Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The 6th Extinction, Page 2

James Rollins

  Rensfry bucked under all their weights, his back arching in agony. A screech burst from his clenched throat, repeating his demand.

  “Get it out!”

  Bynoe did not hesitate. He shoved his hand into the wound, into the steaming depths of the man’s belly. He pushed deeper yet again, past his wrist and forearm. Despite the frigid cold, beads of sweat rolled down the doctor’s face. Elbow-deep now, he sought his prey.

  A loud boom shook through the ship, shaking more frost atop them.

  Then another and another.

  Distantly, echoing from shore, came a much louder retort.

  To either side, massive crags of ice broke from the cove’s coastline and crashed into the sea. Still, more of the ship’s guns boomed out their destruction of fiery grapeshot and heated cannonballs.

  Captain FitzRoy was taking no chances.

  “Too late,” Bynoe finally said, withdrawing his arm from the wound. “We’re too late.”

  Only now did Charles note the boatswain’s body lay limp under his grasp. Dead eyes stared toward the blue skies.

  Sitting back, he remembered Jemmy’s earlier words about this accursed continent: Demons also haunted its dark depths, ready to eat the hearts of the living . . .

  “What about the body?” one of the crewmen asked.

  Bynoe looked to the rail, toward the roiling ice-choked sea. “Make his grave here, along with whatever lies inside him.”

  Charles had seen enough. As the sea rocked and guns exploded, he retreated while the others lifted Rensfry’s body. He slunk cowardly back to his cabin without bearing witness to the boatswain’s watery burial.

  Once below, he found the small fire in the oven was almost out, but after the cold, the room’s heat stifled his breaths. He crossed to his journal, ripped out the pages he had been working on, and fed them to those meager flames. He watched the pages curl, blacken, and turn to ash.

  Only then did he return to the chart desk, to the maps still there—including the ancient Fuegian map. He picked it up and stared again at the cursed grove of trees marking this cove. His gaze shifted to the freshly fed flames.

  He took a step toward the hearth, then stopped.

  With cold fingers, he rolled the map and clenched it hard in both fists.

  I’m still a scientist.

  With a heavy heart, he turned from the fire and hid the map among his personal belongings—but not before one last unscientific thought.

  God help me . . .





  April 27, 6:55 P.M. PDT

  Mono Lake, California

  “Looks like the surface of Mars.”

  Jenna Beck smiled to herself at hearing this most common description of Mono Lake from yet another tourist. As the day’s last group of visitors took their final snapshots, she waited beside her white Ford F-150 pickup, the truck’s front doors emblazoned with the star of the California State Park Rangers.

  Tugging the stiff brim of her hat lower, she stared toward the sun. Though nightfall was an hour away, the slanting light had transformed the lake into a pearlescent mirror of blues and greens. Towering stalagmites of craggy limestone, called tufa, spread outward like a petrified forest along this southern edge of the lake and out into the waters.

  It certainly appeared to be an otherworldly landscape—but definitely not Mars. She slapped at her arm, squashing a mosquito, proving life still thrived despite the barren beauty of the basin.

  At the noise, the group’s tour guide—an older woman named Hattie—glanced in her direction and offered a sympathetic smile, but she also clearly took this as a signal to wind up her talk. Hattie was native Kutzadika’a, of the northern Paiute people. In her mid-seventies, she knew more about the lake and its history than anyone in the basin.

  “The lake,” Hattie continued, “is said to be 760,000 years old, but some scientists believe it might be as old as three million, making it one of the oldest lakes in the United States. And while the lake is seventy square miles in area, at its deepest it is barely over a hundred feet deep. It’s fed by a handful of bubbling springs and creeks, but it has no outflow, relying only on evaporation during the hot summer days. That’s why the lake is three times as salty as the ocean and has a pH of 10, almost as alkaline as household lye.”

  A Spanish tourist grimaced and asked in halting English. “Does anything live in this lago . . . in this lake?”

  “No fish, if that’s what you were thinking, but there is life.” Hattie motioned to Jenna, knowing such knowledge was her specialty.

  Jenna cleared her throat and crossed through the cluster of a dozen tourists: half Americans, the others a mix of Europeans. Situated between Yosemite National Park and the neighboring ghost towns of Bodie State Historic Park, the lake drew a surprising number of foreign visitors.

  “Life always finds a way to fill any environmental niche,” Jenna began. “And Mono Lake is no exception. Despite its inhospitable chemistry of chlorides, sulfates, and arsenic, it has a very rich and complex ecosystem, one that we are trying to preserve through our conservation efforts here.”

  Jenna knelt at the shoreline. “Life at the lake starts with the winter bloom of a unique brine-tolerant algae. In fact, if you’d come here in March, you’d have found the lake as green as pea soup.”

  “Why isn’t it green now?” a young father asked, resting a hand on his daughter’s shoulder.

  “That’s because of the tiny brine shrimp that live here. They’re barely bigger than a grain of rice and consume all that algae. Then the shrimps serve to feed the lake’s most ubiquitous hunter.”

  Still kneeling at the water’s edge, she waved a hand along the shore’s edge, stirring a floating carpet of blackflies. They rose up in a cloud of buzzing complaint.

  “Sick,” said a sullen redheaded teenager as he stepped closer to get a better view.

  “Don’t worry. They’re not biting flies.” Jenna motioned a young boy of eight or nine to her side. “But they are creative little hunters. Come see.”

  The boy timidly came forward, followed by his parents and the other tourists. She patted the ground next to her, getting the boy to crouch, then pointed to the shallows of the lakebed, where several flies scurried underwater, encased within little silvery bubbles of air.

  “It looks like they’re scuba diving!” the boy said with a huge grin.

  Jenna matched his smile, appreciating his childish excitement at this simple wonder of nature. It was one of the best aspects of her job: spreading that joy and amazement.

  “Like I said, they’re resourceful little hunters.” She stood and moved aside to allow others to get a look. “And it is all those brine shrimp and blackflies that in turn feed the hundreds of thousands of swallows, grebes, cranes, and gulls that migrate through here.” She pointed farther along the shoreline. “And if you look over there, you can even see an osprey nest in that tall tufa.”

  More snapshots were taken as she retreated back.

  If she had wanted, she could have expanded further upon the unique web of life at Mono Lake. She had barely scratched the surface of complexity of the alkaline lake’s strange ecosystem. There were all matter of odd species and adaptations to be found here, especially in the mud deep in the lake, where exotic bacteria thrived in conditions that would seem to defy logic, in mud so toxic and void of oxygen that nothing should live.

  But it did.

  Life always finds a way.

  Though it was a quote from Jurassic Park, the same sentiment had also been drilled into her by her biology professor back at Cal Poly. She had planned on getting her doctorate in ecological sciences, but instead she had found herself more drawn toward the park service, to be out in the field, to be actively working to help preserve that fragile web of life that seemed to be fraying worse and worse with every passing year.

  She retreated to her pickup, leaned her back against the door, and waited for the tour to end. Hattie w
ould take the group back in the bus to the neighboring hamlet of Lee Vining, while Jenna trailed behind in her truck. She was already picturing the pile of baby back ribs served at Bodie Mike’s, the local diner.

  From the open window behind her, a wet tongue licked the back of her neck. She reached blindly back and scratched Nikko behind the ear. Apparently she wasn’t the only one getting hungry.

  “Almost done here, kiddo.”

  A thump of a tail answered her. The four-year-old Siberian husky was her constant companion, trained in search-and-rescue. Pushing his head out the open window, he rested his muzzle on her shoulder and sighed heavily. His eyes—one white-blue, the other an introspective brown—stared longingly toward the open hills. Hattie had once told her that, according to Native American legends, dogs with different-colored eyes could see both heaven and earth.

  Whether this was true or not, Nikko’s gaze remained more pedestrian at the moment. A jackrabbit shot across a nearby slope of dry brush, and Nikko burst to his feet inside the cab.

  She smiled as the rabbit quickly vanished into the dusky shadows.

  “Next time, Nikko. You’ll get him next time.”

  Though the husky was a skilled working dog, he was still a dog.

  Hattie collected and herded the group of tourists toward the bus, gathering stragglers along the way.

  “And Indians used to eat those fly larva?” the redheaded teenager asked.

  “We called them kutsavi. Women and children would gather the pupae from the rocks into woven baskets, then toast them up. It’s still done on special occasions, as a rare treat.”

  Hattie winked at Jenna as she passed by.

  Jenna hid a grin at the kid’s sickened expression. That was one detail of the web of life found here that she had left Hattie to impart.

  While the bus loaded up for the return run, Jenna tugged open her truck door and climbed in next to Nikko. As she settled in, the radio squawked loudly.

  What now?

  She unhooked the radio. “What’s up, Bill?”

  Bill Howard was the service dispatcher and a dear friend. Bill was in his mid-sixties but had taken her under his wing when she had first started here. That was over three years ago. She was now twenty-four and had finished her bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences in her spare time, the little that there was. They were understaffed and overworked, but over these past few years, she had learned to love the moods of the lake, of the animals, even of her fellow rangers.

  “I don’t know for sure what’s up, Jen, but I was hoping you could take a swing up north. Emergency services relayed a partial 911 call to our office.”

  “Give me the details.” Besides acting as curators of the parks, rangers were also fully sworn law enforcement officers. Their duties encompassed a wide variety of roles, anything from criminal investigations to emergency medical response.

  “The call came from outside of Bodie,” Bill explained.

  She frowned. Nothing was outside of Bodie, except for a handful of gold-rush-era ghost towns and old abandoned mines. That is, except for—

  “It came from that military research site,” Bill confirmed.


  “What was the call about?” she asked.

  “I listened to the recording myself. All that could be heard was shouting. No words could be made out. Then the call cut off.”

  “So it could be anything or nothing.”

  “Exactly. Maybe the call was made by mistake, but someone should at least swing by the gate and make an inquiry.”

  “And apparently that would be me.”

  “Both Tony and Kate are out near Yosemite, dealing with a drunk-and-disorderly call.”

  “All right, Bill. I’m on it. I’ll radio once I’m at the base gate. Let me know if you hear anything else.”

  The dispatcher agreed and signed off.

  Jenna turned to Nikko. “Looks like those ribs are gonna have to wait, big fella.”

  7:24 P.M.


  Four stories underground, Dr. Kendall Hess pounded up the stairs, followed closely by his systems analyst, Irene McIntire. Red emergency lights strobed at each landing. A siren rang a continual warning throughout the facility.

  “We’ve lost containment levels four and five,” she gasped behind him, monitoring the threat rising up from below on a handheld bioreader.

  But the screams that chased them were enough of an assessment.

  “It must be in the airways by now,” Irene said.

  “How could that be?”

  His question was meant to be rhetorical, but Irene still answered it.

  “It can’t be. Not without massive lab error. But I checked—”

  “It wasn’t lab error,” he blurted out more sharply than he intended.

  He knew the more likely cause.


  Too many firewalls—both electronic and biological—had failed for this to be anything but purposeful. Someone had deliberately caused this containment breach.

  “What can we do?” Irene pleaded.

  They had only one recourse left, a final fail-safe, to fight fire with fire. But would it do more harm than good? He listened to the strangled cries rising from below and knew his answer.

  They reached the top floor. Not knowing what they faced—especially if he was right about a saboteur—he stopped Irene with a touch on her arm. He saw the skin on the back of her hand was already blistering, the same along her neck.

  “You must go for the radio. Send out a mayday. In case I fail.”

  Or God help me, if I lose my nerve.

  She nodded, her eyes trying to hide her pain. What he was asking her to do would likely end in her death. “I’ll try,” she said, looking terrified.

  Burning with regret, he tore the door open and pushed her toward the radio room. “Run!”

  7:43 P.M.

  The truck bumped hard from the paved road onto a gravel track.

  Leaning heavily on the gas pedal, Jenna took less than twenty minutes to climb from Mono Lake to the eight-thousand-foot elevation of Bodie State Historic Park. But she wasn’t heading to the neighboring park. Her destination was even higher and more remote.

  With the sun a mere glimmer on the horizon, she bounced down the dark road, rattling gravel up into her wheel wells. Only a handful of people outside of law enforcement knew about this military site. It had been rapidly established, with barely a word raised about it. Even the building materials and personnel had been airlifted into place by military helicopters, while defense contractors handled all the construction.

  Still, that didn’t stop some information from leaking out.

  The site was part of the U.S. Developmental Test Command. The installation was somehow connected with the Dugway Proving Grounds outside of Salt Lake City. She had looked up that place herself on the Internet and didn’t like what she had found. Dugway was a nuclear, chemical, and biological test facility. Back in the sixties, thousands of sheep near the place had died from a deadly nerve gas leakage. Since then, the facility continued to expand its borders. It now covered almost a million acres, twice the size of Los Angeles.

  So why did they need this extra facility up here in the middle of nowhere?

  Of course, there was speculation: how the military scientists needed the depths of the abandoned mines found here, how their research was too dangerous to be near a major metropolis like Salt Lake City. Other minds concocted wilder theories, proposing the site was being used for secret extraterrestrial research—perhaps because Area 51 had become too much of a tourist attraction.

  Unfortunately this last conjecture gained support when a group of scientists had ventured down to Mono Lake to take some deep core samples of the lake’s bottom. They had been astrobiologists associated with NASA’s National Space Science and Technology Center.

  But what they had been searching for was far from extraterrestrial; in fact, it was very terrestrial. She had been able to have a brief chat wi
th one of the researchers, Dr. Kendall Hess, a cordial silver-haired biologist, at Bodie Mike’s. It seemed no one came to Mono Lake who didn’t enjoy at least one meal at the diner. Over a cup of coffee, he had told her about his team’s interest in the lake’s extremophiles, those rare bacterial species thriving in toxic and hostile environments.

  Such research allows us to better understand how life might exist on foreign worlds, he had explained.

  Yet even then she had sensed that he had been holding back. She saw it in his face, a wariness and excitement.

  Then again, this wasn’t the first secret military site set up at Mono Lake. During the cold war, the government established several remote facilities in the area to test weapons systems and carry out various research projects. Even the lake’s most famous beach—Navy Beach—was named after a former installation once set up along its south shore.

  So what was one more secret lab?

  After a few more teeth-rattling minutes, she noted the fence cutting across the hills ahead. A moment later, her headlights swept over a roadside sign, faded and pebbled with bullet holes. It read:




  From here, a gate normally blocked the road, but instead it stood open. Suspicious, she slowed her truck and stopped at the threshold. By now, the sun had vanished behind the hills, and a heavy twilight had fallen over the rolling meadows.

  “What do you think, Nikko? It’s not trespassing if they leave the door open, is it?”

  Nikko cocked his head, his ears up quizzically.

  She lifted the handset and radioed park dispatch. “Bill, I’ve reached the base’s gates.”

  “Any sign of problems?”

  “Not that I can tell from here. Except someone left the gate open. What do you think I should do?”

  “While you were en route, I placed a few calls up the chain of military command. I’ve still not heard any word back.”

  “So it’s up to me.”

  “We don’t have jurisdiction to—”