The Judas Strain

Page 84

"Your mother and I talked it over," he said, still staring at the wheels. "We think you should stay with Sigma."

Gray scratched his head. He already had his letter of resignation in his pocket. When he had returned from Cambodia, he had found his father in the hospital, his chest burned from Taser strikes. His mothers arm was in a sling from a minor fracture to her wrist. The worst was his mother's black eye.

All because of him.

He had almost lost it in the hospital.

What security could he offer his parents if he continued? The Guild certainly knew who he was, where to find his folks. The only way to keep them safe was to resign. Painter tried to assure him that the Guild would back off. That retribution and retaliation were not their methods. In future missions, Painter had assured Gray his parents would be secured before he left.

But some missions came crashing up your driveway in a motorcycle.

There was no way to plan against that.

"Gray," his father pressed, "what you do is important. You can't let worries about us stop you."

"Dad. . ."

He lifted his hand. "I've said my peace. You make your own decision. I have to figure out if I like these rims or not."

Gray started to turn away.

His father reached out, grabbed his shoulder, and pulled him into a one-armed hug. He gave him one squeeze—then pushed him away a bit. "Go see what your mother is burning for breakfast."

Gray crossed to the back door and met his mother coming out.

"Oh, Gray, I just got off the phone with Kat. She said you were heading over there this morning."

"Before I go to the office. I have some of Monk's stuff on the front porch. Dad's letting me borrow the T-bird so I can run some errands for Kat this afternoon, too."

"I know the funeral isn't for another two days, but I have some pies. Could you take those over, too?"

"Pies?" Gray asked doubtfully.

"Don't worry. I bought them from the bakery down the street. Oh, and I have some toys for Penelope. I found this cute jumper with elephants and . . ."

He just kept nodding, knowing eventually his mother would stop.

"How is Kat holding up?" she finally finished.

Gray shook his head. "Good days and bad."

Mostly bad.

His mother sighed. "Let me get those pies. Last time I saw Kat she was thin as a rail, that poor girl."

Gray soon had a paper grocery bag stacked with boxed pies. He headed through the house to the front porch. He pushed outside and crossed to the stack of boxes. They contained everything from Monk's locker and a few things kept at Gray's apartment.

Gray also had a box to take to the funeral home. Ryder Blunt, the billionaire, had returned Monk's prosthetic hand, having to cut through the wing strut of his seaplane to free it. Kat had refused to even look at it. And Gray didn't blame her. But she did ask that the hand be added to the empty casket that would be lowered into Arlington National Cemetery. They were each supposed to also bring tokens of remembrances to include in the casket.

Gray had found a copy of Monk's favorite movie. The man had left it at Gray's apartment after a pizza-and-popcorn night. Sound of Music. Monk knew all the words, singing along as he bounced Penelope on his knee. Monk had the biggest heart of any man he knew.

He would've made a great father.

Gray crossed to the porch swing. He pulled out his letter of resignation folded into threes, crumpled a bit. He straightened the crinkles between his thumb and forefinger. He wished he could talk to Monk about this.

As he sat, he heard something scratching among the boxes.

The neighborhood squirrels were fearless.

Oh, damn, the pies. . .

Gray got up and crossed to the stack. But the noise wasn't coming from the bag of pies. He frowned. He shifted around until he found the right box.

What the hell?

Gray removed the top.

Painter hadn't only commissioned the repair to his father's leg and trashed T-bird. He had not wanted to send Monk's hand into the ground all charred. So he had the prosthesis meticulously restored. It rested in a foam mold.

Only now one of the fingers was digging at the foam.

Gray lifted the hand. The index finger wiggled in the air. Gray felt a shudder pass through him. What if Kat had seen this?

Must be a short in the wiring.

He set the hand down on the porch chair. The finger continued to move, tapping at the wooden seat. Gray turned away in disgust. He tugged out his cell phone, ready to blast whoever messed up at Sigma.

But as he dialed, his ear stayed morbidly attuned to the tapping. As he listened, Gray realized it drummed out a pattern.

In Morse code.

A familiar distress call.


Gray swung around, staring down at the hand.

It couldn't be.

"Monk . . . ?"

2:45 P.M. Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia

Susan Tunis climbed the steep ravine of the jungle-shrouded mountains, following the brilliant cascade of a waterfall. A fine mist hung in the air, scintillating in the dappled sunlight. A pileated gibbon chattered in protest at her passage, hanging from a vine by one arm, its black face framed by gray fur.

She continued onward, moving purposefully through the rainforest. The Cardamom Mountains formed the border between Cambodia and Thailand, an inhospitable land of dense forests and inaccessible hills. On her fourth day into the mountains, sleeping in a hammock under mosquito netting, she had spotted an endangered Indochinese tiger, with its stocky body and tightly drawn stripes. It slipped through the forest, uttering a low growl.

Otherwise, she hadn't seen anything larger than the howling gibbon.

Certainly no people.

Due to the isolation and difficult terrain, the mountains had once been the last refuge of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who retreated here because of the harsh terrain. Land mines were still a great risk.

But Susan suspected she was days past where even the guerrillas dared to tread. She reached the crest of a ridge and followed the stream across a forested plateau. Ahead, a few small shapes slipped into the water, from perches on logs.

Batagur baska.

Asian river terrapin. One of the most endangered species on the planet.

Also known as the Royal Turtle, revered as guardians of the gods.

Here they made their home.

Just past their mud nests and hibernating burrows, Susan came upon a collection of jars by the river, cylindrical clay pots standing three feet tali, scribed with lichen, carved with intricate designs. Ancient burial jars. They contained the bones of kings and queens. There were such sites scattered throughout the mountains, considered very sacred.

But no one visited this particular site, the most ancient of them all.

Susan left the river and passed through the cemetery. The burial jars eventually thinned as the forest abutted against a cracked cliff face.

She knew where she had to go, knew from the moment she had been revived by Dr. Cummings. She had gained more than just the cure for the world—but she had told no one.

It was not the time.

Susan reached the cliff and crossed to a lightning-bolt-shaped crack, gaping two feet wide at the base. She wiggled out of her pack and turned sideways to push into the fissure. She took tiny steps, sliding deeper and deeper. Behind her, the sunlight faded, growing thinner and thinner.

Soon she was in total darkness.

Susan stretched out a hand, reaching her arm forward. A glowing fire, willed from within, ignited at her fingertips and spread down to her shoulder. She raised her arm like a lamp.

Here was another secret she had kept.

But not her greatest.

Lighting her own path, she headed deeper.

She didn't know how far she traveled, losing the firm passage of time. But it was certainly well into the night.

Eventually a glow appeared, flowing back to her.

Welcoming her.

A match to her own.

She continued at her same pace, sensing no need to hurry.

At last, she entered a great vaulted space. The source of the light became clear. Spreading far into the distance, small fires shone like a scatter of stars across the bowled floor. Hundreds and hundreds. She walked out into the cavern, passing the fires.

Each was a figure, spread-eagled on the floor, ablaze with an inner fire, burning flesh to a crystalline translucency. She stared down into one. All that remained visible was the nervous system: brain, spinal cord, and the vast tangle of peripheral nerves. The open arms, flowing with filamentous fibers, looked like unfurled wings, feathered with tufts of fine nerve bundles.

Angels in the dark.

Slumbering. Waiting.

Susan marched onward. She reached a figure who wasn't as consumed, who still showed the beat of a heart and the flow of blood, where bones still hinted at form and function.

Susan found an open spot at his side and lay down. She stretched her arms. Her fingertips brushed her neighbor.

The words reached her in an old Italian dialect, but she understood.

Is it done?

She sighed. Yes. I am the last. The source has been destroyed.

Then rest, child.

For how long? When will the world be ready?

He answered her. It would be a very long sleep.

What am I to do?

Go home, my child. . . for now, go home.

Susan closed her eyes and let that which needed to sleep drop away. All else, she slipped into the bubble that composed the entirety of her life and stepped through it to what lay beyond.

Light blinded as if she stared into the full face of the sun. She lowered her gaze, blinking away the glare. The world filled back in around her. The gentle rock of the boat under her bare feet. The cry of a lone gull, the hush of waves against the hull, and the sweep of wind over her skin.

Was this a dream, a memory ... or something more?

She inhaled the salt air. A beautiful day.

She crossed to the ship's rail and stared out at the blue expanse. Green islands dotted the distance. A few clouds drifted. She heard the tread of feet on the stairs leading up from the cabin.

As she turned, he climbed into view, pulling up with his arms, dressed in shorts and an Ocean Pacific T-shirt. He spotted her, with a startled expression.

Then he smiled. "Oh, there you are."

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