Kowalski dropped heavily to the rock. “Go get a room.”

Monk held up a hand, then cupped his ear, apparently getting a radio call; clearly, the earpiece must have been insulated against the EMP device he carried. His smile widened. “Company’s coming.”

3:25 P.M.

Gray lifted the helicopter from the meadow with a roar of the rotors. The blades stirred the grasses, revealing the glint of dead steel below.

He had already helped Painter’s group off the ledge. Lisa was tending to Kat’s wounds, while Amanda’s child, dried and tucked into a warm blanket, was crying for his next meal.

Painter was on the phone with the National Guard, ordering a series of EMP devices to be set off to destroy any stragglers. But his first call was to the president, to report the safe recovery of his grandson, William. So, mountains were already being moved to reconcile what had happened.

But some matters were harder to resolve.

Seichan sat in the copilot’s seat, quiet, still processing all she’d learned. The body blow of discovering her father’s identity still showed in her face, in the haunted look in her eyes.

He reached over to her, palm up.

She took it.

They had fled from the castle following the thermobaric explosion in the vaults under the Lodge. In the confusion, they’d commandeered the helicopter, the same chopper that had delivered him here. Gray had contacted Sigma command and got patched through to Painter, only to learn that the director was here—and safe.

Glad to escape, Gray swung the helicopter over the steaming sinkhole. It was rapidly filling with water, quickly growing into a new lake. As he swept across it, he saw something climb out of a tunnel halfway down the sinkhole wall. It was the size of a large tank. It pushed free, like a spider creeping out of a nest, scrabbling at the walls, trailing wires, sections of its carapace missing, some half-completed monstrosity driven by the will to live, to survive.

It emerged into the sunlight, basking in its momentary life.

Then it lost its footing and tumbled into the roiling morass below.

42

July 4, 4:10 P.M. EST

Airborne

The jet screamed through the skies on the way back to DC.

Gray sat apart from the others. Each had finished telling sketchy versions of their story, of what they learned, piecing together a tale of immortality, ancient lineages, and modern weapons research. But the more the story unfolded, the less Gray felt at ease.

Seichan slid into the neighboring seat, already more herself, ever resilient, though he could still see the shadowed cast to her eyes, even if no one else could. He noted, during the debriefing, that she never mentioned the one significant revelation tied to the discovery of her long-lost father: that her mother might still be alive.

For now, she wanted to hold that detail close to her heart, and he let her.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, leaning against him.

“I think we’re still missing something.” He shook his head, not knowing how to put this into words. “Something feels … incomplete.”

“Then figure it out. That’s your job, isn’t it? To put pieces together that don’t fit—but actually do.”

Easier said than done.

And maybe this time the pieces didn’t fit.

He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, sighing deeply. Her head touched his shoulder. Somehow his hand was back in hers, his thumb gently brushing the tenderness of her inner wrist. They’d never said the words to bring them to this place, but both knew it to be right.

These pieces fit.

He was relaxed, content for the first time in months, more at peace—and things fell perfectly into place in his head, fully formed as if they’d always been there.

He jolted upright in his seat.

Seichan stared up at him. “What?”

“The Jewish tradition. Robert told me about it. We’ve been wrong all along. It’s not the Gants … it never was the Gants.”

He stood up, drawing Seichan with him. He hurried over to Painter, who was working on his laptop.

Gray slid next to him. “Can you bring up that Gant family tree that you showed us earlier? And I’ll need Jason Carter’s help to check something.”

Painter nodded, not asking why, knowing this was Gray’s wheelhouse.

The others gathered closer.

In a few seconds, the schematic bloomed again on the screen, detailing the rich lineage of the Gant family. The map was done up as data points, detailing every branch, twig, stem, stalk, root, and tendril of that family tree. The central mass, the densest cluster of data, represented those that carried the actual Gant name.

But Gray wasn’t interested in them.

Painter spoke: “Here’s Jason.”

The analyst’s voice rose from the laptop’s internal speakers. “How can I help, Commander Pierce?”

“I need you to zoom down and show me the outer edges of the family tree.”

“Got it.”

The schematic swelled and swept into the outer spiral arms of the galaxy, to that hazy fog of genetic trails at its edges, made up of lines that spun out and then back in again. Over and over. Threading a weave at the edge of the Gant clan. Those arcing curves delineated where stray members of the family abandoned the main clan, carried other names for a few generations, until some future offspring ended up remarrying back into the family.

Painter had called these extraneous lines outliers, the outlying part of the family tree, those living at a distance.

“What are you looking for?” Painter asked.

“You mentioned you suspected a pattern out here, something you could sense but not grasp.”

“Yes, but why does it matter now? Robert is dead. We can clean things up from here.”

“Robert’s not the problem—he never was. He thought he was a king, or at least a high-ranked lieutenant, but in the end, he was a puppet as surely as anyone else. Used by the Bloodline until they cut his strings.”

Gray realized something else in that moment, his mind filling in those final pieces. “I think Robert was already chafing against those unknown puppet masters. I believe he was the one who sent that note to Amanda to run.”

He remembered Robert’s last words.

No father should lose a daughter …

He was talking about the president as much as himself. Robert knew what a personal hell it was to lose a daughter. He could not let his brother suffer the same fate, so he tried to protect Amanda.

“Then what are you thinking?” Painter asked.

He pointed to the screen. “You were right, there is a pattern here. But we were all looking for a pattern with biased eyes, from a patriarchal viewpoint, where lineage is determined by the male offspring, where boys carry on their fathers’ names. That’s what is mapped here.”

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