The Judas Strain

Page 66

With grim satisfaction, he retreated again.

But the waters suddenly erupted all around him with streaks of fire: blues and emeralds, but mostly a blaze of crimson. More of the pack had been lying in wait. Rakao read the fury in the flickers. They swirled like a luminous whirlpool around him.

Something bumped his leg. Teeth clamped to his ankle.

Rakao knew it was the end.

Too many.

His men would never reach him in time.

Rakao stared across the waters at the fleeing boat. He dropped his spear and clutched to a holster at his shoulder. He kept it with him at all times. It held no gun. Only insurance. He twisted the T-handle that protruded from the leather holster and pulled the plunger out.

A tentacle wrapped around his waist, ripping with teeth.

If he couldn't escape, no one would.

Rakao shoved the plunger as a tangle of tentacles lashed out of the water like flailing whips. From all directions, they fell upon him, ripping cloth and flesh, taking his legs out from under him. He felt his right ear torn away as he was dragged beneath the water.

Still, he heard the explosions, thunder from above, pounding through the water, reaching him as the monsters dragged him deep.

Boom, boom, boom . . .

5:57 A.M.

Lisa watched the fiery explosions lighting up the island's highlands. At first, she thought it was lightning strikes—but they exploded sequentially, rimming around the top of the island.

"What the hell?" Ryder called from the pilot's seat.

Sections of the island's canopy began to fall in fiery ruin.

She yelled. "Someone's blowing up the net! It's all coming down!"

Ryder cursed.

Explosions continued. Fires lit the skies, speeding around the island's heights. Unless they fled faster, reached the lagoon's exit, they'd be smothered under the net when it all came down.

"I need to get airborne!" Ryder called back.

That would be a problem.

5:57 a.m.

Concussive blasts lit up the rim of the island.

Monk understood.

The net. . .

The Sea Dart suddenly sped faster, trying to outrun the explosions. The boat lifted out of the water a few inches as it surpassed takeoff speeds.

But Monk's swinging weight unbalanced the boat, tilting it. His toes skimmed the waters. Ryder corrected, slowing the speed. They struck the water, bounced, then settled again.

Pain shot up Monk's broken leg. Still he hung clamped to the strut.

Even if he had wanted to, he could not detach. His tussle with Rakao's spear had fried the electronics of his prosthetic hand. It had shut down after clamping to the wing strut. He was hooked like a slab of beef in a butcher's shop.

He twisted around, watching the explosions continue around the island. The entire back half of the net drifted down, raining fire amid the storm's downpour.

And more of the sky fell with each explosion.

Monk stared back toward the exit to the lagoon, the narrow crack in the volcanic caldera. The Sea Dart had to reach it before the explosions completed their circuit around the volcanic rim and dropped the net over lake. Monk calculated their odds. Not good. And they'd never make it—not while dragging a side of beef from one wingtip.

"Can you retract the wings?" Lisa called to Ryder.

Maybe they could pull Monk in close, get him inside, then extend the wings out again. All without slowing.

Ryder dashed this thin hope. "Once extended, the wings are locked out! A built-in safety feature!"

Lisa understood. It would not be good to have the wings retract while in midair.

Lisa watched Monk struggling. He was digging at his prosthetic wrist with his good hand. What was he doing?

Then it dawned on her.

Monk must have realized the threat he posed.

"No!" she called to him. "Monk! No!"

She didn't know if he heard her past the explosions and wind.

Still, he did twist his head and faced her. He pointed toward the lagoon's distant beach. He yelled something, but one of the thunderous blasts battered away his words.

He returned to his efforts.

Monk. . . please, no . . .

Damn it all . . . why can't I let go . . . ?

His fingers dug at the plastic wrist. The toggle that manually released his hand from its wrist attachment had melted. His fingernails tore into the bubbled synthetics.

Finally the toggle snapped open.

Thank God. ..

He reached a finger inside.

"Monk!" Lisa called to him.

Relenting, he pointed again to the beach. He would make for shore. They had to go on without him.

Lisa knelt in the opening, wind whipping her hair. He read the defeat there, too. There was no alternative.

Monk reached through the open toggle and pressed the release button.

Wrist detached from hand.

He fell, tumbling to the water, skipping along, like a skimmed stone. Then he sank into the depths. He kicked his good leg to reach the surface; his other leg felt like someone had jabbed a burning poker through his calf.

Treading water, he watched the Sea Dart speed across the lagoon, heading for the crack in the caldera that led out to the open sea.

Ryder didn't hesitate. He understood the sacrifice.

As the last explosions ripped along the rim of the island, Monk stared up. The netting swamped down toward him. He glanced back. Across the lagoon, the canopy fell like a fiery shroud over the Mistress of the Seas, starting it the stern and working toward the bow.

In seconds the cruise ship was swamped under it, caught like a dolphin in a tuna net. And the collapse continued, sweeping toward Monk. He had no hope of reaching any beach. The closest lay five hundred yards away.

In the other direction, he watched the Sea Dart escape into the air, pulling up, lifting off the lake, and racing toward the opening in the caldera wall.

They would make it.

This thought helped settle his heart as the net fell atop him, heavy with cabling and sodden rope. It dragged him down, down, down . ..

Monk struggled for a way through it, to reach the surface again. But his broken leg confounded him. And the net had folded a bit on itself. He could find no way through.

He stared up at the lights of the cruise ship.

With only one regret... a broken promise .. .

He'd sworn to Kat that he would return from this mission, and he had kissed Penelope with the same silent promise.

I'm sorry. . .

He reached one arm up, praying for some rescue.

His hand found a hole in the tangled net. He used the stump of his other arm to force it wider. He kicked both legs, ignoring the pain from his right calf. He struggled to worm through the opening.

Then something snagged his broken leg, latching to his ankle, and tugged hard. Bone ground against bone. Agony lanced from leg to spine. Monk gasped out his last breath and stared down.

Lights in the water streaked up toward him.

Arms climbed his body, wrapped around his waist, over his chest. A rubbery limb clamped across his face, across the same lips that had once made a promise, once kissed a child.

Lights flashed around him as Monk was dragged down, down, down . . . Still, he searched up one last time.

As the glow of the cruise ship faded and darkness closed over him, he sent his heart out to the two women who gave his life any meaning. Kat.

Penelope. I love you, love you, love you . ..

6:05 A.M.

Lisa sat in the backseat of the Sea Dart, bent over her knees, sobbing.

Susan sat next to her, resting a hand on her back.

No one spoke.

Ryder fought the winds as he flew the Sea Dart across the open water. The island of Pusat faded behind them.

The storm blew them like a leaf in a gale. There was no use fighting it. They simply fled with the wind, skimming north.

They had no radio. A stray round had punched through the unit.

"The sun's rising," Susan mumbled, staring out the window, ignoring the navigation map on her lap.

Her words broke some barrier.

Ryder spoke from the pilot's seat. "Maybe he made it to shore."

Lisa sat back. She knew Monk had not. Still, she wiped her eyes. Monk had sacrificed himself so they might escape. So that those left behind aboard the Mistress of the Seas had some chance of rescue, that the world had some hope of a cure.

Still, Lisa only felt numb and dead.

"The sun .. ." Susan said.

Ryder banked east, skirting around another island peak. Off near the horizon, there was some sign of an end to the night's storm. The black clouds split enough to allow sunlight to stream toward them. The first edge of the day's sun peeked above the horizon.

Through the windshield, light flooded the cabin with brilliance.

Lisa stared toward it, seeking some absolution, to bask in the brightness, to let it inside her, to chase away the darkness there, too.

And it seemed to work—until Susan let out a terrifying scream.

Lisa jumped and turned. Susan sat bolt upright in her seat, staring wide-eyed toward the sun. But something in her eyes shone even brighter.

Raw fear.


The woman continued to stare. Her mouth moved, breathless. Lisa had to read her lips. "They must not go there."

"Who? Where?"

Susan didn't answer. Without looking down, she took a finger and placed it on the navigation map in her lap.

Lisa read the name under her finger.








July 7, 6:35 a.m. Angkor Thorn, Cambodia

Gray marched with the others toward the massive gates of the walled temple complex of Angkor Thom. The morning sun, low on the horizon, cast long shadows across the south causeway. Cicadas buzzed, along with the morning chorus of frogs.

Except for a handful of tourists and a pair of saffron-robed monks, they had the bridge to themselves at this early hour. The causeway stretched a full football field in length, framed along the edges by rows of statues: fifty-four gods on one side and fifty-four demons on the other. They overlooked a moat, mostly dry now, where once crocodiles swam, protecting the great city and the royal palace inside. The deep moat, bordered by earthen embankments, now languished in emerald expanses of algae-covered pools and swaths of grass and weeds.

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