“You know, when we were kids,” Dominic said as he and Marcus climbed into his SUV, “I thought we’d have flying cars by now. I thought we’d have all kinds of things.”
“Maybe we would have,” Marcus said, “if it hadn’t been for the war. It seemed like everything just stopped then.”
“You’re right. The war changed everything.”
Marcus nodded his head in agreement even though Dominic was wrong, and Marcus knew it. Everything had changed before the war came.
It had started with a man named Franklin Dodd Evans. Evans was a murderer, at least according to the state of Alabama. To others, he was a symbol, an example of an innocent man condemned to die.
The evidence against Evans was less than spectacular. He had known the victim, one Dale Kimbrough, and the two had had a falling out shortly before Kimbrough found himself on the wrong end of a 9 mm.
The gun was never located, but Evans was known to have purchased such a weapon at some point in his past, and his own piece was missing. Evans claimed it had been stolen some months before the murder. No one had seen Evans and Kimbrough together that night, and while Evans had no alibi beyond being alone in his trailer, there wasn’t any evidence to show that he had left his home, either. It was a meager case for the prosecution, and Evans would have probably been acquitted were it not for a single strand of hair found at the crime scene.
But even that was suspect. The hair’s DNA had already begun to degrade by the time the police found it. Kimbrough was killed in July. What the intense heat of an Alabama sun began, the rain from an equally intense Alabama thunderstorm had helped to complete. All that was left was one strand of Ohno STR—junk DNA that was thought to serve no real purpose and that no one outside of a handful of scientists had even heard of at the time. Yet that was all that was needed. According to the experts who testified at Evans’s trial, Ohno STR was perfectly unique—it was as tied to an individual as his fingerprint, if not more so. In these experts’ professional opinions, Evans was unquestionably the killer.
The jury agreed. Evans was convicted and sentenced to die. Yet he never stopped proclaiming that they’d got the wrong guy, and in the years that followed groups like The Innocence Project and Amnesty International rallied to Evans’s defense, claiming that the DNA evidence was flawed. The courts were not sympathetic, and on May 15, 2002, Evans became the last man to sit in the Yellow Mama, Alabama’s colorfully named electric chair. The initial jolt of electricity—which lasted in excess of thirty seconds—didn’t kill him. The second only served to set him on fire. The third, however, did the trick. Evans was dead, and Kimbrough’s death, vindicated.
That’s how everybody remembered it, at least until the summer of 2020, the summer of the San Francisco Sandman. He was a killer of the most gruesome kind. Hunted with a knife, carving up his victims—always women—in increasingly sadistic ways. But it was one peculiar thing he did that earned him his nom d’morte; he liked to sew the eyelids of his victims shut with a needle and thread so that they might appear, were it not for the missing organs or split-open stomachs, only to be sleeping. Thus a legendary serial killer was born.
They caught the Sandman more than a year after his killing spree began. He was a bit of a prodigy as serial killers go, a seventeen-year-old drifter named Owen Danielson. Danielson denied guilt, claiming that he was an innocent man whom the desperate authorities were intent on framing. But his DNA was found on thread that had sealed the eyes of the Sandman’s last victim, and it was an open-and-shut prosecution for the district attorney’s office. The case likely would have lived on only in the imagination of Hollywood movie producers and horror writers were it not for an overeager intern with Amnesty International who ran a check on the Ohno STR from the Danielson case and made a startling discovery—it was a perfect match for the DNA recovered in the Evans trial. When independent scientists reviewed the intern’s findings, they were shocked to find she was correct.
The result was something akin to judicial chaos. There was no question that Owen Danielson had nothing to do with the Kimbrough murder; he wasn’t even born when Evans went to the chair. The conclusion seemed to be that DNA testing, at least using Ohno STR, was fundamentally flawed. And that was a problem.
Across the country, hundreds of convictions rested almost entirely on Ohno STR evidence. The use of DNA in criminal prosecutions, whether derived from Ohno STR or not, was suspended until more research could be conducted. And in a move that surprised no one, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that all convictions involving Ohno STR were to be vacated, with the accused to be retried or released. Almost universally, cash-strapped districts elected not to bother with new trials and hundreds of men and women—convicted of everything from robbery to rape to first-degree murder—were released from prison. The Innocence Project declared it the greatest day for the criminal justice system since the passage of the Eighth Amendment.
And that’s when the crime wave started.
* * *
Dominic pulled off of 9th Street and onto New York Avenue heading northeast. The area had enjoyed a brief renaissance during the war, but since then it had been largely abandoned, just row upon row of empty warehouses. Dominic passed beyond them to a nearly deserted area, down a broken drive past ancient “No Trespassing” signs and a series of squat brick domes, to a warehouse behind which he parked the car.
“The old United Brick Corporation,” Dominic said. “There was a time when you would never go to a place like this. Drugs, gangs, crime. Back then, there was enough business that a cop wouldn’t have had to worry about losing his job. Now it’s just empty. Going to waste.”
Dominic hopped out. “Come on,” he said before slamming the door. “This is it. I know it doesn’t look like much.”
The two men walked up to a side door that was innocuous other than the card scanner beside it. “We like to keep a low profile.” Dominic slid a card through the reader and there was a soft click. “Nobody much comes up here anymore, and no one really even knows about the organization, so the security is pretty much for show, even if it is thorough.”
A buzzer sounded somewhere inside, and Dominic pulled the door open. The warehouse didn’t look all that different on the inside. The two men strode across the open, abandoned factory floor to an old freight elevator. Dominic slid his card down another reader—“Nothing more annoying than leaving this thing at home”—and they waited as the elevator car rose from the depths.
When the doors opened, it took Marcus’s breath away. The interior was spotless—sheer metal walls reflected every particle of light. The two men stepped inside, and the doors closed behind them. There were no buttons to push. The car began moving down on its own for what seemed to Marcus like a suspiciously long time.
The doors opened to a small room. A man in a uniform was seated at a desk. He looked up at Dominic and nodded. Dominic jerked a finger at Marcus.
“He’s with me.”
The guard nodded again, and Marcus noted for future digestion that the guard’s right hand remained underneath his desk, no doubt grasping the handle of a firearm of some sort. A double door opened, and Marcus followed Dominic into an open floor space that was not unlike that of the precinct. Men and women sat at cubicles, typing away at computers. There was an air of efficiency about the place, exactly as one would expect from a policing outfit. The only difference was the huge digital map of North America covering the far wall. Red lights blinked off and on across the continent, with a concentration around the DC area. The depiction of the West Coast made him shudder. It was completely blank, as dead and devoid of life as the actual piece of earth it represented.
He remembered in the old days, when he was young, that people had worried “the Big One” would come, and that California and the rest of the West Coast would simply slide into the sea. In the end, it wasn’t nature that turned heaven to hell.
It was man.
* * *
The United States had long enjoyed steadily declining crime rates, which is one reason the winter of 2022 was so harsh for everyone. The Supreme Court had opened the doors of America’s prisons, ostensibly to see innocent men and women go free. By the time the wave of robberies, rapes, and murders had subsided, many of those who had received a reprieve found themselves back in jail. Baffled experts in criminology and forensic psychology wondered what had happened. Were these men turned into violent criminals by their time in prison? Or had the DNA evidence—flawed though it might have been—somehow led to the right person being convicted of the right crime?
It was the Kensington Paper that changed everything, the Kensington Paper that ushered in a new era for mankind, the Kensington Paper that shook to their very foundations religion, politics, government, and philosophy. For it was the Kensington Paper that first hypothesized the existence of the Reborn.
It wasn’t a paper at all, in fact. It was Erin Kensington’s doctoral thesis. And she had been thorough. She had gone back into thirty years of records and collected Ohno STR results from every capital murder case that resulted in a conviction in every jurisdiction. What she found confirmed a hypothesis she had held in secret but did not dare to utter aloud.
The DNA sequence in Ohno STR recurred in many of the cases, and it always reappeared after the convicted was executed or died in prison; none of the subjects shared Ohno STR with another killer alive at the time. In an even more disturbing development, killers who shared the same DNA sequence also tended to share the same MO.
Kensington ended her dissertation in as provocative a way as possible, writing, “For millennia, mankind has searched for confirmation that there is something beyond this life, for proof that we will live again. Many believers look for a god in the sky. But God is not there. He is in our DNA, and so is our soul. And we can—and will—live again.”
Of course, Kensington’s findings were immediately and resoundingly rejected by the scientific community. But her thesis sparked a wave of research. Kensington followed up her study of convicted murderers with rapists, and once again, the same pattern emerged.
Soon, independent analysis began to confirm Kensington’s theory. The August 2023 issue of Time magazine featured the Buddhist wheel of rebirth with the headline, “Reincarnation: Scientific Fact.”
Reaction was as swift as it was diverse. Parts of the Middle East erupted in violent protests, with conservative Islamic clerics declaring that any notion of reincarnation was Bid‘ah—an evil innovation. They further declared that anyone who professed a belief in reincarnation to be a kafir worthy of death.
The Catholic Church was less extreme, expressing both skepticism and its intent to study the matter further, while noting that there was not necessarily an inconsistency between reincarnation and Christian tradition. At the same time, Buddhism experienced an explosion of growth in the United States that it hadn’t seen since its celebrity-spawned renaissance of the 1980s. Meanwhile, governments around the world began to study what this development meant for criminal courts and preserving law and order.
The implications of Kensington’s research went well beyond the world of criminal justice and religious belief. Tin-pot despots and authoritarian dictators around the globe had always claimed some loose birthright that gave them an air of legitimacy. Now they began to support those assertions with “scientific” evidence. North Korea was a leading innovator in this area, with Kim Jung Un declaring himself to bear the same genetic marker as Sejong the Great, having supposedly recovered a strand of DNA from a relic of the great king housed in a museum in Pyongyang. Before long, a new wave of grave robbing and black market archeology had developed, with the world’s rich and powerful paying enormous sums for proof that the blood of great men and women flowed through their veins.
And in Luoyang, a large industrial backwater in the middle of China, a man born with a blood clot in his right hand had begun to gather a legion of followers—the poor, the workers, the disaffected underclass of communist Chinese society.
They called him father, but his name was Khan.
* * *
“I’ve read your file, and I like what I see.”
Dominic had led Marcus Ryder into an interior office—one that by its location and decoration was obviously reserved for whoever was in charge of this operation—where he was met by a black man with a face that bespoke command. They say you can read some peoples’ faces like a map, that the canyons and valleys that cut across their brow and down the corner of their eyes and along the edge of their mouth can tell the story of their lives. Ryder had read this particular story before. This man had served in the war, and he had seen hard things.
“I’m glad to hear that,” said Marcus.
“We don’t make many hires,” he said, “and when you sign on here, we expect a lifetime commitment.”
It wasn’t that Marcus was unwilling to take such a plunge—this job would be a blessing, one he couldn’t turn down, no matter what the requirements—but the man’s words still surprised him. He didn’t do a good job of hiding it either, and the man across from him, whose name he’d given as Commander John Porter, held up his hand.
“That may sound extreme, I know. But what we do here, we do in secret. And once you know that secret, you keep it forever, and we keep you. So I will certainly understand if you want to back out now. Do you need a day or two? We want to make this as easy as possible for you.”
Marcus supposed he should take some time, that he should at least pretend to think it over. But he had already decided he would do whatever they wanted, so he simply nodded.
“Are you sure, son? You don’t even know what you are getting into.”
“And I assume you aren’t going to tell me unless I agree to it? This is a sight unseen deal, right?”
Porter stared back at him.
“Then I’m in. The best friend you ever find is in a foxhole, and nothing builds loyalty like desperation. There’s not a whole lot left for me to do out there, so I guess I’m in if you’ll have me.”
Porter dropped Marcus’s file on the table and looked up at Dominic. He nodded.
“Then you’re in,” Porter said, never looking away from the other man. “Dominic will train you. Come on.” He stood. “It’s time you learned what we do here.”
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