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The Last Odyssey: A Thriller

James Rollins


  Map of Greenland

  Greenland map provided and drawn by Steve Prey. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Steve Prey.

  Purchased with Enhanced License from Shutterstock

  Royalty-free stock photo ID: 710772301

  By Dikobraziy

  (edited by author)


  To readers everywhere, to those who still seek out lost

  worlds and greater truths hidden within scribbles of ink

  on paper. Thank you for joining me on this journey.



  Title Page



  Notes from the Historical Record

  Notes from the Scientific Record



  First: The Storm Atlas

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Second: The Daedalus Key

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Third: The Forge of Hephaestus

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Fourth: The Pillars of Hercules

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Fifth: The Gates of Tartarus

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Sixth: Prometheus Unbound

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49


  Author’s Note to Readers: Truth or Fiction


  About the Author

  Also by James Rollins


  About the Publisher

  Notes from the Historical Record

  History is a fluid enterprise. Stories of events change depending on the viewpoint. It is often the victor who gets to tell the tale and cement myth into fact.

  Take the twin epics of Homer—the Iliad and the Odyssey—two lyric poems that recount the Trojan War and its aftermath. These stories were believed to have been composed during the eighth century B.C., though most historians today doubt Homer even existed. This bard who sung tales of gods and monsters was likely just a convenient pseudonym, representing the many minstrels who recounted this turbulent story.

  Still, to what degree were these two epics based on historical events and how much was pure fantasy?

  For centuries, historians dismissed even the existence of Troy—a great city besieged by the Greeks and brought low by the trickery of the Trojan Horse, as recounted in the Iliad. Troy was believed to be a mythical place, a fantasy brought to life by Homer. Then in the late nineteenth century, a German amateur archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann dug into a large hill at the Turkish site of Hisarlik and exposed the ruins of a great city. It would take many years, but eventually this buried complex was indeed identified as the lost city of Troy.

  And just like that, myth became history.

  But what about Homer’s Odyssey, the story of the great war hero Odysseus and his treacherous ten-year journey back to his island home of Ithaca? Here is a tale of hardship and ruin, of colossal monsters and witches, of god-sent storms and sirens who drove men mad. Surely none of this tale could be based on fact. Still, historians and archeologists continue to sift through the Odyssey, searching for clues, trying to map the route of Odysseus’s ship, even assigning geographical sites to places mentioned in this epic poem.

  Case in point. A little over a decade ago, a British management consultant named Robert Bittlestone used modern-day geological tools to identify the site of Odysseus’s hometown of Ithaca, where the great warrior would return at the end of his epic journey. Archeologists had already dismissed the present-day island of Ithaca as this site, as the island failed to match Homer’s description in the Odyssey. Instead, Bittlestone proposed a new theory supported by evidence, pinpointing the Greek peninsula of Paliki as the true location of ancient Ithaca. His evidence was so convincing that James Diggle, a Cambridge University professor of Greek and Latin, declared, “It’s irresistible, and supported by geology . . . once you go over the terrain, there is an extraordinary match.”* Bittlestone’s conclusions were also supported by other scholars of ancient antiquity.*

  Thus we have proof that the events recounted in the Odyssey have a true historical starting point (the city of Troy) and an end point (Ithaca). Such discoveries beg the question: What about everything in between? How much of Homer’s epic poems of gods and monsters could also be true?

  It is now readily accepted that, despite the question of Homer’s identity, these stories do seem to recount a great war that truly happened. In fact, these two epics shine a light into an era known as the Greek Dark Ages, a turbulent time that saw the collapse of three Bronze Age civilizations: the Greek Mycenaeans, the Anatolian Hittites, and the Egyptians. How and why did this happen? Recent discoveries reveal that a series of battles did sweep the Mediterranean region. The fighting was so widespread that some historians declared this to be the first great global war, even calling it World War Zero. Much of this dark struggle still remains shrouded in mystery, though some archaeologists now believe there was a fourth civilization involved in this fighting, a civilization that defeated the other three—then vanished into the past.

  If true, who were these lost people? Could Homer’s stories offer clues to their origin and where they went? The answers can be found within these pages and will shed light on a new world war threatening us today. So, consider yourselves forewarned—not all stories of gods and monsters are fiction.

  Notes from the Scientific Record

  We are a curious lot, us humans. Unfortunately, our curiosity sometimes leads us into more trouble than it does benefit us. Especially when it comes to inventions. The wheel came into widespread use around 3500 B.C., and since then, we’ve not stopped innovating to both improve our lives and to better understand it. The old adage “necessity is the mother of all invention” remains as true today as it did back in 3500 B.C.

  But is this sustainable? Will we reach a time when advancement stagnates? Some believe we’ve already reached that tipping point. Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, penned a manifesto, The Great Stagnation, stating that we’ve reached our apex of innovation by having already taken full advantage of cheap energy and industrial-age breakthroughs. He thinks our time of rapid advancement is coming to an end.

  Or will it? There certainly have been periods of technological stagnation, mostly because individual societies actively choose to stop innovating. The Chinese did it after the Ming Era; the Arab world followed suit during the fourteenth century. Still, it seems whenever one part of the world
douses the flame of innovation, another picks it up. When the Arab world was sinking into darkness, the countries of Europe started the Renaissance, carrying forward the torch that the Islamic world had forsaken.

  To illustrate, from the eighth to the fourteenth century—known as the Islamic Golden Age—Arab scientists proved themselves to be masters of design and innovation. One of the most prominent was Ismail al-Jazari (1136–1206), who invented all manner of tools from water clocks to sophisticated automatons. The components and techniques of construction were beyond anything seen before. Al-Jazari’s greatest masterwork was a volume titled The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices and contained diagrams for more than a hundred inventions. He would become known as “the Leonardo da Vinci of the Arab World.”

  In fact, it is believed that Leonardo was influenced—even “borrowed”—from the works of al-Jazari, who died two centuries before Leonardo was born. By doing so, Leonardo carried forward the torch of innovation that had been abandoned by the Islamic world after its golden age dimmed. In fact, al-Jazari’s influence over Leonardo has proven to be far greater than anyone imagined—as you will soon discover.

  Still, such is the path of innovation: passed from one hand to another, from one country to another, from one century to another.

  Finally, let’s return to that old adage “necessity is the mother of all invention.” If true, this begs the question: What has fired up invention and innovation more than anything else?

  The answer lies in a single word.



  βουλοίμην κ’ ἐπάρουρος ἐὼν θητευέμεν ἄλλῳ, ἀνδρὶ παρ’ ἀκλήρῳ, ᾧ μὴ βίοτος πολὺς εἴη, ἢ πᾶσιν νεκύεσσι καταφθιμένοισιν ἀνάσσειν.

  “I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.”


  Happy will they be who lend ear to the words of the Dead.



  December 10, 1515 A.D.

  Rome, Italy

  The artist leaned closer to the decapitated head. The macabre decoration stood spiked atop the table of his studio, perfectly lit by the morning’s brightness. In fact, he had chosen this apartment at the Belvedere due to this wonderful light. The villa stood within the Vatican, on grounds considered holy. Still, without a tremor of hesitation, he expertly dissected the skin off the dead girl’s cheek. The poor lass had died before her seventeenth birthday.

  A tragedy, but one that nonetheless made her an excellent specimen.

  He exposed the fine musculature under her skin and squinted at the delicate fibers that ran from her cheekbone down to the corner of her slack lips. He spent the next hour carefully tweezing muscles and noting how the pale lips moved in response to his efforts. He paused only to scratch at a parchment, recording each movement with deft strokes of his left hand. He noted the tiny shifts of the dead woman’s nostril, the way the conformation of the cheek changed, the wrinkling of her lower eyelid.

  Once satisfied, he stood with a creak of his back and stepped to the plank of wood resting on its easel. He picked up a horsehair brush and studied the left side of his subject’s unfinished face, her countenance forever fixed at a three-quarter turn. Without his subject here, he had to proceed from memory. For the moment, he ignored the fall of her painted tresses, the drape of her gown. Instead he dabbed his brush in oil and adjusted a shadow near her lip, using the knowledge he had just gained from his dissection.

  Satisfied, he stepped back.

  Better . . . much better.

  Twelve years ago, while he had been living in Florence, a rich merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, had commissioned him to paint a portrait of his young wife, the beautiful and enigmatic Lisa. Since then, he had carried her unfinished portrait with him: from Florence to Milan to Rome. Even still, he was not ready to let her go.

  That upstart Michelangelo—who sometimes shared these apartments at the Belvedere—ridiculed his reluctance at finishing this painting, mocking such dedication with all the weight of youthful arrogance.

  Still, it mattered not. He met those painted eyes staring back at him. The cold morning sunlight streamed through the second-story windows and set her skin to glowing, heightened by the dying embers of the small hearth that warmed the room.

  Over the years, with every bit of knowledge gained, I’ve made you all the more beautiful.

  But he was not yet done.

  The door to his studio opened behind him. The complaint of hinges reminded him of other duties, other, more urgent commissions that would yet again pull him from her smile. His fingers tightened on his brush in irritation.

  Only the soft, apologetic voice of his apprentice dimmed his frustration. “Master Leonardo,” Francesco said, “I’ve gathered all you requested in the palace library.”

  He sighed, set down his brush, and turned his back on his Lisa once again. “Grazie, Francesco.”

  As Leonardo stepped toward his furred winter cloak hanging beside the door, Francesco’s gaze discovered the half-skinned head atop the worktable. The young man’s eyes widened, his face paled, but he refrained from commenting.

  “Quit gaping, Francesco. Surely by now such sights should not unnerve you.” He donned his cloak and headed toward the door. “If you wish to become a master artist, you must seek knowledge wherever you can acquire it.”

  Francesco nodded and followed Leonardo out the door.

  The pair headed down the stone steps and out the door that led to the Belvedere courtyard. A winter’s frost had turned the yard’s grassy sward brittle and white. The crisp air smelled of woodsmoke. Scaffolding enclosed the incomplete wings of the courtyard to either side.

  As they hurried across, Leonardo appreciated this moment in time, as if history were waiting for one era to pass to the next. This sense of impending change thrilled him, energized him, lit a hopeful fire in his chest.

  At last, with his nose burning from the cold, he and Francesco reached the towering Apostolic Palace. The building’s chapel had recently been painted by that damnable Michelangelo.

  Irritation at this thought warmed away the winter’s chill. Last year, Leonardo had snuck into the chapel, well after midnight, armed with a lamp. He had studied the young man’s work in secret, refusing to give Michelangelo the satisfaction of his appreciation. He remembered craning his neck, awed by the ceiling. He could not help but respect the genius on display, recognizing the innovative use of perspective in such a large volume of space. He had taken several notes, drawing what knowledge he could from Michelangelo’s handiwork.

  Leonardo’s ongoing bitterness with the young artist reminded him of his own admonishment to Francesco: You must seek knowledge wherever you can acquire it. But that did not mean one had to acknowledge the source.

  He stomped up the palace stairs, nodded to the posted guards, and shoved inside.

  Perhaps sensing his frustration, Francesco led the way toward the wing that housed the Vatican library, where he had worked throughout the night, scouring dusty shelves and closets, all to gather the materials Leonardo wished to study for his next commission.

  Time was running short.

  Leonardo was scheduled to leave in three days to accompany Pope Leo X north to Bologna, to meet with the French king—François I—who had recently sacked Milan. Matters of state were to be settled at this coming meeting, but the king had ordered Leonardo to attend. A letter had accompanied this odd demand.

  It seemed the king—who knew of Leonardo’s talent—wanted him to produce a great work to commemorate the French victory. Details were included. King François wanted him to craft a gold mechanical lion, one capable not only of walking on its own, but whose clockwork mechanism would open its chest, revealing a hidden bouquet of lilies inside, the sigil of the French king.

esco—ever his companion—guessed his thoughts. “Do you truly think you can design such a golden artifice?”

  Leonardo glanced over to the young man. “Is that doubt I hear in your voice, Francesco? Do you question my ingenuity?”

  The young man stammered, his cheeks going crimson. “Of . . . of course not, master.”

  Leonardo smiled. “Good, because there’s enough doubt inside me. Arrogance only carries one so far. Great works are born of equal parts divine brilliance and earthly humbleness.”

  “Humble?” Francesco lifted a brow. “You?”

  Leonardo chuckled. The boy knew him well. “It’s best to show arrogance to the public. To convince the world at large of your confidence in all endeavors.”

  “And in private?”

  “That is when you should know your truest self. One must be humble enough to recognize one’s limitations, to know when further knowledge is needed.” He remembered gawking up at Michelangelo’s lamplit ceiling and what it had taught him. “That is where true genius begins. Armed with enough knowledge and ingenuity, a man can do anything.”

  He hurried toward the library, ready to prove that statement.

  10:02 A.M.

  Let me have done well.

  Francesco held the door open for his master, then followed Leonardo into the papal library. He prayed his efforts did not disappoint the great man.

  As he trailed his mentor, the musty smell of old leather and moldering pages greeted their entry to the main vault. Wood shelves climbed to the rafters, interspersed with the pale ghosts of marble statues. Ahead, a lone lamp brightened a wide desk, neatly stacked with books, loose papers, even a pyramid of scrolls.

  Leonardo crossed to the desk. “You certainly have been busy, Francesco.”

  “I did my best,” he sighed. “That Arab volume you wanted proved especially difficult to track down.”

  Leonardo glanced back, his brows raised. “You found it?”

  With a measure of pride, Francesco pointed to the thick tome at the center of the gathered material. While its leather cover was worn and blackened with age, the gilt lettering of the title remained bright, shining in the lamp’s glow. The writing flowed in Arabic, lettered quite beautifully.