Authors: Ben Bova
I picked up one of the glasses and poured from the same decanter the General did. Took ice from the same bucket with the same tongs. It was straight rye; not my favorite, but he was drinking it, so I sipped at mine.
He leaned back in one of the deep leather chairs. "You know about the cloning, then."
"Yes . . . and the fact that two of the clones have been killed."
"They're dead," he insisted. "That doesn't mean they were murdered."
"Peña can prove it, if he wants to."
"Don't be too sure."
At that moment, the door opened again and Dr. Peña wheeled into the room. He did look even more frail and drawn than when I'd seen him ten days ago. His face was sinking in on itself, cheeks hollow and eyes cavernous pits so deep you couldn't see any spark of life in them. The skin on his hands seemed paper thin, so that every tendon and blood vessel stood out like a drawing in a medical textbook. He was wearing an oversized caftan, although for all I know it might have fitted him perfectly at one time. The robe bulked oddly, showing the outlines of the equipment that was fastened to his body.
The General shot me a black look as Dr. Peña wheeled his chair slowly toward us. He was saying,
See? You've come to persecute a dying man.
God help me, I had just the opposite reaction. I wanted to pump his information out of him before he dropped dead.
"You asked me to join you," Dr. Peña said to the General. It was a flat statement, neither questioning nor accusatory. His voice was a bare whisper, nothing like the strong baritone he had commanded back in Minnesota.
"Our pesty friend here," the General waved vaguely in my direction, "has found out about the cloning. Now he thinks I'm responsible for the deaths of Joseph and Jerome . . . and for Dr. Klienerman and that Secret Service agent."
Peña turned his head slowly from the General toward me. "That is nonsense."
"Who killed them, then?" I asked.
His chest rose and fell twice before he answered, still in a breathless whisper, "Why assume . . . they were . . . killed? I told you . . ."
"You told me the two duplicates of the President died of unknown causes."
"Yes . . ."
"Does that sound like a natural death? Do people normally just—turn off, stop living? Isn't there always some
of death? Heart attack? Stroke? Cancer? Gunshot wound? Something?"
"Usually . . . but . . ."
The General broke in. "You don't understand the situation at all, dammit! Stop browbeating the man."
explain it. You tell me what the situation is."
He glowered at me. "I still want to know just what in the hell is pushing you, Albano. What's in this for you? What do you want?"
For an instant I got a mental picture of retiring in luxury to some South Pacific atoll. And the next instant I saw myself in the lagoon with cement boots and a delegation of sharks coming to destroy the evidence.
"This may sound kind of hokey to you," I said, "but I shook hands with the President of the United States and agreed to do the best I could to help him be the best damned President he could be. Somebody's trying to kill him, or replace him, or fuck up his name so thoroughly that he'll have to step down. I want to prevent that from happening. That's what's pushing me."
"And you think I want to kill my own son? Or hurt him in any way?"
"You tell me."
Dr. Peña fumbled under his caftan and pulled out a face mask. He clamped it over his nose and mouth. Oxygen. He waved feebly with his free hand, telling us to continue.
"You were saying that I don't understand the situation," I said to the General. "So explain it to me."
He gave Peña a worried glance, then hunched forward in his chair and stared hard at me. "You know how I acquired control of North Lake Labs, I suppose."
"We figured it out."
"Nothing really illegal about it, you realize, although I suppose some purists might rant about conflict of interest."
"You weren't the first Pentagon officer who made himself rich." Oh, goodness, was I being tough.
He grunted. "Do you know
I bought North Lake?"
"To get rich quick."
A sardonic smile this time. "Sure. And do you know why I wanted to get rich?"
"To help make my son President."
"Yes," he said. "That. Every man wants his son to be President, right? It's the great American fantasy. But I knew how to make it happen. I
I needed three things: money, and lots of it; a laboratory facility that I could control absolutely; and this wonderful old man here, Alfonso Peña."
"So you made a son and had him cloned."
"Exactly. And do you know why? Do you understand why he
to be cloned? Why there had to be more than one James J. Halliday?"
I started to think about that one, but the General didn't wait for my retarded thought processes.
"I didn't just want my son to go into politics," he said, edging forward eagerly in his leather chair. "I wanted him to be President! Which meant he had to be a better politician than anyone else. And more knowledgeable about economics. About defense. About foreign policy, and labor, and commerce, and welfare, and everything else that the President gets hit with."
It was starting to dawn on me.
He bounced up from the chair and started pacing the room, face glowing with ancient excitement, arms gesticulating.
"Look at the Presidents we've had before him! Half of them were clowns who didn't know anything—not a damned thing—except how to win an election campaign. Public relations candidates! Once they were in office they turned into marionettes, run by whoever got closest to them, manipulated by their own White House staffs.
"And the other half . . . even worse. Single-minded ideologues and fanatics. Jurgenson and his New Capitalism. Fourteen million permanently unemployed and he's building a retirement villa for himself on public funds. No wonder there were food riots. And that idiot Neo-Socialist Marcusi . . . I still think he was a Mafia candidate . . ."
"So you were going to produce the perfect President," I said.
"Damned right!" He pounded a fist into his palm. "A candidate who knew more about the problems
than any single human being could possibly know. A candidate who had all the time he needed to make the right political contacts, and all the time he needed to learn everything there was to know about every problem area of the Presidency. The perfect candidate and the perfect President."
"Each member of the clone group is an expert in a different field," I said.
The General nodded hard enough to send a lock of iron-gray hair down over his forehead. His eyes were bright. "The boys were trained from childhood, from the time they were old enough to read. They knew their mission."
"How many of them were there?" I asked.
"Eight. Eight brothers . . . James John Halliday and his seven identical brothers. My son. My sons. Eight sons—and one. Eight bodies and brains, but all the same. My only son—the President of the United States."
"They were not . . . totally identical," Dr. Peña's weak voice whispered.
The General frowned. "Yes, sure. Not fully identical, no more than identical twins are exactly the same. They all looked and acted alike, but each one of them is a little different from the others. They all have their own little quirks. The psychologists claim . . ."
"One of them," Peña gasped, "died . . . in childhood."
"Died? Of what?"
"Doesn't matter," the General said, annoyed. "He died of natural causes."
But Dr. Peña, his oxygen mask fallen to his lap, said, "Smallpox. He died . . . of smallpox."
"The inoculation . . . when we vaccinated him . . . his body failed to develop the immunological response . . . instead of developing . . . an immunity to the disease . . . he died from it."
The General seemed angry again. "But the others were all healthy, perfectly sound. There's always a runt in every litter."
Peña seemed to want to say something more, but instead he fumbled for his oxygen mask and lifted it up to his face.
"So there were seven brothers—identical septuplets—running the campaign for the Presidency."
"That's right," the General said. "You've dealt mainly with James John, the first of them. He's the public-image maker. He makes the political speeches, handles the personal contacts. He's good at it."
"Damned good," I said.
"On occasions, as I understand it, you've dealt with James Jackson and James Jason—economics and foreign policy. And Jerome—science policy. He's the one who died in Boston. Johnny had to give Jerome's science speech for him. If those two cops hadn't surprised my men in the alley there . . ." His voice trailed off. Might have beens.
"And I thought it was just moodiness, or the pressures of the day," I said, more to myself than to him. "I never knew the difference from one to the other."
"Nobody does. Nobody except Robert Wyatt and a dozen of
people who work inside the White House."
"Which is why security has always been so tight around him."
"Not security. Privacy." The General's mouth curled slightly. "It wouldn't do to have somebody like you burst into the Oval Office and see three or four Presidents conferring with each other."
"Jesus Christ," I muttered.
"So there you are," said the General. "No plot. No cabal. No attempt to kill the President and slide in a phony look-alike."
"But two of the clones have died."
"Three," said Dr. Peña.
I turned to him. "Three? Besides the one who died in infancy?"
"Yesterday . . . in Washington. When I got the news . . . I must have collapsed."
The General's face clouded again. "It was Jason. They've shipped the body to North Lake."
"How . . . how did it happen?" I asked.
"Same as the others," the General said. "He was working in his office in the subbasement of the White House and they found him collapsed at his desk. The body was still warm."
Suddenly I was on my feet. "Somebody's methodically killing each one of them."
But the General grabbed my wrist and yanked me back down to my chair. "Stop looking for plots under every piece of furniture, dammit!"
"But . . ."
"Look at me," he commanded. "Do you think for one instant that if I thought somebody was killing my sons,
I'd sit here and let the bastards get away with it? Or the President would allow his own brothers to be murdered without finding out who was doing it and nailing him? Do you think this planet's big enough for such a murderer to hide in? It's not."
Finally I was beginning to understand why the President had kept the investigation so small, so tightly secret. It was a family affair, and no outsiders were wanted or needed.
"But what's killing them?"
"They're dying of the same thing that killed Jesse, in infancy. Somehow . . ." and he looked at Dr. Peña as he spoke, "somehow their immunological systems are breaking down. Their bodies can't protect them from germs or viruses. Their biochemistry is screwed up and they die from the slightest infection . . . anything, a scratch, a common cold could kill them. Somebody sneezing in the same room."
A clatter made me turn back to the doctor. He had let the oxygen mask fall to the floor.
"No," he said, as strongly as he could. It was only a harsh whisper. "That is not true! They are not . . . it cannot be true."
"Alfonso, nobody's blaming you . . ."
Dr. Peña shook his head from side to side. "No, my old friend. You do not understand. We have checked. We have performed tests. The immune defenses of the body . . . do not suddenly disappear . . . They cannot."
The General went to his side. "Now don't excite yourself."
"But you must listen!" Peña could barely get enough breath into him to wheeze out the words. He lifted one frail hand and pointed at me. "He . . . he is more correct . . . than you are. They . . . they are not just dying . . . they are being killed . . . murdered . . ."
"But how?" the General demanded. "You said yourself that there was no sign of violence. No poison. The deaths were from infections . . . they were natural.
"No." The doctor's voice seemed to be coming from far away. "They . . . are being . . . murdered."
His head lolled back. His mouth sagged open. His chest stopped heaving. General Halliday looked up at me, and damned if there weren't tears in his eyes.
Only twice in my life have people close to me died. Both times by chance I was out of town when it happened. And I stayed away. I avoided the wakes, the funerals, the sobbing relatives and somber friends. It all seemed so pointless, so futile. Maybe I was scared, deep inside. Maybe I saw myself in the coffin, or was afraid I would.
I stayed for Peña's funeral. I'm not sure why, but I stayed. The General's people did it all very swiftly and efficiently. The old man was buried in the woods behind the General's main house. They had to clear off the thinning layer of snow that was still on the ground to dig the grave. The soil was frozen; the digging was hard work.
It was a very small band of mourners. The General, Robert Wyatt, a few of the General's hired hands, Peter Thornton from North Lake—trying not to look pleased that he was now in charge of the lab—and me.
And the President.
A local minister said a few hushed words and they lowered Peña's coffin into the ground. I knew instinctively that there were already three other graves under the snow, with flat little markers that said "J. J. Halliday." A fourth one would be dug soon.
That night the General, Wyatt, the President, and I ate a quiet dinner together. Thornton had flown back to Minnesota immediately after the burial service. The President turned out to be James Jeffrey, the specialist in defense policy.
I still couldn't quite get it through my skull that he was one of eight identical clone brothers; one of four remaining brothers. Hell, he was the President! Every bone, every fold of skin, every gesture, every nuance of voice: the President. His eyes, the way his hair flopped over his forehead, the kind of grin he gave me as he kidded me about reading the old Watergate tapes for a lesson in how
to cover up a White House secret. He was the President, the only one I'd known. There couldn't be another one just like him. My brain and guts and soul refused to accept the idea. He couldn't be one of a set of eight. Or seven. Or four.