The house was surrounded.
They were trapped.
On the other side of the world, the man named Monk sought his own path to freedom.
As the three children stood guard at his hospital room door, Monk struggled into a pair of thick denim coveralls, dark blue to match the long-sleeved shirt he wore. It was difficult with only one hand. All that remained on the chair were a black cable-knit wool cap and a pair of thick socks. He tugged the cap over his shaved head and pushed into the heavy socks, then into boots that were a bit snug, but the leather was worn and broken in.
The privacy allowed Monk to gather his wits about him, though it had done little to fill in the blanks of his life. He still couldn’t remember anything beyond waking up here. But at least the exertion of dressing helped steady his feet.
He joined the oldest of the boys, Konstantin, at the door, which was steel and had a locking bar on the outside. The stoutness of the door confirmed he’d been a prisoner and that this was an escape.
The youngest of the trio, Pyotr, took Monk’s hand and tugged him down the hall, away from the glow of a nurse’s station. He remembered the boy’s earlier plea.
Monk didn’t understand. From what? The girl, who he had learned was named Kiska, led the way to a back stairwell, lit by a red neon sign. Passing under it to the stairs, Monk stared up at the sign’s lettering.
He had to be in Russia. Despite his lack of memory, he knew he didn’t belong here. His thoughts were in English. Without a British accent. That meant he had to be American, didn’t it? If he could recognize all that, why couldn’t he—
A cascade of images suddenly blinded him, frozen snapshots of another life, popping like camera flashes in his head—
…a smile…a kitchen with someone’s back turned to him…the steel head of a sharp ax flashing across blue sky…lights rising from deep in dark water…
Then it was gone.
His head pounded. He tried to catch himself on the stair railing and instinctively grabbed out with his stumped arm. His scarred forearm slid along the railing. He barely caught his balance. He stared down at his stump and recalled one of the flashes of memory.
…the steel head of an ax flashing across blue sky.
Was that how it had happened?
Ahead, the children rushed down the stairs. Except for the youngest boy. Pyotr still held his one good hand. He stared up at Monk with eyes so blue they were almost white. Tiny fingers squeezed his own, reassuring. A gentle tug urged him onward.
He stumbled after the others.
They encountered no one on the stairs and exited out a back doorway and into a moonless, overcast night. The air had a chill to it and hung still and damp. Monk took in deep breaths, slowing his hammering heart.
The massive hum of a generator filled the space. Monk studied the size and breadth of the hospital, sprawling out in low wings and encompassing two five-story towers.
“Come. This way,” Konstantin said, taking the lead now.
They hurried down a dark cobblestone alleyway between the hospital and a wall that climbed two stories on their left. Monk looked up, trying to get his bearings. A few lamps glowed beyond the wall, highlighting the tile roofs of hidden buildings. They reached a corner and slipped behind the walled enclosure. The ground became raw rock, slippery with dew. There were no lights here on the back side. All Monk could make out was the wall they followed, built of concrete blocks. His palm ran along it as they ran. From the rough mortaring and uneven lay of the bricks, it must have been hastily constructed.
Monk heard an eerie yowl echoing over the wall. This was followed by muffled barks and stifled sharper cries.
His feet slowed. Animals. Was this some form of zoo?
As if the tall boy ahead had read his thoughts, Konstantin glanced back and mouthed the word menagerie and waved him onward.
They reached the far corner, and the path sloped steeply downward from there. From the vantage of their height, Monk stared across a bowled valley and a picturesque village of cobbled lanes and cottages with peaked roofs and flower boxes. Ornate black streetlamps flickered with gas flames. A three-story school filled one corner of the village, surrounded by ball fields and an open amphitheater. The small village clustered around a central square, where a tall fountain’s spray danced and glittered.
On the far side of the village rose row after row of industrial-looking apartment buildings, each five stories, squared and laid out in a practical grid. Dark and lightless, it had a dilapidated, deserted feeling to it.
Unlike the village below.
People milled in confusion below. Shouts echoed. He saw children gathered in nightclothes, mingling with adults, some similarly attired, woken from their beds. Others wore gray uniforms and stiff-brimmed hats. Flashlights danced through the narrow streets.
Something had roused the place.
He heard names called, some beckoning, some angry.
“Konstantin! Pyotr! Kiska!”
A flaming red flare arced upward from the town center, lighting up the sleepy little village, laying stark the buildings beyond, dancing fire over the concrete walls and hollow-eyed windows.
Monk’s gaze tracked the flare as it reached its zenith, popped out a tiny parachute, and floated downward.
Monk’s attention remained above.
The sky…it wasn’t just moonless.
It wasn’t there at all.
The ruddy glow of the flare revealed a massive dome of rock, stretching overhead in all directions, swallowing up the entire place. Monk gaped, stumbling around in a stunned circle.
They hadn’t made it outside.
They were inside a giant cavern.
Possibly man-made from the blasted look of the roof and walls.
He stared down at the perfect little village, preserved in the cavern like a ship in a bottle. But there was no time for further sightseeing.
Konstantin tugged him down behind a limestone outcropping. A trio of jeeps quietly hummed up a steep road toward them, passed them, and headed toward the hospital complex. The vehicles appeared to be electric-powered and were manned by men in uniforms, bearing guns.
Once the jeeps were out of sight, Konstantin pointed away from the village, toward the darkness of the deeper cavern. They traversed the rocky landscape and came upon a thin path, seldom used from the looks of it.
They skirted the subterranean village, sticking to the upper slopes of the cavern. Monk noted a yawning tunnel on the far side, lit by electric lights, sealed by giant metal doors wide enough that two cement trucks could have entered, side by side. It marked a roadway that exited the cavern.
But the children led him in the opposite direction.
Where were they taking him?
Behind, a loud alarm erupted, deafening as an air raid siren in the enclosed space. All four of them turned. A red light flashed and whirled atop the hospital complex.
The villagers had come to realize another truth.
It wasn’t just the children who had gone missing.
Monk attempted to herd the kids down the path, but the loud noise had incapacitated them. They covered their ears and squeezed their eyes shut. Kiska looked sick to her stomach. Konstantin was on his knees, rocking. Pyotr hugged tight to Monk.
Still, Monk urged them onward, carrying Pyotr, half dragging Kiska.
Monk glanced back toward the flashing siren. He may have lost his memory—or more precisely, had it forcibly extracted—but he knew one thing for dead certain.
He would lose much more than his memory if caught again.
And he feared the children would suffer even worse.
They had to keep going—but to where?
September 6, 5:22 A.M.
Nicolas Solokov waited for the cameras to be set up. He had already been prepped and still wore a collar of tissue paper tucked into his white starched shirt to keep the makeup’s cake from staining his shirt and midnight blue suit. He had retreated for a private moment of introspection into one of the back hospital wards. The international news crews were still preparing for the morning broadcast out on the steps of the orphanage.
In the back ward of the Kiev Children’s Home, sunlight streamed through high windows. A single nurse moved quietly among the beds. Here the worst cases were hidden away: a two-year-old girl with an inoperable thyroid tumor in her throat, a ten-year-old boy with a swollen head from hydrocephalus, another younger boy whose eyes were dulled by severe mental retardation. This last boy was strapped down, all four limbs.
The nurse, a squarish Ukrainian matron in a blue smock, noted his attention.
“So he doesn’t hurt himself, Senator,” she explained, her eyes exhausted from seeing too much suffering.
But there had been worse cases. In 1993, a baby had been born in Moldova with two heads, two hearts, two spinal cords, but only one set of limbs. There was another child whose brain was born outside his skull.
All the legacy of Chernobyl.
In spring of 1986, reactor number four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had exploded during the middle of the night. Over the course of ten days, it spewed radiation that was the equivalent of four hundred Hiroshima bombs in a plume that circled the globe. To date, according to the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, over one hundred thousand people had died from radiation exposure and another seven million were exposed, most of them children, leaving an ongoing legacy of cancers and genetic abnormalities.
And now the second wave of the tragedy was beginning, where those who had been exposed at a young age were having children themselves. A 30 percent increase in birth defects had been reported.
For that reason, the volatile and charismatic leader of the lower house of the Russian parliament had come here. Nicolas’s own district of Chelyabinsk lay a thousand miles away, but it had similar concerns. In the Ural Mountains of his district, most of the fuel for Chernobyl had been mined, along with the plutonium for the Soviet weapons program. It remained one of the most radioactive places on the planet.
“They’re ready for you, Senator,” his aide said behind him.
He turned to face her.
Elena Ozerov, a trim raven-haired woman in her early twenties with a smoky complexion, wore a black business suit that hid her small breasts and turned her into something androgynously asexual. She was stern, taciturn, and always at his side. The press referred to her as Nicolas’s Rasputin, which he did not discourage.