Gunther was already in the pilot's seat. Belts snapped into place. Painter glanced at the timer. Not that it would do any good. Either they'd get clear or they wouldn't.
He stared at the number. His head pounded, stabbing his eyes with pain. He could barely make out the digital readout.
No time left.
Gunther had the engine roaring. Painter glanced up. The rotors had begun to spin…slowly, too slowly. He glanced out a side window. The helo perched at the top of a steep snowy slope, freshly corniced from last night's storm. The sky beyond was shredded with clouds, and icy mists clung to cliffs and valleys.
From the front seat, Gunther swore under his breath. The bird refused to climb into the thin air, not without top rotor speed.
They'd never make it.
Painter reached for Lisa's hand.
He gripped it tightly—then suddenly the world lifted and crashed back down. A distant hollow boom sounded. They all held their breath, ready to be blasted off the mountain. But nothing else happened. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all.
Then the cornice upon which they were perched broke away. The A-Star tilted down nose first. Rotors churned uselessly overhead. The entire snowy slope slipped in one sheet, sliding away, as if shrugged off the mountain, taking the helicopter with it.
They were headed for the cliff's edge. Snow tumbled over it in a churning torrent.
The ground bumped again…another explosion…
The helo bucked but refused to get airborne.
Gunther wrestled with the controls, choking the throttle.
The cliff rushed toward them. The snow could be heard beyond the roar of the helicopter, growling like Class V rapids.
Lisa pressed against Painter's side, her hand white-knuckled around his fingers. On her other side, Anna sat ramrod straight, face blank, eyes fixed forward.
In front, Gunther went deathly silent as they were carried over the cliff.
Shoved off the edge, they tipped sideways, snow falling away under them, behind them. Dropping fast, the craft jittered, yawing back and forth. Cliffs of rock rose in all directions.
No one made a sound. The rotors screamed for all of them.
Then just like that, the craft found air. With no more jolt than an elevator coming to a stop, the A-star steadied. Gunther grunted at the controls…slowly, slowly, spiraling the craft upward.
Ahead, the last of the avalanche tumbled over the cliff face.
The helo climbed enough to survey the damage to the castle. Smoke choked out all the fa cade's windows. The front doors had been blown off. Over the shoulder of the mountain, a thick black column rose into the sky, coming from the helipad on the far side.
Anna sagged, palms on the side window. "Almost a hundred and fifty men and women."
"Maybe some got out," Lisa said dully, unblinking.
They spotted no movement.
Anna pointed toward the castle. "Wir sollten suchen—"
But there would be no search, no rescue.
A blinding white flash, like a crack of lightning, blazed from all the windows. Beyond the shoulder, a sodium-arc sunrise. No noise. Like heat lightning. It burned into the retina, shutting off all sight.
Blinded, Painter felt the helo lurch up as Gunther yanked on the collective. A noise intruded, a vast grating rumble of rock. Impossibly loud. Not just an avalanche. It sounded tectonic, a grinding of continental plates.
The helo trembled in the air, a fly in a paint shaker.
Sight returned painfully.
Painter pressed against the window and stared below.
"My God…" he uttered in awe.
Rock dust obscured most of the view, but it could not hide the scope of the destruction. The entire side of the mountain had buckled in on itself. The shoulder of granite that had overhung the castle had collapsed, as if all beneath it—the castle and a good section of mountain—had simply vanished.
"Unmoglich,"Anna mumbled, stunned.
"Such annihilation…it had to be a ZPE bomb." Her eyes had gone glassy.
Painter waited for her to explain.
She did after another shuddering breath. "ZPE. Zero point energy. Einstein's formulas led to the first nuclear bomb, tapping into the energies of a few uranium atoms. But that's nothing compared to the potential power hidden within Planck's quantum theories. Such bombs would tap into the very energies birthed during the big bang."
Silence settled throughout the cabin.
Anna shook her head. "Experiments with the fuel source for the Bell—the Xerum 525—hinted at the possible use of zero point energy as a weapon. But we never pursued that avenue with any real intent."
"But somebody else did," Painter said. He pictured the dead, ice blond assassin.
Anna turned to Painter, her face etched with horror and utter violation. "We have to stop them."
"But who? Who are they?"
Lisa stirred. "I think we may find out." She pointed out the starboard side.
Over the edge of a neighboring peak, a trio of helicopters appeared, camouflaged in white against the glaciered peaks. They spread out and swept toward the lone A-Star.
Painter knew enough of aerial combat to recognize the pattern.
"The North Tower is this way," Dr. Ulmstrom said.
The museum director led Gray, Monk, and Fiona out the back of the main hall. Ryan had left a moment earlier with a slim woman dressed in tweed, a museum archivist. They were off to make copies of Hugo Hirszfeld's letter and anything else pertaining to his great-grandfather's research. Gray sensed he was close to discerning some answers, but he needed more information.
To that end, he had agreed to the director's personal tour of Himmler's castle. It was here where Hugo had begun his connection with the Nazis. Gray sensed that to move forward he would need as much background as possible—and who better to supply that information than the museum curator?
"To truly understand the Nazis," Ulmstrom said, leading the way, "you have to stop considering them as a political party. They called themselves Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei—the National Socialist German Workers' Party—but in reality, they were really a cult."
"A cult?" Gray asked.
"They bore all the trappings, a? A spiritual leader who could not be questioned, disciples who wore matching clothes, rituals and blood oaths performed in secret, and most important of all, the creation of a potent totem to worship. The Hakenkreuz. The Broken Cross, also called the swastika. A symbol to supplant the crucifix and the Star of David."p>