The Last Oracle

Page 72

Luca spotted Painter’s arrival and stood. The Gypsy was dressed in loose pants with a thick belt and matching black boots, along with an open vest over a long-sleeved embroidered shirt. “Ah, Director Crowe! Welcome!”

Painter offered a bow of his head to the clan leader. “Nais Tuke,” he thanked him in the Romani tongue.

Gray also stood. Like Kowalski, the commander was dressed casually in jeans and a light jacket. Over the past days, they had all found themselves coming here. It had been a long couple of weeks of funerals and grim meetings. Painter wandered here almost every night with Lisa. They would stroll through the camp, in each other’s arms, not talking, but listening to the songs and laughter as they passed families gathered around candle-lit suppers. Painter took solace in this fervent and bright reminder of the fullness of life. Painter also found the shared songs and communal camaraderie echoed back to his own childhood, to the tribal festivals on the Mashantucket reservations. It did feel like coming home…if just a bit.

But today’s gathering was more formal and practical.

They all crossed to a nearby plank table. A pair of massive draft horses were penned nearby.

As they sat, Gray asked, “So how did the meeting go?”

Luca stared at him with bright eyes.

Painter had just returned from a meeting with representatives from the State Department, the Russian embassy, and several child welfare organizations. The status of seventy-seven children was the point of contention. There were many claims on them.

“The Russians were happy to concede all authority over to us,” Painter began. “They have enough to clean up as it is. The latest radiological studies from the joint nuclear task force suggest that the partial flooding of Lake Karachay into the groundwater, while locally disastrous and requiring evacuation of lands for miles downstream, will not prove globally catastrophic. The floodgates were closed in time.”

Gray looked relieved. “And the children?”

Painter had visited the hospital this morning. An entire wing of George Washington University Hospital had been cordoned off to handle the children flown in from Russia. The neurology team had spent the last weeks slowly and meticulously removing the implants. As the chief neurologist had originally conjectured, the extraction was a delicate but not exceptionally complicated procedure. The last child had her implant removed a couple of days ago. They were all doing well.

“Testing shows some savant talent remains in the children but at a substantially weakened level,” Painter said. “Whatever communion was shared at the end seemed to have burned out the foundations of the neurological structure that produced their prodigious talent. But contrarily, the change also seemed to lessen their autistic presentation. The children have shown remarkable improvement. Still, whoever takes on the mantle of fostering these children will have to concede to a supervised monitoring of their health status, along with regular psychological evaluations, both in regard to their talents and to their general mental health.”

Painter stared at Luca, who remained stoic, but his eyes shone with hope. Painter finally smiled. “But the unanimous consensus of the panel is that the children will be released to Gypsy families for that fostering.”

Luca pounded a fist on the table. “Yes!”

His loud reaction earned a whinnied complaint from one of the draft horses and an equally firm stamp of a large hoof.

Painter spent another half hour going over further details, which helped sober the man but failed to dim the light in the Gypsy’s eyes. Finally they all stood and began to disperse.

Elizabeth headed out, with Kowalski at her elbow.

“Now that you’re back in town,” Kowalski mumbled to her, running a palm over his shaved scalp. “Would you want…Maybe we could…?”

Gray winced at the man’s efforts and nodded for Painter to move to the side. “This isn’t going to be pretty.”

“What is it, Joe?” Elizabeth asked, an eyebrow lifted curiously at the large man.

He stammered, cursed under his breath, then straightened. “Do you want to go out on a date?”

Smooth, Painter thought, suppressing a grin.

Elizabeth shrugged and led Kowalski out. “You mean a second date, right?”

Kowalski’s brow crinkled like a washboard.

“I think being shot at, kidnapped, irradiated, and saving the world classifies at least as a first date.”

Kowalski tripped along next to her, his mind catching up at about the same pace. “So you’ll go?”

Elizabeth nodded. “As long as you bring the cigars.”

Kowalski grinned. “I got a whole box of—aw, crap!” He stopped and stared down at his shoes. His left foot had landed squarely in a pile of horse manure. “These are my brand-new Chukkas!”

Elizabeth hooked his arm under hers and headed off. “It’ll wash off.”

“But you don’t understand! The leather is hand polished by…”

The pair disappeared into the throng.

Gray shook his head. “Kowalski’s got a date. I think hell’s just gotten a little bit colder.”

Painter and Gray headed out toward the Smithsonian Castle. Both of them had a ton of work still to do. Sigma command remained in disarray, both politically and structurally. They’d lost some key people during the initial assault, and one entire level remained cordoned off due to the firestorm. Repairs and inspections of the infrastructure were still under way.

But politically things were far dicier. They had managed to capture the neurologist Dr. James Chen, one of the Jasons involved with Mapplethorpe and McBride. Under interrogation, he was helping them weed out the corrupt Jasons from the legitimate scientists working for the Defense Department. But Mapplethorpe was another matter. He had his fingers throughout Washington’s intelligence agencies. It was still unclear if he had been operating solely as a rogue agent or if there were members of the Washington establishment who had supported the man’s action. As a result, intelligence camps were circling their wagons, protecting themselves but still pointing fingers.

Even toward Sigma.

So vultures circled, but Painter had the backing of a grateful president. It would take work, but they’d get things running smoothly before long. In fact, Painter was scheduled to meet Sean McKnight’s replacement tomorrow, the new interim head of DARPA. The president initially offered Painter the position, but he had declined. Sigma needed some continuity. As the joint brainchild of Archibald Polk and Sean McKnight, Painter could not abandon Sigma.

Painter glanced at Gray. “I assume you’ll be spending all day at the hospital tomorrow.”

He nodded. “Kat will need company.”

Monk Kokkalis’s surgery was scheduled for six in the morning. An MRI revealed what had been done to Monk in the Russian lab, but it remained unknown if the damage could ever be reversed. The Russians had wired a microchip into Monk’s basolateral amygdala. The neurologists believed the chip had induced and maintained a fluid amnesia. It was a technique already being investigated using chemicals, specifically propranolol as a beta-blocker to erase especially strong memories of trauma. The Russians had been experimenting on Monk, using the biotechnological equivalent.

The surgery had been delayed until Monk finished a series of antiradiation treatments. The neurologists used the extra time to study Monk’s case, but they still could not say if he’d ever get his memory back—especially with the other result found during the MRI. In order to install the chip, a small section of Monk’s cerebral cortex had been removed.

Painter recalled the horror on Gray’s face upon learning that and his dismayed words: First his hand, now a section of his brain…it’s like Monk is slowly being whittled away.

“Has there been any indication that Monk recognizes Kat?” Painter asked.

Gray shook his head. “The doctors have mostly kept her away. They believe that, while the chip is still in his head, further stress on his memory, like the emotional connection with Kat, might actually cause more damage than good.”

“Still, she visited him.”

He nodded. “She had to. She went into the room with a group of nurses. Monk conversed with them, but he had no reaction upon seeing Kat. Nothing at all. It practically destroyed her. She has Monk back, but he’s still lost to her.”

“Then we’ll have to pray for the best.”

September 29, 6:21 P.M.

George Washington University Hospital

The man woke into a room too bright. It stung his eyes and pounded deep into the back of his head. Nausea followed, accompanied by a swirl of details. He swallowed hard a few times and forced his vision to steady.

A slim woman in a blue smock patted his hand. “There you go, Mr. Kokkalis. Just breathe.” She turned away. “He’s coming around more fully this time.”

The spinning settled. The pounding of the drum inside his head slowed to a dull pressure. He found himself in a hospital room, remembering in bits and pieces. The operation. He lifted an arm and found it strapped to a plastic splint through which intravenous lines dripped both clear saline and a unit of blood. To the side, monitors beeped and whirred.

Monk tried to move his head, but his neck ached, and a tube ran down from a cap atop his head.

A series of doctors came through, shining lights into his eyes, making him do simple motor tests, judging his ability to swallow with ice chips, and performing other cranial nerve function tests. After about ten minutes, they drifted away, chattering about his case, leaving two people standing at the foot of his bed.

Monk recognized the man. “Gray…,” he said hoarsely, his throat still raw from the endotracheal tube.

The man’s eyes brightened.

Monk knew what they all hoped, what he hoped, but he shook his head. He knew the man only from the chaos in Russia. A striking woman in jeans and a loose blouse leaned next to him, her auburn hair down to her shoulders. Her emerald eyes searched Monk for some answer. But he didn’t even know the question.

Gray touched her elbow. “It may be too soon, Kat. You know that. The doctors said it might take months.”

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