“But why?” Gant’s expression was a mix of incredulity and fear. Anger lurked there, too, smoldering up toward a fierce fire.

“Someone wanted that child. I believe your grandson was the product of a genetic experiment. A global research project that spanned decades if not longer, one involving human trafficking and experimentation.”

The disbelief shone brighter. “What sort of experiment are you talking about?”

“I can’t say for sure. Something to do with his DNA—that’s what Amanda overheard. But based on other intelligence sources, I believe the experiment inserted an engineered protein into his genetic structure. He may be the first child where this was successfully carried out.”

Gant shook his head. “But what’s their ultimate goal? What do they want with my grandson?”

Painter saved the worst for last. “Amanda believes they plan to experiment on your grandson, to keep him alive … or at least his tissues … to study him in more detail.”

Gant shoved to his feet. Horror ignited that smoldering fury. “What? How … who the hell are these bastards?”

As Painter prepared to answer that, a more pressing question weighed on his mind.

Where are they?

1:42 P.M.

Blue Ridge Mountains

The stethoscope lifted gently from the newborn’s frail chest. The child’s heart could be seen beating against that cage, thumping weakly. His skin shone with a slight cyanotic cast, indicating poor oxygenation.

Dr. Edward Blake announced his verdict to Petra. “He’s shutting down. Already underweight and premature; it could be a failure to thrive.” He shrugged. “Or the stress of the transportation here may have overwhelmed his systems.”

Petra’s disappointment showed in the heavy cast to her eyes, the sternness to her lips. She wasn’t concerned for the child’s welfare—they’d lost many others. But after all of the troubles in Somalia and Dubai, they both needed a win here.

And any hope of that faded with every passing breath of the child.

The newborn rested inside a heated incubator, nestled in blankets. A nasal cannula supplied a steady stream of oxygen. A nasogastric tube allowed the administration of formula. Cuffs and pads monitored oxygenation, heart and respiratory rate, blood pressure, and temperature.

Edward shook his head. “We may need to insert a PICC line and switch to CPAP for his shallow breathing. Or tube and ventilate him.”

He must find a way to stabilize this child. The last DNA sequencing showed significant PNA loss in the child. The triple-helix complexes in his vital tissues were breaking down.

But most troublesome of all, Edward still didn’t know why.

One possible explanation was that the child’s body was simply rejecting the foreign protein making up that third helix. And as a consequence, the child grew sick, slowly shutting down.

The other possibility was that the child was failing to thrive for ordinary reasons—he was too thin, too poorly developed—and that stress triggered a secondary metabolic breakdown of the triple helices.

“Chicken or the egg?” he asked the baby.

Did the breakdown of the helix cause your body to weaken?

Or did your weakened body cause the helix to break down?

More likely, it was a combination of the two, creating some sort of cascade effect.

No matter which scenario was true, he and Petra were in trouble. Failure was not rewarded in this organization, and seldom tolerated.

Edward stared around the small, windowless ward assigned to them in this guarded complex. Currently, these new facilities were ill-suited for their purposes. The work done at the Lodge was primarily militaristic in nature—not like the wonders promised by the research at Utopia’s labs.

He looked around the square ward, his temporary refuge and workspace. Their evacuation and exodus from Utopia had been rushed and unexpected, leaving little time for any real preparations. Crates remained unboxed. An entire wing waited for the installation of a new genomics lab.

No doubt, Edward could rebuild here, but it would take time.

Time the child did not have.

He stared back at the incubator.

En route from Dubai, it was evident the baby was destabilizing. Edward had ordered what he needed for emergency neonatal care and had it airlifted and delivered here. But as the child declined, he faced a sad reality. Getting equipment here was one matter, but finding skilled medical personnel who could be vetted and arrive in time was a challenge at this highly guarded facility. Especially following the swath of ruin left behind, both out in the Middle East and here in South Carolina. They’d lost several significant colleagues in both places.

The wheels were already turning to bring staffing on-site.

But, again, timing was critical.

Performing even the simplest of the proposed procedures required a minimum number of skilled staff working around the clock.

“We need extra hands,” he concluded. “Capable, skilled hands. At this point, I’ll take one additional person—if talented enough.”

Petra nodded, fully aware. “I’ll make a call. We may have what we need already here.”

1:45 P.M.

Dr. Lisa Cummings paced the length of her cell. She left her lunch untouched on the small tray. A turkey club and a small bag of Doritos. There was something obscene about the ordinariness of the fare. She stared around her cell as she made another pass from front to back.

The dull ache from her sprained ankle kept her focused.

The walls were a seamless white plastic. The door was made of a hard glass polymer, framed in steel. She had pressed her cheek against that glass, trying to see as much as she could past her threshold. All she saw was a hall of similar cells, all appearing empty.

Where is Kat?

The worry ate at her and fueled her pacing.

The cell had only a few amenities: a cot with a foam mattress and a stainless-steel commode with sink. The only luxury was a flat-screen television molded into the wall. But Lisa could not escape the feeling that someone was watching her through it.

Or maybe it was just a paranoia born of the aftereffects of the drugs.

After they were caught last night by the helicopter, four uniformed men had skimmed down on lines from the cabin of the aircraft. They had tied Kat and Lisa up, then injected them intramuscularly with a sedative. She guessed from the stabbing ache in her eyes and the stiffness of her leg muscles that they’d given her some form of ketamine.

She had regained a groggy consciousness at one point during the trip, enough to tell she was in the back of the Ford Explorer. Kat lay sprawled next to her, eyes rolled back, snoring slightly. Lisa was too weak to move, but through the back window, she watched dark woods and tall cliffs roll past, suggesting they were in the mountains.

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