The Oracle Code - By Charles Brokaw


32 Miles Southwest of Herat

Herat Province


June 18, 2012

Fumbling with the small flashlight he’d brought from his tent, Thomas Lourds lurched through the darkness. He felt woozy, and he knew it was the wine he’d had with dinner. His battered, leather backpack felt heavy and made him veer to the side when he didn’t pay attention. He hadn’t known the French archeologists had brought such a large selection of vintages, but he’d happily drunk several with them.

Especially since Dominique had insisted so prettily. But the capacity the woman had for drink was incredible. She was pretty incredible in other areas as well.

Lourds pushed that out of his mind as he clicked the flashlight on. There’d be plenty of time to enjoy her company over the next few days.

The flashlight didn’t work. With the pale quarter moon shining weakly over his shoulder, Lourds squinted at it to make certain he’d pushed the switch the whole way. He had, but the beam still wasn’t on. He tripped on a crack in the parched earth, stumbled, and almost fell. His head spun dizzily.

He wanted to be back in his sleeping bag. Dominique was still there, after all. But his mind had seized on an answer he hadn’t expected to arrive at. Well, perhaps answer wasn’t quite what it was. But there remained the possibility... That was what had brought him up out of his bed still slightly inebriated.

A noise sounded to his right and he froze. He gazed over the tents pitched in the area. There were several different groups working the dig in Herat, all of them for different reasons.

Dominique and her workmates were doing a special on the trade routes that had cut through the Middle East and South and Central Asia. For centuries, civilizations had marched caravans through the area to trade for silk and spices. Traders came from the Mediterranean Sea and passed through on their way to India or China. Herat had been a gateway to Iran long ago, and the modern city it had gradually become still was.

The British team was at Herat to research the Hephthalites, the tribal lords whose origins were still a mystery. Dr. Maureen Bristol had been charmed by Lourds and had let him look at the few writing samples they’d found. Deciphering those narratives had been a fascinating bit of business, especially since the writing had been in the Eastern Iranian languages, an antecedent of modern-day Pashto.

And the American archeologists—from the University of Southern California and much different than the calm, Harvard environs where Lourds taught linguistics—were searching for remnants of the Hotaki Dynasty. The Pashtun tribesmen had taken over from the Safavid Dynasty in the early 1700s.

All in all, there was quite a mix of interests in Herat, and Lourds had been enjoying himself immensely as he roamed between the various camps.

The sound was not repeated.

Lourds scanned the countryside beyond the tents, taking in the low, rolling mountains and sparse forests, and relaxed a little. Although the Afghanistan National Police and the Afghanistan National Army patrolled the territory, along with the International Security Assistance Force, the area was large and those people couldn’t be everywhere.

But there were Taliban in these mountains. All of the people on the archeology sites had been warned before accepting visas for their work. Most of the dig personnel treated the Taliban like the bogeyman—it was something to talk about, but they didn’t really fear it.

Satisfied that he’d imagined the sound, Lourds opened the flashlight and peered inside. Both batteries were there, and they were inserted in the proper order. He put the flashlight back together, then gave the thing a solid whack into his palm.

The pale yellow beam sprang to life.

He looked back at his tent to get his bearings, then took off again. The chilly wind swept through the foothills, making him wish he’d brought a jacket—again. The dig site was reasonably temperate during the day, but the nights could get downright cold. He didn’t want to risk going back to the tent and waking Dominique.


Inside his tent, Major Dmitry Dolgov lay on his sleeping bag and cursed his luck at drawing this assignment. He had twenty-three years in with the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, or Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, counting his time with the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Something like this, watching a college professor at a primitive campsite, should have been tasked to a younger agent.

Of course, such an assignment was also the lot of an experienced agent who had mistakenly arrested the mistress of