For a moment, Kenneth Kleinman considered straightening his tie and rolling down the sleeves of his white oxford, but it was far too late for such bullshit. He looked up at General Hill's face, looked down at the soldier's spit-shined boots, and quickly pulled out the black plastic comb from his breast pocket to style what little hair he had left. He and Hill had become unlikely allies these past fifteen years, and Kleinman half-expected the general to rattle off the usual smirky insults about the old man's appearance. They didn't come.

"Are you ready?" Kleinman asked.

"Of course," the general said. The black man's voice was a stern baritone.

Kleinman stared at the closed door before them. It was curious, this anticipation churning inside him. He felt giddy, grave, and unsettled.

Kleinman turned back to the door and told Chapman, Hill's baby-faced assistant, to unlock the dead bolt. Before he did, the lieutenant unsnapped the holster strap covering the grip of his sidearm. This was procedure, Hill had explained. Nothing personal.

Chapman opened the door. He went in first. Then the general. Kleinman whispered a prayer and followed.

All seven were at the table. In all of Kleinman's eighty-three years, no experience was as exhilarating as seeing them here, together.

The marine was standing, of course. General Hill returned the salute, and the young man sat down, clasped his hands, and waited. The others' expressions were a menagerie of terror, expectation, and what appeared to be quiet gratitude. They had probably expected another one of "them" to walk through the door, Kleinman realized. The men didn't look at each other. They looked at the towering general. They looked at Chapman, who was packing acne scars and a loaded weapon. Then they looked at Kleinman.

Chapman closed the door and stood before it. Kleinman sat down at the head of the table. His sweaty palms slipped on the dark wood.

"Gentleman. My name is Dr. Kenneth Kleinman. I'm the man Dr. DeFalco told you about; I'm the head of this facility. This is Brigadier General Orlando Hill. He oversees security and operations."

The silence didn't last long.

"You are so fucking sued," one of them said. It was Dr. Mike, Kleinman noted; the well-dressed criminal profiler. The yeller-not-a-fighter. "The whole. Fucking. Lot. Of you. I want to know what the hell's going on. I want to know why a punk put a gun in my face before I was about to go on live—fucking live—television. I want to know who these people are." He looked around the table. "These . . . these . . ."


Jack said that, Kleinman saw. Last to be captured. Potbelly, beard, wire rims. Father of the twins. The geneticist. If anyone here could understand and appreciate what was about to come, it would be him.

Kleinman said nothing. He had known it would be this way, known it long before he'd stepped through that goddamned door. Let them speak. Let them vent. Just let the question come, the billion-dollar question, the question that would tear the roof off this place and cannonball these men into revelation and—if we're not careful—revolution.

"Where are we?" That was Thomas, the priest. He clutched his rosary. The beads chittered against the wood. The man was on the verge of tears.

The one called Kilroy twirled his drinking straw, compressed its flexible neck, then pulled it taut. Compressed it again, pulled it taut. The sound unnerved the trembling man to his left. Jay. So nicknamed in college, for there were too many students with the same name in his Foreign Policy class.

Ah. And there was John. The bard, the black sheep.

"Are we brothers?" the young man asked.

Kleinman sighed. There it was. The stone had been thrown into the lake; it was time to watch the shock waves. It was far too late for apologies, for pandering.

"You're more than brothers," Kleinman said. "Much, much more."

* * *

The child had been conceived in a saucer under a microscope, observed by more than a dozen scientists who had vowed years before—under Code Phantom orders, which meant under penalty of death—that they had made peace with playing God and were fully committed to their clandestine project. The child's mother and father were nameless donors selected from a tome the size of a Chicago white pages.

His parents' heredity, genetics, education, and major life accomplishments had been summarized into ten-paragraph biographies, just like those of the thousands of other unwitting participants. The father's proficiency in athletics and mathematics made him an ideal candidate for the project. The mother's brilliance in art, biology, and language was coveted by the 7th Son team. She was also unspeakably beautiful.

On January 1, thirty years ago, their sperm and eggs were removed from cryostorage, thawed, and prepared for eventual artificial insemination. The parents weren't invited to the conception. Security was the overwhelming factor, of course—the project was Code Phantom . . . beyond Top Secret, beyond Eclipse Command.

Practicality also contributed to the decision. The father had been dead since 1967; the mother was then sixty-four years old. The lab-coat folk didn't think the woman would have taken the birth in the best of spirits.

The conception was successful on the third attempt, and the zygote was implanted into a surrogate who was paid an astounding amount of money to not ask questions. After the child's birth, it would be given to Dania and Hugh Sheridan, scientists working on the 7th Son project. Dania was one of the head technologists; Hugh was the lone child psychologist on the 7th Son staff. They would raise the child together as planned, in the way suggested by the scientists and the cadre of child specialists (who hadn't the foggiest to what project they were contributing when they were questioned by Sheridan, Kleinman, and the rest). The goal: to make the child the most well-rounded person it could be; to encourage the youngster to excel in any hobby or academic interest it pursued, or was connived into pursuing, if need be. Love the child. Gently push the child. Introduce religion, culture, athletics, and art to the child. Let the child grow to be playful, curious, and serious.

It would need the most supportive childhood possible, after all, if it was to be destined for great things.

The Sheridans changed their last name to Smith and moved to Indianapolis, as ordered. Regular reports by the "Smiths" and the 7th Son support staff who'd also moved to Indy would keep the project's leaders at the Virginia headquarters informed of the child's progress after the birth.

That September 7, John Michael Smith was born.

* * *

A moment after John connected the dots—right after the impact of the words John Michael Smith was being collected and fired from his neurons—Dr. Mike attacked. The room's silence was shattered by Mike's scream. He was already climbing across the table before John realized what was happening.

Dr. Mike's hair had quickly torn free from its blow-dried style and had descended onto his brow in thick, knife-shaped shards. His eyes bulged. His knees slid and slipped on the tabletop. One of his loafer-clad feet nearly kicked John in the face. The dude was fast and frantic, and on Kleinman in seconds.

He shook the geezer, screamed this was bullshit. Somewhere, one of the seven was shouting for help, another was cackling the word "conspiracy, conspiracy" in a singsong voice, another still was shouting to stop it stop it he's trying to tell us something. At the end of the table, the priest whispered, "That's my name," over and over.

John sat there, disconnected, disbelieving, as if this were some improv performance in which he and these other players would smile and shake hands afterward. It felt like a dinner mystery. Yes, very much like that.

Lieutenant Chapman grabbed Dr. Mike from behind by the Brooks Brothers coat and yanked him off the table with one arm. Mike spilled to the floor, swearing and screaming. Chapman placed his .45 against the side of Mike's head and cocked the hammer.

Dr. Mike stopped in midswing and stared into Chapman's eyes. It was like hitting pause on a videotape, or watching two kids play freeze tag. Mike's mouth hung open for a moment, his fist still in midair. Chapman dug the barrel into Dr. Mike's temple—Are we all on the same page here? his eyes said—and Mike dropped his arm.

Chapman's gun did not budge. Kleinman was up from the table, wiping his glasses furiously. General Hill stepped between Kleinman and the derailed assailant, his shadow sweeping over Dr. Mike like a thundercloud.

"I will not tolerate that behavior," Hill said, his voice low and cold. "Not here. Not in my post. Do you understand me?"

Mike looked up and nodded. Chapman pulled the gun away and resumed his place by the door. Hill whirled around and pointed a dark finger at the rest of them. The fat lunatic stopped giggling.

"That goes for all of you. I'll say this one time. Violence will not be tolerated here, in this room, in this facility. You're wondering why you're here. You're hoping you've slid over into some Twilight Zone episode. You haven't. This is real, and it's only the beginning. So shut up. Listen to Dr. Kleinman."

As Kleinman stepped tentatively back toward the table, Hill cleared his throat. "And if any of you so much as daydreams about attacking this man," he said with an icy whisper, "I'll take you down myself."

The dude gargles crude oil, John thought.

Dr. Mike sullenly shuffled back to his seat, primly brushing his rumpled suit coat. Kleinman sat down and adjusted his spectacles.

"I know how all this must seem," Kleinman said, and shook his head. "But you must trust the general and me." He waved his hand across the table, from one side to the other, as if introducing two groups at a dinner party.

"John Michael Smith . . . meet John Michael Smith," he said.

At the other end of the table, the priest began to cry. "What is this all about?" Father Thomas asked.

Kleinman offered him a tired, sympathetic smile.

"It's about the greatest experiment ever conducted in the history of our species."

* * *

Hugh and Dania Sheridan, now Smith, raised the boy in Meridian-Kessler, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Indianapolis. They followed the child-rearing plan outlined by the project leaders and encouraged Johnny Smith in every way they could.

Johnny was raised Catholic, just as his mother had been. Although Dania was an agnostic by the time she'd entered the 7th Son project and Hugh was an atheist who had suddenly found himself in a foxhole in the name of science, they created a more than convincing portrayal of the "casual Catholic" family. Dania baked cakes for the fish-fry cake wheel, Hugh helped set up booths at fund-raisers. They never pushed the Catechism down their son's throat, but simply explained the core beliefs of Christianity and told Johnny there was a God if he believed there was one. They also taught their son religious tolerance: Judaism, Buddhism, a smidgen of shamanism, atheism.

Johnny took a shine to athletics early in life, thanks to his biological father's abilities and the ordered encouragement of his adoptive parents. T-ball and YMCA soccer were early obsessions, but—as with most children raised in Indiana—basketball became the sport he enjoyed most. When Johnny was five, Hugh installed a wooden backboard on the rear side of the garage, facing the cobblestone alley. They practiced free throws before dinner, and Hugh would always place Johnny on his shoulders for a slam dunk just before they raced each other, laughing, back to the house to eat.

Thanks to Hugh's former profession as a child psychologist, the couple explained complicated matters to the boy in terms he would understand. The family went to art galleries, attended operas and plays—potentially stodgy affairs for even the most patient of adults—and made those trips exciting for the child. Paintings were like windows into the mind, they'd say. Concerts and plays were like mythical creatures that lived for only a short time, disappeared, and were reborn at the next performance. Each incarnation was a little different, and that's what made them special. Like the phoenix? Johnny had asked after seeing a performance of Peter Pan, and the parents had smiled proudly. That's right. Just like the phoenix.

He grew up listening to 33s of Mozart and 45s of the Beach Boys. Dania would sing along and play accompaniment on the grand piano in the living room. Johnny liked it best when she'd bang out the thunderous opening chords of the Fifth Symphony and then suddenly nose-dive into "Roll Over Beethoven." The connection was not lost on the boy. He laughed every time she did that. She did, too.

Finger paints gave way to watercolors; free throws to flip-wrist bank shots; trikes to bikes.

Class sizes were small at the private grade school Johnny attended, and thanks again to his biological proclivities and his parents' unwavering encouragement, he excelled in all subjects. Johnny would become bored in his classes, but he never became a behavior problem. He simply wrote stories and long-division equations to keep occupied.

He was blond, beautiful, loved by his peers and teachers. He took karate classes and piano and guitar lessons. He played forward on the A team of his middle-school basketball team. He was an altar boy at his church. He traveled with his parents to the Indiana farmlands for picnics, and to nigh-magical places during summer vacations: Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, even Paris and London. His parents taught him the difference between confidence and egomania.

Through it all, the 7th Son team members were notified at least once a day of the boy's progress. The Virginia team leaders gave guidance where necessary, but since they were now creating and testing the technology for the project's Beta Phase, they had entrusted much of the daily business to the Indianapolis team. Pediatricians, family friends, occasional after-school tutors, and babysitters: many were 7th Son support staff, documenting the child's progress from the outside looking in, nearly always confirming the data Dania and Hugh were sending to Virginia.

When he was twelve, Johnny received the Catholic sacrament of confirmation. After careful research, the boy selected Thomas, after St. Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of scholars, as his confirmation name.

Johnny had no living grandparents. He was told Dania was an only child, and both sets of grandparents had died before he was born. The only family John knew of were a far-flung uncle named Karl, his father's brother, and Karl's wife, Jaclyn. John had never met them. His father had only one photograph of them, which he carried in his wallet: a tiny, out-of-focus Kodak print from the late sixties. In the picture, Karl and Jaclyn were sitting on a picnic table, laughing at the camera. Her long brown hair was blowing in the wind, forever frozen in a grainy blur. His large, dark sunglasses matched the color of his collar-length hair. Karl and Jaclyn sent postcards from wonderful places with strange names: Caracas, Panama, Newfoundland, Beijing . . . each a geography lesson waiting to be unearthed. Transfixed by such adventures, John asked what his uncle and aunt did for a living. They worked for the United Nations, Hugh explained.

John attended an exceptional public high school, excelled in his freshman honors classes, and was exposed to many of the races and religions that he'd learned about in his youth. He loved public school, loved the clashes of skin colors and lingo. He tried out for JV basketball and was accepted. Johnny also excelled in track-and-field hurdling. He fell for a girl and received his first kiss one October night at the high school's homecoming game. They dated, if after-school McDonald's shakes could be considered dating. One day, he playfully told his mother that he would marry Patty Ross. Dania told him to be careful about making such assumptions about the future. Lots of things could happen from here to there, Dania warned.

The next day, John's parents were killed in a car accident.

The family was on its way to catch an evening showing of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Johnny would remember getting into the car, Dad turning on Lindstrom Lane, seeing the headlights rushing through the stoplight, rushing toward them . . . hearing his father slam his hand on the horn . . . the snarl of the oncoming engine . . . his mother's shrieks.

He would open his eyes two years later in a strange city and meet his aunt and uncle for the first time.

They would tell him he had spent his fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays in a coma.

* * *

The marine broke the silence:

"With all due respect, sir, I'd like to know exactly how you know the greatest-hits version of my childhood. How you know about 'Roll Over Beethoven' and—"

"Your childhood?" said Jay, the thin man who'd fainted an hour ago. His voice was incredulous. "That's my childhood."

The giggling lunatic smacked his fat palm against the table. "Mine."

Two voices in unison, Dr. Mike, the well-dressed psychologist, and Jack, the bearded geneticist: "And mine."

John stared at them—stared at them staring at each other—and looked at Kleinman for a heartbeat, an infinity. He felt the tears well up in his eyes. Kleinman offered a gentle smile. This was a nightmare, John realized, a postcoital nap thanks to Saturday Sex with Sarah. Any second now he'd wake up, shake his head, and have a smoke, one of the last in the pack. Any second now. Anysecondnow.

He watched Thomas the priest clutch his rosary and shiver.

John wasn't waking up.

Kleinman removed his glasses and looked at the seven of them, one by one. John, the ponytailed, lanky black sheep. Michael the marine, the warrior, body-perfection personified. Kilroy2.0, the obese, bespectacled lunatic hacker. Father Thomas, a hero at his parish in Oklahoma. Jack, the pudgy, bearded geneticist. Dr. Mike, the well-coiffed criminal psychologist on the cusp of micro-celebrity. Jay, the United Nations humanitarian.

Kleinman spoke to all of them now.

"This is going to be hardest part to believe, but you must, because we don't have time for the alternative. You weren't in a car accident sixteen years ago. Johnny Smith was drugged that night. At dinner. The car wreck was a ruse to create a memory of danger, to create a 'splinter' he could come back to later in life, to examine. Something to remember.

"Johnny Smith's parents took him to the Indianapolis team, who in turn brought him here, to the Virginia facility."

"I don't fucking believe this," Dr. Mike said.

"Shut up," General Hill snarled.

"It sounds impossible, but John Smith's memories," Kleinman said, "all of them, every emotion he ever experienced during his first fourteen years—every fantasy, every dream, every prayer—were recorded and uploaded into the giant hypercomputer beneath this facility. There the memories of John Michael Smith were converted into electronic form, digital data stored for two years while Beta Phase began."

Dr. Mike: "What the—"

"Shut up," Hill said.

"With the blood samples we'd taken during those years of research, we retrieved John Smith's DNA—entire genomes, complete chromosomal strands—and cloned him," Kleinman said. "Cloned you. Seven times. In seven biotanks. All at the same time. During the two missing years in your memories—the two years you were told you were in a coma—we grew those seven clones to sixteen-year-old maturity using an accelerated growth process. We took those seven sons with their seven vacant minds . . . they had no life, and no life experiences to remember . . . and 'downloaded' John Smith's childhood memories into their brains.

"You see, these clones weren't just genetically identical. You were intellectually identical. Emotionally identical. You were the perfect, complete copies of John Smith 'Alpha.' The same memories, the same . . . human spirit, if you will.

"And so, each John Smith 'Beta' awoke in a city that was not Indianapolis. And each John Smith was told his parents were dead. Each of you had an Uncle Karl and Aunt Jaclyn to raise you, to physically rehabilitate you and to reintroduce you to society. We chose to blame the post-in-virtualvitro muscular state on atrophy caused by the coma. The ultimate goal? To have each clone go into a different career field."

The men sat in silence for a moment now, processing what they'd just heard. Finally, a question from the pudgy, bearded clone.


"For many reasons, Jack. As a geneticist, you can probably anticipate my answer," Kleinman said, "the most important being to ensure the cloning and memory retrieval and insertion technology worked. But many of us approached this as the ultimate nature-versus-nurture experiment."

"My parents. They're . . . they're alive?" It was Father Thomas.

"The people you remember as your parents, yes, they're actually alive," Kleinman said. "Your mother is alive, yes. Your father, he's here, in this facility."

The group began to unhinge again; a common growl rose from the seven as their confusion spilled forth. Chapman, who stood beside the door, instinctively placed his hand on the butt of his sidearm. Dr. Mike's voice rose above the rest. He stood up, red-faced. The spot where Chapman's pistol muzzle had dug into his temple flared like a burner on an electric stove. His blue eyes blazed.

"Out! Out! Get me the hell out of here!" Mike screamed.

"Gentlemen, please—," Kleinman began.

"Mom and Dad, here?" Father Thomas.

Giggles. Kilroy2.0.

"—the fuck out of here!" Dr. Mike shrieked.

General Hill took another step forward and pointed his finger at Mike. "Sit down."

"Blow me."

Hill rushed the table, but Michael stood up and stepped in front of the general. The marine's muscles flexed gracefully, his hands raised in a cartoonish We come in peace pose. Hill stopped and looked the young man in the eyes.

"What do you want, marine?" Hill snarled.

"I just want to know what's going on, sir." Michael's clipped, efficient tenor finally broke into a quiet desperation. "I want to know what the hell's happening here."

Hill forced a furious exhale through his nostrils and looked over at the old man. "Tell them, Kleinman."

The old man removed his glasses and tossed them on the table.

"We need you to stop him. The man you were cloned from. John Smith Alpha."


The stars. It had been years since John had seen them so clearly. Miami smog, Miami lights—they killed the view of all but the strongest stars, even if you were gazing from the beach. Only Orion seemed brave enough to cut though South Florida's midnight haze; only Venus was vibrant enough to shimmer from the horizon. To see stars like this, you had to be far from big-city lights. John reckoned they were probably in farm country.

He took a drag from his Camel Light. The old scientist Kleinman had given him a pack as they left the conference room three hours ago. The others here had said they didn't mind the smoke. He exhaled, watching the blue-gray smoke swirl out over this strange circular room, up and up, finally dissipating against the domed skylight above them. It was like sitting at the bottom of a grain silo. He was encircled by eight sets of doors. One led to a hallway. The rest, to seven small apartments. Living quarters.

He was surprised more of them weren't out here in what Kleinman called the Common Room. How could the other "Beta clones" sleep behind those doors, behind those one-way mirrored windows, in those small dorm rooms? How could they ignore the funnel cloud of questions? Yes, John was exhausted, but he wasn't ready to turn in. Would he ever be? Could you ever be, after staring into six pairs of your own eyes and hearing that your childhood was a glorified computer file, swapped from one disc to another? That you had been grown in a jar? Could you ever be, even if you didn't believe any of it?

John wasn't willing to find out just yet. Neither were Michael nor Jack, apparently. It was late, but the three of them drank coffee and sat on the circular couch in the center of the room and, like long-lost family, endured long silences with strange, strained smiles. It was early Sunday morning. Less than a day had passed since their abductions—or in the case of the marine, since reporting for duty. John now knew a little about each of them. He supposed he knew everything about them to a point . . . to age fourteen . . . if what Kleinman had said was true.

The conversation came in herks and jerks at first. Talking about being clones was off-limits. But John sensed a subconscious need between them to talk, to share. He likened it to the bond cigarette smokers have with each other: pariahs, relegated to puffing outside, huddled away from the office doors where clients might pass and make judgment. When you spot a kindred smoker—stranger or no—it's almost second nature to make small talk. After all, you have at least one thing in common.

And John, Jack, and Michael certainly had something in common, didn't they?

The trio broke the ice by chitchatting about what they did, and whom they loved.

Michael was a captain in the Marine Corps; he had a home in Colorado. Single, but seeing someone. When pressed, Michael revealed his lover's name: Gabriel. "You asked, I told," he said to them, smiling. "Gabe's great. I was supposed to go home and see him. He's probably worried." Both John and Jack could sympathize.

Jack was the number two guy at the Recombinant Genetics Lab at the University of Arizona. He had a wife, two kids. Twins. Sometimes irony is as delicious as a nectarine.

John told them about his life, unglamorous by comparison. No globe-trotting or gene-splicing adventures here—no government-sanctioned murder or mutated mice, for that matter. Just a thirty-year-old jack-of-all-trades who'd leaped off the college track to travel, play guitar, and try to write a decent song now and then. He'd done Nashville and some of Georgia before heading to Miami. It wasn't too late to break into show business, if that was something he wanted to pursue. It was never too late to do that. But he'd done just about everything under (and in) the sun to keep the lights on in the meantime. Worked construction, drove a cement mixer, tended bar. He was a part-time shot-pourer at a South Beach nightclub these days and spent the rest of his time pulling handyman duty at the small art gallery where he had met Sarah.

The conversation was eerie. Like reading a letter you wrote to yourself years before. Like talking to yourself in the bathroom mirror with the door closed. No. More uncanny and invasive than that. It was almost like chatting with your mind-self, that all-knowing judge/jury singularity inside your head. The You that only you know about, the You that knows all the lies you've told, all the silent good deeds you've performed. The You that rarely escapes the straitjacket of social graces, the politics of pleasantry . . . the You that is as brutally honest as it wishes to be. It has that luxury. After all, it lives in your head.

But not anymore. Now it's sipping coffee, and staring into your eyes.

"Do you really think Kleinman was telling the truth?" John asked softly. "About this, us, all of it?"

The marine took a sip of his black coffee and placed the Styrofoam cup on the circular coffee table. His forearms are huge, John thought.

"I've been thinking of a million different explanations," Michael finally said. "Identical septuplets—if there's such a thing—separated at birth. Plastic surgery. Brainwashing. Each idea I come up with is easier to explain than what the old man said today. Clones? No way. I mean, no offense, but you guys look nothing like me. Your bodies, I mean. Your complexions." Michael smiled, and John marveled that he'd seen that smile in the mirror a million times. "I'd never let my body get like that."

Jack chuckled and peeked down at his potbelly. For a moment, it was reflected in his glasses. "None taken. I've got a serious sweet tooth."

"One side of me says this cloning thing is too far-out to be true," Michael continued. "That what he said is all science fiction and I shouldn't believe it. The other side of me says it's so far-out, it must be true. If it weren't, why feed us such a line of convoluted bullshit?"

"I thought the same thing," John said. Surprised, he paused and took a drag off his smoke. "The exact same thing."

"And that's the truly far-out part," Michael said.

Jack frowned and rubbed his beard. "No. I can't reconcile the information," he said, shaking his head. "I can't put it all together. What that old man—"

"Kleinman," John said.

"Yeah. What he said is impossible. Cloning? That I can grasp. I do that on mice; swipe and swap genes to create knockout variants. But cloning a human: that's a more complicated matter, infinitely more difficult to pull off . . . and that's with today's technology. But we're talking about something that supposedly happened more than fifteen years ago. We—I mean, scientists—we were still waxing romantic about mapping the human genome back then, like it was a fairy tale. You know, something we'd discover while zipping around in our flying cars."

John and Michael smiled at that.

"But toss in that bit about recording human memories and growth accelerant, and you've converted me from skeptic to flat-out cynic," Jack said. "The technology doesn't exist. It doesn't. And it certainly didn't fifteen years ago."

Jack looked at John, at his long hair, slender face, and wiry arms. John felt like a suitor being once-overed by the prom date's parents.

"Something remarkable has happened to bring us here, that I'll admit," Jack said. "But there are more rational explanations than what I heard today. There are too many questions. Too many variables. Hell, you could all be actors wearing prosthetic makeup, reciting lines to make me believe I'm part of some government conspiracy."

He nodded to the double doors at the front of this circular room, the doorway that led out into the halls of 7th Son.

"I'm waiting for Allen Funt to come into this room and tell me I'm on Candid Camera. That's a better—and perhaps the easiest—explanation for all of this. The joke's on me."

Michael shook his head; John noticed how similar this motion was to Jack's, just seconds earlier. Monkey see, monkey do.

"Then it's on me, too, hoss," Michael said. "I'm not wearing makeup, and I'm not reading lines. Now I've seen equipment out in the field—shit, I've used equipment out in the field—that civilians never knew existed. I've worn things you'd think were brought back from the future. I can buy what the old man said; there's plenty of tech none of us'll ever know about. But I swear to God, I don't have the foggiest what's going on here."

John smirked. Michael and Jack looked at him, curious.

"You swear?" John asked.

"That's right," Michael said.

"Pinkie swear?"

Michael paused, blinking. Then they all laughed; it was good to laugh, to crack the piano-wire tension, to hush the questions rattling in their heads.

Michael picked up his mug of coffee, took a sip, and grinned. "Aw, man, that was good. Pinkie swears. Do y'all remember pinkie swears?"

Pinkie swears. John's mind raced back to cobblestone alleys and guitar lessons and Mom and Dad and—

He dropped his cigarette. "We all do. Don't we?"

* * *

John, Michael, and Jack sipped coffee and told stories. As an experiment. To see if what the old man said was true.

"Okay. My first memory," John began. "You'd think it would be music, if you knew me. But I remember flying, believe it or not. Flying in the arms of my father, at a park . . ."

". . . flying like a fighter plane," Michael said. "I was scared, hoss . . . I was screaming and then I wasn't . . ."

Jack: ". . . because I was intrigued, I suppose, because I was seeing the world from another vantage point, seeing possibilities swirl around me, watching my field of vision rise and expand, like climbing a hill and looking down at where I'd started . . ."

John: ". . . then I saw Mom waving from the picnic blanket, her blond hair swirling in the wind, the reds and whites of the blanket so vibrant, like Technicolor . . ."

. . . like an old John Wayne movie . . .

. . . like a high-contrast photograph, with the whites blown out and the reds dancing across the eyes . . .

and the grass, far below

green as anything; green as jade

Dad's face, looking up at me, seeing him laugh

hearing him laugh

and hearing me laugh, too.

I never forgot that.

First kiss. The chill of the fall weather, football weather, the roar of the homecoming crowd, the shared hot chocolate, Patty's mittens, my black, knit gloves with the fraying leather palms, her face near mine, her lips, soft and salty and moist, her tongue, tiny and tentative, slipping into my mouth, the holding of hands, the racing of my heart, head swimming, delirious, somehow noticing the bright purple fringe of her scarf and thinking it was all a wonderful dream

The Grand Canyon. Realizing how large it was and how small I was . . . hearing Dad say how it'd been there millions of years before me and how it'd be there long after . . . how insignificant I felt, and how I told Mom that I felt like nothing, like a grain of sand . . . she said it was okay to be humbled. She said to remember something so large was created by something as seemingly insignificant as a whisper of wind and a trickle of water . . . over time, little things change the face of the world; little things create great things, Johnny. You may be little now, but . . .

Never forget that.

Cornfields, combines, Frisbees, the soul of places—Listen with your ears. What do you hear? Now what do you feel?—the crisp ping of red dodgeballs, the squeaks of sneakers on basketball courts, the rattles of loose guitar strings and slippery plinks of misplayed piano keys.

Mom and Dad

"and kisses—"

"and headlights—"

"and screams."

John, Jack, and Michael stared at each other, stared at the pink sunlight creeping through the skylight, stared into themselves. They shared something intimate, alienating.

Memories. Every last one.

To a point. A flashpoint of bending metal and shattered glass.

The old man had been right.

* * *

Dr. Mike couldn't sleep. Wouldn't sleep. He lay in bed, staring up at the dark ceiling, then over at the door and then to the one-way mirrored window looking out to the Common Room (he'd closed the blinds as soon as he came in here). The room's simple setup had immediately reminded him of a college dorm room: a small, connected bathroom, a bed, a chest of drawers (filled with new Tommy and Polo khakis and shirts, all his size, things he would wear—and is it reasonable to assume the others have similar custom-picked duds? Yes, yes, it is), wall-mounted bookshelves, a desk, a gray telephone, and a chair. Of course the phone didn't work.

But dorm room was a charitable description. This was a prison cell, Dr. Mike knew. He'd seen enough cells over the past two years while researching his book.

Dr. Mike kicked away the bunched bedsheets at his feet. He rubbed his temple, the bruised spot where that round-faced soldier's gun barrel had dug into his skin. Mike's mind raced over the past day's events, settling on the face of the old man . . . the old man who'd recounted Mike's childhood. He told me I was a clone, Mike thought, sneering. He told me that I was grown in a lab and my parents are still alive.

Bullshit. Parents were dead. Sixteen years gone.

Why was he here? Why was he here, really? Dr. Mike had asked the old man that. Larry fucking King, book tour, all derailed, he had pleaded. Hunting the Hunters would fade fast without hype—and he needed to be there for the hype.

Kleinman had shaken his head and apologized and said everything else would be explained tomorrow. In the meantime, no phone calls, no e-mails, no cell phones or text messages. Just a promise of a tour of the facility after breakfast and many answers about "why you are all here" and "7th Son" and "John Alpha." Big meeting in the morning. Get some rest.

As if.

John Michael Smith, Alpha. The so-called source of some impending doom and, according to Kleinman, the source of Dr. Mike's body and mind.

Again, bullshit. Never, ever.

Dr. Mike started, sat up. He heard something from beyond the door, hailing from the Common Room. Laughter. Mike stood and peeked through the closed blinds. Three of his fellow captives, sitting on the circular couch in the center of the room. One of them—the marine—had a Styrofoam cup in his hands. Another was picking up a cigarette that he'd dropped on the floor. They were getting to know each other.

A frantic thought shot through his head.

What if it was all true?

Mike began to sweat suddenly. No. It's not.

But what if? Look at them. They're cut from the same cloth. They're cut from your cloth. What if they really were clones, and there really was a John Alpha out there . . . and what if you could help take him down? That's what you do, isn't it? That's what you've done dozens of times. Taken down the bad guy.

Mike tore his fingers through his hair and sat on the bed again. He held his head in his hands.

You are a criminal psychologist, buddy. Wrote a book on the subject. If this is all true, you can help get into Alpha's head. You do that, save the day, and then they'll let you out.

Dr. Mike placed his fingertips to his temples. He felt the bruise. His eyes narrowed.

No. He couldn't believe it.

And he wouldn't help them. He wouldn't help them at all.

* * *

In his heart, Jay knew it was all true—despite the protestations of his left brain, despite the inner voice that had politely advocated and then screamed for him to employ common sense. Because what Kleinman had said made no sense at all.

And yet, in the realm of Jay's experience, it did. In his years working for the United Nations, he had traveled to hungry—and power-hungry—nations as a field agent for the OHCHR, the UN's human rights watchdog group. He had witnessed things that defied rationality: land mines in farmer's fields, runoff from biochem facilities trickling directly into water supplies, grinning despots glad-handing and denying reports that millions of their countrymen were being eaten inside out by AIDS.

When you've stared at the green teeth of an Afghan who has to eat bread made from grass to survive, human cloning seems almost yawn-worthy, he thought.

Almost. Jay had fainted, after all. It was too much—the kidnapping, the surreal vision of six "hims" sitting around a conference-room table. That's why he'd beelined to his living quarters when Kleinman had led them to the Common Room. That's why he had shut and locked the door, drawn the blinds, and hunkered down. He needed to be alone, not bonding with the clones.

Bonding with the Clones. Sounded like a game show. Family Feud, eat your heart out.

Jay smiled. That's something Patricia would've laughed at. He ached for her, desperately wanted to talk to her.

Bitterness swept over him. Christ, what would he say, given the chance?

Jay sighed and stared through the darkness at the digital clock resting on the desk: 4:30 a.m. He folded his fingers together and gazed at the glint of his wedding band. He missed his wife. His East Village apartment. His job. The routine. The normalcy.

Another minute ticked away on the clock's LED.

Funny, how—in a way—the job had prepared him for this. View enough corruption and starving masses and you learn to become detached, analytical. That's the key to avoiding burnout. Empathy and impartiality are different beaches. You either wash up on one and scream like a savage or come to rest on the other, pull out your clipboard, and get to work. Information, not passion, is best used to facilitate change. The seven of them were going to be put to work somehow; that much, Jay knew. It was best if he tucked in his metaphorical shirt, put on his tie, and contributed.

Besides, when the man with the gun asks for your wallet, you give it to him.

But questions plagued Jay tonight. Big ones, about the past. If Kleinman was telling the truth, had Jay's parents taken him to art galleries because they wanted to, or because they had been ordered to? Where was the line? Where did parenting end and working for this experiment begin?

And after his parents' "deaths"—and his relocation to Omaha to live with the fabled Uncle Karl and Aunt Jaclyn—just how many paths of Jay's adult life had been altered (or ignored altogether) because of some scientists broadcasting secret messages from a bunker in Virginia? What kind of life could he have lived if he hadn't listened to his new parents?

Where would he be? What would he be? A soldier? A scientist?

Jay bit his lip.

Had he even had a childhood at all?

* * *

He giggled in the dark. He nodded and shook his head furiously. It was wonderful: the walls spoke here, too. They instructed him. He checked under the bed, in the desk, in the drawers—even inside the commode—for surveillance. There was none, though that didn't stop the walls from warning him that he was still being watched; that pinhead-size vidcams were installed everywhere in the room, and nano-mics were undoubtedly floating in the air and in his lungs, broadcasting everything he said, every heartbeat.

Kilroy2.0 appreciated such warnings and told the walls so. It validated his own suppositions about this place. Eyes and ears would be everywhere. The Pedestrian cogs would try to glean the secrets of his omnipresence. They would fail.

Many things had been validated this day, had they not? Kilroy2.0 preached from his Web-site pulpits, and through his myriad contacts on the Web—especially his faithful Twelve: binary_fairy, blackjack, Accidental.Rob, Special(k), switchhit, and others—he had heard rumors about accelerated growth and neural datafiles long ago. His contacts were good apostles, delivering those fleeting whispers from faraway sources. And from his pulpit, Kilroy2.0 announced his prophecies. He exposed conspiracy.

Now he was conspiracy.

Kilroy lay in the dark and stared at the walls—into the walls. He listened for guidance. The walls finally spoke again.

kilroy2.0 is here kilroy2.0 is everywhere, they said.

there you are, he replied.

you are no longer in the timeless place, no longer in the temple

i know, the worker bees took me

it no longer matters you are home


a new home for now; there is something important listen to us

i am listening

the life of your Before has returned; the ghost of your former life it haunts you

i don't understand

it is a splinter invading your divinity it is fallible the you/notyou can destroy you

please explain

kilroy2.0 was beginning and end


now you are only omega the end; your Before ghost haunts you declare war

on who

on he who is you/notyou he who is not omega



john alpha is the beginning

you are the end

i will end the beginning

to save yourself you must slay your self

i shall

you will help these bees, these cogs, Pedestrians; together you will find the alpha; together you will slay him


kilroy2.0 is here, the walls said.

Giggles in the dark.

"Kilroy2.0 is everywhere."

* * *

Father Thomas was the only one of seven to sleep that night.

He dreamed of hellfire, of burning flesh, of demons devouring legions of the damned. He saw fields of crosses, tens of thousands stretching into the crimson horizon. Christ hung from each one. The Messiahs wailed his name.

Thomas passed through crowds of stigmatic children who smeared their blood upon their faces. Fallen angels raised their charred wings to the orange sky and screamed. Thomas saw his mother and father, very much alive, fucking in the flaming blood of skinned goats.

Spikes of rock shot forth from the ground, impaling the unfortunate. All around, a symphony of screams.

Thomas wandered to the field of crosses and knelt before his Savior. He wept. The tears sizzled on the earth and evaporated.

Leave This Place, Christ commanded.

Thomas gazed upward. "Lord?"

You Do Not Belong Here.

Thomas smiled gratefully through his tears. "Can you help me, Lord? Can you deliver me to heaven?"


Thomas faltered. "Why, Lord?"

Christ smiled, his mouth slowly tugging at its sides . . . tugging apart, splitting, and becoming serpentine . . . bloodstained teeth suddenly dripping fangs . . . His crown of thorns transforming into great horns. Thomas shrieked.

You Belong In Neither Place, the thing said, and ripped its left hand free from the nail. It caressed Thomas's cheek.

"Why? Why?"

Isn't It Obvious, Fleshling? You Have No Soul.

Father Thomas awoke at daybreak, clutching his cheek and screaming.

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