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In a small, dimly-lit room a mile beneath the glittering surface of Deluros VIII, the capital of mankind's sprawling Oligarchy, Jefferson Nighthawk opened his eyes.

"Good evening, Mr. Nighthawk," said a slender man wearing a white tunic. "How do you feel?"

Nighthawk gradually became aware that he was lying on a long, narrow table, staring at the ceiling. He tentatively lifted an arm, made a fist, and then began slowly opening and closing his fingers.

"Pretty good," he said, surprised.

He brought his hand up to his face and stared at it as if it was some alien object he had never seen before.

"It looks normal," he said at last.

"It is."

"Then I'm cured?"

"Well, yes and no," replied the man in the white tunic. "It's a complex situation."

Nighthawk eased his legs over the edge of the table and slowly, carefully, sat up.

"Yeah, I feel all right," he said. "I guess the clone did his job."

"You're getting ahead of yourself, Mr. Nighthawk," said another voice, and Nighthawk turned to see a stocky, bearded, middle-aged man dressed in gray staring at him.

"Who are you?" demanded Nighthawk.

"Marcus Dinnisen, a senior partner in the firm of Hubbs, Wilkinson, Raith and Jiminez." He smiled. "I'm your attorney."

"That's right," said Nighthawk, nodding his head slowly. "You told me the last time you woke me up that Raith was dead."

"He died more than three-quarters of a century ago," said Dinnisen. "His great-grandson worked for the firm until a few years ago."

"Okay," said Nighthawk. "You're my lawyer." He turned to the man in the white tunic. "I assume you're my doctor?"

"In a manner of speaking," was the reply. "My name is Egan. Gilbert Egan."

"I think I've met you before."

"Just over two years ago," said Egan.

"So what year is it now—5103?"

"5103 G.E.," Egan confirmed.

"Then this means you've come up with a cure for eplasia sometime during the past two years," said Nighthawk.

"No, Mr. Nighthawk, I'm afraid we haven't."

Nighthawk frowned, confused. He carefully touched his face with his fingertips. "But I'm cured!" he insisted. "There's not a mark on me!"

"You're not cured," said Egan gently. "In fact, you're in the very earliest stage of the disease. It won't manifest itself for another year."

"What are you talking about?" demanded Nighthawk. "Look at me! The disease is gone!"

"Maybe you'd better look at you," said Egan, handing him a mirror.

Nighthawk carefully scrutinized his handsome, unblemished face, looking more and more puzzled.

"What the hell is going on?" he said. "I look thirty-five!"

"Our best estimate is thirty-eight," answered Egan.

"But that's crazy! I was sixty-one years old when I checked in here more than a century ago!"

"Calm down, Mr. Nighthawk."

"You calm down!" said Nighthawk, and something about his manner made both men draw back. "I want to know what's happening, and I want to know now!"

"Certainly, Mr. Nighthawk," said Egan, stepping forward again. "You've been injected with tranquilizers to ease the shock. I hate to think of what might happen if . . ."

A hand shot out, grabbed Egan by the collar, and pulled him close.

"I'm not feeling very tranquil, Mr. Egan," said Nighthawk coldly. "Now talk."

"Doctor Egan," said Egan, pulling loose from Nighthawk's grasp and brushing the rumples from his tunic. He stared at Nighthawk uneasily. "You know, I've spent the past two days wondering just how to tell you—and I still don't know where to begin."

Nighthawk looked annoyed. "Try the beginning."

"All right," said Egan. "It's a matter of record that Jefferson Nighthawk, also known as the Widowmaker, a well-known lawman and bounty hunter on the Inner Frontier, contracted eplasia and voluntarily submitted himself to freezing in the year 4994 of the Galactic Era. His instructions were that he was not to be awakened until science had developed a cure for his disease."

"I'm right here," said Nighthawk. "You can stop referring to me in the third person."

"Please let me continue in my own way," said Egan. "We had every intention of honoring Jefferson Nighthawk's wishes, but a financial crisis arose two years ago. Due to an inflationary spiral in the economy of Deluros VIII, the interest on Nighthawk's principle was no longer sufficient to cover the very high cost of this facility. We were faced with the possibility of awakening a diseased, aging man and turning him out, when an offer made to Mr. Dinnisen's office provided us with an unique alternative: a world on the Inner Frontier required a man of the Widowmaker's talents, and they were willing to pay seven million credits for those talents. We could not use the real Nighthawk, of course; he was almost dead when he first came here, and he couldn't survive, unfrozen, for another ten days with the disease. But we could and did create a clone that cost about half of the amount offered, which allowed us to add more than three million credits to Nighthawk's principle."

"I know," said Nighthawk. "You woke me to sign a release allowing you to clone me."

"That's correct," continued Egan. "We cloned you and sent the clone out to the Frontier."

"I know," said Nighthawk. "What happened?"

"He did what he was paid to do," said Dinnisen, "but he was seriously flawed."

"He had the disease?"

Egan shook his head. "No. He was a perfect replica of the twenty-three-year-old Jefferson Nighthawk, with all of Nighthawk's physical abilities. But because of the urgency of the situation, we sent him out only two months after he was created. He was a remarkable killing machine, but that was the only thing he knew how to do, and emotionally he was only two months old. He proved totally unable to cope with his abilities. In the end, he was killed trying to help a woman possessed of what I shall term questionable character and loyalties."

"Get to the point," said Nighthawk.

"The point is that the government has not managed to control inflation. Furthermore, for reasons with which I strongly disagree, Colonel James Hernandez, the man who commissioned the clone, refused to make his final payment. Most of the money we received was spent creating the clone; the profits we anticipated did not materialize." He paused. "Science is very close to developing a cure for eplasia, but it's still two or three years in the future, and once again the interest on the Nighthawk account is insufficient to pay for this facility."

"If you're trying to tell me I'm a clone, you've picked a lousy audience for a very bad joke," said Nighthawk. "I can remember everything I've done, every man I've killed, every woman I've had."

"I know," said Egan. "Because the initial clone did accomplish its mission before its untimely death, Mr. Dinnisen's office has had more offers. He has winnowed them down and come up with the most lucrative. But based on our first experience, we felt that we couldn't send another physically perfect but emotionally immature specimen out to do the job. So we hired some of the top men and women in the field of genetics and have finally managed to create a clone—yourself—that possesses all, or almost all, of the memories of the host."

"I don't believe it," said Nighthawk.

"I didn't really expect you to," said Egan. He studied Nighthawk carefully. "Do you feel strong enough to stand?"

Nighthawk eased himself down to the floor. A sudden weakness swept over him, and he clutched for the table.

"What's the matter with me?"

"Nothing," said Egan. "You're just using muscles you've never used before. You may also experience some dizziness." He waited until Nighthawk was able to stand without using the table for support. "Can you walk now?"

"I think so."

"Then come this way, please," said Egan as Nighthawk and Dinnisen fell into step behind him. As they left the room they came to a slidewalk, which they rode down a long, dimly-lit corridor.

After passing a number of doors, the slidewalk brought them to a security checkpoint, then stopped until Egan's ID badge and retina had been scanned. It began moving again, only to stop once more at a second checkpoint fifty yards farther on.

After another two hundred yards the corridor branched off, and Egan chose the slidewalk that veered to the right. The doors came more frequently now, as did the checkpoints, but finally they came to a halt in front of a door that appeared no different from any of the others.

"This is it," announced Egan, allowing the scanner above the door to verify his retina and palm print.

The door slid open, revealing a circular chamber with a number of large drawers built into the wall.

"Drawer 10547," ordered Egan, and a drawer slowly emerged from the wall, stretching to its full eight-foot length. A human body was discernable beneath the transluscent covering.

"The true Jefferson Nighthawk," said Egan, touching a control that turned the covering totally transparent.

Nighthawk peered into the drawer, and saw an emaciated man whose flesh was hideously disfigured by the ravages of a virulent skin disease. Patches of shining white cheekbone protruded through the flesh of the face, knuckles pierced the skin of the hands, and even where the skin remained intact it looked like there was some hideous malignancy crawling across it and discoloring it.

"That's the way I remember it, all right," he said, turning away.

"I realize what a shock this must be," said Egan sympathetically.

Nighthawk tapped his head. "But these are my memories. I know they are! They're real!"

"They're real, but they're not yours," interjected Dinnisen. "I know it's difficult to accept, but today is your birthday, in the truest sense of the word." He paused a moment while Nighthawk wrestled with the concept, then continued: "Physically you're thirty-eight years old, and free of the disease that brought you here."

"Almost free," corrected Egan. "It's there, but dormant."

"I didn't contract it until I was in my late fifties," said Nighthawk. "Why do I have it now, twenty years earlier?"

Egan shrugged. "You have a genetic weakness that invites the disease. Because we were able to get blood and tissue taken before the original Nighthawk developed eplasia, the first clone possessed nothing more than a tendency to the disease. We used that same sample with you, but you are almost twice that clone's physical age, and it has begun developing within you. Very likely it is due to the laboratory process that aged you so rapidly." He paused. "I should add that now that you are alive, you will henceforth age at a normal rate."

"The last clone never developed the disease?"

"No, but he died very young," answered Egan. "He would surely have contracted it if he'd lived long enough. Given your particular genetic makeup and immune system, it seems inevitable."

"All right," said Nighthawk. "Next question: why am I in my late thirties? I—he—is sixty-one."

"We were able to make you any age we wanted," replied Egan. "We decided to create you at the peak of your powers."

"I was quicker and stronger at twenty-three."

"Too many hormones," said Dinnisen. "They proved your undoing last time. We want the Widowmaker, not the Testosterone Kid."

"Okay," said Nighthawk. "Let's cut to the bottom line. What happens to me after I make enough money to keep him alive?"

"You assume a new identity—it's essential to maintain the original Nighthawk's legal claim to investments and personal property—and live a long and prosperous life. No one will mistake you for him, since he hasn't been seen in more than a century."

"What about my eplasia?"

"If science can cure his, it can cure yours," said Egan.

"And you should certainly possess enough skills to earn whatever it takes to effect a cure," added Dinnisen.

"How much will it cost?"

"For the next few years, maybe half a million credits. Within a decade, perhaps 100,000. In a quarter of a century, we'll be immunizing fetuses for about ten credits apiece."

Nighthawk was silent for a long moment. Finally he turned to Dinnisen, who felt uncomfortable under the gaze of his almost colorless eyes.

"You know what I think?" said Nighthawk.


"I think you're full of shit."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I may be a century out of date, but it's a big galaxy out there. There are still thousands of killers and bounty hunters on the Inner Frontier, and even more on the Rim and in the Spiral Arm."

"I don't follow you, Mr. Nighthawk."

"If whoever is paying for my services went to the time and expense to clone the Widowmaker when he had thousands of others to choose from, I would imagine the odds are so stacked against me that the smart money says I won't last a week."

"He wanted the best," replied Dinnisen, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "That's you."

Nighthawk fell silent again for a long moment. Then he looked up at Egan.

"Give me something sharp," he said.

"Sharp?" repeated Egan, puzzled.

"A knife, a scalpel, something like that."

Egan examined his pockets with no success.

"Never mind," said Nighthawk. He walked to the edge of the still-open drawer, pressed his thumb against it, and pulled it across the edge, leaving a deep gouge in the skin.

"Scanner?" he demanded.

Egan merely pointed at the glowing red mechanical eye.

Nighthawk walked over, wiped the blood from his thumb, and held it up to the scanner.

"Have I got an official name or number around here?" he asked.

"Just Jefferson Nighthawk Clone #2," answered Egan. "Serial number 90307."

"Good. Tell the machine that this is the thumbprint of Jefferson Nighthawk Clone #2, serial number 90307. The scar will differentiate it from any other Nighthawk clone you may be tempted to create in the future."

"It's listening. It knows," said Egan.

"Fine. Now I want you to go tell whoever is paying for me that our price just went up half a million credits. When he agrees—and he will, or he would have settled for a man with lesser credentials—tell him we want it in advance. Then put it in an account that can only be opened by my voiceprint and thumbprint."

"We've already agreed on a substantial price," said Dinnisen. "Holding him up for more at the last minute isn't ethical."

"You worry about ethics," said Nighthawk. "I'm worrying about getting enough money to cure my eplasia while it's still in the early stages—and I'll want cosmetic surgery so I don't resemble him too much."

"He'll be the one having the cosmetic surgery," said Egan. "Look at him. We can't let him go out in public looking like that."

There was a tense silence.

Dinnisen finally nodded his agreement. "I'll do what I can, Mr. Nighthawk."

"I'm sure you will," replied Nighthawk. "Or I won't do what I can."

"Is that some kind of threat?" asked Dinnisen.

"Not at all. Just a statement of fact."

Another silence.

"I hope you won't be offended by my observation," said Dinnisen, "but your predecessor was much easier to deal with."

"Of course he was," replied Nighthawk. "He was a newborn baby in the body of a man. I'm the Widowmaker."

"I know you are. That's precisely why you have to fulfill this contract. Our client put up millions of credits just to create you."

"Then he can put up another half million to keep me alive after I finish this job."

"And if he won't?"

Nighthawk smiled. It was a smile that sent a chill down Dinnisen's spine. "If he had someone who could make me do something I don't want to do, he wouldn't need me in the first place."

"A point well taken," said Dinnisen, nervously returning his smile.

"I'm glad we all understand each other," said Nighthawk. "As soon as the money's been deposited, you can sit down with me and tell me just how many hundreds of men I have to kill for it."

"Possibly no one," said Dinnisen.

"That's the upside," said Nighthawk. "What's the downside?"

"I think you've had enough surprises for one day," said Dinnisen. "Especially considering that it's the first day of your life." He rose and walked to the door of the chamber. "We'll talk again tomorrow."

"Shall we go too?" asked Egan as Dinnisen left the chamber.

"In a minute," said Nighthawk, walking over to look at the original Widowmaker. "Jesus! I—he—looks awful."

"Eplasia is an awful disease."

Nighthawk stared down at the disfigured, skeletal body. "You've waited a long time," he said softly. "I know what it means to you. I won't let you down."

He stood in silence for a moment, then turned to Egan. "Okay, let's go see the world."




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