But this research into cyborg technology proved to be a dead end. It became clear that it would never be a feasible means of sustaining or prolonging life, especially with the more promising advent of stem-cell research. At that point in time, the Bloodline turned its eye in a new direction, forsaking the macro world of robotics for the micro world of genetics.

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But even Robert didn’t have full access to that newest venture.

Instead, he’d been left to oversee this older project. Neuro-robotics still showed the potential to be a lucrative new weapons technology for the military. If rat brains could fly jet planes years ago, why not something more ambitious for the battlefield of the future?

“Let me give you a demonstration of the hexapod,” Fielding said.

The researcher opened the titanium carapace of the metal crab, exposing the microelectronics inside. He seated the neural cylinder into the electrode base at the heart of the pod and secured everything in place. Next, he carried the device to a neighboring chamber in the clean room. It had been set up as a test maze—but this was no ordinary flat puzzle. This labyrinth filled the entire ten-by-ten chamber, rising through fifteen levels of tunnels, chutes, and spirals.

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“I ran the hexapod through this maze once already today. Now watch.”

Fielding inserted the crab-like machine through a lower slot, sealed the door, and used a Bluetooth device to activate it.

Tiny green lights flared along a groove that ran around the periphery of the hexapod’s carapace. Titanium legs stretched and tapped.

Robert leaned closer, unimpressed. “Why isn’t it—?”

The creature shot away, dancing on its six legs, gaining speed until it was a silvery blur. It sped through the maze with unerring accuracy, no doubling back to correct a wrong turn. It had remembered the complex path through the maze perfectly.

“I’m estimating the new brain’s neural intelligence is about that of your average canine,” Fielding said proudly.

A half-minute later, the hexapod reached the exit platform near the top, skidding to a stop.

Robert grinned. “Impressive.”

Fielding matched that expression, thrilled at the rare praise. He reached to the door and unlatched it. Before he could swing it open, the hexapod rammed forward. It burst out and latched its legs onto the researcher’s forearm. The sharp-pointed legs dug into his flesh. Blood seeped through his white coveralls.

“Motherf—” Fielding yelled and hit the Bluetooth controller, powering down the hexapod.

Still, he had to return to the table and manually pry each leg out of his arm to get it to release.

“The aggression of this newest generation is also through the roof,” Fielding said, wincing and nursing his bloody arm as proof. “I’d say we’ve engineered the equivalent of a limbic region of the mammalian brain, the lizard intelligence buried beneath the cortex, driven by base needs for survival.”

“For a battlefield weapon, that’s not an undesirable trait.”

“True.”

“And speaking of battlefields, you promised a field trial of the latest hexapods. That’s why I came all the way down here in person.”

“Of course. I have a monitor set up over here with live feed from the Lodge. Everything’s ready. They’ve been waiting for the green light.”

Robert followed Fielding to a fifty-two-inch HD monitor. The screen was subdivided into sections, each offering a different bird’s-eye view of a remote and isolated patch of woodland hills hundreds of miles away.

The centermost square showed a small concrete bunker sticking out of a meadow, like a giant anthill. A metal door sealed it shut.

“If you’re ready?” Fielding said.

“Get on with it,” Robert snapped.

Fielding spoke into a cell phone. Moments later, the metal door burst open and a woman was shoved outside. She wore a hospital gown and nothing else. She stumbled to her knees, shielding her eyes against the midday sun. Robert absently wondered how long it had been since the young woman had seen actual sunlight.

From the way she jumped and glanced back to the door, someone must have barked at her.

“They’re telling her to run if she wants to live.”

Robert frowned, not appreciating the sadism. This was an experiment, not a bloody sport, and should be conducted as such.

The subject took off for the forest at a dead run.

“There!” Fielding pointed to movement through the grasses, a dozen arrows, aiming for the fleeing woman. A pair split off, zipping away faster, intending to flank her. “Look how they’re pattern-swarming. I employed a new wireless communications system and linked the individual hexapods to one another, allowing them to function as a group or pack. Look how quickly they’re learning.”

Robert watched—half-aghast, half-excited.

The woman made it to the edge of the woods, but she must have heard the hunters. She looked over a shoulder, and the horror of what she saw tripped her feet. She fell to her knees, her mouth open in a silent scream.

Then the hunters reached her.

It did not take long.

Fielding held his chin in one hand, appraising the trial. “The new battlefield modifications of the pods seem to be working as engineered. The circular blades, the razored leg flanges … all performed flawlessly. I may want to tinker with the digging spades, see if I can get them to burrow better.”

“I’ve seen enough,” Robert said, straightening and stepping away.

Fielding followed him. “With your approval, I’d like to move the testing forward into the larger quadruped line.”

“That would be fine.”

Fielding pressed him. “But I’d need a few more test subjects. Something more challenging.”

Robert pictured the macerated remains of the woman on the screen. “I’m sure we can find them somewhere.”

SECOND

HEAVEN AND HELL

18

July 2, 11:56 A.M. EST

Charleston, South Carolina

Captain Kathryn Bryant had come to sell her body.

She stepped off the crosstown bus into the steamy swelter of a Charleston summer. Her worn sneakers crunched in the gravel at the shoulder of the road. She pulled on a pair of cheap sunglasses purchased at the airport against the glare of the sun, but they did nothing for the heat.

Ninety degrees with ninety percent humidity.

I thought Washington’s summers were bad.

In a feeble attempt to compensate, she’d gathered her long auburn hair into a ponytail and wore a ball cap to shade her face. She also wore a pair of light shorts and a nondescript loose blouse, no bra, finishing her appearance as a down-on-her-luck woman looking for a little extra money.

The bus pulled away with a choking cough of diesel fumes. She followed in its wake.

The North Charleston Fertility Clinic rose two blocks ahead, the complex covered a full city block, set amid a small park of towering oaks and palmettos. The rest of the neighborhood was a mix of commercial businesses and trailer parks. She was not unfamiliar with the area, having spent a few months while in service at the Naval Weapons Station, which hugged the Cooper River three miles away.

As she headed toward the clinic, she slipped out her cell phone to keep a promise. The phone was a disposable, tied to her alias. She connected her call through Sigma to ensure it couldn’t be traced. If anyone tried to pull the LUDs, the phone records would only discover a call placed to a local pawnshop.

The line clicked and a gruff voice answered, “So you’re still alive?”

Her husband, Monk, did his best to make it sound like a joke, but she heard the undercurrent of tension in his voice. He hadn’t been thrilled she’d taken this assignment, but he understood the necessity.

“For the moment,” she replied with a smile. “I’m just heading toward the clinic.”

“You give them hell.”

Her smile widened. “That’s the plan.”

She pictured Monk at their apartment, balancing one of their babies on his knee. He was not what most women would consider handsome, with his shaved head and stocky but muscular physique, but he still could make her melt with his smile and she’d never met a man with a bigger heart, a heart that only grew larger with each addition to the household.

“Did you give Harriet her second bottle?” she asked.

An exasperated sigh followed. “Yes, dear. And I went to Costco and got the Pampers. You go save the world. I’ve got things covered here.”

She had hoped her call would erase that edge of apprehension hiding behind his jovial banter, but it only seemed to make it worse.

“Monk, I’m almost at the clinic. Give Penny and Harriet a kiss for me.”

“Done. And I’ll save what I’ve got for you until you get home.”

“Ah, always my gallant knight,” she said sarcastically—but it was forced. Because he was her knight … and always would be.

His voice grew husky. “Just get back here safely.”

“I promise.”

“You’d better. I’m holding you to it.”

After she hung up, the world seemed slightly less bright. A twinge of guilt plagued her as she pocketed her phone.

What am I doing here? I should be at home.

Still, she could not discount the electric thrill that coursed through her as she reached the grounds of the clinic and turned her attention to the task at hand. It happened with every mission. She had a duty, and she was good at what she did. And knowing her family was safe—and always would be with Monk—helped steady her. He was her rock, even hundreds of miles away.

With renewed determination, she crossed along the tall stacked-stone fence of the clinic and stepped through the wrought-iron gates, entering a garden oasis set amidst the surrounding commercial parks. A path led alongside the entry road, winding through manicured hedgerows, small burbling fountains, and perfumed beds of blush-pink roses.

Someone had gone to great expense to make the clinic feel warm and inviting, a veritable Garden of Eden, where dreams of infertile couples could not help but come true. No wonder this place drew celebrity clients and people from around the globe—including the president’s daughter.

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