Gray’s mind tracked the implication. If Nicolas wasn’t augmented, then he must have been born without any savant talent. Yet someone had placed him in a position of power in Russia. Why? What was the endgame here?
Nicolas continued, “Back to Sasha. From all the turmoil going on in Washington, we’ve been having trouble gaining clear intelligence on her whereabouts. That was the main reason you were brought here from India.”
Versus being shot on the spot like Abhi Bhanjee.
“We are concerned about Sasha’s welfare and want her returned. So first of all, we’d like to know where she is and who has her.”
Gray stared straight at Nicolas. “I don’t know.”
At his side, Elena shook her head.
“Would you like to try again? I’m attempting to keep this civil. But we do have four of your friends here.”
“I can’t say for sure,” Gray answered. “The last I saw her, she was in the care of our organization.”
Nicolas glanced to Elena, who nodded. It was the truth.
“And I assume you do not work for John Mapplethorpe, since the traitor attempted to assassinate you and Dr. Masterson at the hotel in Agra.”
“No, in fact, we’re fighting to keep the child away from him.”
“Wise. That man is far from trustworthy. So then perhaps we truly can negotiate. Especially since we now have something worth trading.”
“First, what do you want with the girl?” Gray asked.
“She belongs here. With the rest of her family. We can care for her much better than anyone in your country.”
“Perhaps so. But why do you want her? To what end?”
Nicolas stared at Gray, studying him with shrewd eyes. Gray sensed a depth of cunning, along with a hard conceit, someone seeking recognition, compensating perhaps for a lack of talent elsewhere.
Gray pressed that weakness. “Do you have a plan that goes beyond the exploitation of children like Sasha?”
His eyes sparked. “Do not underestimate the scope of our initiative. Nor paint us with such malicious intent. We have nothing but the most humanitarian goals in mind, to better the world for all. The sacrifice required of a few children is infinitesimally small when compared to the atrocities that go ignored every day in the world.”
Gray read the need for validation behind the growing heat in his words. “What goals?”
“Nothing short of changing the course of human history.”
Here the man’s vanity shone brightly. He even sat up straighter and leaned toward Gray.
“Every few centuries, a great figure rises who abruptly changes history—someone who alters the fundamental path of mankind. I’m talking along the lines of the great prophets. Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus Christ. Someone who thinks so differently, who sees the world through such unique eyes, that his very viewpoint bends humanity in a new direction. From where do such figures arise? Where does this uniqueness of mind come from?”
Masterson stirred, stretching a kink in his back.
Gray recalled the professor’s discussion about autism and its role in human history. And the quote he had used. If by some magic, autism had been eradicated from the face of the earth, then men would still be socializing in front of a wood fire at the entrance to a cave.
“Why wait for the right toss of the genetic dice?” Nicolas asked. “If such uniqueness could be recognized, singled out, and harnessed for the good of all, imagine the new age of enlightenment that could be fostered. Especially if such uniqueness could be heightened to astounding levels.”
Nicolas’s eyes settled on Elena.
Gray began to understand the scope of the project’s vision. It was no mere spy program. Nicolas’s organization planned to take control of the reins to human history by using the augmented individuals like draft horses. And Gray began to suspect why Nicolas had been put in such a place of power. Someone was grooming him as a figurehead, propped and supported behind the scenes by the augmented children. Gray tried to imagine all that talent at the bid of one individual.
Gray could not hide his horror and shock. “How do you plan to—?”
“That’s enough!” Nicolas barked. “Now that you better understand our intent, you can understand why we want Sasha returned. She is important to the program…and especially significant to me.”
Gray read something in his eyes. “Why you?”
“Why?” He stared hard at Gray. “Because she’s more than a test subject, she’s my daughter.”
Elena’s fingernails scraped the underside of Gray’s wrist. The woman turned sharply toward Nicolas. Apparently this was as equally surprising to her. No wonder Gray and the others had been dragged all the way to Chernobyl.
“Before this day is over, you will know what I am capable of.” Nicolas leaned toward Gray, his eyes fiery with determination. “And I will get my daughter back.”
Southern Ural Mountains
General-Major Savina Martov stood in the heart of Operation Saturn. Behind her, the mine train waited on the tracks, snapping and crackling, smelling of smoke and oil. It rested a hundred yards from where the tracks ended at Mine Complex 337, an abandoned uranium mine that honeycombed the neighboring Ural Mountains. M.C. 337 was where the prisoners housed at Chelyabinsk 88 had spent eighteen hours a day laboring in the dark, slowly being poisoned.
Now it served as a dumping ground for broken mining equipment and piles of rock from Operation Saturn. Over the course of five years, a small team of miners and demolition experts had filled several old shafts to the brim with the debris dug out of this site.
Operation Saturn occupied a small man-made cavern off the train tracks. The blasted room—the size of a hotel lobby—was framed by oil-soaked scaffolding and crowded with mining equipment: conveyor belts, hydraulic winches, rock dusters, water pumps, hoses, all surrounding a compact drill rig with a drummed tungsten-carbide bit. Most of it would be left where it stood or hauled out with the next train.
Savina watched a backhoe dump a load of rock and rubble into one of the ore cars behind her. The train would make one last shipment to M.C. 337.
All was on schedule.
Still, she stood with her fists on her hips, legs apart, surveying the operation site. Her conversation with Nicolas still had her agitated. She had known he was bullheaded and prone to rash and dramatic decisions. She regretted informing him about Sasha. She had not thought he would react so foolishly. Where was his dispassion in such matters? They still had ten Omega subjects, more than enough to seed the new site in Moscow. The ten alone were powerful enough to hand him the world, to guide humanity to its new Renaissance, led by a resurrected Russian Empire. And the future czar would not have one Rasputin to counsel him, but ten. Ten prodigious savants, who together and augmented, could bend time and distance to serve him.
Did he not see that?
What was one child against such a vision?
Two if you counted Nicolas’s son, Pyotr. But the boy’s talent, while strong, was of little value. What use was empathy when it came to forging a new world? If anything, it was a hindrance. All that would be lost with the boy was his genetic potential. A significant loss, but not insurmountable. And there was still hope of recovering the boy. The last she’d heard from Lieutenant Borsakov was that he was about to head into the Asanov swamps. It would be hard to find anything in the dark, but with the sun now up, she expected results at any moment. Or so she had assured Nicolas.
And ultimately it did not matter. Nicolas would grow to see this.
A technician in a white smock, hard hat, and respirator mask approached her. He was an engineer from the St. Petersburg State Mining Institute. “Ready to test the board and iris.”
She nodded. After this final shakedown, the operation site would be evacuated. She’d had to push her crew these last two days in order to meet the shortened timetable. Nicolas’s operation had been scheduled to proceed today, followed by Savina’s in two weeks. But with the recent betrayal by Mapplethorpe, the decision had been made to initiate both operations on the same day. Once she heard of Nicolas’s success, she would proceed.
“Are there any problems?” she asked the engineer.
His voice was muffled in the respirator as they walked. “We’ve run all the diagnostics, rechecked the ammonium nitrate fuel oil concentrations, performed one final GPR scan of the overburden, and troubleshot all electrical systems. We’re ready on your order to clear the site and open the iris. We’re going to test fire it now.”
Savina followed the man under the arch of scaffolding. The vehicle-mounted drill rig was already being driven out of the way. Men worked around the tight space: in the rigging, on the floor, and amid the equipment. She looked to the upper wall of the cavern. A two-meter-wide shaft sloped upward at a steep angle, lined by an idle conveyor belt, dripping with water from the hoses. Lights glowed at the far end of the shaft, almost half a kilometer away. Tiny shadows moved within the glow, motes in the brightness. The demolition team was doing one final inspection.
Savina appreciated their thoroughness.
Over fifty bore holes—as thick around as her thumb and a meter deep—had been drilled into the end of the shaft and packed with ANFO supercharges. The bores needled through a fault that lay beneath Lake Karachay. Wired to detonate in sequence, the charges would crack a gaping hole in the bottom of the poisonous lake, dumping its slurry of radioactive strontium and cesium straight down the shaft.
“Over here, General-Major.” The technician waved her away from the center of the cavern.
Set into the floor was a three-meter-wide circular hatch. She had obtained it from the Sevmorput Naval Shipyard in Murmansk. It was the latest missile silo door, composed of six flakes of half-meter-thick steel in the shape of an iris.
She stepped off of it and over to where a diagnostic laptop rested on a worktable. The technician had the engineering schematics open on the screen. Other men had stopped to watch.
He spoke into a radio, listened, then nodded to Savina. “We’re set in the control room. Ten seconds until firing.”