His pistol skittered across the concrete floor.
“Help me!” the man groaned, desperate, panicked.
Beyond the pile, the narrowing gap between the steel arch and concrete wall was little more than a foot wide. Gray vaulted over the collapsed pile of beams and sprinted for the exit.
As he reached the slit of sunlight, Nicolas screamed at him. “You’ve not won, you svoloch! Millions will still die!”
Gray had no time to question him. He shoved into the crack and wormed between the squeezing walls, concrete on one side, steel on the other. The vault was a dozen yards thick. He scooted as fast as he could. Still the pressure began to squeeze his chest, trying to hold him for the final crush.
He took one last breath and exhaled all his air, collapsing his chest. He shoved the last few feet and fell out of the crack with a great gasp of air, landing on his hands and knees.
Like being born a second time.
Behind him, he missed a figure standing off to the side of the hangar. She slipped into the crack as he vacated it.
Gray turned. “Elena! No! You’ll never make it!”
He rolled to his feet and lunged for her. But she had already slid deep into the crack, deeper than he could follow with his larger form. She moved swiftly, her lithe figure fading farther and farther away.
Gray prayed she’d make it safely to the other side, but it was still certain death. Only then did he note the long smear of blood trailing into the narrowing crack.
A growled voice spoke behind him.
“Where’s Elena?” Kowalski asked.
Gray watched her vanish out of the crack. He shook his head.
Kowalski stared up and down the side of the hangar. “She left me up there. After she dropped that anchor on that bastard. Said she was coming down here to help.”
Gray turned away. “I think that’s where she’s headed.”
Nicolas lay on his back, his legs weighted under a half ton of steel beams. Through a haze of agony, he heard footsteps stumbling toward him. He turned his head. Elena came up to him.
His eyes winced with a pain deeper than any broken bones. “Oh, milaya moya, what are you doing here?”
She sank next to him.
Blood soaked through her shirt.
“Lubov moya…,” he said with a mix of pain and protectiveness. He lifted an arm, and she fell into his embrace. He held her and rocked her gently as the last of the sunlight squeezed away.
A commanding grind of steel on concrete sounded with a note of finality as the Shelter sealed. A few moments later, a crumbling crash echoed as the far side of the Sarcophagus collapsed. The concussion charges had worked as planned, but the Shelter was already closed tight around it, sparing those outside.
He wasn’t so lucky.
Nicolas stared up at the lighted archway. The inner steel surfaces were all lined by a thick coat of polycarbonate, all the better to reflect radiation and hold it inside.
Not that it mattered, but Nicolas lifted the flap of the dosimeter badge secured to his jacket pocket. The surface had been white when he’d put it on this morning. It was now solid black.
He let it go and reached another arm to cradle Elena better.
“Why?” he asked.
There were many questions buried in that one word. Why had Elena betrayed him? Nicolas knew she must have. Nothing else made sense. But also why did she come back?
Elena did not answer. He shifted and saw the glaze to her eyes.
And so was he.
The living dead.
He knew what end awaited him. He had lived his professional life exploring such deaths. It would be as agonizing as it was humiliating.
As he cradled Elena closer to him, something slipped from her hand and landed on his leg. He reached out and grabbed this last gift from her.
She must have collected it from the floor.
This is why she had come.
To say good-bye and to offer him a way to escape with her.
He nestled into her and kissed her cold lips one last time. “Ty moyo solnyshko…”
She was indeed his sun.
Holding her, he raised the gun to his lips.
And took his escape.
September 7, 11:00 A.M.
Southern Ural Mountains
With a rifle over his shoulder, Monk climbed the last switchback of the road. Ahead, the mining complex clustered in front of a granite cliff face. The metal outbuildings and old powerhouse had all oxidized. Roofs and gutters dripped icicles of rust, windows were broken or shuttered, and corroded equipment lay where they’d been dropped decades ago: shovels, picks, wheelbarrows.
Off by the cliffs rose tall mounds of old mine tailings and waste rock dumps. Amid the stone piles rose the tower of a tipple, with its loading booms, hoists, and various chutes used to tip ore ears and unload them into trucks.
As Monk limped on his hastily bandaged leg, he wondered how he knew so much about a mining operation. Had his family been involved—
His head suddenly jangled through a series of flashbulb-popping images: an older man in coveralls, coated in coal dust…the same man in a coffin…a woman crying…
An electrical stab of pain ended the flickering bits of memory.
Wincing, he led the children and Marta through a maze of conveyor belts, ore car tracks, and dump chutes toward their goal. A pair of rails led to a gaping opening in a cliff face. It was the main entrance to the mine.
As they crossed, Monk looked over his shoulder.
Lake Karachay spread below. Monk estimated it was two miles across the width here, and three times as long. He searched the forested mountains on the far side, looking for any evidence of where they’d started this journey.
“We must hurry,” Konstantin reminded him.
Monk nodded. The older boy walked between the two younger children. Marta trailed. He led them toward the opening.
As he neared, he discovered a problem. A large wooden barrier, constructed of stacked and mortared wooden logs, blocked the mine shaft from floor to roof.
From the condition of the complex outside, it looked as if no one had been here in ages. But Monk spotted a pile of cigarette butts and empty vodka bottles at the foot of the barrier. Fresh boot prints covered the sandy floor. The mine below was not as abandoned as it appeared. Someone had been taking a break here recently.
Monk glanced behind him. There were no parked trucks or recent tire tracks crossing the complex, so whoever had been lounging here had left by another means. Konstantin had already described that means.
An underground train crossed under the lake from Mine Complex 337 below to Chelyabinsk 88. Whoever labored in the mines must ordinarily exit out the other side.
Monk prayed they would not be expecting visitors at their back door.
He crossed to the rectangle of riveted steel set into the barrier.
“What do we do?” Monk asked. “Knock?”
Konstantin frowned and crossed to the door. He lifted the latch and pushed. The door swung open, unlocked.
Monk fumbled his rifle around and pointed it through the door. “Warn a guy before you do that!” he whispered.
“No one comes here,” Konstantin said. “Too dangerous. So no need for keys. Only sealed to keep bears and wolves away.”
“And the stray tiger,” Monk mumbled.
Konstantin dropped his pack, opened it, and fished out their flashlight. He passed it to Monk, who shouldered his rifle.
Ducking through the door in the main tunnel, Monk pointed his flashlight. Massive wooden beams shored up the passageway as it slanted into the mountain. A set of steel tracks headed into the darkness, extending beyond the reach of the flashlight’s glow. Closer at hand, a pair of ore cars rested on the tracks near the barrier.
Down the way, Monk noted shadowy branching tunnels. He suspected the mountain was honeycombed with shafts and tunnels. No wonder the current miners occasionally wandered up out of the Stygian darkness for a little light, even if it was in the shadow of a poisonous lake.
Monk asked for directions as they headed out. “So where to?”
Konstantin kept silent.
Monk turned to him.
The boy shrugged. “I do not know. All I know is down.”
Monk sighed. Well, that was a direction.
Flashlight in hand, he descended into the darkness.
Savina noted all the smiling faces. Excited chatter spread among the older children, while the younger ones scurried around, trying to dispense nervous energy. They were in direct contrast to the very youngest among them, those under five and too immature for their implants. Those few remained quiet and detached, demonstrating varying levels of untreated autism: sitting silently, staring vacantly, plagued by repetitive gestures.
Four teachers sought to organize their sixty or so charges.
“Stay in your groups!”
The train waited beyond the open blast doors at the back of Chelyabinsk 88. It would be transporting the children for a short pleasure ride. The young ones were occasionally allowed such a luxury, but today the train was on a one-way trip. It would not be returning, coming to a dead stop at the heart of Operation Saturn.
Behind Savina’s shoulders, the old Soviet-era industrial apartments stared down at the children with hollow eyes. The teachers also had the same haunted look despite their bright words.
“Did all of you take your medicine?” a matronly woman called out.
The medicine was a sedative combined with a radiosensitive compound. While excited now, in another hour the children would be drifting into a disassociated slumber. It would ease any anxiety when the charges blew at the far end of the tunnel and initiated Operation Saturn. The first dump of lake water through the heart of the tunnel and its subsequent blast of radiation would transform the radiosensitive compound in the children’s bloodstream into a deadly nerve toxin, killing them instantly.
The group had considered simply euthanizing the children via lethal injection, but such an intimate act of killing strained even the most professional detachment. Plus afterward, all the small limp bodies would have had to been hauled, loaded, and transported to the heart of Operation Saturn. The plan was for the radiation, blasting for weeks as the lake drained, to burn the bodies and denature the DNA beyond examination—that is, if anyone ever dared approach the bodies. The radiation levels in the tunnel would defy penetration for decades.