Imperial Rome - 18 June 64

The vast piazza outside the city wall fell quiet.  Only Petros’s agonal groans broke the stillness.  Eventually, gratefully, he surrendered to unconsciousness and, a short time later, death.

Rome’s bright sun dimmed to a luminous rose color.  Normally frenetic swallows and starlings fell silent.  The land breeze eased and wildflowers bowed under their own weight.

After satisfying themselves that their prisoner was dead, the soldiers tried to take Petros's body down from the cross.  But the weight of his large body had wedged the long, square nails solidly into the wood.  Several attempts to extract them failed.  Finally one of the soldiers found an ax and cut the body down with one powerful stroke of the blade through Petros’s ankles. Spared the weight upon them, the nails through his wrists were then readily pulled free.  The soldiers carried the long corpse over to a pyre between the River Tiber and the city wall.

It wasn't much of a fire.  An afternoon shower had reduced the pyre to a steaming mound of smoldering, half-incinerated corpses. More fuel was needed, but the soldiers were in no mood to chop down more trees at this late hour, so they took a chance that no one would check their work so late in the day.  They hoisted Petros’s body onto the head-high pile of foul, simmering death.  Then, their work completed, they picked up their tools and walked back to the garrison.

New religions were a constant in the life of Rome; this one would be no more enduring than any of the others.  No one would ever know that Petros or his people had lived at all.  His life was just one more story to be lost in the mists of time and memory.

Three shadows stole up to the pyre in the ebbing daylight.  They lifted Petros’s charred body and swiftly disappeared into shadows along the bank of the Tiber.

A short time later, in a pagan necropolis outside the city wall, three men delivered Petros’s corpse to a wealthy Roman freedman at his family's pagan mausoleum.  Working to a pre-arranged plan, they carried it into the burial chamber, where they bathed it in milk and wine, carefully washing his head and hair, working down to the raw stumps just above where his ankles had been.  They closed all of the body’s orifices with pure bleached cotton.

At this point, working quickly but respectfully, they cut seven minae of mastic and fifty leaves of myrrh, aloes and Indian leaf and wrapped the corpse in expensive purple cloth ­— the purple reserved for gods and prominent Romans.  Inappropriate use of the specially dyed fabric meant the death penalty if they were caught.

Finally, the owner of the vault poured some Attic honey into his own marble coffin and laid Petros to rest and sealed the sealed compartment.  He marked the tomb with a simple white pagan marker.  For Romans, white stone commemorated a joyful day.  It was a clever cover.  No one would think of this as anything but the final rest of a fellow pagan.  When they finished, the three hurriedly left to avoid suspicion.

Thus the three citizens — who, if their actions had been  known to the authorities would surely have been put to death as criminals — helped their patron in one more obscure act in the esoteric life of a Roman.

A.D. 253

Smoke hung over the seven hills and glowed from blazes set by the persecutors.  Screams filled the air and hoarse pleas to pagan Gods floated on wings of certain death in every section of the city.

At the crypt of the freedman, two men and a woman deftly gathered dozens of bleached bones in a partially decomposed purple cloth.  Even as marauding hordes plundered nearby graves for jewels, the bones were carefully placed in a niche in the wall beside the grave.  They then plastered up the niche so expertly that the owner himself would not recognize the modification that had been made to his own crypt.

The woman pulled a stylus from her waist band and paused for strength.  The men averted their eyes as her face twitched violently and her lips whispered the prayer.  They admired her courage but couldn’t bear her defect.  Finally, she reached up and carefully scratched two words in the hardening plaster.  The men added then their own coded requests for prayers, as was the custom at every Roman grave.

ROGA CHRISTUS JESU (Pray Jesus Christ), wrote one man several times.  IN HOC VINCE (In this, conquer), wrote the other.  They scratched their words over and around the woman's words in such a way that people who came there would need to know what they were looking for to see the words, to understand their meaning.

In 313 A.D., Emperor Constantine ordered construction of his basilica-martyrium over what tradition indicated was the tomb of Peter.

More than eight centuries passed.  Calixtus II built a larger marble altar directly over Constantine’s memoria.

In the year 1300, two million pilgrims visited the memoria in response to a rumor that those who visited this place where Saint Peter’s remains were believed to be interred would receive full absolution from their sins.

In 1506 Pope Julius II ordered that a Christian basilica “in the Renaissance style” replace the deteriorating Constantine basilica.

Urban VIII commissioned Giovanni Bernini to create a baldacchino, or canopy, over the high altar.  Bernini sculpted his ornate baldacchino in brass and raised its roof ninety-five feet above the altar.

Above this soared Michelangelo’s dome, the largest of its kind in world history.  Above the dome, Catholics believed, Peter’s spirit watched over it all.

All these layers upon layers of human tumult were motivated solely by the inherited tradition that the remains of Peter, Christ’s most trusted Apostle, were there.  No one could be sure, however.  Certain tenets of the Church were supported by faith alone.  Until science developed tools to confirm the tradition, faith would have to suffice.

28 June 1968

More than fifteen years after her first glimpse at the tangle of scribbles on the excavated plaster wall, another Italian woman, the noted cryptographer Dr. Anna Aldobrandi, stood beside Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Paul VI as he made the most electrifying announcement in the ancient history of the Roman Catholic Church: The skeletal remains of Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles and the rock upon which the Catholic Church was built, had been identified.

Dr. Aldobrandi, along with an international team of specialists, had proved beyond any doubt that Peter had been found.  The crucial last piece in one of the greatest puzzles of all time had fallen into place when she deciphered the two words scratched into the plaster over the niche by another woman nearly two thousand years earlier: Petros Eni.

Their meaning: Peter is within.

Chapter One

Cittâ del Vaticano

Giuliana Sabatini stood at the window of her tiny office overlooking St. Peter’s Square, her glance inevitably drawn toward the iron cross atop the obelisk that dominated the piazza, trying to calm her quick Italian temper.  Once again, Cosa was toying with her.  The cardinal had demanded her presence at an urgent early-morning meeting, only to have her informed by an aide once she arrived that the meeting had been postponed “until sometime later in the day.”

“‘Later in the day,’” Giuliana had repeated the obsequious voice’s words into the phone with a small frown.  “When?  An hour from now?  This afternoon?  Early or late?  Have I time to return home to retrieve the notes I was working on, or must I wait here all day at the Cardinal’s convenience?  How soon is ‘later in the day’?”

“I’m sorry, Dottore; that is all I can tell you.  His Eminence will inform me, and I will inform you.”

She had hurried her morning run, rushed from the Metro at Stazione Ottaviano with the rising sun in order to have time for early Mass, and had been pacing the confines of her cell of an office, too keyed up to concentrate on her work, ever since.  It was now past noon.  Nor was this the first time Cosa had done such a thing.

Adeodato Cardinal Cosa was one of the most powerful men in Rome and her immediate superior.  Giuliana has snapped at his aide because she could not snap at him.  Now, as the soft Roman breeze teased her fiery chestnut hair, she calmed herself.  She was well aware of how fortunate she, a laywoman, was to be in the place she was in the hierarchy of the Church.  If Cosa wanted her to wait, she would wait.  It was the province of those in power to exercise that power by making those who served them wait.

Her senses alive to whatever this summons might mean, Giuliana waited.

BioGenera Laboratory
La Jolla, California

Andrew Shepard stood disbelieving in the cool limbo of 3:30 a.m., hands gripping the edge of the table, knuckles whitening. A gust of wind teased the window blinds while outside, eucalyptus leaves rattled the air. Sensing a shift in polarity, he fingered a tuft of Niko’s black simian hair.

His thoughts slowed and awareness buckled in the vacuum of failure. He felt himself sinking, a drowning man observing his own descent. How could it be happening again?

He had planned the experiment in three stages.  Before he could even begin the first stage, he and his lab assistant Will Austin had to invest considerable time in getting acquainted with Niko and Lucy, a pair of adolescent chimps.  Both chimps had been well trained before BioGenera acquired them,, a fact of which CEO Mike Gindman could not resist reminding Andrew at nearly every budget meeting.  They were docile, housebroken, able to communicate their essential needs in the gestures of American Sign Language.  Even so, they required almost as much attention as a pair of energetic children.

The nature of Andrew’s experiment required that he treat these animals not as mere lab specimens but almost as friends.  The more he knew about Niko’s personality, in particular, the better he would be able to measure the success of his experiment.

Stage One had consisted of injecting a solution of Niko’s DNA into the bloodstream of the rhesus monkey, R.H.  There had been no adverse effects following the first injection; in fact, there had been no effects at all.  Forty-eight hours later Andrew had ordered Will to administer a second injection.  Nothing.

R.H. had evidenced no psychological changes, no alteration in behavior or activity throughout six weeks’ observation. Stage One was a failure.

Andrew knew he could hardly walk into the next staff meeting and say as much to Gindman.  His boss ran BioGenera on success, not failure.  With a silent prayer, he had worked all night to prepare Niko for Stage Two.

Now he traced the hollow below Niko’s ribs, the slackness of the diaphragm, its readiness for breath.  Bending down, he blew onto the chest, caressed the muscled forearm and elongated hand. Where was the life that surged through these limbs? Andrew felt Lucy’s dark eyes observing him. Trust still shone in her expression as she also waited for movement on the table.  She glanced at Andrew for understanding, then back to the still form of her mate.  A shadow darted across her gaze and wrinkled her brow.  A muted whimper sounded from deep within her, and she reached out between the bars to touch, to calm herself.

Andrew swallowed.  He had to accept responsibility.  Placing his hand on the small chest, he held his breath and listened.  It was useless; the rush of blood in his own veins was too loud for him to hear anything.

“Niko . . .” he whispered.

Niko was more than just a monkey, more than merely another subject for experimentation.  He was Andrew’s link between species, an eloquent reminder of nature’s complexity who both humbled and inspired the biogeneticist.

Science was Andrew’s religion, the search for truth in the maze of genetics his mission.  Angels dancing on the head of a pin, the legacy of his Catholic boyhood, had long since been displaced by the cryptic dance of genes along the spiral microcosm of DNA.  Niko had been his last hope of rising out of anonymous scientific mediocrity and making a lasting contribution to the betterment of his species.  And because Andrew treated him as a friend, Niko had overcome his distrust of men in white lab coats and showed interest in his keeper.

He would watch Andrew sit at his desk making notes, absentmindedly pulling on his earlobe, constructing double-helix DNA models from colorful plastic sticks and spheres, drifting into thoughts far, far removed from the lab, staring unblinking out the window for an hour. Niko followed the suspended motion for as long as a minute or two.  Beyond that his self-control would crumble and he would take to distractions, flinging tennis balls out of his cell, clapping noisily, rattling his toys against the bars.  He had once beaned Andrew with a teddy bear from across the laboratory, a direct hit, and was immensely proud of it.  Even Lucy, usually the quieter of the two, had applauded that one.  Still, they had both finally learned that nothing could command Andrew’s attention once he was absorbed in his work.

Andrew’s ex-wife, Margaret, had learned as much too, though it had taken her considerably longer.

Every morning Andrew let Niko and Lucy out of their large cell so they could sit at the window overlooking Torrey Pines Golf Course and the Pacific.  They drank in the fresh air, dozed in the sun, studied the flights of sea birds and the seasonal migrating of whales. Neither Andrew nor Will worried about the chimps’ getting into serious trouble or ingesting anything harmful.  They found Andrew’s steady diet of coffee and bagels with peanut butter downright repulsive.

Niko would curl into Andrew’s lap when the sun traveled beyond the window and insist on play. When he didn’t get enough hide-and-seek or wrestling or even simple grooming, his tantrums would be heard all the way to Mike Gindman’s penthouse office.

The phone would ring.  Always Gindman’s executive assistant, Delphine.  Always the purred taunt: ‘Who’s running that asylum, Dr. Shepard?’

Always Andrew would laugh.  Watching him, Niko would throw back his head in perfect imitation and, silently, laugh too.

She hurried from the Metro at Stazione Ottaviano under the penetrating gazes of idle merchants and women who looked closely before averting their eyes. Through Porta Angelica and across the vast piazza, she walked on stones that remembered the birth of faith, pausing in the morning light to stand quietly on the piazza floor.

She looked up at the basilica and listened.  It was her way.  To listen to the stones, remembering the birth of faith before practicing it.  When she ascended the steps from Rome’s teeming vizio into the muted radiance of San Pietro in Vaticano, she felt instantly closer to God.

Two of the five massive bronze doors were open.  The others, with the exception of the Porta Sancta, would open in time for the rush of tourists and pilgrims at midmorning.  By papal decree in the year 1300, only the pontiff was permitted to open the Porta Sancta, and only during a Holy Year.  A brick wall behind it was loosely assembled to enable the feeblest of popes to destroy it with a few hammer blows.

Giuliana walked across Maderno’s seventeenth-century atrium and felt her heart quicken as she approached the nave, the vast main aisle of the basilica.  Michelangelo's architectural vision was impressive by any standard, but it assumed miraculous significance when she remembered that the maestro had executed it in his seventy-second year with the technology of 1547.

The church stretched out more than six hundred feet from where she stood, down the nave, beyond the papal altar, all the way to the wall of the apse behind Bernini’s Cathedra Petri.  The ceiling hovered 150 feet above her, soaring 390 feet to the lantern in the dome above the altar!

A visiting American priest’s Latinate chant drifted  quietly from the far corner.  Giuliana followed the voice to the Chapel of the Crucifixion of Saint Peter where early Mass was under way.

“Hoc est enim corpus meum. . . . This is My body . . .”

She was surprised and thrilled to hear Latin again. It had been banned for thirty years, but there were still many Catholics like herself who cherished the mystery of the Mass in Latin and sought it out.  She offered a prayer of thanks for the American priest’s courage.  He would be disciplined, she thought sadly.

The ring of sanctus bells floated on scented air, and Giuliana prepared to receive the body of Christ.  Despite the grip of crisis in which the Church had struggled since Vatican II, including a dizzying array of seemingly insoluble dilemmas — polarization between individual freedom and church authority, erosion of the priesthood, alienation of the faithful, and the Holy See’s credibility in sexual matters — Giuliana found comfort in the Eucharist.  It was a constant in a life in which she had experienced violent change.

“The body of Christ . . .,” proclaimed the priest in his broad American accent as he held up the Eucharist for her to receive.  Chicago, Giuliana guessed.

"Amen," she whispered and gratefully accepted the unleavened wafer on her outstretched tongue.

Crossing herself, she turned and found an empty pew in which to thank God for his blessings and for his forbearance in her weaknesses.  She knelt, eyes closed to better see Christ, hands folded as the nuns taught her so long ago, heart open to inspiration to be a better Catholic.  She wished she could stay there forever, lulled by Gregorian chant and the padding of pilgrim feet.

Above her, gray stone ascended to form graceful arches, the Gothic metaphor for hands joined in prayer.

After an appropriate pause she rose and walked north across the centuries-old mosaic-tiled floor.  Her heels clicked crisply, but the sound was lost to all but the shifting chalk of the saints’ bones beneath the floor and in the walls.  Even sound lost itself in this place.

When she reached the statue of Saint Peter near the entrance to the Sacred Grotto, Giuliana touched his smoothly worn foot, genuflected and crossed herself.  Mornings like this, on which she was about to participate in the Vatican’s holy work, refreshed her spirit.  She had prayed for the opportunity to develop her talents.  And now she prayed to Saint Peter, asking him to deliver her gratitude to God’s ear.

Stretching out before her, twin marble stairways descended into the Confessio, the devotional area over Saint Peter's tomb, which lay directly below the highest point of the dome.  Ninety-five sanctuary lamps, perpetually lit,  flickered along the stairwells to light the way to grace near Peter's final resting place.

There could be no doubt that the bones were those of Saint Peter.  It wasn’t just the weight of archaeological and forensic evidence that made Giuliana certain, it was an act of faith, inspired by the faith of those who had gone before, the faith that, as much as genius and skill and years of labor, had fashioned this place.

Michelangelo had designed this largest of all Cathedrals so that its highest point, the dome that rose above so much of Rome, perched four hundred feet directly above Peter’s remains, one foot for every year until 1951, when technology enabled man to positively identify Peter’s bones.  Giuliana basked in the cascading fall of light and felt herself fully restored.  The spirit of Peter touched her with the light, as if acknowledging that he had successfully completed his errand.  It was amazing how good life could be when one surrendered to the blessings of a faithful life.

This morning Giuliana was to have met with Special Pontifical Adviser Adeodato Cardinal Cosa regarding a matter of utmost concern to him.  Therefore, she had wanted to be at the pinnacle of her physical and mental powers.

She ran an extra two kilometers above and beyond her usual five along the River Tiber, crossing the Ponte Palatino into Rome proper, around the Circus Massimo, the Palatine, and back across the Tiber by way of the Ponte Angelo.

At thirty-eight, Giuliana was just beginning to feel the effects of running on her knees.  Her legs were perfectly proportioned, not muscular like those of some runners.  She was careful to avoid that.  But her knees tired more easily now.

To most observers, Giuliana was simply an attractive Italian signora with luxuriant hair, neat proportions, the grace of a royal, and an earthly gaze that seemed ready to sparkle into delighted laughter at the slightest prompting.  Despite her apparent beauty, however, she felt awkward within.  Even clumsy at times.  Why, she did not understand.  Perhaps her childhood experience had left her with some residual strangeness, a sense of unreality.  But she was as aware of her own awkwardness as she was of her need to overcome it.

And now Cosa had thrown her off balance again, as he seemed to take a perverse pleasure in doing.  The reason for postponing their meeting until the afternoon, as Giuliana had finally managed to wring out of the obsequious aide, had something to do with the availability of Monsignor Kleiman.

Monsignor Kleiman was the guardian of the vatican reliquaries, the keeper of the bones of saints and presumed saints, an antiquity among the antiquities.  What could the need for his presence at a meeting that Cosa had deemed “of greatest importance” possibly mean?

Puzzling over this, Giuliana had essentially squandered the greater part of the day.  Now, as the midday siesta ended and the rest of Rome resumed its daily activities, she returned to the basilica to bask in the light for a moment, then crossed herself once more and continued out of the nave enroute to Cardinal Cosa’s office.

Andrew forced himself to dictate notes, each word a reproach:  “Time of death” — he looked at the wall clock — “3:32 A.M. . . .”

He dutifully recorded the volume of blood drawn from his own vein, the clear gelatinous texture of his purified DNA, Niko’s acceptance of the injection, the drift into sleep, then the seizure and expiration.  His voice tightened as memories of Niko played across his mind.

He carefully, respectfully bagged Niko’s small body and rolled it toward the refrigerator as Lucy watched stoically.  Andrew heard a small, plaintive cry and turned to comfort her.  But the cry hadn’t come from Lucy.  She was silent, focusing wide-eyed on the bag.

Andrew pulled on the wide zipper even as the bag began to move.  The zipper jammed, and he struggled with it, finally getting it open all the way.  First two overlong furry arms emerged, the almost-human hands grasping at Andrew’s, then Niko in his entirety clambered out of the bag and bounded to the floor, mouthing sounds as if trying to speak.

Too shocked to react, Andrew simply stared.  Lucy leaped and shrieked and gesticulated, then as suddenly quieted, studying her mate.

Niko walked.  Not lumbered or toddled, but walked on two feet to Andrew’s desk.  He “spoke” in an entirely new pattern of intonations and rhythms. Andrew imagined words.

“Niko?” He found his voice.

“Hm?” answered Niko without looking around.  He found half a bagel thick with peanut butter amid the clutter on Andrew’s desk, tested it with his index finger, then bit into it and began to chew.

Andrew’s shocked expression melted first into a dull suspicion, then into the openness of discovery.

Niko strode over to the coffeemaker, puzzled for a moment over how to reach it from chimp height, then moved the desk chair to the counter, clambered up, and poured himself a cup of coffee, which he placed fastidiously on the desk.  He then moved Andrew’s chair back over to the desk, sat down, and sipped distractedly.

Lucy shrieked her surprise, but Niko didn’t seem to notice.  Smacking his lips he studied the double helix on the desk.  He pulled a red ball off the model and replaced it with a blue one to complete a chromosome — a refinement that had occurred to Andrew just moments before he had stopped work on it to give Niko the injection.  Niko set the model down, studied it from multiple perspectives, and showed his teeth.

After another sip of the steaming coffee, he settled, chin on hand, and gazed out the window into the night.  His eyes soon glazed over and he became the image of thought.

Lucy watched closely, calm now, intensely curious.

Andrew stroked Niko’s head.  He was rewarded with a pleasant, distracted sigh.

Seeing Niko this way, mimicking his own gestures and behaviors, Andrew had a sense of being in two places at once, as if he were looking into a mirror and seeing an ancient parallel reflection of himself.

“You exist!” he whispered. “It works!”

Niko heaved another sigh. It took Andrew’s listening heart and lifted it to a new place.

“We did it!”

He leaped up and down, danced around the lab tables, rattled the bars of Lucy’s cell, ran into the next room and back to the window.  He shouted and sang, a high-pitched wail.  He had accomplished that which he had come to believe couldn’t be done.

After several minutes of frenzy, he settled chest heaving, heart racing into the chair near Niko, who remained focused on his distant mystery.

Moonlight shone in silvered patterns.  Distant chimes rang 4:00 a.m. from the village tower and stopped.  Waves from Japan thundered on Black’s Beach below, and Andrew turned deeper into the spell of his discovery.

The last time he felt this way was when he first saw a cell subdivide.  He felt as if he'd seen God, like he could invent a religion.

“We’ve crossed the Rubicon, Niko, my friend,” he breathed, “. . . my . . . self.”

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