Vigor waved ahead. "The Bayon was also the last temple ever built in Angkor, marking the end of a period of almost continuous construction that spanned centuries."
"So why did they stop building?" Gray asked, moving closer.
Vigor glanced to him. "Maybe they uncovered something that discouraged further excavations. When the Khmer engineers built the Bayon, they dug down. Deep. A quarter of the Bayon is buried."
Vigor nodded. "Most of the Angkor temples are based on the design of mandalas. A series of stacked rectangles, that represent the physical universe, surround a circular tower in the center. The middle tower represents the magical mountain of Hindu mythology, Mount Meru, where the gods reside. By partially burying the temple, the central tower embodies Mount Meru, demonstrating the penetration of this magical mountain from the earth up to heaven. Stories persist of both treasures and horrors hidden in those lower levels of the Bayon."
By now they had reached the end of the pathway. It widened into an open stone plaza. The bulk of the temple rose ahead of them. Dozens of faces stared down. Tourists could be seen climbing about the temple's various levels.
They continued forward, crossing alongside a row of parked tuk-tuks. Ahead, a small line of roadside stands proffered fruits in all their variety: mangoes, jackfruit, tamarind, Chinese dates, even small softball-size watermelons. Thin-limbed children dashed among the stands, reviving a little of the ancient city's vibrancy with their laughter and calls. Off to another side, a more solemn group of six saffron-robed monks sat on woven mats, heads bowed, praying amid a cloud of incense.
Vigor added his own silent appeal as he passed, praying for strength, wisdom, and protection.
Ahead, their man Kowalski had stopped at one of the stands. A wrinkled old woman with a perfectly round face stood bent over an iron brazier, cooking breakfast on sticks. Chicken and beef roasted alongside turtle and lizard. The man sniffed at an appetizing skewer.
"Is that soft-shell crab?" he asked, leaning closer for a whiff. The skewer speared something meaty with jointed legs, blackened and curled by the fire.
The woman nodded her head vigorously, smiling broadly at his interest. She spoke rapidly in Khmer.
Seichan stepped to Kowalski's side, placing a hand on his shoulder. "It's fried tarantula. Very popular for breakfast in Cambodia."
Kowalski shuddered and backed away. "Thanks. I'll stick with an Egg McMuffin."
A less picky thief—a macaque monkey—bounded out of the ruins, grabbed an ear of corn from behind the woman, and dashed straight in front of Kowalski. The large man startled back, bumping into Gray, scrambling out of the way.
Kowalski's hand jerked back under his jacket.
Gray stopped him, pinching his elbow hard, too hard. Gray's eyes flicked back to Nasser, then away again. "It was only a monkey."
Kowalski shook free of Gray's hand. "Yeah, well, I don't like monkeys." The large man glowered and stormed ahead. "Had a bad experience with 'em once before. I don't want to talk about it."
Vigor shook his head and led them around to the eastern entrance to the Bayon. The stone causeway here was a ruin of jumbled blocks, studded with giant date palms and more of the silk-cotton trees with their snaking tangles of roots. They crossed in a crooked line through the entrance to the first level, passing under the watchful gaze of more bodhisattva faces.
They entered an inner courtyard, framed in galleries. The walls were carved in intricate bas-reliefs, covered from top to bottom in strips of story. Vigor glanced at the nearest. They depicted everyday scenes: a fisherman casting nets, a farmer harvesting rice, two cocks fighting amid a crowd, a woman cooking skewers over a charcoal. The last reminded Vigor of the old woman with the fried tarantulas, demonstrating how the past and present were still entwined.
"Where do we begin?" Gray asked, daunted at the ten acres of temple grounds to search.
Vigor understood his consternation. Even from here, it was evident that the temple was a veritable three-dimensional maze of stooped passages, squared archways, dark galleries, steep steps, sunlit courtyards, and cavelike rooms. And all around, towers or gopuras rose in giant spears and cones, decorated with the ubiquitous faces.
It would be easy to get lost in there.
Even Nasser seemed to sense this. He waved a portion of his men into a tighter clutch around Gray's group. He sent a few others running forward to take up key positions in the courtyard here, covering all the exits, setting another level of defense.
Vigor felt the noose around his neck, but there was only one way to go. He pointed ahead.
"From a map I studied, the next level from here is another square court, like this one. But I think we should continue directly to the third level. To where the central sanctuary lies. We can get to it by going this way."
Still, as they made their way around the first level, Vigor paused by a spectacular bas-relief on the north wall, larger than all the rest, covering an entire section all by itself. His feet slowed as he passed it.
It depicted two forces—gods and demons, the same as the statues along the causeway. They were playing tug-of-war with a great snake as a rope. Between them, the snake was wrapped around a mountain seated on the back of a turtle.
"What is it?" Gray asked.
"One of the main Hindu creation myths. The Churning of the Ocean of Milk." Vigor pointed out details. "On this side are the devas or gods... on the other are the demonic asuras. They are using the snake god Vasuki as a rope to turn the great magical mountain. Back and forth, back and forth. Stirring the cosmic ocean into a milky froth. It is from this froth that the elixir of immortality called amrita will be churned. The turtle underneath the mountain is an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who aids the gods and demons by holding up the mountain so it doesn't sink."
Vigor pointed to the central tower of the Bayon. "And supposedly there is that mountain. Or at least its representation here on Earth."
Gray glanced to the fifteen-story tower, then back to the bas-relief. He trailed a finger along the carved mountain, his brow furrowed. "So what happened? Did the elixir get made?"
Vigor shook his head. "According to the story, there were some complications. The snake Vasuki got sick from all the tugging and vomited a great poison. It sickened both gods and demons, threatening to kill them all. Vishnu saved them by drinking up the poison himself, but in the process of detoxifying it, he turned blue, which is why he is always depicted with a blue throat. And with his help, the churning continued that produced not only the elixir of immortality but also the dancing celestial spirits called apsaras. So all ended well."
Vigor tried to urge them onward, but Gray remained where he was, staring at the bas-relief, an odd expression on his face.
Nasser came up to him. "Time has run out," he said, tapping his wristwatch with his cell phone. His voice was thick with disdain. "Do you have any sudden insights?"
Vigor felt coldness flowing from the man amid a dark amusement. He was enjoying torturing Gray. Vigor started to step between them, fearing Gray might react badly and attack Nasser again.
But instead Gray only nodded. "I do."
Nasser's eyes widened, surprised.
Gray placed a palm on the bas-relief. "The story here. It's not a creation myth. It's the story of the Judas Strain."
"What are you talking about?" Nasser asked.
Vigor had the same question.
Gray explained. "From what you told us about the exposure over in Indonesia, the disease all started with seas in the area glowing with bacteria. Seas described as frothy and white. Like churned-up milk."
Vigor straightened, stepping around Gray to view the bas-relief with new eyes. He stood with his hands on his hips.
Seichan joined him. Off to the side, Kowalski remained where he was, studying a line of bare-breasted women, his nose close to the stone.
Gray continued, pointing to the snake. "Then a great poison was released that threatened all life, good and bad."
Seichan nodded. "Like the toxic bacteria, spewing poison and laying a swath of death."
Nasser looked unconvinced.
Gray pressed his point home. "And according to this myth, someone survived the exposure and saved the world. Vishnu. He drank the poison, detoxified it, and turned blue . .."
"As if he were glowing," Vigor mumbled.
"Like the survivors described in Marco's book," Gray added. "And like the patient you described, Nasser. All glowing blue."
Vigor slowly nodded. "It's too perfect to be coincidence. And many ancient myths grew out of true histories."
Gray turned to Nasser. "If I'm right, here is the first clue that we're on the right track. That perhaps there is more yet to learn."
Nasser's eyes narrowed, momentarily angry—but he slowly nodded. "I believe you may be right, Commander Pierce. Very good. You just reset the clock for another hour."
Gray attempted to hide his relief, letting out his breath with a slight rattle.
"So let us continue," Nasser said.
Vigor drew them toward a shadowed flight of steep stairs. Behind him, Gray lingered a moment more, studying the carving. He reached out and ran a finger along the carved mountain—then back to the central tower.
Gray's eyes met Vigor's. Vigor noted the barest shake of the commander's head when he turned away.
Did Gray know something more?
Vigor ducked into the narrow stairs. Before Gray had turned, Vigor had noted something else, something in the commander's face.
7:32 A.M. Island of Natuna Besar
"They must not go there . . ." Susan moaned again.
The woman lay sprawled across the rear seats of the Sea Dart, slipping into and out of consciousness, close to rolling back into a full catatonic stupor. Susan fought to pull away the fire blanket that Lisa had spread over her.
"Lie still," Lisa urged. "Try to rest. Ryder will be back soon."
The Sea Dart rocked and bumped against the end of the fuel dock. They had landed in the sheltered bay of a small island, somewhere off the coast of Borneo. Rain continued to pour out of low clouds, but the dark anger of the typhoon had swept away. Thunder rumbled, but it sounded distant and fading.