The Last Oracle: A Sigma Force Novel
Released on 07.23.2008
What if you could bio-engineer the next great world prophet: scientifically produce the next Buddha, the next Muhammad, or even the next Jesus? Would it mark the Second Coming or initiate a chain reaction with disastrous consequences?
A master at combining historical and religious intrigue with edge-of-your-seat adventure, New York Times bestselling author James Rollins brings back Sigma Force to battle a group of rogue scientists who've unleashed a bioengineering project that could bring about the extinction of humankind.
In Washington D.C., a homeless man dies in Commander Gray Pierce's arms, shot by an assassin's bullet. But the death leaves behind a greater mystery: a bloody coin found clutched in the dead man's hand, an ancient relic that traces back to the Greek Oracle of Delphi. As ruthless hunters search for the stolen artifact, Gray Pierce discovers the coin is the key to unlocking a plot that dates back to the Cold War, one that threatens the very foundation of humanity.
For an international think-tank of scientists known as the JASONS has discovered a way to bioengineer autistic children who show savant talents - mathematical geniuses, statistical masterminds, brilliant conceptual artists - into something far greater and far more frightening, all in hopes of creating a world prophet for the new millennium, one to be manipulated to create a new era of global peace...a peace on their own terms.
While halfway around the world, a man wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of who he is, only that he's a prisoner in a subterranean research facility. With the help of three unusual children, he makes his escape across a mountainous and radioactive countryside, pursued by savage hunters bred in the same laboratory. But his goal is not escape, nor even survival. In order to thwart a plot to wipe out a quarter of the world's population, he must sacrifice all, even the children who rescued him.
From ancient Greek temples to glittering mausoleums, from the slums of India to the toxic ruins of Russia, two men must race against time to solve a mystery that dates back to the first famous oracle of history - the Greek Oracle of Delphi.
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September 5, 1:38pm
It wasn't every day a man dropped dead in your arms.
Commander Gray Pierce had been crossing the National Mall when the homeless man accosted him. Gray was already in a bad mood, having finished one fight and was headed toward another. The midday heat only stoked his irritability. The day steamed with the usual D.C. swelter, baking off the sidewalk. Dressed in a navy blue blazer over an untucked cotton jersey and jeans, he estimated his internal temperature had risen from medium to well done.
From half a block away, Gray spotted a gaunt figure weaving toward him. The homeless man was dressed in baggy jeans rolled at the ankle, revealing scuffed army boots, only half-laced. He hunched within a rumpled suit jacket. As the man neared, Gray noted his scrabbled beard was shot with gray, his eyes bleary and red as he searched around.
Such panhandlers were not a rare site around the National Mall, especially as the Labor Day celebrations had just ended yesterday. The tourists had retreated back to their ordinary lives, the riot police had retired to the local bars, and the street cleaners had finished erasing the evidence. The last to leave were those who still sought some bit of loose change that might have fallen through the cracks, searching trash bins for bottles or cans, like crabs scavenging the last bit of meat from old bones.
Gray read a mix of relief and hope through the grime and wrinkles. Upon spotting Gray, the homeless man's shuffling gait became more determined. Perhaps he feared his quarry might escape into the Castle before he could reach him. The man's limbs shook. He was plainly inebriated or possibly suffering from drunken tremors.
A hand reached toward him, palm up.
It was a universal gesture - from the slums of Brazil to the alleys of Bangkok.
Help me. Please.
Gray reached inside his blazer for his wallet. Many thought he was a sucker for succumbing to such panhandling. They'll just use it to buy booze or crack. He didn't care. It was not his place to judge. This was another human being in need. He pulled out his wallet. If asked, he would give. That was his motto. And maybe at a more honest level, such charity served Gray, too, a balm of human kindness to soothe a guilt buried deeper than he cared to face.
And all it cost was a buck or two.
Not a bad deal.
He glanced into his wallet. All twenties. He had just cashed up at an ATM at the Metro station. He shrugged and tugged out a bill with Andrew Jackson's face.
Okay, sometimes it cost more than a buck or two.
He lifted his head just as the two met. Gray reached out with the twenty-dollar bill but found the man's hand wasn't empty. Resting in the middle of his palm lay a tarnished coin, about the size of a fifty-cent piece.
It was the first time a homeless man had tried to pay him.
Before he could comprehend the situation, the man tripped toward him, as if suddenly shoved from behind. His mouth opened in an O of surprise. He fell into Gray, who reflexively caught the elderly man.
He was lighter than Gray had expected. Under his jacket, the man's body seemed all bone, a skeleton in a suit. A hand grazed Gray's c heek. It burned feverishly hot. A flicker of fear - of disease, of AIDS - passed through Gray, but he did not let go as the man slumped in his arms.
Carrying the man's weight, Gray shifted his left arm. His hand settled upon a hot welling wetness on the man's lower back. It streamed over his fingers.
Gray pivoted on instinct. He hip-rolled to the side and dove off the sidewalk, with the man still clutched in his arms. The thick grass cushioned their fall. Gray didn't hear the next shots - but two ricocheting flashes sparked off the concrete sidewalk where he'd been standing. Without stopping, he continued to roll until he reached a metal-and-concrete sign planted in the lawn of the Smithsonian Castle. It stood only waist high. He huddled behind it with the old man. The sign read: SMITHSONIAN INFORMATION CENTER IN THE CASTLE.
Gray certainly needed information.
Like who was shooting at him.
The solid sign stood between him and the Mall. It offered temporary shelter. Only ten yards away, the arched doors of a side entrance of the Smithsonian Castle beckoned. The building itself rose in turrets and towers of red sandstone, all quarried from Seneca Creek, Maryland, a true Norman castle, a literal fortress. The protection it offered lay only a few steps away, but to cross that open distance would leave them exposed to the sniper.
Instead, Gray yan ked a pistol - a compact Sig Sauer P229 - from the holster at his back. Not that he had a target. Still, he readied his weapon in case there was any direct assault.
At Gray's side, the homeless man groaned. Blood soaked his entire back. Gray frowned at the man's continuing misfortune in life. The poor sack had come seeking a bit of charity and got a bullet in the back instead, collateral damage in an assassination attempt against Gray.
But who was trying to kill him? And why?
The homeless man lifted a palsied arm, failing with each ragged breath. From the entry point and amount of blood, the shot had struck a kidney, a fatal wound for one so debilitated. The man reached to Gray's thigh. His fingers opened to drop the tarnished coin he had been holding. He had somehow kept his grip on it. The coin bounced off Gray's leg and rolled to the grass.
A final gift.
A bit of charity returned.
With the deed done, the homeless man's limbs went slack. His head fell to Gray's shoulder. Gray swore under his breath.
Sorry, old man.
His other hand freed his cell phone. Thumbing it open, he hit an emergency speed-dial button. It was answered immediately.
Gray spoke rapidly, calling a mayday into central command.
"Help's on the way," his director announced. "We have you on camera outside the Castle. Seeing lots of blood. Are you injured?"
"No," he answered curtly.
Gray didn't argue. So far no further shots had been fired. No ringing impacts against the sheltering sign. There was a good chance the shooter had already fled. Still, Gray dared not move - not until the cavalry arrived.
What the hell?
In the coin's center stood a single letter.
Gray thought it was the Greek letter ∑.
In mathematics, the letter sigma represented the sum of all parts, but it was also the emblem for the organization Gray worked for: Sigma, an elite team of ex-Special Forces soldiers who had been retrained in scientific fields to serve as a covert military arm for DARPA, the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Gray glanced to the Castle. Sigma's headquarters were here, buried beneath the foundations of the Smithsonian Castle in former World War II bunkers. It was perfectly situated to take advantage of the proximity to the halls of government, the Pentagon, and the various private and national laboratories.
Focusing back on the coin, Gray suddenly realized his mistake. The letter was not a Greek ∑ - but merely a large capital E. In his panic, his eyes had played tricks, seeing what had been forefront in his mind.
He closed his fist over the coin.
Just an E.
It wasn't the first time in the past few weeks that Gray had assumed connections that weren't there - or at least that was the consensus among his colleagues. For a solid month, Gray had been searching for some confirmation that a lost friend, Monk Kokkalis, could still be alive. But so far, even utilizing the full resources of Sigma, he had reached only dead ends.
Chasing ghosts, Painter Crowe had warned after the first weeks.
Maybe he was.
Across the way, doors crashed open in the front of the Castle. A dozen black-suited figures fled outward with weapons raised, clutched near shoulders in double grips.
They moved cautiously, but no one fired shots at them.
They reached Gray's side quickly and flanked around protectively.
One of the men fell to a knee beside the homeless man. He dropped a paramedic's pack, ready to offer aid.
"I think he's gone," Gray warned.
t;The medic checked for a pulse, confirming Gray's assessment.
Gray climbed to his feet.
He was surprised to see his boss, Painter Crowe, at the side entrance. Jacketless, his sleeves rolle d to the elbows, Director Crowe shoved through the door. His expression was stormy. Though ten years older than Gray, Painter still moved like a lean-muscled wolf. The director must have assessed the risk to be minimal.
Or maybe, like Gray, he merely sensed that the sniper had already fled.
Still, what didn't the man understand about desk job?
Painter crossed to him as sirens sounded from the distance. "I have local P.D. locking down the Mall," he said in clipped tones.
"Too little, too late."
"Most likely. Still, ballistics will narrow down a trajectory radius. Figure out from where the shots were fired. Was anyone following you?"
Gray shook his head. "Not that I could assess."
Gray read the calculations in the director's eyes as he surveyed the Mall. Who would attempt to assassinate Gray? On their own doorstep. It was a clear warning, but against what? Gray had not been active in any operation since the last mission in Cambodia.
"We already pulled your parents into security," Painter said. "Just as a precaution."
Gray nodded, grateful for that. Though he could imagine his father was not too happy. Nor his mother. They had barely recovered from a brutal kidnapping two months ago.
Still, with the immediate threat waning, Gray turned his attention to who might have tried to kill him - and more importantly why. One possibility rose to the forefront: his current line of inquiry. Had his investigation into his friend's fate struck a nerve somewhere?
Despite the death here, hope flared in Gray.
"Director, could the assassination—?"
Painter held up a hand as his brows pinched with worry. He sank to one knee beside the homeless man and gently turned his face. After a moment, he sat back on his heel, his eyes narrowed. He looked more worried.
"What is it, sir?"
"I don't think you were the target, Gray."
Gray glanced to the sidewalk and remembered the sparking strikes at his h
"At least not the primary target," the director continued. "The sniper may have tried to eliminate you as a witness."
"How can you be so sure?"
Painter nodded to the dead body. "I know this man."
Shock rang through him.
"His name is Archibald Polk. Professor of neurology at M.I.T."
Gray cast a skeptical eye upon the man's jaundiced pallor, the grime, the scrabbled beard, but the director sounded certain. If true, the fellow plainly had fallen on hard times.
"How the hell did he end up like this?" he asked.
Painter stood and shook his head. "I don't know. We've been out of touch for a decade. But the more important question: Why would someone want him dead?"
Gray stared down at the body. He readjusted his own internal assessment. Gray should have been relieved to learn he wasn't a target of an assassin, but if Painter was correct, then Gray's investigation had nothing to do with the attack.
Anger surfaced again - along with a certain sense of responsibility.
The man had died in Gray's arms.
"He must have been coming here," Painter mumbled and glanced to the Castle. "To see me. But why?"
Gray held out his hand, remembering the man's urgency. The ancient coin reste d on his bloody palm. "He may have wanted you to have this."
* * *
As sirens sounded in the distance, the elderly man walked slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue. He was dressed in a dusty gray suit. He carried a beat-up traveling valise on one side and held the hand of a girl on the other. The nine-year-old child wore a dress that matched the older man's suit. Her dark hair was tied back from her pale face with a red ribbon. The polish on her black shoes was marred by a drying splash of mud from the playground where she'd been playing before being picked up a moment ago.
"Papa, did you find your friend?" she asked in Russian.
He squeezed her hand and answered in a tired voice. "Yes, I did, Sasha. But remember, English, my dear."
She shuffled her feet a bit at the reprimand, then continued. "Was he happy to see you?"
He flashed back to the sight through the sniper rifle's scope, the fall of the body.
"Yes, he was. He was quite surprised."
"Can we go home now? Marta misses me."
"How soon?" she asked petulantly and scratched at her ear. A glint of steel flashed through her dark hair where she itched.
He released her hand and gently pulled her arm down from her ear. He smoothed her hair with a pat. "I have one more stop. Then we'll head home."
He neared Tenth Street. The building rose on his right, an ugly box built of slabs of concrete that someone attempted to decorate with a row of flags. He turned toward its entrance.
The headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Last Oracle by James Rollins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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"Heroes: Painter Crowe, Gray Pierce and Monk Kokkalis, members of the elite covert military group Sigma Force. •Setting: Ukraine; Washington, D.C.; India •Story: An ancient coin found in the hand of a man shot and killed in front of the Smithsonian Castle kicks off a high-octane, globe-trotting hunt for the mystery behind an autistic savant who may be part of a plot to change world history. •Sizzle factor: Radioactive. Foot chases through mountains near Chernobyl, discovery of a mysterious skull in the Museum of Natural History, gun battles, car chases and the uncovering of a secret temple in India are just part of the action. No wonder Rollins was chosen to write the novelization of summer hit movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." — Carol Memmott, USA Today
"Go out and buy James Rollins’s latest saga. He just keeps getting better and better." — The Barnstable Pariot
"Lots of absorbing scientific information and tantalizing sentences." — Publishers Weekly
"The perfect escape novel, an edge of-your-seat read." — Knoxville News-Sentinel
"Rollins has outdone himself with this fabulous mix of history, science, and adventure that will easily increase his growing number of fans." — School Library Journal
"Rollins combines real-world science with high-octane action to create rousing stories of adventure that are as exciting as any movie." — Chicago Sun-Times
"Once again, the action is nonstop." — Sacramento Bee
I knew aspects of The Last Oracle would be controversial. The book got readers thinking - and they’ve asked insightful, challenging questions. Here are some of them:
Q: You very gently tread into an area that borders on the taboo: scientific experimentation with children.
A: Human experimentation has often been cloaked in the "greater good," where the "ends justify the means." All nations, including the United States, have participated in human experimentation, including involuntary experimentation. Are experiments going on today with children? In some corners of the world, I don't doubt that they are. Especially with disenfranchised children - the poor, the mentally ill, the disabled. Do other nations perhaps turn a blind eye to such experiments? I don't doubt that, too, especially in today's climate where the mantra seems to be growing that the ends justify ANY means.
Q: Tell us more about what sparked your fascination with autism and the manipulation of savant talents?
A: Rain Man-like talent still baffles scientists and has challenged our conception of human mental abilities. What set me on the course to write this book is a quote by Temple Grandin: "If by some magic, autism had been eradicated from the face of the earth, then men would still be socializing in front of a wood fire at the entrance to a cave." It is her contention (one advocated by many historians and anthropologists) that pivotal advancements in human history have come about because of those rare individuals born with savant talents, whose unique way of looking at life have altered the course of mankind. So it made me wonder, what if someone gained control of that power?
Q: In The Last Oracle, scientists around the globe are working to engineer the next Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed. Can a great prophet, a person whose touch and thought changes the world, be created by man?
A: I believe we are not far off from this possibility (if we're not already there). The new frontier of neurology is the exploration of the brain with more and more sophisticated electrodes, some so small that they can be inserted into individual neurons. Already neurologists have inserted silicon chips into the brains of quadriplegic patients that allow them to manipulate computers to move a cursor, to surf the Internet by their thoughts alone. So how long will it be until we learn to harness the brain's full potential and scarier, how long until we learn to control that in another person?
Q: In your author's notes, you write that the JASONS, a global think tank of scientists, truly exist. How were you able to delve into the shuttered world of this secret organization?
A: The JASONS formed during the Cold War to offer advice and counsel to the Department of Justice. They were initially a band that consisted of physicists, but today, their membership has expanded to almost every scientific discipline and into most branches of the military. Few JASONS would ever speak of their affiliation, and most of their projects to this day are shrouded behind the cloak of Top Secret. But slowly information has been leaking out. One journalist did an in-depth study and interviewed many members of the JASONS and wrote a book titled,The JASONS, the Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite.
Q: This novel traces the Romani, known as Gypsies from Delphi, into the Indian Continent and across the world. Do the members of this nomadic tribe truly hold the key to long-buried secrets?
A: Considering the origin of the Romani people has only recently been determined by linguistics, I wager there are many secrets buried among a tribe of people who have been wandering across vast stretches of the world for so many centuries. A full descriptive history of these nomadic people has yet to be done. How many stories must be buried in the memories of those who have traveled continents and centuries? That knowledge alone is a vast treasure waiting to be tapped.
Q: In perhaps the most terrifying plotline within The Last Oracle, you reference the decaying radioactive tomb of Chernobyl, the new Sarcophagus being created to encase the wreckage, and lethally toxic lakes of nuclear waste scattered throughout Russia,some of which lie on top of geographic fault lines. You talk of the possibility of one earthquake tearing the land apart, unleashing a toxic tidal flow, which would flood the Arctic Circle and poison the world. It's all true, isn't it?
A: As frightening as that all sounds, it's all true. The toxic legacy of the Cold War is still with us today and it's aticking time bomb. There is a lake in the Ural Mountains of Russia that is so radioactive that if you stand at the shore for an hour, you’ll be dead a week later. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the concepts and details that are incorporated throughout The Last Oracle.
Q: Your books tend to feature man-eating squid, toothy grendels, flesh-eating swarms of frogs, and more. What killer creature (or exceptional animal) did you mastermind for The Last Oracle?
A: In this book, a group of children are on the run from a menagerie of genetically enhanced beasts, but they have a companion at their side: Marta, an elderly chimpanzee who has a few secrets of her own.
Q: You seem to be the Indiana Jones of the genre. What amazing adventures did you undertake in researching/mapping the plot of The Last Oracle?
A: I finally succumbed and accepted an invitation to go diving with sharks. Suffice it to say, I still have all my arms and legs. I've also done some traveling in Russia, including into some zones marked with radiation signs. And so far, I'm not glowing in the dark. At least not yet.