The Last Oracle

Page 32

On the shore of that lake.

She shook her head. There had been no need to hunt down Dr. Polk. He’d been dead already.

Lights appeared ahead.

It glowed with the hope for a brighter future.

The heart of Operation Saturn.

3:15 P.M.

“They’re planning on doing what?” Monk said, a bit too loudly as he walked alongside the riverbank.

He and the kids had been walking alongside the churning river for the past hour. It was not the same waterway as where they’d encountered the bear. Monk had forded that turbulent stream by using a series of boulders and followed it down to this larger river, buried in a dense fir forest. Monk had studied the topographic map several times. It seemed they were following along the watershed that drained the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains. On the western side, the Urals shed their rainwater and snowmelt into the Caspian Sea; on this side, it all flowed into a region of massive rivers and hundreds of lakes, all of which eventually emptied into the Arctic Ocean.

What the Russians were planning…

Shock had rung in his voice.

Konstantin winced at his sharpness.

“I’m sorry,” Monk said more quietly, knowing voices traveled far in the mountains. He had been the one to warn the children to speak only in whispers. He obeyed his own rule now, though his voice was still strained. “Even with the hole in my memory, I know what they’re planning is madness.”

“They will succeed,” Konstantin countered matter-of-factly. “It is not difficult. A simple strategy. We”—he waved to Pyotr and Kiska, then in a general motion behind him, indicating the other children like him at the underground compound—“have run scenarios and models, judged probable outcomes, analyzed statistical global data, studied environmental impact, and extrapolated end results. It is far from madness.”

Monk listened to the boy. He sounded more like a computer than a teenager. Then again, Monk remembered the cold steel behind Konstantin’s ear. They all had them. Even Marta bore a thumb-size block of surgical steel buried in the fur behind her ear. During the past hour, Konstantin had also used the time to demonstrate his skill at calculations. The mental exercise had seemed to calm him. Kiska showed him how she could identify a bird’s song and mimic it in perfect pitch.

Only Pyotr seemed shy about his abilities.

“Empath,” Konstantin had explained. “He can read someone’s emotions, even when they’re hiding it, or acting contrarily. One teacher said he was a living lie detector. Because of this, he prefers the company of animals, spends much of his time at the Menagerie. He’s the one who insisted we bring Marta.”

Monk stared at where the boy walked with the elderly chimpanzee. He had been studying the boy, watching how he interacted. The two seemed to be in constant communication, silent glances, a pinch of brow or pucker of lip, a swing of arm.

He watched Pyotr suddenly stiffen and stop. Marta did, too. Pyotr swung to Konstantin and spoke in a rush, a frightened babble, first in Russian, then English. His small eyes turned up to Monk, searching for some miraculous salvation.

“They’re here,” the boy whispered.

Monk didn’t have to ask who Pyotr meant. It was plain from the raw terror in his voice.

Arkady and Zakhar.

The two Siberian tigers.

“Go!” Monk said. They ran down the riverbank. Konstantin led the way. His sister, Kiska, as fleet-footed as a gazelle, followed behind him. Monk allowed Konstantin to pick the best path through the blueberry bushes, scraggly brush, and boulders that lined the riverbanks. Monk kept a watch on their back trail. He had to be careful. Streams of straw-yellow spruce needles flowed from the thick forest to the river’s edge and created patches as slick as ice underfoot.

Pyotr slipped on a patch and landed hard on his backside. Marta scooped him under a hairy arm and got him back on his feet. Monk herded them forward. Konstantin and Kiska widened the distance ahead of them.

They ran for five minutes, but exhaustion quickly began to slow them. Even adrenaline and terror fired you for only so long. Ten minutes more and they were slogging at a stumbling half trot.

The group closed together again.

There remained no sound of pursuit, no crash of branches or snap of twigs. No sign of the tigers.

Konstantin, panting and red-faced, glared at Pyotr and spoke harshly in Russian, plainly berating the boy for the false alarm.

Monk waved Konstantin off. “It’s not his fault,” he gasped out.

Pyotr wore a wounded yet still terrified expression.

Marta hooted softly, bumping Konstantin.

Kiska also scolded her brother in Russian.

Monk had been warned that Pyotr could not judge distances well, only intent. He had to trust that when the tigers got really close—

—Pyotr went ramrod stiff, his eyes huge.

He opened his mouth, but terror choked him silent.

No words were necessary.

“Now!” Monk screamed.

Turning as one, they all ran—straight for the swift-flowing river as planned. Monk grabbed Pyotr, hugged him tight, and leaped from the bank. He heard twin splashes as Kiska and Konstantin hit the water downstream a few yards.

Monk surfaced in the icy-cold flow with the boy clinging like a vine to his neck. He twisted in time to see Marta swing up into the branches of a tree, climbing fast.

Deeper in the forest…motion…swift…a flash of fiery fur…

Monk kicked for the deepest and fastest current. He spotted Marta leaping from one tree to another in the dense forest. Chimpanzees could not swim and had no natural buoyancy. She had to take another path.

Forest shadows shattered as a huge shape burst into view, low, muzzle rippling, paws wide, striped tail high and stiff.

The tiger leaped straight from the riverbank at Monk.

He back-paddled and kicked, dragged by the weight of his pack and the boy. Pyotr tightened his arms, strangling him.

The tiger flew, legs out wide, black claws bared, a scream of feral fury.

Monk could not swim fast enough.

But the river’s flow made up for it.

The tiger crashed into the water a few yards away, missing its prey.

Monk angled into a swift channel between two boulders. He got dumped into a churning hole, thrown down deep, then back up again.

Pyotr choked and coughed.

Monk twisted and spotted the tiger thrashing upriver. It spun in an eddy of current. Despite the myths of cats and water, tigers were not averse to water. Still, the beast paddled for the shore. It was not how cats hunted.

Cats were all about the ambush.

The tigers had plainly stalked them, following them quietly through the forest as they fled away, driven by Pyotr’s initial warning. The boy had been right. Following age-old instincts and cunning, the pair had tracked them, waited until their prey had tired before charging. Tigers were sprinters, not long-distance runners. They timed their charge so they could strike at the perfect moment.

Along the river’s edge, another tiger appeared, stalking back and forth, thwarted. The first cat hauled out of the river, waterlogged and drenched. It shook its laden pelt and sprayed water.

Monk got a good look at the pair. Though still muscular, they looked emaciated, starved. Their fur had a ragged appearance. He noted matching steel skullcaps, like on the wolves. One tiger’s ear was gnarled, shredded from an old hunting injury. Zakhar, according to Konstantin’s description. Born siblings, it was the only way they could be told apart.

In a single smooth motion, as if responding to a silent whistle, the pair turned and vanished into the darkness.

Monk knew it wasn’t over.

The hunt was just beginning.

He twisted and saw Konstantin and Kiska disappear around a bend in the river. Monk sidestroked after them. Pyotr shivered against him. Monk knew the boy was not trembling from the cold, nor even from fear of the tigers. His huge, panicked eyes were not on the riverbank, but on the flow of water all around him.

What was terrifying him?

3:35 P.M.

Pyotr clung to the large man. He kept his arms tight around his neck, his legs around his waist. Water flowed all around him, filling his world. He tasted it on his lips, felt it in his ears, smelled its sweetness and green rot. Its ice cold cut to his bones.

He could not swim.

Like Marta.

He searched the far bank as it swept past, searching for his friend.

Pyotr knew much of his fear of water came from her heart. Deep water was death to her. He had felt the quickening thud of her heart when they crossed on the boulders earlier today, saw the tightening of her jaw, the glassy wideness to her eyes.

Her terror was his.

Pyotr clasped tighter to the man.

But the true heart of Marta’s terror lay deeper than any sea. He had known it from the moment she had come to his bedside, laying a lined paw upon his sheets, inviting friendship. Most thought she had come to comfort him as he recovered from his first surgery.

But in that long breathless moment, staring into her caramel-brown eyes, Pyotr had known her secret. She had come to him, seeking comfort for herself, reassurance from him.

From that moment, terror and love had bonded them equally.

Along with a dark secret.

4:28 P.M.

New Delhi, India

“Did you know man can see into the future?” Dr. Hayden Masterson asked as he tapped at the computer.

Gray stirred from studying the depths of his coffee. The group shared one of the private rooms at the Delhi Internet Café and Video. Kowalski leaned against the frosted glass door, ensuring their privacy. He picked at an adhesive bandage on his chin. Elizabeth had tended to the man’s scrapes and was now stacking the pages coming out of the laser printer beside the workstation. It was just the four of them. Rosauro and Luca had gone out to rent them a new car for the journey ahead.

Though Gray still wasn’t sure where they were going.

That all depended on Masterson—and he wasn’t in a talking mood. The professor had spoken hardly a word since they’d escaped from the attack at the hotel. Attempts to draw the man out, to get him to reveal why he might be the target of assassination, had only seemed to make him withdraw.

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