He leaned forward. “Good morning, Yuri.”
Trent McBride smiled down at him without a trace of warmth.
Yuri glanced down to his chest, remembering being shot by a tranquilizer dart. He searched around, still confused, dazed.
“You’ve been given a counterstimulant,” McBride said. “Must have you alert, since we have much to discuss.”
“Kak…ya…,” he choked out, his tongue pasty and thick.
McBride sighed, reached to a bedside table where a glass with a straw rested, and offered Yuri a sip.
He did not refuse. The lukewarm liquid burned like the finest vodka. It pushed back the shadows at the edges of his thoughts and washed the paste from his tongue.
“Trent, what are you doing?” Yuri tugged at the straps that bound down his arms.
“Filling in the blanks.” McBride pressed an intercom button at the head of the bed. “As I mentioned, you’ve not been forthcoming with all the details of your research at Chelyabinsk 88. We must correct that oversight.”
“How do you mean?” Yuri tried to sound innocent, but he failed miserably as his voice shook. He wished he were a stronger man.
“Hmm,” Trent said. He leaned forward and stripped the sheet covering Yuri. “I suppose we might as well get the ugly part over with so we can speak like true colleagues.”
Yuri stared down at his naked body. His pale skin was dotted by tiny suction cups, each the size of a dime, topped by a pea-size knot of electronics sprouting a thread-thin antenna. They lined his legs from toe to groin, his arms from fingertip to shoulder. His chest was a chessboard grid of the sticky cups.
Before he could question what they were, the door to the room opened and a slender figure entered. Yuri had to struggle a moment to remember his name, though he had just met the man. Dr. James Chen. They had used the researcher’s office for the meeting at Walter Reed.
The door clamped shut, soundproofed.
Chen crossed to them. He carried a laptop open in his arms. “We’re all calibrated.”
As the man settled into a seat and rested his laptop on the bedside table, Yuri caught a glimpse of the computer screen before it was swung away. It had a stylized figure of an outstretched man dotted with small glowing circles.
“Electroacupuncture,” McBride said and waved a hand over the array of suction cups. “Microelectrodes inserted into acupuncture points along the prime meridians. I don’t purport to understand it fully. This is Dr. Chen’s line of expertise. He’s made remarkable progress using this technique to alleviate pain, allowing battlefield surgery without general anesthesia. Brilliant work and why he became a Jason. I then recruited him to our joint investigation because of his innovative use of microelectrodes. Microelectrodes like you used with your own test subjects.”
McBride tweaked one of the antennas with a finger. Yuri felt a stinging stab. “We’ve learned that what can be used to deaden pain in the right circumstances, can also be used to amplify it.”
“Trent…don’t…,” Yuri begged.
McBride ignored him, turned to Chen, and pointed to one of the cups near his knee, then to a second one near his groin.
The researcher lifted a stylus and drew a line on the computer screen.
Yuri’s leg blistered with fiery pain. A scream burst from his throat. It was as if someone had dug a scalpel from knee to groin, cutting down to the bone. Then it ended just as quickly.
Gasping, Yuri searched down. He expected to see blood flowing, flesh smoking. But there was only pale skin.
McBride waved again across the field of tiny cups. “We can do the same across any of these points. In any pattern. We can flay you alive without harming a hair. A virtual operation with all the pain.”
McBride stared down at him again. While his face was mild, his eyes were fierce. “I will have answers, yes? Let’s start with what you’ve been keeping secret about the children.”
McBride turned to Chen.
“No!” Yuri shouted out.
McBride leaned back to him. “Then let’s not play games. We’ve been able to replicate your augments without any difficulty. The schematics that your team provided were very thorough and precise. But in the end, not all that innovative. Merely a sophisticated TMS device. We attempted to duplicate your results, using a pair of autistic savant children in Canada. Our experiments were…well, let’s just say disappointing.”
Yuri inwardly cringed. So the Americans were closer than even Savina had suspected. They’d already come to recognize how unique the situation was at Chelyabinsk 88.
“So,” McBride asked again, “what have you been keeping secret from us?”
Yuri hesitated too long. A fiery slash cut across his chest. His muscles spasmed, his back arched from the bed. He screamed so loudly that no sound came out.
As the pain cut off, Yuri trembled and quaked with aftershocks. He tasted blood on his tongue. Still he dared not wait. What did it matter if the Americans found out? It was already too late.
“DNA,” he gasped out. “It’s their DNA.”
McBride hovered closer. “How do you mean?”
Yuri swallowed, gulping for air. “The secret lies in the subjects’ genetics. We only discovered this ourselves twelve years ago.”
Yuri explained in fits and starts, questioned repeatedly by McBride. He related the discovery in 1959 of a cluster of exceptional savant talent, a group of Gypsy children. A genetic line that ran through the history of the Gypsies. The chovihanis. The clans kept this line secret and attempted to preserve it through inbreeding, resulting in genetic aberrations. He told how the Russians had stolen this genetic heritage for study, for incorporation into their own research into parapsychology.
“But it was nothing mystical,” Yuri explained. “The children were merely savants…though savants of a prodigious level. We tried to heighten their ability—first through breeding, then through bioengineering. But over the years, as genetic testing grew more refined, we were able to pinpoint what made the children unique.”
McBride leaned closer.
“Autism is triggered by a mix of environmental factors coupled with a variable number of ten genes. What we discovered was that the strongest of the savants—our Omega-class subjects—carried a specific three genes. Three genetic markers. When they appeared in just the right sequence, coupled with mild to moderate autism, an amazing savant talent would arise.”
“Which you in turn augmented further,” McBride said. “Creating a perfect storm of genetics and bioengineering.”
“Brilliant. Truly brilliant. Then it was just as well we used Archibald to lure one of your Omega subjects out into the open. And all the more reason for us to get hold of that girl.”
Yuri startled. Concern rang through him. “You don’t have Sasha?”
McBride frowned and tilted back to his chair. “No, but in the past hour, we’ve determined where she is likely being kept. And it seems the same group has sent a team to follow in Archibald’s footsteps. Luckily we have taken measures to erase those footsteps completely.”
“Who…who has Sasha?”
“You want to know?” McBride glowered down at Yuri. It was plainly a sore spot for the man. “I’ll show you.”
He motioned to Chen.
Yuri’s chest lit with fire, streaking in jagged lines across his chest, linking point to point, forming a crooked symbol on his chest, a letter, a fiery Greek letter.
McBride growled through Yuri’s agony. “They won’t be a problem for long.”
Despite her father’s fascination, Elizabeth had never been to India. She stared out the taxi van as it swept away from the airport. The windows were down but offered little relief from the heat, well over a hundred degrees.
Traffic moved at a snail’s pace, snarled amid rickshaws pulled by both bicycles and even one camel. She was close enough to a neighboring taxi, whose windows were also open, that she could smell the driver’s thin cigar as he chewed on its end. The smoke cut like a knife through the density of the city’s mélange of curry, filth, and cooking grease. The neighboring driver huffed at the traffic and pounded the heel of his hand on his horn.
The blare was barely heard above the chaos, made worse by a festival under way ahead, bright with the sounds of cymbals. All around, pedestrians packed the sidewalks and walked through the creeping cars, fighting for space with bicycles and motorcycles.
Elizabeth found her breathing growing heavier, her chest constricting—not from the humidity and heat but from the press of humanity. She wasn’t normally claustrophobic, but the noise, the unending vibrancy, the hawk and holler of so many people, blanketed her, squeezed her. Her hands formed fists on her knees.
Finally, through judicious use of his own horn, the taxi driver broke through a gap and pushed for the next intersection. He turned the corner, and the way opened to a wider thoroughfare that aimed straight for the heart of the city.
Elizabeth sighed in relief.
“Finally,” Kowalski said next to her, echoing her sentiment. “We should’ve rented a van. I could’ve gotten us there faster.”
The large man was crammed against her side, but he seemed to sense her distress and tried to keep back, which didn’t help the other passenger sharing their row.
Beyond Kowalski, Shay Rosauro elbowed the large man for more room. Her face shone with a sheen of sweat. She had used the time stuck in traffic to undo the black bandanna that bound her hair and refold it into an efficient head scarf that tucked behind her ears.
Gray, who sat in the front passenger’s seat of the van, leaned toward the driver and pointed. The driver nodded. Gray settled back into place.
The final member of their company sat in the back row of the van. Luca Hearn wore an inscrutable expression, but his dark eyes seemed to watch everything. He had strapped two daggers to wrist sheaths before leaving the plane, prepared for an unwelcome homecoming to the land of his people.