The Last Oracle

Page 48

“Not too much,” Monk warned in a whisper. “Spread them farther apart.”

Monk had spent the last hour searching for the perfect spot in the dark swamp. He’d finally found it: a long curving course, lined by dense willow groves and black patches of fir trees. Their timing had to be perfect. They would have only one shot. But with the far shore still a good two miles away and dawn fast approaching, they were doomed if they didn’t take the risk.

The final member of their party, Pyotr, sat in the middle of the raft, his arms wrapped around his legs. As he rocked in place, he stared toward the stern of the raft, as if watching his friends spread their bread crumbs, but Monk knew the boy’s gaze stretched much farther.

Reaching the end of the watery course, Monk swung the pole to the front and prodded it deep. He bolstered it with his shoulder and stopped the raft. This is where they’d make their stand.

Borsakov sat next to the airboat’s pilot. The seats were perched high above the flat-bottomed aluminum hull. Ahead of them crouched two of his soldiers; one manned the searchlight at the boat’s prow, the other kept a rifle ready at his shoulder.

After five hours of searching, Borsakov’s ears ached from all the noise. Behind him, the engine rumbled as the giant fan spun. The broken metal guard over the blades rattled and banged with every turn. The prop-wash that propelled the craft shook reeds and branches behind the boat.

The pilot wore the only set of earphones. He rested one hand on the steering stick, the other on the throttle. The smell of smoke and diesel fuel masked the mossy dampness of the swamp. They idled through a shallow section of open water. The searchlight swept the reeds that rimmed the edges.

Over the course of the night, they’d seen wild boar and elk, scared eagles from nests, glided past beaver dams and through clouds of insects. Their searchlight had reflected off thousands of smaller eyes, denizens of the swamp.

Still, they’d seen no sign of the escapees.

And on their last tank of fuel, they had until—

A simian scream cut through the engine’s rumble. It came from the right. The soldiers at the prow heard it, too. Both searchlight and rifle swung in that direction. Borsakov touched the pilot’s shoulder and pointed.

In the flash of light, something large swung across a narrow gap in the treeline, then disappeared into the forest. Borsakov knew one of the laboratory animals had also vanished with the children. A chimpanzee.

The engine roared louder as the pilot pushed the throttle stick forward. The boat sped toward the gap, gliding up on a cushion of air. The craft slowed as they reached the edge of the open water. The reeds here were bent, where someone had pushed through to reach a side channel.


Borsakov pointed ahead.

Past the gap, a narrow channel snaked ahead, lined by willows and choked by floating patches of weed. The craft sped up. The searchlight swept to all sides, piercing through the darkness. The rifleman reached down to the water and scooped up an empty plastic water bottle.

Someone had definitely been through here.

Borsakov waved the pilot to a faster clip, sensing his targets couldn’t be far. The course ambled in gentle curves. The boat followed swiftly, sweeping right and left.

The searchlight revealed more debris floating in the water, bits of trash and more bottles. Too much. Something was wrong here. Their prey had never been this foolish. Suspicious, Borsakov reached to the pilot and squeezed his shoulder. He motioned him to slow down.

Monk heard the engine’s roar lower to a rumble.

Crouched with the children, he watched the airboat glide into view around the last bend in the channel, plainly throttling down, going too slowly.

Not good.

The searchlight speared forward, gliding across the water straight at them. They would be spotted in a second. Their only hope—

—from out of the dark forest to the left, a dark shadow leaped headlong over the boat. It flew high, clearing the blades, but from its clenched feet, a handful of dark objects were tossed at the boat.

They struck the giant fan like bomb loads.

The shotgun shells from the cabin.

Monk heard them pop against the blades. The fan sliced through the plastic casings, which didn’t ignite, but which still exploded outward with stinging birdshot.

Cries erupted, half surprise and half pain as the crew was struck by flying pellets. The pilot, high in his seat, ducked and dropped in fear. He hit his stick, and the engine roared to life. The boat kicked forward like a stung jackrabbit, off kilter by the turn. The pilot wrested the control stick.

The searchlight blazed down the channel and swept over them, highlighting them in its brilliance. Monk saw the copilot scream and point.

Too late, buddy.

The two soldiers in front were suddenly flung backward. They struck the others. Tangled in a group, they hit the metal guard at the rear of the boat. The airboat jackknifed into the air and barrel-rolled.

Monk heard a scream of agony and a stuttered grind of blades. Blood and bone sprayed out of the back of the fan like a contrail—then the boat struck the water upside down, landing hard with a gasp of diesel smoke and a drowning choke from its engine. The searchlight still glowed out of the murky water.

Monk turned away. Earlier, with the children’s help, he had braided fishing line from the cabin into a translucent rope as thick as his finger—then he rigged it shoulder-height across the channel. It had clotheslined the crew and flipped the unstable boat.

From out of the trees above the raft, Marta dropped and landed leadenly to the planks. Pyotr was immediately in her arms. She sat on her haunches, gasping, panting. Still, she hugged Pyotr. Her eyes, though, were fixed on Monk, glassy and bright in the moonlight.

Monk nodded to her, grateful, yet at the same time, slightly unnerved.

He had needed the airboat to fly up the channel, drawn by the sure trail of their prey. Marta’s bombardment had been intended only as a distraction to keep them from seeing the rope strung across the channel.

She had done her job brilliantly.

Pyotr clung to her. After explaining the plan earlier, the boy had sat with Marta and held out the shotgun shells. He spoke slowly to her in Russian, but Monk suspected the true understanding between the pair arose from much deeper. In the end, she had taken the shells in the toes of her feet, leaped into the trees, and vanished.

Monk poled out across the next channel. Here a sluggish current propelled them onward. Toward the distant shore. Though relieved that his trap had worked, Monk knew with certainty that they were sweeping toward even greater danger.

But he had no choice.

Millions of lives were at stake.

Still, Monk studied Marta and the three children. To him, with no memory of another life, they were his world. They were all that mattered. He would do all he could to protect them.

As he urged the raft along the current, he recalled the painful flashback at the cabin as he had half drowsed.

The taste of cinnamon, soft lips…

What life had been stolen from him?

And could he ever get it back?

12:04 A.M.

Washington, D.C.

Just after midnight, Kat hung up the phone and stood up from the table. She glanced toward the window into the neighboring hospital room. She had finished a conference call with Director Crowe and Sean McKnight. The two were up in Painter’s office, waging an interdepartmental war from their bunker. Both men were engaged in a power struggle across the various intelligence agencies.

All over the fate of the girl.

Kat, with her own background in the field, had offered what counsel she could, but she could do no more. It was up to the two of them to find some way to thwart John Mapplethorpe.

Kat knew where she could do the most good.

She crossed toward the door that led into the hospital room. It was guarded by an armed corpsman. She paused by the window of one-way glass and stared into the room.

Propped by pillows in the bed, Sasha sat with a coloring book in her lap and a box of Crayola crayons. With an intravenous line still in her arm, she worked on a page, her face intent but calm.

Sasha suddenly glanced up from her work and stared straight at Kat. The glass was mirrored on the other side; there was no way the child could see that she was there. But Kat could not shake the sense that the girl was looking at her, could see her.

To one side, Yuri sat in a chair. He had pulled Sasha from the brink of death, proving his skill. He seemed as relieved as Kat at the girl’s recovery. Satisfied and exhausted, he sat slumped in his seat, chin on his chest, lightly drowsing.

Kat turned and nodded to the guard. He had already unlocked the door and swung it open for her. She crossed into the room. McBride still sat in the same chair. He had only moved to make a few phone calls and to use the restroom, always under guard.

On the other side of the bed from Yuri, Lisa and Malcolm stood, both with charts in hand. They compared notes and numbers, as cryptic as any code.

Lisa smiled at her as she joined them. “Her recovery is remarkable. I could spend years just studying the treatment regimen.”

“But it’s only a stopgap,” Kat said and nodded to Yuri. “Not a cure.”

Lisa’s expression sobered and turned back to the girl. “That’s true.”

Yuri had related the long-term prognosis for Sasha. Her augment shortened her life span. Like a flame set to a candle, it would burn through her, wear her away to nothing. The greater the talent, the hotter the flame.

Kat had asked how long Yuri expected the child to live. The answer had turned her cold. With her level of talent, another four or five years at best.

Kat had balked at such a pronouncement.

Contrarily, McBride had seemed relieved, expressing his assurances that American ingenuity could surely double that life span, which still meant Sasha would not reach her twentieth birthday.

Lisa continued, “The only hope for her is to remove the implant. She would lose her ability, but she’d also survive.”

McBride spoke up behind them. “She might survive, but in what state? The augment, besides heightening her savant talent, also minimizes the symptoms of her autism. Take the augment away, and you’ll be left with a child disconnected from the world.”

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