The Doomsday Key: A Sigma Force Novel
Released on 06.23.2009
At Princeton University, a famed geneticist dies inside a biohazard lab. In Rome, a Vatican archaeologist is found dead in St. Peters Basilica. In Africa, a US Senator's son is slain outside a Red Cross camp. Three murders on three continents bear a horrifying connection: all the victims are marked by a Druidic pagan cross burned into their flesh.
The bizarre murders thrust Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force into a race against time to solve a riddle going back centuries, to a ghastly crime against humanity hidden within a cryptic medieval codex. The first piece of the puzzle is discovered inside a mummified corpse buried in an English peat bog-a gruesome secret that threatens America and the world.
Aided by two women from his past--one his ex-lover, the other his new partner--Gray must piece together the horrifying truth. But the revelations come at a high cost, and to save the future, Pierce will have to sacrifice one of the women at his side. That alone might not be enough, as the true path to salvation is revealed in a dark prophecy of doom.
Sigma Force confronts humankind's greatest threat in an adventure that races from the Roman Coliseum to the icy peaks of Norway, from the ruins of medieval abbeys to the lost tombs of Celtic kings. The ultimate nightmare is locked within a talisman buried by a dead saint--an ancient artifact known as the Doomsday Key.
ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN E-BOOK!
or visit the general buy page by clicking HERE
The ravens were the first sign.
As the horse-drawn wagon traveled down the rutted track between rolling fields of barley, a flock of ravens rose up in a black wash. They hurled themselves into the blue of the morning and swept high in a panicked rout, but this was more than the usual startled flight. The ravens wheeled and swooped, tumbled and flapped. Over the road, they crashed into each other and rained down out of the skies. Small bodies struck the road, breaking wing and beak. They twitched in the ruts. Wings fluttered weakly.
But most disturbing was the silence of it all.
No caws, no screams.
Just the frantic beat of wing—then the soft impact of feathered bodies to the hard dirt and broken stone.
The wagon’s driver crossed himself and slowed the cart. His heavy-lidded eyes watched the skies. The horse tossed its head and huffed into the chill of the morning.
“Keep going,” said the traveler sharing the wagon. Martin Borr, was the youngest of the royal coroners, ordered here upon a secret edict from King William himself.
As Martin huddled deeper into his heavy cloak, he remembered the note secured by wax and imprinted by the great royal seal. Burdened by the cost of war, King William had sent scores of royal commissioners out into the countryside, to amass a great accounting of the lands and properties of his kingdom. The immense tally was being recorded in a mammoth volume called the Domesday Book, collected together by a single scholar and written in a cryptic form of Latin. The accounting was all done as a means of measuring proper tax owed to the crown.
Or so it was said.
Some grew to suspect there was another reason for such a grand survey of all the lands. They compared the book to the Bible’s description of the Last Judgment, where God kept an accounting of all mankind’s deeds in the Book of Life. Whispers and rumors began calling the result of this great survey the Doomsday Book.
These last were closer to the truth than anyone suspected.
Martin had read the wax-sealed letter. He’d observed that lone scribe painstakingly recording the results of the royal commissioners into the great book, and at the end, he’d watched the scholar scratch a single word in Latin, written in red ink.
Many regions were marked with this word, indicating lands that had been laid to waste by war or pillage. But two entries had been inscribed with crimson ink. One was on a desolate island that lay between the coast of Ireland and the English shore. The other entry Martin approached now, ordered here to investigate at the behest of the king. He was sworn to secrecy and given three men to assist him. They trailed behind the wagon on their own horses.
At Martin’s side, the driver twitched the reins and encouraged the draft horse, a monstrously huge chestnut, to a faster clop. As they continued forward, the wheels of the wagon drove over the twitching bodies of the ravens, crushing bones and splattering blood.
Finally, the cart topped a rise and revealed the breadth of the rich valley beyond. A small village lay nestled below, flanked by a stone manor house at one end and a steepled church on the other. A score of thatched cottages and longhouses made up the rest of the hamlet, along with a smatter of wooden sheepfolds and small dovecotes.
“’Tis a cursed place, milord,” the driver said. “Mark my words. It were no pox that has blasted this place.”
“That is what we’ve come to discern.”
A league behind them, the steep road had been closed off by the king’s army. None were allowed forward, but that did not stop rumors of the strange deaths from spreading to the neighboring villages and farmsteads.
“Cursed,” the man mumbled again as he set his cart down the road toward the village. “I heard tell that these lands once belonged to the heathen Celts. Said to be sacred to their pagan ways. Their stones can still be found in the forests off in the highlands up yonder.”
A withered arm pointed toward the woods fringing the high hills that climbed heavenward. Mists clung to those forests, turning the green wood into murky shades of gray and black.
“They’ve cursed this place, I tell you straight. Bringing doom upon those who bear the cross.”
Martin Borr dismissed such superstitions. At thirty-two years of age, he had studied with master scholars from Rome to Britannia. In addition, he had come with experts to discover the truth here.
Shifting around, Martin waved the others ahead toward the small hamlet. The trio set off atop their horses at a canter. Each knew his duty. Martin followed more slowly, studying and assessing all he passed. Isolated in this small upland valley, the village went by the name Highglen and was known locally for its pottery, forged from mud and clay gathered out of the hot springs that contributed to the mists cloaking the higher forests. It was said that the town’s method of kilning and the composition of potter’s clay was a tightly guarded secret, known only to the guild here.
And now it was lost forever.
The wagon trundled down the road, passing more fields: rye, oats, beans, and rows of vegetables. Some of the fields showed signs of recent harvesting, while others showed evidence of being set to torch.
Had the villagers grown to suspect the truth?
As the wagon continued down into the valley, lines of sheep pens appeared, fringed by tall hedges that half hid the horror within. Wooly mounds, the bloated bodies of hundreds of sheep, dotted the overgrown meadows. Closer to the village, pigs and goats also appeared, sprawled and sunken-eyed, dead where they’d dropped. Off in a field, a large-boned ox had collapsed, still tethered to its plow.
As the wagon reached the village green, the town remained silent. No bark of dog greeted them, no crow of rooster, no bray of donkey. The church bell didn’t ring, and no one called out to the strangers entering the village.
A heavy silence pressed down over the place.
As they would discover, most of the dead still resided within their houses, too weak at the end to venture out. But one body sprawled facedown on the green, not far from the manor house’s stone steps. He lay like he might have just fallen, perhaps tripped down the steps and broken his neck. But even from the height of the wagon, Martin noted the gaunt stretch of skin over bone, the hollow eyes sunken into the skull, the thinness of limbs.
It was the same wasting as the beasts of the field. It was as if the entire village had been under siege and had been starved out.
The clatter of hooves approached. Reginald pulled beside the wagon. “Granaries are all full,” he said, dusting off his palms on his pants. The tall, scarred man had overseen campaigns by King William in the north of France. “Found r ats and mice in the bins, too.”
Martin glanced over to him.
“As dead as everything else. Just like that cursed island.”
“But now the wasting has reached our shores,” Martin muttered. “Entered our lands.”
It was the reason they’d all been sent here, why the village road was under guard, and why their group had been sworn to secrecy with binding oaths.
“Girard found you a good body,” Reginald said. “Fresher than most. A boy. He’s set ’im up in the smithy.” A heavy arm pointed to a wooden barn with a stacked-stone chimney.
Martin nodded and climbed out of the wagon. He had to know for sure, and there was only one way to find out. As royal coroner, this was his duty, to discern the truth from the dead. Though at the moment, he’d leave the bloodiest work to the French butcher.
Martin crossed to the smithy’s open door. Girard stood inside, hunched before the cold forge. The Frenchman had labored in King William’s army, where he’d sawed off limbs and did his best to keep the soldiers alive.
Girard had cleared a table in the center of the smithy and already had the boy stripped and tied to the table. Martin stared at the pale, emaciated figure. His own son was about the same age, but the manner of this death had aged the poor lad here, made him seem wizened well beyond his eight or nine years.
As Girard prepared his knives, Martin examined the boy closer. He pinched the skin and noted the lack of fat beneath. He examined the cracked lips, the flaky patches of hair loss, the swollen ankles and feet, but mostly he ran his hands over the protuberant bones, as if trying to read a map with his fingers: ribs, jaw, eye socket, pelvis.
What had happened?
Martin knew any real answers lay much deeper.
Girard crossed to the table with a long silver blade in his hand. “Shall we get to work, monsieur?”
A quarter hour later, the boy’s corpse lay on the board like a gutted pig. The skin of the boy, splayed from groin to gullet, had been pulled and tacked to the wooden table. Intestines lay nestled and curled tight in the bloodied cavity, bloated and pink. From under the ribs, a brownish yellow liver swelled outward, too large for one so small, for one so wasted to bone and gristle.
Girard reached into the belly of boy. The butcher’s hands vanished into the gelid depths.
On the far side, Martin touched his forehead and mouthed a silent prayer of forgiveness for this trespass. But it was too late for absolution from the boy. All the lad’s body could do was confirm their worst fears.
Girard hauled forth with the boy’s stomach, rubbery and white, from which hung a swollen purple spleen. With a few slices of his knife, the Frenchman freed the section of gut and dropped it on the table. Another whispery slip of blade and the stomach was laid open. A rich green mix of undigested bread and grain spilled over the board, like some foul Horn of Plenty.
A fetid smell rolled out, ripe and potent. Martin covered his mouth and nose—not against the stench, but against the horrible certainty.
“Starved to death, that is plain,” Girard said. “But the boy starved with a full belly.”
Martin stepped back, his limbs going cold. Here was his proof. They would have to examine others to be certain. But the deaths here seemed to be the same as those on the island, a place marked in red ink as wasted in the Domesday Book.
Martin stared at the gutted boy. Here was the secret reason the survey had been undertaken to begin with. To search for this blight on their homelands, to stamp it out before it spread. The deaths were the same on that lonely island. The deceased appeared to eat and eat, yet they still starved to death, finding no nourishment, only a continual wasting.
Needing air, Martin turned from the table and stepped back out of shadows and into sunshine. He stared across at the rolling hills, green and fertile. A wind swept down and combed through the fields of barley and oat, wheat and rye. He pictured a man adrift in the ocean, dying of thirst with water all around him but unable to drink.
Here was no different.
Martin shivered in the wan sunlight, wanting to be as far away from this valley as possible, but a shout drew his attention to the right, toward the other end of the village green. A figure dressed all in black stood before an open door. For a moment, Martin feared it was Death himself, but then the figure waved, shattering the illusion. It was Abbot Orren, the final member of their group, the head of the Abbey of Kells in Ireland. He stood at the entrance to the village church.
“Come see this!” the abbot shouted.
Martin stumbled in the church’s direction. It was more a reflex than a conscious effort. He did not want to return to the smithy. He would leave the boy to the care of the French butcher from here. Martin crossed the village green, climbed the steps, and joined the Catholic monk.
“What is it, Abbot Orren?”
The man turned and headed into the church. “Blasphemy,” the Irish abbot spat out. “To defile the place in such a manner. No wonder they were all slain.”
Martin hurried after the abbot. The man was skeletally thin and ghostly in his oversized traveling cloak. Of them all, he was the only one to have visited the island off the coast of Ireland, to have seen the wasting there, too.
“Did you find what you were seeking?” Martin asked.
The abbot did not answer and stepped back into the crude church. Martin had no choice but to follow. The interior was gloomy, a cheerless place with an earthen floor covered in rushes. There were no benches, and the roof was low and heavily raftered. The only light came from a pair of high thin windows at the back of the church. They cast dusty streaks of light upon the altar, which was a single slab of stone. An altar cloth must have once covered the raw stone, but it had been torn away and cast to the floor, most likely by the abbot in his search.
Abbot Orren crossed to the altar and pointed to the bare stone with a trembling arm. His shoulders shook with his anger. “Blasphemy,” he repeated. “To carve these heathen symbols upon our Lord’s house.”
Martin closed the distance and leaned closer to the altar. The stone had been inscribed with sunbursts and spirals, with circles and strange knotted shapes, all clearly pagan.
“Why would these pious people commit such a sin?”
“I don’t think it was the villagers of Highglen,” Martin said.
He ran his hand over the altar. Under his fingertips, he sensed the age of the markings, the worn nature of the inscribed shapes. These were clearly old. Martin remembered his driver’s assertion that this place was cursed, how it was hallowed ground to the ancient Celtic people and how their giant stones could be found hidden in the misty highland forests.
Martin straightened. One of those stones must have been hauled to Highglen and used to form the altar stone of the village church.
“If it’s not the people here who did this, then how do you explain this?” the abbot asked and moved to the wall behind the altar and waved an arm to encompass the large marking there. It had been painted recently, and from the brownish red color, possibly with blood. It depicted a circle with a cross cutting through it.
Martin had seen such markings on burial stones and ancient ruins. It was a sacred symbol of the Celtic priesthood.
“A pagan cross,” Martin said.
“We found the same on the island, marked on all the doors.”
“But what does it mean?”
The abbot fingered the silver cross at his own neck. “It is as the king feared. The snakes who plagued Ireland, who were driven off our island by St. Patrick, have come to these shores.”
Martin knew the abbot was not referring to true serpents of the field but to the pagan priests who carried staffs curled like snakes, to the Druid leaders of the ancient Celtic people. St. Patrick had converted or driven off the pagans from Ireland’s shores.
But that had been six centuries ago.
Martin turned to stare out the church toward the dead village. Girard’s words echoed in his head. The boy starved with a full belly.
< ;p>None of it made any sense.
The abbot mumbled behind him. “It must all be burned. The soil sowed with salt.”
Martin nodded, but a worry grew in his breast. Could any flame truly destroy what was wrought here? He did not know for sure, but he was certain about one thing.
This was not over.
* * *
October 8th, 11:55pm
Father Marco Giovanni hid in a dark forest of stone.
The massive marble pillars held up the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica and sectioned off the floor into chapels, vaults, and niches. Works of the masters filled the hallowed space: Michelangelo’s Pietà, Bernini's baldacchino, the bronze statue of St. Peter Enthroned.
Marco knew he wasn’t alone in this stone forest. There was a hunter with him, lying in wait, most likely near the rear of the church.
Three hours ago, he had received word from a fellow archaeologist who also served the Church, his former mentor at the Gregorian University in Rome. He’d been told to meet him here at midnight.
However, it had proved to be a trap.
With his back against a pillar, Marco held his right hand clamped under his left arm, stanching the bleeding along the left side. He’d been cut down to the ribs. Hot liquid flowed over his fingers. His other hand clutched the proof he needed, an ancient leather satchel, no larger than a coin purse. He held tight to it.
As he shifted to peer down the central nave, more blood flowed. It splattered to the marble floor. He could wait no longer, or he’d grow too weak. Saying a silent prayer, he pushed off the pillar and fled down the dark nave toward the papal altar. Each pounding step was a fresh stab in his side. But he hadn’t been cut with any knife. The arrow had imbedded into the neighboring pew after slicing open his side. The weapon had been short, stubby, black. A steel crossbow bolt. From his hiding place, Marco had studied it. A small red diode had glowed at its base, like some fiery eye in the dark.
Not knowing what else to do, Marco simply fled, staying low. He knew he would most likely die, but the secret he held was more important than his own life. He had to survive long enough to reach the far exit, find one of the patrolling Swiss Guards, and get word to the Holy See.
Ignoring the pain and terror, he ran.
The papal altar lay directly ahead. The bronze canopy over it, designed by Bernini, rested on twisted columns. Marco flanked to the left of it, aiming for the transept on that side. He spotted the massive Monument to Alexander VII and the doorway sheltered beneath it.
It was the exit out onto Piazza Santa Marta.
A punch to his belly ended any hope. He fell back a step and glanced down. No fist had struck him. A steel shaft tipped by plastic feathers stuck out of his shirt. Pain came a breath later, shattering outward. Like the first arrow, this crossbow bolt also glowed with a fiery eye. The diode rested atop a square chamber at the base of the shaft.
Marco stumbled backward. A shift of shadows near the door revealed a figure dressed in the motley clothing of a Swiss Guard, surely a disguise. The assassin lowered his crossbow and stepped out from the sheltered doorway where he’d lain in wait.
Marco retreated to the altar and made ready to flee back down the nave. But he spotted another man garbed in a Swiss uniform. The man bent near a pew and yanked loose the imbedded bolt from the wood.
With terror overwhelming the pain in his belly, Marco turned toward the right transept, but again he was thwarted. A third figure stepped out of the shadows of a confessional box, lifting another crossbow.
He was trapped.
The basilica was shaped like a crucifix, and three of its legs were now blocked by assassins. That left only one direction to flee. Toward the apse, the head of the cross. But it was a dead end.
Still, Marco hurried into the apse.
Ahead rose the Altar to the Chair of Peter, a massive gilt monument of saints and angels that housed the wooden seat of St. Peter. Above it, lay an oval alabaster window, revealing the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove.
But the window was dark and offered no hope.
Marco turned his back on the window and searched around him. To his left sat the tomb of Urban VIII. A statue of the grim reaper in the form of a skeleton climbed from the pope’s marble crypt, heralding the final fate of all men…and perhaps Marco’s own doom.
Marco whispered in Latin. “Lilium et Rosa.”
The Lily and the Rose.
Back in the twelfth century, an Irish saint named Malachy had a vision of all the popes from his century to the end of the world. According to his vision, there would be 112 popes in total. He described each with a short cryptic phrase. In the case of Urban VIII—who was born five centuries after Malachy’s death—the pope was named “the lily and the rose.” And like all such prophecies, the description proved accurate. Pope Urban VIII had been born in Florence, whose coat of arms was the red lily.
But what was most disturbing of all was that the current pope was next-to-last on St. Malachy’s list. According to the prophecy, the next leader of the Church would be the one to see the world end.
Marco had never believed such fancies before—but with his fingers clutched tight to the tiny leather satchel, he wondered how close they truly were to Armageddon.
Footsteps warned Marco. One of the assassins was closing in. He had only enough time for one move.
He acted quickly. Stanching his bleeding to leave no trace, he moved off to the side to hide what must be preserved. Once done, he returned to the center of the apse. With no other recourse, he dropped to his knees, to await his death. The footsteps neared the altar. A figure moved into view. The man stopped and stared around.
It was not one of the assassins.
And not even a stranger.
Marco groaned with recognition, which drew the newcomer’s attention. The man stiffened in surprise, then hurried over.
Too weak to gain his feet, all Marco could do was stare, momentarily trapped between hope and suspicion. But as the man rushed toward him, his bearing was plainly full of concern. He was Marco’s former teacher, the man who had set up this midnight rendezvous.
“Monsignor Verona…” Marco gasped, setting aside any suspicions, knowing in his heart that this man would never betray him. Marco lifted an arm and raised an empty hand. His other hand clutched the feathered end of the crossbow bolt still imbedded in his belly.
A single flicker of light drew Marco’s attention downward. He watched the red diode on the crossbow bolt suddenly blink to green.
The explosion blew Marco across the marble floor. He left a trail of blood, smoke, and a smear of entrails. His belly was left a gutted ruin as he fell to his side at the foot of the Altar to the Chair of Peter. His eyes rolled and settled to the towering gilt monument above him.
A name rose hazily to his mind.
Peter the Roman.
That was the final name on St. Malachy’s prophetic list, the man who would follow the current Holy Father and become the last pope on Earth.
With Marco’s failure this night, such a doom could not be stopped.
Marco’s vision darkened. His ears grew deaf. He had no strength left to speak. Lying on his side, he stared across the apse to the tomb of Pope Urban, to the bronze skeleton climbing out of the pope’s crypt. From its bony finger, Marco had hung the tiny satchel that he’d protected for so long. He pictured the ancient mark burned into its leather.
It held the only hope for the world.
He prayed with his last breath that it would be enough.
October 9th, 4:55 am
Mali, West Africa
Gunfire woke Jason Gorman from a bone-deep sleep. It took him an extra half breath to remember where he was. He’d been dreaming of swimming in the lake at his father’s vacation house in upstate New York. But the mosquito netting that cocooned his cot and the pre-dawn chill of the desert jolted him back to the present.
Along with the screams.
His heart hammering, he kicked away the thin sheet and tore through the netting. Inside the Red Cross tent-cabin, it was pitch dark, but through the tarp walls, a flickering red glow marked a fire somewhere on the east side of the refugee camp. More flames licked into existence, dancing across all four walls of the tent.
Though panicked, Jason knew what was happening. He’d been briefed about this before heading to Africa. Over the past year, other refugees camps had been attacked by the Tuareg rebel forces, raided for food. With the price of rice and maize trebled across the Republic of Mali, the capital had been besieged by riots. Food was the new gold in the northern districts of the country. Three million people faced starvation.
It was why he had come here.
His father sponsored the experimental farm project that took up sixty acres on the north side of the camp, funded by the Viatus Corporation and overseen by crop biologists and geneticists from Cornell University. They had test fields of genetically modified corn growing out of the parched soils of the region. The first fields had been harvested just last week, grown with only a third of the water normally necessary for irrigation. Word must have spread to the wrong ears.
Jason burst out of his tent in his bare feet. He still wore the khaki shorts and loose shirt that he’d had on when he’d fallen into bed last night. In the pre-dawn darkness, firelight was the only source of illumination.
The generators must’ve been taken down.
Automatic gunfire and screams echoed through the darkness. Shadowy figures dashed and pushed all around, refugees running in a panic. But the flow was turbulent, heading this way and that. With rifle blasts and the staccato of machine gun fire arising from all sides, no one knew in which direction to flee.
Krista was still at the research facility. Three months ago, he had met her back in the States during his stateside briefing. She had begun sharing Jason’s mosquito-netted cocoon only last month. But last night, she had stayed behind. She had planned to spend the entire night finishing some DNA assays on the newly harvested corn.
He had to reach her.
Pushing against the tide, Jason headed toward the north side of the camp. As he feared, the gunfire and flames were the most intense there. The rebels intended to raid the harvest. As long as no one tried to stop them, no one had to die. Let them have the corn. Once they had it, they would vanish into the night as quickly as they’d come. The corn was going to be destroyed anyway. It wasn’t even meant for human consumption until further studies were done.
Turning a corner, Jason fell over the first body, a teenage boy, sprawled in the alley between the ramshackle hovels that passed for homes here. The teenager had been shot and trampled over. Jason crabbed away from his body and gained his feet. He fled away.
After another frantic hundred yards, Jason reached the northern edge of the camp. Bodies were sprawled everywhere, piled on one another, men, women, children. It was a slaughterhouse. Some bodies had been torn in half by machine gun fire. Across the killing field, the research camp’s Quonset huts stood like dark ships mired in the West African savannah. No lights shone there—only flames.
Jason remained frozen in place. He wanted to continue onward, cursing his cowardice. But he couldn’t move. Tears of frustration rose to his eyes.
Then a thump-thump rose behind him. He twisted around as a pair of helicopters flew low toward the besieged camp, hugging the terrain. It had to be the government forces from the nearby republic base. The Viatus Corporation had cast bushels of U. S. dollars to insure extra protection for the site.
A shuddering breath escaped Jason. The helicopters would surely chase off the rebels. More confident, he headed across the field. Still he kept low as he ran. He aimed for the back of the closest Quonset hut, less than a hundred yards away. Deeper shadows would hide him there, and Krista’s lab was in the next hut over. He prayed she’d kept herself hidden inside there.
As he reached the Quonset’s rear wall, bright light flared behind him. A brilliant searchlight speared out of the lead helicopter and swept across the refugee camp below. Jason let out a rattling sigh.
That should scare off the rebels—
Then from both sides of the helicopter, the chatter of machine gun fire blasted out and ripped into the camp. Jason’s blood iced. This was no surgical strike against invading rebel forces. This was a wholesale slaughter of the camp.
The second helicopter swung to the other side, circling outward along the periphery of the camp. From its rear hatch, barrels rolled out and exploded on impact, casting up gouts of flames into the sky. Screams erupted even louder. Jason spotted one man fleeing off into the desert, naked, but his skin still on fire. The firebombing spread toward Jason’s position.
He turned and ran past the Quonset hut.
The fields and granaries spread ahead of him, but safety would be found there. Dark figures moved on the far side of the cornrows. Jason would have to risk a final dash across the open to reach Krista’s research lab in the next Quonset hut. The windows were dark, and the only door faced the open fields.
He paused to steady himself. One fast dash and he could be inside the hut. But before he could move, new jets of flames burst forth on the far side of the field. A line of men bearing flamethrowers set off down the rows of corn, burning the fields that had yet to be harvested.
What the hell’s happening?
Off to the right, the single granary tower exploded in a fiery whirlwind that spiraled high into the air. Shocked, but using the distraction, Jason dashed to the Quonset hut’s open door and dove through it.
In the glow of the fires, the room looked unmolested, almost tidy. The back half of the hut was full of all manner of scientific equipment used in genetic and biological research: microscopes, centrifuges, incubators, thermocyclers, gel electrophoresis units. While to the right were cubicles with wireless laptops, satellite uplink equipment, even battery back-up units.
A single laptop, still powered by the batteries, glowed with a screensaver. It rested in Krista’s cubicle, but there was no sign of his girlfriend.
Jason hurried to the cubicle and brushed his thumb over the touchpad. The screensaver vanished, replaced with a view of an open email account. Again it was Krista’s.
Jason stared around the hut.
Krista must have fled, but where?
Jason crossed to the computer, the camp’s only means of communication, and quickly accessed his email account. He toggled the address for his father’s office on Capitol Hill. Holding his breath, he typed rapidly as he described the attack in a few terse sentences. In case he didn’t make it, he wanted some record. Just before he hit the SEND button, he had a moment of insight. Krista’s files were still up on the screen. He dragged them, attached them to his note, and hit send. She would not want them lost.
The email failed to immediately transmit. The attached file was huge and would take an extra minute to upload. He couldn’t wait. Jason hoped the battery pack would last long enough for the email to go through.
Fearful of waiting any longer, Jason swung to the door. He had no way of knowing where Krista had gone. He hoped she had fled into the surrounding desert. That was what he was going to do. Out there were mazes of gullies and dry washes. He could hide for days if necessary.
As he hurried toward the exit, a dark figure appeared and blocked the doorway. Jason fell back with a gasp. The figure stepped into the hut and whispered in surprise.
Relief flushed through him.
He hurried to her, his arms wide to take her in. They could still both escape.
“Oh, Jason, thank god!”
His relief matched hers—until she lifted a pistol and fired three times into his chest. The shots felt like punches, knocking him backward to the floor. Fiery pain followed, turning the night even darker. Distantly he heard gunfire, explosions, and more screams.
Krista leaned over him. “Your tent was empty. We thought you’d escaped.”
He coughed, unable to answer as blood filled his mouth.
Seemingly satisfied with his silence, she turned on a heel and headed back out into the nightmare of fire and death. She stopped, momentarily silhouetted against the flaming fields, then vanished into the night.
Jason struggled to comprehend.
As darkness folded over him, he would have no answer to his question, but he alone heard one last thing. The laptop in the neighboring cubicle chimed. His message had been sent.
October 10th, 7:04am
Prince William Forest
He needed more speed.
Hunched over the narrow handlebars of the motorcycle, Commander Grayson Pierce flew the bike around a sharp corner. He leaned his six-foot frame into the curve, nearly shearing off his kneecap as he laid the bike low around the turn.
The engine roared as he opened the throttle and straightened his trajectory. His target raced fifty yards ahead of him, riding a smaller Honda crotch rocket. Gray pursued on an older model Yamaha V-Max. Both bikes were powered by V-4 engines, but his motorcycle was larger and weighed more. If he was going to catch his target, he would need every bit of skill.
And maybe a bit of luck.
They’d reached a short straightaway through the parklands of Prince William Forest. A dense line of hardwoods framed the two-lane blacktop. The mix of towering beech and aspen made for a handsome scenic drive, especially now, in October, when the leaves were changing. Unfortunately, a storm last night had blown most of those leaves into patches of slippery mire on the blacktop.
Gray snapped the throttle wider. Acceleration kicked him in the pants. With the slightest wobble, the bike rocketed down the straight stretch, turning the center line into a blur.
Unfortunately, his target was also taking advantage of the straight road. So far, most of Route 619 had been a rollercoaster ride of sudden turns, deadly switchbacks, and rolling hills. The hour-long chase had been brutal, but Gray could not let the other rider escape.
As his target slowed for the next turn, the distance between them narrowed. Gray refused to let up. Maybe it was foolhardy, but he knew his bike’s capabilities. Since acquiring the older bike, he’d had one of the robotics engineers from DARPA—the Defense Department’s research and development branch—outfit the motorcycle with a few modifications.
They owed him a favor.
Gray’s own outfit—designated Sigma—served as the muscle behind DARPA. The team consisted of former Special Forces soldiers who had been retrained in various scientific disciplines to act as its field operatives.
One of the modifications to the bike was a head’s up display built into his helmet. Across his face shield, data flickered on the left side, noting speed, RPM, gear, oil temperature. On the right side, a navigational map scrolled data that projected best possible gear ratios and speeds to match the terrain.
From the corner of his eye, Gray watched the tachometer slip into the red zone. The navigational array blinked a warning. He was coming at the corner too fast.
Ignoring the data, Gray kept hard on the throttle.
The distance between the two bikes narrowed further.
Thirty yards now separated them as they hit the curve.
Ahead, the rider tilted his bike and roared around the bend. Seconds later, Gray hit the same turn. He sought to eke out another yard by hugging tighter around the blind corner, skimming the center yellow line. Luckily, at this early hour, the roads through here were empty of traffic.
Sadly the same couldn’t be said for the wildlife.
Around the corner, a black bear crouched at the shoulder of the road with a cub at her side. Both noses were buried in a McDonald’s bag. The first motorcycle sped past the pair. The noise and sudden appearance startled the mother bear into rearing up. Unfortunately, the cub acted on pure instinct and fled—right into the road.
Gray could not get out of the way in time. With no choice, he swung the bike into a hard skid. His tires smoked across the blacktop. As he hit the soft loam of the opposite shoulder, he let the bike drop and kicked away. Momentum slid him across the moist leaves on his back for a good twenty feet. Behind him, the bike hit an oak with a resounding crash.
Coming to a stop in a wet gulley, Gray twisted around. He caught sight of the hind end of the mother bear hightailing it into the woods, followed by her cub. Apparently they’d had enough fast food for one day.
A new noise intruded.
The roar of a motorcycle, coming up fast.
Gray sat straighter. Down the road, his target had swung around and was barreling back toward him.
Gray ripped away the chinstraps and tugged off his helmet.
The other cycle rocketed up to his position and braked hard in front of him, lifting up on its front tire. The rider was short, but muscled like a pitbull. As the bike came to a stop, the rider pulled off his helmet, too, revealing a head shaved to the skin. He frowned down at Gray.
“Still in one piece?”
The rider was Monk Kokkalis, a fellow operative with Sigma and Gray’s best friend. The man’s stony features were carved into concern and worry.
“I’m fine. Hadn’t expected a bear in the road.”
“Who does?” Monk cracked a wide grin as he booted his kickstand into place and climbed off the bike. “But don’t go thinkin’ of whelching on our bet. You set no rules against natural obstacles. Dinner’s on you after the conference. Porterhouses and the darkest ale they have at that steakhouse by the lake.”
“Fine. But I want a rematch. You had an unfair advantage.”
“Advantage? Me?” Monk stripped off one of his gloves to expose his prosthetic hand. “I’m missing my hand. Along with a fair amount of my long-term memory. And been on disability for a year. Some advantage!”
Still the grin never wavered as Monk offered his DARPA-engineered prosthetic. Gray took the hand, feeling the cold plastic fasten firmly on him. Those same fingers could crush walnuts.
Monk pulled him to his feet.
As Gray brushed wet leaves from his Kevlar motorcycle suit, his cellphone chimed from his breast pocket. He pulled it out and checked the Caller I.D. His jaw tightened.
“It’s H.Q.,” he told Monk and lifted the phone to his ear. “Commander Pierce here.”
“Pierce? About time you picked up. I’ve called you four times in the past hour. And may I ask what you are doing in the middle of a forest in Virginia?” It was Gray’s boss, Painter Crowe, director of Sigma.
Fighting for some adequate explanation, Gray glanced back to his motorcycle. The bike’s GPS must have betrayed his location. Gray struggled to explain, but he had no adequate excuse. He and Monk had been sent from Washington to Quantico to attend an F.B.I symposium on bioterrorism. Today was the second day, and Gray and Monk had decided to skip the morning lectures.
“Let me guess,” Painter continued. “Out doing a little joyriding.”
The sternness in the director’s voice softened. “So did it help Monk?”
As usual, Painter had surmised the truth. The director had an uncanny ability to assess a situation. Even this one.
Gray looked over at his friend. Monk stood with his arms locked across his chest, his face worried. It had been a hard year for him. He had been brutalized in a research facility, where a part of his brain had been cut out, destroying his memory. Though he had recovered what was left, there remained gaps in his memory, and Gray knew it still haunted him.
Over the last two months, Monk had been slowly acclimating back to his duties with Sigma, restricted though they may be. He was on desk duty and offered only minor assignments here in the States. He was limited to gathering intel and evaluating data, often beside his wife, Captain Kat Bryant, who also worked at Sigma headquarters and had a background in Naval Intelligence.
But Gray knew Monk was straining at the bit to do more, to gain back the life that had been stolen from him. Everyone treated him as if he were a fragile piece of porcelain, and he’d begun to bristle at all the sympathetic glances and whispered words of encouragement.
Refusing to do that, Gray had suggested this cross-country race through the park that bordered the Quantico Marine Corps Reservation. It offered a chance to blow some steam, to get a little grit in the face, to take some risk.
Gray covered the phone with his hand and mouthed to Monk. “Painter’s pissed.”
His friend’s face broke into a broad grin.
Gray returned the phone to his ear.
“I heard that,” his boss said. “And if you’re both done having your bit of fun, I need you back at Sigma command this afternoon. Both of you.”
“Yes, sir. But can I ask what it’s about?”
A long pause stretched as if the director was weighing what to say. When he spoke, his words were careful. “It’s about the original owner of that motorcycle of yours.”
Gray glanced to the crashed bike. The original owner? He flashed back to a night two years ago, remembering the roar of a motorcycle down a suburban street, running with no lights, bearing a deadly rider, an assassin of mixed loyalties.
Gray swallowed to gain his voice. “What about her?”
“I’ll tell you when you get here.”
* * *
Hours later, Gray had showered, changed into jeans and a sweatshirt, and sat in the satellite surveillance room of Sigma headquarters. He shared the space with Painter and Monk. On the screen shone a digital map. It traced a crooked red line from Thailand to Italy.
The path of the assassin ended in Venice.
Sigma had been tracking her for over a year. Her location was marked by a small red triangle on a computer monitor. It glowed in the middle of a satellite map of Venice. Buildings, crooked streets, and winding canals were depicted in precise grayscale detail, down to the tiny gondolas frozen in place, capturing a moment in time. Even that time was marked in the corner of the computer monitor, along with the approximate longitude and latitude of the assassin’s location:
10:52:45 GMT OCT 9
“How long has she been in Venice?” Gray asked.
“Over a month.”
Painter ran a tired hand through his hair and narrowed his eyes in suspicion. He looked exhausted. It had been a difficult year for the director. Pale from spending much of the day in offices and meetings, Painter’s mixed Native American heritage was only evident in the granite planes of his face and the streak of white through his black hair, like a tucked snowy feather.
Gray studied the map. “Do we know where she’s staying?”
He shook his head. “Somewhere in the Santa Croce area. It’s one of the oldest neighborhoods of Venice, not very touristy. The area is a maze of bridges, alleys, and canals. An easy place to keep hidden.”
Monk sat back from the other two, adjusting the connection of his prosthetic hand. “So why did Seichan pick that city of all the places in the world to hole up?”
Gray glanced to the corner of the monitor. It displayed a photo of the assassin, a woman in her late twenties. Her features were a mix of Vietnamese and European descent, possibly French from her bronzed skin, slender features and full lips. When Gray had first met her three years ago, she’d almost killed him, shooting him point-blank in the chest. Even now he pictured her in that same turtle-necked black bodysuit, recalling how it had hugged her lithe form, hinting at both the hardness and softness that lay beneath.
Gray also pictured her from their last association. She’d been captured and held prisoner by the U.S. military, badly bloodied and recovering from abdominal surgery. At the time, Gray had helped her escape custody, paying back a debt owed after she had saved his own life—but her freedom had not come without a price.
During the surgery, Gray’s boss had a passive polymer tracker secretly planted in her belly. It was a condition upon her release, extra insurance that they’d be able to monitor her location and movements. She was too important to let go, too intimately tied to a shadowy terrorist network known as the Guild. No one knew anything about the true puppetmasters of that organization—only that it was well-entrenched and had tendrils and roots globally.
Seichan claimed to be a double-agent, assigned to infiltrate the Guild and discover who truly ran its operations. Yet, she offered no other proof except her word. Gray had pretended to allow her to escape, while at the same time kept silent about the implanted tracker. The device offered U.S. intelligence services a chance to keep tabs on her and possibly discover more about the Guild.
But Gray suspected her decision to come to ground in Venice had nothing to do with the Guild. He felt Painter Crowe’s gaze on him, as if waiting for Gray to come up with an answer. His boss’s face was impassive, stoic, but a flicker in those ice-blue eyes suggested this was a test.
“She’s returning to the scene of the crime,” Gray said and sat straighter.
“What?” Monk asked.
Gray nodded to the map overlay. “The Santa Croce area also houses some of the oldest sections of the University of Venice. Two years ago, she murdered a museum curator in that city, one connected to the same university. Killed him in cold blood. She said it was necessary to protect the man’s family. A wife and daughter.”
Painter confirmed the same. “The child and mother do live in that area. We’ve got people on the ground trying to pinpoint her location. But the tracker is passive. We can’t narrow her location to less than two square miles. But in case she shows up, we do have the curator’s family under surveillance. With so many eyes looking for her, she must be maintaining a low profile, possibly using a disguise.”
Gray remembered the strain in Seichan’s face when she had tried to justify the cold-blooded murder of the museum curator. Possibly guilt, rather than the Guild, had drawn her back to Venice. But to what end? And what if he was wrong? What if this was all an artful bit of trickery? Seichan was nothing if not brilliant, an excellent strategist.
He studied the screen.
Something felt wrong about all this.
“Why are you showing me this now?” Gray asked. Sigma had been tracking Seichan for over a year, so why the sudden urgency to call him back to central command?
“Word has filtered down from the N.S.A., passing through the new head of DARPA, and down to us. With no real intelligence gained from Seichan’s freedom this past year, the powers-that-be have lost patience with the operation and have ordered her immediate capture. She’s to be brought into a black ops interrogation center in Bosnia.”
“But that’s insane. She’ll never talk. Our best chance of discovering anything concrete about the Guild is through this operation.”
“I agree. Unfortunately we’re the only ones who hold that position. Now if Sean was still heading DARPA…”
Painter’s words trailed off into a place of pain. Dr. Sean McKnight had been the founder of Sigma and the head of DARPA at the time. Last year he’d been killed during an assault on Sigma command. The new head of DARPA, General Gregory Metcalf, was still fresh to his position, still dealing with the political fallout following the assault. He and Painter had been butting heads ever since. Gray suspected only the president’s support of Painter Crowe kept the director from being fired. But even that support had its limits.
“Metcalf refuses to ruffle any feathers among the various intelligence communities and has sided with the N.S.A on this matter.”
“So they’re going to bring her in.”
Painter shrugged. “If they can. But they have no idea who they’re dealing with.”
“I’m between assignments. I could head out there. Offer my help.”
“Help to do what? Help find her or help her get away?”
Gray remained silent, his feelings mixed. He finally spoke firmly. “I’ll do whatever is asked of me,” he said, staring pointedly at Painter.
The director shook his head. “If Seichan sees you or even suspects you’re in Venice, then she’ll know she’s being tracked. We’ll lose all advantage.”
Gray frowned, knowing the director was right.
The phone rang, and Painter picked up the receiver. Gray was glad for the momentary distraction as he fought to settle his thoughts.
“What is it, Brant?” Painter said. As the director listened to his office assistant’s reply, the crease between his eyes deepened. “Patch the call through.”
After a moment, Painter held the phone receiver toward Gray. “It’s Lieutenant Rachel Verona, calling from Rome.”
Gray could not hide his surprise as he accepted the phone and placed it to his ear. He turned slightly away from the other two men.
He immediately heard the tears in her voice. There was no sobbing, but her normally crisp fluency was fractured into pieces, catching between words. “Gray…I need your help.”
“Anything. What is it?”
He had not spoken to her in months. For over a year, he’d been romantically involved with the raven-haired lieutenant, even talking marriage, but in the end, it had not worked out. She was too tied down to her job with the Italian carabinieri. Likewise, Gray had deep roots both professionally and personally here in the States. The distance proved too great.
“It’s my Uncle Vigor,” she said. Her words rushed out as if hurrying ahead of a flood of tears. “Last night. There was an explosion at St. Peter’s. He’s in a coma.”
“My God, what happened?”
Rachel hurried on. “Another priest was killed, one of his former students. They suspect terrorists. But I don’t …they won’t let me…I didn’t know who else to call.”
“It’s okay. I can be out there on the next flight.” Gray glanced back to Painter. His boss nodded, needing no explanation.
Monsignor Vigor Verona had helped Sigma in two earlier operations. His knowledge of archaeology and ancient history had proved vital, along with his intimate connections within the Catholic Church. They owed the monsignor a huge debt.
“Thank you, Gray.” She already sounded calmer. “I’ll forward the investigative file. But there are some details kept out of the report. I’ll fill you in once you’re here.”
As she spoke, Gray’s attention settled on the computer monitor, specifically on the glowing red tracker in the center of Venice. The photo of Seichan stared back at him out of the corner of the screen, her expression cold and angry. The assassin also had a past history with Rachel and her uncle.
And now she was back in Italy.
A sense of foreboding jangled through him.
Something was wrong with this whole situation. He sensed a storm brewing out there, but Gray didn’t know which way the winds were blowing. He knew only one thing for certain.
I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he promised Rachel.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Doomsday Key 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.
ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN E-BOOK!
or visit the general buy page by clicking HERE
from LIBRARY JOURNAL (starred review)
Rollins's prose explodes off the page in a twisty and compelling thriller that explores the issues of human overpopulation and genetically modified food. The Sigma Force must unravel the mysterious deaths of a geneticist, a senator's son working for the Red Cross in Africa, and someone with close ties to the Vatican. Gray Pierce and his team follow the clues starting from Rome, while Sigma leader Painter Crowe takes his group to meet with the head of a corporation that appears to be genetically modifying food. VERDICT: Swashbuckling adventure, elite team effort, and religious symbology all add up to another gripping and terrifying read. Rollins somehow juggles all of these elements and incorporates them into an amazing and brilliant technothriller that might be his best to date. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/09.]—Jeff Ayers
A case could be made that this guy doesn’t write novels—he builds roller coasters. Rollins, author of a string of high-intensity action thrillers (and, let’s not forget, his excellent adaptation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), puts his characters at the top of the ride, gives them a push, and lets them go racing off into adventure. In this, the latest Sigma Force novel, a series of baffling incidents around the world are linked by a mysterious symbol, a cross inside a circle, which may connect the incidents to the ancient Druids and, of all things, the Domesday Book (which, in case you’ve forgotten, was commissioned by William the Conquerer, in the late eleventh century, to be a complete survey of England’s people and lands). Like Matthew Reilly, Rollins excels at combining action and history with larger-than-life characters, and also like Reilly, he creates imaginative puzzles for his characters to solve. The books are designed to propel the reader through to the end: snappy dialogue, brief chapters, short paragraphs. You are so engrossed in the story that you turn the pages without realizing it, and soon you’re finished, perhaps a little bit out of breath, but usually exhilarated. A must for pure action fans. — David Pitt
from Publishers Weekly
Bestseller Rollins's labyrinthine sixth Sigma Force thriller (after The Last Oracle) offers plenty of intriguing science and history lessons. .... A few of the book's many highlights include genetic manipulation, traitorous beautiful women, illuminated manuscripts, saints, prophecies, curses and miracles. Rollins deftly juggles all this and more as the Sigma team races from the depths of the Vatican to the outer reaches of Norway toward an explosive confrontation with the shadowy forces of evil known as the Guild. (June) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
There was also a Q&A posted in the May 11th issue of Publishers Weekly (thanks, Allen Appel!). It’s linked here.
This summer's book, The Doomsday Key, is one of my most ambitious. Here's a smattering of topics, controversies, and prophecies that cover the breadth of this novel.
Q: Many of your concepts are pulled from the news, or from scientific journals-what was the based-upon-fact genesis of THE DOOMSDAY KEY?
A: Whenever I start a novel, I'm always looking for two things: a bit of science that makes me go "what if?" and a piece of history that ends in a question mark. In this book's case, the bit of history involves a mystery surrounding the people who actually built Stonehenge and the hundreds of other Neolithic stone rings that dot northern Europe. I came upon an astounding new theory that is incorporated into this book, but to tell you more would ruin the surprises.
As to the science, it cuts to the core of a hot debate, one centered on the use of genetically-modified foods and the corporate war going on to gain patents and control of the world's food supply. To give you some hint of the power behind this, I'll refer you to a fateful quote from Henry Kissinger. "Control oil and you control nations, but control food and you control all the people of the world."
But how do ancient stone builders and modern genetic science tie together? The answers can be found within The Doomsday Key.
Q: You open your new novel with a terrifying reference to the prophecies of the popes which loosely predicts that the current pope, Benedict, is the next to the last pope and that the next pope will oversee the world's end. Can you tell us a little bit more about these prophecies?
A: During the twelfth century, an Irish Catholic priest named Saint Malachy had a doomsday vision while on a pilgrimage to Rome. In that trance, he was given knowledge of all the popes who would come until the end of the world. This grand accounting-a cryptic description of 112 popes-was recorded and safeguarded in the Vatican archives. Over the centuries, the descriptions of each pope in that book have proved to be oddly accurate-up to and including the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI. In Saint Malachy's prophecy, the current pope is listed as De Gloria Olivae, the Glory of the Olives. And the Benedictine Order, from which the pope took his name, does indeed bear the olive branch as its symbol. But most disturbing of all, Pope Benedict XVI is the 111th pope. And according to this oddly accurate prophecy, the world ends with the very next one. Could this be true? Only time will tell.
Q: In THE DOOMSDAY KEY you talk about a very secretive and elite organization, The Club of Rome, whose major concern is human overpopulation. Does this organization really exist? And are their theories about overpopulation something we should be taking more seriously?
A: The Club of Rome is a real organization, a global think tank of scientists, politicians, economists, and business leaders. It formed during the sixties and continues to this day. Their mission is to offer a global perspective on current world crises, specifically those related to environmental issues. In 1972, they came out with a report titled Limits to Growth, where they proved that population growth would inevitably outstrip the world's ability to produce food. Once that happened, their computer models predicted annihilation of 90% of the world's population as a result of starvation, disease, war, and chaos.
This model has been tested by more modern methodology with the same results. How soon will we reach that point? You only have to watch the recent food riots around the world to know we're at that brink already. Can it be stopped? Or are we too late? In The Doomsday Key, I offer a solution if we're brave enough to face it.
Q: One of the major consequences of overpopulation is food shortage and mass starvation. As a solution many companies have begun to develop genetically modified food that would greatly increase the food supply. What drew your attention to this subject and how real a threat is mass starvation?
A: As I mentioned above, the threat is real and it's as current as today's headlines. The world's population is growing exponentially, while our ability to produce food is only growing arithmetically. We're already at that tipping point. By United Nation estimates, over one billion people are currently starving worldwide. The introduction of genetically-modified food-corn that produces its own herbicide, soybeans that can be grown with less water-has definitely helped produce greater yields. In fact, it has helped offset this impending crisis, but for how long and at what cost?
Currently, there is very little regulation when it comes to genetically-modified crops. For example, of the forty GM crops approved last year, only eight have published safety studies. GM crops are a billion-dollar-a-year industry. And as we've seen with the current banking crisis, a lack of regulation opens the way for greed to overwhelm common sense. So it raises the question, what might happen to our nation's food supply when corporations control it? And most frightening of all, it's already happening. Presently in the United States, seventy-five percent of corn grown in America is genetically modified. So we're already there.
Q: So scientists around the world are working to engineer perfect crops that aren't affected by Mother Nature. Can humans really create what nature has already done so perfectly?
A: We'd like to think so. But there continue to be concerns about what mankind will create in the name of science, especially with the lack of regulation in this industry. For example, in 2001, a biotech company called Epicyte developed a corn seed engineered with a contraceptive agent. Consumption of the seed lessened fertility. How might that be misused? What other abuses are already being engineered in secret? And once unleashed into the environment, can it be stopped?
Q: In one of the most eye-opening plotlines within THE DOOMSDAY KEY, you explain how some genetically modified crops are invading natural crops and changing their molecular structure. What are the ramifications of this phenomenon?
A: It's one of the greatest environmental risks with GM crops. Pollen migration and genetic contamination are a real threat. Pollen from GM crops blows in the winds, gets washed into neighboring fields. Some seeds have been found growing as far away as thirty miles. And as native species mix with engineered ones, new hybrids arise. One study states that 67% of U.S. farmland is currently contaminated with genetically-modified plants.
Another example, in 2000, a GM corn called StarLink (a corn not approved for human consumption) ended up contaminating food products across the country. More than three hundred brands. It was suspected of triggering allergic reactions and resulted in a massive recall. The Kellogg Company had to close its production line for two weeks just to clean out the contamination, requiring a government bailout of the industry. So when it comes to playing with Mother Nature, any mistakes could have dire consequences.
Q: You're a former veterinarian and you have a pretty great sense of humor...your books tend to feature a spooky critter, whether it's a man-eating squid, toothy grendels, flesh-eating swarms of frogs . What killer creature (or exceptional animal) did you mastermind for THE DOOMSDAY KEY?
A: As a veterinarian, I always love sprinkling a few unique animals into my stories. In this particular case, I feature some sturdy ponies out of England, called Fell Ponies, whose lineage goes back to before the Vikings. I also highlight a unique means of defense that protects the security of the Doomsday Vault in Norway: namely roaming bands of polar bears. This little detail, by the way, is true.
Q: What amazing adventures did you undertake in researching/mapping the plot of THE DOOMSDAY KEY?
A: I love to travel, and I've been to many of the locales depicted in this novel: from excavating the lower levels under the Coliseum of Rome to trekking through England's Lake Country atop one of those Fell Ponies. It's always a challenge to try to capture the beauty, wonder, and history of these places within the pages of a book.
Q: The climax of THE DOOMSDAY KEY takes place at "The Doomsday Vault." What is this vault for and does it really exist?
A: The vault-more formally known as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault-truly does exist. It's basically a Noah's Ark for seeds. The vault is located above the Arctic Circle on a remote island of Norway, buried five hundred feet under a mountain. It houses and protects millions of seeds against a global disaster: war, pestilence, nuclear attack, earthquakes, even climate change. It was because of this reason the seed bank earned its nickname the "Doomsday Vault."
Q: Readers love the scientific gems you sprinkle through your books. What was the most interesting scientific topic to research for THE DOOMSDAY KEY-something so good that you just had to put it in the book?
A: That's simple. In fact, I open the book with this fact. During the years from 2006 to 2008, one-third of all honeybees in the United States vanished. Thriving hives were suddenly found empty, as if the bees simply flew away and never returned. The condition earned the nickname Colony Collapse Disorder. This massive and mysterious loss generated sensational headlines and fears. So what truly happened to the bees? With the pages of The Doomsday Key, lies an answer…and most frightening of all, it's true.
Q: As a man of science with deeply-rooted spiritual beliefs, how did you grapple with the faith vs. science controversy that is woven into the very core of this novel?
A: Going back to the time of Galileo, science and religion seem to be at odds, drawing lines in the sand that dared not be crossed. And I think this divide has grown wider and deeper as of late. But I think it's high time this gap be filled in with common sense, something sorely lacking in much of today's debates.
The hope for our nation and our world lies within our ability to innovate and move forward technologically. We've been losing ground, as test scores in science and math have dropped precipitously. It's time for knowledge, exploration, and scientific inquiry to be respected and nurtured in this next generation.
But that said, it does not mean we go blindly forward without considering consequences. The dangers of rampant technology and unregulated science are featured predominantly in my novels. But it's not the cogs and gears that make for a great story, it's the way these questions test our morality and our mettle as a society. There must be balance.
Some of mankind's greatest innovators and scientists have been people of deep faith. The two are not mutually exclusive. There is common ground and it's called common sense.
Q: THE DOOMSDAY KEY is laced with information about ancient symbols; how did you research the origin of symbols-in particular the Celtic Cross, and what importance do they hold?
A: In this novel, I explore the manner in which symbols change and transmute over time, borrowed from one civilization to another. For example, there is an intriguing and startling analysis of the history of the Celtic Cross. It came from a book The Golden Thread of Time by Crichton Miller. It sets up a strong and compelling case that this unusual form of the Christian cross might actually have its roots as an ancient surveying tool, one used to build the pyramids of Egypt and to engineer the precise alignment of ancient stone rings of Britain. I love dabbling with such concepts, where the ancient and the modern blur together.
Q: What's next for James Rollins?
A: This winter, I'll be coming out with the first of a series of stand-alone novels, something independent of the Sigma series. The title of this winter's novel is Altar of Eden, and for the first time, I'll be writing with a veterinarian in the lead role, a woman who gets involved with a genetic experiment gone awry.