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The 6th Extinction

James Rollins


  To David,

  Who keeps me both grounded and flying high . . . not an easy feat!


  Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.

























































  So many folks have their fingerprints all over this book. I appreciate all their help, criticism, and encouragement. First, I must thank my first readers, my first editors, and some of my best friends: Sally Anne Barnes, Chris Crowe, Lee Garrett, Jane O’Riva, Denny Grayson, Leonard Little, Scott Smith, Judy Prey, Will Murray, Caroline Williams, John Keese, Christian Riley, Tod Todd, Chris Smith, and Amy Rogers. And as always, a special thanks to Steve Prey for the great map . . . and to Cherei McCarter for all the cool tidbits that pop in my e-mail box! To David Sylvian for accomplishing everything and anything asked of him and for making sure I put my best digital foot forward at all times! To everyone at HarperCollins for always having my back, especially Michael Morrison, Liate Stehlik, Danielle Bartlett, Kaitlyn Kennedy, Josh Marwell, Lynn Grady, Richard Aquan, Tom Egner, Shawn Nicholls, and Ana Maria Allessi. Last, of course, a special acknowledgment to the people instrumental to all levels of production: my editor, Lyssa Keusch, and her colleague Rebecca Lucash; and my agents, Russ Galen and Danny Baror (and his daughter Heather Baror). And as always, I must stress that any and all errors of fact or detail in this book, of which hopefully there are not too many, fall squarely on my own shoulders.



  Throughout history, knowledge rises and falls, ebbs and flows. What once was known is forgotten again, lost in time, sometimes for centuries, only to be rediscovered ages later.

  Millennia ago, the ancient Maya studied the movement of stars and developed a calendar that has not lost a day in 2,500 years. It was an astronomical feat that would take many centuries to be repeated. During the height of the Byzantine Empire, warfare changed dramatically with the invention of Greek fire, an incendiary weapon that could not be put out by dousing it with water. The recipe for making this strange flammable concoction was lost by the tenth century and wouldn’t be rediscovered until its closest counterpart, napalm, was created in the 1940s.

  How did such knowledge become lost to antiquity? One example dates to the first or second century, when the legendary Library of Alexandria was burned to ashes. The library, founded in roughly 300 B.C. in Egypt, was said to have held over a million scrolls, a massive repository of knowledge like no other. It drew scholars from around the known world. The cause of its fiery destruction remains a mystery. Some blame Julius Caesar, who set fire to Alexandria’s docks; others attribute its ruin to marauding Arab conquerors. Still, what is certain is that those flames incinerated a vast treasure-house of secrets, knowledge from across the ages, lost forever.

  But some secrets refuse to be buried. Within these pages is a story of one of those dark mysteries, knowledge so dangerous that it could never be fully lost.


  Life on this planet has always been a balancing act—a complex web of interconnectivity that’s surprisingly fragile. Remove or even alter enough key components and that web begins to fray and fall apart.

  Such a collapse—or mass extinction—has happened five times in our planet’s geological past. The first struck four hundred million years ago, when most marine life died off. The third event hit both land and sea at the end of the Permian Period, wiping out 90 percent of the world’s species, coming within a razor’s edge of ending all life on earth. The fifth and most recent extinction took out the dinosaurs, ushering in the era of mammals and altering the world forever.

  How close are we to seeing such an event happen again? Some scientists believe we’re already there, neck-deep in a sixth mass extinction. Every hour, three more species go extinct, totaling over thirty thousand a year. Worst of all, the rate of this die-off is continually rising. At this very moment, nearly half of all amphibians, a quarter of all mammals, and a third of all reefs balance at the edge of extinction. Even a third of all conifer trees teeter at that brink.

  Why is this happening? In the past, such massive die-offs had been triggered by sudden changes in global climate or shifts in plate tectonics, or in the case of the dinosaurs, possibly even an asteroid strike. Yet most scientists believe this current crisis has a simpler explanation: humans. Through our trampling of the environment and rise in pollution, mankind has been the driving force behind the loss of most species. According to a report by Duke University released in May 2014, human activity has driven species into extinction at the rate a thousandfold faster than before the arrival of modern man.

  But what is less well known concerns a new danger to all life on earth, one that has risen out of the ancient past and threatens to accelerate this current die-off, to possibly push us beyond the brink, to take us to the point of apocalypse.

  And not only is that threat very real—it’s rising right now out of our own backyards.

  December 27, 1832

  Aboard the HMS Beagle

  We should have heeded the blood . . .

  Charles Darwin stared down at the words he had scrawled in black ink on the white pages of his journal, but all he saw was crimson. Despite the glow of his small cabin’s oven, he shivered against a cold that iced the marrow of his bones—a frigidity that he suspected would never fully melt away. He mouthed a silent prayer, remembering how his father had urged him to study for the clergy after he had dropped out of medical school.

  Perhaps I should have listened.

  Instead, he had been lured astray by the appeal of foreign shores and new scientific discoveries. A year ago, almost to the day, he had accepted a position aboard the HMS Beagle as the ship’s naturalist. At the tender age of twenty-two, he had been ready to make a name for himself, to see the world. It was how he had ended up here now, with blood on his hands.

  He stared around his cabin. Upon first coming aboard, he had been given private quarters in the ship’s chart room, a cramped space dominated by a large table in the middle that was pierced clean through by the trunk of the mizzenmast. He
used every remaining free inch—cabinets, bookshelves, even the washbasin—as work space and a temporary museum for his collected specimens and samples. He had bones and fossils, teeth and shells, even stuffed or preserved specimens of unusual snakes, lizards, and birds. Near his elbow rested a board of pinned beetles of monstrous sizes with prominent horns like those of the African rhinoceros. Next to his inkwell stood a row of jars holding dried plants and seeds.

  He stared forlornly across his collection—what the unimaginative Captain FitzRoy called useless junk.

  Perhaps I should have arranged to have this lot shipped back to England before the Beagle left Tierra del Fuego . . .

  But regretfully, like the rest of the ship’s crew, he had been too caught up in stories told by the savages of that archipelago: the native Fuegians of the Yaghan tribe. The tribesmen shared their legends of monsters, and gods, and wonders beyond imagination. It was such tales that had led the Beagle astray, sending the ship and its crew south from the tip of South America, across the ice-choked seas to this frozen world at the bottom of the earth.

  “Terra Australis Incognita,” he mumbled to himself.

  The infamous Unknown Southern Land.

  He shifted a map from the clutter atop his desk. Nine days ago, shortly after arriving at Tierra del Fuego, Captain FitzRoy had shown him this French map, dating back to 1583.

  It depicted that unexplored continent at the southern pole of the globe. The chart was plainly inaccurate, failing even to account for the fact that the cartographer’s contemporary, Sir Francis Drake, had already discovered the icy seas that separated South America from this unknown land. Yet, despite two centuries passing since this map was first drawn, this inhospitable continent continued to be a mystery. Even its coastline remained shadowy and unmapped.

  So was it any wonder that all of their imaginations were lit on fire when one of the Fuegians, a bony-limbed elder, presented an astounding gift to the newly arrived crew of the Beagle? The ship had been anchored near Woolya Cove, where the good Reverend Richard Matthews had established a mission, converting many of the savages and teaching them rudimentary English. And though the elder who presented the gift didn’t speak the king’s tongue, what he offered needed no words.

  It was a crude map, drawn on a piece of bleached sealskin, depicting the coastline of that continent to the south. That alone was intriguing enough, but the stories that accompanied the presentation only served to magnify all their interests.

  One of the Fuegians—who had been baptized with the anglicized name of Jemmy Button—explained the Yaghan people’s history. He claimed their tribes had lived among the islands of this archipelago for over seven thousand years, an astounding span of time that strained credulity. Furthermore, Jemmy had praised his people’s nautical skills, which required less distrust, as Charles had indeed noted several of their larger sailing vessels in the cove. Though crude, they were clearly seaworthy.

  Jemmy explained that the map was the culmination of thousands of years of Yaghan people’s exploration of the great continent to the south, a map passed from generation to generation, refined and redrawn over the centuries as more knowledge was gleaned of that mysterious land. He also shared tales of that lost continent, of great beasts and strange treasures, of mountains on fire and lands of infinite ice.

  The most astounding claim echoed back to Charles now. He recorded those words in his journal, hearing Jemmy’s voice in his head: In times long into shadows, our ancestors say that the ice was gone from the valleys and mountains. Forests grew tall and the hunting was good, but demons also haunted the dark, ready to eat out the hearts of the unwary—

  A sharp scream cut through from the deck above, causing Charles to scrawl ink down the remainder of the page. He bit back a curse, but there was no mistaking the terror and pain in that single piercing note. It drew him to his feet.

  The last of the crew must have returned from that dread shore.

  Abandoning his journal and pen, he rushed to his cabin’s door and down the short hall to the chaos atop the deck.

  “Careful with him!” FitzRoy hollered. The captain stood at the starboard rail with his coat unbuttoned, his cheeks red above his dark frosted beard.

  Stepping out onto the middeck, Charles blinked away the glare of the southern hemisphere’s midsummer sun. Still, the bitter cold bit at his nose and filled his lungs. A freezing fog hugged the black seas around the anchored ship, while rime ice coated the riggings and rails. Puffs of panicked white blew from the faces of the crew as they labored to obey their captain.

  Charles rushed starboard to help the others haul a crewman up from a whaleboat tethered amidships. The injured man was wrapped head to toe in sailcloth and drawn up by ropes. Moans accompanied his plight. Charles helped lift the poor fellow over the rail and to the deck.

  It was Robert Rensfry, the ship’s boatswain.

  FitzRoy shouted for the ship’s surgeon, but the doctor was belowdecks, ministering to the two men from the first excursion to shore. Neither was likely to see another sunrise, not after sustaining such gruesome wounds.

  But what of this fellow?

  Charles knelt beside the stricken man. Others clambered up from the boat. The last was Jemmy Button, looking both ashen and angry. The Fuegian had tried to warn them not to come here, but his fears were dismissed as native superstitions.

  “Is it done?” FitzRoy asked his second-in-command as he helped Jemmy back aboard.

  “Aye, captain. All three barrels of black powder. Left at the entrance.”

  “Good man. Once the whaleboat’s secure, bring the Beagle around. Ready the portside guns.” FitzRoy turned his worried gaze upon the injured crewman at Charles’s knees. “Where’s that damned Bynoe?”

  As if summoned by this curse, the gaunt form of the ship’s surgeon, Benjamin Bynoe, climbed out from below and rushed forward. He was bloody to both elbows, his apron just as fouled.

  Charles caught the silent exchange between captain and doctor. The surgeon shook his head twice.

  The other two men must have died.

  Charles stood and made room.

  “Unwrap him!” Bynoe demanded. “Let me see his injuries!”

  Charles backed to the rail, joining FitzRoy. The captain stood silently, staring landward, a spyglass at his eye. As the moans of the wounded man grew sharper, FitzRoy passed Charles the glass.

  He took it, and after some effort, he focused on the neighboring coast. Walls of blue ice framed the narrow cove where they were anchored. At its thickest point, fog obscured the shore, but it was not the same frozen mist that hugged the seas and wrapped the surrounding bergs of ice. It was a sulfurous steam, a breath from Hades, rising out from a land as wondrous as it was monstrous.

  A gust of wind blew the view momentarily clear, revealing a waterfall of blood coursing down that cliff of ice. It flowed along in crimson rivulets and streams, seeming to seep out of the haunted depths beneath the frozen surface.

  Charles knew it wasn’t in fact blood, but some alchemy of chemicals and minerals exhaled from the tunnels below.

  Still, we should have heeded that ominous warning, he thought again. We should never have trespassed into that tunnel.

  He focused the spyglass on the cave opening, noting the three oil-soaked barrels planted at the entrance. Despite all the recent horrors that threatened one’s sanity, he remained a man of science, a seeker of knowledge, and while he should have perhaps railed against what was to come, he kept silent.

  Jemmy joined him at the side, whispering under his breath in his native tongue, plainly resorting to pagan prayers. The reformed savage stood only chest-high to the Englishman at his side, but he exuded a strength of will that belied his small frame. The Fuegian had repeatedly tried to warn the crew, but no one would listen. Still, the stalwart native had accompanied the British to their foolish doom.

  Charles found his fingers grasping the darker hand beside his own on the rail. The crew’s hubris and greed had cost them no
t only their own men but one of Jemmy’s tribesmen as well.

  We should never have come here.

  Yet foolishly they had—allowing themselves to be drawn south from their planned route by the wild stories of this lost continent. But what had mostly tempted them was a symbol found on that ancient Fuegian map. It marked this cove with a grove of trees, a promise of life. Intending to discover this lost garden amid the icy shores, the Beagle had set out, all in the hopes of claiming new virgin territory for the Crown.

  Only too late had they come to understand the true meaning of the map’s markings. In the end, the whole venture had ended in horror and bloodshed, a journey that, by necessity, would be stricken from the records by mutual consent of all.

  None must ever return here.

  And if anyone dared try, the captain intended that they would find nothing. What was hidden here must never reach the larger world.

  With the anchor freed, the ship slowly turned with a great cracking of ice from the rigging and a shiver of frost from the sails. FitzRoy had already gone off to see to the ship’s battery of guns. The HMS Beagle was a Cherokee-class sloop of the Royal Navy, outfitted originally with ten guns. And though the warship had been converted into an exploration vessel, it still carried six cannons.

  Another scream drew Charles’s attention back to the deck, to the crewman writhing amid a nest of sailcloth.

  “Hold him down!” the ship’s surgeon shouted.

  Charles went to the doctor’s aid, joining the others to grasp a shoulder and help pin Rensfry in place. He made the mistake of catching the boatswain’s eyes. He read the pain and pleading there.

  Lips moved as a moan pushed out words. “. . . get it out . . .”

  The surgeon had finished freeing Rensfry’s heavy coat and split the man’s shirt with a blade, exposing a belly full of blood and a fist-sized wound. As Charles stared, a thick ripple passed through the abdomen, like a snake under sand.