MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
CARL JAMESON’S GEOLOGY career took a sudden turn when the unimaginable knocked at his door: an event as unlikely as a snowflake in summer.
It seemed an apt analogy for the moment, Carl thought, as he sat sweltering in the languid heat of his cubicle, stuffed into a dusty corner of the Central American Core Repository. He had arrived at the sleepy fishing village of La Ceiba, Honduras, two months earlier to complete research on his doctoral thesis. The slow pace of Latin American life and the friendliness of the locals provided him a respite from the hectic inner-city life of Columbia University. But one thing he could never get used to was the heat, the oppressive heat that sucked the energy from his bones. Carl leaned forward to harvest a meager stream of air flowing from an old oscillating fan he’d purchased at the local market. It provided scant relief for his racing heart.
When he first arrived at the core repository, Carl could have scarcely imagined the bizarre twist that would upend all of his research into mass extinction events. His meticulous studies of ocean sediments would need to be updated, along with his thesis title: “Mass Extinction: Sedimentary Evidence of Comet Impact at the Cretaceous/Tertiary Boundary.”
It was a huge adjustment, but Carl didn’t mind. His implausible discovery offered him an opportunity of a lifetime. That’s what made science so compelling, he decided: the occasional surprise that turned scientific convention on its head.
Carl checked his antique pocket watch. Time to get moving. Exiting the cubicle, Carl entered the building’s long central hallway, his footsteps reverberating in the cavernous enclosure. The structure was old, constructed in the late fifties, and large, over a football field in length, having been expanded numerous times. Dust motes danced in shafts of light streaming from windows set high on the crumbling brick walls. Their beams illuminated row upon row of metal tubes stacked on tall shelves, like the scrolls of a primordial library.
The Central American Core Repository contained the largest collection of sedimentary drilling cores in Latin America, an archive of geological history created and maintained by several mining conglomerates. For the most part, the cores languished in obscurity, their secrets mute and unappreciated. In fact, during the entire two-month span of his research grant, Carl Jameson had not seen a single other visiting scientist or surveyor.
He knew the reason for the lack of interest: to a mining company, these archived cores were symbols of failure. The drilling of an exploratory sediment core was the mining equivalent of a stab in the dark, a pinprick through the skin of Mother Earth, made in hopes of finding a vein of mineral wealth. Any promising core samples would never make their way into the repository. They would be far too valuable and would be whisked away to another location … like the shiny new laboratory next door, for instance.
Someone had found something of extreme value, Carl concluded, judging from the frenzied activity taking place just a few steps away from his current location. He wanted to learn more, but … first things first.
As he ambled along, Carl extended his hand, letting it hover inches above one shelf, like a ship floating through time. It sailed past the geological periods—Quaternary, Neogene, Paleogene …
By row’s end, he’d journeyed back sixty million years into the past, an eyeblink in geological time. Carl turned right and headed toward the age of the dinosaurs, the focus of his research.
The scientific debate on mass extinctions had raged for years. During the Earth’s four-billion-year history, five mass extinction events had ravaged the planet’s species, none more famous than the last: the extinction of the dinosaurs. Every scientific discipline had its own pet theory for the cause.
The biologists focused on pandemics and evolutionary pressure. The meteorologists believed in climate change. The astrophysicists proposed an invisible sister-star to the sun called “Nemesis” that supposedly disrupted the solar system every 26 million years or so. Paleogeologists preferred volcanism at the Deccan Traps in India. There was even an extinction theory based on dark matter.
Carl had always believed in the most obvious and simple theory: meteor impacts.
His research had seemed to bear that out … until a week ago. That’s when extinction “theory” became something else entirely.
Carl stopped suddenly at a familiar berth.
For two months, he had been studying the sediment cores surrounding the “KT boundary” between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, where the last evidence of the dinosaurs could be found. Each core was like a chapter of geological history, its individual sediment layers like pages from the book of life. They had always told a familiar story, until …
Carl’s eyes locked on a microscope slide tray that had been placed on a narrow clearing on one of the shelves. He needed one last look. His hand trembling slightly, Carl removed a gossamer-thin slice of stone from its holder and placed it into the microscope.
The chance of spotting such a miniscule detail was one in a trillion, he thought, staring at the tiny smattering of colors. Fossilized minerals that had long since replaced the original material sparkled like jewels from an age long departed.
The sight sent a shiver down his spine. It felt as if he had torn the veil from a sacred act, entombed in a wash of sediment, like two mating flies trapped in amber. This tiny discovery, as big as the Earth itself, would rewrite the history books on mass extinctions and surely earn him a Nobel Prize.
After getting his fill, Carl placed the slide back into its plastic sleeve and slipped it into his pocket, patting it gently. Keep the Nobel close. No one here would miss it, or understand its significance.
Carl checked his watch again. It was time to get into position for his second task of the day. For weeks, he’d been watching the heightened security, the strange equipment, the jealously guarded core samples ushered into a lab constructed on a new wing of the decrepit old warehouse. One day, during a core delivery, Carl had noticed the GPS coordinates scribbled on the side of one of the drilling tubes. Their origin piqued his curiosity, drilled only a few hundred miles from the location of his discovery.
In a few days, he’d be meeting up with Rachel Sullivan in La Ceiba for their reunion. Sharing his Nobel-worthy discovery with her would be epic. In all likelihood, she would be shocked, but pleased. Carl felt a tinge of pride at the prospect of showing off his latest achievement.
But, if he could find out the secret to the new mystery cores delivered next door, he could sweeten the pot even more at their reunion.
Two for the price of one.
His next move would be particularly bold, or foolish, depending on how you looked at it. He would be trespassing in a secured area. The slight risk seemed worth it. Besides, what could they do about it now? His residency was almost over. This was his last chance to satisfy his curiosity. Just a quick glance for a minute or two—easy peasy.
Carl knew the guards’ routine and delivery schedule. Toiling under the weight of the cores, they had formed the habit of propping the security door open with an old trash can. With proper timing, Carl could slip inside, take a quick look around, and be out before anyone noticed. He moved to position himself behind a nearby shelf and waited.
Within minutes, the guards arrived, lugging their first load of drill tubes. The lead guard swiped his security card and the team entered the high-security area. A few minutes later, they reappeared and headed for another load, leaving the door ajar in predictable fashion. At the sound of the far exit door slamming shut, Carl made his move.
Slipping through the unsecured door, he found himself standing in the center of an inner foyer. Straight ahead, a vinyl-strip curtain door formed a rudimentary air lock between the foyer and the main lab. To his right, a circular staircase spiraled up into darkness. Treading softly, he eased up the metal stairs to a small observation room that overlooked the lab below.
This was going to be easier than he thought.
Carl backed into the shadows and studied the room below. At first, it looked like any other assay lab: microscopes along one wall; a large table half-filled with exposed cores, pushed out of their containers like Popsicles from their wrappers. The lab had even been equipped with a gas chromatograph and spectroscope. No expense had been spared.
But the far wall perplexed him: it was housing a row of stainless steel fermenting tanks like those found in any microbrewery. Titration racks, a vented hood, incubation chamber, genetic sequencing machine, and stacks of agar plates—items more at home in a biology classroom than a geological assay lab. What is going on here?
Biology was not Carl’s strong suit, but Rachel could probably explain what he was seeing. He reached for his cell phone to take a picture, and cursed. He’d left it back in his cubicle. He’d just have to note every detail so he could share the information later.
The security team reappeared with their second delivery. Carl watched as two lab technicians, dressed in rubber aprons and full-face visors, joined the guards, helping to extract the new cores, which contained a mixture of crystalline rock and mud.
Their job done, the security team said their goodbyes. The two lab techs moved deliberately, one switching off the bright overhead lights and the other activating a bank of UV black lights.
Bathed in the lamp’s purple glow, the sample cores suddenly lit up like a Christmas tree, their crystalline minerals fluorescing under the energy of ultraviolet radiation. Using the glowing minerals as a guide, the technicians extracted a collection of slices, placing them into assaying trays. When they were done, the overheads were flipped back on, illuminating a ruin of mud and rock littered across the table.
One lab tech carried the assay trays to the microscopes. The other technician moved to the nearest fermentation tank and opened the hatch, releasing a cloud of steam. Then, he dumped the core remnants from the table into the fermenter and shut the lid.
The unfamiliar procedure left Carl completely baffled. Core samples were like divining rods. Their mineral values would be tested, quantified, and charted on a map. By following the gradients of higher mineral concentrations, mining operations could zero in on the most promising claims. Core samples were always archived for further testing. They were never destroyed.
Now, more curious than ever, he scrutinized the lab techs as they turned their attention to the assay trays: making microslices, collecting small quantities of material for spectrographic analysis, studying the slices under the microscope.
He stood there watching for an hour, mesmerized, until another unimaginable event caught his attention.
The hatch on the nearest fermenter began to change color—to an unnaturally bright color. A deep Prussian-blue foam began to ooze out around the hatch’s seal. It grew into a great steaming mound that advanced down the front side of the fermentation tank with a bubbling ferocity that could be heard from his perch in the observation room.
The lab workers turned and stared, frozen. One worker finally leapt up and rushed toward the fermenter’s controls. His forward motion carried him past his destination as the slick foam betrayed his purchase. He landed on his backside with a loud splat.
A guttural gasp exploded from his mouth as he seemed to launch himself up from the floor. He writhed and contorted as the blue ooze sloughed off his back, along with large patches of lab coat and skin. A mist of white smoke streamed from the raw flesh as his cries morphed into a gurgling whimper.
The second worker slammed his hand onto a large red button, shattering the silence with a chorus of sirens. Seconds later, both men were contorting in agony. White foam spewed from their mouths, mixing with the cerulean mass that inched its way across the room.
Frozen in place, Carl Jameson was unsure what to do next, until the faint aroma of burnt almonds reached his nostrils and shocked him into action.
He bounded down the stairs three steps at a time, falling the last four feet onto the floor. Underneath the vinyl curtain, he could see blue foam advancing toward him. He jumped up and punched through the security door into the stillness of the warehouse.
The distant clamor of footsteps prompted him to turn down the left hallway toward the exit. He shot around the corner at the far end and collided with a wall of flesh, stinking of sweat and booze. A large, dark object descended from above, landing with a brilliant burst of pain.
* * *
CARL PRESSED HIS hands against the iron deck and felt the shudder of a ship’s engine.
His mind was still swimming as he fingered a large welt behind his ear. A wave of dizziness flowed over him as he struggled to his feet, hands probing the darkness. His fingers found a dangling chain and pulled. The world turned white as a swinging bulb threw shadows across a cramped room containing a door, porthole, and stained toilet.
The stench of rust and urine assaulted his nostrils, churned his stomach. He leaned over the toilet and tore open the porthole, thrusting his face into the narrow opening to drink in gulps of humid night air.
Far in the distance, the lights of La Ceiba flickered on a long, dark jut of Honduran coastline. Above, the moon hung low and oval, firing the crests of ocean swells. It was a scene he had experienced a thousand times before as a geology undergraduate, from the decks of arctic cruisers and sloops whispering through Caribbean foam. The sea had always been as reassuring to him as a familiar mural, its nuances fresh with each viewing.
But now, the waters grew dark and malevolent. With each passing moment, the shoreline receded, and with it, his chance for survival. They had imprisoned him on this puke-stained ship for a reason. He had seen too much.
Carl strained to reassemble the past few hours. How long had he been out? Dim visions of bright-colored foam, smoking flesh, horrific screams, and dark shapes played across his mind. With sudden desperation, he groped in his pocket for the precious slide, the ticket to his Nobel Prize.
Pulling the plastic holder from his pocket, Carl stared down at … sand. The thin shard of stone had returned to the dust of the Earth.
Self-revulsion shuddered through his frame as he slumped to the toilet. This should have been a day to celebrate, but instead he’d destroyed his Nobel with a foolish act of bravado. He felt sick, the nausea worsening as he relived the horrific tragedy in the lab.
Two for the price of one.
Carl sat there, hump shouldered, for several minutes, thinking. Both tragedies seemed to converge into a single thread of thought. Slowly, deliberately, the divergent threads began to weave a tapestry in his mind, connecting the past to the present. He thought about the location of the closely guarded core samples and his shattered Nobel. A coincidence? Surely, it couldn’t still be there, could it? After seventy million years?
Revulsion gave way to an elemental fear.
The tapestry in his mind’s eye held the vision of a monstrous certainty. His own well-being seemed to fade into insignificance. He had to warn someone … everyone.
Reaching inside his other pocket, Carl pulled out his antique pocket watch and popped open the ornate cover. 9:13 P.M. Judging from the cargo crowding the ship’s deck, they were headed to deep water. He didn’t have much time.
He scrutinized the room. Behind the toilet, a plunger rested in a pool of fetid water. Above it, a rickety bookshelf held a stack of pornographic magazines and a tattered Bible. He jerked at the locked door repeatedly, to no avail. The porthole was far too small to wriggle through, the walls, solid steel.
No way out, nothing to write with, no way to leave a message.
The finality of his plight began to sink in. Carl dropped his head and stared down at the image on his T-shirt. He experienced a flash of inspiration and began ripping at the shirt’s fibers, trying to tear away a vital portion of the shirt’s image. Initially, the tear followed the weave of the cotton. He cursed through several attempts and finally raised the shirt to his mouth to gnaw out the requisite shape.
Then he pulled the old Bible from the room’s shelf and flipped through the pages. The text was in Spanish, making it difficult to find the correct passage. After several minutes of searching, he tore out the bottom half of one page and folded it neatly several times. Opening a secret compartment in his watch, Carl removed the portrait inside and replaced it with the packet, pausing to stare at the woman in the photograph. She stared back with a radiant smile, as if to comfort him. His eyes filled as he said softly, “Looks like you won the bet.”
The first two were conciliatory, the third deeper and more commanding. Snapping the watch shut, Carl ripped it from the chain and stuffed it under the tongue of his sneaker.
He tore the handle from the plunger, stood, and braced himself. There would only be one chance. If he could force them away from the door, make a mad dash … the feral sea would swallow him up. A long swim to shore, certainly, but he could make it.
The door swung open and his heart sank. A familiar hulk of a man filled the opening. Leaning over to fit his enormous bulk inside, the man grabbed Carl’s shirt and jerked him through the doorway.
“Hold him down!” he barked to the other men.
An instant later, Carl found himself sprawled facedown across the deck, his arms drawn painfully behind his back. A pair of hands rifled through his pockets as bindings tightened around both wrists. He squirmed frantically and twisted his face toward the huge figure. “Listen, for God’s sake, don’t do this! You don’t know what you’re doing!”
The captain leaned in, his breath thick with tequila. Dark eyes studied him from deep recesses. “You should have kept your nose out of our business, gringo.”
“I won’t tell anyone, I swear!”
The captain flashed a row of grimy teeth. “Sí, you won’t.”
Carl racked his brain for something to say, something that could describe the gravity of the situation. But how could he explain the history of the Earth in a few sentences? Straining closer, he hissed into the captain’s ear.
“If you kill me—you kill us all.”
The finality of the words caught the large man by surprise and the captain backed away nervously, a hint of doubt clouding his face. Carl felt a stab of hope as the captain wavered at the edge of indecision.
Finally, he straightened. “Finish him.”
Something hard and cylindrical jammed against Carl’s back. The men lashed it tightly and dragged him across the deck like a sack. He was hoisted to the gunwale. One heave, a cooling breeze, then a hard slap. The chaos at the water’s surface soon dissolved into a dark stillness.
Carl jerked against the bindings, shreds of skin peeling away from the jute ropes. Neither hand budged. Water raced past. With two loud pops, both eardrums ruptured in an explosion of pain and dizziness. A faint metallic flavor washed over his tongue. His heart heaved against a chest cavity collapsing from the pressure. The urge to breathe welled up from his gut with a sudden vengeance. Carl struggled again, more feebly this time, but the knots were tied with a sailor’s skill and only grew tighter.
Suddenly, a wall of cool water enveloped him. Unable to hold out any longer, Carl Jameson relaxed and let the salty liquid rush in.…
There was a loud ringing, and then—nothing.
A curious barracuda swam by, paused momentarily, then darted off into the void.
Copyright © 2017 by Kent Lester