"We don't know he still lives," his father answered. "We've been gone so long."


"But if he does, Niccolo?" 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.


All empty.


Except for the dead.


The ground had been littered with birds, fallen to the stone plazas as if struck out of the skies in flight. Nothing was spared. Men and women and children. Oxen and beasts of the field. Even great snakes had hung limp from tree limbs, their flesh boiling from beneath their scales.


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, Niccolo, should someday reach our shores?"


"Then it will mean the end of man's 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?"


.


May 22, 6:32 p.m.


Indian Ocean


I0° 44'07.87"s / 1050ii'56.52"e


"Who wants another bottle of Foster's while I'm down here?" Gregg Tunis called from belowdecks.


Dr. Susan Tunis smiled at her husband's voice as she pushed off the dive ladder and onto the open stern deck. She skinned out of her BC vest and hauled the scuba gear to the rack behind the research yacht's pilothouse. Her tanks clanked as she racked them alongside the others.


Free of the weight, she grabbed the towel from her shoulder and dried her blond hair, bleached almost white by sun and salt. Once done, she unzipped her wet suit with a single long tug.


"Boom-badaboom . . . badaboom ..." erupted from a lounge chair behind her.


She didn't even glance back. Plainly someone had spent too much time in Sydney's strip clubs. "Professor Applegate, must you always do that when I'm climbing out of my gear?"


The gray-haired geologist balanced a pair of reading glasses on his nose, an open text on maritime history on his lap. "It would be ungentlemanly not to acknowledge the presence of a buxom young woman relieving herself of too much attire."


She shouldered out of the wet suit and stripped it down to her waist. She wore a one-piece swimsuit beneath. She had learned the hard way that a bikini top had the tendency to strip away with a wet suit. And while she didn't mind the retired professor, thirty years her senior, ogling her, she wasn't going to give him that much of a free show.


Her husband climbed up with three perspiring bottles of lager, pinching them all between the fingers of one hand. He grinned broadly upon seeing her. "Thought I heard you humping about up here."


He climbed topside, stretching his tall frame. He wore only a pair of white Quicksilver trunks and a loose shirt, unbuttoned. Employed as a boat mechanic in Darwin Harbor, he and Susan had met during one of the dry-dock repairs on another of the University of Sydney's boats. That had been eight years ago. Just three days ago, they had celebrated their fifth anniversary aboard the yacht, moored a hundred nautical miles off Kiritimati Atoll, better known as Christmas Island.


He passed her a bottle. "Any luck with the soundings?"


She took a long pull on the beer, appreciating the moisture. Sucking on a salty mouthpiece all afternoon had turned her mouth pasty. "Not so far. Still can't find a source for the beachings."


Ten days ago eighty dolphins, Tursiops aduncus, an Indian Ocean species, had beached themselves along the coast of Java. Her research study centered on the long-term effects of sonar interference on cetacean species, the source of many suicidal beachings in the past. She usually had a team of research assistants with her, a mix of postgrads and undergrads, but the trip up here had been for a vacation with her old mentor. It was pure happenstance that such a massive beaching occurred in the region—hence the protracted stay here.


"Could it be something other than man-made sonar?" Applegate pondered, drawing circles with his fingertip in the condensation on his beer bottle. "Microquakes are constantly rattling the region. Perhaps a deep-sea subduction quake struck the right tonal note to drive them into a suicidal panic."


"There was that bonzer quake a few months back," her husband said. He settled into a lounge beside the professor and patted the seat for her to sit with him. "Maybe some aftershocks?"


Susan couldn't argue against their assessments. Between the series of deadly quakes over the past two years and the major tsunami in the area, the seabed was greatly disturbed. It was enough to spook anyone. But she wasn't convinced. Something else was happening. The reef below was oddly deserted. What little life was down there seemed to have retreated into rocky niches, shells, and sandy holes. It was almost as if the sea life here was holding its breath.


Maybe the sensitive creatures were responding to microquakes.


She frowned and joined her husband. She would radio over to Christmas Island to see if they'd picked up any unusual seismic activity. Until then, she had news that would definitely get her husband in the water in the morning.


"I did find what looked like the remnants of an old wreck."


"No bloody way." He sat up straighter. Back at Darwin Harbor, Greg offered tours of sunken WWII warships that littered the seas around the northern coast of Australia. He had an avid interest in such discoveries. "Where?"


She pointed absently behind her, beyond the yacht's far side. "About a hundred meters starboard of us. A few beams, black and sticking straight out of the sand. Probably shaken free during that last big quake or perhaps even exposed when the silt had been sucked off of it by the passing tsunami. I didn't have much time to explore. Thought I'd leave it to an expert." She pinched him in the ribs, then leaned back into his chest.


As a group, they watched the sun vanish with a last coy wink into the sea. It was their ritual. Barring a storm, they never missed a sunset while at sea. The ship rocked gently. In the far distance, a passing tanker winked a few lights. But they were otherwise alone.


A sharp bark startled Susan, causing her to jump. She had not known she was still a bit tense. Apparently the strange, wary behavior of the reef life below had infected her.


"Oy! Oscar!" the professor called.


Only now did Susan notice the lack of their fourth crewmate on the yacht. The dog barked again. The pudgy Queensland heeler belonged to the professor. Getting on in age and a tad arthritic, the dog was usually found sprawled in any patch of sunlight it could find.


"I'll see to him," Applegate said. "I'll leave you two lovebirds all cozied up. Besides, I could use a trip to the head. Make a bit more room for another Foster's before I find my bed."


The professor gained his feet with a groan and headed toward the bow, intending to circle to the far side—but he stopped, staring off toward the east, toward the darker skies.


Oscar barked again.


Applegate did not scold him this time. Instead, he called over to Susan and Gregg, his voice low and serious. "You should come see this."


Susan scooted up and onto her feet. Gregg followed. They joined the professor.


"Bloody hell.. ." her husband mumbled.


"I think you may have found what drove those dolphins out of the seas," Applegate said.


To the east, a wide swath of the ocean glowed with a ghostly luminescence, rising and falling with the waves. The silvery sheen rolled and eddied. The old dog stood at the starboard rail and barked, trailing into a low growl at the sight.


"What the hell is that?" Gregg asked.


Susan answered as she crossed closer. "I've heard of such manifestations. They're called milky seas. Ships have reported glows like this in the Indian Ocean, going all the way back to Jules Verne. In 1995, a satellite even picked up one of the blooms, covering hundreds of square miles. This is a small one."


"Small, my ass," her husband grunted. "But what exactly is it? Some type of red tide?"


She shook her head. "Not exactly. Red tides are algal blooms. These glows are caused by bioluminescent bacteria, probably feeding off algae or some other substrate. There's no danger. But I'd like to—"


A sudden knock sounded beneath the boat, as if something large had struck it from below. Oscar's barking became more heated. The dog danced back and forth along the rails, trying to poke his head through the posts.

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