A chance encounter in the Old West transforms two men into an army of clones, with apocalyptic consequences for the rest of the world. In the Old West New Mexico town of Spark, Gideon Long, the son of a local industrialist, plots to usurp his father's fortune. Frightened that his father might find out about his failed investments, Gideon stages a train robbery with the intent of killing a visiting accountant carrying the news of his perfidy. His scheme is undone by brutal but upright sheriff Warren Groves, who is also the husband of Gideon's lost love Annie. Mortally wounded, Gideon stumbles across the desert until he finds a spring, hidden underneath a mountain. Falling into the waters, Gideon is reborn - restored to life in perfect shape.
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Warren Groves returns to town, only to discover that his wife has died in childbirth. His grief and rage bring out his dark side from his violent past, fueled by the box of Gideon's love letters that Annie saved. When Gideon returns to town and angrily confronts Warren about Annie's death, the sheriff shoots him. But Gideon finds himself regenerated again at the mysterious pool.
Gideon returns to town and confronts Warren again, this time getting the drop on his rival and dragging him to the cave and the pool. There, Gideon demonstrates the odd form of immortality the waters have conferred upon him by killing himself, and then hurls Warren into the pond, condemning him to an eternity without Annie. Warren experiences a strange dream of an insectile other world before he revives.
Warren embarks on an extended campaign to take revenge on Gideon by killing him over and over again, in increasingly painful ways. He also discovers that Gideon has stolen the corpse of Annie and attempted to use the pool to revive her, to horrifying results: the product is a whole and living body without a mind. Finally, Warren decides to end the fight by destroying the cave around the pool, trapping himself and Gideon. Warren's plot is arrested, however, when the two men witness the pool creating a second, separate copy of Gideon.
The pool continues to create copies in addition to regenerating existing Gideons and Warrens. In recognition of this new reality, the two clone lines form a covenant, designed to police their ranks in order to prevent the world from discovering their secret. The clones create a system of false identities and designate an office, the Judge, to police themselves. The Judge, by agreement, is always to be a Warren.
Decades later, in the era following World War II, a Warren who calls himself Casper Cord is the Judge. He is a former G.I. who works as a private investigator in Los Angeles, although he is currently dying of cancer due to exposure to dangerous materials in the war. He is summoned to a murder scene when his name and phone number are found on a corpse, only to discover that the victim, Holly Webber, is the exact image of the long-dead Annie Groves.
Investigating this occurrence, Casper finds out that two rich Gideons, Harlan and Ethan Bishop, are involved. The Bishops are invested in the film industry, and Holly's her mother Isabella worked for their studio. Shortly after discovering this connection, Casper is shocked when another Annie look-alike walks into his office, claiming initially to be Holly. She quickly changes her story, saying she is actually Veronica Lambert, Holly's former roommate. All the while, Casper is pursued by a series of toughs insistent that he drop the case and walk away.
Casper and Veronica seek the aid of a decrepit Warren named Ian, who sends the Judge on a drug-induced vision quest. While Casper is incapacitated, however, Ian notifies the Bishops, who kidnap Veronica. After killing Ian, Casper commits suicide in order to reemerge by the pool, where he finds the Bishops have created an extensive complex to study and exploit the phenomenon. They have also dipped Veronica in the pool, creating a line of Annie substitutes. Bishop uses a device called the Harrow to lobotomize Casper, putting him out of action for the next fifty years.
In the year 2006, society has radically transformed. The clones have revealed their nature to the world, leveraging the illness of the sister of the President of the United States into official acceptance. The pool now occasionally spits out random organic refuse as well as clones. And the world is blighted by a mysterious fungus that intoxicates users with ecstasy. A Veronica clone named Polly Foster, working as a security officer, has a close encounter with the fungus, and nearly dies. Meanwhile, Casper Cord finally emerges from his induced lobotomy when he dies and is reborn. He attempts to reintegrate into society, but, decades out of date in a world overcrowded with his duplicates, he soon descends into homelessness and penury.
The latest Bishop, Wesley, continues the experiments of his line into the workings of the pool, although a long and decadent life (not to mention experiments with the fungus-drug) has rendered him dissolute. The experiments reveal that the pool is somehow connected to other worlds and forms of life, although the ultimate experiments, involving sending manned capsules through the waters, had all seemingly failed. Except that recently, one of the pods returned, bearing pictures of the stars of a distant world.
A United Nations team is designated to investigate the site of the pool, and Polly is assigned to escort it. When she helps the team access the organic waste produced by the pool, the Gardners, a scientifically-minded lone of Warrens that work for the Bishops, capture the group. Milo Gardner, leader of the faction, explains that the marines accompanying the inspectors are secretly tasked with destroying the pool, and reveals his intention to aid in that mission. They descend into the depths of the complex, to a place called the Fane, where the Bishops' efforts to unearth the workings of the pool have revealed a bizarre fluid at the core of it, referred to by the Gardners as the Mother. Milo unleashes the Mother, which proceeds to dissolve many of the assembled Gardner clones while releasing spores, conclusively linking the Mother with the creeping fungus on the surface world. Polly is saved by the UN team, who drag her away, and the group escapes the complex.
Casper Cord has been having visions of the coming apocalypse. As the events in the Fane trigger earthquakes and disasters worldwide (not to mention an infestation of bizarre grasshopper-like creatures from the vision-quests of the Warrens), and society begins to crumble, Casper decides to try and flag down a ship. Polly and Casper both end up on The Republic, Wesley Bishop's private vessel (Wesley is busy being eaten alive by grasshopper-monsters). They rescue all the people that they can and set off for a Russian shelter. The remnants of humanity go underground to try and wait out the apocalypse, while Casper allows himself to be destroyed by the Mother as it spreads to the Earth's oceans. Polly survives outside of the shelter, wandering a newly-changed world, sole humanoid master of the alien landscape that her world has become.
Best part of story, including ending:
Parson's writing style is suspenseful, and the unfolding of the complex, multi-generational plot is intriguing.
Best scene in story:
The flashbacks to Casper's service in the Pacific theater, in which he and his fellows track down Japanese researchers into the clone phenomenon, are well-done, and motivate Casper's detachment extremely well.
Opinion about the main character:
Casper is a pleasantly noirish hero, and therefore likable in a world-weary way.