A.U. Rookman didn't give a piss about a great many things. Being old and rich--and let's face it, America, being A. U. Rookman--had its privileges. One of the great many things A. U. Rookman didn't give a piss about, for instance, was "bad" cholesterol. The bacon and egg and medium-rare-steak-extra-gravy-on-the-mashed-potatoes cholesterol. These days, doctors were waving their hands in the air about the stuff like a gaggle of Holy Rollers at a tent revival, wailing on about how you should avoid the "bad" cholesterol and eat more foods with the "good" cholesterol. A. U. Rookman didn't give a piss. The doctors were telling him to eat more fish, and Rookman didn't like fish ('cause it tasted like goddamn fish) so he didn't. No, sir. Give A. U. Rookman a slab of Texas longhorn any day--and don't jew him on the A.1., fuck you very much.

Bad cholesterol. This, coming from the same bunch of bookworms who'd told A. U. Rookman in the late eighties to avoid eating foods high in cholesterol, period. There was no "good" cholesterol back then, no yin to the cholesterol yang, if you wanted to get philosophical about it. Hell, when Rookman was a boy, you piled on the eggs and bacon and scarfed it down with a shit-eating grin.

And that's why Rookman still drank two raw eggs for breakfast. (He didn't give a piss about salmonella, either.) Every morning, one of the help would bring him a crystal goblet filled with the syrupy stuff, both yolks bobbing inside like great big eyes, like the snotty globs in a lava lamp. He'd scoop the goblet from the platter, raise it to the sky as if making a toast, and slurp it down in one breathless gulp. During the ever-increasing house calls in the past five years, the doctors had discovered this ritual and had given him six kinds of grief about it. He would wave the words away. For those who knew him, this was A. U. Rookman's way of saving his breath to say the words I don't give a piss. And in these wretched golden years, goddamnit, saving breath had become a necessity. The cancer. The old-timer's.

Rookman was turning eighty next year. He rarely looked in the mirror anymore; he hated the wraith's face that stared back. He was, according to his own harsh self-summation, a wheezing mess of a man who'd spent too much of his life spending his fortune in hazes of cigarette smoke, inebriation, and misplayed poker hands. The booze and the smokes (and the drugs for a while, we can't forget the times we hit the slopes) were his lifelong companion, the common-law wife that'd stuck by him when the times were good and bad. They'd been particularly loyal when times were bad. Now he was reaping the whirlwind, and all that bullshit about "good" cholesterol and "bad" cholesterol and healthy living didn't amount to a hill of ass-tootin' beans, if it ever had.

Not that Rookman regretted it. A. U. Rookman hadn't become A. U. Rookman by entertaining navel-gazing idiocies such as regret. He'd been through four divorces and had endured the headline-grabbing antics of his shitbird son Lionel, but he never felt regret. Regret was a gutless thing, a thing that implied fallibility. And A. U. Rookman never made mistakes. Ever.

Still, as he'd felt his body wind down like a music box over these past seven years, he had felt another breed of gutless emotion slip into his mind. Fear. It was going to end, it was all going to end much sooner than later, like the unnerving off-key plinks and plunks of that music box, an impending dirge, a death rattle, something slowly fading from the earth . . . then gone. It was bad--goddamned bad--and it was going to end. And he was afraid. Afeard, as his daddy used to say.

Which was why he was sitting at his bedroom desk (this morning's empty goblet still resting on its edge like a trophy), staring into this computer screen that he would have felt great satisfaction throwing through his bedroom window if he had the strength to lift it . . . not that it would shatter the bulletproof glass. The world of ledgers and ticker tape and typewriters had gone the way of the dodo. A. U. Rookman couldn't keep up anymore.

But he could. He would, once this little under-the-table deal was seen through. Rookman had made many of his billions in under-the-table deals--the closed-door meetings, the surveillance sweeps, the payoffs, the line to the White House, and, yes, the more-than-occasional use of discreet folks who worked outside the law. Many of those deals had taken years to finally bloom into windfalls. But none were like this. And things were close to blooming now. Very close indeed.

He would experience a rebirth, and then he'd make a killing.

The little clock icon at the top of the computer screen chimed 4:30 p.m. That was Rookman's cue to start the videoconference. He steered the computer mouse toward the appropriate screen icon and launched the application. The spasms in his chest began--not now, goddamnit, I don't give a piss about you, you fucking cocksuckers, not now--then the rattling cough started, erupting from his throat like cannon fire. One of his hands instinctively reached for a fresh handkerchief in the small pouch on his wheelchair; the other hand clutched the oxygen mask in his lap. His body quaked as the coughs increased. He tried to keep his eyes on the screen (the video window was winking to life now), but couldn't. They snapped shut as he whooped and retched.

Breathe, you old bastard, breathe breathebreathe . . .

Finally, he spat a wad of bloody phlegm into the handkerchief and placed the mask over his mouth and nose. The canned air rushed into his lungs, and things were better. For now.

Rookman opened his eyes, wiping away the tears as he did so. He gazed at the screen.

John Alpha stared back at him. The youngster was smiling.

* * *

Then: part one.

A rumor had circulated through the press back in '94 that when a president was elected, he had to make a special phone call within three days of his acceptance speech. That call would, the rumors claimed, be to one A. U. Rookman, founder of Rookman Oil Inc. George, a now-defunct political magazine, had quoted an anonymous source as saying, "When a man's crazy enough to run for president, he's crazy enough to think he's the most powerful man on the planet. Once in office, he learns very quickly that he is not. That's why every president since Kennedy rings up the old man. Just to say hello, get the formal blessing. It's like the senior-class president asking the high school principal if he can pretend to be leader for a while."

The rumor wasn't true, of course. President-elects had two days to make the call, not three.

The leaders of the Free World were all meek as lambs when speaking with A. U. Rookman. Insiders called this phenomenon Rookman's Rules. For many things, they were the only rules in town. If you knew oil and politics, you knew A. U. Rookman was the Dangerous Man, the Big Planner, the slippery Texan with an ace stashed up his sleeve, the wildcatter with whom you should never fuck.

By 1960, Rookman had made it clear that he wasn't a card-carrying member of the "big oil" industry. He was the big oil industry. His influence on politics could be likened to plate tectonics: patient and nearly silent, but impossible to ignore. His political strings were long and tight. For example: After the OPEC embargo of '73, Rookman had concocted an idea to ensure that he'd never again be squeezed by the towelheads. He applied political pressure from the shadows, the result being the Energy Policy and Conversation Act, which Gerald Ford made law in 1975. Under this law, the federal government could purchase and store up to 1 billion barrels of crude oil, none of which could be used unless there was another national fuel crisis. While the first 412,000 barrels purchased for this new cache were Saudi crude, Rookman Oil Inc. had provided the lion's share of the reserves since--and made tidy and quiet profits decade after decade in its name.

In the late 1970s, A. U. Rookman convinced Detroit's Big Three to play along with his quiet political push to create an apparently pro-consumer, pro-environment plan that would apply strict miles-per-gallon standards on passenger vehicles to increase fuel economy. But the scheme had a delicious loophole: sport utility vehicles could be classified in the same category as light trucks, which had much lower MPG standards. The punch line? After a decade or so in which the Big Three would focus on making more inexpensive, fuel-efficient cars (and barely break even), they would start pushing the sport-utes as the Next Big Thing. Larger, and allegedly more dependable in inclement weather, the SUVs would become the "new station wagon." By building family-oriented SUVs on truck chassis, auto manufacturers could sidestep pesky fuel-economy standards and particularly stringent passenger-car bumper and crash regulations.

The auto manufacturers made a slaying with the much more profitable SUVs, of course. Rookman also laughed all the way to the bank. Not only had gasoline consumption increased, but one of Rookman Oil's many subsidiaries, ARX Automotive, made a windfall on the manufacturing of after-market SUV bumpers, hoses, body paints, and more. All fabricated from petrochemicals, that ever-profitable by-product of oil refinement.

In the early 1990s, Rookman had also pioneered the price-control tactic that most big oil companies now employ. Touted as a cost-saving measure for his company (and therefore consumers), Rookman made it standing policy for his facilities to produce gasoline at 90 percent of their capacities--instead of the usual 60 to 70 percent--and funnel it into the market right away. Since all efforts were going into production and distribution, Rookman Oil had only a few days' reserves at any time. This convenient lack of "rainy day" reserves drove up the price of gas. It also made the market more volatile and vulnerable to production problems, geopolitical fluctuations, and the like. This ensured higher prices. As Rookman was fond of saying to his few confidants: if a mullah in Iran flapped his gums in protest of the West, prices at the pumps in Middle America could soar. Which was the whole fucking point.

Rookman Oil Inc. was also the first oil company to employ batteries of sociologists, psychologists, and financial theorists to raise profits. With their data, Rookman quickly learned that by lowering production capacities in some states and hopscotching oil supplies from one U.S. region to another, he could spike prices in different parts of the country and appear blameless. By studying people's traveling habits, such as the plummet of travel after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Rookman Oil could "shrink" its oil supply, justified by the lowered overall demand, raise prices, and continue to gouge the American consumer.

Like all successful empires, Rookman's corporation extended overseas. Rookman Oil wells, offshore drilling platforms, and refineries operated in more than a dozen countries. When A. U. Rookman planned an oil pipeline through Afghanistan and its neighbors in the early 1990s, he urged the Clinton administration to open talks with the Taliban-controlled Afghani government. Those talks failed, and Rookman soon knew why: Clinton and his boys were pussies. In January 2001, Rookman convinced the Bush administration to relaunch the talks. The deal was too simple and sweet for the Taliban to ignore: if you turn over Osama bin Laden and make nice-nice with the Northern Alliance (the native guerrilla force that was taking over the northern part of the country), Rookman Oil would build the pipeline . . . and bestow the Taliban with a generous cut of the billions in annual profits. The Taliban were interested, and scheduled a meeting with American officials and Northern Alliance representatives in July of that year.

The Taliban delegation didn't show. Word quickly spread that the negotiations had dissolved because someone in the American delegation had sent a special message to the Taliban leadership: "Either accept our offer, granting you mountains of riches, or we bury you under a mountain of bombs." When the president asked Rookman if he had sent the message, the oil baron had simply shrugged. Of course Rookman had sent it. He wanted the Taliban to go apeshit, to create serious anti-American sentiment for the CIA to record and report . . . which could then empower the United States to take a preemptive strike against the hostile government. The administration could then install a U.S.-friendly and therefore Rookman-friendly leadership base--and pay less for the pipeline privileges.

The Taliban did go apeshit. The terrorists the Taliban were protecting flew two jets into the World Trade Center. Another into the Pentagon. Yet another almost made its way to the White House. Even Rookman hadn't expected that. But the U.S. military did indeed bomb Afghanistan shortly afterward, and the Taliban were replaced with leaders who saw the infinite wisdom of a $3.5 billion Rookman Oil Inc. pipeline cutting through their land.

Rookman got his way, after all.

Naturally, Rookman also had a hand in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Two years previously--a few months before the Taliban talks fell through, in fact--Rookman helped pen the Energy Policy in the New Century report, which was presented to the freshly inaugurated president. The document basically stated that Iraq was the problem child of the Middle East, but it could also be the number two oil-producing country in the world. Iraqi production was being logjammed by United Nations export sanctions. If sanctions were lifted, the oil would flow freely. But lifting the sanctions would allow then-leader Saddam Hussein a symbolic victory against the West. The only way to uncork the bottleneck and save face, the report stated, would be to take out the "destabilizing element" in the equation--Hussein. Military intervention was politely suggested. American companies could "rebuild" the country after an invasion, the report said.

Thanks to the Rookman-spawned attacks on September 11, the oil tycoon got his wish. After the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan, it swarmed and stormed Iraq, ousting Hussein. A U.S.-friendly government began to run the show afterward. Hundreds of "rebuilding" contracts were awarded, including for the construction of new oil-production facilities and oversight of older Iraqi state-run facilities. Most of those contracts fell into the laps of Rookman Oil Inc. and its subsidiaries . . . as Rookman had planned all along.

Yes, indeed. Sometimes it pays to have a direct phone line to the White House.

A. U. Rookman was the man who wore blue jeans and an i shot j.r. T-shirt to President Reagan's inaugural ball. A. U. Rookman was the man who quietly convinced Washington to make Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--ANWR--a political buzzword. A. U. Rookman was the man who founded Castle Chemicals, the number one petrochemical supply firm on the planet. He was credited with legitimizing the synthetic-fiber industry; almost every American has a shirt, dress, or suit made from Auxillium, one of the many fibers Castle Chemicals has created over the past forty years. He was also the man who slyly suggested SUVs should have miles of fuel remaining displays mounted in their dashboard so drivers, if only subconsciously, were always thinking one thing when they piled their rug rats into the car: gas, gas, gas.

Of course, folks living in the heartland never saw that side of Rookman. Neither did the press. The media loved Rookman's flamboyance, his lavish philanthropy, his opulent weddings and destructive divorces. Reporters salivated over the bumblings and arrests of his drug-addled son. The Rookman name made good ink.

The press covered his health problems with equal relish.

Which is how a young man who called himself John Alpha came to contact A. U. Rookman with a very special business proposal.

* * *

Then: part two.

When Rookman finally went public with "havin' the cancer" and the early signs of Alzheimer's disease in 2001, it was only after the rumors of his ailing health had hopscotched from the tabloids to The New York Times. He didn't like the way the media were using adjectives such as mysterious and frail and--perhaps the most blasphemous of all--diminished. As in, In recent months, Rookman's vitality has appeared diminished.

That line had sent him over the edge. "They're making like I'm some faggot dyin' from the butt flu," he had screamed that day, to one of the nameless women who fetched his coffee. He would later have a vague memory of tearing up the newspaper and hurling the empty coffee mug at her. "Goddamn cancer. Goddamned oldtimer's! You want to hear what I say, toots? When in doubt, whip it out . . . and piss all over them."

He called a press conference on his front lawn that afternoon and came out of the cancer and Alzheimer's closet. Yes, he'd been diagnosed. Yes, he was considering experimental treatment. Yes, he'd consider chemo--if he had to, if he absolutely had to. Rookman used his "raising Cain" voice, full of bluster and hellfire. The reporters laughed when they were supposed to (goddamn vultures), the photographers snapped pictures when they were supposed to (they're big on hand gestures), and everyone left with their quote-hungry bellies filled. All of the Texas dailies ran the story front page, above the fold.

The nationals played it below the fold, but Rookman made 1A on every pissing one of them. Dance for me, my little monkeys, dance.

But only after the pack of scribblers and shooters had left his lawn had Rookman truly felt afraid. Afeard. That was the night he realized it was true, it was all true, no sense hiding it anymore, he had the cancer, had the oldtimer's, it was all going to end. If the rogue cells inside him didn't do it, the chemo would. And if it wasn't the chemo, it'd be the loss of his mind. And what then? What would happen to his legacy? His company? Everything he had built would collapse and burn, a funeral pyre to dishonor the recently departed.

Rookman cried that night, the first time in sixty-three years.

Helluva ride, A.U. But your time to hang up the spurs is a'comin'. You're the Titanic, ever-heading nearer my God to thee.

A few years later, his office received a FedEx addressed from one of Rookman Oil's VPs based in California. "URGENT & PERSONAL," read the envelope inside. It was forwarded to Rookman with great speed and efficiency--no doors hit any asses on the way in or out that day--and Rookman had opened it with a cynical scowl.

The letter was not from Boyles, as the FedEx envelope had said. In fact, it was not signed at all. But there was a message, one that both infuriated and (given the past years' plague of nightmares) intrigued him.

Mr. Rookman,

You are a man of your word. So am I. You are a man of few words. As am I. I can help you, sir. I can cure your cancer and your Alzheimer's. Completely.

I will not insult you by saying this solution will come quickly or cheaply. But it will come; you will experience a rebirth, and live longer than you have ever dreamed possible. You have my word.

If you wish to discuss a partnership, please contact me at the Four Seasons, Beverly Hills. Ask for John M. Smith.

Rookman had nearly torn the letter to shreds. But something stopped him. Fate, perhaps. Or fear. Or hope.

He phoned the hotel that night. He spoke to John Alpha for less than a minute. Rookman met the kid the next day, listened to his proposal, downed a triple Scotch, and shook on it.

When you're the fourth-richest man in the world, you can spare a few billion dollars in the name of immortality. Not to mention a few million souls, including your own.

* * *


"A.U.," Alpha said cheerily from the computer screen. "You look well."

"Fuck you." Rookman squeezed the bloody handkerchief until he felt his fingernails dig into his palm. Young people. Don't give a piss about their elders. For a moment, Rookman wondered what he looked and sounded like to the youngster on the other end. A ghoul's face, probably. A Texas accent slurred behind a translucent blue death mask. I hate talking to him. He's young, dumb, and full of cum. Thinks he's indestructible.

"Such language." Alpha winked. "Now tell me, A.U.: what would the ever-nubile wife number five do if she heard such filth coming from that mouth of yours?"

"She does whatever the hell I tell her to," Rookman snarled. "None of your goddamned business anyway. Piss on you. I reckon you've forgotten just who you're talking to."

"I've forgotten no such thing. You're my Abel Magwitch."


"My mysterious benefactor," John Alpha said. "My sugar daddy." The youngster smiled his condescending smile.

Thinks he knows everything. Well, fuck you.

"That's right. Your sugar daddy." The oxygen mask whistled gently as Rookman spoke. "Glad you said that. Reminds me of something my daddy once told me: never bite the hand, boy. You understand me? Never. I'm the -er. You're the -ee. Our relationship don't get much simpler than that."

Alpha cocked his head to one side, like a wife who knows his beloved is lying. "Our relationship is a little more complex than that, A.U. We're collaborators. Our goals are different, certainly, but we both come out winners. I need you, and you . . . well, just look at you. You most definitely need me. Perhaps an analogy your crass Texan tongue can appreciate is in order. You and I, we have a little circle jerk going here. If we both keep stroking, we'll both cross the finish line with grins on our faces. Everybody wins, A. U. You, most of all."

Rookman stared at the screen. This conversation was as familiar as the doctors' orders to lay off the bad foods. He and Alpha had danced this dance too many times over the recent years: the kid's smart mouth would send Rookman up on his high horse, then the tug-of-war over who called the shots would begin. The kid was right, of course. They both had each other by the balls . . . but Rookman would walk away from this deal with a smile on his new face, billions richer. The kid was right, all right. But he didn't have to be so goddamned smug about it. It was exhausting.

Rookman sighed as he thought this; the mask literally squeaked from the pressure change. "So what's your point, young man?" His voice sounded hollow, like a line of stage dialogue uttered for the umpteenth time.

"Just trying to clarify the -er/-ee dynamic," Alpha said. "Just encouraging you to think about where you want to be and who can get you there. You want this to come to pass? You want Rookman Oil to become the plaything of that freak-show board of directors when you go? You want to actually stick your willy into that Penthouse Pet wife of yours? I'm the one who can deliver you, A.U. I'm your knight in shining armor. That's something you should never forget."

Stalemate. They stared at each other for almost a minute, saying nothing. A side of Rookman enjoyed these insipid power struggles; Alpha was the only man he'd ever met that didn't back down, didn't compromise, didn't flinch when Rookman used his Texan foghorn bellow to drive home a point. Rookman appraised the slender face on the screen, its cool blue eyes, thin lips, slicked-back blonde-brown hair. The man's goatee was meticulously trimmed. Rookman likened Alpha to a Doberman--sleek and dangerous. The ambition coursing through the kid's veins transcended anything even Rookman had dreamed of in his youth. Rookman admired it and was frightened by it.

Are you really going to tack your future onto the coattails of this lunatic?

He recalled the wraith's face staring back in the mirror, the vision of that music box winding down: plink . . . plink . . . plunk . . .

"Bed's made," he whispered.

The pixelated vision of Alpha raised his eyebrows. "Beg pardon?"

"I said I'm bored," Rookman snarled, straightening in his wheelchair. "Piss on it. Are we here to talk business or to see whose dick's bigger?"

"Everyone knows you've got a Louisville Slugger swinging between those legs. No contest there."

"That's more like it." Rookman felt a smile crinkle against his oxygen mask. Goddamn kid. "So. What's my horoscope?"

"I see a beautiful stranger coming to your home tomorrow, with knockers out to here." The video feed became blurry as the webcam on the kid's end tried to focus on Alpha's hands--which now appeared to hold two invisible watermelons.

Rookman cackled, his chest rattling like a jalopy.

Alpha's smile vanished. "Everything's square on your end, I trust."

"Bet your ass it is. The will's been changed. The board, even now, can't fart unless I say so. And I expect you to bring you-know-who for a little meeting tomorrow, just as planned."

Alpha nodded, then his face darkened. "Nothing can go wrong, A.U. Understand? Nothing. Your contact will arrive whenever she can and will take care of everything. It's not going to hurt. The rest is up to you and the unwitting--and undoubtedly unwilling--participation of your host-to-be. This is it, old man. Tomorrow is your day. Fuck it up, and you're fucked. Our little scheme will be all for naught. Dig?"

Rookman nodded impatiently. He tore off the oxygen mask for emphasis. "Yes, yes. I'm not a child, you pissface."

"That much is clear."

Rookman leaned toward the computer screen. He licked his lips. "And what about our other little scheme up north? The clincher that makes you rich and me even richer?"

"Already under way."

Rookman grinned; his face was like that of a leering corpse.

Alpha smiled on the screen. "We've talked business. Now let's talk pleasure. What are your plans for tonight?"

"I've made plans with Chenille. Paint the town, live it up while there's still living to be done. I'll have ye olde Houston paparazzi snap a few with that buxom bitch by my side. Great fodder for the fallout."

"Splendid word choice," Alpha said. "Sounds delicious."

"Victory always is."

"Make a splash, A.U. Tomorrow night, you'll be a new man. And you'll soon have a new place to plant your company flag."

"Christ on a crutch. That's terrific. Just terrific."

John Alpha agreed. It was terrific. It was indeed.


The Bucky Lastard landed at Edwards Air Force Base at 7:00 p.m. local time. Pilot Les Orchard's V-22-X Osprey had logged a six-hour flight, his personal best. Not that anyone would ever know about it. Off the books, you know. As would be the flight back. Oh, yes, they were round-tripping it. The orders from General Hill were clear: Drop them off. Refuel. Bring them back. Orchard and Schubert would need a little pill of the pick-me-up variety for the return jaunt.

Fatigue-management capsules. Sheeeit. The air force could call it whatever they wanted, but it was speed, plain and simple.

As Orchard and his copilot flipped rows of switches to power down the plane, Orchard watched his living cargo walk from the craft, out onto the tarmac. Fifteen men--most of them just kids from the looks of it. Several had broken into pairs, carrying the crates they'd brought with them. Orchard looked past them, toward the horizon. Two Black Hawk helicopters were waiting, their rotors spinning like impatient whirligigs, forcing the approaching men to lean into the gale as they walked closer.

"It's their world; we're just livin' in it," Orchard muttered, his hands still flipping console switches and toggles. "Chauffeurs is all we are. A buncha Morgan Freemans driving our Miss Daisys."

He glanced over to see if Schubert had caught the joke. Schubert was busy flipping his own switches and speaking to Control via his helmet comm. Oh, well.

Orchard turned back to the windscreen. He watched the group draw closer to the choppers and made a mental note to watch for those three--the three who were walking ahead of the bunch--on the return flight. Something was hinky about them. Their body types were different--one of them was a jarhead for sure; the other two had the soft bodies of civvies. But all three had the same gait, the same posture, the same body language.

Separated at birth, Orchard thought, and a chill shot down his spine. He watched the three men climb into one of the Black Hawks and eyed them carefully as they helped the others pull the crates on board. Huh. The three were all left-handed, to boot.

The rest of the troops climbed into the other chopper.

Weird. Weird.

* * *

John took the advice of the quiet voice in his head. He shut the hell up and hung on. Shutting the hell up and hanging on was fairly easy, he'd learned, ever since reality took a detour about two days back. So sure, what the hell, let's disembark from the Plane Ride from Hell (Tums, anyone?), walk across an airstrip (that's the Mojave Desert to your right and we're moving, we're moving), climb into a chopper, and take another magic-carpet ride. He'd never flown in a helicopter before. It was just another of the weekend's ongoing series of surreal moments, and it wouldn't be the last . . . so, John, just do what the bumper sticker says: Get in, shut up, and hang on.

He could imagine the L.A. skyline glimmering in the far south; pinprick skyscraper lights pressing through the smog. He couldn't see it, of course; the lush San Gabriel Mountains were blocking the view.

Los Angeles was at least another 70 miles away. Somewhere out there was Folie á Deux, and his mother and--Mr. Mojo risin' . . . Mr. Mojo risin'--John Alpha.

John watched Michael secure the large equipment crates in the Black Hawk's cargo hold. Despite his size, Michael had a catlike elegance to his stride. The marine brought a small suitcase with him into the passenger compartment and sat down on the bench facing Dr. Mike and John. Michael snaked his arms through the safety harness and clicked it home. The small suitcase--about the size of two telephone books--was at his side.

As Michael unlatched the case, the turbines above them began to increase in pitch. It was hard to think now, like putting your head against a washing machine on spin cycle. The marine didn't seem to notice.

Michael opened the container and began to speak, unperturbed by the roaring engines above them. ". . . ee airing eees or eh ishin . . ."

"What?" John screamed.

Michael looked over to Dr. Mike, who appeared equally puzzled. Michael nodded and motioned them to lean inward, closer to each other.

"I said we'll be wearing these during the mission," the marine cried, pointing down at the briefcase's contents: gadgets encased in custom-cut black foam. John nodded emphatically. Dr. Mike nodded, too, his head bobbing like a jack-in-the-box.

"We're not going to have much time for prepping when we land," Michael hollered. "What time we do have will be spent gearing up." He stopped, his eyes looking for confirmation. The clones nodded again. The engines kicked up a notch. John looked at the ceiling apprehensively, but Michael waved his hand at the musician and made an okay sign. John forced a smile.

"This is a rush job, no doubt about it," Michael said. "Now is the best time to teach you about these--"

The engines exploded into a symphonic drone, and the chopper jerked upward. John groaned as what felt like a cement block fell into the pit of his gut. Nearby, Dr. Mike instinctively clutched at the harness crossing his chest. Michael frowned and held up an index finger--I'll finish in a minute, gotta wait for the kids to quiet down. The helicopter pushed upward, teetering gently to the left and the right, its passengers rocking in place like Weebles wobbles. Through one of the small window ports, John could see the tarmac listing to and fro, and then downward, past the porthole. The roofs of the base's hangers passed next, then it was all dusty sky and horizon, merging together like watercolors.

The cement block stopped digging at John's gut. But he couldn't shake the sensation that he was floating more than flying, as if the chopper were a toy suspended by a giant fishing line. It wasn't a pleasant feeling.

He glanced from the porthole to the criminal profiler. Dr. Mike looked as if he were coming back from Vomitville, too. Michael, the mission-jaded marine, grinned at them.

"First time?" he cried.

John and Dr. Mike nodded.

Michael laughed. "Thought so. Don't worry. It gets easier, trust me."

Michael leaned forward again, and the other two understood the cue. Michael picked up the container and pulled out one of the gadgets, a dark gray plastic cylinder, about the size of a toilet-paper tube. He passed it to the clones. Its surface was rubberized; plastic Velcro notches covered one side. John cocked the front end of the cylinder and spotted the characteristic purplish blue glimmer of a camera lens inside. The other end of the cylinder sported a nipple-shaped rubber button and a dime-size hole.

"It's a thermal imager," Michael called over the din. "Heat-sensitive recording device. Has a couple of settings. See this?" He pointed to the plastic Velcro strap. The clones nodded. "Connects to the side of the Kevlar--your helmet. See this?" He pointed to the hole on the end of the camera. "Cable plugs into the screen you'll wear on your forearm. Hold on."

He reached into the case and presented a thin cable and an off-the-shelf digital pocket organizer. The PDA was covered in a similar rubberized case, but the shape and screen size screamed Circuit City. Adjustable straps dangled from its sides. Michael plugged one end of the cable into the PDA, the other into the back of the thermal imager. The PDA's LCD screen winked to life.

Michael pointed the camera at Dr. Mike. They watched as the image on the PDA transformed into a human-shaped blob; its chest and head were consumed in a fiery red corona; arms and legs throbbed orange and yellow. Dr. Mike raised his right arm. The thermal ghost raised its right arm. Amazed, the profiler waved his hand back and forth. The ghost waved with him, the colors slurring together on the LCD screen.

"Bitchin'," Dr. Mike said.

Michael nodded. "Here's another setting." He pressed the button on the imager and pointed the device toward the cargo hold behind him. The LCD screen was now dominated by gray and black--with shimmering violet lines crisscrossing over the dark colors. The lines looked like a road map, complete with glowing superhighways and throbbing culs-de-sac.

"Electrical system," the marine explained. "This picks up heat from the current in the wires. No electricity, no purple lines. The higher the current, the brighter the lines. Understand?"

John and Dr. Mike nodded again. Michael pressed the button and the screen now glowed in hues of bright green. He pointed the imager at various spots in the dim passenger cabin. They perfectly saw the dark corners of the compartment, all flickering in that same eerie green.

"Good ole night vision," Michael said. "This setting's sensitive to light. No light, good. Lots of light, bad. I press this button again and the imager switches off."

He did, and the PDA's screen blinked to black.

"Like I said, imager goes on your helmet," Michael continued. The helicopter suddenly lurched to the left. John shrieked; the marine didn't blink. "You slip the cable into your BDU shirt, down the shirtsleeve, comes out at the cuff. The screen goes on your forearm like this." In three taut moves, Michael strapped the PDA to his inner forearm, just above the wrist. "This design was meant to be used while holding a rifle or a pistol; you can easily get an eyeful without compromising your field of vision. Understand?"

They nodded.

The marine smiled, reached into the container, and pulled out another device. It was a black plastic earpiece with a microphone attached at its end; something very much like a wireless cell-phone headset.

"Comm gear," Michael said. "We'll all be wearing these, and they'll all be locked onto the same channel. What you say, we all hear." He flipped a quick smirk in Dr. Mike's direction. "When we get into this thing, it ain't gonna be time to chitchat. I'll do most of the talking, okay?"

John watched the blood rush to Dr. Mike's face and suppressed a grin. Dr. Mike nodded. Michael placed the gear back in the box and closed it.

"I've talked to the rest of the group about this next part, they're in on it, so listen up," Michael said. "You two are civilians, but tonight, things'll be different. You're going to wear the same camo, Kevlar, and body armor we wear. You are going to have a commlink, a sidearm, explosives. Tonight, you're one of us."

"Do I have to carry a gun?" John shouted. "Never used one before. I don't know if--"


"What about the, uh, explosives?"

"Not if you don't want to," Michael said. "It's your life, hoss. Your choice. But both of you, make no mistake: you advance when I say, you hold back when I say. This is law. That voice you'll hear in your commlink might as well be the voice of God.

"You're not used to this--it's not a part of your life, and I understand that--but you had better understand where I'm coming from. How you come out of that nightclub . . . be it on your feet or in a body bag . . . depends on your un-fucking-compromising ability to do as you're told. Do you understand?"

For a second, just a second, the droning engines were the only noise in the cabin. And then:

"Yes, sir. We understand."

* * *

Dr. Mike watched his adopted hometown slip by in the Black Hawk's windows as they flew south. The sun sang its last through the right porthole, the desert lay sullen and dim through the left. Terrain quickly slipped from sand and scrub to the hard chaparral of the San Gabriel; oaks and pines emerged next. The two helicopters crossed the mountains and dipped over into the valley. Dry rocks and angry-looking trees glared from below.

Then they were screaming past the mansions on the hills, over Pasadena, past the studios in Burbank--all familiar sights for the criminal profiler--then the hollywood sign blazing white atop Mt. Lee. Then the chopper abruptly banked east, toward downtown. Twilight had come and the freeways were already filled with the familiar molasses traffic, even on a Sunday. The US Bank Tower loomed in the distance, the lights around its circular roof glowing like a crown. The nearby Westin Bonaventure's mirrored surface glittered, an enormous stack of quarters.

The choppers cruised above the streets, the hotels, over Los Angeles City College, toward West Hollywood. It was strange seeing the city this way, Dr. Mike realized--zipping past skyscrapers, whirring above all those unsuspecting people. L.A. was filled with bad things, bad places; it didn't take long to see them when you lived in the city. You heard the screeching tires, the breaking glass, the screams of the desperate . . . and you learned to tune it out. You learned to live with the news choppers ripping through the night, the police chases on the tube, the red-white-red-white-red-white strobes of ambulance lights on street corners. Somehow you learned to ignore the elephant in the room.

West Hollywood, now. Screaming over Santa Monica Boulevard. The two choppers would be landing soon. Folie á Deux was on the southeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and Hammond Street, the heart of chic clubland, and a few miles north of their landing coordinates.

The Black Hawk banked sharply to the right, then the left, resurrecting the peptic tantrum in Dr. Mike's guts. He looked out one of the portals. They were here. The chopper was hovering over the landing coordinates. The other Black Hawk had already landed, dropped off its cargo, and was soaring off the pad, into the west. Dr. Mike watched it go, then turned his attention back to the ground. He saw the 7th Son soldiers waiting by the helipad's perimeter. Closer to the helipad's center, several men in fluttering white jackets were trying to wave away their chopper. The cinder block in Dr. Mike's belly danced as the craft began its descent.

The helipad's lights seared through the windows. Silhouettes of the furious ground crew cast shadow puppets inside the cabin.

Dr. Mike turned to Michael. The marine was already up, safety harness long gone, stepping his way to the doorhatch. He squinted through the porthole.

This is it, Dr. Mike thought. This is it.

Michael turned his face back to them. His mouth was turned upward in an impish grin. "Welcome to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center." The marine threw open the door. "Do mind your step."

* * *

The marine spotted the two blameless white cargo vans at the exact GPS coordinates General Hill had assigned: in the northwest corner of Cedars-Sinai's P9 parking lot, near North San Vicente Boulevard. So far, this was going better than he'd expected. Michael feared Hill might have lost his combat talons in that decade and a half behind a 7th Son desk. Not so. The general had been sharp and contributed heavily to the strategy of this invasion/rescue timetable. And Code Phantom's power was coming in handy for resources such as these.

The lot was nearly a quarter mile from the helipad. The run was brisk. John was the last member of the team to reach the two vans; he was a sweating mess.

Forgivable. Being a civvy injected into a combat mission does that to a person.

Michael'd have to watch John during this trip. The longhair was sensible (to a point) when he mentioned he didn't want a gun or grenade for this mission. With no training, he might be a friendly-fire liability were he armed. But did the man have the steel deep inside for what was to come? Michael didn't know.

The marine clapped John on the shoulder, then pushed him past the white vans. John eyed the vehicles as he panted, then looked ahead. A pair of vans were up there (these were black with tinted windshields). Members of the 7th Son team were climbing inside them. He looked back at the closer white vans. The engines were running. The exhaust stung his nostrils as he fought to steady his breathing.

"Why . . . aren't we going . . . in those two?" he gasped.

Michael nodded at the white vans. "These guys go ahead of us. Inside are the folks who brought us the vehicles."

"Who are they?"

"Dunno. Doesn't matter. They're probably under Code Phantom orders. Hill set up the jet, the choppers, and the vans. These guys here are gonna take the heat off of us. Remember those doctors on the helipad who were trying to wave us off? They've gotta be on the phone with the cops right now. The cops are going to ask them what vehicles we dashed to. And the doctors are going to say 'two white vans.' "

"These guys are a diversion," John said. He seemed to understand. Good.

"Red herrings all the way, hoss," Michael agreed. They walked faster toward the two black 7th Son vans. "They'll get the attention of John Law and get them off our tail. It shouldn't be too hard, either."

"Why?" The 7th Son vans were closer now. Behind them, the two mystery vans roared out of the lot, tires squealing.

"Because in about a mile, they're gonna scream right by the West Hollywood Sheriff's Department. If the plan fires on all cylinders, the cops'll spot them and take chase. Once they get the attention of the Five-O, our nameless friends head east, away from West Hollywood and Folie á Deux.

"Meanwhile, we head north on San Vicente about twelve, fifteen minutes later. We'll turn off when we can and use the side streets to get to the club. Cause, effect. Problem, solution."

"Pretty clever," John said. It was becoming easier for him to breathe now.

"We'll see. Let's hurry."

By the time they'd climbed into the nearly full van (Michael in the front passenger seat, John and Dr. Mike on one of the benches in the back with the rest of the group), the police scanner beneath the dashboard was alive with reports of two white vans heading out of the Cedars-Sinai lot. Dispatch gave the order for pursuit.

"Bingo," Michael said. "We're in business."

"They'll get caught," Dr. Mike said. The air here reeked of sweat and adrenaline. "What do they do when they get caught?"

"Not our problem," said one of soldiers near him. That was Lockwood, Michael noted.

Michael nodded his agreement and placed one of the black commlinks into his ear. He turned to the driver, a fellow named Fleming. "Let's go."

Fleming dropped the gearshift into drive, and they went. So did the second van. The black duo slowly cruised through the lot and turned onto San Vicente Boulevard.

Michael turned back to face the men. "Kevlar, armor, jackets," he ordered. "Suit up. Pass two of everything up this way."

One of the men--Jelen, the dude who'd given John a hard time on the plane--flipped open a large container resting on the rear bench and began distributing bulletproof vests to the men. Michael watched Dr. Mike and John tug the vests over their heads and strap them together beneath the each armpit. The vests reminded Michael of sandwich boards. He could see John anticipated the vest to be much lighter (sorry, hoss, stopping a bullet don't come cheap), as he wrestled with the connector straps.

Next came the black combat jackets, snug around the midsection, lightweight and long-sleeved. Then the Kevlar helmets, also black. As promised, a strap of industrial-strength Velcro was placed on the right side of each. Then came the holsters, actually a waist/shoulder combo that sported a pouch for a sidearm, and a sheath for a combat knife.

Somewhere far away, the voice of Dispatch crackled on the police scanner. High-speed pursuit of the two white vans, heading east on Santa Monica. Shots fired. It was working.

Beretta M9s and ammo magazines were distributed--each man was given six magazines, thirteen rounds in each. True to his word, John declined the gun. Dr. Mike didn't, and as he loaded and switched its safety, he was clearly familiar with this pistol. Then the knives came, wicked things that snarled in the passing streetlights. Then the thermal imagers. Then the commpieces. Then the PDA wrist devices.

The soldiers were given XM8 compact-carbine automatic assault rifles, snub-nosed things with curved magazines. Neither Dr. Mike nor John received one of these. The criminal profiler was given a hand grenade, however, and a squeamish expression passed over his face as he hooked it through the loop in his chest harness as did the others.

We're all out of our comfort zones tonight, Doc, Michael thought.

The van cruised San Vicente, past the baseball diamond and tennis courts of West Hollywood Park. For a moment--just a moment--the West Hollywood Sheriff's Department building loomed on the right. No one spoke. Then they had the green light, and the vans sailed through the Santa Monica Boulevard intersection.

A left onto Cynthia Street, pass Hilldale. A right on Hammond.

Michael commanded Fleming to pull over at the corner of Hammond and Harratt. Up ahead, Michael saw the bright lights and passing cars of Sunset Boulevard. People ambled across the street. A threesome of tipsy coeds skipped on the sidewalk, arm in arm. Folie á Deux was a block away. The second van pulled up behind them.

Led by Michael, the soldiers placed their commpieces into their ears. Dr. Mike and John played catch-up.

"Comm check," Michael said. "Van One first. Smith."

"Fleming," the driver next to him said.


Down the line. "Tomasello." "Andrade." "Jelen." "Smith, John."

It was Dr. Mike's turn. "Smith," he said, then added quickly, "Uh, Doctor."

"Van Two," the marine said.

The voices came through clearly. Durbin. Weekley. Hall. Amador. Birdsey. Travieso. Rubenstein.

"Good," Michael said. "Get ready, boys. It's my voice from now on. We are go in five minutes."

The last block was driven in silence, without headlights. As they neared the club, Michael realized it was set next to another abandoned building on the property. Just beyond the club, on its east side, was a crumbling six-story, low-rent office building. Most of its windows were covered with boards plagued by dry rot.

The vans coasted into the parking lot, their engines off. Fleming quietly pulled the gearshift into park.

It was quiet. It was time.

"Ready steady," Michael said. "Three teams of five, just as planned. Don't talk unless I tell you to. Team One's with me. We head to the roof for a better look at the club's skylight. Teams Two and Three stay in the vans until I give the all clear. Then head to your positions. We're gonna keep this quiet if we can. No one's making the news and no one's making the blotter."

The marine opened his door and climbed out. The cargo door slid open. Jelen, carrying a large rucksack, stepped past the others. So did Lockwood and Tomasello. Dr. Mike and John (members of Team Three) stayed behind, peering out from the van's hold. Another soldier from the second van joined Michael's group.

The five men stepped briskly through the lot in a recon formation, toward the rear of the nightclub. The compact rifles were extensions of their arms now. They arrived at the brick wall. Michael nodded to his men, then stared up the side of the building, toward the roof.

"All right," Michael's voice said. "We're going up."


Father Thomas stared at the bank of monitors before them, here in the Common Room. Eerie. Nearly a hundred members of an army were there--in there, out there--acknowledging the orders given to them by a madman.

I comply

I comply

I comply

Kilroy2.0 chuckled, looked back at his fellow clones, and waved his arms toward the screens. "I knew they'd help us. We have two hours to slip through and get the information we're looking for: your paper trail of Alpha's disposable assassins."

He whirled back to his keyboards and began launching new computer windows. He didn't miss a mouse click as he spoke.

"Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't be easy," Kilroy said. His wild eyes narrowed. He sighed, then snarled, "Fedgov sites're nearly impossible to hack--most have that so-called uncrackable Egg encryption running in their defense software."

This is the most we've ever heard him speak, Thomas realized. Not as crazy as he'd like us to think, eh?

"Egg is dangerous stuff, truly wicked programming," Kilroy continued. "Malicious intent, all the way. Rusty-barbed-wire ware."

"I don't understand," Jay said.

"Of course you don't," Kilroy2.0 snorted.

"Easy, Kilroy," Jack said. "He just doesn't know." Jack turned to Jay. "Egg is the Next Big Thing in defensive software. I read about it, what, about a year ago in Newsweek. The feds, and presumably other governments, are clients. Lots of global retailers, too. From what I've read, it's a new breed of firewall program that protects Internet and intranet servers. Some Silicon Valley wunderkind developed the idea when she was still in middle school. That was two years ago; kid's working on a doctorate now. Can you believe it? After the company debuted--Mom's the CEO, natch--the kid placed an ad in all the major newspapers on every continent, which got a lot of attention. Kid challenged anyone--no, everyone--to crack Egg."


"Nobody has."

"True, true," Kilroy said, nodding and smiling. "Gov hacks are way down since Egg. Egg finds you poking a system it's protecting? Pings you with a tracker. Most security programs end there. Not Egg. Egg hacks you back, roots your box. Commandeers privileges. Makes a backup copy of your hard drive on its end for evidence. So while you're freaking out on your end, ripping the phone line from your PC, Egg's busy doing two things: cross-reffing your name and IP profile with your street address and phone number, and calling the cops. You're on the run after that."

"Goodness," Thomas said. "Is that legal?"

"As of this January, yes." Kilroy2.0 lowered his voice, doing an uncanny imitation of a game-show host. "This piece of legislation brought to you by the War on Terror. Patriot Act Three, the exciting conclusion to the civil-liberties-slaying trilogy."

Rack-a-tacka. Click-click. Giggle.

Kilroy grunted. "This is the real war. What John Alpha's doing. Feds never had a clue."

"Did you?" Jay asked.

Kilroy stopped typing. His fingers hovered over the keyboard. The manic energy left his face for a moment. His shoulders sagged. As he spoke next, even the perpetual tremor in his voice had nearly vanished. Thomas was surprised by the sudden lucidity.

"No. Heard rumors. Early stages of cloning. Accelerated growth on mice. Information that didn't come from my Twelve. My best sources are the Twelve."

"Knights of the Round Table?" Jay asked.

"Disciples. They're my eyes and ears, my protégés. Trained them myself." Kilroy turned and gave Father Thomas a wink. The conspiratorial edge was returning now. "If information hails from them, it's gospel. But the sources for those rumors were unreliable, spotty. Usernames I'd never seen before. Couldn't trust them. Didn't give it much credence. Creedence. Heh. Now there's a bad moon a-risin'."

A conspiracy nut with quality-control standards, Thomas thought. You just get more and more complicated, Kilroy. Whoever thought the paranoid community needed reliable sources?

Kilroy2.0 shrugged and began typing again. "Doesn't matter now. My flock will swarm the CDC network and ring the doorbells on those servers so many times, the starched-shirt buttholes in IT won't know what to do. They won't notice us. In about ten minutes, we'll have all the distraction we need to get into the Centers for Disease Control internal government mainframe, which, by the way, is protected by Egg. We'll access stuff you'd never find on the Web."

"But you just said Egg was uncrackable," Jack said.

"It is."

Raka-taka. Click.

"So how could we possibly get past Egg to access the information in the CDC?" Jay asked.

"I said it'd be extremely difficult under normal circumstances. This isn't normal. Let's just say I have a follower in high places. A friend who owes me favors."

Kilroy nodded toward the computer screens. His fingers let loose with an explosive string of computer code, and yet another chat window popped up on the monitor. He began to type:

> did you get my page? were you watching?

The program chimed, and a reply immediately appeared.

binary_fairy: yes

Kilroy2.0 smiled and typed his next message.

> can you give me a key?

binary_fairy: things must be serious

Thomas watched Kilroy closely. The man's smile had faded into a faint frown; he was nodding slowly. Kilroy typed his message.

> more than you know. more than i ever knew.

And then . . . nothing.

Thomas had quickly become accustomed to the whirlwind pace at which Kilroy 2.0 and his followers could chat. Almost faster than speaking. But now there was only cybersilence. For more than a minute they watched the screen. Finally:

binary_fairy: a temporally challenged backdoor key has been made. 24 hours. it's on the way.

Kilroy clapped his hands together and laughed. "See?" he cried. "I knew she could help!"

"Who's she?" Jay asked.

"Oh, don't be a fool. The inventor of Egg. The wunderkind. She's given us a key to the palace, good for an entire day. We're in. Hah!"

" 'A follower in high places,' " Jack said. "You weren't kidding."

Kilroy rubbed his hands together furiously. The computer beeped. Kilroy checked his e-mail, nodded, began typing again.

> got it. the prophet thanks you, my child

The reply came quickly:

binary_fairy: be careful

Kilroy2.0 closed the program's window and turned to the other clones. His face was triumphant, a grin splitting his shaggy beard.

Thomas couldn't help but smile, too. And now's a good time as any for the second half of my wily idea, he thought.

"You guys," Thomas said, standing up from the workstation. "You guys will be all right here, right?"

"What's the matter?" Jack asked.

"Here. Okay. You guys," Thomas replied, slipping the rosary back into his pocket. "You're good to go? Using the key? Getting into the files?"

"Should be." Kilroy2.0 slouched back toward the screens, chuckling and humming to himself.

Thomas walked over to the Common Room's round table and scooped up the onyx pistol that Michael had commandeered from Private Ballantine during this afternoon's Ops standoff. Thomas had never fired a gun, but it didn't hurt to have something that went boom for the sake of intimidation. He tucked it into the waistband of his jeans.

"Good. I'm taking off for a while. Dig a little deeper about this place. Work another angle."

He stepped to the double doors that lead out into the halls, out into the 7th Son compound.

"Where are you going?"

Thomas opened the doors and looked back at Jack. "I'm paying our dad a visit."


Michael gave the parking lot of Folie á Deux a final once-over, looking for curious Sunset Boulevard revelers who might take offense to the four machine gun-toting soldiers standing out here by the club's rear wall. Seeing no one, he turned back to Lockwood, Jelen, Tomasello, and Hall.

The young men were terrified, Michael saw. They'd have to get over it. Like, right fucking now.

"All right," he whispered into the mic. "Prep the grappler."

Jelen removed the rucksack from his back, pulled out two metal cases, and passed them to Lockwood. Their contents were assembled in seconds: a chunky pistol the size of a flare gun; a small canister of CO2; a fist-size spool of flexsteel cable; an arrow-shaped titanium bolt that connected to the cable, then slid into the gun barrel. The men in Force Recon called the gizmo a Rorschach. Michael didn't know why.

Lockwood passed him the grappling pistol. Michael tilted his head, aiming his helmet's thermal imager at Folie á Deux's concrete wall. The PDA screen on his wrist was dark; no hues of orange or red. He switched the helmet's imager to its second setting. No telltale bright purple lines coursing through the wiring. The building was empty, and off the power grid.

Not good. The bright glow from Sunset Boulevard's streetlights wasn't going to be much help inside. Hell, the full moon above them would provide better illumination; aside from its skylight, Folie á Deux was a windowless box.

Michael aimed the Rorschach upward and pulled the trigger. The metal arrow plunged into the roof ledge at the top of the wall. A nearly invisible cable of flexsteel danced in the shadows for a moment, then quickly sproinged taut as Michael gave it a tug.

Michael turned back to the men. Good. Jelen was sealing up his rucksack; the others had already slung their XM8s across their backs. Smiling to himself, Michael ascended the wall, feeling the cable passing over his palms, never making a sound.

Seconds later, he gave a brisk gesture to the dogs ogling from below. Get a move on, pups.

They did. The boys appeared a smidgen rattled and exhilarated and that was okay. They'd need that adrenaline. When the last of them stepped onto the roof, Michael spoke into his mic.

"We're in place. Teams Two and Three, take your positions and wait for my signal."

In one ear, Michael's commpiece whispered the men's grunts as they climbed out of the vans. With his other ear, he heard the faint sounds of the van doors opening, then closing. The rustle of boots and vague clink-clink of soldiers running with rifles. He could hear them, yes . . . but they were good.

He could imagine Dr. Mike and John in his mind's eye, running alongside the others. He frowned, then grunted. Now wasn't the time to think about them, or 7th Son. He pushed the doubt away with a flick of his mental wrist.

Here we go, said the calm voice in his head, the voice that sounded just like those of the musician and the shrink and the four other clones back in Virginia. Michael smiled at the irony before he cast that aside, too.

* * *

John pressed his back against the brick wall of the nightclub. His team was on the east side of the building, just below where Michael and the rest of Team One had slid across the sky. Dr. Mike was with John. So were Durbin, Andrade, and Travieso. Andrade was crouched in front of a metal door, one of two emergency exits the clones had red-circled on the blueprints back in the 7th Son Common Room. Andrade held a lockpicking device in his hands, less than an inch from the silver dead bolt. They were waiting for the go-ahead from Michael. Team Two would be in a similar position near the other emergency exit.

The cars and pedestrians streamed by on Sunset Boulevard, less than a hundred feet away. No one noticed them in the shadows.

John fought the instinct to hum a song--one of his, "Katabatic," a ditty about staying frosty, maybe--his usual self-prescribed cure for stress-outs. But here it would likely dilute his focus, give his head a familiar blanket in which to wrap itself. He didn't want that.

He blinked away a bead of sweat and looked over at Dr. Mike. Where were the quips now? The psychologist was just as shaken and stirred as John was. And why wouldn't he be? This wasn't their world. They were not built for this.

Well, that's not exactly true, is it, Johnny-Boy? a side of himself whispered. Good ole Mikey Marine took the road less traveled and he's built for it just fine, a real killing machine. Which means, somewhere deep down, you're a killing machine, too. Aren't you? He's dedicated his life to something, something real, something with goals. And you? Not so much, wanderer. But you come from the same killer stock--

"Damn it, hush," John whispered.

The men around him flinched at the sound. Dr. Mike gaped at him, blazing with fear and adrenaline. John shook his head, his eyebrows raised: I'm okay. I'm okay.

"Cut the chatter," hissed Michael's voice over the commpiece.

John angled his head toward the side of the building, then looked at the PDA strapped to his arm. The thermal imager scanned through the wall, the PDA screen flickered black and shades of dark gray.

Nobody's home. So what were they waiting for?

A Corvette screeched past them on the Strip. The Vette's engine roared, a woman shrieked in glee, the deep bass of a Missy Elliott song thudded into the distance.

Andrade's hands trembled slightly as he held the lockpick centimeters from the door.

Durbin and Travieso exchanged fearful glances.

Dr. Mike licked his upper lip.

What's taking so long?

Only a minute and fifteen seconds had passed since they had come to the door. Time is funny that way.

* * *

Michael passed the propane glass-cutter back to Jelen, who promptly packed it into his rucksack. Lockwood and Hall gently tugged the large-handled suction cups that had been placed on the skylight glasspane, and it slipped out of its frame. Slick and as silent as oil, the work of salty pros, not FNGs. Michael nodded approvingly. When the chips are down, most any man will rise to the occasion. These fellows were no exception.

The pair placed the man-size sheet of glass to the side, then got to work on setting up the rappelling ropes. Michael peeked at his wristwatch. A minute-twenty had passed since he'd ordered the teams to get into position. Good time, given the circumstances. He scanned the interior of the club with his thermal imager again. First the ground floor: the bar, the dance floor, the DJ booth, the thirty-foot-tall silver statue. Next, the second floor: the catwalk circling the perimeter of the club, the glass-encased VIP lair. No body-heat thermal readings. Good. Michael's PDA screen winked faint reds and oranges on the north and east sides of the club at ground level . . . but he knew those were his boys the sensor was reading. They were patiently waiting outside for the go-ahead.

Soon, gentlemen. Soon.

The ropes were ready now, and so were his four teammates. They connected their carabiners to the ropes and waited by the skylight. The fear was in their faces, pouring from their pores. Michael looked at them, and when he spoke, he knew all three teams could hear him.

"Ready steady, men. You're smarter and stronger than this. Listen to me and use your brains."

He took a deep breath. Jelen, Lockwood, Hall, and Tomasello look relieved. Good. And now--

"Go," Michael said, and jumped down, rappelling into the darkness of Folie á Deux. The soldiers followed him. "Go. Go. Go. Go."

* * *

John heard the signal and turned to watch their team's keymaster. In one fluid movement, Andrade plunged the lockpick into the door's dead bolt, twisted the device clockwise, and yanked open the door. Durbin and Travieso dashed in, their XM8 machine guns ready, their eyes flitting from the darkness of the club to the LCD screens on their wrists. John came in next, then Dr. Mike, pointing his pistol ahead. Andrade pulled up the rear.

It wasn't completely dark in Folie á Deux--the dance floor was dimly illuminated from the moonlight streaming through the skylight. John saw two members of Michael's Team One descend like spiders from the skylight and scramble into the shadows by the DJ booth. Team Two, charged with getting through the other door, was already inside. They, too, ducked into the shadows.

The building's blueprints had been accurate: by Team Three's emergency exit was a stairwell. Durbin, the team's point man, scanned the second floor with his thermal imager. They climbed the stairs to the second-floor catwalk, above the dance floor.

To the right, the catwalk arced past a row of semiprivate nooks with chairs and couches, then ended at an observation deck at the rear of the club. To the left, the path was a straight shot toward the front of the club, ending at what once was a theater balcony--now a posh VIP section. John looked past the railing in front of him and spotted an identical catwalk on the west side of the club. This second level was a like a curved racetrack, designed for watching whatever was happening below. The bartender inside him fleetingly appreciated the place. Nice digs.

Andrade and Travieso cocked their machine guns over the railing and did a visual/thermal sweep of the catwalk across the way. No thermal signatures. Durbin nodded and raised a clenched fist: Hold this position.

Michael's voice crackled in their ears. "Leaders, report. Team One inside, no sign of enemy."

"Team Two inside," another voice hissed through the comm. Probably Amador's. "The only thing we're reading is you guys."

"Team Three in," Durbin said. "Catwalk secured. Lotta nothin' up here."

"Quieter than we expected," Michael said. "Good. Take a look around. The building's been taken off the grid, so don't bother looking for electrical signatures. Go from thermal to night vision. Break up into teams of twos and threes."

John tapped the button on the back of his helmet camera until his PDA wristscreen showed the characteristic green hues. Durbin pointed at John and Dr. Mike and then to himself. You and you with me, he was saying. John nodded and stepped over toward Durbin. Dr. Mike was behind them.

They walked toward the front of the club, heading toward the VIP lounge. The team's other half stepped off in the direction of the observation deck.

Now that he could "see," John realized the club was about the size of a small warehouse, with walls that seemed to stretch upward forever. He imagined the place in its previous movie-house incarnation--hundreds of red-velvet chairs sloping downward from the lobby, a projection screen the size of a barnside, Fleischer Superman serials flickering on-screen.

They continued in silence toward the VIP lounge/balcony, stepping past more couches, chairs, and tables. The club's geography spread out before them in infrared green.

And there it was. John had spotted it long before now, but didn't want to look at it until they were closer: the club's testament to its name . . . the tangible realization of the Folie á Deux disorder. The silver statue.

Its aluminum surface glinted menacingly in the dim light, much of it lost in shadow. But the massive shape was unmistakable: two human forms, slipping around another in a helix, then merging into a single streamlined, churning vortex at its base. Their bodies arched toward the catwalks on either side of the club.

Durbin made a motion with his hand--Come on!--and John caught up with him. They stepped closer to VIP, a human fishbowl with lush curtains hanging from its ceiling.

The commlink crackled in John's ear. "Wait." The voice was panicked. "No, no, waitwait, waitasec. Something--"

Not Michael's voice. Someone from his own team? John whirled around and saw . . . what?

There. Impossible. A man flying off the catwalk, somersaulting, legs swimming back and forth in a green blur, heading for the center of the dance floor . . .

holy shit, was that Travieso?

. . . and now a shape (no, a shade) emerging from one of tiny nooks, planting a buck knife squarely in Andrade's Adam's apple, the blood spurting black into the air, Andrade's eyes wide and neon green with surprise . . .

it was safe up here, it was safe the imagers told everyone, itwassafe

. . . the sickening crunch of Travieso's body landing twenty-five feet below . . .

"CONTACT!" shrieked Durbin beside him. "East catwalk! North side!"

Several voices barking in John's ear now.

"Don't see--"

Michael's voice: "Quiet! Shut up, shutup--"

Andrade's death rattle crackled over the comm. The shade began striding down the catwalk, toward John.

no gun, sweet Jesus, I'm dead, no gun

"I see 'im!" someone cried. "Up on the catwalk! Shadow! Looks like a fucking shadow!"

That's when the shooting began.


Father Thomas encountered no one on his trip to the elevator. The cleaning crew and guards he'd seen this morning were long gone. Evacuated, as Kleinman had said.

Thomas strode down the halls, passing the closed doors and keypads, following the DNA mosaic embedded in the walls. The tilework was a preposterous, pompous thing, but it also provided a road map to the compound's express elevator.

He placed his eye up to the silver machine in the wall. Recalling what he'd seen earlier in the day, Thomas leaned his face near the machine. A green light blinked across his eye.

The computer gave an approving chime.

Pistons whined as the door opened once more. Thomas stepped inside the elevator, giddy and fearful. He stood in silence for a moment, befuddled, waiting. Finally, he remembered.

"Uh, computer?"

"HERE," came the metallic ceiling-voice.

"Yes. Yes, you are. Ah--computer, prepare destination."


"Level Fourteen." During this morning's tour, Kleinman had said the living quarters were there.


The trip wasn't as unnerving as the first two had been. The plummet downward didn't seem to take as long, either: Level Fourteen actually seemed closer to the surface than the Ops and Womb levels.

The elevator doors slid open and Thomas stepped cautiously into the hall. No one was there to stop him, beat him, cuff him, throw him back into the grand circular prison cell called the Common Room. The hallway curved off in opposite directions. He had no idea where to go. Had no room number. Heck, I don't even know if this is where they've got him locked up.

And Hugh Sheridan was locked up. Thomas was certain of that. When they were back in the Ops room and Sheridan had screamed at Kleinman, those two Jerry Springer bouncers had yanked him out of the room--metaphorically kicking and literally screaming. Hugh Sheridan knew something. Something about this place, maybe something dangerous. He'd gone postal when Kleinman started talking up that doctor--the so-called founder of 7th Son. The late great Frank Berman. Tell them the truth, Dad had said.

The grunts had hauled him out . . . and Kleinman had told the clones that all would be explained later. Ruse. Kleinman wouldn't make time for explanations. Thomas was realizing that he and the rest of the John Smith Betas had been brought here to unscrew John Alpha's head. Kleinman, Hill, and Durbin thought the clones could outsmart 7th Son's Frankenstein monster. End of story. Thomas and his brothers had been given the least amount of information to work with, a Reader's Digest version of how they came to be. Thomas couldn't see Kleinman spending hour after hour answering questions. That would take them away from the Great Villain Hunt . . . and that wasn't going to happen.

Which is why Thomas needed to see dear old Dad.

I'm not your father, he had said.

True, but we'll sweat the semantics later, Thomas thought. So. The hall. Left or right? East or west? Bubble gum, bubble gum, in a dish, how many pieces do you wish?

Thomas went right.

He passed door after door, all slate-gray variations of the Star Trek doors he'd seen up on the Common Room level. Each had a small keypad embedded next to the door. Almost all of these little keypads sported tiny metal grilles and flashing red lights. Thomas had seen enough action movies--we all have our harmless vices, Hong Kong actioners especially--to assume the pads were connected to intercom systems, and the doors were locked.

Most of the doors had numbers stenciled on their surfaces (14.10, 14.11, 14.12), but some had names just below the numbers.

He kept walking down the curved hallway. Past Kleinman's quarters now, Hill's, Durbin's, DeFalco's--and then Thomas knew exactly which room his father was in. A soldier was guarding the door. The name sheridan was printed on the door's surface.

Thomas got a look at the soldier's face as he neared, and stopped. It was the green-eyed military man. It was the man who, just yesterday, had told Thomas he "didn't want any trouble" in St. Mary's hospital parking lot back in Stanton, Oklahoma. The man who'd pointed a handgun at my chest.

His own personal boogeyman, guarding the door.

Thomas felt his confidence wither, like time-lapse footage of a dying rose.

"No admittance," the soldier said. Thomas thought fleetingly of locked gates and private doors. He read the name tag on the boogeyman's chest. stone.

How appropriate. Thanks for the irony, Lord.

"I have to see him," Thomas said simply. "You know that."

"You're not going to." The grunt glanced down at the gun at Thomas's waist and stiffened.

Thomas lowered his head, then looked back at Stone. "Don't worry. I won't use it. Thought it would be a good idea for, you know . . . for show. And I suppose there's no way I'm getting in. Not while you're here."

"That's right." Stone smirked. "So leave."

"I'm a black belt," Thomas said.

The soldier blinked. "So you said. And so am I. Do really you want to do this?"

Thomas smiled, shaking his head. "Kleinman and Hill. They expected me, or someone who looks just like me, to come down and try to see him. That's why you're here, babysitting the old man locked behind that door. My father."

"I said leave."

"I know, I know." Thomas raised both hands: I surrender. "But please, take a moment and try to see things through my eyes. Sympathize with me. Empathize. I thought he was dead. T-boned at an intersection. I've dreamed about him for the past fourteen years. I had nightmares about how he must've died--swallowing broken windshield, a headlight flying off the other car, smashing into his skull like a cannonball. But he's alive, brother. To me, it feels like something out of a zombie movie. And then they hauled him away and locked him up here."

Thomas looked into the soldier's eyes. "So you have to at least understand why I'm here. You have to understand why I have to try to see him. You must give me that much."

"I don't have to give you shit."

"So it's a stalemate, then."

"Guess so," Stone said.

* * *

As Father Thomas sighed and leaned against the wall on Level Fourteen, Jack, Jay, and Kilroy2.0 were observing future history being written on the screens before them. Kilroy2.0's hacker army had assaulted the Centers for Disease Control's Web site in an unprecedented coordinated attack. Every shred of bandwidth dedicated to the agency's Web site became suddenly dedicated to the onslaught of countless page hits. A mouse click in Topeka fired a thousand "pings" to the CDC Web server. Another in Des Moines fired five thousand. This created a bandwidth logjam: the server could no longer grant normal Web-surfers access to the site at all, due to to the plague attacking its system. One 404 Web-site error message became ten, then one hundred, then a thousand. It was the Internet equivalent of rush-hour gridlock.

While government information-technology brainiacs undoubtedly wrung their hands in puzzlement--after all, who slams the Centers for Disease Control?--Kilroy2.0 used binary_fairy's key to slip through the Egg security software's back door.

Kilroy2.0 pointed at the CDC home page on a far monitor. A cryptic "Host Unavailable" message was displayed where graphics and text should have been. "Superduper," he said. "Now. Our turn. The stuff we're after is too sensitive for norms and lamers. Likely stored on one of the CDC's independent computer servers."

The computer chirped an approving noise, and Kilroy slapped his hands against his knees. His massive gut quaked as he gave another high-pitched laugh.

"The data is ours for the taking! The line is scrambled and the only ones who'd notice are busy restarting the crashed-o-rific public servers." The hacker leaned even closer toward his monitors. "So let's start looking for NEPTH-charge victims."

The CDC's intranet access page was a sterling example of graphic minimalism. At the top of the window was the organization's slogan, neurological disorder, personality change,, as was the logo of the Department of Health and Human Services. A light-blue column on the left side of the screen displayed a list of security-related text links: NEDDS Protocol & Guidelines . . . X.509 Certification . . . IRMO Monitoring . . . Report Unauthorized External Users! The center of the page was sprinkled with links to various sections of the network. Kilroy2.0's mouse sped across the screen, left to right, as he read the links.

>White Papers/Releases

>Community Bulletins--Low, Med, High

>Studies (Ongoing)

>Studies (Concluded)

>CDC/ATSDR Archives

>File a CIO Request

>Search DBase, MFrame, SQL

Kilroy2.0 clicked the last link. A new page loaded, a spartan screen with a simple text-search field. Beneath the search field was a grid of clickable boxes, designed to narrow the search.

"Should we do searches based on individual obituaries, or in individual states?" Jay asked doubtfully. He took a seat next to Kilroy. "Going through those on the newswires didn't seem to work very well."

"Agreed," Jack said. He plopped down in the chair at Kilroy's left side. "Kilroy, can you do a more generalized search, based on location? Maybe instead of city- or state-based searches, we go all out with a regional search request?"

Kilroy's fingers were already skittering across the keyboards. "No. More ambitious. Nationwide search."

He typed in the search field a vague list of symptoms they'd thought a NEPTH-charge victim would experience: neurological disorder, personality change, etc., set the search to retrieve documents from the past six months, then clicked the send button. A timepiece icon flashed on screen as the network processed this.

"So what do you think's going on down there?" Jay asked.

"Clarify," Kilroy2.0 said.

"Down there." Jay pointed to the floor. "With Thomas and the man we think is our father."

"Preposterous," Kilroy answered. "More lies, obviously."

"That's the voice of a paranoid talking," Jack replied.

Kilroy2.0 chuckled. "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to hack you. People who rule do not rule by sharing all of their knowledge, Jack. They rule by sharing selections of knowledge. Selections that will influence those around them to pursue an agenda." The man's eyes glittered behind his pop-bottle glasses. He nodded enthusiastically to his other brother, his greasy bangs bouncing. "It's called manipulation; ask Jay here about the grinning despots he's encountered in his career. We've been given select parts of information to ensure our cooperation--but we haven't been told the truth. Surely you can know that."

"We are owed details, that I won't argue." Jack's voice was low, defensive. "I want to know, more than any of us. But it'll take time for those details to come."

"When?" Kilroy's eye flitted to the screen. The search was still running.

"Just after we finish this . . . and just before I go home to my wife and my little girls."

The computers belched a series of chimes. The three clones turned to the monitors. The intranet search was complete.

"Mamma mia," Jack said, gazing at the screen. "Look at all of them."

There were dozens of results, each an arcane sequence of numbers and letters. Many of the results were colored in ubiquitous hypertext-link blue. But at least ten of them were red. A menacing animated logo pulsed beside each of these file links. CIO AUTHORIZATION REQUIRED: LEVEL 7, they read.

"These are the ones we should look at," Jay said, as he reached forward and tapped the throbbing logos. "CIO is government-speak for Center/Institute/Office."

"What does it mean?" Jack asked. "Don't we already have authorization?"

"I'm not sure," Jay said. "This looks like another level of security in the system. Let's say there're hundreds--maybe thousands--of professionals who have access to the CDC intranet. That doesn't mean they're all allowed the same level of access." He tapped on the logo again. "This is the sensitive stuff. The stuff that Joe Professor or Joe Doctor in Nowhere, Nevada, can't get to. It's been my experience that either you have CIO authorization or you don't. Those who need access to protected files can ask for a limited pass. Their request is reviewed by whoever grants CIO authorization. We've broken into the house, but we've encountered a locked door inside."

Jack turned to Kilroy. "So can that golden ticket of yours get us into the chocolate factory?"

Kilroy steered the mouse pointer over one of the red links and clicked. A small window popped up in the center of the screen. Checking authorization . . . , it read.

A moment later, a new message appeared. Authorization approved. The forbidden page began to load. The first several lines of the document screamed at them in

-point type.

Report # nu4446-ot-898vf

Security Clearance: Level 7 (upgraded from Level 2, see related docs)

Incident Location: Arkansas, Heber Springs

Summary: Sudden Neurological Atrophy, 10 Dead

Viral Classification (if applicable): UNKNOWN

BioSafety Level: UNKNOWN (study ongoing, see related docs)

"Doompadeedoo," Kilroy said.


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