Finally, the guards overwhelmed the senator’s supporters. Nicolas’s microphone was ripped from his hands. He was dragged bodily off the stage.
The Russian president began speaking in his native tongue, sounding both angry and apologetic. The U.S. president motioned the agents to disperse, not wanting to appear spooked by a showboating politician. Speeches slowly resumed.
Behind them, the arch continued to swallow the reactor.
Gray slowed his bike. He still had a choice to make: to head to the grandstands or the reactor. He considered Nicolas’s protest, his dramatic exit. It had all been artfully staged. The senator had plainly orchestrated a reason not to be at the event, to be taken away. But where? He would not leave that to chance. He would not risk being trapped in harm’s way. Whoever had dragged Nicolas from the stage must be in his employ, removing him to safety.
Beyond the gaggle of TV vans, Gray spotted a green army jeep hightailing it away from the media area. It was on a dirt road that paralleled the eight-foot-tall tracks of the massive archway. The rutted path headed away from the reactor and curved around the end of the tracks toward the rear side of the complex.
Gray spotted a suited figure in the backseat.
Gray stared upward. The blinding steel structure now consumed half of the blackened hulk of the Sarcophagus. In another fifteen minutes, it would close completely over the crypt. The grandstands rested a quarter mile away from the reactor.
Gray had to make a choice.
He pictured Nicolas Solokov seated behind the desk in the guard shack during the interrogation. From the cut of his clothes to the patterns of his speech, the man was arrogant and self-assured, an ego matched only by a need to control. It radiated out of him.
Nicolas would want to watch what was to come.
So why was he heading behind the reactor?
Gray swung the cycle off the blacktop and cut across the open fields. He headed straight for the end of the tracks, intending to intercept the vehicle as it rounded the bend in the road.
“Pierce!” Kowalski yelled. “Where are we going?”
“To save the president.”
“But the grandstand’s over that way!” Kowalski pointed an arm in the opposite direction.
Ignoring him, Gray bounced the cycle like a dirt bike across the rolling plain. Kowalski clutched tightly to the handrails. Gray gunned the engine and sped faster over the wild terrain. Mud and grass spattered behind him.
Ahead, the jeep raced alongside the four hundred yards of tracks. The vehicle was almost to the end. It would be close. Gray was still a football field away from the road.
And they’d been spotted.
An arm pointed toward their racing motorcycle. From the distance, Gray and Kowalski would appear to be Russian soldiers out for a joy ride. Confusion should reign for a moment in the jeep. That’s all they would have.
“Can you take out one of their rear tires as they make that curve?”
“Are you nuts?” he asked, his voice rattling with the bike.
Gray angled the bike into a dry sandy wash. Floods had swept the stretch fairly flat and smooth.
“Take your shot!” he yelled to Kowalski.
The large man already had his assault rifle up. Kowalski braced himself in the sidecar and brought the rifle to his shoulder. Gray heard him almost purr to his weapon. “C’mon, baby, make Daddy proud.”
Directly ahead, the jeep had reached the end of the tracks. It slowed to make the sharp turn but still took the corner hard. The driver fought to hold his vehicle to the road.
Gray heard a pop-pop from the sidecar. The Russian AN-94 fired double shots with every squeeze. At the same time, the jeep suddenly fishtailed as the driver lost control, his left rear tire smoking and tossing tread. It skidded sideways and slammed into a concrete pylon between the ends of the track.
Kowalski hooted his satisfaction and rubbed the side of his weapon. “Thank you, baby!”
Further self-congratulation was cut off as their cycle left the sandy wash and sailed back into coarser terrain. Spitting rocks, the cycle tore forward and reached the roadway in seconds.
The Russian jeep rested where it had crashed, one side crumpled, killing one of the soldiers in the front passenger seat. The other three occupants had piled out and retreated into a jumble of concrete barriers and low metal shacks that filled the space between the two track rails.
As Gray rounded into view, a roar of clapping erupted from the grandstands, along with cheering. The ceremony was reaching its climax. Covered by the noise, Gray barely heard the shots fired at them. The bike’s front tire blew, but Gray had anticipated an attack and aimed the cycle to the far side of the crumpled jeep. He slammed to a skidding stop behind it and rolled off the bike.
Kowalski tumbled out alongside him, and together they sheltered behind the crashed vehicle.
More rounds pinged off the front of the jeep.
Gray risked a fast peek around the rear bumper. He spotted a suited figure fleeing straight down the center of the tracks, which rose eight feet tall to either side, built of concrete and steel.
Nicolas Solokov was making a three-hundred-yard dash for the goal—in this case, the back end of the rolling archway. Gray tried to get a shot at him, but a bullet struck the bumper and whistled past his ear. He caught a glimpse of a smoking pistol, borne aloft by a raven-haired woman.
Cursing, he dropped back.
Kowalski yelped, nicked in the shoulder.
The woman and a soldier held them pinned down.
Gray checked his watch.
Nicolas heard gunfire behind him and tried to race faster down the concourse between the raised tracks, but he’d twisted his left ankle after the crash. He had to trust Elena to keep him safe.
Two workers walked behind the backside of the steel Shelter. The massive structure rolled slowly along the rails, creeping a foot a minute on Teflon bearings, drawn by the massive hydraulic pulling jacks to either side.
A garage-door-size service hatch lay open ahead and offered access to the inside of the looming Shelter. It was the main reason Nicolas had fled from the others. He could not be sitting in front of that open door when Operation Uranus came to fruition.
He hobbled as fast as he could down the packed gravel roadway between the tracks. He had to get through that door, across the interior of the Shelter, and out the rear side before it closed.
Even he couldn’t stop Operation Uranus.
All he could do was get out of its way.
The plan had been formulated back in 1999, when the Shelter Implementation Plan had first started. The SIP’s goal was to stabilize and cover the old Sarcophagus. Engineers had been warning for years that the old crypt could collapse at any moment, exposing two hundred tons of radioactive uranium to the atmosphere. By that time, sections of the old Sarcophagus had already begun to crumble. Tiny holes and fissures had formed. So the first phase of the SIP sought to stabilize the Sarcophagus. That meant patching holes, shoring up structural wall pillars, and securing the rickety ventilation stack. This was all done while the Shelter’s massive arch was being constructed a safe four hundred yards away.
That initial structural work was completed in 1999—but it held some secrets. After the fall of the Soviet Union, corruption ran rampant. It had cost little to have four concussion charges secretly planted into the new wall pillars. They had remained dormant and inactive until yesterday. Last night, one of Nicolas’s men had sent a signal to the buried charges, setting the timers to match the closure of the Shelter over the Sarcophagus. Once set, there was no turning back.
At exactly two minutes before the Shelter sealed, the charges would blow. No one would even hear them. All that would be noted was a crash of concrete, followed by the collapse of an entire section of the Sarcophagus’s wall—the side that faced the grandstands. For an entire two minutes, the stands would be bathed in massive amounts of radiation before the Shelter finally sealed against the concrete wall behind the Sarcophagus. The exposure would not be enough to cause immediate fatalities. In fact, no one would feel anything. But during those two minutes, everyone in attendance would absorb a lethal dose of radiation.
They would all be dead within a matter of weeks.
In attendance were the Russian prime minister and president, alongside the leaders from across the Americas and the European Union. If successful, Nicolas’s mission would throw the major world governments into disarray, so that when the radiological bloom spread globally from his mother’s operation at Chelyabinsk 88, the world would need a strong voice, someone who had spent his career warning of just such a catastrophe.
They would turn to the only survivor of Operation Uranus.
And over the coming months—guided by the secret cabal of savants—Nicolas would demonstrate a remarkable prescience, intuitive knowledge, and brilliant foresight.
Out of the fire to come, Nicolas would quickly rise to power in Russia, and from there, stretch his influence globally. The Russian Empire would rise from these radioactive ashes to guide the world in a new direction.
It was such a thought that fueled him now.
He limped up to the two men following the back end of the Shelter. He pulled the pistol from his pocket. Two head shots. Almost point-blank. They dropped like leaden sacks to the gravel. There could be no witnesses.
Nicolas hurried through the open service hatch that pierced the back wall of the hangar. It took a dozen steps to cross through the hatch. The Shelter’s steel walls were twelve meters thick.
Once through, Nicolas entered the heart of the Shelter.
Despite his desperation, he gaped at the sheer wonder of the massive space. The arch of steel climbed a hundred meters overhead and was two and a half times as wide. Cavernous did not describe the place. Like stars in the night sky, hundreds of lamps lit the vast interior, positioned along steel scaffolding that lined the inside of the Shelter. Overhead, a maze of yellow tracks crisscrossed the roof. Giant robotic cranes waited stationary, ready to tear apart the old Sarcophagus. Giant hooks the size of ships’ anchors and skeletal pronged grips hung from the trolley cranes.