III: Number 16

12

Number 16 was different. He was different from 11 and 13, certainly, but he was also different from himself. That is to say, himself as he thought of himself before. His mind had been reprogrammed, he knew, but he was programmed not to resent that, but rather to relish in it. He was complete. Installed in his mind was the necessary information for him to be self-aware as well as all pertinent information he would need for his mission: find and capture Number 12 and bring her back alive. He also had all pertinent information regarding 11 and 13, the other unstable incompletes. And he had all knowledge of military tactics and knowledge of humanity and the world before and after the chaos bomb. Simply put, Number 16 understood. All knowledge needed to him for this mission was installed in his mind; all useless information was omitted. His past, all of his memories still existed, but they were ghosts of vague emotions. He was no longer that person; he was different now, complete and perfect.

The liquid inside the glass tube that he thought of as his home flushed, and his shackles were released. The mask released his head and the glass rose to free him. On a table nearby were a towel and a uniform. He dried off and dressed perfectly and quickly, knowing the respect that a soldier was required to have of his uniform. He walked steadily to the only door in the room and opened it with quick, exact maneuvers. In the room beyond stood four men, also in uniforms, smiling at him like proud fathers. The man closest to him nodded at him. 16 saluted with a snapping movement that seemed practiced, but was not. In fact, it was the first salute he had ever given that he could recall.

"At ease, soldier," the man closest to him said. "I am Colonel Winters. You have been awakened somewhat prematurely, but my team tells me that any other work remaining to be done to you is peripheral. You have been given a mission of the utmost priority, and I expect you will handle yourself with the tact, cunning, and discipline expected of a soldier in the United Sates Marine Corps.

"Your mission is to find and apprehend Number 12. All her vital statistics and her physical appearance as of two months ago have been written into your mind. Do you remember her, soldier?"

"Sir yes sir!" barked 16.

"Do you also remember Numbers 11 and 13, soldier?"

"Sir yes sir!"

"I want you to deliver Number 12 here to me alive. Should you meet Numbers 11 and 13, they can be either disposed of or apprehended as the situation warrants. All other threats can be avoided or neutralized as you see fit. Under no circumstances are you to kill or damage Number 12. Is that understood?"

"Sir yes sir!"

"Weapons and a vehicle have been provided for you. I wanted to give you this personally, however." Colonel Winters produced a small device from his pocket. It resembled a GPS device. "This is the MEDD, the molecular-electricity detection device (we call it the Meddler); it uses satellites to track the usage of nanomachines. When nanomachines are used they expend a vast amount of strange energy that can be detected when this device is within fifty miles of the source. It should be, at the very least, more exact then your own heightened senses."

16 extended his hand and the Colonel gave him the device.

"Good luck, Number 16."

"Thank you, sir," 16 replied graciously. With that, he headed out to where he already knew his vehicle and weapons would be waiting. As he left, he switched the Meddler on. Good luck indeed. It had already picked up two modified humans nearby in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"There he goes," one of the men said. "Do you think it will be enough?"

"Yes," the Colonel replied. "He'll do fine."

"And what about that . . . thing?" the man persisted.

The Colonel spun quickly to face him. "What thing are you speaking of? Why do you speak in code when it's only the four of us here? Who are you hiding information from, Pelorat?"

Pelorat stared mutely at him, his eyes wide at the outburst. A moment later, his composure regained, he said, "I speak, of course, Colonel, of the intelligence that is consuming our world bit by bit; the entity that we can neither understand nor find."

"Oh," the Colonel chuckled pleasantly. "That. Well, rest assured my friend, it is nothing and it will be dealt with in time."

Pelorat winced. You're a fool, Winters. "Just because you say it or even believe it does not mean it will be so, Colonel Winters," he replied quietly.

The Colonel's large body shook with laughter. "I say and believe because I know, not the other way around. Now leave me, I need to attend to Numbers 18 and 19."

Pelorat frowned, but left with the other men. If he's so sure of himself, Pelorat wondered, why does he need 18 and 19? He knows 16 will fail. He's the one withholding information. I need to know why. What really happened in April? What was the chaos bomb really?

Pelorat left the other men without so much as a farewell and headed to his quarters. I will get inside that mind of yours, Winters. I will.

13

Kid had spent the last several days hanging out with the locals at the bar and exploring the settlement, which he discovered to be about two-square miles with the power plant in a heavily fortified zone at the southeastern corner. As nearly as he could tell, the settlement consisted of about one hundred fifty or so people and almost everyone knew everyone else or at least knew of everyone else. During the days he would walk around town and get a feel for the place and each night he'd return to the bar and talk and drink (always in moderation) with the regulars. Eventually, they began to talk about finding a more permanent home for the three new residents, but Kid explained that they weren't planning on staying permanently, and the room given to them above the tavern was more than enough. 11 and 13 spent their time somewhere else, however. Kid didn't know or really care where. So far, he hadn't seen 13 since she collapsed during the battle over a week ago and he had only seen 11 on rare occasions and usually only in passing.

11 was undoubtedly working on the issue of finding a functional car. Kid wasn't sure if 13 was helping him or if she was even still in contact with 11, or for that matter, whether or not she was even still in town. In fact, he didn't really know what was going on with them. He pretended not to care, and he convinced himself that he didn't, but, in his heart of hearts, he was agitated to no ends. Where were they? What was the plan?

This night found Kid in the bar as usual, pissing around with his acquaintances and drinking a beer. After a couple of hours, Kid was ready to head upstairs and pass out. But the door opened as he stood up and 11 strode in, grinning his grin, as usual. Kid sighed and sat back down as 11 crossed the room and came to sit down beside him, ordering a beer and tossing a couple of crumpled bills onto the counter as he eased onto a stool.

"Kid," 11 said by way of greeting.

"Where've you been?" Kid asked. And then, to the bartender, "Bring me one, too, Mac."

"Around," 11 replied.

They sat quietly until their drinks were delivered and the bartender hurried off.

Kid broke the silence. "So how's 13?"

11 shrugged. "Good, I guess. I've seen her about as often as you this past week."

Kid felt an inexplicable relief. Why? "Which is to say, not at all?"

"Well, maybe a little more than not at all. She's agreed to join us, by the way. Oh, and I found a car."

"So we're leaving?" Kid felt a mild disappointment; he had stayed here too long.

"Tomorrow morning. 13's getting all the supplies."

"What supplies?"

"Bullets. Food. Stuff like that."

There was something off about 11 that Kid couldn't quite place. He seemed . . . different; depressed or tired, maybe. Kid decided to take the direct approach: "What's wrong with you?"

"Nothing."

"You sure?"

11 nodded. "Pretty sure, yes, thank you."

Kid decided to drop it. "So we leave tomorrow morning? What time?"

"Say dawn. Six o'clock." 11 was already standing as he said it. "We'll meet out on the other side of the power plant, near the armory."

Kid stood. "Right, see you then."

"Yeah," 11 said, leaving.

Kid wordlessly left the room and climbed the steps at the back of the building. He went up to his room, set the small alarm clock on his nightstand, and collapsed in his bed.

14

11 wasn't, in fact, in a good mood. Over the last few days, 13 had told him all that she had discovered about the nanomachines, and she had also told him that they would eventually run out of power. Since they shared energy, 11 realized that there would be no warning before they died. Instead of dying a few at a time, decreasing his power slowly, they would all die at once. One moment he would be at the height of his power, the next he would be on the ground having convulsions and bleeding from his nose. I'm not invincible. What if it had happened when he and Kid were pinned under the table in the bar? What if it happened while he was fighting? The idea that he hated even more was that, eventually, he would become just another ordinary human, incapable of incredible speed and strength, unable to twist bullets away from his body. One day, he'd have to stop or he'd die. And as he left the bar, those dark, familiar thoughts came on him again as they had several times over the last few days.

He walked back to the east side of town, to where he had appropriated an apartment, a base of operations, at least, for himself. It was a three-story building that looked like it hadn't been touched since the chaos bomb went off. 13 slept on the top floor and, to his knowledge, didn't leave it except to eat an occasional meal. He slept on the first floor on an incredibly tacky beige couch with gold trim. At first its odd colors made him all but laugh, now they just disgusted him. Maybe that was why the building was empty.

As he walked along through the barren streets, he thought of her briefly. She was young, probably barely twenty. She was probably just a little girl when Those Bastards picked her up. She had issues, but then didn't he? After she came to about a week ago, 11 went to go talk to Kid, confident she wasn't a threat to him. When he got back, he went up to talk to her, to ask her if she'd join them. He found her curled up in the corner, hugging her knees, breathing shallowly but evenly, her cheeks were still wet from crying. He didn't realize she was asleep at first. He could wait. When he went up the next morning, he found her lying on the bed, her arms behind her head. She was staring blankly at the ceiling, moving one foot to a rhythm he didn't hear. He sat down in the chair in the corner of the room and waited.

"Yes?" she prompted after a while. She stopped moving her foot and sat up and slid to the edge of the bed.

"I want you to come with me and my companion." 11 had a way of asking everything point-blank.

"Okay, but I have rules," she replied.

11 grinned wider. You've just been waiting for me to ask, haven't you?

"Number one: if either of you lay a hand on me, you're dead. I don't care if you bump into me accidently. I'll pop you without a second thought. Number two: I get a say in the decisions we make; all of them, small or large. Number three: no secrets."

11 raised an eyebrow.

"I mean pertinent information. Your past is your own, and I don't care what you ate for breakfast yesterday. I mean that if there's anything you know about us, about what we are, I want to know."

"I don't know anything. There's nanomachines, that's all I know. What do you know?"

She told him everything she knew, and 11 listened intently as she spoke. When she finished, he nodded and stood up. "I'll let you know when we're going to leave." And with that, 11 left her and set about the business of finding a car.

After a couple days of asking around, he heard of someone named Jack who had one he was looking to sell, an ancient Buick. 11 tracked him down and took it for a short (very short) test drive before he committed to buying it. It cost him three hundred dollars and a pack of gum; a steal, really. Then 11 gave the work of gathering the necessary supplies to 13. He gave her one hundred twenty dollars and told her to get as much food and ammunition as she could. She seemed thrilled to be involved and got right to work. The next day, today, rather, he went to the bar to tell Kid it was time.

He arrived back at the building and stepped in and was delighted, in spite of himself, to see 13. She was rummaging through bags and scribbling in a notebook.

"13," he said. I've got to learn to say 'hi.'

She nodded a greeting to him in return. "I think I've got enough supplies to last us about three months. Want to help me take the stuff to the car?"

The car was parked down near the power plant, about a ten minute walk. It was as close as 11 could get it since the locals seemed to have no respect for roads. "We'll take it over tomorrow," he replied. "I think we can get it all in one trip between the two of us."

She nodded without looking up.

11 laid down on the couch and got comfortable.

"You know there are other beds," 13 said softly.

"I haven't slept on a bed in over ten years," he replied.

"Barring the last few days I guess I haven't either." It sounded like it was a strange realization for her.

"You should get some sleep, 13," 11 said sternly, "on a bed or otherwise. I don't want you dragging your feet tomorrow." And with that, 11 rolled over and let sleep take him, not waiting to see if 13 took his advice.

15

Kid arrived at the power plant complex as the sun was just breaking over the horizon into the gray skies. The power plant was massive and heavily fortified, and the armory and barracks stood nearby, full of men prepared to defend it and enough weapons to do just that. He didn't like this part of the town, and he had only been out here once. It was like walking from a peaceful village into a besieged fortress. Everyone was always on edge here; the air sparked with tension.

Then he saw 11 and 13 wordlessly loading supplies into an ancient Buick sedan. Kid walked over and began to help, not saying anything or really even looking at them. When they were finished, 11 placed a plastic red gas jug in the trunk and then walked around and got in the driver's seat. Kid glanced over at 13. She stared at him coldly, regarding him as though he were just another object to be packed into the vehicle.

"Right, then," Kid said, forcing a smile. "I'll ride shotgun."

He got in on the passenger side, and 13 got in the back. There was a weight in that car, and even 11's grin seemed heavy and solemn. We've all stayed here too long.

11 gestured at a couple of the settlement guards, and they walked over to what looked like a motorized pulley system. One of the guards pulled a lever, and a section of the wall began to lift. 11 honked the horn and waved and drove through the opening, back out into the ravaged world.

Kid turned in his seat and watched as they gate closed behind them. 13 was looking back as well. The section of wall settled onto the ground with a gentle thud. To Kid, it said that they were never going back.

"Well," Kid said, making an attempt to alter the mood. "Where to, next?"

11 scoffed. "East," he replied "always east."

Kid turned in his seat again and saw 13 staring out the window expressionlessly. "Does she ever talk?"

"Only when she has something to say," 11 replied, his grin regaining its usual sarcasm.

"And just what are you implying?" Kid asked, feigning outrage.

They rode on for several more minutes in uncomfortable silence.

13 gasped. "11," she said. Her eyes were wide. "We have company."

11 focused. Something was indeed out there. "Can you tell what it is?" 11 asked, looking at 13 in the rearview mirror, his grin stern and joyless.

"It's like us," she breathed, "only stronger."

Then 11 saw it in the mirror, just beside 13's head. An olive green jeep was bouncing over the rough terrain behind them. It was moving fast; faster than 11 could ever hope to take the Buick over this terrain. It was gaining on them fast. 11 could see a soldier behind the wheel, dressed in fatigues, his face focused on them and only them. He unlatched his windshield and folded it forward, and then rested an M16 on it, leveling it at their vehicle.

13 was already on it. She placed both hands against the rear window as the soldier open fired, and the bullets scattered harmlessly, most not even hitting the vehicle. But the soldier wasn't done yet. He gunned the engine and gained on them, his front bumper meeting the Buick's rear bumper, pushing them forward.

"Shit!" Kid cried as the car bucked.

"Pop him, 13!" 11 shouted over the chaos.

"I can't," 13 shrieked. "I can't even get a hold of him!"

"The car! Get the damn car!"

"He's shielding it, too!"

11 grabbed Kid and forced him down out of his seat and onto the floor as the soldier fired another volley. The bullets tore through their car.

"You okay, 13?" 11 called back, fighting the steering wheel.

"I'm fine."

"Kid?" 11 asked, glancing over at him quickly.

"I'm alive!"

"Kid, listen," 11 began calmly. He wasn't grinning anymore. "We're headed for a trench. It looks like a deep one, and that bastard is gonna push us into it, and I can't get control of the car."

"Is this where you tell me you love me?" Kid asked, trying to be snide, but feeling rather ill.

11 ignored him. "Take the wheel and keep control of the car, I'm going to go get him while he's still reloading."

"Go get him?" Kid asked incredulously, but 11 already had the door open and was leaning out. "Oh shit, you're serious!" Kid jumped up and took the wheel as 11 leaned further out of the car.

The soldier was taking aim, his gun reloaded. 11 felt the Buick shift as he pushed off of it and leapt. For a breathless split second, he was airborne off the side of the Buick, floating. A strange thing happened in that half-moment. He remembered. He was a soldier, and he had a gun. He drove in a jeep. He was part of a team. He shot a man. It was gone when he hit the hood of the jeep and the soldier calmly shoved the M16 into his face. 11 knocked the barrel away as the gun fired and took hold of the steering wheel and turned it hard to the left. The jeep spun and rolled and sent both of them sprawling. 11 rolled across the ground and as he came to a stop, he saw the Buick fishtail to a stop, and not a moment too soon.

11 climbed to his feet shakily and turned in time get hit in the face with a powerful blow from the soldier. He reeled back but managed to slip away from the follow up. The soldier came around again, but 11 caught his arm. But the soldier was stronger; he was impossibly strong. 11 wrestled desperately against the soldier's arm with both of his, but he couldn't win. That arm extended slowly and the hand at its end wrapped firmly around his throat. And then 11 was lifted up and thrown mightily. He hurled through the air for fifty yards and then skipped across the ground like a stone across water and crashed into a building, which promptly collapsed down upon him.

The soldier glanced over at the Buick as 13 and Kid emerged. "Damn," he sighed. "Number 12's not here, huh?"

13 regarded him with a weary and determined stare that would have driven most men to tears and Kid stood off to her side, clutching his gun so tightly that his knuckles were ghostly white.

"I'm 16," the soldier said calmly. "There's no reason for this to be ugly, 13. I just need to know where 12 is."

13 didn't reply. She wondered idly if 11 was still alive. Probably, he was at least alive, but since he wasn't back yet, she had to assume he wasn't feeling very good.

"Alright then, missy," 16 said with a mild grin, "how about we dance?"

And in a flash he was upon her, lifting her off the ground by her throat with one hand, pointing the M16 at her face with the other. 13 hung limply in her grasp. Kill-kill-kill echoed in her mind, and some kind of darkness was rising in her.

"Get off her!" Kid shouted, throwing himself at 16. 16 kicked Kid away with ease, sending him flying to the ground in a heap.

Kill-kill-kill.

13 grabbed 16's arm in both her hands. She let the darkness take her, and with a mighty scream, a battle-cry, she unleashed her fury on his arm. 16 struggled against her mental powers, trying to maintain his shield. 13 pushed harder and reached deeper.

Kill-kill-kill.

16 dropped her and retreated. 13 landed on all fours like a cat, never taking her eyes off of 16.

"What are you?" 16 asked, bewildered. "You're just an incomplete. How could you--"

But an enraged scream interrupted him. 16 turned to see rubble flying through the air. Beneath it was a bloodied 11, fists clenched, jaw set, eyes wild. In a moment he was across the open terrain and up next to them, seething. "Alright, Soldier," 11 snarled. "Now I'm pissed."

16 raised his M16, but 11 was already upon him. 16 twisted out of his grip and lashed out, but 11 ducked and came at him again. 16 caught 11 with a kick to the chest and halted his progress, and in a flash, he had 11 on the ground and was on top of him, pummeling him mercilessly.

Then he stopped, grunting painfully and turning to see 13 giving him a cold stare. He was in her grasp again, and it was all he could do to prevent his own demise. 16 reached out, trying to keep his shield up and strong. And then a gunshot sounded, and he slumped over, dead. 13 turned to see Kid, still aiming at 16. He unloaded the rest of the clip into 16.

"I guess he couldn't do two things at once," Kid said, panting but smiling.

13 nodded.

"I knew there was a reason I kept you around," 11 said between painful gasps as he stood, his grin back.

Kid smiled at him and nodded. "That was almost a compliment," Kid retorted. "You must be getting soft."

16

"I'm not your daughter, Eli," Number 12 repeated, growing more uncomfortable every time Eli told her how much she reminded him of his dead little girl. And each time, Eli refused to acknowledge it, merely smiling. And each time, she would uncomfortably return to eating her dinner while he said—

"You're so much like her, Emily." And then, like now, he would beam at her like a proud father. And she always looked away from him, because he terrified her when he was like this.

"My name isn't Emily," she whispered. "That's her name. I don't have a name."

"Well, then, you can take 'Emily.' I don't mind. I think it suits you."

"Don't do this, Eli," 12 said, her eyes filling.

"Why don't you call me 'dad,' hm?"

12 slammed her fork down onto her plate and stood up quickly, knocking her chair over. And then she ran out of the room, wiping her eyes as she did.

"Emily!" Eli called after her. "Emily, come back here and eat your dinner! Emily!"

I'm only ten years old, but I have a universe of knowledge embedded in my brain, I have powers that I don't comprehend, and I've been encased in glass since I was born. I don't need your fantasies on top of all of this.

12 ran up to her bedroom—Emily's old bedroom—and jumped into her bed—Emily's bed—and buried her face into the pillow and cried.

It would be better in the morning, she knew. Eli would wake up and apologize to her and they would talk and laugh and take a walk and then they'd come home and he'd start again. And she'd cry again. And the cycle would repeat. All that was left was to figure out what the breaking point was. Where did it end? How long could they bear it? I can't replace her, Eli. I'm sorry, but I can't be Emily.

12 cried herself softly to sleep, and as she slept, she saw them again. The Man and the Woman were fighting someone now, in her dreams; they were always fighting someone or something. Their enemy, he was familiar to her this time, and she thought for a moment, wondering who he was. To 12, wondering was knowing. 16. This is Number 16. He was stronger than them. The Man and the Woman might actually lose this time. Then, as always, her dream faded and was replaced by that cold feeling, and she saw Fear itself, Death itself. She saw the End, the Last. And, as with every other morning, when she awoke, she had only the memory of her horror and emptiness. As much as she desperately tried, she could not remember anything of the dark parts of her dreams.