Professor Sifuentes had been in the jungle for a week, and the animals were starting to get to him. They weren’t bothering his project; they were either frightened or noncommittal about the work he and his archaeological team were doing. But all night they kept him up, screeching and scrambling in the branches over his head, and small objects kept falling on his tent. In his midnight delirium, he imagined the monkeys were deliberately throwing these objects. He slept no more than three hours at a stretch, woke up feeling almost like he was coming down with a cold, and stretched a shaky hand toward the cup of coffee that Teresa Alarcón, his graduate assistant and the foreperson for the project, always seemed to have ready for him.
Alarcón was cut out for the project in a crucial way that Professor Sifuentes was not. She was up before dawn, planning the day for the work crew, and went to sleep soon after dark. She claimed she slept better in her tent in the rain forest than she ever did in her apartment in Oaxaca. Before Professor Sifuentes had his cup of coffee, Alarcón’s morning enthusiasm made a rage that he struggled to contain boil in him. Once the caffeine kicked in, he was merely grateful. The funding for this dig, here in the rain forest on the border of Mexico and Guatemala, was not limitless. They had only the summers to assemble the crew before Professor Sifuentes had to return to teaching during the school year. Every day mattered, and Alarcón was helping him make the most of it.
Central American archaeologists had known about the site—nicknamed La Lágrima, the Teardrop, due to the shape it made in the jungle in aerial photographs—for decades, but its small size and remote location had made it less than desirable for excavation. Even now, Sifuentes was a little unsure what drew his attention to La Lágrima in the first place. It was a couple of local stories, a hunch, a gut feeling. It had taken him days to get to the site; he questioned his own actions. But he and Alarcón, who’d been a first-year graduate student at the time, were rewarded. In the unexcavated walls, they had found sets of etched glyphs that seemed unique to La Lágrima, figures in stone that appeared nowhere else. It justified further research even from a linguistic perspective. And now, three years later, their early explorations were yielding so much more. Including an anomaly Sifuentes could not explain.
Sifuentes was poring over a new set of glyphs on the eastern side of La Lágrima’s small temple building when Alarcón tapped him on the shoulder.
“You need to see something,” she said.
“What is it?” he said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “You need to see it.”
The room was in the back of a small apartment that, they guessed, once constituted a priest’s quarters. Stone walls, stone ceiling, stone floor, all covered in glyphs. A slit in one wall allowed a beam of light, a breath of air, into the place.
“Wow,” Sifuentes said.
“How is this possible?” Sifuentes said.
Because after a thousand years of abandonment, as the jungle turned the temple into a hill, the ball court into a grove, and all the other rooms in the house into caves for bats, warrens and dens for mammals and reptiles, nests for birds, sanctuaries for a thousand varieties of plants . . . this room was bare.
“It’s like the Maya just left,” Alarcón said.
“But why did nothing take their place?” Sifuentes asked. “What kept the jungle out? What was it so afraid of?”
“You make it sound so sinister,” Alarcón said. He could hear in the tone of her voice that she was teasing him.
“You’re right,” he said. “There’s no need for drama.” But something passed through him, a sense of dread. Something was wrong.
The Orb was dark, quiet, like the rest of the Archives. Menchú looked upward at the vaulted ceilings, then lowered his gaze to the stacks. Now he let his eyes move from one member of his team to the next. Sal. Grace. Liam. Asanti. The Vatican had drawn lines between them lately, sometimes forced them to draw lines amongst themselves. Yet they still kept coming back together, Menchú thought, this little family of his. By age and experience, he should be its father, he and Asanti its leaders. He could never quite let them know just how much he was making it all up as he went along, how much he relied on them. Though maybe, he thought, that’s what all fathers did.
“So what brings us here today?” Liam said.
“I’ve been thinking about Hannah and her experiment, doing some research,” Asanti said. “Trying to get ahead of her.”
By instinct, Menchú searched the faces of the people around him—his team, the assistants in the Archives within earshot. He was looking for those eyes, the sign that Hannah was with them. He didn’t see them, and felt his nerves ease.
“What have you found?” Menchú said.
“A pattern,” Asanti said. “Well, maybe pattern is too strong a word. But at least a trend, a preference she seems to show in what she...