Painter frowned up at him. “What do you mean?”

Renny explained. “Our entire genetic code is built on four chemical bases: guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine. G, A, T, C. From that four-letter vocabulary, all life is formed.” He cocked an eye at the spiraling molecule. “But PNA is not restricted to those four letters. Can you imagine what could be created with more letters of the alphabet? We could rewrite mankind.”

Despite Renny’s obvious excitement, Painter imagined only horrors.

“But far more importantly,” Renny pressed, “this cyberstrand of PNA can be designed to specifically turn on and off certain genes. PNA has already been used to cure a form of muscular dystrophy in lab mice. But that’s just the beginning. The potential is limitless. We’re talking about blocking cancer, treating hundreds of genetic diseases, even extending life.”

Renny stared longingly at the computer. “If DNA holds the key to life … then PNA is its lock pick. For whoever holds that tool in hand, nothing would be impossible.”

Painter’s dismay grew darker, picturing the lab in Charleston, the women floating in tanks.

Jason tapped at the open office door and saved him from having to ponder worse. “Director, I’m sorry to interrupt, but we just finished receiving an extremely large file from Charleston. I thought you might like to see it. The folder’s name is HISTORY AND ORIGINS.”

Painter sat straighter, happy to forgo any more biological discussions for now. He wanted to get to the root of everything and that file name sounded promising: history and origins.

Jason dashed some of that hope. “But, sir, the folder is badly corrupted. We’re working on it, but I can forward what we have so far, a couple odd pictures and documents.”

“Do it,” Painter said.

Jason pointed to the computer. “Already done.”

No wonder Kat loves this kid.

Painter swung to the keyboard and clicked open the first few uncorrupted documents. A drawing filled the screen.

It showed a trio of men, in colonial attire, with their arms clasped together: gripping right hands above their heads and left hands below. In both of the upper corners of the sketch, a three-headed snake coiled.

“What is this?” Painter mumbled, not expecting an answer—but he got one.

“That’s the Holy Royal Arch,” Renny said, sounding equally surprised to know the answer.

Painter turned to him. “How do you know that?”

“Because I’m a member of the guild.” Renny must have read Painter’s stunned look. “Not that Guild. I’m talking about the Masons. My family has been members going back to our time in Ireland.”

Painter pointed to the screen. “And this?”

“Don’t know a whole lot about it. What’s drawn there is the ritual of three-times-three, a sacred number in freemasonry. It’s a part of the initiation into the Royal Arch Degree, but plenty of mystery surrounds that exclusive degree, like its exact origin. It’s said to be tied back to the Knights Templar. The three-times-three ritual … in other words, nine … represents the original nine founding members of the Knights Templar.”

Painter stared at the screen. What is this drawing doing on the servers of a genetics lab?

Despite the oddity, he had a suspicion of the answer—but only because of the previous discussion with Renny. Painter studied the three men entwined together, the three-headed snakes. It was eerily similar to the three-stranded helix, three wound together as one. Even Renny had used the term a snake wrapped around the tree of life to describe the triple helix.

Painter read the annotation at the bottom of the drawing, stating the source: a book titled Duncan’s Masonic Ritual and Monitor, printed back in 1866.

How could a book dated almost a century and a half ago be referencing—at least symbolically—a triple helix?

Painter was reminded of the file folder’s name.

History and Origins

Sensing the importance here, he wanted the rest of this folder decrypted as soon as possible—if it was possible.

Jason suddenly dashed back to the door with grim news. “Director! We just lost connection to Charleston. The feed from Captain Bryant’s device suddenly ceased in midtransmission.”

Painter sat straighter. “The pen’s battery? Did it die?”

“No, sir. This time we were monitoring the charge levels. It was still good.”

Painter’s heart sank, knowing there was only one explanation left.

Jason stated it aloud. “Someone must have discovered her bug and disabled it.”

But what did that mean for Kat?


July 2, 6:48 P.M. EST

Charleston, South Carolina

“Find them!”

Kat slipped silently into a side room off the dark lab hallway. Before disappearing inside, she caught a peek of Dr. Marshall at the far end, storming out of her office, surrounded by a cadre of security guards.

“Split up! Search every closet, storage space, and lab on both sides!”

Kat closed the door quietly, struggling with the handle due to her greasy palm. The room was lit only by the glowing screensaver of a computer monitor. Again it depicted that strange triple helix. Kat hoped the files she’d been downloading had reached somebody at Sigma.

As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she noted the neighboring wall contained shelves of five-liter glass jars, reflecting the meager light. Dark things lurked and floated inside. Kat caught the barest glimpse of curled tiny fingers. She turned her back, not wanting to see more, not after witnessing the horrors out in the main room, the women in the tanks. These jars likely held the end product of that research.

Kat still held her folding combat blade, dulled now from all the hacking and sawing. She’d had only two minutes to ready herself for the siege ahead, barely enough time to get Amy hidden and out of harm’s way. In her head, calculations continued to run as a mental timer ticked down.

Seven tanks … 300 psia/tank … estimated volume of laboratory space …

She heard doors opening and slamming, men shouting orders, working swiftly down the hall toward her position. She had left a door open farther back—but the guards would reach her first.

As planned.

She closed her eyes, taking several deep breaths. She used the extra seconds to smear more of the gelatinous fluid over her face and shaved scalp, leaving a thick film. Her clothes and the rest of her body were equally slathered and dripping with the hydrophilic gel—the same pinkish material that was filling the monstrous tanks in the main room.