"Turn it on."

Painter switched on the battery power source, set the amplitude of signal, and adjusted the pulse rate. The laptop would do the rest. It would monitor for any pickups. It was crude at best, not capable of eavesdropping. It could only gain a general signal-location of an illicit transmission, accurate to within a thirty-yard radius. It should be enough.

Painter fine-tuned his equipment. "All set. Now all we have to do is wait for the bastard to call out."

Gunther nodded.

"That is if the saboteur takes the bait," Painter added.

A half hour ago, they had spread a rumor that a cache of Xerum 525 had survived the explosion, locked in a lead-lined secret vault. It gave the entire castle's populace hope. If there was some of the irreplaceable fuel, then maybe a new Bell could be fabricated. Anna even had researchers assembling another Bell out of spare parts. If not a cure for the progressive disease, the Bell offered the chance to buy more time. For all of them.

But hope was not the purpose of the ruse.

Word had to reach the saboteur. He needed to be convinced his plan had failed. That the Bell could be rebuilt after all. To seek guidance from his superiors, he would have to place a call out.

And when that happened, Painter would be ready.

In the meantime, Painter turned to Gunther. "What's it like to be a superman?" he asked. "A Knight of the Black Sun."

Gunther shrugged. The extent of his communication seemed to be grunts, frowns, and a few monosyllabic responses.

"I mean, do you feel superior? Stronger, faster, able to leap buildings in a single bound."

Gunther just stared at him.

Painter sighed, trying a new tack to get the guy talking, strike up some sort of rapport. "What does Leprakonige mean? I heard people using that word when you're around."

Painter damn well knew what it meant, but it got the response he needed. Gunther glanced away, but Painter noted the fire in his eyes. Silence stretched. He wasn't sure the man was going to speak.

"Leper King," Gunther finally growled.

Now it was Painter's turn to remain silent. He let the weight hang in the small room. Gunther finally folded.

"When perfection is sought, none wish to look upon failure. If the madness does not claim us, the disease is horrible to witness. Better to be shut away. Out of sight."

"Exiled. Like lepers."

Painter tried to imagine what it would be like to be raised as the last of the Sonnekonlge, knowing your doomed fate at a young age. Once a revered line of princes, now a shunned and shambling line of lepers.

"Yet you still help here," Painter said. "Still serve."

"It was what I was born for. I know my duty."

Painter wondered if that had been drilled into them or somehow genetically wired. He studied the man. Somehow he knew it went beyond that. But what?

"Why do you even care what happens to us all?" Painter asked.

"I believe in the work here. What I suffer will one day help spare others from the same fate."

"And the search for the cure now? It doesn't have anything to do with prolonging your own life."

Gunther's eyes flashed. "Ich bin nicht krank."

"What do you mean you're not sick?"

"The Sonnekonige were born under the Bell," Gunther said pointedly.

Understanding struck Painter. He remembered Anna's description of the castle's supermen, how they were resistant to any further manipulation by the Bell. For better or worse.

"You're immune," he said.

Gunther turned away.

Painter let the implication sink in. So it wasn't self-preservation that drove Gunther to help.

Then what—?

Painter suddenly remembered the way Anna had looked across the table at Gunther earlier. With warm affection. The man had not discouraged it. Plainly he had another reason for continuing to cooperate despite the lack of respect from the others.

"You love Anna," Painter mumbled aloud.

"Of course I do," Gunther snapped back. "She's my sister."

Holed up in Anna's study, Lisa stood by the wall where a light box hung. Normally such boxes illuminated a patient's X-ray films, but presently Lisa had snugged two acetate sheets in place, striped with black lines. They were archived chromosome maps from research into the Bell's mutational effects, before shots and after shots of fetal DNA, collected by amniocentesis. The after shots had circles where the Bell had transformed certain chromosomes. Notations in German were written beside them.

Anna had translated them and had gone off to fetch more books.

At the light box, Lisa ran a finger down the mutational changes, searching for any pattern. She had reviewed several of the case studies. There seemed no rhyme or reason to the mutations.

With no answers, Lisa returned to the dining table, now piled high with books and bound reams of scientific data, a trail of human experimentation going back decades.

The hearth fire crackled behind her. She had to restrain an urge to chuck the research into the flames. Still, even if Anna hadn't been present, Lisa probably wouldn't have. She had come to Nepal to study physiologic effects at high altitudes. Though a medical doctor, she was a researcher at heart.

Like Anna.

No…not exactly like Anna.

Lisa nudged aside a research monograph resting on the table. Teratogenesis in the Embryonic Blastoderm. The document related to aborted monstrosities that resulted from exposure to the Bell's irradiation. What the black stripes on acetate had delineated with clinical detachment, the photographs in the book revealed with horrifying detail: limbless embryos, Cyclopean fetuses, hydrocephalic stillborn children.

No, she was definitely not Anna.

Anger built again in Lisa's chest.

Anna clattered down the iron ladder that led to the second tier of her research library, another load of books tucked under one arm. The Germans certainly were not holding back. And why would they? It was in all their best interest to discover a cure to the quantum disease. Anna believed it to be a futile effort, confident that all possibilities had been explored over the past decades, but it hadn't taken much persuasion to get her to cooperate.

Lisa had noted how the woman's hands shook with a barely detectable palsy. Anna kept rubbing her palms, trying to hide it. The remainder of the castle suffered more openly. The tension in the air all morning had been palpable. Lisa had witnessed a few yelling matches and one fistfight. She had also heard of two suicides in the castle over the past several hours. With the Bell gone and little hope of a cure, the place was coming apart at the seams. What if the madness set in before she and Painter could figure out a solution?

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
Loading...