Reaching the car, Monk asked, “Can you—?”
Even before he finished the question, Pyotr clambered out of his arms and gained his own feet.
“Stay here.” Monk quickly climbed inside, grabbed the second rifle, and slung it over his shoulder.
He returned to Pyotr. The boy took his hand.
Monk expelled one hard breath. Which direction? The train had stopped halfway along the tunnel. They could either return to Konstantin and the other children or continue ahead. But if they had any hope of stopping this madwoman, Monk saw no advantage in going back.
Perhaps Pyotr thought the same thing. The boy set off in that direction. Toward Chelyabinsk 88.
With two rifles strapped to his back and a boy and chimpanzee in tow, Monk marched down the pitch-black tunnel. They had come full circle and headed back home. But what sort of welcome would they face?
The doctor shook his head. “I’m sorry, General-Major. I don’t know what’s wrong with the children. They’ve never demonstrated this type of catatonia before.”
Savina stared across the room. A pair of nurses and two soldiers had helped spread the ten children on the floor, lined up like felled trees. They’d brought in pillows and blankets from the neighboring bedrooms. Two medical doctors had been summoned: Dr. Petrov specialized in neurology, and Dr. Rostropovich in bioengineering.
In a sheepskin-trimmed jacket, Petrov stood with his fists on his hips. The medical team had been in the process of evacuating when called over here. A large caravan of trucks and vehicles was already lined up for departure.
“I’ll need a full diagnostic suite to better understand what’s happening,” he said. “And we’ve already dismantled—”
“Yes. I know. We’ll have to wait until we reach the facility in Moscow. Can the children be transported safely?”
“I believe so.”
Savina stared hard at the doctor. She did not like his equivocation.
He nodded his head with more certainty. “They’re stable. We can move them.”
“Then make arrangements.”
Savina left further details to the medical staff and headed back down to the control bunker below. While dealing with the matter here, Savina had also been in contact with her resources in the Russian intelligence and military communities. The information gridlock at Chernobyl seemed to finally be loosening. Contradictory reports and rumors swirled around events at the ceremony: everything from a full nuclear meltdown to a foiled terrorist attack by Chechen rebels. The firming consensus was that there had definitely been a radiological leak, though the extent remained unclear.
And why had Nicolas remained silent?
The worry gnawed a ragged edge to her temper and patience.
And now the strangeness with the children.
Savina needed to clamp down on the chaos and focus on the matter at hand. No matter what the circumstances were at Chernobyl, Operation Saturn would proceed. Even if Nicolas had somehow failed, she would not. Her operation alone would unsettle the world economies, kill millions, and spread a radioactive swath halfway across the globe. It would be harder, but with the savant children still under their control, they would persevere.
With such a focus in mind, she cast aside the confusion and sought the cold dispassion of the resolute. She knew what she must do.
Reaching the bunker, she found the wall screens still dark, except for the grainy view of M.C. 337. She studied the spread of small bodies on the rocky floor. There was still no sign of movement over there.
She turned to the two technicians. “Why aren’t the other cameras back online?”
The chief engineer stood up. “The diagnostic reboot finished a few minutes ago. We were waiting on your orders to power systems back online.”
Savina sighed and pressed her fingertips to her forehead. Did everyone have to be dragged by the nose? She motioned to the board. “Do it.”
Despite her desire to snap at the man, she kept her voice even. While she had ordered the shutdown, she had indeed left no standing order regarding the power situation.
To avoid any further misunderstanding, Savina pointed to the view of M.C. 337. “Keep the power cut off to the other substation. All except its camera.” She didn’t want any more surprises from that side.
As the two technicians set to work, lights flickered across the board, and the dark screens filled with images of the tunnel and the heart of her operation. Everything appeared fine—except for one glaring exception.
The train was no longer parked beside the mining site.
Savina pointed to the screens. “Bring up the cameras, sequentially down the tunnel. Find the train.”
Fingers punched keys at the master control, and snapshots of the tunnel flipped across the screen, dizzying her head. Then halfway down the passage, the train appeared. It sat idle on the tracks. Savina stepped closer to that monitor and studied the ore cars and cabs. She saw no movement. Someone could be hiding, but Savina didn’t think so.
“Continue down the tunnel,” she ordered.
More digital images flowed. She spotted movement on one.
A single wall lamp lit this section of the dark tunnel. It lay about a quarter klick from the blast doors. As Savina watched, figures appeared out of the darkness, walking into the light from the deeper tunnel.
Savina’s fingers tightened on the edge of the control board.
It was the American…leading a child by the hand.
As they drew farther into the glow, Savina recognized the boy.
Straightening, Savina glanced to the grainy image from M.C. 337. All the children remained collapsed. So why was this one boy still up and moving?
“General-Major?” the engineer asked.
Savina’s mind spun but failed to settle on any explanation. She shook her head. As if sensing the eyes upon them, the pair stopped in the light. The American looked behind him. His eyes narrowed with confusion.
As the power returned and pools of lights flickered into existence, Monk knew the cameras must also be online. Without much reason or ability to hide, Monk continued several steps, heading toward the nearest lamp. It was only then that he realized something was amiss.
Or rather missing.
He searched behind him. Marta was gone. He had thought she had been following him in the dark. She moved so silently. He stared back down the throat of the tunnel. He saw no sign of her. Had she remained back at the train? Monk even searched ahead, thinking maybe she had gone scouting in advance of them. But the tunnel ended in two hundred feet at a set of tall blast doors.
Marta was nowhere to be seen.
Speakers off by the doors spat with static, then a crisp voice spoke in English. “Keep moving forward! Bring the boy to the door if you wish to live.”
Monk remained frozen, unsure where to go from here.
Seated in an old farm truck, Gray led the caravan through the gates of the airstrip and out onto a two-lane road that headed off into the mountains. Walls of towering fir and spruce trees flanked the road, creating a handsome green corridor.
In the rearview mirror, Gray watched the small mountain town of Kyshtym recede and vanish into the dense forest. The town lay on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, only nine miles from their destination, Chelyabinsk 88. Like the entire area, the town was not without its own legacy of nuclear disaster and contamination. It lay downwind of another nuclear complex, designated Chelyabinsk 40, also known as Mayak, the Russian word meaning “beacon.” But Mayak was not a shining beacon to Russian nuclear safety. In 1957, a waste tank exploded due to improper cooling and cast eighty tons of radioactive material over the region, requiring the evacuation of hundreds of thousands. The Soviets had kept the accident a secret until 1980. As the road turned a bend, the town vanished, like so much of the Soviet Union’s nuclear history.
Continuing onward, Gray settled into his seat. The road crossed a bridge with guardrails painted fire-engine red. A warning. The bridge spanned a deep river that marked the former boundary of restricted territory. The road wound higher into the mountains.
Behind Gray trailed a dozen trucks of different makes and models, but all well worn and muddy. Gray shared the front seat with Luca and the driver, who were conversing in Romani. Luca pointed ahead and the driver nodded.
“Not far,” Luca said, turning to him. “They already sent up spotters to watch the entry road. They report lots of activity. Many cars and trucks heading down the mountain.”
Gray frowned at the news. It sounded like an evacuation. Were they already too late?
In the bed of the truck, four men lounged, half covered in blankets. Gray had been impressed with their arsenal hidden under the blankets: boxes of assault rifles, scores of handguns, even rocket-propelled grenades.
Luca had explained the lax control of such weaponry on the Russian black market. The small army, gathered from local Russian Gypsy clans, had met them in Kyshtym. They swelled the ranks of the men Luca had brought with them from the Ukraine. Gray had to hand it to Luca Hearn: if you needed to gather a fast militia, he was the Gypsy to call.
In the trucks behind them, Kowalski and Rosauro followed. They had left Elizabeth back at the jet, safely out of harm’s way, guarded by a trio of British S.A.S soldiers.
Everyone had to move swiftly. Speed was essential. The plan was to strike the underground facility, lock it down, and stop whatever was planned. The nature of Operation Saturn remained a mystery. However, considering it was in the heart of the former Soviet Union’s plutonium production facilities and uranium mines, it had to be radiological in nature.
Senator Nicolas Solokov’s words still haunted him.
Millions will still die.
Gray had learned the man was born about ninety miles from here, in the city of Yekaterinburg. This was the region the man represented in the Russian Federal Assembly, which meant he knew the area and its secrets. If someone wanted to plot a nuclear event, here would be a great place to do it.
But what was planned?
Back in Kyshtym, Elizabeth paced the length of the jet. Her arms were folded over her chest, her chin low in concentration. She was worried for the others, fearful after hearing what Gray and the others sought to stop.