Gray knew that had been an ultimate goal of the Guild for years. They had tried multiple times to destroy Sigma, once even leading an assault upon their headquarters.
He closed his eyes.
Have I played right into their hands here, done their work for them this time?
“What are we going to do?” Gray asked.
“Your mission objective remains the same. To find Amanda. That’s all that matters at the moment.”
Gray choked down the anger that flared inside him. He forced his fingers through his hair, triggering a twinge of complaint from his blistered back. The director was correct. He had to stay on mission, which meant answering one all-important question concerning Amanda.
Where to begin looking for her?
Painter voiced the same question. “Were you able to get any clue from inside the cabin, anything that might point to where they were taking Amanda?”
Gray stared at the smoking pile of debris. “We didn’t have any time. She could be anywhere.”
Painter let out a long sigh—not in defeat but in renewed determination. “Then we start from scratch. We’re not giving up. I’ll see what I can do at my end. You and Captain Alden canvass any locals in the area. Someone must know something. In the rush to evacuate, something might have fallen through the cracks.”
Gray agreed. The enemy clearly hadn’t expected his team to arrive at the camp so quickly—if at all.
“Pierce!” The call came from Tucker.
He turned and found the man waving to him from the road that exited the camp. Tucker stepped aside to allow a small figure to run into view. It was Baashi. Gray had last seen the boy diving into the forest after almost getting shot.
Seichan had gone out to look for him.
She appeared steps behind him, dragging a prisoner with her, clutching him by the shirt collar as he stumbled alongside her.
Gray spoke into the phone. “Director, I’ll call you back in a few minutes. We may have caught a break.”
Signing off, he strode over to the group. Captain Alden headed over there, too.
Seichan met Gray’s eyes as he reached her. “I found Baashi leading this kid back out of the forest, heading our way.”
Baashi vigorously nodded. “I tell him you all good.”
Tucker looked pale. “It’s the same boy I jumped earlier by the creek.”
Gray saw he was right. It was the child Tucker had strangled and hog-tied. So the bound boy had been discovered by the enemy. No wonder the crew had hightailed it back to camp.
“Kid must’ve fled during our attack on the third truck,” Seichan said. “But Baashi tracked him in the woods and convinced him we were okay.”
From his wide, scared eyes, the new boy must be wondering if he’d made the right decision.
“Mr. Trevor!” Baashi burst out brightly and ran to meet the British captain as he joined them. He patted Alden on the chest and spoke to the other boy. “This the man I tell you about.”
Seeing the confused look on the captive’s face, Baashi repeated what he said in Somali. Then he stepped over like an excited tour guide and patted Kane, too, ending with “He good dog.”
Gray sidled next to Alden during all of this. “See if Baashi could ask the boy if he knows where Amanda was taken.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Gray had to wait while a fervid series of exchanges commenced. It involved a lot of back-and-forth and not a few suspicious glances cast his way. Finally, the boy seemed to relent. Pointing this way and that, he spoke briskly in Somali.
Alden eventually straightened and rejoined Gray.
“It seems, like with Baashi, people are willing to speak more openly around a child. He overheard some of the medical staff at the camp talking, making preparations to move the young woman to an airfield used by drug-runners. He says he heard them speak of flying to Dubai. But I don’t know if that’s just a stopover or a final destination because he also said they’re planning to go to heaven.”
To go to heaven? What did that mean? Was it some sort of suicide pact?
That didn’t sound like the enemy—and certainly not the Guild. Alden must have read his confusion and shrugged. He had no better explanation.
Still, Gray’s mood lightened. “At least, Dubai gives us a solid place to start looking. To hopefully pick up her trail again.”
Alden stared over at Jain, on a stretcher, one pant leg cut away. “Good luck, commander. I’ll see to the boys here.” He motioned to Baashi and the other kid. “In the meantime—”
The thumping of a helicopter cut him off, drawing his attention skyward.
“I believe that’s your SEAL team,” the captain said. “A bit late to the bloody party, but they can help secure the area. I’d suggest you and your team borrow that helo of mine. Clear out before too many questions get asked.”
“Before that,” Gray started, “about Amanda …”
Alden winked at him. “I heard she died here. A real tragedy.” So the good captain had already perceived, as Painter had, that Amanda’s best chance of survival lay in everyone continuing to believe that lie. “That’s what I’ll be reporting to my superiors.”
“Thank you,” Gray said and shook the man’s hand, grasping his forearm with the other.
“No thanks needed, mate. If it wasn’t for your quick thinking, there would’ve been more casualties at that UNICEF camp, including possibly my own men.”
With matters settled, Gray drew his group together and hurried toward the idling chopper. He wanted to be out of here before the SEALs clamped things down. The SEAL team was under orders to retrieve the charred body, to return the supposed remains of the president’s daughter back to the States—not a duty he would wish on anyone.
He called Painter again, reported what he’d learned, and coordinated logistics on their next move.
“We’re pulling up stakes here,” Gray said. “Any intelligence Kat can gather while we’re en route would help us hit the ground running once we’re wheels-down in Dubai City.”
“Understood. I’ll put a team on it. But I’ve got Kat working another angle.”
Gray paused as everyone loaded into the helicopter. Tucker lifted his dog. “What other angle?”
As Painter explained his worry that all of this bloodshed and terror somehow involved Amanda’s unborn child, Gray pictured the brutality of the cesarean performed on the anonymous woman, her body charred beyond recognition.
In his gut, Gray knew the director was correct.
This was all about the baby.
As he signed off and strapped into his seat aboard the chopper, another concern nagged him. It also centered on Amanda and her child. Gray couldn’t escape the sense that Painter had been withholding something from him. The director’s decision to keep Amanda’s survival a secret from her own parents never sat right with him. Painter was certainly a master chess player and could be coldhearted and tough when he had his back against the wall—but never this callous. His explanation felt forced, like there was something he didn’t want to share about Amanda or her family.
But what could it be?
With a roar of its engines, the helicopter slowly rose from the ruins of the camp, stirring smoke and ash, leaving the horrors below.
He might not know what gambit Painter was playing—but he knew one thing for certain.
This was just the beginning.
Much worse was still to come.
11:00 A.M. EST
Robert Gant stepped through the air lock and entered the Class 1000 clean room, a stark white chamber with glass walls that looked out into the rest of the genomics lab. Staffed only by three researchers, the entire facility lay in an industrial area on the outskirts of Alexandria, Virginia, and was listed as a private DNA test lab.
But that was not its purpose.
Its true function had been etched into one of the glass walls of the clean room: a frosted cross, decorated with spirals of DNA along its crosspieces.
“Show me,” he said, using the deep baritone that served him well in the past as a U.S. ambassador and now as secretary of state.
He allowed some of his irritation to ring out. He’d left Jimmy and Teresa to their grief to attend to private family business, but he wanted to keep this visit as short as possible.
The researcher, Dr. Emmet Fielding—decked out in white coveralls, gloves, boots, and hood—drew him to a laboratory table. A sealed crystal cylinder, about the size and shape of a hockey puck, held a murky aquamarine fluid. Beside it on the table rested a titanium sculpture that looked like a clawless crab supported by six articulated legs. Its flat metal carapace measured a foot across, reminding Robert of the land mines that still peppered Southeast Asia, where he’d spent the bulk of his ambassadorship.
Fielding lifted the cylinder from the table and held it in the palm of his hand. “This is the latest generation,” he said proudly. “Half a million neurons harvested from human fetal cortical tissue to form this new brain. And, once implanted, it will communicate via five thousand micro-electrodes. A fourfold improvement from the last generation.”
And a huge advance from where this all started.
This was Robert’s pet project. He had learned of the first tentative steps taken by the University of Reading in England back in 2009. A researcher in neuro-robotics discovered that a handful of neurons, collected from the cortex of lab rats and grown in a culture medium, could be wired into a small wheeled robot, and through electrode stimulation, it could control and operate the tiny vehicle, learning over time as new synapses formed to avoid objects and work through mazes. Shortly thereafter, another scientist, at the University of Florida, upped the ante, wiring twenty-five thousand rat neurons to a flight simulator. Over time that tiny brain learned to fly a jet flawlessly through mountains and thunderstorms.
Years later, utilizing the family’s financial and technological resources, Robert had moved that bar much higher. Initially, the research had been folded into a larger project, one going back decades, investigating the fusion of man and machine as a means of extending life—a goal sought by the Bloodline for centuries.