Behind the limousine, a Gypsy army gathered.
Southern Ural Mountains
The farther Monk descended into the mine, the more he became convinced the place was deserted. He heard no echo of voices or thrum of distant machinery. And while this eased his mind that they’d not be discovered, it was also disconcerting. With the silence, it was as if the place were holding its breath.
Monk headed down a steeply slanted access tunnel, his wounded leg burning and painful. Without a map, Monk had to follow the trail of whoever left the cigarette butts and bottles at the front gate to the mine. It wasn’t a hard track to discern. The sandy bed of the floor showed clear boot prints. The miner took a direct route back, crossing down some steep access chutes.
And though the place seemed deserted now, Monk had found plenty of evidence of past activity: fresh tailings dumped into shafts, shiny new gear leaning on walls, even an abandoned ice chest half filled with water and floating cans of beer.
Konstantin trailed with his sister, while Pyotr remained glued to Monk’s hip. The child’s eyes were huge upon the dark passages. Monk felt the fever of his terror as Pyotr clutched to him. It wasn’t the cramped spaces that scared him, but the darkness. Monk had occasionally clicked the lamp off to search for any telltale evidence of light.
At those moments, Pyotr would wrap tight to him.
Marta also closed upon the boy, protective, but even the chimpanzee trembled in those moments of pitch darkness, as if she shared Pyotr’s terror.
Monk reached the bottom of the chute. It dumped into another long passageway with a railway track and an idle conveyor belt. As he searched for boot prints, he noted a slight graying to the darkness at the end of the tunnel. He crouched, pulled Pyotr to his side in the crook of his stumped arm, and clicked off his flashlight.
Darkness dropped over them like a shroud. But at the far end of the passage, a faint glow was evident.
Konstantin moved next to Monk.
“No more light,” Monk whispered and passed the boy the darkened flashlight. If he was wrong about the place being deserted, he didn’t want to announce their approach with a blaze of light.
Monk swung up the rifle he had confiscated from the dead Russian sniper. “Quietly now,” he warned.
Monk edged down the tunnel. He walked on the ends of the railroad ties, avoiding the crunch of the gravel bed. The children followed in his footsteps. Marta balanced along one of the rails. As they continued, Monk strained for any voices, any sign of habitation. All he heard was an echoing drip of water. It was a noise that had grown louder the deeper they descended. Monk was all too conscious of the neighboring presence of Lake Karachay.
He also became aware of a growing odor, a mix of oil, grease, and diesel smoke. But as they reached the bend, Monk’s keen nose detected another scent under the industrial smells. It was fetid, organic, foul.
Cautiously rounding the turn, Monk discovered the passage ended in a central cavern, blasted out of the rock. It was only a hundredth the size of Chelyabinsk 88, but it still rose three stories high and stretched half the size of a football field.
Most of the floor was covered in parked equipment and piles of construction material: coiled conduit, stacks of wooden beams, a half-dismantled column of scaffolding, piles of rock. Off to one side rose a tall drill rig, mounted on the back of a truck. The place looked as if it had been hurriedly evacuated. There was no order to it, like someone packing a moving van in a hurry, just dumping things haphazardly.
At least they’d left the lights on.
Several sodium lamps glowed at the opposite side of the room.
“Careful,” Monk said. He motioned the children to hang back, to be ready to bolt and hide among the debris if necessary.
Monk crept forward, staying low, rifle ready at his shoulder. He zigzagged across the space, holding his breath, cautious of his footing. Reaching the far side, he discovered a tall set of steel blast doors, sealed and reflecting the lamplight. They looked newer than the mine works. To the right stood a small shack, about the size of a tollbooth. Through its open door, Monk spotted a few dark monitors, a keyboard, and rows of switches.
Nobody was here.
Monk noted the tremble in his rifle. He was wired and edgy. He took a deep settling breath. The fetid reek was much stronger. Off to the left, Monk noted black oil pooled beyond a stack of equipment. He crept out and peeked around the corner.
Not oil. Blood.
He found the source of the smell. A tumble of bodies draped the back wall, tangled in a heap, outfitted in mining gear or white laboratory coats. Blood and gore spattered the walls behind them.
Death by firing squad.
Someone had been cleaning house.
Behind him, Konstantin appeared, creeping out into the open. Monk returned, shook his head, and pointed to the computer shack. He didn’t want the children to see the slaughter. He motioned to Pyotr and Kiska to remain where they were.
Konstantin joined Monk as he strode toward the blast doors. “I’ve been here before,” the boy said. “We’re allowed to ride the train sometimes. These are the substation controls.”
“Show me,” Monk said.
Konstantin had already highlighted what General-Major Savina Martov was planning, nicknamed Operation Saturn. It lay beyond these doors.
The two crammed into the shack, and Konstantin studied the substation’s controls, his eyes flickering over the Cyrillic lettering. Monk could almost hear his mind flying at speeds beyond normal mentation. After a moment of study, his hands flew over the board, flipping switches with deft assuredness, as if he’d done this a thousand times before.
As he worked, Monk asked, “How did you learn about Operation Saturn?”
Konstantin glanced to him with a wincing look of embarrassment. “My skill is rapid calculation and derivative analysis. I work often in the Warren’s computer laboratory.” He shrugged.
Monk understood. You could turn a boy into a savant but he was still a boy: curious, mischievous, pushing boundaries.
“You hacked into her files.”
He shrugged again. “A week ago, Sasha—Pyotr’s sister—she drew me a picture. Gave it to me in the middle of the night. When we were all woken by one of Pyotr’s nightmares.”
“The train here, with many children on board, all dead and burning. It also showed the mining site just past the blast doors here. So…so the next day, I broke into the files about the operation. I learned what was planned and when it was scheduled to happen. I didn’t know what to do. Whom to trust. Sasha left with Dr. Raev for America, so I talked to Pyotr.” Konstantin shook his head. “I don’t know how Pyotr knew…maybe he doesn’t even know…it’s sometimes like that.”
Konstantin stared up at Monk for understanding.
Though he didn’t completely, Monk still nodded. “What did Pyotr know?” he pressed.
“He is a strong empath. He sensed you would help us. He even knew your name. Said his sister whispered it to him in a dream. They are very strange, those two, very powerful.”
Monk heard a trace of fear in the boy’s voice.
Konstantin even glanced warily back toward Pyotr, then set back to work. “So we came for you.”
With a final flick of a switch, a row of monitors glowed to life across the top of the control board. They showed black-and-white images, views from different angles of a small cavern, rigged with scaffolding. On the floor was bolted a large steel iris.
The heart of Operation Saturn.
Motion drew Monk’s eye to the centermost screen. It showed a train rested outside the mining site. Open ore cars were loaded with children. Some had climbed out and stood around in confusion. Others appeared to be laughing and playing.
Konstantin clutched Monk’s sleeve. “They…they’re already here.”
Savina sat in the brightly lit control station, flanked by two technicians. They were running final diagnostics on two computers. The station was in a converted subbasement bunker beneath one of the abandoned apartment buildings. There were no windows. Their eyes on the world came from seven LCD screens wired into the walls. They displayed video feed from the cameras in the tunnel and at the operation site.
She stared at the parked train for another breath, then stood up, unable to remain seated. She felt a familiar crick in her back. She had failed to take her steroid injection, too busy with all the final preparations. She turned away from the view of the train. Not because it hurt to look—which it did—but because anxiety ran through her.
She checked her wristwatch. It was more than half past eleven o’clock, and she had still not heard from Nicolas. She exited the control room, so the others did not see her wring her hands. It was a weak matronly gesture, and she forced herself to stop. She headed to the stairs and climbed toward the level above. Not with any destination in mind, only to keep moving.
From her contacts in the intelligence community, she had already heard the rumblings of an “accident” at Chernobyl. A radiation leak. Dead bodies. The place was being evacuated. And if Nicolas had been successful, such a mass departure was too late. Perhaps her son had been caught up in the resultant chaos and had been unable to report to her yet. Her operation was set to commence in another forty-five minutes, once she heard confirmation from Nicolas.
As she climbed the stairs, she imagined him gloating in his success, possibly even enjoying a secret tryst with little Elena. It would not be unlike Nicolas to celebrate first and attend to business afterward. Anger tempered her anxiety.
She finally reached the floor above the control station. It had been converted into a domicile for the technicians: bedrooms, exercise space, and a central communal area full of sofas and dining tables. The only occupants at the moment were ten children. She knew each by name.
They turned to stare at her, their heads swiveling all at once, like a flock of birds turning in midflight. Savina felt a flicker of apprehension, a recognition of the foreignness of their minds. The Omega subjects were savants so talented that their skills crossed the threshold of the physical to a realm where Savina could not travel.