The Judas Strain: A Sigma Force Novel
Released on 07.23.2007
From the depths of the Indian Ocean, a horrific plague has arisen to devastate humankind - unknown, unstoppable...and merely a harbinger of the doom that is to follow.
Operatives of the shadowy covert organization Sigma Force, Dr. Lisa Cummings and Monk Kokkalis search for answers to the bizarre affliction aboard a cruise liner transformed into a makeshift hospital. But a sudden and savage attack by terrorist hijackers turns the mercy ship into a floating bio-weapons lab.
Time is an enemy as a worldwide pandemic grows rapidly out of control. As the seconds tick closer to doomsday, Sigma's commander, Gray Pierce, must join forces with the beautiful assassin who tried to kill him - following the trail of the most fabled explorer in history into the terrifying heart of an astonishing mystery buried deep in antiquity and in humanity's genetic code.
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Island of Sumatra
The screams had finally ceased.
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 ship s, 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 whi le, 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 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 mans 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?"
The foregoing is excerpted from The Judas Strain 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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The crack, ultrasecret Sigma Force team returns in another adventure that, as usual, unfolds at breakneck speed. Sigma Force, made up of former Special Forces officers trained as experts in various scientific fields ("killer scientists," one of their number calls them), scours the world for technologies that could help or threaten the U.S. This time the group's mission involves a devastating bacteriological plague, a mysterious cryptogram that may predate humanity, and the deadly truth about what happened after Marco Polo's expedition to China. After a handful of Sigma Force novels, Rollins has fine-tuned the formula to precision: characters rendered in broad strokes, punchy dialogue, short paragraphs that propel us headlong through the story. The novels are like prose versions of comic books, or lightly fleshed out movie treatments. But this is not a criticism, at least not completely. The books' style perfectly matches their subject matter, and it's impossible not to be swept up by their energy and excitement. Action/adventure fans unfamiliar with Rollins' work should be emphatically urged to read this series. – David Pitt
THE JUDAS STRAIN is a 400-plus-page adventure novel that takes us around the world in search of answers to questions that spark the imagination. Rollins’s latest thriller should appeal to those who prefer books that focus on serpentine plots rather than multidimensional characters, and it will give readers something scary to think about while vacationing at the beach. – Donna Volkenannt
Here are some of the questions I have been asked by my readers and the media on The Judas Strain. I'm always asked good questions when I'm visiting readers on author tours, so I'll add to this Q&A periodically.
Q: The Judas Strain explores a mysterious link between the Catholic Church of Marco Polo's day and the ancient ruins of Khmer temples at Angkor Wat. What inspired this plot?
A: It all started from a seed of a mystery. As I relate at the beginning of the novel, Marco Polo spent almost two decades in China, along with his father and uncle. Upon the trio's return voyage, Kublai Khan granted the Polos fourteen ships and six hund red men to escort them home. But when they arrived in Italy, the returning Polos were down to two ships and eighteen men. What happened to the rest of the escort? Marco hinted at some mysterious tragedy in his famous book, but he refused to ever say exactly what transpired, even on his deathbed. Such a mystery, I thought would make great fodder for a thriller. What if what destroyed Marco's fleet were to arise again today?
Q: How did you stumble across the mystery of Marco Polo's journey from Kublai Khan's palace in China home to Italy that is so central to the plot of this novel?
A: I actually stumbled upon this mystery while doing research for my earlier novel, Map of Bones. While exploring the history of Vatican spies in Rome, I came upon an intriguing footnote. Some scholars believe that the Polos' journey to China was not a random bit of trade exploration, but a plot by the Vatican to spy upon the Mongol forces in the Far East, to determine China's strengths and weaknesses (which is also touched upon in The Judas Strain). I followed this thread and came upon the mystery of Marco's lost fleet. And while this didn't fit into the plot of Map of Bones, I knew I wanted to explore this in a future novel. So over the past three years, I've been growing that seed of a mystery into the current novel.
Q: Within the pages of The Judas Strain, you write of "evolution running in reverse, the oceans devolving into primordial seas," and the impending extinction of marine life. In this, we can see your love for creatures great and small, shining through. Do you find you pull a great deal from your experiences/leanings as a veterinarian in your writings?
A: As a veterinarian and a human being, I certainly have a strong belief that the stewardship of this world is our responsibility as a species. I think the true merit of any society can be weighed on how well it cares for the weakest among them, whether that be an animal or a human. As to the statement about the devolution of the world's seas into a primordial state of toxic slimes and jellyfish, it is a true and disturbing fact. The Los Angeles Times ran a chilling weeklong series of articles detailing and warning of the impending collapse of our seas.
Q: Readers love the scientific gems you sprinkle through your books. For instance, in The Judas Strain you write, "Did you know Saxitoxin, from bacteria in certain shellfish, has been classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction?" Where do you get this stuff?
A: I am a voracious reader. Not only do I read across a wide gamut of fiction genres, I am passionate about science and history, so find myself perusing scores of nonfiction books. While doing so, I gather thousands of strange little tidbits. Also during the course of researching a novel, I interview several experts in various fields - and I've learned shocking details that defy believability but are indeed true. And I love to share these bombshells with my readers.
Q: You're known for your own personal adventures that you undertake in researching your novels: tell us your amazing stories behind this book?
A: This novel required doing a bit of traveling, back to Italy again but also to the jungles of Cambodia. A large section of The Judas Strain takes place among the Angkor ruins of that country. It was an eye-opening journey into a country where landmines are still a risk to the unwary and where colonial culture and Cambodian history blend in some beautiful ways. Yet, it's also a haunted landscape, where in the recent past a quarter of the country's population was brutally slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge.
Q: You quote the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "But what is known with fair certainty: the next great pandemic will arise again out of the East." SARS, the Avian Flu - even the bubonic plague - all arose from Asia. What is your conjecture as to what will come next? Are global agencies already working out preventative measures to ensure the hypothetical pandemics will not become real worldwide crises?
A: I don't think we'll ever be fully prepared for what comes next, and I don't think we can. When it comes to creativity, Nature rules. While we might anticipate a devastating flu outbreak - like the Spanish Flu in the past or the
Avian Flu today - Nature adapts, mutates, and surprises. If we try to close one door, it merely opens another. And this doesn't even take into account our own ham-fisted manipulations of Nature's worst threats: from weaponized anthrax to the laboratory recreation of the Spanish Flu virus. Are we prepared? Not even close.
Q: There's a tongue-in-cheek warning within the pages of The Judas Strain, "Keep in mind...we still don't know for sure what killed the dinosaurs." It feels as if you are giving a gentle warning to the world at large to watch their backs...
A: I make another statement in the novel. To paraphrase, if we push Nature, Nature pushes back. We've only been on this planet a short period of geologic time, yet we've committed an amazing amount of abuse for such a young species. Someday soon we may be slapped back. Dominance today does not guarantee survival. There's a lesson in the fate of the dinosaurs. Nothing is permanent in this world. Life is change.
Q: Marco Polo once said, "I have not told half of what I saw." Would James Rollins say the same?
A: While my books may cover a breadth of topics, there is always so much more left unsaid. As I mentioned before, my goal is to entertain and leave one with some thoughtful concepts and histories to ponder. But ultimately I'm only scratching the surface. I hope the journey to a deeper understanding starts with my novel and excites readers onto their own paths of discovery.