The Last Oracle

Page 34

Elizabeth studied it, then handed it to Gray.

Hayden explained, “Each dot represents an individual bearing the genetic marker. But if you look closely, you’ll see how many dots appear around major cities, like Delhi and Mumbai. Which only makes sense, since there are many people living in those cities.”

“But what about up here?” Gray asked and pointed toward the north.

Elizabeth knew what Gray was asking about. A large number of dots—more than anywhere else—clustered to the north, where no major city was marked.

“Exactly. Archibald wondered the same.” Hayden took the map back and tapped the cluster to the north. “He concentrated the last three years of his life in that area. He sought to discover why this dense cluster appears up there.”

“What’s there?” she asked.

“The Punjab.” The answer came from behind Elizabeth. From Luca Hearn. “The original homeland of the Romani.”

“Indeed. It is why Archibald contacted the Gypsy clans in Europe and the United States. He found it rather coincidental that such a rich history of prophecy and fortune-telling would arise from the same spot and spread to Europe and beyond. He sought to see if his genetic marker could be found among the Gypsies.”

“Was it?” Elizabeth posed the question to both Hayden and Luca.

Hayden answered, “Yes, but not in the concentrations he was suspecting. It disappointed your father.”

Luca made a noncommittal noise.

She turned to him. “What?”

“There was a reason,” Luca said.

Gray twisted around. “What do you mean?”

“It was why we hired Dr. Polk.”

Elizabeth remembered that the Gypsy clan leader had never fully elaborated on the matter. He’d started to explain on the airplane, but they had been interrupted.

“As I told you before, Dr. Polk sought to collect blood samples from our most gifted chovihanis. Not fakers, but real seers. But there were few among us who still met this criteria.”


“Because the heart of our people was stolen from us.”

Slowly and in a grim voice, Luca continued, telling a tale of a deep secret among his clans, one that went back centuries. The secret concerned one clan among all the others, one that was most cherished. It was forbidden even to speak of them to gadje, to outsiders. The clan was kept separate, hidden, protected by the other clans. It was the true source of the Gypsies’ heritage of prophecy. On rare occasions, some of these chovihanis would move and live among the other clans, sharing their talents, taking husbands or wives. But mostly they remained insular and apart. Then nearly fifty years ago, the clan was discovered. Every man and woman was slaughtered, butchered, and buried in a shallow, frozen grave.

Luca’s words grew especially bitter. “Only in that mass grave, there were no bones of any children.”

Elizabeth understood the impact. “Someone took them.”

“We never discovered who…but we never stopped looking. We had hoped that Dr. Polk with his new way of tracking—by DNA—might find a trail that had long gone cold.”

“Was he successful?” Elizabeth asked.

Luca shook his head. “Not that he ever revealed. He did send one odd query a few months ago. He wanted to know more about our status as untouchables, the casteless of India.”

Elizabeth didn’t know what that meant. She glanced to Hayden, but the professor shrugged. Still, she noted something in his expression, a narrowing of his eyes. He knew something.

But instead of explaining, he marked a small x on the map with his pen.

“What’s that?” Elizabeth asked, noting how it lay in the middle of the cluster of dots in the Punjab region.

“It’s where we must go next if we want answers.”

“And where’s that?” Gray pressed.

“To the place where Archibald vanished.”


September 6, 5:38 P.M.

Pripyat, Ukraine

Nicolas crossed through the ghost town’s amusement park.

Old yellow bumper cars sat in pools of stagnant green water, amid waist-high weeds. The roof of the ride had long since collapsed, leaving a frame of red corrosion arched over it. Ahead, the park’s giant Ferris wheel—the Big Dipper—rose into the late-afternoon sky, limned against the low sun. Its yellow umbrella chairs hung idle from the rusted skeleton. A symbol and monument to the ruin left behind in the wake of Chernobyl.

Nicolas continued on.

The park had been built in anticipation of the celebrations of May Day back in 1986. Instead, a week prior to the celebration, the city of Pripyat, home to forty-eight thousand workers and their families, was killed, smothered under a veil of radiation. The city, built in the 1970s, had been a shining example of Soviet architecture and urban living: the Energetic Theater, the palatial Polissia Hotel, a state-of-the-art hospital, scores of schools.

The theater lay now in ruins. The hotel had birch trees growing out of its roof. The schools had become crumbled shells, piled with moldy textbooks, old dolls, and wooden toy blocks. In one room, Nicolas had seen piles of discarded gas masks, lying in limp heaps like the scalped faces of the dead. The once vibrant city had been reduced to broken windows, collapsed walls, old bed frames, and peeling paint. Weeds and trees grew wild everywhere, cracking apart what man had built. Now only tours came here, four hundred dollars a head to explore the haunted place.

And the cause of it all…

Nicolas shaded his eyes and stared. He could just make out on the horizon a hazy bump, two miles off.

The Chernobyl power plant.

The explosion of reactor number four had cast a plume that wrapped the world. Yet here, the evacuation order was delayed for thirty hours. The forest around the city turned red with radioactive dust. Townspeople swept their porches and balconies to keep them clean while plutonium fires burned two miles away.

Nicolas shook his head, mostly because he knew a news crew followed him, rolling B-roll footage for the evening news. Nicolas strode through the amusement park. He had been warned to stay on the fresh asphalt strip that crossed the ruins of the abandoned town. The radiation levels spiked higher if you tread out into the mossy stretches of the urban wasteland. The worst zones were marked off with triangular yellow signs. The new asphalt path had been laid to accommodate the flood of dignitaries, officials, and newspeople that were descending on Chernobyl in anticipation of the installation of the new steel Sarcophagus over its decaying concrete shell.

By this evening, the showplace Polissia Hotel would return to a tarnished bit of its former glory. The hotel’s ballroom had been hastily renovated, cleared, and cleaned to host a formal black-tie party tonight. Even the birch trees growing out of the roof had been cut down for the event.

Nothing but the best for their international guests. There would be representatives from almost every nation, even a handful of stars from Hollywood. Pripyat would shine for this one night, a bright gala in the center of a radiological ruin.

Both the Russian president and prime minister would be in attendance, along with many members from the upper and lower house of Federal Assembly. Many were already here, making halfhearted assertions of change and reform, attempting to churn political currency from this momentous event.

But no one had been more vocal and vehement for a true change than Senator Nicolas Solokov. And after this morning’s assassination attempt, he had the spotlight shining him full in the face.

As the cameras taped him, Nicolas stepped off the asphalt walkway and crossed to a neighboring wall. Upon its surface had been painted a stark black shadow of a pair of children playing with a toy truck. It was said a mad Frenchman had spent months in Pripyat. His shadow art could be found throughout the city, haunting and disturbing, representing the ghosts of the lost children.

His own personal shadow, Elena, remained upon the asphalt walk. She had already chosen this particular piece of art to be the most poignant. Earlier she had scouted the zone with a dosimeter to make sure the radiation levels were safe.

It was all about showmanship this evening.

Nicolas leaned a hand on the wall. He traced the children’s form with a finger. He pressed the back of his wrist to one eye. Elena had already dabbed the sleeve of his suit jacket with drops of ammonia. The sting drew the required tears.

He turned to the cameras, his fingers still on the cheek of the shadow child. “This is why we must change,” he said and waved his hand to encompass the city. “How can anyone look across this blasted landscape and not know that our great country must move into a new era? We must put all this behind us—yet never forget.”

He wiped his cheek and hardened his countenance—a few tears were fine, but he did not want to appear weak. His voice growled toward the microphones. “Look at this city! What man has ruined, nature consumes. Some have called this place Chernobyl’s Garden of Eden. Is it not a handsome forest that has taken over the city? Birds sing. Deer roam in great abundance. But know that the wolves have also returned.”

He stared toward the darkening horizon. “Do not be fooled by the beauty here. It still remains a radioactive garden. We all crossed through the two military checkpoints to enter the thirty-kilometer-wide Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. We all passed the two thousand vehicles used to put out Chernobyl’s radioactive blaze. Firetrucks, aircraft, ambulances, still too hot to get near. We all wear our dosimeter badges. So do not be deceived. Nature has returned, but it will suffer for generations. What appears healthy and vital is not. This is not rebirth. Only false hope. For a true rebirth, we must look in new directions, toward new goals, toward a new Renaissance.”

He turned again to the shadowy children. He shook his head.

“How could we not?” he finished sadly.

Someone along the roadway clapped.

Faced away from the camera, Nicolas smiled. As camera flashes captured his thoughtful and resolute pose, his own shadow consumed the children’s shapes. After a long moment, he turned away and went back to the asphalt walkway.

He marched back toward the hotel. Elena trailed him. Rounding a turn, he saw a commotion at the front of the Polissia Hotel. A stretch black limousine pulled to the entrance of the hotel, surrounded by a sleek fleet of bulletproof sedans. Men in dark suits piled out, forming a thick cordon. The arriving dignitary climbed from the limousine, an arm raised in greeting.

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