It was the first stage of the fail-safe program: feeding a gaseous accelerant into the air. It took a minimum of fifteen minutes to reach critical levels. And while it was safe to breathe for at least a couple of hours, they didn’t have that long. In another ten minutes, the fail-safe would ignite sparks throughout the base and trigger a firestorm across all levels of central command. The flash fire would last only a few seconds, fed by the accelerant in the air, searing every surface within the concrete bunker. Then sprinklers would kick in, dousing the flames immediately.
Inside the communication nest, Painter checked the row of monitors, receiving video feed from cameras on every level.
He stalked along them until he found the one he was looking for. It showed Mapplethorpe standing beside Sean McKnight. He held a pistol to Sean’s back. Behind them, commandos began disappearing down an open stairwell door.
Painter tapped on the audio from the camera.
“—madness,” Sean said. “You can’t circumvent channels like this. Do you think you can perform an unsanctioned assault upon another agency, then try to clean it up afterward?”
“I’ve done it before,” Mapplethorpe growled. “It’s all a matter of producing the results to match the offense.”
“In other words, the ends justify the means,” Sean scoffed. “You’ll never get away with it. Two people are dead.”
“Is that all? Like I said, I’ve done this many times before. Abroad and here.”
Painter cut into the conversation. He spoke into a microphone that broadcast through speakers on that floor. “Mapplethorpe!”
The man jolted, but he kept his pistol steady. He searched around, then found the camera on the wall. He regained his composure, his lips settling into a sneer of derision. “Ah, Director, so you haven’t evacuated with the rest of your people. Very good. Then let us end this quickly. Bring up the girl, and no one else needs to get hurt.”
Painter spoke into the microphone. “We’ve already taken out your man, Mapplethorpe, and hidden the girl where you won’t find her.”
“Is that so?” Mapplethorpe sniffed a bit at the air. “I see you’ve activated Sigma’s fail-safe program.”
Painter felt a chill. The man had obtained more than just their base schematics; he’d tapped deep into their protocols. Sean had warned him about Mapplethorpe. The bastard had his fingers everywhere, a black spider dancing in the intelligence web. His oily and bland demeanor hid a much more dangerous core.
“And I believe you’ve set the timer for zero one hundred,” Mapplethorpe said, confirming the depths of his intel. “We’ve been unable to decrypt the code to stop it, but something tells me we won’t have to. Not with my holding twenty hostages above. Twenty of your men and women. With families and lives beyond these walls. I don’t think you’ve got the brass balls to let them die, to be slain by your own hand. Whereas I—”
Mapplethorpe lifted his gun to the back of Sean’s head.
“—have no such qualms.”
The man fired. The pistol blast overloaded the speakers, turning into a digital pop and squawk. Sean fell to his knees, then to the floor.
Painter’s chest tightened, unable to take a breath. Disbelief rang through him. A part of him expected Sean to stand back up, to shake off the attack. But just as quickly, a flame as hot as the coming firestorm burned through Painter. Stunned at the man’s brutality and callousness, Painter could form no words.
Unlike his adversary.
Mapplethorpe’s voice returned. “We’re coming for that girl, Director. And no one is going to stop us.”
September 7, 10:38 A.M.
Gray secured the black belt over the Russian field jacket, camouflaged in forest green. He stamped his feet more securely into the boots. Kowalski tossed him a furred cap. The stolen uniform fit decently, but his partner’s outfit looked ready to burst at the seams. The two Russian soldiers, stripped to their underclothes, had been posted at the front of the jailhouse. Caught by surprise, it had not been hard to knock them out and secure the uniforms.
“Let’s go,” Gray said and headed to a motorcycle.
“Shotgun,” Kowalski called out.
Gray glanced over, realizing the man was not talking about a weapon. They both had AN-94 Russian assault rifles.
Kowalski eyed the sidecar to the IMZ-Ural motorcycle. “Always wanted to ride in one of these,” he said and climbed into the open car.
Gray shifted the rifle over a shoulder and hiked a leg over the seat.
Moments later, engine growling, they shot through the old prison gates and out into the weed-strewn streets of Pripyat. Gray checked his wristwatch.
Leaning lower, he throttled up, goosed the gas, and sped through the faded, rusted city. The asphalt was broken, and shattered glass threatened the tires. Around every corner, they met unexpected obstacles: abandoned rusted skeletons of automobiles, moss-covered old furniture, and even a strangely surreal stack of band instruments.
Despite the hazards, Gray raced at breakneck speeds, taking corners hard enough to lift the sidecar off its tire. Kowalski whooped a bit at these turns. They passed the occasional soldier patrolling the streets, who lifted a rifle or arm in greeting as they raced past; at other times, Gray spotted a flash of a haunted face peering through a broken window, one of the stray scavengers of the city.
Reaching the outskirts of Pripyat, Gray sped toward the horizon as a trio of deer sprang away from the roar of the cycle. He aimed for the towering ventilation stack of the reactor. Even over the roar of the cycle, he heard snatches of amplified voices rolling out from the grandstands. According to Masterson, Senator Nicolas Solokov was planning some attack on those gathered here to observe the sealing of the Chernobyl reactor.
But what was the man’s plan?
What was Operation Uranus?
As Gray raced down a freshly paved asphalt road, he studied the growing hulk of the Chernobyl complex ahead. His eyes were drawn to what looked like a gargantuan Quonset hut off to one side. The arched steel hangar reflected the morning sunlight like a mirror.
And it was moving.
Like oil on water, the sunlight flowed over its curved exterior. It closed slowly upon the Chernobyl reactor. Most of the complex was gray concrete and whitewashed surfaces, but along one side, a hulking structure stuck out along one edge, blackened like a dead tooth. It marked the grave of reactor number four, a massive black Sarcophagus. The rolling hangar, open at one end, sought to swallow the structure under its high arch.
As they drew closer, Gray’s mind shuffled through possibilities. Archibald Polk had been exposed to a deadly level of radiation, possibly from here. Whatever Nicolas was planning had to involve the old reactor. Nothing else made sense.
Masterson had warned that security would be high near the grandstands, especially with the number of dignitaries in attendance. The stands stood a quarter mile from the reactor. Gray weighed which path to take: to head for the grandstands or the reactor. What if he was wrong about the reactor? Could there be a bomb somewhere among the stands?
As the bike shot across the open plain between Pripyat and Chernobyl, a broadcasted voice reached him, echoing and hollow, extolling the virtues of nuclear cooperation in the new world. There was no mistaking that voice. Gray had attended several events at the White House.
It was the president of the United States.
Gray factored this into his account. The Secret Service would surely have canvassed the site, swept it multiple times, set up a strict protocol. Additionally, the Secret Service would have agents on all sides of the reactor, again searching for any threat.
Gray studied the number of parked vehicles, the sea of satellite antennas. The entire grandstand area was cordoned off with fences, gates, and patrolling guards—on foot and in open jeeps. While his disguise worked at a distance, Gray doubted the ruse would get him through to the stands. He had no identification, no passes for the event.
As he weighed his options, speeding toward the immense site, he was awed by the sheer size of the project. The giant steel hangar slowly trundled along a pair of tracks, pulled by whale-size hydraulic jacks. It had already reached the dead reactor and had begun to close over it, arching high into the sky, its steel now nearly blinding with sunlight, so tall that the Statue of Liberty could stand on her own shoulders and still not reach the roof of the arched hangar.
Even Kowalski whistled his appreciation at the dimensions of the rolling structure. He finally leaned over and called out, “What’s the plan when we—?”
Gray lifted an arm, silencing him. A new voice had cut into the president’s speech. Like the president, this speaker was also familiar. He spoke Russian, then repeated his words in English, playing for the international audience.
Senator Nicolas Solokov’s voice boomed toward Gray. “I protest this travesty!” he bellowed. “Here we all are, congratulating ourselves for erasing a shameful piece of Russian history—for hiding it, as though it never happened, sweeping it under a steel rug. But what about those killed during the explosion, what about the hundreds of thousands doomed to die of cancers and leukemia, what of the thousands of babies born into deformity, pain, and mental debilitation? Who will speak for them?”
Gray was now close enough to see the stage that rose before the amphitheater seating. Figures were too small to make out, but giant video screens flanked the stage. One displayed the Russian president, the other the United States’s leader. Each president stood behind a podium. In the center of the stage, another figure stood amid chaos. Nicolas Solokov. Guards tried to haul the senator from the stage, while others protected him so he could speak. From all the milling confusion, Nicolas must have barged onto the stage to initiate this dramatic, televised protest.
Off to the side, men in black surrounded and shielded the president.
Whatever Nicolas had planned, it had begun. Gray leaned lower and gunned the engine. The motorcycle rocketed down the blacktop toward the stands.
The speaker squawked with electronic feedback, then Nicolas continued, shouting, “You all believe a handsome coffin like this marks an end to a blasted legacy, but it is all sham! The monster has already escaped its cage! No matter how large a lock or how strong the steel, you cannot put that monster back behind bars. The only real end to this legacy is to fundamentally change our attitudes, to set true and lasting policy. This ceremony is nothing more than a pale charade! All posture, no substance! We should be ashamed!”