Disclosure, p.19
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       Disclosure, p.19

           Nancy Holder
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That was a little bit of Whittaker humor. Jessica’s gift was her ability to breathe underwater. Allison had chosen her for this mission specifically because of that. She had also asked Dawn’s husband Des Asher to interface with the Special Boat Forces, the amphibious arm of the British Special Forces.

  “I’ll swim, too,” Morgan said, coming up beside Allison.

  She could feel his body heat, and her body responded. She felt both tantalized and crowded…and confused. This was not the time, or the place…or the man. There could be no man.

  She was Delphi.

  If we had taken that chance, gone to bed…how would I feel about bringing him on the mission?

  There was no answer to that. It hadn’t happened. And yet, as his arm brushed hers, she almost instinctually wrapped her hand around his—the way lovers did. But they were not lovers. They were teammates on an op.

  That was all.

  “Allison?” Lynnette said. “Did you hear me?”

  Allison blinked. All eyes were on her. Faces were drawn, pale; the tension in the room was like the pressure before a thunderstorm.

  “No, sorry. What?”

  “Circle of Justice just checked in. They’re moving into position.”

  “We’ll stop them, too,” she said reflexively.

  Morgan nodded. “Damn straight.”

  And she fell in love with him just a little bit more.

  Wrong. I am not in love with him at all.

  Echo’s lair, Micronesia

  High above the festivities, strolling along on her catwalk, Echo listened to the chatter of her guests as hip-hop music blared over the loudspeakers of the lab. The twelve remaining egg daughters mingled, eating sandwiches shaped like hearts and sweet cakes laced with tranquilizers. The lab techs and Loschetter’s staff of scientists were smiling, enjoying some time off. The guards watched everyone.

  Perhaps she should have thrown a party before Willa Goldsmith had gone “home.” The other girls seemed subdued, despite their pretty new dresses, manicures and pedicures. She loved her own black gown sewn with golden spiders. Not as much as her two spider necklaces, of course. They were upstairs in her vault. Willa was in a holding cell next to the vault, with a little piece of party cake and some fruit punch to keep her company. Also, six armed guards handpicked for their reputations as heartless bastards.

  Echo’s diamond earring picked up whispers. She touched it gently and listened carefully.

  “I’ll give you fifty Euros to take my place,” a voice whispered in bahasa gaul, the Indonesian slang of the working classes.

  “You mean taking the firegirl to Kestonia? Sori, bruer,” a second voice whispered. “I saw what that girl did to Johnson. No way am I going anywhere with her.”

  Hmm, how did they know she was planning to ship Natalia out? That was very disconcerting.

  Sensing vibrations behind her, she turned to find Pace and Loschetter approaching her on the catwalk, looking as somber as teenage boys who hated dances because they exposed them for the socially awkward nerds they were. If ever anyone was socially awkward, it was these two.

  “Gentlemen,” she said graciously, holding out hands to both of them. Only Pace realized that he was supposed to kiss the back of her hand. Loschetter shook her fingers and slid his hands into the pockets of his white lab coat.

  “Echo,” Pace said. As she straightened, he gestured to the crowd below. “Dr. Loschetter and I were wondering if this was wise. At least two of those girls are psychics, and we don’t want any trouble—”

  Echo glanced down quickly to reassure herself that the two little Goths still weren’t holding hands. Good. They were standing far apart, not looking very jolly, unfortunately. As an added precaution, she gestured to the two men to move with her to another one of her dampening fields, this one located at the opposite end of the catwalk.

  “Have you had any more transmissions?” she queried, knowing the answer.

  He pursed his fat lips and shook his head. His jowls waggled. She could hardly stand to look at him.

  “Then we know it was Willa who tried to communicate with the outside world, despite her insistence that she had nothing to do with it,” Echo replied. “Besides, we’re shipping out the most problematic girls within the next few days. So enjoy the party.” It will be your last, you blubbery cretin, she thought angrily, furious with him for daring to question her.

  It appeared to be Loschetter’s turn to show his disrespect. He cleared his throat. “You yourself have pointed out that some of these girls may have more than one gift. Things we know nothing about…”

  Blah blah blah. She almost told them then that she was going away, too. By week’s end, she would remove the entire operation to Kestonia.

  Vlados Zelasco had made the offer to give her a new lab there. It seemed that he had located another scientist who knew as much about the creation of egg babies as Loschetter. This man, named Michael Vardeman, had masqueraded as a minor lab tech at the original lab in Zuni, Lab 33, but he was actually a brilliant geneticist who’d gone there specifically to plunder Lab 33’s secrets. Dear Dr. Vardeman had remained underground until recently, and now offered his services to Vlados.

  She had originally turned down Vlados’s offer to work together on the superegg project. But Willa’s electronic burst had bothered Echo more than she had let Pace and Loschetter think. Coupled with that, she loathed these two men passionately and she was sorry she’d bothered to free them. They thought too much, questioned too much.

  She could do better, and she would. They had no idea that during the construction of the laboratory, she had prewired the entire complex to blow sky-high in the event of an emergency. All she had to do was depress a tiny button three times in fast succession, and strategically placed explosives would rip apart the lab, and fill the escape tunnels with debris. She would press that button soon…from a safe distance, of course.

  She thought of the spider necklace that was her mother’s gift to her. It and Kwan-Sook’s hung in the Spider Room, tribute to the Black Widow, Arachne, dead queen of all she surveyed. Echo had attached the detonator to her necklace. All she had to do was press it three-two-one…

  She smiled at Loschetter and Pace.

  Ka-boom! You’re dead.

  Four days, tops. That should be enough time to get anything of value out of here.

  She smiled at her little girls, with their sandwiches, cakes and sparkly dresses.

  Oh, and while she was at it, she’d order the Circle of Justice to go ahead and blow up Fort Meade, Maryland—the home of the NSA. And to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Allison Gracelyn and Morgan Rush.

  Suddenly the cavernous lab erupted with screams. Echo placed her hands on the rail of the catwalk and looked down as Loschetter and Pace joined her. Everyone was panicking, shouting, pointing. Natalia LeClaire had burst into flames. Engulfed in tongues of crimson fire, she whirled in a circle. The tongues shot up straight to the ceiling.

  “Hilfe!” Greta Von Edel, the little sharpshooter, shouted, circling Natalia. She started yelling in German for a fire extinguisher, for someone to help Natalia—as everyone else raced away from the human torch.

  The same mousy lab tech who had scurried to Cailey’s side in the examining room scooped the girl up in her arms and raced around a column, shielding her as Cailey screamed and carried on. The tech’s messy bun unwound like a pinwheel as Cailey clawed at her, like a little monkey trying to climb up a coconut tree.

  Cailey cried. “Save me! Save me!”

  Then the overhead sprinklers came on, raining water over Echo, the two men, the partygoers…and her beautiful lab equipment. Cailey screamed louder.

  Damn that girl, Echo thought. Meaning Natalia.

  “You see? There’s a problem,” Pace yelled, as the three darted along the catwalk.

  “Turn off the water!” Echo shouted to the lab tech clanging up the stairs toward her. “Turn it off!”

  Echo balled her fists as her slow-witted staff moved to obey he
r. She threaded her way through the clumps of weeping girls to Natalia, who had stopped burning. Steam rose off her like mist. Greta Von Edel minced toward the girl, as if she wanted to comfort her, but was too afraid.

  “Darling,” Echo said, holding open her arms as she glided toward Natalia.

  You ruined my party!

  She gathered Natalia in her arms, but the girl held herself rigid. So upset, poor darling. Echo determinedly rocked her, forcing herself to appear concerned and motherly when, really, all she wanted to do was slap the stupid cow’s face.

  “I’m so sorry,” Natalia sobbed against Echo’s shoulder. “Oh, Echo, I’m sorry!”

  “Shush, no harm done,” Echo snapped, then took a breath and tried harder to find an empathetic tone of voice. “Look, darling, you see?” She pointed upward. “There’s a sprinkler system throughout our entire complex. It activated just as it should, and everyone is just fine. Aren’t they, Greta?”

  Greta didn’t answer.

  Echo frowned and looked over at her. The German was staring upward as if studying the sprinkler system. Echo didn’t like the look of that.

  “Greta?” she demanded.

  “Ja.” Greta ticked her gaze over to Natalia and patted her back. “It’s okay, Natalia.”

  “She likes to be called Nat,” Echo informed her.

  Across the room, Pace and Loschetter were speaking to a clump of technicians who were examining one of the mainframe computers that lined the room.

  Oh God, I can’t get out of here fast enough, Echo thought irritably.

  The Gracelyn hideaway, Arizona

  “Allison,” Lynnette said. “My God, look at this. It just came in.”

  Allison crossed to Lynnette and studied the screen. It was a set of blueprints marked Echo Chamber.

  To Tasi’s MySpace page, also from Micronesia.

  “Come here,” Allison said, gesturing to Morgan, Jessica and Diana.

  “Oracle keyed in on the word ‘Echo,’” Lynnette said as she zoomed in on the images. “The sender had to know we’d catch it. It’s for an indoor sprinkler system. In what appears to be a laboratory and a set of rooms. At least one of them is a fortified Kevlartitanium cell.”

  “You could keep a firestarter in a cell like that,” Morgan said. He found Allison’s hand. They held on tightly.

  The room was silent. No one breathed.

  “We’re in,” Allison said. “Now where? Please, where?”

  She sat down next to Morgan, who was already working on the message. She saw Lynnette log on. Back in Virginia, Selena joined the team. Four seasoned hackers. Computers with amazing capabilities. Something had to happen. Something had to break.

  Echo’s lair, Micronesia

  Eric Pace barely waited for Echo’s invitation to enter her exquisite private office before he pushed open the titanium-enforced door. The walls were gold and decorated with drawings and paintings of spiders. The wall sconces were black widows. The ebony furniture was accented with red, the colors of the Black Widow.

  Echo looked up from her sleek black desktop computer, where she was reading a poem written by Vlados, who fancied himself “the Robert Frost of the Eastern Bloc.” She found that far more amusing than his terrible doggerel.

  “Yes, dear general,” Echo said.

  “I think the other girls are up to something,” he informed her, looking over at Willa Goldsmith, who was handcuffed and unconscious, sprawled out on Echo’s black silk sofa. Then he looked past Willa to the black door on the other side of Echo’s office, the one guarded by a handprint scan alarm system that was shaped like a spider, installed to the left of the door. Of course she had never let him see past that door. She was the only one allowed in there. The men who had built it were dead.

  She arched her perfectly shaped eyebrows. “Then you should take care of it. Willa’s launch should be here in an hour, yes? Is there anyone else who should be on it?”

  Like you, perhaps, destined for Vlados’s deepest, darkest dungeon?

  “They all should go. I don’t like them. I don’t trust them. They’re hiding something.”

  “Then please, get to work.” She returned to Vlados’s poem:

  “The trees are green, my spider queen…”

  “I don’t understand your lack of concern,” Pace said, his jowls bobbing as he shook his head.

  “It’s because I delegate,” she replied, placing her black stiletto heels on her desk and crossing her legs at the ankle as she leaned back in her chair. “Or is this something you simply don’t know how to handle?”

  He set his jaw and bobbed his head.

  “Yes, ma’am,” he gruffed, all military general and not an escaped felon.

  He slammed out of her office.

  She really didn’t care. She’d be out of here in less than three days.

  “You’ll blow sky-high, and you will die,” she said aloud, laughing. Leaning forward, she typed a response to Vlados.

  “Your poetry is amazing. What a deep, old soul you are.”

  The Gracelyn hideaway, Arizona

  A day and a night. There was practically nothing left to eat in the house. Another day. They catnapped at best, placed calls, made plans, tried to crack code. Morgan and Allison jogged instead of slept, went over lines of code together as they made fresh coffee, foraged for food and fielded calls from the Oracle agents in the field.

  Kim Valenti said Ozone had cracked a message about a countdown: a hundred hours and counting. A hundred hours. Dear God.

  Allison went for a run to keep down her panic level, her mind blurring a bizarre montage of images: Morgan’s eyes, the world exploding…

  Just once. I wish I’d had him just once, she thought.

  She ran in the cold gray morning, sweating out her fear and desire.

  As she approached the house, she heard a cheer rise up inside. She pushed the turbo and charged toward it, heaving, hoping…

  Morgan threw open the back door and flew toward her. His eyes were ringed with fatigue and three-day-old stubble on his face. But he was glowing.

  “We have it, Allison. We know the Micronesia coordinates.”

  He crushed her against his chest and kissed her hard, ground against her, wanted her in this moment of triumph…

  Morgan, thank God, Morgan…

  “We’re a go,” she said, pulling strength from deep inside her, from her roots—Athena roots. This was the moment she had prepared for; the moment when she knew why she was in the world. Why she was who she was. “Let’s scramble.”

  “Roger that,” Morgan said, grinning broadly at her, moving toward her.

  She took a step away, centered herself. Got right with her soul. Then she smiled at him, simply smiled, and took point.

  She ran past him into the house. At the sight of her, Lynnette and Diana broke into cheers.

  “Let’s hustle,” she told her team.

  Chapter 16

  The world of Delphi

  A s planned, Morgan and Allison left first. They took a commercial jet to Hawaii and grabbed a prop from there. Both of them had private pilot’s licenses, and Allison flew the first hop, to a small island in the middle of the ocean. They refueled and took off again, as the other members of the team began checking in.

  “Nineteen degrees, eight minutes, latitude north…longitude one-six-six east,” Morgan announced. “That’s definitely our rendezvous point.”

  From the air, the atoll was horseshoe-shaped and very lush. Three small islands collectively comprising approximately seven kilometers of land clustered around a central lagoon of deep sea-green and dark blue. Coco palms and breadfruit trees lined their natural landing strip; a waterfall glittered in the distance, cascading from the collapsed cone of an ancient volcano.

  “The recon photos were good,” Allison mused, as Morgan found the ancient lava flow and headed in.

  Morgan landed the craft with a smooth, dexterous touch and taxied down the length of the lava flow. Allison scanned the area with her binoc
ulars. She knew a sniper could be hiding among the bowed trunks of the palms or the vines trailing down from the pandalus trees. Morgan turned off the engine and they scrambled out.

  Allison carried her laptop in a fortified field case and set it behind some rocks. Together they unpacked the netting of camouflage. Morgan jogged to the nearest stand of trees; Allison hauled out a footlocker of SCUBA gear, radio phones, water and medical supplies.

  Her ribs protested as she carried it into the shadows, then went back for another load as Morgan returned with an armload of palm fronds. He dropped them and assisted her with the second footlocker, which contained sea-worthy weapons made of plastic and/or stainless steel: .9mm Glocks and rubber-handled divers’ knives with serrated back edges. Spear guns, .457 bang sticks, and underwater grenades.

  “Hurting?” he asked her gently as they heaved the locker.

  “A little,” she confessed. She smiled crookedly. “You should have seen the other guy.”

  “I did. Handsome devil.” He smiled back.

  They unloaded a third footlocker and then three wooden crates. By then they were both very sweaty. Morgan unscrewed the caps off two water bottles and gave her one. She drank deeply.

  “I haven’t spotted any visitors,” she said, gesturing to the binocs around her neck. “We’re the first ones here.”

  “We’re the only ones here,” he countered, setting down his empty water bottle. “And we missed our chance before. I swore if I had another one, I would take it.”

  He pulled her into his arms. She flattened one palm against his chest, feeling the hard muscle and the thundering heartbeat. He was aroused. So was she. But she had to deny her impulses and take command. They were hurtling toward zero hour. Nothing was more important than the mission. Not Morgan, or her. No one.

  “This is not a chance we should take,” she said hoarsely.

  “We’ll come through it,” he murmured into her hair. His hand moved down her back, settling on her hip.

  “It’s not that.”

  “It is. Or some version of it.” He ran his thumb along her curve.

  “The good guys don’t always win, Morgan,” she said, pulling away from him. “A lot of them lose.”

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