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Excerpt: The Soul of the Matter, Chapter 3

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Editor’s note: Beginning today and continuing over the weekend, we are delighted to offer three excerpts from Bruce Buff’s new novel, The Soul of the Matter, with the permission of Simon & Schuster/Howard Books. See David Klinghoffer’s review here.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Stephen Bishop would soon have the power to reshape the world — for good. The universe’s greatest secrets were within his reach. The conflict between science and religion would be over. Fact and reason would finally replace ignorance and dogma.

Sitting at his office desk, he marveled at the image unfolding before him. On a large monitor, a series of numbers and ratios were connected by colored lines to different parts of a mannequin view of the human body. Using the Bluetooth trackball connected to his notebook computer, he zoomed in on areas of the image, smiling as he looked at the rough features of a human being. Once the processors in the nearby data center had finished their calculations, he’d be able to examine the image in detail.

He had done it! Within his grasp was the blueprint for all life, and potentially much more.

For months, he and Alex Robertson had spent a nearly continuous stream of long nights toiling in secret, trying to crack what had to be the most extraordinary encryption ever devised. What they had encountered should have been unbreakable.

It was remarkable that, through a series of astounding discoveries, they had gotten as far as they had, only to be stymied by a final puzzle that had defied solving.

It was even more remarkable that the answer to hat last obstacle had suddenly come to him this morning. Realizing the implications of what they were about to obtain, he had decided to wait until he was certain what it would reveal before sharing his breakthrough with Alex. There was no telling how Alex would react to something that would challenge his worldview so dramatically. Still, after all they had done together, he questioned his decision.

Unsettled, Stephen rose from his desk, walked to the window, and looked out into the darkness. His office was on the top floor of the ten-story Human Betterment Corporation building, on the southwest side of Cambridge, overlooking the Charles River. HBC, as it was generally known, was one of the worlds leading biotech corporations, focused on understanding the human genome and developing genetic-based treatments. As its president, he was in charge of all its research, though the work he was doing with Alex was outside his HBC work and unknown to them.

Though it was after midnight, and the sky was blanketed by thick clouds, swaying street lights illuminated the patches of snow and ice scattered across the gray lawn. In the shifting light, it created the impression of turbulent waters-or of a troubled soul.

Returning to the desk, he picked up a flat, glass paperweight etched with the yin-yang symbol. In good, the seeds of evil. In evil, the seeds of good . He turned it over a few times, wondering how much more he’d have to compromise in his pursuit of knowledge and goodness .

Alex was one of his smaller concerns. Twenty minutes earlier, believing they were still a long way from cracking the code, Alex had walked into Stephen’s office, pointed to the adjacent conference room, and said, “We need to talk.”

Without responding, Stephen had followed Alex into the room. A long, dark oak oval table, surrounded by brown leather chairs, took up the majority of the ten-by-twenty-foot area. A whiteboard covered most of one of the long walls. Alex stopped in front of it.

Alex was barely five foot seven, with a round physique, and his wavy gray hair streaked with traces of black was pulled into a small ponytail. With his baggy clothes, and a craggy face adorned with black, horn rimmed, glasses, Alex resembled a gnome. But Alex had a fearsomely sharp mind . For thirty-five years, he’d taught physics to PhD candidates at MIT. He’d also used his exceptional mathematical skills to master advanced cryptology. Both of Alex’s skill sets were indispensable to Stephen. Without them, Stephen never would have been able to crack the codes. Alex had also provided the technology to perform and protect their work.

Picking up a blue marker, Alex said, “Look. We know that a dozen complex elements form the last code,” as he rapidly drew complex shapes on the white board.

“You still don’t like calling them symbols.”

“To be symbols, they have to be symbolic to someone or something. And since you claim the origin of most of the coded information is from DNA, and I’m not ready to accept the connotations of that, I’m not going to call them symbols.”

“What’s wrong with a complete understanding of science and reason that points to something much bigger than us?”

“Give me concrete proof and then ask me the question.”

“Break the code and you’ll have your proof. There’s only about a half billion permutations. What’s the big deal? Get to it,” Stephen said facetiously.

“Four hund red seventy-nine million, one thousand, six hundred, to be precise. There must be something that can help us narrow down the possibilities to a manageable number.”

Yes, there is, Stephen thought. And that morning, he had become the only person in the world to know it. Now he was about to decode what could be the Rosetta Stone of all of life. Only there was much more to it than that.

“With luck, we’ll figure it out in the next few days, before we’ve moved to the new computer infrastructure,” Stephen said, referring to the planned migration off HBC’s network to something new Alex was setting up. While Alex’s encryption had kept their work hidden from prying eyes, it wasn’t strong enough to withstand a determined examination, and they couldn’t keep pressing their luck. Sooner or later, some IT person or senior researcher at HBC would notice the computer activity and ask Stephen about it, drawing unwanted attention that could be problematic.

“Remember, there’s at least two sets of codes to break, maybe a third if your intuition is correct,” Alex said. “The number I gave you is the very low end of what we’re facing.”

“Relax, go home, get some rest. Something will come to us,” Stephen said calmly, though inwardly he was bothered by his own words. He’d always been a straight shooter, known for his integrity. Yet his single-minded pursuit to break the codes had led him to more and more deceit, for what he told himself were good reasons.

“What’s the saying? From your lips to God’s ears,” Alex replied.

Trying to ease the tension in the room, Stephen said, “I’m not worried about what God hears; I’m more concerned what He’ll do.”

“Near as I can tell,” Alex said, walking out the door, “if He exists, He doesn’t do much of anything.”