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THE SERAPH SEAL
By LEONARD SWEET LORI WAGNER
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Leonard Sweet and Lori Wagner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Letter
21 March 2048
A nimbus cloud cover lay thick and low over the Virginia hills, and Paul could tell the rain was coming. He absentmindedly waved on the light to the garage and reached for his coat from the hook by the door. He looked at his watch: 5:30 a.m. Just enough time to stop for coffee on the way to my nine o'clock class. He ran his fingers lightly across the touch screen on the wall, and the garage door slid upward.
Paul heard the crash just as he was closing the car door. What now? He slid out of his seat belt, shoved open the half-closed door, and ran out into the driveway. The moon cast a bluish hue over the vacant terrace. He crossed the lawn and stepped into the street. A block down the road, a car lay on its side in the middle of the deserted intersection, its lights flashing on and off. The back end of the coupe was torn open, and a mixture of gasoline and antifreeze poured out onto the road, causing a greenish vapor to rise over the black tarmac. Paul looked up and down the intersection. There was no one in sight.
Paul cautiously approached the vehicle, fragments of finely shattered glass crunching under his feet. It was raining now, and fog was forming around the car in wisps as the liquid from the punctured radiator continued to hiss and steam across the cold ground.
It was quiet. That couldn't be good. As he rounded the side of the car, Paul noticed something sticking out from under the tangled metal on the driver's side. A man's arm lay twisted in an unnatural position, crushed beneath the frame of the car. The lifeless fingers reached out, as though grasping for something just beyond reach. Paul looked around. There's no one here. The air was still and heavy. The only sound he could hear was the pattering of rain on metal and pavement. His mind began to race. Someone had to have hit the car with a powerful force in order to knock it on its side and damage both the rear and front ends. But there's nothing out here.
A cold shiver ran down Paul's spine, and he backed away from the outstretched hand. Moving slowly toward the front of the car, Paul could see that the windshield had been smashed in. What remained of the driver was slumped sideways, the side of his head covered in red, blackening blood. Then Paul noticed the letter.
The large white envelope sat on the dash, as though placed there for him to see. How it would have remained in that position during the crash, Paul could not fathom. He inched closer until he could see the scrawled writing across the front:
Mr. Paul Binder Personal and Confidential
At first, Paul backed away, a wave of terror and revulsion building in his throat. The bulky trunk of the mutilated car blinking in the early morning darkness felt surreal, as though it were some monstrous creature lying there watching him, breathing, waiting for him to make a move. The feeling passed. Paul carefully reached into the hole in the windshield and grabbed the letter from the dash, then turned away and tuned in to his Pearl—his personally enhanced auto-relationship link—that was clipped to the base of his ear. He had just purchased the new Pearl earring last week to replace his former pendant. The new 2048 version did everything imaginable. It was a type of BMI (brain machine interface) that could not only follow commands but could interlock with Paul's every thought and body function. In a moment, the device would connect to his FirePillar, alerting emergency services.
After the police arrived and Paul answered what questions he could—I didn't witness the accident, only the aftermath—Paul signed his statement and walked back toward the house.
"I never saw the other car," he had told them.
Because there was nothing there to see, the voice inside his head taunted him.
Paul didn't mention the letter. If he did, he would be pressed for hours with questions he knew nothing about. He needed to think. Shivering, he drew his coat around his neck and shook off the voodoo. "To shake off the voodoo" was one of his mother's favorite expressions. Whenever he was afraid as a child, had a nightmare, or was feeling insecure about giving a speech at school, his mother would look him in the eyes, cup his face in her hands, and say, "Now, Paul, you go on and shake off the voodoo. You're gonna be fine." And she was always right. He smiled to himself, thinking how much influence she continued to have on him, even from the grave. He stopped and looked back. The police were still buzzing around the car, joined now by a fire and rescue crew working at extracting the driver from the passenger side of the vehicle. Whatever had happened that morning must have an explanation, and the authorities would find out what it was.
Paul walked back to the garage, got into his car, and set his Pearl to navigate in the direction of Charlottesville. It was already 7:30 a.m., and now he would be late for class. No coffee today. On the seat next to him lay the letter, his name staring up at him. Setting his jaw, he ignored it and continued to drive. He would deal with it later.
Relaxing a bit now that the rain was starting to clear, Paul interfaced with his Pearl to find station WKCI. The news ran through the usual—weather, sports, local, economics, then turned to a special address by the president. New Earth Day—he had almost forgotten. President Matt Serafino was talking now about the new technologies that would revolutionize the nation's food supply. Already in his second year in office, Serafino had mesmerized a tired and disillusioned USAmerican people with promises of superior genetically altered food supplies, increased life expectancies, innovations in avatar and touch technologies, lower crime rates, increased cyber and virtual communications, and decreased levels of aboveground contaminants. He had already mobilized forces in all the major cities to prevent looting of the hospitals and churches that were left abandoned. In the first quarter of the twenty-first century, with the introduction of the New United States and its secularized religion, the remnants of the old churches collapsed. After the faithful went underground, meeting in homes or in private settings, the old-world doctors, who refused to embrace the new manipulation technologies, followed suit and went underground, too, to form the Anti-Technology Biological Alliance (ATBA). Serafino had a plan to rebuild USAmerica once more into the most viable and economically wealthy nation in the world—harnessing the power of the oceans, winds, and the earth's core to drive the technoindustries, which would renew and replace USAmerica's failing industrial framework. The people called him the twenty-first-century Uncle Sam—the one to usher in a new and restored United States.
At thirty-six, Matt was the youngest president ever to take the oath of office. The same age I am, Paul thought. And he sometimes appeared to have the energy and stamina of ten men. Powerfully charismatic, the USAmerican president commanded attention everywhere he went. People gathered around him in droves, hanging on to his every word. But when Paul had seen him on the Capitol's West Front Lawn that day, 21 January 2047, something about Matt Serafino left Paul uneasy. Could it be the president's strutting confidence? The way he cocked his head to the side before he spoke? Or the way his almost pitch-black eyes surveyed the crowd, his fiery gaze threatening to incinerate on the spot anyone who challenged him?
The truth was, Matt's personality was both charming and deadly.
His campaign had seared into his opponents' arguments, leaving them no choice but to withdraw. And it was that same drive, accompanied by a compelling confidence, that seemed to draw people around him in support of his initiatives to make the United States a supertech world power.
That should have been enough to make him wary of the president, but Paul thought it was more than that. His mind wandered back to that day on the lawn in January, the president's inauguration ceremony. Paul remembered the way Matt (as he liked to be known to the USAmerican people—an oddity in itself for presidential stature) grasped the Bible as Chief Justice Remington Warner swore him in as the forty-eighth president of the United States. There was almost a savagery about that clutch, as though wanting to consume or conquer the Word itself. And then there was the passage he chose for his inaugural theme, Isaiah 66:
For the Lord will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to pay back his anger in fury,
and his rebuke in flames of fire.
For by fire will the Lord execute judgment,
and by his sword, on all flesh;
and those slain by the Lord shall be many.
For as the new heavens and the new earth,
which I will make,
shall remain before me, says the Lord,
so shall your descendants and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon.
It was a strange passage to choose, and it cast an ominous chill over the crowd that day. Stranger still was Serafino's use of the Bible itself in the swearing-in ceremony. Even though Christianity had become an "ABC" word, something like ABC gum—rechewed and spit out by most New Selfers, Serafino had insisted on the obsolete inaugural tradition, choosing a Bible from the Library of Congress and inserting the aged manuscript into the hands of the chief justice before the inauguration ceremony, the appropriate passage marked by a golden thread.
"I, Matthew Samael Serafino, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."
President Serafino seemed to have an answer and a solution to every problem, some of which even sounded plausible. But as professor of history and cultural semiotics at the University of Virginia, Paul knew something about politics and economics. And despite most people's fascination with the USAmerican president, what Paul knew most was that he didn't trust Matthew Serafino.
Charlottesville, Virginia University of Virginia
Paul reached his office at 9:35 a.m. Too late for his morning class, he stopped in the university cafeteria for coffee before settling into his office studio. He had until two o'clock that afternoon before his next lecture. He fingered the corner of the letter in his pocket, remembering the morning's events. He didn't want to open it until he was safely in his office. What could it mean? At last, armed with coffee, the virtual news report, and the latest i-issue of the Journal of American History, Paul reached his swivel chair and pulled the letter from his pocket. He sipped the hot, steaming liquid, gathering his thoughts. Tearing open the envelope with the edge of his finger, he took out the sheet of paper inside.
The letter was handwritten and appeared to be drafted in black ink. Rare these days. No one wrote by hand anymore. With the advent of jewelry piece BMI robotics, advanced biometrics, and Cloud computing, almost all text was now voice and touch activated. Most people didn't even use pens anymore. The only people interested in traditional paper were historians and collectors, like Paul, who loved the feel of the ancient texts. Those more interested in the dead than the living. Paul smiled. Now, the best forms of communication were in avatar space and in virtual meeting rooms. Safer too. Especially in the classroom.
Paul brushed his thumb across the black letters. The ink left a dark smudge on his pale skin, coloring the lines of his personal imprint.
Fresh. Almost as if the writer had just finished the last flourish. Paul braced himself and began to read.
Dear Dr. Binder,
If you are receiving this letter, the year will be 2048—thirty-six years after your birth and the birth of the eight. The Time of Becoming has now reached fruition. Locate the manuscript of the Diatessaron. You have been chosen to unlock the future of your world. The cross key will guide you. Use it wisely.
Paul reread the letter three times, and finally just stared at the scripted ink intently, baffled as to what the words could mean.
For the second time that day, Paul had the uncomfortable feeling that something didn't quite fit. And his mind fought to make sense of it. The ink was fresh. He was sure of it. Yet the letter referred to the year 2048 as though written long prior. Just as the damaged car that morning seemed to appear out of nowhere with no sign of what caused the crash.
Because there was nothing there to see.
Paul swallowed hard, his eyebrows knitting together as he remembered the details of the morning hours. He read the letter again, this time holding it in his hands like a fragile piece of parchment. He turned it over, looking for some sign of identification. There was none.
What could it mean? And why is it addressed to me?
Paul knew what the Diatessaron was. That is, if the ancient Syrian manuscript he was familiar with was the one he thought the letter was referring to. More than one author had created such "harmonies of the four," but the most famous was by a second-century writer named Tatian from the region of what is still the country of Syria. With copies written in both Syrian and Greek, the text comprised a unification of the four known Christian Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The message was controversial, and Tatian was later treated as a heretic. Some even feared the text had magical powers. But the harmonized Diatessaron was revered in the early Syrian church and in the Orthodox churches of the East. Paul would give his right arm to see an authentic copy of the Diatessaron manuscript. He also knew that no complete and original manuscript existed.
Paul's concentration was interrupted by his vibrating Pearl. He took the call. "This is Paul."
A male voice spoke. "Mr. Binder?"
"Yes, I'm Paul Binder."
"Is this Dr. Paul Binder, the professor of history and cultural semiotics?"
"Dr. Binder, this is Emory Makefield. I'm calling from the Centre for Manuscript and Print Studies at the University of London. We've just received a very unusual manuscript. I think you're going to want to see this."
"What is it?"
"Dr. Binder—may I call you Paul? We believe it's a complete Syrian manuscript of what appears to be the Diatessaron."
Paul drew in his breath and paused for a moment. It couldn't be. He regained his composure.
"I had it checked out myself by one of our experts. We believe it's authentic."
Paul's heart was beating faster. How could this be happening?
"I don't understand. Where did you get this?"
Excerpted from THE SERAPH SEAL by LEONARD SWEET LORI WAGNER Copyright © 2011 by Leonard Sweet and Lori Wagner. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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