But for how long?
Her fingers trembled as she moved aside a drying bouquet of lemongrass from her face. They continued onward. As they moved deeper into the root cellar, the air grew redolent from all the sprigs: rosemary, artemisia, mountain rhododendron, khenpa. All ready to be prepared into various incense sticks.
Lama Khemsar, the head of the monastery, had taught Painter the purposes of the hundreds of herbs: for purification, to foster divine energies, to dispel disruptive thoughts, even to treat asthma and the common cold. But right now, all Painter wanted to remember was how to reach the cellar's back door. The root cellar connected all the monastery's buildings. Monks used the cellars during the winter's heavy snowfall to pass underground from structure to structure.
Including reaching the barn at the outskirts of the grounds. It stood well away from the flames and out of direct sight.
If they could reach it…then escape to the lower village…
He needed to contact Sigma Command.
As his mind spun with possibilities, so did the passageway.
Painter leaned a hand on the cellar wall, steadying himself.
"Are you all right?" the doctor asked, stepping to his shoulder.
He took a few breaths before nodding. Since he had awakened, bouts of disorientation continued to plague him. But they were occurring less frequently—or was that wishful thinking?
"What really happened up there?" the doctor asked. She relieved him of his penlight—it was actually hers, from her medical kit—and pointed it into his eyes.
"I don't…I'm not sure…But we should keep moving."
Painter tried to push off the wall, but she pressed a palm against his chest, still examining his eyes. "You're showing a prominent nystagmus," she whispered and lowered the penlight, brow crinkled.
She passed him a canteen of cold water and motioned for him to sit on a wrapped bale of hay. He didn't argue. The bale was as hard as cement.
"Your eyes show signs of horizontal nystagmus, a twitch of the pupils. Did you take a blow to the head?"
"I don't think so. Is it serious?"
"Hard to say. It can be the result of damage to the eye or brain. A stroke, multiple sclerosis, a blow to the head. With the dizziness, I'd say you've had some insult to your vestibular apparatus. Maybe in the inner ear. Maybe central nervous system. Most likely it's not permanent." This last was mumbled in a most disconcerting voice.
"What do you mean by most likely, Dr. Cummings?"
"Call me Lisa," she said, as if attempting to divert attention.
"Fine. Lisa. So this could be permanent?"
She glanced away. "I'd need more tests. More background," she said. "Maybe you could start by telling me how all this happened."
He took a swig. He wished he could. An ache settled behind his eyes as he tried to remember. The last days were a blur.
"I was staying at one of the outlying villages. In the middle of the night, strange lights appeared up in the mountains. I didn't see the fireworks. By the time I'd woken, they'd subsided. But by the morning, everyone in the village complained of headaches, nausea. Including me. I asked one of the elders about the lights. He said they would appear every now and then, going back generations. Ghost lights. Attributed it to evil spirits of the deep mountains."
"He pointed to where the lights were seen. Up in a remote region of the mountains, an area of deep gorges, ice waterfalls, stretching all the way to the Chinese border. Difficult to traverse. The monastery sits on a shoulder of mountain overlooking this no-man's-land."
"So the monastery was closer to the lights?"
Painter nodded. "All the sheep died within twenty-four hours. Some dropped where they stood. Others bashed their heads against boulders, over and over again. I arrived back the next day, aching and vomiting. Lama Khemsar gave me some tea. That's the last thing I remember." He took another sip from the canteen and sighed. "That was three days ago. I woke up. Locked in a room. I had to smash my way out."
"You were lucky," the woman said, collecting back her canteen.
She crossed her arms, tight, protective. "Lucky to be away from the monastery. Proximity to the lights appears to correlate to the severity of symptoms." She glanced up and away, as if trying to see through the walls down here. "Maybe it was some form of radiation. Didn't you say the Chinese border was not far? Maybe it was a nuclear test of some sort."
Painter had wondered the exact same thing days earlier.
"Why are you shaking your head?" Lisa asked.
Painter hadn't realized he was. He raised a palm to his forehead.
Lisa frowned. "You never did say what you are doing way out here, Mr. Crowe."
"Call me Painter." He offered her a crooked smile.
She wasn't impressed.
He debated how much more to say. Under the circumstances, honesty seemed the most prudent. Or at least as honest as he could be.
"I work for the government, a division called DARPA. We—"
She cut him off with a flip of her fingers, arms still crossed. "I'm familiar with DARPA. The U.S. military's research and development division. I had a research grant with them once. What's their interest out here?"
"Well, it seems you were not the only one Ang Gelu recruited. He contacted our organization a week ago. To investigate rumors of strange illnesses up here. I was just getting the lay of the land, determining what experts to bring into the area—doctors, geologists, military—when the storms blew in. I hadn't planned on being cut off for so long."
"Were you able to rule anything out?"
"From initial interviews, I was concerned that perhaps the Maoist rebels in the area had come into possession of some nuclear waste, preparing a dirty bomb of some sort. Along the lines of what you were conjecturing with the Chinese. So I tested for various forms of radiation as I waited out the storms. Nothing unusual registered."
Lisa stared at him, as if studying a strange beetle.
"If we could get you to a lab," she said clinically, "we might come up with some answers."
So she didn't consider him so much a beetle as a guinea pig.
At least he was moving up the evolutionary scale.
"First we have to survive," Painter said, recalling her to the reality here.
She glanced at the cellar's ceiling. It had been a while since they heard any gunfire. "Maybe they'll think everyone's dead. If we just stay down here—"