will," Sanjah snapped. "We won't keep Rookman waiting too long. Remember who you're talking to."
Alpha said he did. "I'll get in touch with the rest of the group now. And then it's off to home, to the wife I've never met."
Sanjah laughed. "No rest for the wicked. Take care, John."
John Alpha smiled. "You, too, John," he said, and hung up.
* * *
Caine-Alpha dialed the number in Moscow. It was a little after 7:00 a.m. there.
"Wake up. This is the vice president of the United States calling," Alpha said, sneering at the groggy staccato of Russian in his ear. "And for Christ's sake, speak English. Not all of us inherited a new language in this caper."
The male voice on the other end hesitated. When the man once named Defense Minister Boris Savin spoke again, his accent was pure Amerikanski. "So you're in. One of us."
"And like you, I have quite a bit of power at my fingertips." Alpha frowned at Caine's fingernails, buffed them on his suit coat. "You'd be amazed. The administration doesn't tell Caine everything, but they've informed him of quite a bit. Nuclear capabilities, NORAD, the works. The old man was sweating bullets at the time. You should've been there."
"Said the man who wasn't," Savin-Alpha replied.
"Ha. Let's talk about our little army of Devlins."
"They'll be in position in hours, and then it'll happen quickly. They set up, the rocket flies, they get the codes and launch. Twenty minutes later--"
"--the house of cards begins to fall," John Alpha said, nodding. He killed the line, then dialed one last number.
He spoke with the mole for three minutes. Ah. The Betas had been resourceful during their hack on the CDC. They'd found the NEPTH-charge files, and undoubtedly the messages scrawled on the Greers Ferry Dam wall. More dots for them to connect. That was all that mattered.
John Alpha pulled the key out of the STE-VII phone and placed it back into his pocket. He yawned. It was past this old man's bedtime.
He strode to the door to leave and stole a look back to the desk. To the White House through the window.
Not a bad first day at the office, he thought, and turned off the lights.
His laughter echoed through the halls beyond.