Authors: James Rollins
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Adult, #Historical
SIGMA FORCE NOVEL
who read all my earliest scribblings
and didn’t laugh too much
The pestilence came first to the town of Kaffa on the Black Sea. There the mighty Mongolian Tartars waged siege upon the Italian Genoese, merchants and traders. Plague struck the Mongol armies with burning boils and bloody expulsions. Struck with great malice, the Mongol lords used their siege catapults to cast their diseased dead over the Genoese walls, and spread plague in a litter of bodies and ruin. In the year of the incarnation of the Son of God
the Genoese fled under sail in twelve galleys back to Italy, to the port of Messina, bringing the Black Death to our shores.
(1356), trans. by Reinhold Sebastien in
(Milan: A. Mondadori, 1924), 34–35
Why the bubonic plague suddenly arose out of China’s Gobi desert during the Middle Ages and slew a third of the world’s population remains unknown. In fact, no one knows why so many plagues and influenzas of the last century—SARS, the Avian Flu—have arisen out of Asia. But what is known with fair certainty: the next great pandemic will arise again out of the East.
—United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
Compendium of Infectious Diseases,
EREIN LIES A MYSTERY.
In the year 1271, a young seventeen-year-old Venetian named Marco Polo left with his father and uncle on a voyage to the palaces of Kublai Khan in China. It was a journey that would last twenty-four years and bring forth stories of the exotic lands that lay to the east of the known world: wondrous tales of endless deserts and jade-rich rivers, of teeming cities and vast sailing fleets, of black stones that burned and money made of paper, of impossible beasts and bizarre plants, of cannibals and mystic shamans.
After serving seventeen years in the courts of Kublai Khan, Marco returned to Venice in 1295, where his story was recorded by a French romanticist named Rustichello, in a book titled in Old French
Le Divisament dou Monde
The Description of the World
). The text swept Europe. Even Christopher Columbus carried a copy of Marco’s book on his journey to the New World.
But there is one story of this journey that Marco refused to ever tell, referring only obliquely to it in his text. When Marco Polo had left China, Kublai Khan had granted the Venetian fourteen immense ships and six hundred men. But when Marco finally reached port after two years at sea, there remained but two ships and only eighteen men.
The fate of the other ships and men remain a mystery to this day. Was it shipwreck, storms, piracy? He never told. In fact, on his deathbed, when asked to elaborate or recant his story, Marco answered cryptically: “I have not told half of what I saw.”
Island of Sumatra Southeast Asia
HE SCREAMS HAD
Twelve bonfires blazed out in the midnight harbor.
“Il dio, li perdona…”
his father whispered at his side, but Marco knew the Lord would not forgive them this sin.
A handful of men waited beside the two beached longboats, the only witnesses to the funeral pyres out upon the dark lagoon. As the moon had risen, all twelve ships, mighty wooden galleys, had been set to torch with all hands still aboard, both the dead and those cursed few who still lived. The ships’ masts pointed fiery fingers of accusation toward the heavens. Flakes of burning ash rained down upon the beach and those few who bore witness. The night reeked of burned flesh.
“Twelve ships,” his uncle Masseo mumbled, clutching the silver crucifix in one fist, “the same number as the Lord’s Apostles.”
At least the screams of the tortured had ended. Only the crackle and low roar of the flames reached the sandy shore now. Marco wanted to turn from the sight. Others were not as stout of heart and knelt on the sand, backs to the water, faces as pale as bone.
All were stripped naked. Each had searched his neighbor for any sign of the mark. Even the great Khan’s princess, who stood behind a screen of sailcloth for modesty, wore only her jeweled headpiece. Marco noted her lithe form through the cloth, lit from behind by the fires. Her maids, naked themselves, had searched their mistress. Her name was Kokejin, the Blue Princess, a maiden of seventeen, the same age as Marco had been when he started the journey from Venice. The Polos had been assigned by the Great Khan to safely deliver her to her betrothed, the Khan of Persia, the grandson of Kublai Khan’s brother.
That had been in another lifetime.
Had it been only four months since the first of the galley crew had become sick, showing welts on groin and beneath the arm? The illness spread like burning oil, unmanning the galleys of able men and stranding them here on this island of cannibals and strange beasts.
Even now drums sounded in the dark jungle. But the savages knew better than to approach the encampment, like the wolf shunning diseased sheep, smelling the rot and corruption. The only signs of their encroachment were the skulls, twined through the eye sockets with vines and hung from tree branches, warding against deeper trespass or foraging.
The sickness had kept the savages at bay.
But no longer.
With the cruel fire the disease was at last vanquished, leaving only this small handful of survivors.
Those clear of the red welts.
Seven nights ago the remaining sick had been taken in chains to the moored boats, left with water and food. The others remained on shore, wary of any sign among them of fresh affliction. All the while, those banished to the ships called out across the waters, pleading, crying, praying, cursing, and screaming. But the worst was the occasional laughter, bright with madness.
Better to have slit their throats with a kind and swift blade, but all feared touching the blood of the sick. So they had been sent to the boats, imprisoned with the dead already there.
Then as the sun sank this night, a strange glow appeared in the water, pooled around the keels of two of the boats, spreading like spilled milk upon the still black waters. They had seen the glow before, in the pools and canals beneath the stone towers of the cursed city they had fled.
The disease sought to escape its wooden prison.
It had left them no choice.
The boats—all the galleys, except for the one preserved for their departure—had been torched.
Marco’s uncle Masseo moved among the remaining men. He waved for them to again cloak their nakedness, but simple cloth and woven wool could not mask their deeper shame.
“What we did…” Marco said.
“We must not speak of it,” his father said, and held forth a robe toward Marco. “Breathe a word of pestilence and all lands will shun us. No port will let us enter their waters. But now we’ve burned away the last of the disease with a cleansing fire, from our fleet, from the waters. We have only to return home.”
As Marco slipped the robe over his head, his father noted what the son had drawn earlier in the sand with a stick. With a tightening of his lips, his father quickly ground it away under a heel and stared up at his son. A beseeching look fixed upon his visage. “Never, Marco…never…”
But the memory could not be so easily ground away. He had served the Great Khan, as scholar, emissary, even cartographer, mapping his many conquered kingdoms.
His father spoke again. “None must ever know what we found…it is cursed.”
Marco nodded and did not comment on what he had drawn. He only whispered.
“Città dei Morti.”
His father’s countenance, already pale, blanched further. But Marco knew it wasn’t just plague that frightened his father.
“Swear to me, Marco,” he insisted.
Marco glanced up into the lined face of his father. He had aged as much during these past four months as he had during the decades spent with the Khan in Shangdu.
“Swear to me on your mother’s blessed spirit that you’ll never speak again of what we found, what we did.”
A hand gripped his shoulder, squeezing to the bone. “Swear to me, my son. For your own sake.”
He recognized the terror reflected in his fire-lit eyes…and the pleading. Marco could not refuse.
“I will keep silent,” he finally promised. “To my deathbed and beyond. I so swear, Father.”
Marco’s uncle finally joined them, overhearing the younger man’s oath. “We should never have trespassed there, Niccolò,” he scolded his brother, but his accusing words were truly intended for Marco.
Silence settled between the three, heavy with shared secrets.
His uncle was right.
Marco pictured the river delta from four months back. The black stream had emptied into the sea, fringed by heavy leaf and vine. They had only sought to renew their stores of fresh water while repairs were made to two ships. They should never have ventured farther, but Marco had heard stories of a great city beyond the low mountains. And as ten days were set for repairs, he had ventured with twoscore of the Khan’s men to climb the low mountains and see what lay beyond. From a crest, Marco had spotted a stone tower deep within the forest, thrusting high, brilliant in the dawn’s light. It drew him like a beacon, ever curious.
Still, the silence as they hiked through the forest toward the tower should have warned him. There had been no drums, like now. No birdcalls, no scream of monkeys. The city of the dead had simply waited for them.
It was a dreadful mistake to trespass.
And it cost them more than just blood.
The three stared out as the galleys smoldered down to the waterlines. One of the masts toppled like a felled tree. Two decades ago, father, son, and uncle had left Italian soil, under the seal of Pope Gregory X, to venture forth into the Mongol lands, all the way to the Khan’s palaces and gardens in Shangdu, where they had roosted far too long, like caged partridges. As favorites of the court, the three Polos had found themselves trapped—not by chains, but by the Khan’s immense and smothering friendship, unable to leave without insulting their benefactor. So at long last, they thought themselves lucky to be returning home to Venice, released from service to the great Kublai Khan to act as escorts for the lady Kokejin to her Persian betrothed.
Would that their fleet had never left Shangdu…
“The sun will rise soon,” his father said. “Let us be gone. It is time we went home.”
“And if we reach those blessed shores, what do we tell Teobaldo?” Masseo asked, using the original name of the man, once a friend and advocate of the Polo family, now styled as Pope Gregory X.
“We don’t know he still lives,” his father answered. “We’ve been gone so long.”
“But if he does, Niccolò?” his uncle pressed.
“We will tell him all we know about the Mongols and their customs and their strengths. As we were directed under his edict so long ago. But of the plague here…there remains nothing to speak of. It is over.”
Masseo sighed, but there was little relief in his exhalation. Marco read the words behind his deep glower.
Plague had not claimed all of those who were lost.
His father repeated more firmly, as if saying would make it so. “It is over.”
Marco glanced up at the two older men, his father and his uncle, framed in fiery ash and smoke against the night sky. It would never be over, not as long as they remembered.
Marco glanced to his toes. Though the mark was scuffled off the sand, it burned brightly still behind his eyes. He had stolen a map painted on beaten bark. Painted in blood. Temples and spires spread in the jungle.
Except for the dead.
The ground had been littered with birds, fallen to the stone plazas as if struck out of the skies in flight. Nothing was spared. Men and women and children. Oxen and beasts of the field. Even great snakes had hung limp from tree limbs, their flesh boiling from beneath their scales.
The only living inhabitants were the ants.
Of every size and color.
Teeming across stones and bodies, slowly picking apart the dead.
But he was wrong…something still waited for the sun to fall.
Marco shunned those memories.
Upon discovering what Marco had stolen from one of the temples, his father had burned the map and spread the ashes into the sea. He did this even before the first man aboard their own ships had become sick.
“Let it be forgotten,” his father had warned then. “It has nothing to do with us. Let it be swallowed away by history.”
Marco would honor his word, his oath. This was one tale he would never speak. Still, he touched one of the marks in the sand. He who had chronicled so much…was it right to destroy such knowledge?
If there was another way to preserve it…
As if reading Marco’s thoughts, his uncle Masseo spoke aloud all their fears. “And if the horror should rise again, Niccolò, should someday reach our shores?”
“Then it will mean the end of man’s tyranny of this world,” his father answered bitterly. He tapped the crucifix resting on Masseo’s bare chest. “The friar knew better than all. His sacrifice…”
The cross had once belonged to Friar Agreer. Back in the cursed city, the Dominican had given his life to save theirs. A dark pact had been struck. They had left him back there, abandoned him, at his own bidding.
The nephew of Pope Gregory X.
Marco whispered as the last of the flames died into the dark waters. “What God will save us next time?”
10º 44'07.87"S | 105º 11'56.52"
HO WANTS ANOTHER
bottle of Foster’s while I’m down here?” Gregg Tunis called from belowdecks.
Dr. Susan Tunis smiled at her husband’s voice as she pushed off the dive ladder and onto the open stern deck. She skinned out of her BC vest and hauled the scuba gear to the rack behind the research yacht’s pilothouse. Her tanks clanked as she racked them alongside the others.
Free of the weight, she grabbed the towel from her shoulder and dried her blond hair, bleached almost white by sun and salt. Once done, she unzipped her wet suit with a single long tug.
erupted from a lounge chair behind her.
She didn’t even glance back. Plainly someone had spent too much time in Sydney’s strip clubs. “Professor Applegate, must you always do that when I’m climbing out of my gear?”
The gray-haired geologist balanced a pair of reading glasses on his nose, an open text on maritime history on his lap. “It would be ungentlemanly not to acknowledge the presence of a buxom young woman relieving herself of too much attire.”
She shouldered out of the wet suit and stripped it down to her waist. She wore a one-piece swimsuit beneath. She had learned the hard way that a bikini top had the tendency to strip away with a wet suit. And while she didn’t mind the retired professor, thirty years her senior, ogling her, she wasn’t going to give him that much of a free show.
Her husband climbed up with three perspiring bottles of lager, pinching them all between the fingers of one hand. He grinned broadly upon seeing her. “Thought I heard you bumping about up here.”
He climbed topside, stretching his tall frame. He wore only a pair of white Quicksilver trunks and a loose shirt, unbuttoned. Employed as a boat mechanic in Darwin Harbor, he and Susan had met during one of the dry-dock repairs on another of the University of Sydney’s boats. That had been eight years ago. Just three days ago, they had celebrated their fifth anniversary aboard the yacht, moored a hundred nautical miles off Kiritimati Atoll, better known as Christmas Island.
He passed her a bottle. “Any luck with the soundings?”
She took a long pull on the beer, appreciating the moisture. Sucking on a salty mouthpiece all afternoon had turned her mouth pasty. “Not so far. Still can’t find a source for the beachings.”
Ten days ago eighty dolphins,
an Indian Ocean species, had beached themselves along the coast of Java. Her research study centered on the long-term effects of sonar interference on cetacean species, the source of many suicidal beachings in the past. She usually had a team of research assistants with her, a mix of postgrads and undergrads, but the trip up here had been for a vacation with her old mentor. It was pure happenstance that such a massive beaching occurred in the region—hence the protracted stay here.
“Could it be something other than man-made sonar?” Applegate pondered, drawing circles with his fingertip in the condensation on his beer bottle. “Microquakes are constantly rattling the region. Perhaps a deep-sea subduction quake struck the right tonal note to drive them into a suicidal panic.”