He heard the cries and felt the hammering hearts. They filled him with their light. He fell backward as the night sky collapsed upon him and lit his core on fire.
Distantly, he heard a simian howl of warning.
Because Marta knew his secret.
In those waking moments after his nightmares, when he woke screaming, it wasn’t just fear—it was also exhilaration.
Something was dreadfully wrong with the children.
After cutting the power, Savina had continued to study the camera feed from M.C. 337. Though she had no audio, it was plain the children remained agitated, milling in confusion, some crying, most walking or standing shell-shocked. The only one who appeared in control was Konstantin. He moved among them, appearing into view, then disappearing again.
Savina kept a watch to see if Pyotr was among them.
Though she had ten Omega subjects, if the boy was there—
Then one of the children in view dropped to the floor. A neighboring child turned to the slumped child, then she also fell, as if clubbed. More and more children collapsed. Panicked, one boy ran past—then he, too, succumbed.
The technical engineer also noted the same. “Is it the neurotoxin?”
Savina stared, unsure. The radiosensitive compound was inert unless exposed to high doses of radiation. The readings at M.C. 337 had never been that high. A moment later, Konstantin reappeared. He carried a limp girl in his arms. It was his sister Kiska. He turned straight at the camera. His eyes full of terror.
Then Savina saw it—like a light snapped off in his eyes. The fear vanished to a dullness and down he went.
It wasn’t the neurotoxin.
Konstantin and Kiska hadn’t consumed the medication.
A thump sounded from overhead. Then another and another.
Savina stared up.
Turning, she ran for the stairs. She flew up them two at a time. Her back cramped, and her heart pounded with a lance of pain. She burst into the room where the ten children had been waiting for her.
They had all collapsed, in chairs, on the floor, heads lolling, limbs slack. She rushed to Boris, knelt beside him, and checked the pulse at his throat. She felt a weak beat under her fingertips.
She rolled him over and lifted his eyelids, which hung at half-mast. The boy’s pupils were dilated wide and nonresponsive to light.
She climbed back to her feet and stared around the room.
What was happening?
September 7, 2:17 A.M.
Painter hurried down the hall. He didn’t need any more trouble, but he got it.
The entire command bunker was in lockdown mode after the attack. As he had suspected, after the fiery death of Mapplethorpe, the few remaining combatants ghosted away into the night. Painter was determined to find each and every one of them, along with every root and branch that supplied Mapplethorpe with the resources and intelligence to pull off this attack.
In the meantime, Painter had to regain order here.
He had a skeleton team pulled back inside. The injured had been transported to local hospitals. The dead remained where they were. He didn’t want anything disturbed until he could bring in his own forensic team. It was a grim tour of duty here this evening. Though Painter had employed the air scrubbers and ventilation to clear the accelerant, it did nothing to erase the odor of charred flesh.
And on top of resecuring the facility here, he was fielding nonstop calls from every branch of the intelligence agency: both about what had happened here and about the aborted terrorist act at Chernobyl. Painter stonewalled about most of it. He didn’t have time for debriefings or to play the political game of who had the bigger dick. The only brief call he took was from a grateful president. Painter used that gratitude to buy him the latitude to put off everyone else.
Another attack threatened.
That was the top priority.
And as the latest problem was tied to that matter, he gave it his full and immediate attention. Reaching the medical level, he crossed to one of the private rooms. He entered and found Kat and Lisa flanking a bed.
Sasha lay atop it as Lisa repositioned an EEG lead to the child’s temple.
“She’s sick again?” Painter asked.
“Something new,” Lisa answered. “She’s not febrile like before.”
Kat stood with her arms crossed. Lines of worry etched her forehead. “I was reading to her, trying to get her to sleep after everything that had happened. She was listening. Then suddenly she sat up, turned to an empty corner of the room, called out the name Pyotr, then went limp and collapsed.”
“Pyotr? Are you sure?”
She nodded. “Yuri mentioned Sasha had a twin brother named Pyotr. It must have been a hallucination.”
While they talked, Lisa had retreated to a bank of equipment and began powering them up. Sasha was wired to both an EKG and EEG, monitoring cardiac and neurological activity.
“Is her device active?” Painter asked, nodding to Sasha’s TMS unit.
“No,” Lisa answered. “Malcolm checked. He’s already come and gone. Off to make some calls. But something’s sure active. Her EEG readings are showing massive spiking over the lateral convexity of the temporal lobe. Specifically on the right side, where her implant is located. It’s almost as if she’s having a temporal lobe seizure. Contrarily her heart rate is low and her blood pressure dropped to her extremities. It’s as if all her body’s resources are servicing the one organ.”
“Her brain,” Painter said.
“Exactly. Everything else is in shutdown mode.”
“But to what end?”
Lisa shook her head. “I have no idea. I’m going to run some more tests, but if she doesn’t respond, I can think of only one possible solution.”
“What’s that?” Kat asked.
“Though the TMS implant is not active, the spiking EEGs are centered around it. I can’t help but believe those neuro-electrodes are contributing to what’s happening to her. Her electrical activity is frighteningly high in that region—as if those wires in her brain are acting like lightning rods. If I can’t calm her neural activity, she may burn herself out.”
Kat paled at her assessment. “You mentioned a solution.”
Lisa sighed, not looking happy. “We may need to remove her implant. That’s where Malcolm went, to make some calls to a neurosurgeon at George Washington.”
Painter crossed and put an arm around Kat’s shoulders. He knew how attached she had become to the child. They had lost many lives protecting her. To lose her now…
“We’ll do everything we can,” Painter promised her.
Painter’s beeper buzzed on his belt. He slipped his arm free and checked the number. The Russian embassy. That was one call he had to take. Gray should be landing at Chelyabinsk in another few minutes.
As he glanced back up, Lisa waved him away with a small tired smile. “I’ll call you if there’s any change.”
He headed for the door—then a sudden thought intruded, something he had set aside and not yet addressed. He frowned questioningly over to Kat.
“Earlier,” he said, “I don’t know if I heard you correctly.”
Kat looked at him.
“What did you mean when you said Monk was still alive?”
Southern Ural Mountains
Monk sidled along the train in the pitch dark. He ran his stumped forearm along the cabs as he moved down the tracks. He stretched and waved his other hand in front of him. Stumbling over railroad ties and larger stones in the gravel, he worked his way from the front of the train toward the back.
A moment before, as Monk had stepped out of the train, Pyotr had stopped screaming. It had cut off abruptly. The silence was even worse, creating a stillness as complete as the darkness. Monk’s heart pounded.
Reaching the next ore car, he hiked up over the edge and waved his arm into the open space. “Pyotr?”
His voice sounded exceptionally loud, echoing down the tunnel. But he didn’t know where the boy was or even if he was still on the train. The only option was to work methodically backward.
Monk hopped back down and moved toward the next car. He stretched his right arm out again, sweeping ahead of him—
—then something grabbed his hand.
Monk yelped in surprise. Warm leathery fingers wrapped around his. He reflexively yanked his arm back, but the fingers held firm. A soft hoot accompanied the grip.
“Marta!” Monk dropped and gave her a fumbling hug in the dark.
She returned it, nudging her cheek against his, and gave a soft chuff of relief. Her entire body trembled. He felt the pounding of her heart against his chest. She broke the embrace but kept hold of his hand. She urged him to follow with a gentle tug.
Monk gained his feet and allowed her to guide him. He knew where she was taking him. To Pyotr. Moving more swiftly, Monk reached the last cab. Unlike the open ore cars in the middle, the last cab was enclosed.
Marta hopped through an open door.
Monk climbed in after her. The old chimpanzee shuffled and herded him to a back corner. He found Pyotr on the floor, flat out on his back.
Monk’s hand patted over him, defining his shape out of the darkness. “Pyotr?”
There was no response.
He felt the boy’s chest rise and fall. Fingers checked his small face. Was he injured? Had he taken a fall? His skin was feverish to the touch. Then a tiny hand wandered like a lost bird and discovered Monk’s fingers—and gripped hard.
“Pyotr, thank God.” Monk scooped him up and sat with the boy in his lap. “I’ve got you. You’re safe.”
Small arms wrapped around his neck. Monk felt the burn of the boy’s skin, even through his clothes.
Pyotr spoke, at his ear. “Go…”
Monk felt a chill pass through him. The tone sounded deeper than Pyotr’s normal tentative falsetto. Maybe it was the dark, maybe it was the boy’s raw fear. But Monk felt no tremble in his thin limbs. The single word had more command than plea.
Still, it was not a bad idea.
He stood and lifted the boy up. Pyotr seemed heavier, though Monk was past the edge of exhaustion into a bone-deep fatigue, near collapse. Marta helped guide him to the door. He jumped out and landed hard. With the boy in his arms, he hurried back toward the front of the train. He had brought one rifle with him, but he’d left the other in the front cab.