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TitleJames Rollins - [Sigma Force 05] - The Last Oracle (v5.0)
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                            Man, know thyself, and thou wilt know the universe and the gods. —INSCRIPTION AT THE TEMPLE OF DELPHI A.D. 398Mount ParnassusGreece They had come to slay her. The woman stood at the temple’s portico. She shivered in her thin garment, a simple shift of white linen belted at the waist, but it was not the cold of predawn that iced her bones. Below, a torchlight procession flowed up the slopes of Mount Parnassus like a river of fire. It followed the stone-paved road of the Sacred Way, climbing in switchbacks up toward the temple of Apollo. The beat of sword on shield accompanied their progress, a full cohort of the Roman legion, five hundred strong. The road wound through broken monuments and long-ransacked treasuries. Whatever could burn had been set to torch. As the firelight danced over the ruins, the flames cast a shimmering illusion of better times, a fiery restoration of former glory: treasuries overflowing with gold and jewels, legions of statues carved by the finest artisans, milli
1 Present DaySeptember 5, 1:38 P.M.Washington, D.C. It wasn’t every day a man dropped dead in your arms. Commander Gray Pierce had been crossing the national Mall when the homeless man accosted him. Gray was already in a bad mood, having finished one fight and was headed toward another. The midday heat only stoked his irritability. The day steamed with the usual D.C. swelter, baking off the sidewalk. Dressed in a navy blue blazer over an untucked cotton jersey and jeans, he estimated his internal temperature had risen from medium to well done. From half a block away, Gray spotted a gaunt figure weaving toward him. The homeless man was dressed in baggy jeans rolled at the ankle, revealing scuffed army boots, only half laced. He hunched within a rumpled suit jacket. As the man neared, Gray noted his scrabbled beard was shot with gray, his eyes bleary and red as he searched around. Such panhandlers were not a rare sight around the national Mall, especially as the Labor Day celebrations ha
2 September 5, 5:25 P.M.Washington, D.C. Out in the steaming swelter again, Gray strode down the sidewalk in front of the Smithsonian Castle. The national Mall spread to the left, mostly deserted due to the heat. Behind Gray, crime tape still marked off the site of the afternoon’s murder. The forensics unit had finished its sweep, but the area was still locked down, under the eye of a posted D.C. policeman. Gray walked east along Jefferson Drive. He was shadowed by a large bodyguard, whom he was doing his best to ignore. He had not asked for any protection, especially this man. He touched the mike at his throat and subvocalized into it. “I’ve found a trail.” The fizzle of a reply rasped out of his wireless earpiece. Cocking his head, Gray seated it better. “Say again,” he whispered. “Can you follow the trail?” Painter Crowe asked. “Yes…but I don’t know for how long. The readings are weak.” Gray had suggested his current plan of action. He studied the device in his hand, a Gamma-Scout p
3 September 5, 7:22 P.M.Washington, D.C. “Dead?” Gray sat on the edge of the desk in the museum’s storage room. He knew the pain of what he had to tell her. Elizabeth Polk slumped in the chair, collapsed within her lab coat. There were no tears. Shock locked them away, but she took off her slim eyeglasses, as if readying herself. “I heard about the shooting on the Mall,” she mumbled. “But I never thought…” She shook her head. “I’ve been in the cellars here all day.” Where there was no cell phone reception, Gray noted silently. Painter had mentioned trying to reach Polk’s daughter. And she was right across the Mall the entire time. “I’m sorry to press you on this, Elizabeth,” he said, “but when did you last see your father?” She swallowed hard, starting to lose control. Her voice quavered. “I…I’m not sure. A year ago. We had a falling-out. Oh, God, what I said to him…” She placed a hand on her forehead. Gray read the regret and pain in her eyes. “I’m sure he knew you loved him.” Her eye
4 September 5, 8:12 P.M.Washington, D.C. “Door!” Kowalski yelled from the rear. Gray skidded to a stop and glanced behind him. Elizabeth Polk held out her lighter and revealed a small doorway, hidden two steps off the dark tunnel. Gray had rushed past it, too focused on the roof, searching for a street exit from the service tunnels. Behind them, calls echoed from the searchers. A single harsh bark rang out as the trackers found their trail again. Gray had crisscrossed among tunnels, trying to lose them, but it proved fruitless, and they were losing ground. Kowalski reached to the door and fought the handle. “Locked.” He punched the metal surface in frustration. Coming up to his side, Gray noted an electronic key-lock below the handle. The lighter’s flame flickered across a small steel sign stenciled in Art Deco letters: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY The door was a subterranean entrance to another of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. Closest to the door, Elizabeth swiped her
5 September 5, 9:30 P.M.Washington, D.C. “Chernobyl?” Elizabeth asked. “What was my father doing in Russia?” She stared across the coffee table at the two other men. She was seated in an armchair with her back to a picture window that overlooked the woods of Rock Creek Park. They had been driven to this location after escaping the museum. Gray had used the words safe house, which had done little to make her feel safe. It was like something out of a spy novel. But the charm of the house—a two-story craftsman built of clinker brick and paneled in burnished tiger oak—helped calm her. Somewhat. She had washed up upon arriving, taking several minutes to scrub her hands and splash water on her face. But her hair still smelled of smoke, and her fingernails were still stained with paint. Afterward, she had sat for five minutes on the commode with her face in her palms, trying to make sense of the last few hours. She hadn’t known she was crying until discovering her hands were damp. It was all
6 September 6, 5:22 A.M.Kiev, Ukraine Nicolas Solokov waited for the cameras to be set up. He had already been prepped and still wore a collar of tissue paper tucked into his white starched shirt to keep the makeup’s cake from staining his shirt and midnight blue suit. He had retreated for a private moment of introspection into one of the back hospital wards. The international news crews were still preparing for the morning broadcast out on the steps of the orphanage. In the back ward of the Kiev Children’s Home, sunlight streamed through high windows. A single nurse moved quietly among the beds. Here the worst cases were hidden away: a two-year-old girl with an inoperable thyroid tumor in her throat, a ten-year-old boy with a swollen head from hydrocephalus, another younger boy whose eyes were dulled by severe mental retardation. This last boy was strapped down, all four limbs. The nurse, a squarish Ukrainian matron in a blue smock, noted his attention. “So he doesn’t hurt himself, Se
7 September 6, 4:55 A.M.Washington, D.C. She remained a mystery in a very small package. Painter studied the girl through the window. She had finally fallen asleep. Kat Bryant kept vigil at her bedside, a copy of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham open in her lap. She had read to the girl until the sedatives had relaxed the child enough to sleep. The child hadn’t said a word since they’d arrived at midnight. Her eyes would track things, plainly registering what was going on around her. But there was little other response. She spent most of her time rocking back and forth, stiffening when touched. They had managed to get her to drink from a juice box and eat two chocolate-chip cookies. They’d also run some initial tests: blood chemistries, a full physical, even an MRI of her entire body. She still ran a low-grade fever, but it wasn’t as elevated as earlier. During the physical exam, they’d also found the microtransmitter embedded deep in the girl’s upper arm. The chip would require surgery
8 September 6, 12:05 P.M.48,000 feet over the Caspian Sea Two hours until touchdown. Gray stared out the windows of the Bombardier Global Express XRS. The day wore rapidly onward as the private jet streaked across the sky. During the course of their journey, the sun had risen on a new day, climbed over their heads, and had begun to fall again behind them. They would be landing on fumes, traveling at a squeak over supersonic speeds. The modified corporate jet had been gifted to Sigma by the billionaire aeronautics financier Ryder Blunt for past services rendered. Two U.S. Air Force pilots pushed the engines to get them to India by midafternoon local time. Gray turned his attention back to the group assembled around a teak table. He had allowed everyone to sleep for six hours, but most looked exhausted. Kowalski still had his chair reclined flat, snoring in time with the engines. Gray saw no reason to disturb him. They all could use more sleep. Focused on the dossier in front of her, the
9 September 6, 1:01 P.M.Southern Ural Mountains As the bear charged, the large man shoved Pyotr down the steep riverbank. Arms out, he struck hard and rolled. Branches poked, something scraped his cheek. Pyotr tumbled toward the river, scrabbling amid the wet ferns and slippery beds of pine needles. He didn’t know how to swim. Water terrified him. Sharper screams cut through the bear’s roar. His friends. Konstantin and Kiska. Pyotr’s knee struck a rock with a pain that shot to his spine. He landed flat on the riverbank’s edge. Water swirled past his nose. He cringed back from his reflection in the dark waters. His image swam and churned, sunlight glinted and sparked as a strong gust stirred the branches overhanging the river. Pyotr hung there in that scintillating moment of terror, suspended above the dark, dazzling water. He’d had no warning of the brown bear until it rose up before them. Its gentle heart had been overshadowed by the hunger that hunted them, its steady beat muffled by
10 September 6, 7:45 A.M.Washington, D.C. “Loose ends,” Trent McBride explained. “There are too many of them.” Yuri saw the man glance in his direction, but he didn’t flinch. Let them kill him. It did not matter. Yuri sat in an office chair. They’d allowed him to dress again after removing the electrodes. His fiery torture had continued for another twenty minutes. Yuri had not held back. He’d divulged much, confessing more details about the genetics of the children, the secret he and Savina had kept from the Americans. He even admitted why the Russians had not objected to Dr. Archibald Polk’s recruitment. Yuri admitted that Polk had been getting too close to the heart of the genetic secret. Savina had already planned to orchestrate an accident while the man was at the Warren, to silence him. But in this game of scientific brinkmanship, neither he nor Savina imagined that Polk’s own colleague and friend would arrange his escape, all to lure one of their children out into the open. And S
11 September 6, 5:38 P.M.Pripyat, Ukraine Nicolas crossed through the ghost town’s amusement park. Old yellow bumper cars sat in pools of stagnant green water, amid waist-high weeds. The roof of the ride had long since collapsed, leaving a frame of red corrosion arched over it. Ahead, the park’s giant Ferris wheel—the Big Dipper—rose into the late-afternoon sky, limned against the low sun. Its yellow umbrella chairs hung idle from the rusted skeleton. A symbol and monument to the ruin left behind in the wake of Chernobyl. Nicolas continued on. The park had been built in anticipation of the celebrations of May Day back in 1986. Instead, a week prior to the celebration, the city of Pripyat, home to forty-eight thousand workers and their families, was killed, smothered under a veil of radiation. The city, built in the 1970s, had been a shining example of Soviet architecture and urban living: the Energetic Theater, the palatial Polissia Hotel, a state-of-the-art hospital, scores of schools
12 September 6, 7:36 P.M.Punjab, India As the sun sank into the horizon, Gray admitted that Rosauro’s choice of vehicle proved to be a wise decision. In the passenger seat, he kept a palm pressed to the roof to keep him in his seat as their SUV bumped along a deeply rutted muddy road. They’d left the last significant town an hour ago and trekked through the rural back hills. Dairy farms, sugarcane fields, and mango orchards divided the rolling landscape into a patchwork. Masterson had explained that Punjab was India’s abundant breadbasket, the Granary of India, as he described it, producing a majority of its wheat, millet, and rice. “And someone has to work all these fields,” Masterson had said as he gave them directions from the backseat. Kowalski and Elizabeth shared the row with him. Behind them, Luca sat in the rear, polishing his daggers. “Take that next left track,” Masterson ordered. Rosauro hauled on the wheel, and the SUV splashed through a watery ditch, almost a creek. Small
13 September 6, 10:26 P.M.Southern Ural Mountains Monk kept guard. In dry clothes and with his bones warmed by the hearth, Monk circled the cabin. He creaked around as quietly as possible, stepping carefully. He wore his boots, though the laces were untied. He had all the children redress and put on their shoes before curling up in their quilts. If they had to leave suddenly, he didn’t want them fumbling with clothing. Konstantin and Kiska huddled together, each cocooned in their blankets. They seemed smaller in sleep, especially Konstantin. His sharp attention and mature speech patterns made him seem older. But with his body relaxed, Monk realized he could be no older than twelve. Stepping past them, Monk moved extra softly. By now, he knew which floorboards creaked the loudest and avoided them. Pyotr lay curled in the embrace of the old chimpanzee. She sat on the floor, her head hung to her chest, breathing deeply in sleep. Pyotr had panicked earlier, scared for his twin sister. Monk
14 September 6, 11:04 P.M.Punjab, India “We can go no farther,” Abhi Bhanjee said. Gray didn’t argue. The Mercedes SUV was up to its axles in mud. Exhausted, his nerves stretched to a piano-wire tautness, he drove the truck up to a stonier piece of ground. For the past two hours, rain had dumped heavily out of low skies. It seemed impossible for clouds to hold such volumes of water. They had left the mango orchards thirty miles ago and trekked through a landscape just as wooded, but here the terrain was wild. The rolling hills had given way to a broken escarpment of steep hills and cliffs. With the rain, creeks swelled and surged throughout the landscape. It was as if the entire world wept. But at least the torrent of rain had drowned away the helicopters. The hunters had given up the chase after losing their prey among the thousands of acres of property. Abe knew the lands around here well and had guided them along a steep-walled valley out of the orchards and into this inhospitable t
15 September 7, 5:05 A.M.Southern Ural Mountains Monk poled through the swamps as best he could with one hand. But they dared not stop. They’d been hunted throughout the night. Stabilizing the oar-pole in the crook of his stumped arm, he pulled and shoved with his good hand. The raft glided silently across the drowned landscape. Over the course of the night, his eyes had adjusted to the wan light from the moon. He had grown skilled at maneuvering the raft. They had several close calls as an airboat searched the swamps for them. The whining noise of its fan and its bright searchlight gave Monk plenty of warning to seek shelter. Also thick mists hung low over the water, which helped keep them hidden. Still, they’d almost been caught once, when Monk had misjudged a sluggish current and struck a tree with a loud crack. The airboat had heard and come rushing over. He tried his best to hide under the branches of a willow, but they were sure to be spotted if the searchers looked too closely.
16 September 7, 8:11 A.M.Pripyat, Ukraine “Wake up!” Gray heard the words, but his brain took another moment to decipher them. A stinging slap cut through his grogginess. Light filled his head then dissolved into watery images. Luca leaned over him and shook Gray’s shoulders. Coughing, Gray pushed the man back and rose to an elbow. He stared around the room. He was in a bare cement cell with peeling, blistered paint and a rusted red door. Light came from a single barred window high up on the wall. Beneath the window, Kowalski sat on a moldy thin mattress, his head hanging between his knees, groaning with nausea. Gray took a deep breath, forced himself to relax, and recalled what had happened. He remembered a hard climb out of the canyon at gunpoint, a short helicopter ride, then a cargo plane on a rain-swept airstrip. He fingered a bruise on his neck. Once aboard the plane, they’d been drugged. Gray had no idea where they’d been taken. “Elizabeth…Rosauro…?” he asked hoarsely. Luca shoo
17 September 7, 10:07 A.M.Southern Ural Mountains As the sun shone on a crisp morning, Monk crunched along the gravel road that wound through the ghost town. Weeds and bushes grew waist high, making it feel as if they were wading through green water. Konstantin kept abreast of him, while Pyotr and Kiska trailed. Marta followed, too, but she was drowned away in the green sea, parting the grasses as she maneuvered through them. “There’s little coal in the mountains here,” Konstantin lectured around a bone-cracking yawn. “All the mining in the region is for metal or metallic ores.” Monk knew the kid was wired between exhaustion and terror. The tall boy spoke quietly to keep himself awake and to combat anxiety. “Cobalt, nickel, tungsten, vanadium, bauxite, platinum…” Monk let him prattle as he kept a watch on the town to either side. The buildings looked hastily constructed, made of clapboard with elevated plank sidewalks that bordered the road. They passed a one-room schoolhouse with inta
18 September 7, 10:38 A.M.Pripyat, Ukraine Gray secured the black belt over the Russian field jacket, camouflaged in forest green. He stamped his feet more securely into the boots. Kowalski tossed him a furred cap. The stolen uniform fit decently, but his partner’s outfit looked ready to burst at the seams. The two Russian soldiers, stripped to their underclothes, had been posted at the front of the jailhouse. Caught by surprise, it had not been hard to knock them out and secure the uniforms. “Let’s go,” Gray said and headed to a motorcycle. “Shotgun,” Kowalski called out. Gray glanced over, realizing the man was not talking about a weapon. They both had AN-94 Russian assault rifles. Kowalski eyed the sidecar to the IMZ-Ural motorcycle. “Always wanted to ride in one of these,” he said and climbed into the open car. Gray shifted the rifle over a shoulder and hiked a leg over the seat. Moments later, engine growling, they shot through the old prison gates and out into the weed-strewn str
19 September 7, 11:00 A.M.Southern Ural Mountains With a rifle over his shoulder, Monk climbed the last switchback of the road. Ahead, the mining complex clustered in front of a granite cliff face. The metal outbuildings and old powerhouse had all oxidized. Roofs and gutters dripped icicles of rust, windows were broken or shuttered, and corroded equipment lay where they’d been dropped decades ago: shovels, picks, wheelbarrows. Off by the cliffs rose tall mounds of old mine tailings and waste rock dumps. Amid the stone piles rose the tower of a tipple, with its loading booms, hoists, and various chutes used to tip ore ears and unload them into trucks. As Monk limped on his hastily bandaged leg, he wondered how he knew so much about a mining operation. Had his family been involved— His head suddenly jangled through a series of flashbulb-popping images: an older man in coveralls, coated in coal dust…the same man in a coffin…a woman crying… An electrical stab of pain ended the flickering b
20 September 7, 2:17 A.M.Washington, D.C. Painter hurried down the hall. He didn’t need any more trouble, but he got it. The entire command bunker was in lockdown mode after the attack. As he had suspected, after the fiery death of Mapplethorpe, the few remaining combatants ghosted away into the night. Painter was determined to find each and every one of them, along with every root and branch that supplied Mapplethorpe with the resources and intelligence to pull off this attack. In the meantime, Painter had to regain order here. He had a skeleton team pulled back inside. The injured had been transported to local hospitals. The dead remained where they were. He didn’t want anything disturbed until he could bring in his own forensic team. It was a grim tour of duty here this evening. Though Painter had employed the air scrubbers and ventilation to clear the accelerant, it did nothing to erase the odor of charred flesh. And on top of resecuring the facility here, he was fielding nonstop c
21 September 7, 1:03 P.M.Southern Ural Mountains Pyotr led the man by his shirtsleeve. They ran through chaos. Soldiers screamed, glass shattered, rifles blasted, flames writhed, and smoke choked. But it wasn’t chaos to Pyotr. He tugged Monk into a sheltering dark doorway as a soldier rounded a corner ahead, searched, then moved on. Pyotr hurried the man down a hall, up some stairs, out a window, and over a pile of rubble to the next building. “Pyotr, where are we going?” He didn’t answer, couldn’t answer. Reaching another hall, Pyotr stopped. In his head, he stretched outward along a thousand possibilities. Hearts glowed like small pyres, flickering with fear, anger, panic, cowardice, malice. He understood how each would move even before they did. It was his talent, only so much more now. For he had a secret. Over the past years, as he woke screaming from his nightmare, waking other children with visions of bodies on fire, there was a reason his other classmates performed so poorly on
22 September 28, 4:21 P.M.Washington, D.C. Painter crossed through the rabble of tents and wagons covering the national Mall. The Gypsy encampment filled the grassy fields and long meadows of the Mall. The tents were a mix of traditional structures made of hazel rods thrust into the ground and covered in sailcloth, and more modern tents, fresh from a sporting goods store. The wagons were just as diverse, from simple structures to massive homes with smoking chimneys resting on tall painted wheels. The Romani had come from all around the world to this great gathering. Horses were corralled in makeshift pens, children ran throughout, music rang out, great bouts of laughter echoed. And more and more were arriving each day. The president had an official thank-you ceremony scheduled for the end of the week. Nothing like saving someone’s life to get them to extend a grateful hand of hospitality. Not to mention saving the world. Painter followed a path through the chaos as dogs barked and chil
EPILOGUE
                        

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