The Judas Strain

Page 79

Seichan waved to the door. "There's more writing under the name."

Vigor nodded. "A quote from the Bible., book of Matthew, chapter twenty-eight, concerning the resurrection of Jesus from his tomb." Vigor read the quote aloud. " 'Behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from the sky, and came and rolled away the stone from the door, and sat on it.'"

"That's a lot of help."

It was.

Vigor stared up at the crucifix carved into a bronze medallion above the door. He said a silent prayer and made the sign of the cross.

Before he could finish, he felt the ground shake under his knees. A great crash of rock echoed behind him, sounding as if the cavern had collapsed.

Seichan retreated, taking the light, off to investigate. "Stay here!"

Darkness descended, chilling him. Though he could no longer read the words, they blazed in his mind.

Behold, there was a great earthquake. . .


11:52 P.M.

Gray knelt over Lisa as the resounding shock rattled through the cavern. Kowalski sheltered her other side. One of the stalactites broke away from the roof and plunged into the pool's depth. From where it had broken off, a scatter of deep cracks radiated outward, spanning the limestone roof.

Susan crouched halfway down the spar of rock as it thrust out into the glowing lake. All around the waters trembled with vibrations, sloshing back and forth. The stirring churned up more acidic wash, choking the air.

Rich with the Judas Strain.

Smaller concussions struck above, pounding like cannonballs against the roof of the cavern.

"What's happening?" Lisa yelled.

"Nasser's bomb," he gasped out, ears ringing.

Earlier, Gray had examined the foundation pillars of the Bayon. He had found the columns riddled with fissures and cracks, pressure fractures from old age and from periodic shifts in the earth. Gray imagined that the concussion of the double-strength bomb had widened the fissures even more. And then the wash of acid—splashing outward and flowing into all those cracks— had dissolved the hearts out of the pylons.

"One of the foundation pillars must have collapsed," he said. "Taking down a section of the temple with it."

Gray stared up.

The tumbling of stone blocks had stopped—but for how long? He swung around to Susan. She stood up, slowly, warily. She glanced back, plainly wanting to return to shore. But instead, she turned and continued onward.

Past her shoulders the twin beams of sunlight glowed even brighter as the noon hour struck, the full face of the sun baking down atop the ruins.

"Will it hold long enough?" Lisa asked, staring out at Susan.

"It'll have to."

Gray had no doubt that if another foundation pillar collapsed, the temple's weight would flatten this limestone bubble like a pancake. He pulled Lisa to her feet. They couldn't stay. Even if the pillars held, the lake was near to erupting.

The entire pool now glowed, from shore to shore. Where the twin beams of sunlight struck, the waters had begun to bubble, gasping out more toxin into the air, more of the Judas Strain.

They had to leave.

Down the spur of rock, Susan reached its end and sat down, hugging one knee. She kept her back to them, perhaps fearful if she saw them she would lose her nerve and come running back. She looked so alone, so frightened.

A racking cough shook through Gray. His lungs burned. He could taste the caustic toxin on his tongue. They could wait no longer.

Lisa knew it, too. Her eyes were bloodshot, weeping heavily from both the sting of the air and from the fear for her friend.

Susan had no choice. Neither did they.

They headed toward the distant archway. A flickering light halfway ahead revealed Seichan running back. Alone. Where was Vigor?

Another crack of rock blasted above.

Gray cringed, fearing another avalanche.

The reality was worse.

The stone plug shattered out of the rooftop, raining down chunks of the block. Sunlight blazed down. A large slab bearing a corner of an upturned lip splashed leadenly into the water, swamping Susan. More pieces struck like depth charges.

Triumphant voices echoed from above.

Gray heard Nasser's voice call out. "They have to be down there!"

But Nasser wasn't the worst danger at the moment.

The full face of the sun blazed unfiltered upon the lake, combusting the pool. Already primed, close to critical mass, the bubbling became an instant boil, erupting in vast expulsions, coughing up gouts of gas and water.

The pool was blowing.

They'd never make it to the stairs.

Gray backpedaled, dragging Kowalski and Lisa with him a few steps. He yelled at Seichan. "Drop flat! Now!"

He obeyed his own advice, waving Lisa and Kowalski down. Gray grabbed the abandoned tarp they'd used to transport Susan. He dragged it over all three of them, trying to trap as much air as possible.

"Pin your edges close to the stone!" he ordered the others.

Beyond the tarp he heard the crackles of boiling water, furious, hissing angry—then a deep sonorous whoop, as if the entire lake had jumped a foot then dropped. Water washed his ankles, then swept away.

The air under the tarp turned to liquid fire.

The three of them huddled, gasping, coughing, choking.

"Susan," Lisa finally croaked out.

12:00 P.M.

Susan screamed.

She didn't cry with mere lungs, or the flutter of vocal cords. She howled out of the core of her being.

She could not escape the agony. Her mind, still attuned by sunlight, continued its detailed recording of every sensation. Forbidden from oblivion, her being scribed every detail: the sear of her lungs, the fire in her eyes, the flaying of her skin. She burned from the inside out, propelling her cry to the heavens.

But was there anyone to hear?

As she expelled all of herself upward, she finally found her release.

She fell back to the stone.

Her heart clenched one last time, squeezing out the last of her.

Then nothing.

I2:01 P.M.

"What about Susan?" Lisa gasped.

Gray risked a peek from under a flap of tarp, craning back toward the rocky spar. The lake still boiled, burning under the fiery sun. The air above the lake shimmered with an oily miasma.

But the worst flow of gasses spiraled upward, through the opening, drafting up the flue of the Bayon's central spire, turning tower into chimney.

Gray knew it was the only reason they lived.

If the cavern had still been sealed . . .

Out on the spar another of their party had not fared as well. Susan lay sprawled on her back, as still as a statue. Gray could not tell if she was breathing. In fact, it was hard to see her shape against the glare of the sunlight.

And that's when he realized it.

The rocky spar did not extend fully into the stream of sunlight.

Susan still lay in shadow—but she no longer glowed. The brightness in her had blown out like a candle.

What did that mean?

Overhead, screams echoed down from the temple, now awash with the pool's toxic expulsion. Gray also heard more stones striking the roof of the cavern. The caustic gas had further weakened the precarious balance of stone above their heads.

"We have to get out of the cavern," Gray said.

"What about Susan?" Lisa asked.

"We'll have to trust she had enough exposure. Whatever she needed to happen, hopefully happened." Gray rolled to his knees, coughing hard. They all needed the cure now. He stared over to Kowalski. "Get Lisa to the stairs."

Kowalski pushed up. "Don't have to tell me twice."

Lisa clutched Gray's wrist as he stood, keeping the tarp over their heads. "What are you going to do?"

"I have to get Susan."

Lisa pinched around to see—then covered her mouth. The lake still roiled heavily, popping with gas. "Gray, you'll never make it."

"I'll have to."

"But I don't see her moving. 1 think the sudden explosion was too much."

Gray remembered Marco's story, of his forced cannibalism, drinking the blood and eating the flesh of another man to live. "1 don't think it matters if she's alive or dead. We just need her body."

Lisa flinched at the callousness of his words, but she did not object.

"I'm going to need the tarp," Gray said.

Kowalski nodded, clutching Lisa by the arm. "Fine by me. I'm taking the girl."

Gray whisked away from them, cocooning himself in the tarp. He wrapped his head, leaving only a slit to peer out. He heard Kowalski and Lisa running down the strand.

Another boulder crashed onto the cavern roof from the temple above.

As good as a starter's pistol.

Keeping his head low, Gray sprinted down the causeway.

Thirty yards.

That's all.

There and back.

Steps from the shore, Gray bulled into the rising miasma of toxin. He held his breath. Still, it was like hitting a wall of fire. His eyes immediately burned, squeezing his vision to a pinpoint, while tears turned the rest of his sight into a watery blur. Barely able to see, he closed his lids, pulled the slit shut, and ran blind, counting his steps.

At thirty he risked a fast peek. An inferno greeted him.

But through the pain he spied an outflung arm. A step away. He took that step, bent down, and grabbed the arm. Luckily she no longer glowed, no longer burned. Still, he could not pick her up. He retreated, dragging her. The tarp tangled his feet, slowing him down. He finally tossed it aside, taking one breath before he did so.

It dropped him to a knee.

His chest clenched, his throat closed in protest.

Swallowing flames.

He pushed up, dragging blind, stumbling, hurrying.

His skin ran with fire, as if lashed with steel-studded whips.

Not going to make it.




He tripped, went down to a knee.


Then he was rising again—but not on his own.

"I've got you," she said in his ear.


She had an arm under him, dragging him bodily. His toes scraped the stones as he struggled to gain his footing.

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