The Judas Strain

Page 74

The tourist motioned to the tuk-tuk, silently requesting if they might take it. Lisa nodded and hobbled away with Susan across the uneven plaza of stone blocks. Ahead, Lisa spotted men inside the temple: leaning on towers, standing above gateways, patrolling atop walls. They all wore khaki and black berets.

Was it the Cambodian army?

Susan dragged her forward, plodding purposefully toward the eastern gate. A pair of men in berets stood guard. They had rifles on their shoulders. Lisa saw no insignias. The man on the left, plainly Cambodian, bore a set of raked scars down one side of his face. The other, similarly attired, was Caucasian, leather-skinned with a scruffy growth of beard. Both men's eyes were diamond hard.

These were not members of the Cambodian army.


"The Guild," Lisa whispered, remembering the intelligence Painter had passed to her regarding Gray's capture. They're already here.

Lisa tugged Susan to a stop, but the woman struggled to pull away, to continue on.

"Susan, we can't hand you back over to the Guild," Lisa said.

Especially not after Monk gave his life to free you.

Susan's voice was muffled through her blanket, but it sounded firm. "No choice ... I must. .. without the cure, all will be lost..." Susan shook her head. ". . . one chance. The cure must be forged."

Lisa understood. She remembered Devesh's warning and Painter's confirmation. The pandemic was already spreading. The world needed the cure before it was too late. Even if it landed in the hands of the Guild, it had to be brought forth. They'd deal with the consequences after that.


"Are you sure there's no other way?" Lisa asked.

Susan's words trembled with fear and grief. "I wish to God there was. We may already be too late." She gently removed Lisa's hand from her sleeve and stumbled forward, plainly intending to go alone.

Lisa followed. She also had no choice.

They approached the guarded gateway. Lisa did not know how they would talk themselves through the barricade.

But apparently Susan had a plan.

She shed her blanket, letting it drop away at her heels. In the brightness of the sun, she looked no different from anyone else, only perhaps more pale, her skin thin and wan. She clawed away the sunglasses and turned to stare into the full face of the sun.

Lisa watched Susan's body quake, imagining the blinding brunt striking through the woman's pupils, to the optic nerve, to her brain.

But apparently it still was not enough.

Susan ripped away her blouse, exposing more skin to the sunlight. She unbuttoned her pants, and as gaunt as she was from her weeks in stupor, they fell way. In only her bra and panties, Susan approached the gate.

The guards did not know what to make of the near-naked woman. Still, they stepped forward to block the way. The Cambodian soldier waved them off in sharp, piercing words. "D'tay! Bpel k'raowee!"

Susan ignored him and continued, intending to pass between them.

The other guard grabbed the woman's shoulder, half turning her. His stoic expression clenched, agonized. He whipped his hand back. His palm was seared a beet red; his fingertips trailed blood as he fell back and collapsed against the wall.

The Cambodian hauled up his rifle, pointing it at the back of Susan's head as she continued past.

"Don't!" Lisa shouted.

The rifleman glanced back at her.

"Take us!" she said, struggling for the name Painter had used in relating Gray's story. Then she remembered. "Take us to Amen Nasser!"

10:48 A.M.

"Come see this!" Vigor called, unable to keep the amazement from his voice. He glanced back, searching for the others.

Gray stood a few yards away, examining one of the foundation pillars. The pylons were stacks of unmortared sandstone disks, a foot thick and a full three feet across. Gray fingered several deep cracks, stress fractures of an aging spine.

Off in the room's center, Seichan and Kowalski stood by the stone face, watching Nasser's demolition team prepare the carved block.

Again the sharp, grinding whine of a diamond drill bit rang out, echoing loudly in the barrel vault. Another inch-thin bore was cored a foot into the face. Already charges were being packed into the other holes and wired up, twice as many as they had used for the altar. Ropes hung down to ferry equipment and explosives up and down the well.

A shaft of bright sunlight illuminated their labors.

Unlike Seichan and Kowalski, Vigor had not been able to watch the mutilation. Even now he swung away and returned his attention to the wall he had been studying. Away from the central shaft, the vault here lay in deep shadow. Vigor had been allowed a flashlight so he could hunt for another entrance to the subterranean cavern. And while he hated to help Nasser, if he could find another way down, then he could perhaps limit the degree of defilement to these ancient ruins.

But Vigor hadn't been granted much time.

Ten minutes.

With preparations under way, Nasser had climbed out of the vault. Vigor had noted him checking his cell phone, searching for a signal. Apparently unsuccessful, he had climbed out, ordering them to be ready by the time he returned.

Gray joined Vigor. "What is it? Did you find that doorway you were looking for?"

"No," Vigor admitted. He had walked the entire circumference of the vault. There was no other door. It seemed the only way down was through the stone face of bodhisattva Lokesvara. "But I did find this."

Vigor waited for one of the patrolling guards to pass, then shifted his flashlight flat against the wall, casting the beam up the surface. Lit by shadow and light, an expanse of wall etchings appeared, reminiscent of the bas-reliefs above. But it depicted no figures, just cascading tangles.

"What is it?" Gray said, reaching his fingers out to examine what the light


By now, Seichan and Kowalski had joined them.

Vigor shifted the light, widening the beam to illustrate. "At first, I thought it was just decorative scrollwork. It covers all the walls." He waved an arm to encompass the breadth of the chamber. "Every surface."

"Then what the hell is it?" Kowalski muttered.

"Not hell, Mr. Kowalski," Vigor said. "This is angelic."

Vigor took the light and cupped it over a small fraction of the carved tapestry. "Look closer."

Gray leaned to the wall, tracing with his fingers. Understanding dawned in the commander's face. "It's made up of angelic symbols, all jumbled together."

Seichan joined Gray, following his fingers, nose to nose. "This is impossible. Didn't you say angelic script was devised by someone in the sixteen-hundreds?"

Vigor nodded. "Johannes Trithemius."

"How could it be here?" Gray asked.

"I don't know," Vigor said. "Maybe at some point the Vatican did send someone all the way to Cambodia to follow Marco's trail like we did. Maybe they returned with etchings of this script, and Trithemius somehow got ahold of it. Devised his script from it. And if he knew Marco's story of glowing angelic beings, it might be why he claimed the script was angelic."

Gray turned to Vigor. "But you don't believe that, do you?"

Vigor watched Gray step back, retreat a few more steps, his gaze fixed to the wall.

He sees it, too.

Vigor took a deep shuddering breath, trying to restrain what he suspected. "Trithemius claimed he gained knowledge of the script after weeks of fasting and deep meditative study. I think that's exactly what happened."

Seichan scoffed. "He just happened to dream all this up, a match to the ancient script here."

Vigor nodded. "That's exactly what I'm saying. Remember what I told you before, about how angelic script bears a striking resemblance to Hebrew. Trithemius even claimed his script was the purest distillation of the Hebrew alphabet."

Seichan shrugged.

"What do you know about Jewish Kabbalah?" Vigor asked.

"Just that it's some Jewish mystical study."

"Exactly. Practitioners of Kabbalah search for mystical insight into the divine nature of the universe by studying the Hebrew Bible. They believe that divine wisdom lies buried in the very shapes and curves of the Hebrew alphabet. And that by meditating upon them, one can gain great insight into the universe, into who we are at the most basic level."

Seichan shook her head. "Are you saying that this Trithemius fellow meditated and came up with this purer form of Hebrew? Stumbled upon a language—this same language—" She patted the wall. "A language that links to some great inner wisdom?"

Gray cleared his throat. "And 1 think inner is the key word here." He waved Seichan to step back, to join him. "What do you see? Look at the whole pattern. Does it look familiar to you?"

Seichan stared for a single breath, then snapped, "I don't know. What am I looking for?"

Gray sighed and stepped to the wall. He ran a finger along one of the cascades. "Look at the way it swirls down in spirals of broken helixes. Picture this section all by itself."

Seichan squinted. "It looks almost biological."

Gray nodded. "Follow the strands. Don't they look like double helixes of DNA? Like a genetic map?"

Seichan remained doubtful. "Written in an angelic language?"

Gray stepped away, his eyes still on the wall. "Maybe. In fact, there was a scientific study that compared patterns in DNA code with patterns found in human languages. According to a Zipf's law—a statistical tool—all human languages show a specific pattern of repetitive word usage. Such as the frequency the word the or a. Or the rarity of other words, like aardvark or elliptical. When you plot a graph comparing the popularity of words against the frequency of their usage, you get a straight line. And it's the same whether English, Russian, or Chinese. All human languages produce the same linear pattern."

"And DNA code?" Vigor asked, intrigued.

"It produced exactly the same pattern. Even in our junk DNA, which most scientists consider to be biological garbage. The study has been repeated and verified. For some reason, there is a language buried in our genetic code. We don't know what it says. But—" Gray pointed at the wall. "That may be the written form of the language."

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