Just inside the Shelter, Nicolas stopped long enough to hit the giant red button that closed the service hatch. It trundled slowly closed behind him, creeping down on giant gears.
According to their original plan, Nicolas and Elena were to hole up outside in a control booth on the far side of the Shelter. The booth, which controlled the winch engines, was heavily lead-lined to protect the operator from any radiation. It was also positioned on the opposite side from the concussive charges, so exposure should be minimal.
Nicolas needed to reach that booth, but if Elena remained pinned down between the tracks back there, he wanted to protect her from the burst of radiation that would come. Though not in a direct line of the exposure like the grandstands, her position could still be exposed to scatter radiation through the open rear hatch—maybe not enough to kill her, but it could destroy her chances of having healthy children.
So to protect his own future genetic heritage, Nicolas sought to shield her. But more than that, he could not totally discount that he did care for the woman. His mother would interpret such tender feelings as weakness, but Nicolas could not deny his heart.
As the door slowly lowered, Nicolas headed off.
“Elena!” Gray called out from behind the jeep. “You must help us!”
There was no answer.
At least not from Elena.
“Pierce, I don’t think you’re going to talk your way out of this,” Kowalski said. His partner crouched a few steps away. His shoulder wept blood through his jacket, but it was only a graze. “She’s one crazy bitch. Why is it always the crazy ones who are such good shots?”
“I don’t think she’s crazy,” Gray mumbled.
At least he hoped not.
He had seen how she had reacted to the revelation that Sasha was Nicolas’s biological daughter. A mix of shocked dismay and protectiveness. There was some connection between Elena and the girl, something more than just an augmented sisterhood.
He had to trust he was correct.
“Sasha came to me!” Gray called out. “Sought me out. She guided us here for a reason.”
Silence stretched. Then a soft voice finally spoke. “How? How did Sasha guide you here?”
Elena was testing him.
Gray took a deep breath. He lifted his rifle in the air and tossed it aside.
“Pierce…,” Kowalski growled. “If you think I’m throwing my gun away, you’re as nutty as she is.”
Gray stood up.
Across the gap, the Russian soldier’s rifle shifted toward him. Elena also rose and barked at the soldier, keeping him from shooting outright. Elena wanted to know more about Sasha. Across the way, the Russian pair shared a fortress of concrete pylons. Elena kept her pistol pointed at him.
Gray answered her question. “How did Sasha guide us? She drew pictures. First she guided the Gypsies to my door. Then she drew a picture of the Taj Mahal, which guided us to India, where we discovered your true heritage and history. You have to ask yourself why. Sasha is special, is she not?”
Elena just stared at him with her hard, dark eyes.
Gray took that as agreement and continued, letting her see and hear the truth in his words. “Why were we sent to India? Why even engage us at all? Why now? There has to be a reason. I think Sasha—consciously or unconsciously—is trying to stop what you’re planning on doing.”
Elena showed no flicker of acknowledgment, but Gray was still alive.
“She sent us on a path to discover your roots: from the Oracle of Delphi, through the Gypsies, to now. I think there was some reason your lineage was begun. Perhaps the fulfillment of a great prophecy that is yet to come.”
“What prophecy?” Elena asked.
Gray noted a flicker of both recognition and fear. Was there some nightmare etched into their psyches? Gray pictured the mosaics found at the Greek stronghold in India, including the last mosaic on the wall, a fiery shape rising out of smoke from the omphalos. Gray took a chance and quickly described what they had found, finishing with, “The figure looked like a boy with eyes of fire.”
The pistol in Elena’s arm began to tremble—though it still didn’t waver from its aim at his chest. Gray heard Elena mumble a name that sounded like Peter.
“Who is Peter?” Gray asked.
“Pyotr,” Elena corrected. “Sasha’s brother. He has nightmares sometimes. Wakes screaming, saying his eyes are on fire. But…but…”
“What?” Gray pressed, intrigued despite the time pressure.
“When he wakes, we all do. For just a moment, we see Pyotr burning.” She shook her head. “But his talent is empathy. He’s very strong. We attributed the nightmares to some quake of his talent that radiated outward. An empathic echo.”
“It’s not just an echo from Pyotr,” Gray realized aloud. “It’s an echo going back to the beginning.”
But where does it end?
Gray stared over to Elena. “You cannot truly want what is to come. Sasha plainly did not. She brought me here. If she wanted Nicolas’s plan to work, all she had to do was remain silent. But she didn’t. She brought me to you, Elena. To you. To this moment. You have the chance to either help Sasha or destroy what she started. It’s your choice.”
Her decision was instantaneous, perhaps born out of the fire in her brain. She pivoted on a toe and fired. The Russian soldier dropped, killed instantly.
Gray hurried over to her. “How do we stop Operation Uranus?”
“You cannot,” she answered, her voice slightly dazed, perhaps dizzy from the sudden reversal of roles, or perhaps merely waking from a long dream.
Elena handed Gray her pistol, as if knowing where he must go. He was already sidling past her and heading off between the rails. If she didn’t know how to stop Operation Uranus, perhaps Nicolas did.
“You must hurry,” she said. “But I…I may know a way to help.”
She turned and glanced toward the back side of the complex, where Nicolas been headed originally.
Gray pointed to the motorcycle. Though the front tire was flat, it would still be faster than on foot. “Kowalski, help her.”
“But she shot me.”
Gray didn’t have time to argue. He turned and sprinted through the forest of concrete pylons. The way opened ahead, lined by the tracks to either side. At the other end of the concourse, he spotted Nicolas limping through a wide door in the massive steel wall and vanishing into the darkness.
Gray pounded down the way.
Down to six minutes.
As he flew, he saw the black gap in the steel wall begin to narrow. The door was closing.
They’d escaped the jail, but now what?
Elizabeth ran behind Rosauro, while Luca trailed and guarded their backs with a pistol. Using his cane, Masterson limped as best he could next to Elizabeth. She helped the old man by holding on to his elbow.
Their first priority was to find a phone and to raise an alarm. But the entire city appeared haunted and desolate. Birches grew out of broken streets, weeds grew everywhere, buildings were scribed with lichen and moss. How were they going to find a working phone here?
“The next intersection!” Masterson gasped and waved his cane while taking a hop on his good leg. “To the left. The Polissia Hotel should be at the end of that next block.”
Masterson had suggested the destination. Apparently the hotel had been renovated for a gala the prior night and was being used this morning as a shuttle station for guests invited to the ceremony.
But what about uninvited guests?
Elizabeth had caught a glimpse of Gray and Kowalski flying away on a motorcycle as they’d made their own escape. She hoped they were okay and could do something to stop that bastard. As she fled with the others, her head ached and her eyes strained. Tension and fear wore her down.
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth,” Masterson wheezed.
She glanced at him. She knew he was apologizing for more than just involving her and the others in this escapade.
“I truly didn’t think your father was in any bloody danger,” he explained. “I thought the Russians’ interest in Archibald’s work was just a matter of industrial espionage, stealing data. I never thought it would result in his death.”
Even though she understood the professor’s position in the past and recognized the international threat now, she could not find her way to forgiving him. Not for her father, and not for involving them in all this without their consent. She was tired of secrets—both her father’s and this man’s.
As they neared the intersection, two Russian soldiers stepped from a doorway. One dropped a cigarette and ground it underfoot. The other lifted his rifle and barked at them in Russian.
“Kak tebya zavut?”
“Let me handle this,” Masterson said and waved for Rosauro and Luca to lower their weapons.
The professor straightened his white hat and leaned more heavily on his cane. He doddered to the front and called out in Russian, “Dobraye utro!”
Masterson spoke fluently. All Elizabeth understood were the words London Times. Masterson must be attempting to pass them off as visiting press.
The soldier lowered his weapon. “You are Englishers.”
Masterson nodded with a broad, embarrassed smile. “You speak English. Brilliant. We’ve gotten ourselves lost and could not find our way back to the Polissia Hotel. If you’d be so kind, perhaps you could escort us back there.”
From the crinkling of the soldiers’ brows, they must not have understood him that well. Masterson was using their own lack of fluency to unbalance them, to deflect them from questioning the cover story. But the soldier with the rifle did understand their goal.
“Polissia Gostineetsa?” he asked.
“Da! Now there’s a good chap. Could you take us there?”
The pair spoke in rapid snatches of Russian. Finally one shrugged and the other turned with a nod.
Behind them, a scream of a motorcycle erupted, shattering the quiet town. Far down the street, in the direction of the jail, a motorcycle with a flashing blue light and sidecar swung into the road, bearing two soldiers with furred caps. They were spotted. Shouts called out in Russian toward them.