He led Gray over to an open page of a book of Masonic rites. It showed three men clasping hands, entwined very much like the snakes on the staff. And if there was any doubt, the snakes were depicted there, too—with three heads.

“So you see how steadfastly we believed,” Robert said. “And in the end, we were proven right.”

“Right? How?”

“The drawing on the staff was knowledge encoded for future generations. Genetic knowledge.” Robert pointed to the other symbol on the door. “That’s when the symbol got changed, transforming the snakes into what they really represented: strands of DNA.”

“You’re saying that ancients in the past knew enough about DNA to encode it as snakes on a staff.”

“Possibly. Back in the sixties, a scientist named Hayflick determined that man’s natural age could not exceed 120 years. He based that on the number of times a cell could divide.”

“I’m familiar with the Hayflick Limit,” Gray said, having studied biophysics.

“Then is it mere coincidence that the book of Genesis came to the same conclusion about the limits to a man’s lifetime? To quote from that book of the Bible: His days shall be a hundred and twenty years. The same conclusion as Hayflick’s. Where did that knowledge come from?”

“Okay, that’s strange, I admit. But that’s a far cry from saying that the snakes on the staff represent strands of DNA. There are three snakes drawn there. DNA is a double helix.”

“Ah, but there’s the rub. The secret of immortality doesn’t lie within two strands, but three, a triple helix. That’s what is written on the staff. It took until the modern age, with the aid of DNA analysis, for us to unravel that mystery.”

“How did you do that?”

“When our errant knight left with the staff, she killed the previous immortal who possessed it—likely the last of his kind. She spilled his blood, which was preserved on the staff. In his blood, we discovered his white cells possessed triple-helical DNA.”

This sharpened Gray’s attention. “Triple-helical DNA?”

He was beginning to appreciate the enormity of the revelation here.

Robert nodded. “Once genetic science advanced enough to let us decode that third strand, we determined it was actually a viral protein—from a plant virus. The protein was a natural form of peptide nucleic acid, PNA. It infected human cells after someone ate that plant. A side effect of this virus leaping from plant to animal was that it stabilized cells, staved off cellular degeneration, and extended the life spans of the infected dramatically.”

Gray pictured the Garden of Eden. “The mythical tree of life.”

“Maybe not so mythical after all.”

“But I thought you said the plant’s fields were drowned during the Great Flood. How did this guardian come to possess it?”

“Apparently, someone had the foresight to stockpile some of the plants, drying them out like tea leaves. From the chronicles of the knight who stole the staff, written on her deathbed, she described a row of Egyptian sarcophagi full of brittle leaves and stems in the crypt. Focused on her goal, she didn’t think anything about it and left it all to burn.”

Gray appreciated the irony. “So, like the Eve of old, your knight stole the tree of knowledge, bringing you this cryptic clue about immortality—but she left behind the tree of life.”

“So it seems. In the end, we tried to reverse-engineer that viral PNA protein, but it proved no good. Too much degradation. So we had to start from scratch, engineering our own PNA and testing it.”

Gray imagined the horrors and abuses involved with that research.

Even Robert didn’t sound proud, his voice growing hushed. “But over time, we improved enough to produce the first stable child.”

“Amanda’s son.”

He nodded. “But that stability ended up to be only temporary. And yet the cost of it was still so high. First, Amanda’s life. Now, my brother’s.” He pointed toward the door. “And soon my grandnephew. It’s too much. I must do what I can to preserve the rest of my family.”

They headed across the hall.

Robert’s melancholia settled back on his shoulders. “I was a boy when I made my pact with that inner circle of the family, with the Bloodline. I thought what we were doing here was so much larger than any individual life.”

Until it hit closer to home.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

And that weight and guilt would only grow when he assumed his brother’s place at the White House, bringing the Bloodline fully into power versus pulling the strings behind James Gant’s back.

“Why have you told me all of this?” Gray asked. “Why did you bring me down here?”

“So you might understand why a naïve boy might succumb to such a cruelty, but an old man cannot suffer more loss.” Robert turned to him. “I brought you down here so that you could tell the world.”

Gray gaped, shocked. The loss of his brother must have been the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back.

But didn’t Robert order that assassination? Or was he as much a puppet on a string as President Gant?

For now, Gray had a more important question if the man was folding up his tent. “Why don’t you come forward yourself?”

“I’ve suffered enough. I will take those closest to me and vanish, to go where the Lineage cannot find us.” Robert headed away. “I leave the rest on your shoulders.”

Gray followed behind him, passing the neighboring bank of mainframes in the other room. If Robert wanted to spill all, then he wanted to know everything.

“What’s with the computer servers?” he asked, sensing something important hidden there.

Robert glanced disinterestedly in that direction. “If this room is our heart—that’s our brain, our memory. It holds our entire lineage, not just under the Gant name but the others who were lost to the past. All the way back to our rumored beginning.”

Gray wanted to hear this. “What beginning?”

“The crescent and the star. Our first symbol. Some of our earliest records connect those two symbols to the Canaanite god of human sacrifice.”

That’s certainly fitting.

“That god was named Moloch, represented by the horns of a cow or the horns of a crescent moon. A closely related god was Rephan, represented by the star. Some of our historians believe our roots go back to the time of Moses, that we were cast out by him for worshipping the crescent and the star.” He glanced back to the staff. “There is a verse from the biblical Acts. ‘You have lifted up the shrine of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’”

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