THE SHROUD is an adventure novel that explores the intersection between science and spirituality. Drs. Robert Strickland and Jordan Randall are genomic researchers at the National Institutes of Health. They are asked by the Vatican to use leading edge technology to shed new light on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. The ensuing investigative journey--from Washington D.C., to Israel, to Belize--has global repercussions, and transforms the lives of all involved.
After a few hours' sleep, Strickland woke, unable to stop thinking about the potential porphyria trigger sequence. He padded out to the courtyard of his condominium building, slipped on a mask and snorkel, and floated facedown in the warm waters of the big oval swimming pool. Focusing on slow, even breath, he watched the ghostly intertwining patterns of light on the pool bottom. The iridescent shapes were impossible to lock on to--constantly in motion, merging and morphing in response to every tiny disturbance on the surface.
As he lay still, the water calmed, and the hypnotic beauty and symmetry of the shapes intensified. He had always believed that every aspect of nature held answers, if only we could interpret the data. Everywhere you looked, tantalizing secrets were on display--from the mysterious way birds flocked and moved en masse, to the elegantly programmed social behavior of insects, to the streaming of cytoplasm within a cell. Each reflected fundamental scientific principles, yet the overarching insights often felt just out of reach. All you got was the teaser--the intuitive sense that extraordinary treasures lay veiled right before your eyes.
Jordan Randall typed the ID number of the requested skin sample into the lab's main database, then imported the DNA sequence data from the sample into the RES-5000 3-D computer graphics "reanimation" system. It was the final step in a complex and now regularly occurring analytical process.
Using the vast body of knowledge that had emerged from the Human Genome Project, it was now possible to produce a head-only computer-generated representation of a given subject based solely on the subject's DNA. Single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) were key to the process, providing data on the myriad traits that had come to be recognized as "the individual." The RES-5000 could render overall facial features--cheek, chin, nose, lips, forehead, hair and eye color, complexion--and even a synthesized voice based on larynx structure.
Genetic reanimation had become the hot new tool in forensic pathology. All it took was a strand of hair, a drop of blood, or a tiny skin sample to visually identify a victim or criminal. For both altruistic and revenue generating reasons, Strickland's lab had begun regularly performing such analyses.
Skin cells recovered from under the fingernails of a recent murder victim were the source of Randall's current genetic analysis. The crime's circumstances were similar to another murder case for which there was already a detailed suspect description. The RES-5000 image would
either reinforce the connection or lead the investigation in a new direction. The technique was still considered somewhat experimental by the courts--roughly the same order of reliability as a polygraph test--and could be used to free or convict only with other corroborating evidence.
Strickland walked in and glanced at the subject materializing on the high-resolution monitor. "Just look at that face," he said. "A born killer if ever I saw one."
"You can't really tell," Randall replied solemnly. "I've seen enough to know."
"Just kidding, of course," Strickland said, grabbing his leather folio and heading back out the door. "I'm off to present our latest milestones to the Directors' Council. Back in an hour or so."
"Okay. You know where to find me--in here, playing God."
The protests continued. Meanwhile, for nearly a week, both the NIH and the Vatican were the scenes of in-house battles over how to proceed. Finally, they each issued press releases reiterating that the Vatican was now in full possession of all materials related to the Shroud of Turin, intimating that any cause for controversy was now past. But both camps left the question of actual genetic analysis or manipulation glaringly unaddressed.
Sara Bender watched the evening news over dinner, as they profiled an odd new group calling itself Neoteric. The Neoterics had mobilized a candlelight vigil numbering in the thousands. The group's followers wore hooded iridescent robes of a holographic Mylar material, giving them a monk-like aura but with a futuristic patina. Gathered in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, they held bioluminescent candlesticks, chanting in Gregorian tones. The light from their wands rose into the night, casting the assembled faces in an unearthly glow.
Rather than protesting what had allegedly occurred at the NIH, the Neoterics saw recent events as welcome harbingers of a new era. They disagreed, a spokesperson said, not with the basic precepts and beliefs of the world's great religions, but with the modern-day implementation of those belief systems.
While there seemed to be no central organization or hierarchy of leadership in Neoteric, they did provide a brief charter statement. In a nutshell, the group painted most traditional religious institutions as having strayed far from the basic teachings of their spiritual founders. Neoteric, by contrast, favored the "open source" paradigm of the software world. In their statement, they advocated "a nonacquisitive, inclusive, and decentralized spirituality, without rigid authoritarian hierarchies or controlling and moralistic dogma."
The assemblage seemed to be a loose confederation of cyber twenty-somethings and New Age enthusiasts. The obvious intent of the network television coverage was to present the group as a band of kooks. But Sara saw it very differently. Having flirted with the speed metal and trance music scenes during her teens, she often found herself in sympathy with the primal energy of such movements. Thank goodness for the young and the young at heart, she thought. Without a youthful sense of righteous indignation coupled with a healthy dose of naïveté, who would ever lead the charge for any real change?
The news story ultimately flashed up a picture of Strickland, obviously taken some years earlier, when he had no beard and longer hair.
Seeing Strickland's picture, Bender realized that she felt increasingly estranged from him, particularly after yesterday's encounter. He was obviously a brilliant man, but lately she had begun to wonder whether his inner demons might render him incapable of ever manifesting his true potential. His life seemed tragically flawed.
The news story ended, and she gazed out the window at the winter landscape below. A dead leaf fell from a tree and landed on the windowsill outside her living room. Desiccated and brown, it was soon dusted in a delicate layer of new snow. She sat watching as more snow slowly enveloped the leaf in a soft, white cocoon.
"I had lost sight of the idea that the appearance of Jesus, or any great avatar, is a singular event in history, inextricable from the fabric of that time and place, and is carried forward in people's minds in ways that transcend the flesh and blood of any one person, no matter how divinely inspired they may have been," said Strickland. "The avatar comes to live in the collective consciousness of millions of people, going forward seemingly indefinitely."