“Is that human?”
David Weir was dying, and the reason was on his computer, even though he didn’t understand it. His finger moved reflexively to strike the key that would blank the screen, but he stopped himself. Too late.
“Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t know anyone was still here.” He turned, covering his surprise. It was almost ten on a Friday night. Last time he’d looked, all the workstations in the lab’s open office space were empty, computer screens dark. He’d been so lost in his search, he hadn’t heard approaching footsteps—unusual for him. His mother used to say he had better ears than a dog. As a child, he’d been able to detect his father’s pickup make the turn onto their street five blocks away.
“Budget hell.” Colonel Miriam Kowinski hefted the thick green binder she carried. From his one year’s experience as a civilian technician in the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, David knew those two words were as much of an explanation as his boss would be giving him.
The colonel leaned forward to peer more closely at his screen, then frowned. “Mitochondrial DNA. But some of the markers are wrong.”
“It’s a reference sample.” The lie came easily.
To the untrained eye, the electrophoresis patterns on his screen would resemble smeared, ghostly photographs of banded worms lined up side by side, some sections dark, some light, with a scattering of small numbers and letters running to either side, spelling out gibberish. Kowinski, though, wasn’t just another army bureaucrat. She was a trained forensic biologist. It would be foolish to underestimate her.
“Closer to human. Neandertal.” David held his breath, gambling that the colonel’s expertise didn’t stretch to extinct hominins.
“Yeah. A twenty-nine-thousand-year-old Neandertal baby. From the Mezmaiskaya fossil.”
“Is this a personal project?”
David knew why she asked. The lab’s primary mission was to identify the remains of American military personnel through DNA analysis, not just for present conflicts, but for wars past. Beyond that, if resources and personnel were available, the lab could use its expertise to aid outside researchers in cases of scientific or historic interest. It could also help other government and law-enforcement agencies carry out drug tests, develop forensic evidence, even determine parentage in child custody cases.
However, “personal projects” were just that—personal and unauthorized. Illegal.
“No, ma’am. It’s part of that new quality assurance protocol I’m developing.”
Colonel Kowinski regarded him impassively. She’d folded her arms over her budget binder, holding it close. Despite the late hour, her olive drab jacket was still buttoned and crisp. Her sleek salt-and-pepper chignon might as well have been molded from plastic, not a hair escaping.
David couldn’t tell if his supervisor wanted to hear more because she was interested or because she sensed, correctly, that he was lying. Either way, he felt ready. The old saying was true: Imminent death did have a way of concentrating the mind.
“The lab’s been collecting DNA from every recruit since 1992. That’s just over three million samples.”
Kowinski tapped her budget binder with a short, polish-free nail. “I’m aware of the statistics.”
“Well, statistically, there’s always an error rate in sequencing DNA samples to create a gene tic profile.”
The colonel said nothing, and David continued. “Out of three million samples, we can estimate a few thousand of our profiles will be incorrect. Since it’s expensive to repeat the sequencing of all three million to look for just a few flawed results, I’m hoping a mathematical analysis of the profiles in our database will find the errors instead.”
“The Neandertal connection, Mr. Weir. It’s late.”
David pushed on. “We know the mitochondrial DNA in every cell of every human in almost all cases passes directly from mother to child, without sexual recombination with the father’s DNA. So, technically, every person on Earth today can trace their genealogical descent back to a single female who lived in Africa about a hundred and fifty thousand years ago and—”
“Mitochondrial Eve.” Kowinski interrupted to remind him he wasn’t shining a visiting politician.
David instantly jumped ahead to details he hoped would distract her even more from what was actually on his screen. “Okay, so when we compare nine hundred and ninety-four key mtDNA sequences from people around the world, the average number of those sequences that differ between any two people is eight, and the maximum is twenty-four. That’s how closely related every person is—less than a three percent difference.
“MtDNA from Neandertals, though—that differs from modern humans by twenty-two to thirty-six sequences, with an average of twenty-seven.”
He touched the screen’s incriminating image with one finger to draw her attention where he absolutely needed it. At the same time, he tapped the function key that expanded that image, to force the codes beneath it off the screen and out of sight.
He shot a glance at Kowinski, wondering if she’d caught his manipulation of the image.
“That difference indicates the last common ancestor we and the Neandertals shared dates back to maybe four hundred and fifty to five hundred thousand years ago.”
“This helps quality assurance how?”
“It gives us a baseline for identifying improperly processed samples in our database. So I set up a simple comparison program—strictly using the lab’s idle computer time—comparing our samples with this one.”
Kowinski’s expression was unreadable. “Couldn’t you use a set of standardized human sequences just as easily?”
“Oh, I’m using that technique, too. My program compares our samples with a range of ten different datasets. It’s a statistical study more than anything else. The Neandertal sequences just add another range of values to make comparisons with. After a couple of hundred thousand runs, I should be able to cut it down to the two or three sets that consistently give the best results in identifying erroneous results.”
“And you’re only using idle computer time.”
“Yes, ma’am. For now it’s strictly a background program that runs as an adjunct to the lab’s standard quality checks.”
Kowinski’s clear eyes studied him. David tensed, unsure what he’d do if the verdict went against him.
“I don’t suppose you’ve found any Neandertals among our recruits.”
“Only in the marines, ma’am.”
The colonel’s smile was brief but humanizing. “Carry on, Mr. Weir.”
David waited until he had seen the main doors of the lab offices swing closed behind her before he restored the full image on the screen, complete with the identifying codes that ran along the bottom.
If Kowinski had been able to read those codes, and understand them, she’d have realized the DNA they described did not come from Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. She’d have realized why he was working late and alone, and why he’d felt the need to lie to her.
Because the DNA sequence that was on the screen, that carried the gene tic markers of something other than human, was his own. Working swiftly, David copied the eight personnel files from his computer to the small flash drive he had hidden in a U.S. Army promotional key fob. Then he wiped his work history from his hard drive, so that no investigator could ever recover any trace of what he’d done. Or discovered.
Thirty minutes after the colonel, he signed out of the drab, utilitarian armed forces facility. As usual, the guards gave his backpack only a cursory inspection.
In the parking lot, beneath the impersonal gaze of the lab’s exterior security cameras, David walked unhurriedly to his beat-up Jeep and tossed his pack onto the passenger seat, handling his ring of keys casually, as if they weren’t keeping company with a flash drive of files worth at least another ten thousand dollars to him. Just like the last two sets.
He waved to the parking lot guards at the gate and sat back as they shone their flashlights into the Jeep, then opened the barricades for him.
Focused on survival, David pushed the speed limit all the way to Washington, D.C., and his meeting with his buyer that might save his life.
To night, using a computer program roughly similar to the one he’d described to Kowinski, he’d succeeded in identifying a cluster of eight more individuals among the lab’s database of more than three million—proof that there were others like him. So far, though, he’d failed to find the exception to the rule. Those who shared his nonhuman DNA markers had one thing in common: They were younger than twenty-seven or they were dead.
David Weir was twenty-six.
Nathaniel Merrit was a killer, and underwater he found it easy to practice his craft. His contoured silicone mask kept his vision focused only on what was directly ahead, no distractions. The rhythmic rush of each exhaled breath from the regulator in his mouth reminded him of his daily meditation. Each slow and deliberate kick of his fins made him think of the kata he performed every morning: a ritual ballet of unarmed combat. His arms floated loose at his sides. His knife was sheathed—but not for long.
On the fifth day of this expedition, his two-man crew had found what he searched for, exactly where they had been sent to look on the small southern comma of this barren atoll. Now it was his job to make the retrieval—if there was anything to retrieve.
The water was warm, crystal clear, visibility near sixty meters. Merrit had no trouble seeing Krause and Renault. Dappled by sunlight, marked by silver threads of air bubbles, they were holding their positions by the opening in the steep coral bed twenty meters down. Their scuba tanks were fluorescent yellow. Even their dive knives had bright yellow stripes, all for better visibility.
Merrit’s twin tanks were unpainted, bare aluminum alloy. His buoyancy compensator vest, weight belt, equipment, and titanium-thread wetsuit—all were black. For some of his assignments, visibility could be counterproductive.
At the ragged opening, Merrit first engaged his crew in a showing of their wrist dive computers. Krause and Renault had been down twice this morning to set the explosive charges and then check the results. They were good for at least another forty minutes at this depth, longer if Merrit could lower fresh tanks to them so they could take more time ascending to avoid the bends. Merrit gave them the okay sign to let them know they didn’t have to worry about their return to the surface today—he’d be taking care of them.
He next began his examination of the edges of the opening for structural integrity. The chunks of drab, dead coral that had been blasted free had tumbled down the sloping bank of the atoll. Another twenty meters deeper, they lay amid the almost imperceptible mounds of stone blocks that once made up the rest of the structure built when this atoll was an island. As for who those builders were and when they had toiled here, Merrit had no opinion. The fewer questions he entertained, the simpler his work.
Satisfied the opening wouldn’t collapse in the next hour, Merrit unclipped the pistol-grip LED spotlight from his vest and shone it into the waiting darkness. The turbidity from the explosions had settled, and the water in the revealed passageway was clear.
Merrit swam in first, barely moving his fins to avoid kicking up the thick layer of silt that covered the passageway’s floor. After ten meters, the rough textures of coral and barnacles ran out to reveal the passageway’s bare walls and arched ceiling.
He checked over his shoulder. Krause and Renault swam after him, but clumsily. Behind them, billows of silt rose up in their wake to obscure the route back to the open sea and sunlight. The reduced visibility would make it easier to do what Merrit had planned.
He swam on, locating the chamber entrance at fifty meters, exactly where the coordinate map had placed it.
His employer’s briefing had described this particular section of the site as originally protected deep below the structure’s central core, and the open passageway he floated before as sealed by a pair of thick wooden doors bound by iron. Once the ocean had swallowed the island, either through a gradual rise in sea level or the violence of the volcanic explosion that had formed the atoll, the ocean’s woodborers had come and consumed the doors within decades. After another century or two, the ocean’s own oxygen had transformed the iron bands to rust, long since swept away.
Merrit signaled to his divers to wait in the entranceway, then swam ahead into what his employer called the treasure chamber. This was the third expedition on which he’d seen such rooms. The first had been three years ago in the Ghaggar-Hakra dry river valley of India. A second had been high in the Peruvian Andes just three months ago.
This chamber, like the others, was circular, with a diameter a little less than eight meters, and the height of the encircling wall just over two. Its curved ceiling was a perfect hemi sphere.
In the Andean chamber, the wall and ceiling had still retained traces of a type of plaster on which markings of some kind had been made. Merrit’s employer had been disappointed that not enough plaster remained to permit reconstruction of what those markings might have been. Here, underwater, Merrit saw no remnant of any wall covering that had survived the sea’s corrosive chemistry.
However, something else familiar had—a circular stone disk mounted on a central stone pedestal. Like those in the Indian and Andean sites, the structure resembled a round table about two and a half meters across and a meter high, though the buildup of sediment on the chamber floor made the pedestal’s height seem less.
Only the stone disk interested Merrit.
With Krause and Renault watching from the open entryway, Merrit drew his knife and delicately probed the disk’s surface layer of sediment as if searching for land mines. In a few weeks, his employer would dispatch a full archaeological team, and they would use vacuum hoses to meticulously expose the site and the other rooms it contained. But Merrit’s employer had made it clear that only Merrit was to retrieve the artifacts from the treasure chamber.
On his fifth attempt, his knife made contact with an object. Merrit waved in his crew to assist him with their lights. Then, using his free hand to scoop away the silt, he located the outer edges of the object. Recognizing it by touch, he didn’t reveal it further. Instead, he continued methodically probing the rest of the table-stone. If it was identical to the others, then on its surface would be twelve incised wedges radiating from the center. Each wedge would have a uniquely shaped, carved indentation designed to hold a different object. On his two previous expeditions, the treasure chambers had been looted sometime in the past. In only one—in the Andes—had one of the twelve artifacts been recovered. Merrit’s employer had hopes that this long-lost chamber would be different.
Again and again, Merrit slid his knife into the sediment, each time hitting only stone. When he was certain there were no other artifacts to recover, he paused and made a show of patting his buoyancy vest, looking for something not found. Then he signaled Krause and mimed using a camera, indicating the diver should retrieve one from the equipment cache netted against the coral slope outside.
Krause signaled “okay” and swam off.
Merrit waved for Renault to enter the room, then pointed to the top of the curved ceiling where a mercurial pool of light shimmered—the captured air from his regulator.
Directing his attention to the ceiling, where reflections from his dive light flashed rippling streaks of silver across the chamber’s walls, Renault was unaware of danger slipping into place behind him until he felt the tug as Merrit slashed his air hose.
Merrit watched from behind as Renault wasted a few of the last seconds of his life flailing blindly for the thrashing hose behind him. By the time Renault remembered to reach for the emergency air bottle on his vest, it was too late. Merrit had grabbed both of his forearms from behind and now held on as the diver kicked and writhed and sent them both on a twisting trajectory across the chamber. Merrit’s metal tanks clanged against the wall of stone.
Abruptly Renault went limp, but Merrit didn’t relax his hold. He and his victim had worked this site for five days, trading stories. Renault had enjoyed displaying the jagged crescent of scars on his thigh where a shark had pulled him under years ago—a shark he’d fought off with his knife and fists. Men like that don’t die easily. Merrit maintained his grip. He was in no hurry.
Ten seconds later, Renault jerked violently as he fought in vain to escape.
He failed. This time when the diver’s body sagged, it was due to loss of consciousness.
Merrit twisted the handwheel on Renault’s tank regulator to stop the flow of air, then unhooked the diver’s weight belt so he’d float faceup to the undulating bubble of silvery air, reuniting with his last breaths.
Merrit recovered Renault’s dive light, switched it off. He took a position above the entryway, extinguished his own light, and waited in the warm darkness of the still water for the second diver to return.
It took longer than anticipated.
Merrit was tempted to drop down and look back along the passageway. His eyes were dark-adapted now, and he was certain he’d be able to see Krause silhouetted against the faint blue glow of the opening, but to leave his position was to risk losing the advantage of surprise. So he stayed in place, breathing slowly, not once thinking of the body floating a few meters above him.
Until he felt a current flow past him, as of someone swimming in darkness.
Merrit instantly stopped breathing, listening for the sound of another regulator. Why would Krause swim back without using his dive light? Did he suspect what was planned for him?
Hearing nothing, Merrit consciously took another breath. Unconsciously, he looked up into the darkness above him. What if Renault had outwitted him, held his breath just a few seconds longer—enough for Merrit to release him, look away? Did the diver get to his emergency bottle of air?
Merrit felt the water move around him. There was someone else in the chamber. He reached for his knife.
Another hand was faster, ripping the quick-release sheath from his leg. Now two hands grabbed each of his forearms, dragged him down.
Merrit took a deep breath, bracing for his own air hose to be cut.
Instead he was blinded by a disorienting flash of light.
In the instant before his vision whited-out completely, Merrit saw two divers with sleek rebreathers that released no air, and impenetrable obsidian lenses that glinted on their full-face masks.
They’d used infrared to hunt him.
Their next move was unavoidable. It was what he’d do in their place.
Kill the enemy.
Excerpted from Search: A Novel of Forbidden History by Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens.
Copyright © 2010 by Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens.
Published in 2010 by Thomas Dunne Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.