He moved to his workstation.
“It will create a twenty-acre-wide sinkhole that will flood as that main river is unplugged. And a new lake will be born over our graves if we don’t get clear of here.”
Edward urged the man. “Then let’s bloody well go.”
“I’m not going to lose my research—or my work.” Fielding tapped at a screen. “This will be their ultimate test.”
“What are you doing?”
“Giving them a fighting chance.” Fielding leaned to a microphone as green lights flashed down row after row of pod designations. He spoke the final command order, transmitted to all of his army. “SURVIVE.”
Beneath Edward’s feet, a low rumble rose. He backed toward the door. What was Fielding thinking, unleashing that horde now?
“Just the generators powering up,” Fielding assured him, picking up his briefcase. “The activation sequence and warm-up mode takes eight minutes. We’ll be far away by then.”
Still, Edward hurried to the door. He turned to see something leap from the worktable and latch onto Fielding’s back, landing square between his shoulder blades. It was one of his new hexapods. In the excitement, the researcher had forgotten he’d activated this one earlier, left it on standby mode while he tinkered.
Fielding screamed and struggled to reach the beast, but its ice-pick-thin legs, sharpened to surgical points, punctured deep, latching on firmly.
Edward backed toward the door. Fielding had explained about this newest pod, a nester. Its bulbous body housed a swarm of smaller robots.
Fielding backed toward him. “Get it off! Get it off!”
Edward retreated, unable to tear his gaze away. Now, latched against his back, the pregnant creature vomited a stream of smaller bots from its swollen abdomen. They spread like fire ants—racing down his back, up his neck, over his shoulders, along his chest and limbs.
“No, no, no …” Fielding cried, spinning in a circle, knowing what was coming.
Then, as if on cue, the march of the bots all stopped at once—and began drilling into his flesh.
The animal howl of pain finally broke through Edward’s shocked paralysis. He twisted away. He knew what they were drilling for. The other, larger pods were attuned to body heat. These smaller ones were attracted to the sound of beating hearts.
They would drill and drill until that beat was finally silenced.
But from the endless howling that chased Edward toward the surface, it took a long time.
As minutes ticked down, Gray lay on his side, rubbing his chafed wrists. The secretary of state of the United States knelt over his head, picking a plug of C-4 out of his ear canal, using a three-thousand-year-old sliver of Egyptian bone, a funerary object stolen from one of the cabinets.
“That looks like most of it,” Robert said.
Gray didn’t want to be down here when the thermobaric weapon exploded. Fuel-air bombs created blast waves that rivaled nuclear bombs and ignited oxygen to five thousand degrees.
Gray rolled to his rear end and set to work digging out the earpiece and blasting cap. He used a pair of tweezers to poke, prod, and pull the device free. It felt like yanking a walnut out, leaving his ear ringing.
He hurried and gathered everything together. The barrier was layered tempered glass, too thick to break through with anything in the room. He stuck the reassembled explosive charge to the glass wall to the left of the air-lock door. He centered it in the middle of the etched symbol of the genetic cross.
“Get back,” he warned.
Gray carried the transmitter that Robert had given him. They found shelter behind a case, and Gray pressed the button. In the enclosed space, the blast felt like two anvils striking the sides of his head. He coughed against the smoke, reeking of burned tar, and hurried Robert to his feet. He waved a hand in front of his face and saw the tempered glass barrier had shattered to a bluish-white crumble.
With his ears deafened, he had to yell to hear his own voice.
Gray cast one last regretful glance behind him, at the vast wealth of history about to be destroyed. His eyes settled on that staff—the Bachal Isu, the staff of Christ—but it was sealed behind bulletproof glass. He did not have the time or force of strength to rescue it.
With a heavy heart, he had to abandon it.
Robert stood on shaky feet, dazed by the blast, but he allowed himself to be dragged along. It took his palm print and code to call the elevator back down. As they waited, Robert stared toward the smoky museum.
“Maybe it’s better I should die,” Robert said. “After what I did …”
Gray had to keep the man motivated and moving. “Robert, I need to share something with you. Your brother, Jimmy, and his daughter, Amanda.”
“What about them?” Robert asked, with a catch in his voice.
“They’re both still alive.”
Robert flinched, turning sharply to him. “What?”
As the elevator arrived and the doors opened, Gray gave him a thumbnail sketch of the story.
“And then there’s Amanda’s son to think about,” Gray said. “You mentioned he was here.”
Robert stared sullenly as the cage rose. “He was, but he was kidnapped again.”
This time, Gray jerked his head in the man’s direction.
Robert explained, “By another captive. A medical doctor. A woman investigating our fertility clinic.”
Gray pushed his shoulder and stared him hard in the face. “Lisa Cummings?”
“You know her?”
“Was there another woman with her?”
“Yes. They were both at the lab complex, with my grandnephew. But it’s ten miles away. We can’t even get word there in time.”
Gray swore, his heart clutching. He pushed Robert against the wall, harder than he had meant to. “What about the woman I was captured with? Seichan. Was she taken to that damn lab, too?”
Robert’s brows pinched at Gray’s reaction. “No,” he said slowly. “I … we kept her here.”
As the elevator stopped at the top, the heavy vault door took forever to swing open. Gray had to restrain himself from pounding his fists against it, both in his anxiety to get to Seichan and in frustration that he could do nothing to help Lisa and Kat.
Finally, the thick door opened enough for Gray and Robert to exit and climb out of the massive wine barrel and back into the main cellar. He hurried, not knowing if the thermobaric weapon was of sufficient size to burn through the cellars, too—or would it take down the whole castle?
Robert was equally clueless.
Gray didn’t want to be here to find out.
“Where’s Seichan?” he asked, ready to run ahead.
“You’ll get lost.” Robert rushed alongside him, keeping up. “I’ll show you. But …”
“After Petra left us trapped”—Robert looked both scared and apologetic—“I think she was headed to kill her.”
July 4, 2:52 P.M.
Airborne over the Blue Ridge Mountains
“Seven minutes out,” the pilot reported from the cockpit.
Painter shared the cargo hold of USAF C-41A, a turboprop-powered medium transport plane. They had screamed down from DC in a military jet, then transferred to this smaller craft, which was better suited for infiltration and extraction of troops, meaning it was basically a cockpit and cargo space.
His team was the cargo.
Tucker readied Kane in his tandem harness for the drop. Kowalski and Monk checked each other’s gear. Painter was already suited up and sat with his laptop open and hooked to a satellite uplink, getting a live feed of the Gant estate and targeting movement on the ground to aid in their daytime penetration of the Lodge.
He had Jason Carter in his ear. “Director, I’m patching new feed. We picked up movement a little over ten miles from the mansion. We didn’t get this sooner with all eyes on the Lodge. But you’d better see this.”
The image on his screen swung away from the Lodge toward the Continental Divide, a rugged chunk of territory.
Who was way out there?
A small figure could be seen standing next to a waterfall, holding a package—no, a child. The view toggled closer and closer until there could be no doubt.
“Lisa …” Painter said.
“And I believe the other is Kat, sir. About a quarter-mile southeast.”
As the image swooped in that direction, Painter waved Monk over. “You should see this.”
By the time the man arrived, Jason showed a blurry video of a woman running through the woods. Details were hard to pick out between the trees. What was evident was that she was headed straight for a sheer cliff drop.
“That’s my wife,” Monk said, scared but tightly in control. “Never looking where she’s going.”
Jason spoke again. “I’ve got movement on the ground behind her, but I can’t pick up any details.”
The pilot called from up front. “We’re two minutes out from the no-fly demarcation. I’m going to start angling around to get us skirting along its edge.”
Painter passed his laptop to Monk and crossed to the cockpit. “New plans,” he instructed. “We’re going straight in.”
“Sir, we don’t have the proper clearance.”
“Take it up with the president when we get back,” Painter said. “You take us in low and straight. Follow the Continental Divide. Once we cross into the no-fly zone, you open the rear ramp for us to bail out.”
Painter swung back around.
Monk raised an eyebrow. “How come my wife doesn’t have any hair?”
Jason spoke in Painter’s ear, a scary urgency to his tone. “How long until you’re on the ground?”
“We bail out in six. On the ground seven or eight.”
“That’ll be too late.”
Blue Ridge Mountains
Kat sprinted for the goal line.
She had lost her slippers. Her toes dug for purchase in the soft loam and loose spruce needles. Rocks, pinecones, and acorns tore at her soles, but she ignored the pain. She flew over obstacles with long-legged leaps, happy for the obstruction of a log or jagged outcropping, as it slowed her pursuers.