Year Zeroby Jeff Long
In his sensational novel The Descent, Jeff Long created a world of stunning terror and adventure, "an imaginative tour de force" (Jon Krakauer). Now he imagines a scenario so vivid, so haunting, it anchors his place among storytelling masters.
An archaeological manhunt is raging in the holy land -- a hunt for the historical Jesus. For/b>/i>… See more details below
In his sensational novel The Descent, Jeff Long created a world of stunning terror and adventure, "an imaginative tour de force" (Jon Krakauer). Now he imagines a scenario so vivid, so haunting, it anchors his place among storytelling masters.
An archaeological manhunt is raging in the holy land -- a hunt for the historical Jesus. For Nathan Lee Swift, a young American field researcher and expectant father, the line between noble discovery and the plunder of ruins is sacred -- until the night he crosses it. At a Roman landfill beneath the crucifixion grounds known as Golgotha, Nathan Lee yields to his professor's greed and turns common grave robber. His world -- his unborn daughter -- seems lost to him.
Hundreds of miles away, on the remote Greek island of Corfu, a wealthy collector pries open his latest black-market purchase -- a fourteen-inch holy relic containing a vial of blood dating back to the first century -- and unleashes a two-thousand-year-old plague. As the pandemic explodes from the Mediterranean basin and threatens to devour humankind, Nathan Lee gets a chance at redemption. He embarks on an Odyssean journey back to the United States to find his family.
Skirting the edges of the world, Nathan Lee's path finally leads him to New Mexico, where the greatest minds of science have converged at Los Alamos to find a vaccine. There Nathan Lee meets Miranda Abbot, a nineteen-year-old prodigy. As the cure continues to elude them, Miranda launches a desperate final strategy: the use of human lab rats cloned from the year zero. Nathan Lee, the thief of bones, comes face-to-face with men made from the very relics he looted, one of whom claims to be Jesus Christ, but may also be Patient Zero.
Combining the scientific precision of The Andromeda Strain with the intensity of classic adventure epics, Jeff Long takes readers on a riveting voyage through the rubble of earthquake-torn Jerusalem, the serenity of the high Himalayas, and the eerie sanctuary of Los Alamos. With Long's characteristic originality, Year Zero races against the apocalyptic clock, creating a maze of twists, astonishing atmosphere, and the clash of science and faith.
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Read an Excerpt
The wound was their path.
Nathan Lee Swift sat strapped in the belly of the cargo helicopter with a dozen assorted archangels, looking down upon what little remained. The earthquake was visible mostly by what was no longer visible. Cities and villages had simply vanished in puffs of dust. Even his ruins were gone. The map had gone blank.
The air was hot. It was summer. There was no horizon. The sands stretched into haze. He felt chained to the giant beside him, his former professor David Ochs. He had not wanted to leave, now he didn't want to come back. Not like this.
Due south from the U.S. Army base in Turkey, they flew parallel to the rift system. Like an immense raft drifting from shore, Africa was shearing loose of Eurasia. It was nothing new in the larger scheme of things. Satellite photos barely registered the latest geological breach. Even from the helicopter's scratched Plexiglas windows, the devastation appeared strangely faint. The earth had pulled open and sealed shut.
Nathan Lee searched for his bearings. Only a few weeks earlier, he had been down there, somewhere, sifting away at ancient Aleppo, homing in on the end of his field research. Now the ruins were gone, and his dissertation with them. Only love -- or lust -- had spared him from the disaster. If not for Lydia Ochs visiting his tent one Arabian night five months ago, he might have died in the sands. As it was, the professor's younger sister had accidentally saved him with her fertile womb.
She had come to Aleppo with her brother, unannounced, during the winter break between semesters. The professor was checking up on his graduate students, anchoring his grants, a day or two here, then on to the next, and she was just along for the ride. Nathan Lee had never seen her before in his life. He was a catch-and-release, he figured. A desert conquest. Her Himalayan climber in the sands. But then he'd gotten her letter. Back in Missouri, she was five-months pregnant. Now she was ten-days married, and all his new in-laws were proclaiming he'd been miraculously spared. Miraculous seemed a strong term for what owed less to the hand of God than to a Wonderbra, a full moon, and a bottle of old nouveaux Beaujolais. But he did not correct the record.
He was still dazed by the sudden change. The wedding band glittered on his brown fist like some strange growth. Twenty-five seemed so young. He still had his fortune to find, and his name to make, and the far edges of the world to see...and see again. It wasn't that his mirror was empty. He saw an earnest young man in there with John Lennon spectacles and durable shoulders and a bit of hair on his chest. But he lacked form. He felt as if his molecules were still coming together.
Maybe it was a function of working the sands in near solitude for the last two years. But it seemed like his footprints were gone the minute he left them, and his shadow kept shifting shape. There was something about burying his gypsy parents on opposite sides of the planet -- his mother in Kenya, his mountaineer father in Kansas, of all places -- that stole his sense of direction. He could go anywhere. He could be anyone. And what he was now was at square one with his doctoral work, up to his eyeballs in student loans, and with a baby on the way.
He could have resented the pregnancy. But he was an anthropologist. He had his superstitions. And there was no denying that the child had already saved him once. The name was almost too good to be true. Lydia had chosen it. Grace.
"Tell me, my friends," a voice interrupted. It was the demolitions engineer from Baghdad. He wore a silver hard hat. "What brings two American anthropologists racing to a disaster zone? And with body bags for your only luggage. Allow me to guess, forensic scientists?"
Roped to bolts in the floor, five cases of body bags occupied the aisle. There were twenty to a case. The economy models were white vinyl with no handles. They cost fourteen dollars each. The body bags had sped their journey in unforeseen ways. Their tale of a mission of mercy had become a small legend. Ochs had seen to that. Air freight for the shipment had been waived. They'd been boosted to first class as a courtesy. TWA had delayed its Heathrow-Athens flight so the two Americans could make the connection. A flight attendant with very long legs had sat on Nathan Lee's armrest for an hour. She had always wanted to do good works. They were so brave. So humanitarian. It's what we do, Ochs had told her.
"We're archaeologists," Ochs answered the engineer. His shoulders and arms and Falstaffian belly looked ready to burst his T-shirt. It said Razorbacks with the size, XXXL. People in this part of the world tended to identify the giant with the World Wrestling Federation. His voice carried above the engine roar. "George Washington University. My field is Biblical archaeology up to and including the Hadrianic era."
It was one of those lies that were the truth by omission. Until last semester, Professor Ochs had held a distinguished chair at George Washington. Then his past had caught up with him. One of his boy toys had filed a grades-for-sex lawsuit. Already freighted by rumors of smuggled artifacts, Ochs had sunk like a rock. Thus Jerusalem, with his newly minted brother-in-law for company. Nathan Lee kept thinking he'd gotten over the worst of his queasiness. But he hadn't. He didn't belong here, not this way, on this mission. It felt like he was like being pulled under by a drowning victim.
"Biblical archaeology...." The engineer pounced at the clue. "Project Year Zero," he said. "The search for Jesus Christ."
Ochs replied evenly. "We are connected. But you misconceive us. Year Zero is founded on scrupulous scholarship. It grew out of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. The Smithsonian and Gates Foundation commissioned a detailed review and collection of artifacts and organic material dating back two thousand years."
"Organic material." The engineer was no fool.
"Pollen samples. Textiles. Bone. Mummified tissue." Ochs shrugged.
"Bone and flesh," said the engineer. "I perfectly understand."
"Targeting the year zero was entirely arbitrary, a sop to the Western calendar."
"A chance selection," the engineer smiled indulgently. "The Holy Lands at the beginning of the Christian era." Like other Levantine Muslims, he was bemused. The Crusades had never really quit. Now the West fought with trowels and picks.
"The date appealed to the public imagination," said Ochs. "And to funding agencies. Stripped of all its controversy and superstition, we are simply gathering evidence of a place in time. Unfortunately people's imagination ran off with it. Now we have this nonsense about a manhunt for the historical Jesus."
"Nonsense?" The engineer feigned surprise.
"Consider. True believers reject 'the bones of Christ' as a contradiction in terms. If his body rose into heaven, there can be no remains. And nonbelievers don't care."
In fact, for all his and Lydia's sophistication, the Ochs clan sprang from Pentecostal roots, snakes, tongues, and all. Nathan Lee hadn't known the depth of it. It was no wonder an abortion had been out of the question. The Missouri wedding had been like something out of the Civil War, all lace, black broadcloth, and raw bones.
"Which are you then, sir?" asked the engineer. "The believer who doesn't believe, or the nonbeliever who doesn't care?"
Ochs evaded him. "Ask my student here. He claims Jesus is a sausage."
The engineer's black eyebrows rose into the brim of his hardhat.
In Arabic, Nathan Lee said, "My tongue runs away from me sometimes."
"A sausage, though! What an image."
"A human skin," Ochs supplied, "stuffed with myths and prophecy."
The engineer enjoyed that. "And yet you dedicate yourself to Year Zero?"
"The professor borrows me now and then," Nathan Lee said. "My doctoral focus is seventh-century northern Syria. I'm exploring the disappearance of Roman families from the so-called Dead Cities. They were prosperous and deeply rooted here. Their villas had mosaic floors and windows that looked out onto the oases. Then suddenly one day they were gone."
"Was there a war?" asked the engineer.
"There are no signs of violence, no layers of ash."
The engineer gestured at the landscape beneath them. "An earthquake, perhaps."
"The villas were left standing. Herders use them to shelter their goats."
"What happened then?"
"Some small thing, probably. A gap in their rhythm. Maybe a crop went wrong. Or an irrigation canal ruptured, or they had a cold winter or a dry summer. Maybe insects came. Or a rat with a flea with some exotic flu. Civilizations are such fragile things."
Someone across the aisle called out, "Damascus," and they all looked out the windows. It was no different from Halab and Hims and other cities along the way. From this height, except for the outer ring of refugee camps, Nathan Lee would have guessed the city had been extinct for centuries. It resembled a thousand other Levantine tels, one more gray pile of history and dust. "Allah irrahamhum," one of the Iraqi physicians declared. May God be compassionate to them.
They left the sight behind. The engineer resumed. "Why come at this time, when the catastrophe is so fresh?" he asked. "And why Jerusalem?"
Nathan Lee shifted his eyes away. Ochs answered. "The awful truth is," he solemnly confessed, "opportunity. With the city turned inside out, the past lies bared. In a sense, we're here to conduct an autopsy."
"You intend to go into the remains?" the engineer asked. "It will be very dangerous. The aftershocks. The outbreak of disease. It's been over seven days. By now, the dogs will all be rabid. It won't be safe until the engineers have leveled it."
"Precisely why we're racing to get there," said Ochs, "before you accomplish your work."
The engineer took it as a compliment. "Of course," he said. "And the body bags?"
"Our small gift," said Ochs.
"But you mustn't feel guilty," the engineer said to Nathan Lee.
"It is written on your face."
"Never mind him," Ochs said to the engineer.
But the engineer was a compassionate soul, and now he liked Nathan Lee. He gestured at the other passengers. "Each of us bears a special talent. Some go to feed the people, some to heal, some to handle the dead. I go to complete the destruction with bulldozers and plastique so that the rebuilding may begin. And you are here to find meaning in the bones. Be strong, young man. It takes great love to make sense of God's revenge."
Nathan Lee wasn't sure how to respond. "Thank you," he said.
Nearing Israel, the flying changed. Wild thermals prowled above the desert sands. The pilots tried in vain to evade the worst of it. Their blades chopped at the thermals. The thermals chopped right back at them. The helicopter shuddered and bucked, pitching savagely. Far below, spontaneous whirlwinds leapt about, writing wild, cryptic letters in the sand.
They dodged to the side, the pilots searching for a slipstream through the thermals. No dice. When the thermals weren't hurling them sunward, they were plunging into troughs and crawling for altitude. Strapped tight, the passengers suffered their brutal entry into the Holy Lands. Ochs vomited on the floor. Nathan Lee offered no sympathy. They didn't belong here. This was the professor's idea. Soon the floor was slick with last suppers.
Nathan Lee pressed the wire rims onto the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. He thought of Grace. His seasickness ebbed. Who would she take after? Honey-haired Lydia for looks, he prayed. He saw himself as a plain man. His face was thin, his eyes were narrow. He still could not reckon why Lydia had chosen his tent that night. Maybe it had been the full moon, or she'd just wanted to add a nomad to her list. Even among the eccentrics camped out in the anthro department, Nathan Lee was notorious. He'd been known to hunt and butcher game with neolithic flints.
Nathan Lee did hope their daughter might acquire something from his side of the equation, a bit of pig iron to temper Lydia's mercury. Or acid, as it were. The honeymoon was over. His hot-blooded desert lover had turned cold, and modern. She required 110 volts twenty-four hours a day, it turned out, for everything from her hair drier to her cellphone. Their wedding night had been invested in a discussion about money. She was going for her MBA. He was going for...Jerusalem.
At last they topped the Golan Heights and left behind the desert thermals. But as they entered the great, long trough of the Dead Sea Rift, Nathan Lee saw the destruction was only beginning. By this time every schoolchild knew from television that 800,000 megatons of energy had been released by the quake, 1,600 times more than all the nuclear explosions in war and peace combined. Tsunamis had erased the Gaza Strip. Like ancient Alexandria, Tel Aviv lay submerged beneath the Mediterranean. The Sea of Galilee had emptied, flooding the Jordan River. The floor of the Dead Sea had dropped fifty feet. Its waters reached halfway to the Gulf of Aqaba.
The cargo bay had no air conditioning. They steadily descended below sea level between raw limestone walls. To their right and left, roads and pathways terminated in midair. It was spring. The trees were budding green. Lambs bounded to their mothers. Finally they turned west and climbed out of the depths.
The wreck of Jerusalem lay before them. Unlike the Syrian cities, it was still in its death throes. Inky smoke hung above the ruins. Where gas lines had ruptured, columns of flame lanced the sky.
Ochs thumped Nathan Lee's knee with an immense bear paw. He was elated. Nathan Lee was shocked.
"Haram," murmured Nathan Lee. The term was universal in this part of the world. It meant forbidden or pity. More classically, it meant tomb.
The engineer heard him. Their eyes met. For some reason he gave him a blessing. "Keep your heart pure in there."
Nathan Lee looked away.
The ship flickered from place to place along the wracked perimeter. White tents flashed beneath them bearing Red Crosses and Red Crescents. Roofs of baby blue U.N. plastic fluttered in the rotor wash.
Abruptly the helicopter spun to earth. Ochs clutched his arm. They touched down hard near the south summit of the Mount of Olives.
No one waited to greet them. The samaritans simply dismounted into vast heat upon a road that ran above the city. You could barely see Jerusalem for the layer of black petroleum smoke. Israeli commandos in desert camouflage and berets rose up from the yellow dust to herd them to Camp 23.
The cases of body bags were off-loaded. Ochs opened one box and took several of the bags. He left the rest in the road, and led Nathan Lee away from their Trojan Horse. The trick had worked. They were in.
While Ochs slept off his jet lag, Nathan Lee roamed the larger Camp 23, orienting himself, hunting down rumors, harvesting information. Sunset was only hours away.
Six days ago there had been no Camp 23. Now it lay sprawled and shapeless upon the slopes of Olivet, a Palestinian collecting point. Before the quake, locals drove up the meandering road to picnic and gaze upon their city. Now 55,000 ghosts occupied an overlook of vile black smoke. The unwashed survivors were coated white with cement dust. The lime in the cement made their eyes blood red. Their massed voices buzzed like cicadas in the heat. Allah, Allah, Allah, they wept. Women ululated.
They reached out with filthy hands. Nathan Lee knew better than to meet their eyes. He felt desolate. He had nothing for them. Some would be dead soon. The ground was muddy, not from rain, but from their raw sewage. Cholera was going to rampage through them. All the aid workers said so.
A team of skinny rescue rats from West Virginia loaned him two hardhats. They were gaunt. One had a broken arm in a plastic splint. They didn't mark their calendar in days, but in hours. For them, time had started the minute the first quake hit, 171 hours ago. It was a rule of thumb that after the first 48 hours, the chances for live rescues evaporated. Their work was done. They were heading home. Nathan Lee asked for any advice.
"Don't go down there," one said. "Why mess with the gods?" He had a combat soldier's contempt for the civilian. If you don't belong, don't be there.
His partner said, "How about the lions; you been briefed on the lions?"
"Seriously?" said Nathan Lee. It had to be an urban legend. Here be dragons.
The man spit. "From the zoo."
The first man said, "They found a body in the Armenian quarter. Mauled to rags. One leg missing. That means they they've tasted us. They're maneaters now."
At sunset the smoke turned bronze.
Nathan Lee found Ochs on a cot in a tent, stripped to the waist. He'd seen pictures of the linebacker in his 400-pound bench-press days, an Adonis on steroids. Nathan Lee looked down at the wreckage of beer fat. Sweat glistened on his salt-and-pepper chest hair. "Wake up," Nathan Lee said.
Ochs came to with a groan. The canvas and wood creaked as he pried himself from the cot.
"We made a mistake," said Nathan Lee. "It's too dangerous. There's a curfew, dusk to dawn. Shoot to kill."
"Give me a minute," Ochs growled.
"It's a war zone. No one's in charge over there. They're at each other's throats. Hamas and the Hezbollah and the SLA and Israeli army and kibbutz militias."
Ochs glared at him. "Suck it up, Swift. What did you expect? Nine-point-one on the Richter scale. From here to Istanbul, it's scrambled eggs."
"I don't like it."
"What's to like?" Ochs tossed his head side to side like a boxer warming up. The vertebrae crackled. "This time tomorrow, we'll be on our way home. Think of it as starting the college fund. Grace's," he added, "not yours. It's time you moved beyond your academic ambitions."
The unborn child had become Ochs's hostage. Nathan Lee didn't know how to stop it. The conspiracy between sister and brother was beginning to scare him. "You don't need me," he said point-blank.
"But I do," said Ochs. "Don't let it go to your head. You're younger. You have abilities. Come on. We're on the same team, slick."
"This isn't a bowl game," said Nathan Lee. "We're trespassing on history. Legends. Everything we do could alter the record. It could bend religions."
"Since when did you find God? Anyway, you've got responsibilities."
"It was you who taught me about the integrity of the site."
"Those were the days."
"You just want revenge," said Nathan Lee.
"I just want money," said Ochs. "What about you, Nathan Lee? Don't you get lonely in there?"
They went to the mess tent. It was crowded with relief workers in various states of fatigue. They spoke a babel of languages. They were fed much better than the survivors. In place of protein bars and bottles of water, they got lamb stew and couscous and candies. Ochs made a beeline for the caffeine.
Nathan Lee went outside with his paper plate and sat on the ground. Ochs found him. "No more seesaw. It's yes or no."
Nathan Lee didn't say yes. But he didn't say no. That was all Ochs needed.
At moonrise, they cast loose of Camp 23.
They wore cotton masks, Red Cross bibs, the borrowed hardhats, and jungle boots from the Vietnam era. The soles had metal plates to protect against punji stakes. Ochs had spotted them in an Army surplus store outside of Georgetown.
In theory, the camps were locked down between dusk and dawn. But for all the razor wire and sandbags and ferocious Israeli paratroopers at the entrance, Nathan Lee had learned there was no back wall to Camp 23. The gate was all show. Nathan Lee and Ochs simply strode downhill and the camp dwindled into darkness.
They left the klieg lights and diesel generators and food lines behind. On the dark outskirts, they passed the mad and dying. Nathan Lee imagined the final circle of hell as something like this.
The hillside sloped gently, cut by terraces. Nathan Lee took the lead downwards. They carried headlamps, but did not use them. He was reminded of climbing in the Himalayas and above Chamonix with his father. Mountaineers called it an alpine start. You kicked off at night while the mountain is asleep. Other senses emerged: night vision, different kinds of hearing, a feeling for the movements underfoot. The world lost its margins, it ran loose out there. Deep joints in the earth snapped like bones. The underworld beat within your skin. That's how it felt tonight. Ochs's heavy footsteps drummed on the earth. Even the stars were vibrating.
Nathan Lee looked out across the top of the vile smog. The enormous white moon had finished sucking free of the distant desert. He'd never seen it so large and explicit.
"Slow down," Ochs said.
Nathan Lee could hear him back there, laboring...downhill. That was not good. They'd barely started the night. The man sounded like horses breathing. Nathan Lee didn't wait, but at the same time he didn't let their spacing grow too wide.
They plunged on, lights off, Nathan Lee ahead. Ochs was clumsy. He demanded a rest. Nathan Lee made him demand it three times, then reined himself in. Ochs caught up and sat on a rock. He blamed his football knees and Nathan Lee's pace. "I know you're trying to wear me down. It won't work," he said.
They continued down through fig and pistachio groves with clusters of ripe buds. The branches of olive trees looked frozen and convulsed. Through his cotton mask, Nathan Lee could smell the blossoms glittering like Christmas tree ornaments. Their scent could not hide the smell of spoiled meat, even at this distance.
They penetrated the layer of oil smoke. The moon shrank and turned brown. Deeper, they passed through a Christian cemetery with toppled gravestones and crosses. They reached the underside of the cloud. Suddenly the walls of the Old City stood before them.
It was a different world under the canopy. Green and orange flares cut the low sky. You would see them rocket up through the black smoke, then slowly reappear from the murky heavens. By night, the gas flames resembled Biblical pillars of fire. Nathan Lee looked at Ochs and the snout of his white mask was caked with soot. He looked like a hyena nosing through the ashes.
Timeless Jerusalem lay squashed flat. Because it was built on a rising hill, they could see over the walls, into the upper neighborhoods. At first glance, the city looked fused, one single melted element. Then Nathan Lee began to discern details in the ruins. In place of streets, there were arteries, and in the arteries moved lights. Hatreds older than America were in motion. Here and there streamers of tracer bullets arced between the pancaked apartment buildings. It was every man for himself in there, militias, sects, rebels, and predators.
Nathan Lee was afraid. This wasn't like the controlled adrenal hit you got climbing a long runout on rock or ice. It was more insidious, more consuming. And there was another difference tonight. He would have a daughter soon. For some reason, that mattered to him. His life counted for more.
In the distance, poised above the shredded skyline, the Dome of the Rock was still standing. The sight had a peculiar effect. It was an oddity of quakes in very old cities that modern structures will collapse, leaving the ancient buildings intact. The National Cathedral in Mexico City was one example, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul another. The mosque atop the Temple Mount was clearly another. The dome gleamed in the flare light like a golden moon fallen to earth.
They descended into the Kidron valley, then trekked up and reached the base of the wall. It soared above them. Hardin slapped the big, squared blocks of limestone. "We're in the zone," he said. "Can you feel it?"
They followed the wall to its southern edge, then skirted west, on the outside of the worst fighting. The Muslim and Jewish quarters rumbled and thundered inside the wall. No rest for the weary. They were fighting right through Armageddon. Bullets and shrapnel sizzled overhead from the platform of the Temple Mount.
After twenty minutes they reached a collapsed abbey. Not much further, they reached the end of the south wall, and took a righthand turn along the original Byzantine wall.
The suburbs were in utter collapse. Disemboweled high-rises teetered above mounds of debris. The bulldozers had not visited this part of the city yet. Every street lay buried. Instead, Nathan Lee followed slight traces that threaded between the mounds of wreckage. It was little more than a game trail. Worn by feet or paws, the path glowed faintly.
Through the archway of the Jaffa Gate, they entered the Old City itself. First they shed their disguise. Inside the walls, relief workers would just be sniper bait. Off came the Red Cross bibs and their cotton masks. Underneath his mask, Ochs had daubed his face with camouflage paint.
Modern rubble gave way to ancient. The pathways wound back and forth through the twisted devastation. There were dozens of forks in the trail. Ochs offered opinions, but always deferred to Nathan Lee's instincts.
Nathan Lee felt at home here. He had a theory that the stranger always has an advantage in chaos. The stranger can't lose his way, only find it. People born and raised here would naturally depend on familiar street corners and shopfronts and addresses. He had no such landmarks. Ruins were their own city, the same worldwide, old or modern. The key lay in your mind. Begin in the beginning....It was a trick learned from his father, the mountain guide.
The rest he got from his mother, the ape lady. Instead of brothers or sisters, he'd grown up with baboon troops in the wild. If you want to know a thing, she would say, go inside it. She and her mountain-man husband were products of their generation, brimming with wanderlust and little Zen sayings and being real. They'd raised him to see worlds within the world.
Ochs kept stumbling. Phone lines and checkered keffiyahs tangled their feet. Blocks of limestone shifted underfoot. Twice the professor nearly speared himself on pieces of iron rod and copper pipe. He needed more frequent rests.
They passed the old and the new. Beside a squashed Toyota lay the remains of a horse stripped by predators. Minarets blocked their path like toppled rocket ships. Five- and six-story apartment buildings had dropped straight down and Nathan Lee found himself walking between small forests of TV antennae fixed atop the former roofs.
An old woman appeared from the shadows, startling them. That was the first time Nathan Lee saw Ochs's pistol. It was a little Saturday night special. He pointed it at her. She cursed them in Russian, then wandered on.
"Where did you get that thing?" Nathan Lee whispered.
"We should stop her," said Ochs. "She'll give us away."
"She's crazy. Didn't you see her eyes?"
"You're taking us in circles," Ochs snarled. Low on blood sugar, jet-lagged, he was becoming dangerous.
Nathan Lee held up a hand for quiet.
Ochs pushed him, then he heard -- or felt -- it, too.
The vibrations traveled up the long bones in Nathan Lee's legs. The ruins were trembling. Someone was approaching, a patrol or gang or militia. Killers. Night angels. Their footsteps shocked the earth.
Nathan Lee wasted no time calculating their distance. He started up a hillside of mangled debris, racing from one moon shadow to the next. Ochs followed, grunting, boots slugging for purchase. Nathan Lee saw the gun in his fist, a silvery toy. He reached the top of the debris, and stopped.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher stood beneath him. They had reached the Christian quarter.
Nathan Lee had been here before. The place actually housed many places. Crusader towers crowded against Byzantine domes built upon the ruins of a Roman temple of Venus. Here, contained under one roof, were the legendary landmarks of Christ's death, from the rock of Calvary to the tomb of His resurrection. Some of the outer buildings had fallen, but most of it was intact, even the little crosses on top of the domes.
Ochs reached him, and saw the church. He gasped. "See?" he said. "See?"
Then Nathan Lee heard voices below. Without a word he lowered himself into a hollow where the rubble had sagged. Ochs squeezed in beside him.
"Untouched!" said Ochs. "Just like we saw on CNN."
Nathan Lee drew back into the shadows. He lay his cheekbone against a concrete slab and rested his fingertips along a prong of rebar sticking from the rubble. The footsteps drew closer. He could feel the tremors gaining strength. Ochs's sweat stank.
Then they appeared, or their shadows did. He saw shapes, not men, huge shadows streaming against what walls still stood. He saw the glint of rifles. They trampled the ruins like quiet machinery.
Ochs's eyes were huge and white in the dark recess. His jowls were tiger-striped with black and olive paint. He lifted his gun.
The killers passed.
Ochs stood. "Come on."
Nathan Lee stayed on his hands and knees. "There's something down here," he said. Next to Ochs's boot toe, the thing jutted up.
Nathan Lee thought at first it was a tiny potted tree growing out of the wreckage, ten inches high, no more. He leaned closer to see what it was. The shock of recognition made him grunt.
It was a hand.
The twigs were fingers, wilted. The wrist was thin. It held a woman's watch. The long plastic fingers had nails laquered ruby red. The gold wedding ring was shiny and new. A mannequin's hand, that's what he wanted it to be. He knew it was not.
"Look," said Nathan Lee.
Ochs shined his light.
"It's a woman."
They had been smelling the dead all night. The odors seeped up from the ruins. Nathan Lee had started to think they might just escape without seeing any bodies.
"Okay, you found one," said Ochs. He kept his voice flat. "Let's get going."
Nathan Lee stayed kneeling. The flares illuminated their ridge top with electric reds and greens. The hand hung limp, forefinger slightly pointing as in Michelangelo's picture of Adam taking the mortal spark from God. The beautifully painted fingernails were broken off at the tips, and packed underneath with dirt. She had clawed her way out of the tomb. That spoke to him. She had refused to surrender.
"Do you hear that scratching sound?"
Since entering the city, the sounds had been rising up to them from underground. Murmurs, cries, knocking, scratches. They'd done a fine job pretending it was just the city settling in on its own rubble. Nathan Lee couldn't pretend anymore.
"You're hearing things," said Ochs. He drew taller. "She's dead. The city's a write-off. Come on."
Nathan Lee set his ear against the ground. Something was scraping under there. It could be stones whispering against one another. Or nails gently stroking at the dirt.
"Dogs," said Ochs, "trying to dig their way in. Or house cats. They're worse, I hear. They go for the face muscles."
Nathan Lee began lifting stones away.
"What are you doing?"
"It could be her child down there," said Nathan Lee.
"Have you lost your mind? Her child?"
"It could be." Nathan Lee pried up one block, but another slid into its place. He tried another stone, and the debris shifted again. It was like a puzzle that refused to be undone. The ruins did not want to give her up.
"You can't change what's happened," said Ochs. "We're in enough danger." A machine gun rattled in the distance.
Nathan Lee lifted her fingers on his palm. They were flexible, not entirely cold. He squeezed them gently.
"Damn it. Feel for a pulse," said Ochs. "Get this over with." He reached across and stabbed his fingers against the inner wrist.
The fingers twitched. The hand clutched Nathan Lee's. "God," he barked. He tried to let go. But she held on. Her grip relaxed very slowly. Nathan Lee stared at his hand.
"A nerve contraction," Ochs said.
"How would you know?"
"Dead frogs do it." Ochs milked the wrist, and the hand balled and loosened, a puppet with no brains.
"Stop," said Nathan Lee. He took her hand again, but this time she didn't return his grip. He laid his fingers along the wrist. Was that a pulse, or the earth's vibrations? The warmth, was it a residue of the day? He returned to pulling at the heavy stones. "Help me," he said.
"We can't stay here," said Ochs. "If the aftershocks don't kill us, the animals or soldiers will. You're not going to find your conscience in the dirt, you know."
Faraway, a man shrieked. Grieving or gut shot or mad. It stopped suddenly.
"Go," said Nathan Lee. "There's your church. I'll be here. I won't leave without you."
"I need you down there," said Ochs. "The trench is deep."
What trench? wondered Nathan Lee. Ochs had offered no clues to his prey, other than the name of the Church itself. "Help me then," he repeated. He strained at another stone.
"All right," Ochs said. "But first you help me. We go into the church. Get what we came for. It will take half an hour. After that you can come back here and dig to your heart's content." His teeth glittered red and green.
Nathan Lee balked. "And you'll help me."
"I'll help. If anyone asks what we have in the body bag, we'll tell the truth. Human remains."
Another clue, thought Nathan Lee. He marked the edge of the depression with a mountaineer's cairn, rocks stacked on rocks. Then he led Ochs down the rubble to the flat stone courtyard.
One of the great wooden doors had buckled open. They stepped inside from ruin into relative serenity. Tiles had buckled here and there. Colored glass crunched underfoot. Candles lay toppled and bent. Otherwise the interior appeared to be unscathed.
It was like walking through a dream among the altars and dark icons lining the walls. The rotunda area was larger than he remembered, but that was because the crowds of pilgrims were absent. Pillars and arches surrounded them. Flare light illuminated the surviving stained glass art. Not a soul occupied this safe haven.
"What did I tell you," said Ochs. "All ours." The quiet interior put him at ease. "The Tomb of Jesus," he announced, walking to a boxy shape at the center of the rotunda.
The marble was polished from centuries of fingertips and reverent kisses. Inside the small edifice, Nathan Lee knew, was a tiny gate with a poor view of a rock. As he recalled, the fragment was covered with white and pink wax drippings. Was that Ochs's souvenir? It would explain the geologist's hammer and stone chisels. But not the "human remains."
"What are we after?" said Nathan Lee. He felt disoriented in this place. Stone staircases led up here, down there. In the beam of his flashlight, metal chandeliers swayed slightly on heavy chains. The earth was still settling.
Ochs took his time. He crossed to a separate area, and Nathan Lee followed. A horizontal window looked down upon a misshapen boulder.
"The Rock of Calvary," Ochs entoned. "Golgotha, in the Aramaic. The cave of Adam's skull, they say. The hill of Christ's death."
"I've had the tour," said Nathan Lee. The rock was roughly forty feet high, made of cream-colored limestone known as mizzi hilu, or sweet stone, a favorite of Iron Age quarriers. This particular blob of stone had been left in place because it was flawed, with a crack through the top that predated the Christian era by eons. Was this Ochs's memento, a chunk of Christ's rock? But what museum would buy such a thing?
"Look how small the summit is," Ochs drily observed. "No room for two more crosses of the thieves, would you say? And steep. Have you seen the section drawing by Gibson and Taylor? It's overhanging on the back side. Maybe a climber like you could get up the sides with a cross on your back. But a man who's just been whipped half to death? They say a fully assembled cross would have weighed 200 pounds. Even if it was only the crosspiece Jesus was carrying, it still would have meant a good fifty pounds or more."
Ochs went on. "The Gospels said nothing about Jesus being crucified on a hill, only at a topos or place. According to Jerome, golgotha was a common term for crucifixion sites. The skull referred to the unburied remains. It's no wonder scholars have come to dismiss the site. I did, too."
"We don't have time for this," said Nathan Lee. He looked around for something portable and precious, but it was all knickknacks to his eye. He couldn't imagine what Ochs wanted here.
"One thing is certain," Ochs rambled on. "Wherever Golgotha was, it must have served for thousands of other executions over the years. Varus crucified 2000 in the year 4 B.C.E. Florus crucified almost twice that many at the start of the First Jewish Revolt. A few years later, Titus was crucifying 500 people per day. It adds up. But have you ever asked yourself, with all those dead men, where are the remains? Wouldn't some of those skulls and bones have survived? In all our excavations around Jerusalem, we've found only one skeleton that had been crucified."
Nathan Lee knew the skeleton...by name. Yehochanan had been a male, five-foot five-inches tall, twenty-five years old. Possibly he'd been a rebel. Possibly his little daughter had been killed before his eyes as he hung on his cross. At any rate, her bones had been found mixed with his. A spike driven sideways through his heel bone had stuck, and they had buried Yehochanan with the nail at a tomb just north of the city.
For a moment, despite himself, Nathan Lee felt pulled in. "The bones were removed when the Old City walls were expanded," he said. "According to halakhic law, carcasses, graves and tanneries couldn't remain within fifty cubits of the town."
"That's conventional wisdom," said Ochs. "But the Jews weren't in charge of the city's expansion, remember? It was the Romans calling the shots. They didn't give a damn about Hebrew regulations."
"Then the bones turned to dust. I don't know. They're gone. What does it matter?"
"My man," tutted Ochs.
The pieces fell together. "There are remains?"
"Under our very feet."
"But I would have heard about it."
"They were only discovered a month ago," said Ochs. "A team with the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. Vatican people. You know how secretive they are."
"How did you find out then?"
Ochs rubbed his fingers and thumb. "Filthy lucre. I know you think you're above everyone else, Nathan Lee. But even you have your price."
Nathan Lee flushed. Ochs led the way down a set of stone stairs through a chapel region, then further on to a barred gate with a U-shaped, titanium bike lock. "The Cave of the Invention of the Cross," he said, beaming his flashlight into the depths.
According to legend, the true cross had been discovered here, in 327 C.E., by the newly converted mother of Emperor Constantine. In a sense, she'd been the original archaeologist, dashing around, digging up artifacts, orchestrating bits and pieces of the Passion Narrative, the story of Jesus' death. It was she who had decided the Rock was Golgotha, a tomb was the Tomb, and that Jesus' cross had been buried in this cave. The wooden cross was long gone. Twice it had been lost to Moslem conquerors, first the Persians, then the great Kurdish warrior Saladin. Each time it had been recovered, only to be nibbled to toothpicks by faithful Christians. If Christ's "tree" had ever existed in the first place, it was now scattered around the world in holy relic boxes.
Ochs gave the bars a shake, and took off his daypack. He tried a pry bar, but the bike lock defied him. He looked like a giant rat gnawing at the door. "The chisel, come on," he said.
Nathan Lee shucked his pack. The bolts in the hinges were negligible. He chopped their heads off. The gate opened.
Even from the top of the stairs, Nathan Lee could smell the fresh dirt of a dig. They descended into a room with an altar built against one wall. Next to it yawned a narrow tunnel. The floor of the subterranean chapel was piled with dirt on tarps. Sieve trays were neatly nested by a grid frame, trowels, and other tools of the trade. "After you," said Ochs, shining his light into the tunnel.
Nathan Lee turned on his headlamp. It was his father's headlamp, a taped, tended thing. Get over it, he thought.
He had to crouch to move inside. The Franciscan team had braced the sides and ceiling with scaffolding and beams. Somehow it had stood up to the tremors. His claustrophobia was not helped by Ochs looming behind him.
"Careful ahead. It goes back twelve meters, then turns right, and drops nine meters."
"It goes down? I thought this was bedrock."
"So did everyone else. Then they did a sonar scan from the chapel above, and the new cavity popped out at them. The old quarry ran deeper than anyone realized. Keep moving."
A beam had sagged in the ceiling. Ochs kept talking. "When the Romans started building their Venus temple, they needed to fill in all the pits and cavities. They used whatever was at hand. Dirt, garbage, potsherds, and . . ."
Nathan Lee reached the pit.
The walls were studded with white and brown sticks. "Human bones," he said.
A small ledge had been trimmed along the lip of the pit. A rope ladder fell into the depths. Ochs crowded beside him. They shined their lights on the tangle of bones jutting from the deeper walls.
"It will take years to properly excavate the cave," said Ochs. "Years more to articulate the skeletons. So far all they've done is sink this exploratory shaft. What little material that's come out has been dated and sexed, though. All are male. Most are first century or earlier. And there's no question how they died."
"The missing crucifixions," murmured Nathan Lee.
"It's one giant, compacted ossuary. The estimates run into the tens of thousands of bone fragments. They've even found pieces of wood, nails, rope. And tear phials left by mourners. Forget the rock of Calvary. Golgotha was here after all, right outside the old gates, alongside the road to Jaffa where every traveler could see the wrath of Rome."
The shaft gaped up at them. "This is incredible," said Nathan Lee. "It could change the way we read history."
"So could the Dead Sea Scrolls," said Ochs. "But look how long the Vatican sat on them. Decades. It took a lone scholar leaking photocopies to finally let the rest of the world see them."
"So looting is a public service?"
"That's the spirit," said Ochs.
"But you'll destroy the site."
"That's archaeology. To dig is to destroy. Anyway, it could all be lost again in the aftershocks."
"Someone will notice."
"No one will notice. They don't know what's here. How can they know what's not?"
Ochs handed Nathan Lee the plastic envelope containing their body bag. "Let's get this over with. Fill it up."
"This doesn't make sense. Who would buy a pile of bones?"
"Who do you think pays for you to root in the dirt? The university? Where do they get their money? Foundations? What are they? The aristocracy. Wrap your head around it. Aristocracy is the engine that drives archaeological exploration. Private collectors, museums, the cognoscenti. Without them, artifacts would simply fall to dust."
There was nothing more to argue. Nathan Lee climbed down the rope ladder. The braided hemp creaked under his weight. He had never seemed so heavy. Down at the bottom, he began cutting loose the dead.
It was nearly four in the morning when Nathan Lee finished. The bones rattled in the body bag. They backtracked through the church and up the ridge to where Nathan Lee's cairn marked the site of the buried woman.
Her hand was gone.
He searched. It was possible an animal had torn it loose, or the stones had sealed it over. But there was no blood. To Nathan Lee it was as if she had pulled her hand back into the underworld. Away from him.
Copyright © 2002 by Jeff Long
Meet the Author
Jeff Long is the New York Times bestselling author whose novels include The Wall, The Reckoning (in development with Reese Witherspoon at Type A Productions), Year Zero, and The Descent. He is a veteran climber and traveler in the Himalayas and has worked as a stonemason, journalist, historian, screenwriter, and elections supervisor for Bosnia's first democratic election. His next novel, Deeper, is forthcoming in hardcover from Atria Books. He lives in Colorado.
Visit his website at www.jefflongbooks.com.
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