23 years later…

23 years later…

Lydecker looked up from his boat with interest as the car approached. He rarely had unannounced visitors this far out. He'd been living in his cabin by a lake in the Colorado Mountains for years now, and few people even knew he was still alive. He was still quite alive and well for a man in his seventies. Most days he still felt fifty. Cole was still his most frequent visitor, occasionally bringing along another sixer with him.

After Manticore had fallen apart, he'd been played with for a while, and then finally put out to pasture. Manticore's new ex-director had sabotaged any chance he had of going on to other things. She'd stopped him at every turn out of sheer vindictiveness. He was made out to be the incompetent, obsessed, drunken fool. He finally cornered her after she'd lost her position and reminded her that one of the ones he'd trained had managed to be physically disabled and still took out almost twenty of her men. He let her know exactly what he thought of her and her idiotic behavior, and then left. That was the end for him. He and Diane, his late wife, had talked about retiring to Colorado when they were both young enough that it seemed forever off. It seemed like a good place to go.

Cole had sent him the article about her getting killed. Cole had warned her very clearly what was going to happen. Lydecker knew she lived with bodyguards for three years after the escape. He wondered how Alicia knew the director felt safe enough to go without. He didn't have to wonder, she was one of his kids. He felt an odd sort of pride that she hadn't gone soft after living on the outside. She'd decided it was time to put Manticore behind her and tidy up the loose ends. He'd gotten a letter. The director got a bullet. Sometimes he wondered who got the better deal.

Now he watched the young man getting out of the car. There was immediately a sense of déjà vu, but as he came closer, he didn't recognize him at all. He was dressed in a well-tailored suit, and was looking around as if he wanted to memorize every detail of what was around him. He approached Lydecker who finished tying off his boat, and went out to greet his visitor.

"Donald Lydecker?" the young man asked.

"Depends on who wants to know," Lydecker responded. There was something so familiar about him, but he just couldn't place it.

"My name is Dan Guevara. I'm with "The Truth"," he said with a polite smile.

Maybe that was where Lydecker knew him. Everyone knew Dan Guevara, even if they couldn't recognize him. "The Truth" was a magazine that had been started a little over ten years before by a couple of do-gooder rich-boy journalists, Logan Cale and Justin Carter. As the country had finally started to come out of the recession, laws restricting journalism had eased. "The Truth" had been introduced first on the west coast, and then took off like wildfire.

They didn't care if advertisers threatened to pull out over a story. Nothing could stop them from publishing each issue. They had the money to subsidize it during the hard times in the beginning, and then the sheer circulation numbers kept it alive. It spread across the country like a cancer, and then its global circulation began to climb with breakneck speed. Every story they published had impeccable backup. They'd ruined many careers, and exposed far too many dirty little secrets to the light of day.

Of all the young reporters that had flocked to them, Dan Guevara had made his mark quickly. He was a meteor in the ranks of journalism. Six years before, he'd published his first story in "The Truth", and now there was hardly a politician that didn't run the other way when he approached. This guy had the ability to find the truth no matter how cleverly hidden. Things Lydecker had only heard hints of before, he had dragged out, full and exposed.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Guevara?" Lydecker asked, not giving away the slightest sign of worry.

"I'd like to talk to you about Project Manticore," he replied.

Lydecker looked honestly confused. "Manticore?" he said. "I don't remember anything I was involved with being called Manticore. You got the right name there son?"

Dan smirked. "Mr. Lydecker," he said. "I know you were place in charge of training the Manticore kids in early 2001, right after the X-5 group was deemed viable. I know you trained them all, and after the X-6 group started doing fieldwork, you were their commanding officer."

He may have seemed to be an old man, but every bit of the hard solider that he had been was still very much evident in Lydecker's eyes. "You have the wrong person," he said coldly. "And you're trespassing." He turned and started to go into the cabin.

"This will be published," Dan called out firmly.

"So you'll be sued for slander," Lydecker said over his shoulder. "Your bosses will lose millions because you can't prove anything, and you'll end up writing for a less glamorous tabloid."

""The Truth" was started for one reason," Dan said firmly, walking after him. "It was so that someday there would be a forum for the truth about Manticore to come out. There've been rumors about starting up another genetic engineering project. It's going to happen unless there's enough outrage over it ever happening again. I'm going to drag every detail into the light, and make sure nobody ever has to suffer what the Manticore kids did ever again." Lydecker had made it to his porch, but didn't look back. Time for the big gun.

"You're not the first of my interview," Dan called after him. That made Lydecker pause for a moment. "As a matter of fact, you're the last interview. You can be the villain of this story, or you can be a voice in it. It's up to you."

Lydecker turned back to him. Had this kid found X-5's that easily? He'd searched years for them without a trace. "What do you know about Manticore?" he finally asked.

"I know its purpose," he replied. "I know what happened there with the genetic engineering and the training. Most of all, I know what it did to the victims of it."

Lydecker snorted. "Victims? There wasn't anyone victimized."

"According to you," he replied. "That's why I want your story too. Mr. Lydecker, there's a reason why Max called you her personal Antichrist, and Jhondie, well Jhondie hopes that you and Hitler have plenty of bonding time while you're both burning in Hell. Zane said, well, actually I don't thing Mr. Cale or Mr. Carter will let me publish that kind of language. I'm paraphrasing their actual words of course."

Lydecker looked into Dan's ice-blue eyes, and from somewhere, the cross connections were made. He had her eyes, and her smirk. No wonder he had that odd feeling when he first saw Dan. He had Zack's hair, and build. Lydecker had every detail of his kids memorized, and now he could see so many of Zack's features on this reporter.

Dan could see the change, and suddenly felt nervous for the first time in a very long time during an interview. Well, he was in it all the way, or no way at all. "Dad said," he continued much softer, "that one of his fondest wishes was to have you in the crosshairs of a rifle. Mom said you weren't as bad as they remember. They're looking at it from a child's perspective. She's the only dissenting voice of the ones I've interviewed, but she's the only X-6 too."

"You're the X-7," Lydecker said more to himself than anyone. Here was the stage three solider that had been snatched away from him. He should be in fatigues right now, fighting for his country. What could he do? What was inherent? How much had his parents told him?

"I'm not X-7," he said hotly. "I'm Daniel Cole…" he paused. "Actually Guevara is my pen name. I'd say my real last name, but you know how op sec goes." He smiled a little. "Guess I am my father's son just like Mom says." He paused again, debating on if he should say it. "And my parents told me everything about myself, and them, and why I have this weird black blotch on the back of my neck. None of the other kids of the X-5's have them, but they all only have one genetically engineered parent."

Lydecker looked shocked that he had picked up on that thought. He calmed immediately. Why should he be surprised? He was dealing with the X-7. No wonder this kid was so incredible at getting the story. He was genetically engineered, and had obviously honed some telepathic abilities. If he didn't expose himself in this story, he would become the greatest journalist ever. The X-7 was supposed to be the greatest at anything ever. Ironic that he would be the greatest threat to exposing Manticore.

"Mr. Lydecker, I know what my parents went through," Dan continued. "Aunt Max still worries that one day you're going to swoop in and take her and her family back to Manticore. Aunt Jhondie said more than once that she would still rather die than go back to Manticore. All of this pain and suffering that I've recorded in every interview with all of them, it can't be repeated. And if someone starts it up again, then all of them will be back at square one. But this time, it's their kids they'll be most worried about. And as far as I'm concerned, I know if anyone comes within a mile of my little girl, they'd be dead before they hit the ground."

Lydecker had spent years trying to figure out what went wrong with Manticore. He'd long ago reached the only conclusion he could. The soldiers they wanted had to be able to think on their own in case of trouble. He knew the Chinese had tried using mindless genetically engineered soldiers, but they were worse than useless. If they weren't specifically told to do something, they would sit there and let all of their own get killed because they weren't told to protect from ALL enemies.

His kids could think. The sixers would obey orders without hesitation, but they could adapt and think on their own. The fivers could think on their own. And they chose to leave Manticore life. No matter how well trained, Lydecker now realized that you couldn't force a person to that kind of life if they didn't chose it of their own free will. Out of the sixers, only one went to the CIA for black ops assignments. Cole wanted to fly. Shawna was a medic. Lon went into federal law enforcement. Even though they'd accepted it, none of them really wanted Manticore life.

Restarting Manticore would be a mistake. There would be someone else like him that would make it his life, and then have to deal with losing everything when the soldiers created stepped out of the game. There was no way to force them into that kind of life. They were too strong. Manticore built better than they knew. Looking at this X-7 in front of him, Lydecker knew he would do anything to accomplish his goal. The irony was just too much.

"Do you know what I'm thinking?" Lydecker finally asked.

"It's coming through a little vague," Dan replied. "But after over forty years, I think you're ready to do the right thing"

"Come on in," Lydecker said simply. They went to go inside, and Lydecker had to ask, "Are you keeping track of my thoughts so I can't call for back up?"

Dan smiled warmly this time. "Actually I don't have to. While you were on your boat, I took the liberty of disabling your phone, and silent alarm systems. Then I went back to my car and drove up, you know, less conspicuous that way. What can I say, I was trained by the best."

This is what I'm supposed to do, Dan thought as Lydecker laughed. I am X-7, just like my brother and both my sisters. We're the first generation that has the chance to make up for all that was done in the past. And I will correct the wrongs. He thought about his four-year-old daughter. For you, Tanya, he thought. For all of those who had to run scared from black helicopters in the middle of the night. This was the first real step to healing the wounds of the past. The scars would run deep as Jhondie had once said, but as he thought about the Manticore kids, and their kids and grandchildren, he knew that the truth would truly set them all free.

THE END