Amanda shambled down a featureless white hallway. She had no idea where she was, nor the time of day. She’d woken in a windowless hospital room four hours ago. The medical team had performed another ultrasound on her, along with a pelvic exam, removing a sponge-like object from inside her.
Dr. Blake had explained, We inserted a synthetic osmotic dilator while you were sedated, to gently help open your cervix. It’s an old-school technique but still effective in preparation for labor.
It was only then she had learned they were inducing her, forcing her to deliver her baby early. She protested, but the protests fell on deaf ears. All she got for her trouble was a patronizing reassurance that she was well enough along and that there would be little risk to the baby or herself.
That failed to relieve her. She remembered what she’d overheard during the flight: the plans for her child to be dissected like some lab animal. She had to find a way to stop them.
As she walked, she supported her belly with one hand, as if trying to hold her baby where it was safe, willing her body not to surrender. But ten minutes ago, a prostaglandin gel had been applied vaginally, the first step toward inducing labor.
I won’t let them have my baby.
Ahead, she saw a wide window on one side of the hallway, bright with light. She hurried forward, breaking free of Blake’s grip.
Maybe there is a way out. Or some sign of where I am.
And deeper down lurked darker thoughts, of throwing herself out a high window, of plummeting to her death rather than letting them torture her baby boy.
She reached the window and fell back in horror. The light did not come from the sun but from the stark halogens of a biological clean lab. She flashed back to a similar facility in Charleston, where her in vitro fertilization had been performed. Like back home, this lab had multiple workstations and microscopes. It was all polished stainless steel or nonporous surfaces.
But what made her weak in the knees was the research project facing her—literally. A disembodied human head hung before her, bolted to a stanchion above a rack as tall as a man. A foot below that horror, a nest of plastic tubing suspended a human heart. A pacemaker-like device had been wired into the dark muscle and sat atop the tissue like a silver spider. The heart contracted every couple of seconds, jumping slightly in its webbing. And below that, a set of pink lungs hung in a glass vat, the disembodied tissue bellowing in and out, hooked to a ventilator. Other body parts loomed in murkier jars farther down, but she shied away from them, fearing what she would find.
Instead, she found her gaze transfixed on the victim’s face. His mouth had been taped shut; his eyelids drooped at half-mast. The stump of his neck was sealed in a tight bandage that trailed bloody tubes and tangles of wires, all flowing to a desk-size machine behind the rack.
It was as if someone had stripped the man down to his component parts, separating them each for some macabre study.
She could no longer look and swung away, running into Dr. Blake’s chest. He caught her in his arms.
“What is all of this?” she cried.
“We’re saving lives,” he answered calmly. “Continuing a Russian research program started back in the forties. They were using dogs back then, discovering how long they could keep body parts alive via artificial means. Even seven decades ago, using the crude tools available at the time, the researchers were able to keep the severed heads of their subjects vital for days, animated enough to respond to sound, to attempt to bark, to twitch their ears.”
Amanda shook her head, aghast at such a thing.
“Ah, but you see, Amanda, as gruesome as that may sound, those early experiments eventually led to the development of the first ventilator and the first cardiopulmonary bypass machine. A leap forward in technology that saved thousands of lives over the next decades.”
“But this …” Amanda waved a hand weakly toward the window.
“This is just as important and groundbreaking. The animal model could only take medical science so far. And with the accelerating advances in nanotechnology, microsurgery, neuroscience, cardiopulmonary medicine, and pharmaceutical sciences, there is no limit to what we’re on the threshold of accomplishing. What we’re doing here—experimenting with longevity studies of major tissues—promises not only to save lives but to extend them as well.”
She heard the exaltation in his voice. He openly worshipped at the altar of cold science, where morality had no sway. He believed as fervently in the truth of his convictions as any preacher, and, like any devoted disciple, sought to convert the nonbeliever.
But she wasn’t about to drink that particular Kool-Aid.
Movement in the lab drew her eye back to the horror show inside. A figure—gowned in a one-piece hooded clean suit—stepped from a rear chamber, carrying a tray of surgical tools. The worker noted the audience at the window and looked over.
Above the white mask, Amanda recognized those cold, watery eyes.
At the same time, she remembered Blake’s praise for his nurse’s ghoulish skills, a talent to be applied to the child in her womb. She stared between Petra’s face and the disembodied head. Did they intend to do the same to her boy?
Petra’s earlier words rang in her ears.
I’ll relax once we have the fetus on the vivisection table at the lab.
Amanda stared at the tray of sharp stainless-steel tools.
Blood drained to her legs, making her swoon.
Why? she cried inside. How could her child be important to these grisly “longevity studies”? What were they looking to find in her baby boy?
Petra crossed and dropped the tray atop a workstation. Steel clanged on steel, as sharp as a gunshot.
The eyelids of the corpse popped open.
Dead pupils stared back at Amanda.
She screamed—letting all the day’s horrors crash out of her. She fell to her knees, felt something give way deep in her belly, hot fluid washed down her inner thighs.
Dr. Blake dropped beside her, cradling her under one arm. “Her water’s broke!” he called to Petra through the glass, then turned his attention back to Amanda. He patted her leg. “It won’t be long now.”
Amanda closed her eyes, knowing at last where she was.
I’m in hell.
“She’s in heaven,” Gray said, speaking to the group gathered in the suite and to Painter back in Washington.
With the satellite phone on speaker, he stepped again to the large window that overlooked the city and beachfront. Far out, near the horizon, a glow shone against the midnight sea, like the reflection of the moon. But it wasn’t a reflection or the moon, but another celestial body.
Gray fogged the glass with his breath and drew on the window with his finger.
A five-pointed star.
“The new island of Utopia out there is in the shape of a starfish.” Gray faced the others, as Painter listened on the line. “The boy back in Somalia said that Amanda was being taken to heaven. Maybe he misinterpreted utopia, translating the name as best he could as a heavenly place. Or maybe he heard the destination of the kidnappers was shaped like a star, a piece of the heavens.”
“Or maybe you’re grasping at straws,” Kowalski said.
Seichan stood with her arms crossed, similarly unimpressed.
Gray remembered their brief intimate moment in the bathroom. In that fleeting instance, the worries of family and mission responsibilities faded. He existed in the simple purity of touch and possibility. With his mind cleared, the nagging puzzle stuck in his head broke through the muddle of his awareness. The answer burst forth fully formed, shining with the certainty of truth.
But maybe he was the only one convinced.
Even Painter put a noncommittal spin on his revelation. “It’s something I can look into. Maybe by morning—”
“We can’t wait until morning. Amanda could be moved again or harmed. We need to take advantage of the hours of darkness left to us.”
“You’re talking about putting a lot of resources to bear on a hunch,” Painter argued. “You could burn your cover, expose the fact that you know Amanda’s still alive, all for nothing.”
“I know I’m right,” Gray said.
“How can you be so sure?” Seichan said.
Gray returned to the window. “Because of the breakwater around Utopia, the same as can be seen out the window surrounding the palm islands.”
He fogged the glass again with a hard breath and filled in the rest of his map of Utopia, drawing in a crescent breakwater around the starfish-shaped island.
“A moon and a star,” Gray said, poking at the symbols.
A gasp rose from Seichan.
Tucker shrugged. “I don’t get it.”
Gray glanced at him, remembering the man knew nothing about the Guild. “It’s the root symbol for a shadowy organization, one that’s committed acts of terrorism around the world. The director already suspected this group might be behind Amanda’s kidnapping.”
“Now you tell me,” Kowalski grumbled. “If I’d known that, I would’ve sat this one out.”
Tucker still shook his head. “The crescent and the moon. You can find that emblem on most Arab national flags. The Emirates is an Islamic country. The design of the islands might simply be representing that Muslim symbol.”
Painter agreed. “He’s right, Gray. But you’ve convinced me enough that the island is worth investigating. I’ve ordered a team to assemble an intelligence brief on the place. I already pulled a picture off the Web, photos showing the towers under construction on the main island. Impressive. Several are already occupied by businesses, with the remainder of the spaces nailed down by corporations from around the world. From what I’m seeing, security is tight around that island.”
“That’s why I wanted to head out there tonight. Go in dark.”
“No good.” It sounded like Painter was reading from a report. “They’ve got a radar-monitoring system that circles the entire island. They’ll know you’re approaching from a mile away.”