If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?
Paul was a boy, he played God in the attic above his parents’ garage.
That’s what his father called it, playing God, the day he found out.
That’s what he called it the day he smashed it all down.
built the cages out of discarded two-by-fours he’d found behind the
garage, and quarter-inch mesh he bought from the local hardware store.
While his father was away speaking at a scientific conference on divine
cladistics, Paul began constructing his laboratory from plans he’d
drawn during the last day of school.
Because he wasn’t
old enough to use his father’s power tools, he had to use a handsaw to
cut the wood for the cages. He used his mother’s sturdy black scissors
to snip the wire mesh. He borrowed hinges from old cabinet doors, and
he borrowed nails from the rusty coffee can that hung over his father’s
One evening his mother heard the
hammering and came out to the garage. “What are you doing up there?”
she asked, speaking in careful English, peering up at the rectangle of
light that spilled down from the attic.
Paul stuck his
head through the opening, all spiky black hair and sawdust. “I’m just
playing around with some tools,” he said. Which was, in some sense, the
truth. Because he couldn’t lie to his mother. Not directly.
“Just a hammer and some nails.”
stared up at him, her delicate face a broken Chinese doll—pieces of
porcelain re-glued subtly out of alignment. “Be careful,” she said, and
he understood she was talking both about the tools and about his father.
days turned into weeks as Paul worked on the cages. Because the
materials were big, he built the cages big—less cutting that way. In
reality, the cages were enormous, over-engineered structures,
ridiculously outsized for the animals they’d be holding. They weren’t
mouse cages so much as mouse cities—huge tabletop-sized enclosures that
could have housed German Shepherds. He spent most of his paper route
money on the project, buying odds and ends that he needed: sheets of
plexi, plastic water bottles, and small dowels of wood he used for door
latches. While the other children in the neighborhood played basketball
or wittedandu, Paul worked.
He bought exercise wheels
and built walkways; he hung loops of yarn the mice could climb to
various platforms. The mice themselves he bought from a pet store near
his paper route. Most were white feeder mice used for snakes, but a
couple were of the more colorful, fancy variety. And there were even a
few English mice—sleek, long-bodied show mice with big tulip ears and
glossy coats. He wanted a diverse population, so he was careful to buy
While he worked on their permanent
homes, he kept the mice in little aquariums stacked on a table in the
middle of the room. On the day he finished the last of the big cages,
he released the mice into their new habitats one by one—the first
explorers on a new continent. To mark the occasion, he brought his
friend John over, whose eyes grew wide when he saw what Paul had made.
“You built all this?” John asked.
“It must have taken you a long time.”
“My parents don’t let me have pets.”
“Neither do mine,” Paul answered. “But anyway, these aren’t pets.”
“Then what are they?”
“What kind of experiment?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet.”
Finley stood at the projector, marking a red ellipse on the clear
plastic sheet. Projected on the wall, it looked like a crooked
half-smile between the X and Y axis.
“This represents the number of daughter atoms. And this
. . .” He drew the mirror image of the first ellipse. “This is the
number of parent atoms.” He placed the marker on the projector and
considered the rows of students. “Can anyone tell me what the point of
Darren Michaels in the front row raised his hand. “It’s the element’s half-life.”
“Exactly. Johnson, in what year was radiometric dating invented?”
“What method did he use?”
“No. Wallace, can you tell us?”
“He measured helium as an intermediate decay product of uranium.”
“Good, so then who used the uranium-lead method?”
“That was Boltwood, in 1907.”
“And how were these initial results viewed?”
“By the evolutionists.”
“Good.” Mr. Finley turned to Paul. “Carlson, can you tell us what year Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species?”
“1867, Paul said.”
“Yes, and in what year did Darwin’s theory finally lose the confidence of the larger scientific community?”
was 1932.” Anticipating his next question, Paul continued. “When
Kohlhorster invented potassium-argon dating. The new dating method
proved the earth wasn’t as old as the evolutionists thought.”
“And in what year was the theory of evolution finally debunked completely?”
when Willard F. Libby invented carbon-14 dating at the University of
Chicago. He won the Nobel prize in 1960 when he used carbon dating to
prove, once and for all, that the Earth was 5,800 years old.”
wore a white lab coat when he entered the attic. It was one of his
father’s old coats, so he had to cut the sleeves to fit his arms.
Paul’s father was a doctor, the Ph.D kind. He was blond and big and
successful. He’d met Paul’s mother after grad school while consulting
for a Chinese research firm. They had worked on the same projects for a
while, but there was never any doubt that Paul’s father was the bright
light of the family. The genius, the famous man. He was also crazy.
father liked breaking things. He broke telephones, and he broke walls,
and he broke tables. He broke promises not to hit again. One time, he
broke bones; the police were called by the ER physicians who did not
believe the story about Paul’s mother falling down the stairs. They did
not believe the weeping woman of porcelain who swore her husband had
not touched her.
Paul’s father was a force of nature, a
cataclysm; as unpredictable as a comet strike or a volcanic eruption.
The attic was a good place to hide, and Paul threw himself into his
Paul studied his mice as though they were
Goodall’s chimps. He documented their social interactions in a green
spiral notebook. He found that, within the large habitats, they formed
packs like wolves, with a dominant male and a dominant female—a
structured social hierarchy involving mating privileges, territory, and
almost-ritualized displays of submission by males of lower rank. The
dominant male bred most of the females, and mice, Timothy learned,
could kill each other.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and the
mouse populations expanded to fill the new worlds he’d created for
them. The babies were born pink and blind, but as their fur came in,
Paul began documenting colors in his notebook. There were fawns,
blacks, and grays. Occasional agoutis. There were Irish spotted, and
banded, and broken marked. In later generations, colors appeared that
he hadn’t purchased, and he knew enough about genetics to realize these
were recessive genes cropping up.
Paul was fascinated
by the concept of genes, the stable elements through which God provided
for the transfer of heritable characteristics from one generation to
the next. In school they called it divine transmission.
did research and found that the pigmentation loci of mice were
well-mapped and well-understood. He categorized his population by
phenotype and found one mouse, a pale, dark-eyed cream that must have
been a triple recessive: bb, dd, ee. But it wasn’t enough to just have
them, to observe them, to run the Punnett squares. He wanted to do real
science. Because real scientists used microscopes and electronic
scales, Paul asked for these things for Christmas.
he quickly discovered, did not readily yield themselves to microscopy.
They tended to climb down from the stand. The electronic scale,
however, proved useful. He weighed every mouse and kept meticulous
records. He considered developing his own inbred strain—a line with
some combination of distinctive characteristics—but he wasn’t sure what
characteristics to look for.
He was going over his
notebook when he saw it. January-17. Not a date, but a mouse—the
seventeenth mouse born in January. He went to the cage and opened the
door. A flash of sandy fur, and he snatched it up by its tail—a brindle
specimen with large ears. There was nothing really special about the
mouse. It was made different from the other mice only by the mark in
his notebook. Paul looked at the mark, looked at the number he’d
written there. Of the more than ninety mice in his notebook, January-17
was, by two full grams, the largest mouse he’d ever weighed.
school they taught him that through science you could decipher the
truest meaning of God’s words. God wrote the language of life in four
letters—A, T, C, and G. That’s not why Paul did it though, to get
closer to God. He did it for the simplest reason, because he was
It was early spring before his father asked him what he spent his time doing in the attic.
“Just messing around.”
They were in his father’s car on the way home from piano lessons. “Your mother said you built something up there.”
Paul fought back a surge of panic. “I built a fort a while ago.”
“You’re almost twelve now. Aren’t you getting a little old for forts?’
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
“I don’t want you spending all your time up there.”
“I don’t want your grades slipping.”
Paul, who hadn’t gotten a B in two years, said, “All right.”
rode the rest of the way in silence, and Paul explored the walls of his
newly shaped reality. Because he knew foreshocks when he felt them.
watched his father’s hands on the steering wheel. Though large for his
age, like his father, Paul’s features still favored his Asian mother
and he sometimes wondered if that was part of it, this thing between
his father and him, this gulf he could not cross. Would his father have
treated a freckled, blond son any differently? No, he decided. His
father would have been the same. The same force of nature; the same
cataclysm. He couldn’t help being what he was.
watched his father’s hand on the steering wheel, and years later, when
he thought of his father, even after everything that happened, that’s
how he thought of him. That moment frozen. Driving in the car, big
hands on the steering wheel, a quiet moment of foreboding that wasn’t
false, but was merely what it was, the best it would ever be between
“What have you done?”
There was wonder in John’s voice. Paul had snuck him up to the attic,
and now Paul held Bertha up by her tail for John to see. She was a
beautiful golden brindle, long whiskers twitching.
“She’s the most recent generation, an F4.”
“What does that mean?”
Paul smiled. “She’s kin to herself.”
“That’s a big mouse.”
“The biggest yet. Fifty-nine grams, weighed at a hundred days old. The average weight is around forty.”
Paul put the mouse on John’s hand.
“What have you been feeding her?” John asked.
as the other mice. Look at this.” Paul showed him the charts he’d
graphed, like Mr. Finley, a gentle upward ellipse between the X and Y
axis— the slow upward climb in body weight from one generation to the
“One of my F2s tipped the scales at forty-five
grams, so I bred him to the biggest females, and they made more than
fifty babies. I weighed them all at a hundred days and picked the
biggest four. I bred them and did the same thing the next generation,
choosing the heaviest hundred-day weights. I got the same bell-curve
distribution—only the bell was shifted slightly to the right. Bertha
was the biggest of them all.”
John looked at Paul in horror. “That works?”
“Of course it works. It’s the same thing people have been doing with domestic livestock for the last five thousand years.”
“But this didn’t take you thousands of years.”
Uh, it kind of surprised me it worked so well. This isn’t even subtle.
I mean, look at her, and she’s only an F4. Imagine what an F10 might
“That sounds like evolutionism.”
be silly. It’s just directional selection. With a diverse enough
population, it’s amazing what a little push can do. I mean, when you
think about it, I hacked off the bottom 95 percent of the bell curve
for five generations in a row. Of course the mice got bigger. I
probably could have gone the other way if I’d wanted, made them
smaller. There’s one thing that surprised me, though, something I only
“When I started, at least half of the mice were albino. Now it’s down to about one in ten.”
“I never consciously decided to select against that.”
when I did culls . . . when I decided which ones to breed, sometimes
the weights were about the same, and I’d just pick. I think I just
happened to pick one kind more than the other.”
“So what’s your point?”
“So what if it happens that way in nature?”
“What do you mean?”
like the dinosaurs. Or woolly mammoths, or cavemen. They were here
once; we know that because we find their bones. But now they’re gone.
God made all life about six thousand years ago, right?”
“But some of it isn’t here anymore. Some died out along the way.”
happened on a weekend. Bertha was pregnant, obscenely, monstrously.
Paul had isolated her in one of the aquariums, an island unto herself,
sitting on a table in the middle of the room. A little tissue box sat
in the corner of her small glass cage, and Bertha had shredded bits of
paper into a comfortable nest in which to give birth to the next
generation of goliath mice.
Paul heard his father’s car
pull into the garage. He was home early. Paul considered turning off
the attic lights but knew it would only draw his father’s suspicion.
Instead he waited, hoping. The garage was strangely quiet—only the
ticking of the car’s engine. Paul’s stomach dropped when he heard the
creak of his father’s weight on the ladder.
There was a
moment of panic then—a single hunted moment when Paul’s eyes darted for
a place to hide the cages. It was ridiculous; there was no place to go.
“What’s that smell?” his father asked as his head cleared the attic floor. He stopped and looked around. “Oh.”
that was all he said at first. That was all he said as he climbed the
rest of the way. He stood there like a giant, taking it in. The single
bare bulb draped his eyes in shadow. “What’s this?” he said finally.
His dead voice turned Paul’s stomach to ice.
“What’s this?” Louder now, and something changed in his shadow eyes. Paul’s father stomped toward him, above him.
“What’s this?” The words more shriek than question now, spit flying from his mouth.
“I, I thought—”
A big hand shot out and slammed into Paul’s chest, balling his T-shirt into a fist, yanking him off his feet.
“What the fuck is this? Didn’t I tell you no pets?” The bright light of the family, the famous man.
“They’re not pets, they’re—”
“God, it fucking stinks up here. You brought these things into the house? You brought this vermin into the house? Into my house!”
arm flexed, sending Paul backward into the cages, toppling one of the
tables—wood and mesh crashing to the floor, the squeak of mice and
twisted hinges, months and months and months of work.
father saw Bertha’s aquarium and grabbed it. He lifted it high over his
head—and there was a moment when Paul imagined he could almost see it,
almost see Bertha inside, and the babies inside her, countless
generations that would never be born. Then his father’s arms came down
like a force of nature, like a cataclysm. Paul closed his eyes against
exploding glass, and all he could think was, this is how it happens. This is exactly how it happens.
Paul Carlson left for Stanford at seventeen. Two years later, his father was dead.
Stanford he double-majored in genetics and anthropology, taking
eighteen credit hours a semester. He studied transcripts of the Dead
Sea Scrolls and the Apocryphal verses; he took courses in Comparative
Interpretation and Biblical Philosophy. He studied fruit flies and
amphioxus. While still an undergraduate, he won a prestigious summer
internship working under renowned geneticist Michael Poore.
sat in classrooms while men in dark suits spun theories about Kibra and
T-variants, about microcephalin-1 and haplogroup D. He learned
researchers had identified structures within a family of proteins
called AAA+ that were shown to initiate DNA replication, and he learned
these genetic structures were conserved across all forms of life, from
men to archae bacteria—the very calling card of the great designer.
also studied the banned texts. He studied balancing equilibriums and
Hardy-Weinburg; but alone at night, walking the dark halls of his own
head, it was the trade-offs that fascinated him most. Paul was a young
man who understood trade-offs.
He learned of the
recently discovered Alzheimer’s gene, APOE4—a gene common throughout
much of the world; and he learned theories about how deleterious genes
grew to such high frequencies. Paul learned that although APOE4 caused
Alzheimer’s, it also protected against the devastating cognitive
consequences of early childhood malnutrition. The gene that destroys
the mind at seventy, saves it at seven months. He learned that people
with sickle cell trait are resistant to malaria; and heterozygotes for
cystic fibrosis are less susceptible to cholera; and people with type A
blood survived the plague at higher frequencies than other blood types,
altering forever, in a single generation, the frequency of blood types
in Europe. A process, some said, now being slow-motion mimicked by the
gene CKR5 and HIV.
In his anthropology courses, Paul
learned that all humans alive today could trace their ancestry back to
Africa, to a time almost six thousand years ago when the whole of human
diversity existed within a single small population. And there had been
at least two dispersions out of Africa, his professors said, if not
more—a genetic bottleneck in support of the Deluvian Flood Theory. But
each culture had its own beliefs. Muslims called it Allah. Jews,
Yahweh. The science journals were careful not to call it God anymore;
but they spoke of an intelligent designer—an architect, lowercase “a.”
Though in his heart of hearts, Paul figured it all amounted to the same
Paul learned they’d scanned the brains of nuns,
looking for the God spot, and couldn’t find it. He learned about
evolutionism. Although long debunked by legitimate science, adherents
of evolutionism still existed—their beliefs enjoying near immortality
among the fallow fields of pseudo-science, cohabitating the fringe with
older belief systems like astrology, phrenology, and acupuncture.
Modern evolutionists believed the various dating systems were all
incorrect; and they offered an assortment of unscientific explanations
for how the isotope tests could all be wrong. In hushed tones, some
even spoke of data tampering and conspiracies.
evolutionists ignored the accepted interpretation of the geological
record. They ignored the miracle of the placenta and the irreducible
complexity of the eye.
During his junior and senior
years, Paul studied archaeology. He studied the ancient remains of Homo
erectus, and Homo neanderthalensis. He studied the un-Men; he studied
Afarensis, and Australopithecus, and Pan.
In the world
of archeology, the line between Man and un-Man could be fuzzy—but it
was never unimportant. To some scientists, Homo erectus was a race of
Man long dead, a withered branch on the tree of humanity. To those more
conservative, he wasn’t Man at all; he was other, a hiccup of the
creator, an independent creation made from the same tool box. But that
was an extreme viewpoint. Mainstream science, of course, accepted the
use of stone tools as the litmus test. Men made stone tools. Soulless
beasts didn’t. Of course there were still arguments, even in the
mainstream. The fossil KNM ER 1470, found in Kenya, appeared so
perfectly balanced between Man and un-Man that a new category had to be
invented: near-Man. The arguments could get quite heated, with both
sides claiming anthropometric statistics to prove their case.
a benevolent teacher swooping in to stop a playground fight, the
science of genetics arrived on the scene. Occupying the exact point of
intersection between Paul’s two passions in life—genetics and
anthropology—the field of paleometagenomics was born.
received a bachelor’s degree in May and started a graduate program in
September. Two years and an advanced degree later, he moved to the East
Coast to work for Westing Genomics, one of the foremost genetics
research labs in the world.
Three weeks after that, he
was in the field in Tanzania, learning the proprietary techniques of
extracting DNA from bones 5,800 years old. Bones from the very dawn of
Two men stepped into the bright room.
“So this is where the actual testing is done?” It was a stranger’s voice, the accent urban Australian.
Paul lifted his eyes from the microscope and saw his supervisor accompanied by an older man in a gray suit.
“Yes,” Mr. Lyons said.
The stranger shifted weight to his teak cane. His hair was short and gray, parted neatly on the side.
never ceases to amaze,” the stranger said, glancing around. “How alike
laboratories are across the world. Cultures who cannot agree on
anything agree on this: how to design a centrifuge, where to put the
test tube rack, what color to paint the walls—white, always. The bench
Mr. Lyons nodded. Mr. Lyons was a man who
wore his authority like a uniform two sizes too large; it required
constant adjustment to look presentable.
Paul stood, pulled off his latex gloves.
“Gavin McMaster,” the stranger said, sticking out a hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Carlson.”
“Paul. You can call me Paul.”
“I apologize for interrupting your work,” Gavin said.
“It’s time I took a break anyway.”
“I’ll leave you two to your discussion,” Mr. Lyons said, and excused himself.
“Please,” Paul said, gesturing to a nearby work table. “Take a seat.”
sank onto the stool and set his briefcase on the table. “I promise I
won’t take much of your time,” he said. “But I did need to talk to you.
We’ve been leaving messages for the last few days and—”
“Oh.” Paul’s face changed. “You’re from—”
“This is highly unusual for you to contact me here.”
“I can assure you these are very unusual circumstances.”
“Still, I’m not sure I like being solicited for one job while working at another.”
“I can see there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“You called it a job. Consider it a consulting offer.”
McMaster, I’m very busy with my current work. I’m in the middle of
several projects, and, to be honest, I’m surprised Westing let you
through the door.”
“Westing is already onboard. I took the liberty of speaking to the management before contacting you today.”
did you . . .” Paul looked at him, and Gavin raised an eyebrow. With
corporations, any question of “how” was usually rhetorical. The answer
was always the same. And it always involved dollar signs.
“Of course, we’ll match that bonus to you, mate.” McMaster slid a check across the counter. Paul barely glanced at it.
“As I said, I’m in the middle of several projects now. One of the other samplers here would probably be interested.”
McMaster smiled. “Normally I’d assume that was a negotiating tactic. But that’s not the case here, is it?”
“I was like you once. Hell, maybe I still am.”
“Then you understand.” Paul stood.
understand you better than you think. It makes it easier, sometimes,
when you come from money. Sometimes I think that only people who come
from it realize how worthless it really is.”
“That hasn’t been my experience. If you’ll excuse me.” Politeness like a wall, a thing he’d learned from his mother.
Gavin said. “Before you leave, I have something for you.” He opened the
snaps on his briefcase and pulled out a stack of glossy eight-by-ten
For a moment Paul just stood there. Then
he took the photos from Gavin’s extended hand. Paul looked at the
pictures. Paul looked at them for a long time.
Gavin said, “These fossils were found last year on the island of Flores, in Indonesia.”
Paul whispered, still studying the photos. “I heard they found strange
bones there. I didn’t know anybody had published.”
“That’s because we haven’t. Not yet, anyway.”
“These dimensions can’t be right. A six-inch ulna.”
Paul looked at him. “Why me?” And just like that, the wall was gone. What lived behind it had hunger in its belly.
It was Paul’s turn to raise an eyebrow.
“Because you’re good,” Gavin said.
“So are others.”
“Because you’re young and don’t have a reputation to risk.”
“Or one to stand on.”
sighed. “Because I don’t know if archaeology was ever meant to be as
important as it has become. Will that do for an answer? We live in a
world where zealots become scientists. Tell me, boy, are you a zealot?”
“That’s why. Or close enough.”
were a finite number of unique creations at the beginning of the
world—a finite number of species which has, since that time, decreased
dramatically through extinction. Speciation is a special event outside
the realm of natural processes, a phenomenon relegated to the moment of
creation, and to the mysteries of Allah.
—Expert witness, heresy trials, Ankara, Turkey.
flight to Bali was seventeen hours, and another two to Flores by
chartered plane—then four hours by Jeep over the steep mountains and
into the heart of the jungle. To Paul, it might have been another
world. Rain fell, stopped, then fell again, turning the road into a
thing which had to be reasoned with.
“Is it always like this?” Paul asked.
“No,” Gavin said. “In the rainy season, the roads are much worse.”
isle of flowers. From the air it had looked like a long ribbon of
jungle thrust from blue water, part of a rosary of islands between
Australia and Java. The Wallace Line—a line more real than any on a
map—lay kilometers to the west, toward Asia and the empire of placental
mammals. A stranger emperor ruled here.
exhausted by the time they pulled into Ruteng. He rubbed his eyes.
Children ran alongside the Jeep, their faces some combination of Malay
and Papuan—brown skin, strong white teeth like a dentist’s dream. The
hill town crouched one foot in the jungle, one on the mountain. A
valley flung itself from the edge of the settlement, a drop of
The men checked into their hotel. Paul’s
room was basic, but clean, and Paul slept like the dead. The next
morning he woke, showered and shaved. Gavin met him in the lobby.
“It’s a bit rustic, I apologize.” Gavin said.
“No, it’s fine.” Paul said. “There was a bed and a shower. That’s all I needed.”
“We use Ruteng as a kind of base camp for the dig. Our future accommodations won’t be quite so luxurious.”
at the Jeep, Paul checked his gear. It wasn’t until he climbed into the
passenger seat that he noticed the gun, its black leather holster
duct-taped to the driver’s door. It hadn’t been there the day before.
caught him staring. “These are crazy times we live in, mate. This is a
place history has forgotten till now. Recent events have made it
“Which recent events are those?”
events to some folks’ view. Political to others.” Gavin waved his hand.
“More than just scientific egos are at stake with this find.”
drove north, descending into the valley and sloughing off the last
pretense of civilization. “You’re afraid somebody will kidnap the
bones?” Paul asked.
“Yeah, that’s one of the things I’m afraid of.”
easy to pretend that it’s just theories we’re playing with—ideas
dreamed up in some ivory tower between warring factions of scientists.
Like it’s all some intellectual exercise.” Gavin looked at him, his
dark eyes grave. “But then you see the actual bones; you feel their
weight in your hands, and sometimes theories die between your fingers.”
track down to the valley floor was all broken zig-zags and occasional,
rounding turns. For long stretches, overhanging branches made a tunnel
of the roadway—the jungle a damp cloth slapping at the windshield. But
here and there that damp cloth was yanked aside, and out over the edge
of the drop you could see a valley that Hollywood would love, an
archetype to represent all valleys, jungle floor visible through jungle
haze. In those stretches of muddy road, a sharp left pull on the
steering wheel would have gotten them there quicker, deader.
Bua,” Gavin called their destination. “The Cold Cave.” And Gavin
explained that was how they thought it happened—the scenario. This
steamy jungle all around, so two or three of them went inside to get
cool, to sleep. Or maybe it was raining, and they went in the cave to
get dry—only the rain didn’t stop, and the river flooded, as it
sometimes still did, and they were trapped inside the cave by the
rising waters, their drowned bodies buried in mud and sediment.
The men rode in silence for a while before Gavin said it, a third option Paul felt coming. “Or they were eaten there.”
“Eaten by what?”
“Homo homini lupus est.” Gavin said. “Man is wolf to man.”
crossed a swollen river, water rising to the bottom of the doors. For a
moment Paul felt the current grab the Jeep, pull, and it was a close
thing, Gavin cursing and white-knuckled on the wheel, trying to keep
them to the shallows. When they were past it he said, “You’ve got to
keep it to the north; if you slide a few feet off straight, the whole
bugger’ll go tumbling downriver.”
Paul didn’t ask him how he knew.
the river was the camp. Researchers in wide-brimmed hats or bandanas.
Young and old. Two or three shirtless. A dark-haired woman in a white
shirt sat on a log outside her tent. The one feature unifying them all,
Every head followed the Jeep, and when the
Jeep pulled to a stop, a small crowd gathered to help unpack. Gavin
introduced him around. Eight researchers, plus two laborers still in
the cave. Australian mostly. Indonesian. One American.
mate,” one of them said when he shook Paul’s hand. Small, stocky,
red-bearded; he couldn’t have been more than twenty-two. Paul forgot
his name the moment he heard it, but the introduction, “Herpetology,
mate,” stuck with him. “That’s my specialty,” the small man continued.
“I got mixed up in this because of Professor McMaster here. University
of New England, Australia.” His smile was two feet wide under a sharp
nose that pointed at his own chin. Paul liked him instantly.
they’d finished unpacking the Jeep, Gavin turned to Paul. “Now I think
it’s time we made the most important introductions,” he said.
was a short walk to the cave. Jag-toothed limestone jutted from the
jungle, an overhang of vine, and beneath that, a dark mouth. The stone
was the brown-white of old ivory. Cool air enveloped him, and entering
Liange Bua was a distinct process of stepping down. Once inside, it
took Paul’s eyes a moment to adjust. The chamber was thirty meters
wide, open to the jungle in a wide crescent—mud floor, low-domed
ceiling. There was not much to see at first. In the far corner, two
sticks angled from the mud, and when he looked closer, Paul saw the
“Is that it?”
Paul took off his backpack and stripped the white paper suit out of its plastic wrapper. “Who else has touched it?”
“Talford, Margaret, me.”
“I’ll need blood samples from everybody for comparison assays.”
“We stopped the dig when we realized the significance.”
I’ll need blood samples from anybody who has dug here, anybody who came
anywhere near the bones. I’ll take the samples myself tomorrow.”
“I understand. Is there anything else you need?”
“Solitude.” Paul smiled. “I don’t want anybody in the cave for this part.”
nodded and left. Paul broke out his tarps and hooks. It was best if the
sampler was the person who dug the fossils out of the ground—or better
yet, if the DNA samples were taken when the bones were still in
the ground. Less contamination that way. And there was always
contamination. No matter what precautions were taken, no matter how
many tarps, or how few people worked at the site, there was still
Paul slid down into the hole,
flashlight strapped to his forehead, white paper suit slick on the
moist earth. From his perspective, he couldn’t tell what the bones
were—only that they were bones, half buried in earth. From his
perspective, that’s all that mattered. The material was soft,
un-fossilized; he’d have to be careful.
It took nearly
seven hours. He snapped two dozen photographs, careful to keep track of
which samples came from which specimens. Whoever these things were,
they were small. He sealed the DNA samples into small, sterile lozenges
It was night when he climbed from under the tarp.
Outside the cave, Gavin was the first to find him in the firelight. “Are you finished?”
“For tonight. I have six different samples from at least two different individuals. Shouldn’t take more than a few days.”
McMaster handed him a bottle of whiskey.
“Isn’t it a little early to celebrate?”
“Celebrate? You’ve been working in a grave all night. In America, don’t they drink after funerals?”
night over the campfire, Paul listened to the jungle sounds and to the
voices of scientists, feeling history congeal around him.
it isn’t.” Jack was saying. Jack was thin and American and very drunk.
“Suppose it isn’t in the same lineage with us, then what would that
The red-bearded herpetologist groaned. His name was James. “Not more of that doctrine of descent bullshit,” he said.
“Then what is it?” someone added.
passed the drink around, eyes occasionally drifting to Paul as if he
were a priest come to grant absolution—his sample kit just an artifact
of his priestcraft. Paul swigged the bottle when it came his way.
They’d finished off the whiskey long ago; this was some local brew
brought by laborers, distilled from rice. Paul swallowed fire.
man saying, “It’s the truth,” but Paul had missed part of the
conversation, and for the first time he realized how drunk they all
were; and James laughed at something, and the woman with the white
shirt turned and said, “Some people have nicknamed it the ‘hobbit.’ ”
“Flores Man—the hobbit. Little people three feet tall.”
“Tolkien would be proud,” a voice contributed.
“A mandible, a fairly complete cranium, parts of a right leg and left inominate.”
“But what is it?”
“Hey, are you staying on?”
question was out there for two beats before Paul realized it was aimed
at him. The woman’s eyes were brown and searching across the fire.
“Yeah,” he said. “A few more days.”
Then the voice again, “But what is it?”
Paul took another swallow—trying to cool the voice of panic in his head.
learned about her during the next couple of days, the girl with the
white shirt. Her name was Margaret. She was twenty-eight. Australian.
Some fraction aborigine on her mother’s side, but you could only see it
for sure in her mouth. The rest of her could have been Dutch, English,
whatever. But that full mouth: teeth like Ruteng children, teeth like
dentists might dream. She tied her brown hair back from her face, so it
didn’t hang in her eyes while she worked in the hole. This was her
sixth dig, she told him. “This is the one.” She sat on the stool while
Paul took her blood, a delicate index finger extended, red pearl rising
to spill her secrets. “Most archaeologists go a whole lifetime without
a big find,” she said. “Maybe you get one. Probably none. But this is
the one I get to be a part of.”
“What about the Leakeys?” Paul asked, dabbing her finger with cotton.
“Bah.” She waved at him in mock disgust. “They get extra. Bloody Kennedys of archaeology.”
Despite himself, Paul laughed.
brings us to the so-called doctrine of common descent, whereby each
species is seen as a unique and individual creation. Therefore all men,
living and dead, are descended from a common one-time creational event.
To be outside of this lineage, no matter how similar in appearance, is
to be other than Man.
—Journal of Heredity
evening, Paul helped Gavin pack the Jeep for a trek back up to Ruteng.
“I’m driving our laborers back to town,” Gavin told him. “They work one
week on, one off. You want me to take your samples with me?”
Paul shook his head. “Can’t. There are stringent protocols for chain of possession.”
“Where are they now?”
Paul patted the cargo pocket of his pant leg.
“So when you get those samples back, what happens next?”
“I’ll hand them over to an evaluation team.”
“You don’t test them yourself ?”
“I’ll assist, but there are strict rules. I test animal DNA all the time, and the equipment is all the same. But genus Homo requires a license and oversight.”
right, mate, then I’ll be back tomorrow evening to pick you up.” Gavin
went to the Jeep and handed Paul the sat phone. “In case anything
happens while I’m gone.”
“Do you think something will?”
“No,” Gavin said. Then, “I don’t know.”
Paul fingered the sat phone, a dark block of plastic the size of a shoe. “What are you worried about?”
be honest, bringing you here has brought attention we weren’t ready
for. I received a troubling call today. So far, we’ve shuffled under
the radar, but now . . . now we’ve flown in an outside tech, and people
want to know why.”
“Official people. Indonesia is suddenly very interested.”
“Are you worried they’ll shut down the dig?”
Gavin smiled. “Have you studied theology?
“I’ve long been fascinated by the figure of Abraham. Are you familiar with Abraham?”
“Of course,” Paul said, unsure where this was going.
this one sheepherder stems the entire natural history of monotheism.
He’s at the very foundation of all three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam. When Jews, Christians, and Muslims get on
their knees for their One True God, it is to Abraham’s God they pray.”
Gavin closed his eyes. “And still there is such fighting over steeples.”
“What does this have to do with the dig?”
“The word ‘prophet’ comes from the Greek, prophetes. In Hebrew, the word is nabi.
I think Abraham Heschel said it best when he wrote ‘the prophet is the
man who feels fiercely.’ What do you think, Paul? Do you think prophets
“Why are you asking me this?”
“Oh, never mind.” Gavin smiled again and shook his head. “It’s just the rambling of an old man.”
“You never answered whether you thought they’d shut down the dig.”
come onto their land, their territory; we come into this place and we
find bones that contradict their beliefs; what do you think might
“Contradict their beliefs?” Paul said. “What do you believe about these bones? You’ve never said.”
“I don’t know. They could be pathological.”
“That’s what they said about the first Neanderthal bones. Except they kept finding them.”
“It could be microcephaly.”
“What kind of microcephaly makes you three feet tall?”
“The odd skull shape and small body-size could be unrelated. Pygmies aren’t unknown to these islands.”
“There are no pygmies this small.”
perhaps the two things together . . . perhaps the bones are a
microcephalic representation of . . .” his voice trailed off. Gavin
sighed. He looked suddenly defeated.
“That’s not what you believe, is it?” Paul said.
are the smallest bones discovered that look anything like us. Could
they just be pathological humans? I don’t know. Maybe. Pathology could
happen anywhere, so we can’t rule it out when we’ve only got a few
specimens to work with. But what my mind keeps coming back to is that
these bones weren’t found just anywhere.”
“What do you mean?”
bones weren’t found in Africa, or Asia. These tiny bones were found on
a tiny island. Near the bones of dwarf elephants. And that’s a
coincidence? They hunted dwarf elephants, for God’s sake.”
“So if not pathological, what do you believe they were? You still haven’t said.”
the powerful thing about genetics, my friend. One does not have to
believe. One can know. And that’s precisely what is so dangerous.”
* * *
things happen on islands.” Margaret’s white shirt was gone. She sat
slick-armed in overalls. Skin like a fine coat of gloss. The firelight
beat the night back, lighting candles in their eyes. It was nearly
midnight, and the researchers sat in a circle, listening to the crackle
of the fire. Listening to the jungle.
“Like the Galápagos,” she said. “The finches.”
“Oh come on,” James said. “The skulls we found are small, with brains the size of chimps. Island dwarfing of genus Homo; is that what you’re proposing? Some sort of local adaptation over the last five thousand years?”
“It’s the best we have.”
“Those bones are too different. They’re not of our line.”
“But they’re younger than the other archaics. It’s not like erectus, some branch cut down at the dawn of time. These things survived here for a long time. The bones aren’t even fossilized.”
doesn’t matter, they’re still not us. Either they share common descent
from Man, or they were a separate creation at the beginning. There is
no in-between. And they’re only a meter tall, don’t forget.”
“That’s just an estimate.”
“A good estimate.”
“Those skulls are as achondroplastic as I am. I’d say the sloped frontal bone is anti-achondroplastic.”
“Some kind of growth hormone deficiency would—”
“No,” Paul said, speaking for the first time. Every face turned toward him.
have normal growth hormone levels,” Paul said. “Every population
studied—the negritos, the Andaman, the Congolese. All normal.”
faces stared. “It’s the circulating domain of their receptors that are
different,” Paul continued. “Pygmies are pygmies because of their GH
receptors, not the growth hormone itself. If you inject a pygmy child
with growth hormone, you still get a pygmy.”
“Well still,” Margaret said. “I don’t see how that impacts whether these bones share common descent or not.”
James turned to the circle of faces. “So are they on our line? Are they us, or other?”
Softly, the girl whispered in disbelief, “But they had stone tools.”
The faces turned to Paul, but he only watched the fire and said nothing.
next morning started with a downpour. The dig team huddled in tents, or
under the tarped lean-to near the fire pit. Only James braved the rain,
stomping off into the jungle. He was back in an hour, smiling ear to
“Well, will you look at that,” James said, holding something out for Paul to see.
“What is it?”
“Partially eaten monitor. A species only found here.”
Paul saw now that it was a taloned foot that James held. “That’s a big lizard.”
no. This was just a juvenile. Mother nature is odd this side of the
Wallace line. Not only are most of the species on this side not found
anywhere else. A lot of them aren’t even vaguely related to anything
else. It’s like God started from scratch to fill all the niches.”
“How’d you get interested in herpetology?” Paul asked.
“By His creations shall ye know God.”
“McMaster mentioned a dwarf elephant.”
“Yeah, stegadon. They’re extinct now, though.”
“What killed them off ?”
thing that killed off a lot of the ancient fauna on the island. Classic
catastophism, a volcanic eruption. We found the ash layer just above
the youngest bones.”
Once, lying in bed with a woman, Paul had watched the moon through the window. The woman traced his scars with her finger.
“Your father was brutal.”
“No,” Paul had said. “He was broken, that’s all.”
“There’s a difference?”
“He was always sorry afterward.”
“Every single time.”
A: Incidences of local adaptation have occurred, sure. Populations adapt to changing conditions all the time.
Q: Through what process?
Differential reproductive success. Given genetic variability, it almost
has to happen. It’s just math and genes. Fifty-eight hundred years is a
Q: Can you give an example?
Most dogs would fall into this category, having been bred by man to
suit his needs. While physically different from each other, when you
study their genes, they’re all one species—though admittedly divided
into several distinct clades.
Q: So you’re saying God created the original dog, but Man bred the different varieties?
A: You called it God, not me. And for the record, honey, God created the gray wolf. Man created dogs.
—excerpted from the trial of geneticist Michael Poore
came the next morning in the guise of police action. It came in shiny
new Daihatsus with roll-bars and off-road tires. It came with guns.
Mostly, it came with guns.
Paul heard them before he
saw them, men shouting in a language he could not understand. He was
with James at the cave’s entrance. When Paul saw the first assault
rifle, he sprinted for the tents. He slid the DNA lozenges into a pouch
in his belt and punched numbers on the sat phone. Gavin picked up on
the second ring. “The police are here,” Paul said.
Lord, I just spoke to officials today,” Gavin said. There was shouting
outside the tents—angry shouts. “They assured me nothing like this
Behind him, James said, “This is bad. This is very bad.”
“Where are you?” Paul asked.
“I’m still in Ruteng,” Gavin said.
“Then this will be over by the time you can get here.”
“Paul, it’s not safe for you th—”
Paul hung up. Tell me something I don’t know.
took his knife from his sample kit and slit the back of the tent open.
He slid through, James following close behind. Paul saw Margaret
standing uncertain at the edge of the jungle. Their eyes met and Paul
motioned toward the Jeeps; on the count of three, they all ran for it.
climbed in and shut the doors. The soldiers—for that’s what Paul knew
they were now—the soldiers didn’t notice them until Paul started the
engine. Malay faces swung around, mouths open in shouts of outrage.
“You’ll probably want your seatbelts on for this,” Paul said. Then he gunned it, spitting dirt.
“Don’t shoot,” James whispered in the backseat, eyes closed in prayer.
“What?” Paul said.
“If they shoot, they’re not police.”
A round smashed through the rear window and blew out a chunk of the front windshield, spidering the safety glass.
“Shit!” Margaret screamed.
A quick glance in the rear-view, and Paul saw soldiers climbing into one of the Daihatsus. Paul yanked the wheel right.
“Not that way!” Margaret shouted. Paul ignored her and floored the accelerator.
whipped past, close enough to touch. Ruts threatened to buck them from
the cratered roadway. A Daihatsu whipped into view behind them. Shots
rang out, a sound like Chinese firecrackers, the ding of metal. They
rounded the bend, and the river came into view—big and dumb as the sky.
Paul gunned the engine.
“We’re not going to make it across!” James shouted.
“We only need to get halfway.”
Another shot slammed into the back of the Jeep.
hit the river like a slow-speed crash, water roaring up and over the
broken windshield—the smell of muck suddenly overpowering.
Paul stomped his foot to the floor.
Jeep chugged, drifted, caught gravel. They got about halfway across
before Paul yanked the steering wheel to the left. The world came
unstuck and started to shift. The right front fender came up, rocking
with the current. The engine died. They were floating.
looked back. The pursuing vehicle skidded to a halt at the shoreline,
and men jumped out. The Jeep heaved, one wheel pivoting around a
“Can you swim?” Paul asked.
“Now you ask us?”
“I’d unbuckle if I were you.”
The Jeep hit another rock, metal grinding on stone, then sky traded places with water, and everything went dark.
dragged themselves out of the water several miles downriver, where a
bridge crossed the water. They followed the dirt road to a place called
Rea. From there they took a bus. Margaret had money.
They didn’t speak about it until they arrived at Bajawa.
“Do you think they’re okay?” Margaret asked.
“I think it wouldn’t serve their purpose to hurt the dig team. They only wanted the bones.”
“They shot at us.”
“Because they assumed we had something they wanted. They were shooting at the tires.”
“No,” she said. “They weren’t.”
rented nights in the hotel room, and James couldn’t leave—that hair
like a great big handle anybody could pick up and carry, anybody with
eyes and a voice. Some of the locals hadn’t seen red hair in their
lives, and James’s description was prepackaged for easy transport.
Paul, however, blended—just another vaguely Asian set of cheekbones in
the crowd, even if he was a half a foot taller than the locals.
night, staring at the ceiling from one of the double beds, James said,
“If those bones aren’t us . . . then I wonder what they were like.”
“They had fire and stone tools,” Paul said. “They were probably a lot like us.”
“We act like we’re the chosen ones, you know? But what if it wasn’t like that?”
“Don’t think about it,” Margaret said.
if God had all these different varieties . . . all these different
walks, these different options at the beginning, and we’re just the
ones who killed the others off ?”
“Shut up,” she said.
“What if there wasn’t just one Adam, but a hundred Adams?
“Shut the fuck up, James.”
was a long quiet, the sound of the street filtering through the thin
walls. “Paul,” James said. “If you get your samples back to your lab,
you’ll be able to tell, won’t you?”
Paul was silent. He thought of the evaluation team and wondered.
winners write the history books,” James said. “Maybe the winners write
the bibles, too. I wonder what religion died with them.”
The next day, Paul left to buy food. When he returned Margaret was gone.
“Where is she?”
“She left to find a phone. She said she’d be right back.”
“Why didn’t you stop her?”
Day turned into evening. By darkness, they both knew she wasn’t coming back.
“How are we going to get home?” James asked.
“I don’t know.”
your samples. Even if we got to an airport, they’d never let you get on
the plane with them. You’ll be searched. They’ll find them.”
“We’ll find a way once things have settled down.”
“Things are never going to settle down.”
“No, you still don’t get it. When your entire culture is predicated on an idea, you can’t afford to be proven wrong.”
Out of deep sleep, Paul heard it. Something.
known this was coming, though he hadn’t been aware that he’d known,
until that moment. The creak of wood, the gentle breeze of an open
door. Shock and awe would have been better—an inrush of soldiers, an
arrest of some kind, expulsion, deportation, the legal system. A silent
man in the dark meant many things. None of them good. The word assassin
rose up in his mind.
Paul breathed. There was a cold in
him—a part of him that was dead, a part of him that could never be
afraid. A part of him his father had put there. Paul’s eyes searched
the shadows and found it, the place where a shadow moved, a breeze that
eased across the room. If there was only one, he had a chance.
thought of making a run for it, sprinting for the door, leaving the
samples and this place behind; but James, still sleeping, stopped him.
He made up his mind.
Paul exploded from the bed,
flinging the blanket ahead of him, wrapping that part of the darkness;
and a shape moved, darkness like a puma’s spots, black on black—there
even though you can’t see it. And Paul knew he’d surprised him, that
darkness, and he knew, instantly, that it wouldn’t be enough. A blow
rocked Paul off his feet, forward momentum carrying him into the wall.
The mirror shattered, glass crashing to the floor.
the fuck?” James hit the light, and suddenly the world snapped into
existence, a flashbulb stillness—and the assassin was Indonesian,
preternatural silence coming off him like a heat shimmer. He carried
endings with him, nothingness in a long blade. The insult of it hit
home. The shocking fucking insult, standing there, knees bent, bright
blade in one hand—blood on reflective steel. That’s when Paul felt the
pain. It was only then he realized he’d already been opened.
the Indonesian moved fast. He moved so fast. He moved faster than
Paul’s eyes could follow, covering distance like thought, across the
room to James, who had time only to flinch before the knife parted him.
Such a professional, and James’ eyes went wide in surprise. Paul moved
using the only things he had, size, strength, momentum. He hit the
assassin like a linebacker, sweeping him into his arms, crushing him
against the wall. Paul felt something snap, a twig, a branch, something
in the Indonesian’s chest—and they rolled apart, the assassin doing
something with his hands; the rasp of blade on bone, a new blackness,
and Paul flinched from the blow, feeling the steel leave his eye socket.
was no anger. It was the strangest thing. To be in a fight for his life
and not be angry. The assassin came at him again, and it was only
Paul’s size that saved him. He grabbed the arm and twisted, bringing
the fight to the floor. A pushing down of his will into three square
inches of the Indonesian’s throat—a caving-in like a crumpling aluminum
can, but Paul still held on, still pushed until the lights went out of
those black eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
rolled off him and collapsed to the floor. He crawled over to James. It
wasn’t a pool of blood. It was a swamp, the mattress soggy with it.
James lay on the bed, still conscious.
“Don’t bleed on
me, man,” James said. “No telling what you Americans might carry. Don’t
want to have to explain it to my girlfriend.”
smiled at the dying man, crying and bleeding on him, wiping the blood
from his beard with a pillowcase. He held James’s hand until he stopped
Paul’s eye opened to
white. He blinked. A man in a suit sat in the chair next to the
hospital bed. A man in a police uniform stood near the door. “Where am
I?” Paul asked. He didn’t recognize his own voice. It was an older man.
Who’d eaten glass.
“Maumere,” the suited man said. He was white, mid-thirties, lawyer written all over him.
Paul touched the bandage over his face. “Is my eye . . .”
Paul took the news with a nod. “How did I get here?”
“They found you naked in the street. Two dead men in your room.”
“So what happens now?”
that depends on you.” The man in the suit smiled. “I’m here at the
behest of certain parties interested in bringing this to a quiet close.”
“Where is Margaret? Mr. McMaster?”
“They were put on flights back to Australia this morning.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Whether you believe or not is of no consequence to me. I’m just answering your questions.”
“What about the bones?”
“Confiscated for safekeeping, of course. The Indonesians have closed down the dig. It is their cave, after all.”
“What about my DNA samples in the hotel room, the lozenges?”
“They’ve been confiscated and destroyed.”
Paul sat quietly.
“How did you end up in the street?” the suit asked.
“How did you end up naked?”
figured it was the only way they’d let me live. The only way to prove I
didn’t have the samples. I was bleeding out. I knew they’d still be
“You are a smart man, Mr. Carlson. So you figured you’d let them have the samples?”
“Yeah,” Paul said.
The suited man stood and left the room.
“Mostly.” Paul said.
the way to the airport, Paul told the driver to pull over. He paid the
fare and climbed out. He took a bus to Bengali, and from there took a
cab to Rea.
He climbed on a bus in Rea, and as it bore down the road, Paul yelled, “Stop!”
driver hit the brakes. “I’m sorry,” Paul said. “I’ve forgotten
something.” He climbed off the bus and walked back to town. No car
Once in town, down one of the small side
streets, he found it, the flower pot with the odd pink plant. He
scooped dirt out of the base.
The old woman shouted
something at him. He held out money, “For the plant,” he said. “I’m a
flower lover.” She might not have understood English, but she
He walked with the plant under his
arm. James had been right about some things. Wrong about others. Not a
hundred Adams, no. Just two. All of Australoid creation like some
parallel world. And you shall know God by His creations. But why would God create two Adams? That’s what Paul had wondered. The answer was that He wouldn’t.
Two Adams. Two gods. One on each side of the Wallace Line.
Paul imagined it began as a competition. A line drawn in the sand, to see whose creations would dominate.
Paul understood the burden Abraham carried, to witness the birth of a religion.
Paul walked through the streets he dug his fingers through the dirt.
His fingers touched it, and he pulled the lozenge free. The lozenge no
evaluation team would ever lay eyes on. He would make sure of that.
passed a woman in a doorway, an old woman with a beautiful, full mouth.
He thought of the bones in the cave, and of the strange people who had
once crouched on this island.
He handed her the flower. “For you,” he said.
He hailed a cab and climbed inside. “Take me to the airport.”
the old cab bounced along the dusty roads, Paul took off his eye-patch.
He saw the cabbie glance into his rear-view and then look away,
“They lied, you see,” Paul told the cabbie. “About the irreducible complexity of the eye. Oh, there are ways.”
cabbie turned his radio up, keeping his face forward. Paul grimaced as
he unpacked his eye, pulling white gauze out in long strips—pain
exploding in his skull.
“A prophet is one who feels fiercely,” he said, then slid the lozenge into his empty eye socket.