The Judas Strain

Page 72

Gray's fist squeezed. He had to resist swinging on her, to shut her up. He didn't need Nasser antagonized. Not now.

The cool lines of Nasser's brow had knotted up in anger. He raised his fingers and smoothed them out, refusing to rise to her bait. He turned away and headed back through his guards. He didn't say a word.

"Nasser!" Gray called back to him, his voice cracking.

"If we skip this hour," Nasser answered without turning, "I'll expect even greater results once we penetrate the altar. Anything less, I'll take more than a finger from your mother. It's time we lit a larger fire under you, Commander Pierce."

Nasser raised an arm, and the guards brought them out of the cell.

Seichan crossed past Gray, bumping his shoulder. Her words were low, barely discernible. "I was testing him."

She continued past.

Gray, caught in her wake, followed—then edged next to her.

She spoke under her breath without looking at him. "He was bluffing ... I could tell."

Gray bit back an angry retort. She was risking his parents' lives.

She glanced aside at him, perhaps sensing his anger. Even her words responded in kind, going harder. "What you must ask yourself, Gray, is why? Why is he bluffing?"

Gray relaxed his jaw. It was a good question. The back of her hand brushed his. He reached a finger toward her wrist, to acknowledge the merit. But she had already stepped beyond his reach.

Nasser led them back to the central sanctuary. The demolition team had been hard at work. Holes had been drilled into the massive, double slab of sandstone. Wires trailed out, winding together into a single braid. At the four exits, men stood with red fire extinguishers strapped to their backs.

Gray frowned. What did they expect to burn? It was all stone.

Nasser spoke to a dwarfish man wearing a vest full of tools and a coil of wire over one shoulder, plainly the demolition expert. Nasser got a nod from the man.

"We're ready," Nasser announced.

They were marched down the western exit and around the corner.

Vigor somewhat resisted. "An explosion could bring all this down on top of us."

"We know that, Monsignor," Nasser said, and lifted a radio to his lips. He gave the go order.

A moment later a sonorous thud as loud as a thunderclap thumped chest and ears. Once. Along with a fiery flash. Then a sharp acrid scent rolled over them, burning both nose and throat.

Vigor coughed. Gray waved a hand in front of his face.

"What the hell was that?" Kowalski asked, spitting into a corner to rid himself of the taste.

Nasser ignored him and led them forward.

He followed one of the men with the fire extinguishers. The man pulled down a face mask and triggered his hose. A foggy stream jetted out, spraying floors, walls, and ceilings. The narrow passageway filled with a cloud of fine powder, coating every surface.

Nasser led them back to the sanctuary.

Through the fog Gray noted other men with extinguishers converging on the chamber ahead. Under their combined spray, the view into the sanctuary momentarily clouded over. Gray could barely discern the four men spraying.

Nasser held them up.

After another half minute the spraying stopped, and the dust literally settled. The room, still foggy, reappeared. Sunlight streamed from the tower's chimney.

Nasser took them forward. "Neutralizing base," he explained, waving the residual dust from his face.

"Neutralizing what?" Gray asked.

"Acid. The demolition holds an incendiary charge paired with a corrosive acid. Engineered by the Chinese during the building of the Three Gorges Dam. Minimum concussion, maximum damage."

Gray entered the chamber behind Nasser and gaped at the sight.

The walls were covered in white powder, but the change was dramatic. The four bodhisattva faces looked like someone had melted their features away. What once had been beatific visages were now ruins of slag. The floors were equally scoured, as if someone had taken a sandblaster to them.

The altar in the center, lit from above, was a cracked ruin. One corner section had fallen through into a lower chamber.

Some space was definitely under there.

Most of the slab still held.

Another demolition-team member stepped into the chamber, bearing aloft a sledge. Nasser signaled him forward. Another man followed, dragging a jackhammer.

Just in case.

The first man swung his sledge, smashing square in the center. Fiery sparks blasted out from around the hammer's head, and the great mass of sandstone gave way.

The altar tumbled into the pit.

10:20 a.m.

Susan screamed, arching up out of the backseat.

Lisa, strapped in the copilot's seat, jarred around. She had been staring down at the expanse of the great inland lake as the Seat Dart circled, readying to land. Below, a floating village drifted from the shoreline, a tangled accumulation of Vietnamese junks and houseboats.

It was where Painter had told her to go into hiding. The fishing village lay twenty miles from Angkor. Out of harm's way.

Lisa fumbled with her seat harness as Susan wailed. Freeing herself, she stumbled to the back of the plane.

Susan thrashed out of the fire blanket, gasping. "Too late! We're too late!"

Lisa gathered the blanket and urged her to lie down. She had been sleeping quietly for the whole ride here. What had happened?

Susan clawed out a hand and grabbed Lisa's forearm. The grip seared her skin, burning away the fine hairs.

Lisa yanked her arm away. "Susan, what's wrong?"

Susan pulled herself up in the seat. The wildness in her eyes ebbed slightly, but she continued to quake all over. She swallowed hard.

"We must get there." She mumbled her usual mantra.

"We're landing now," Lisa said, trying to calm her. She even felt the Sea Dart bank downward.

"No!" Susan reached again for her, but then withdrew her hand, noting Lisa shying away. Her fingers curled and slipped back under the fire blanket. She took a shuddering breath. Her eyes rose to Lisa's. "We're too far. Lisa, I know how this sounds. But we have only minutes left. Ten or fifteen at most."

"Left for what?"

Lisa remembered her earlier conversation with Painter, about the Christmas Island crabs, about chemically induced neurological changes, triggering manic migratory urges. But in the sophisticated mind of a human, what did those same chemicals do? What other changes were wrought? Could Susan's urges be trusted?

"If I don't get there . . ." Susan said, shaking her head as if trying to jar a memory loose. "They've opened something. I can feel the sunlight. Like fiery eyes burning into me. All I know . . . and I know it in my bones. . . if I'm not there in time, there will be no cure."

Lisa hesitated, glancing back to Ryder.

The lake rose up as the Sea Dart swept downward.

Susan moaned. "I didn't ask for this."

Lisa heard the grief in her words, sensing that the pain encompassed more than the biological burden. Susan had lost her husband, her world.

She turned back to the woman.

Susan's face shone with a blur of emotions: fear, grief, desperation, and a deep loneliness.

Susan placed her palms together. "I'm not a crab. Can't you see that?"

Lisa did.

She swung around and called to Ryder. "Pull up!"

"What?" Ryder glanced back.

Lisa motioned her thumb in the air. "Don't land! We have to get closer to the ruins." She clambered up and used the seat backs to pull herself up to the copilot seat. "There's a river that runs through the town of Siem Reap."

She sank into the seat. She had studied the navigational maps of the region. The town still lay six miles or so away. She remembered Susan's warning.

Ten or fifteen minutes at most.

Would that be close enough? Her own blood was now ignited by the urgency. It took her another breath to realize why. Susan's last words.

I'm not a crab.

Susan didn't know anything about the Christmas Island land crabs. Lisa hadn't spoken aloud about Painter's conversation, not even with Ryder. Maybe in her stupor, Susan had overheard her end of the discussion. But Lisa couldn't recall if she'd used the word crab.

Either way, she flipped open the nav-chart and searched.

They needed somewhere closer to land.

Another lake or river . ..

"Or here," she said aloud, pulling the chart closer.

"What's that, lass?" Ryder asked. He dragged up the Sea Dart's nose and sent them sailing high over the lake.

Lisa flipped the chart toward him and tapped at it. "Can you land here?"

Ryder's eyes widened. "Are you bloody crazy?"

She didn't answer. Mostly because she didn't know the answer.

Ryder's face split into the wide grin. "What the hell! Let's give it a try!" Ever up for a thrill, he reached and patted her thigh. "I like the way you think. How firm is that relationship of yours back home?"

Lisa leaned back into the seat. After Painter heard about this. . . She shook her head. "We'll see."

11:22 P.M. Washington, D.C.

"Sir, that GPS lock that you had me tracking, it's moving off course."

Painter swung around. He had been coordinating with the Australian Counterterrorism and Special Recovery Team. They had arrived on-site at the island of Pusat fifteen minutes ago, proceeding to the coordinates Lisa had left. Early intel from the island remained confusing. The Mistress of the Seas was found burning, wrapped in a tangle of netting and steel cable. It listed almost forty-five degrees. A major firefight was under way aboard ship.

Kat sat on his other side, earphones in place, holding them with both hands. She had refused to go home. Not until she knew for sure. Her eyes were red and swollen, but she remained focused, surviving on a thin hope. Maybe, somehow, Monk was still alive.

"Sir," the technician said, pointing to another screen. It showed a map of Cambodia's central plateau. A large lake spread in the middle. A small blip crept in tiny pixilated jumps across the screen, tracking the Sea Dart.

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