A Troop of Shadows (Book 1 in the Troop of Shadows Chronicles)
A catastrophic pandemic ravages the globe, reducing the human population to extinction levels.
An arrogant bookworm, a doomsday prepper, a brilliant scientist, and a journal-keeping poet are among those who survive the disease that annihilated almost everyone else on the planet.
Not dying was the easy part.
Now, a year later, they navigate a bleak world…one without technology, without modern medicine, and without law and order. They must unify their diverse strengths not only to rebuild civilization, but to battle those who would use brutality to forge empires.
The plague cleansed the world of mediocrity. The survivors possess the intellect and vision to save humankind.
Or thrust it into oblivion.
October, 2017 (Now)
Dani cursed the weight of her backpack. The final two items from the ransacked Walgreens, crammed in as an afterthought ten minutes ago, might cost her everything. After surviving the last twelve months of hell only to be thwarted now by a can of Similac and a twelve-pack of Zest soap, would be sadly anticlimactic. Despite running at a full sprint down a dark suburban street, dodging overflowing garbage cans while eluding three men who would steal her hard-won tubes of Neosporin and likely rape and kill her in the process, she snorted at the thought of a fictional headline: Young Woman’s Life Ends Tragically but Zestfully Clean.
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Sixteen months earlier, June 2016
Archaeological site, Ancient Sumerian city of Uruk
30 km east of As-Samawah, Iraq
“This is big, Harry.” The American anthropologist spoke to Dr. Harold Clarke, key council member of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, whose connections were responsible for funding the current multi-national excavation project.
“Indeed, it would seem so, Bill.”
The clay tablet was still embedded in the rock that lined the floor of the ancient Sumerian cave. The previous artefacts found in the area in recent months dated from 3200-3000 BCE, but this new find appeared to be much older. The scratches were difficult to decipher in situ, but were certainly cuneiform. Still, these were somehow different. Harold and the American, who was also an expert in ancient logophonetic languages as was Harold himself, knew it instantly. After delicate brushes had whisked away the last grains of sand and the first photographs taken, a hasty charcoal rubbing revealed something that startled both men and left Harold with an uneasy feeling in his stomach. Although crude in its rendering, next to the wedge-shaped Sumerian symbol for ‘god being,’ was a detailed representation of the double helix.
“Steven, will you please drag yourself away from the kitchen and mow the front yard? The neighbors are beginning to grumble. I saw them gathering up torches and pitchforks this morning. Better hurry.”
The man sighed, irritated but amused. He glanced up at the woman carrying an overflowing basket of clothes to the laundry room. Even after fifteen years of marriage, she still took his breath away. How had a socially awkward nerd straddled with debt courtesy of dual master’s degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, gotten so lucky?
“Clever girl. Your nag-to-funny ratio is flawless, as usual.”
She blew him a kiss and began stuffing clothes into the ancient Kenmore. Steven lifted the last of the mason jars from the pressure canner using rubberized tongs designed for the task, then placed the hot jars on the kitchen table. The contents, cubed chicken and broth, still boiled inside the glass. Seconds later the lids began to pop, indicating a vacuum seal. He knew it was silly, but the sound always made him smile. It said, “You did it right, Stevie Boy! Good job! Now your family won’t starve during the zombie apocalypse!”
Except for his wife Laura, he kept those thoughts to himself. As far as his son knew, the whole ‘prepping’ thing was just his dad’s quirky hobby. But Steven knew better than most how vulnerable the country’s power grid actually was. Detonating a nuke twenty-five miles above the earth would spawn an electromagnetic pulse and devastate the grid, setting the country’s technology back more than a hundred years. What terrorist group or enemy rogue nation doesn’t have wet dreams about crippling the United States? An EMP would be an effective, relatively easy way to do it. All electrical devices stop working and everything goes dark. Supply chains are broken, food becomes scarce, and the fabric of society unravels quickly and violently. Steven could picture the bastards salivating at the thought as they crouched in some Afghani cave.
Those who prepared now might survive if they were sensible, cautious, and discreet. He’d never shared his obsession with his friends nor his co-workers at Kansas Electric — not that he had many friends, and his co-workers tended to avoid his eccentric behavior — so discretion came easily.
He’d filled up the root cellar with first dozens and then hundreds of canned vegetables and concentrated soups, tuna fish, and Spam. The canned items segued to rice, sugar, salt, pasta, and a large variety of beans stored in Mylar bags and food-grade buckets. He’d discovered the shelf life of peanut butter was surprisingly short, so he purchased a powdered version in bulk. High-acid foods like tomatoes and fruit degraded their metal containers, so he learned to can them himself in mason jars. Commercially canned meat was cost prohibitive, which led to buying a pressure canner at the Goodwill store in Salina and educating himself on methods for preserving poultry, pork, and beef. When done correctly and stored under optimal conditions, his food would last for years — decades even, despite the assertions of the FDA and the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving.
He’d built the cellar himself with the help of his oldest son, Jeffrey, whose stringy thirteen-year-old muscles and quiet tenacity had proven invaluable. They’d completed the job over a weekend six months before, and it was almost filled to capacity. He eyeballed the pint jars still bubbling on the kitchen table, considered Laura’s reaction to the idea of a second cellar, and decided that battle would be more easily won with the leverage of a tidy yard. She didn’t embrace this business of planning for the end of the world, but she did tolerate it.
Barely. And for that, he loved her even more.
He kissed her cheek, squeezed her backside, and headed out the door to the shed where the lawn tools were stored. On the way, he noted the newly installed wind turbine fifty yards from the house near the back fence line. The three propeller-like blades spun with an eerie robotic grace, conjuring electricity from the movement of air with silent efficiency. When he received his annual bonus, he intended to add solar as a back-up for those times when Mother Nature’s bluster didn’t cooperate. For now, the turbine powered only the well pump; they still relied on Kansas Electric for everything else and would continue doing so until Steven could work out the glitches with his off-grid system. He experienced moments of anxiety when he thought of all that still needed to be done. If his family were to remain safe in a world suddenly turned upside down, he better get cracking.
Starting with mowing the lawn.
It was an important chore only in terms of his marriage — and therefore immensely important — but his mind had already leapt ahead to the next project. He estimated the yard work would take him until lunchtime, which meant a good five hours of daylight left to start on the new root cellar. He could put a big dent in it if Laura didn’t have other chores lined up for him, assuming she green-lighted the plan in the first place.
As he pondered the best angle from which to approach that marital-landmine-riddled task, his cell phone vibrated in his jeans pocket. The display showed an image of a smiling woman with dark hair and more than a passing resemblance to Steven.
“Hey, sis. Long time no hear. What’s new in the sexy world of molecular genetics? Have you discovered the gene responsible for penis length yet? I’m asking for a friend.”
“Hey, little brother. What’s happening in the steamy world of mechanical engineering? Did you finish the schematics for that female sex bot? You’re destined to be rich, you know.”
He could hear the smile in her voice but also something else. Fatigue? Worry?
“Not as rich as you if you get that penis thing nailed down. What’s up, Julia Petulia? How’s Stan?” He knew she despised the pet name, especially now that she was a bigshot scientist with diplomas covering the walls of her office and the letters ‘Ph.D.’ printed on her business cards.
“Stan’s fine. Still no sign of the cancer, thank god. He’s dealing with the normal bullshit at the firm.”
“You doing okay? You sound tired.”
“I’m exhausted. Work has been kicking my ass. Which is why I’m worried that I may be overreacting…”
Steven didn’t know much about her current project, just that she’d been studying the phenotype of a particular gene in order to determine its mutation characteristics…the usual stuff. He was a smart guy, but the human genome didn’t hold any great interest for him, so he usually zoned out when Julia rambled on about her work. She probably did the same during their conversations about his work, although recently she’d asked about disaster preparedness, which had struck him as odd.
“The behavior of the molecule I’ve been working with is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. And not in a good way.”
She had his full attention now. “What do you mean? Not good how?”
“The way in which it’s expressing is unprecedented. It’s been dormant until now. We knew its nature was developmental, meaning it would become active at a certain stage of its lifespan, versus how a ‘tissue specific’ DNA molecule can make hair fall out because it’s located in the scalp.”
His attention began to wane. Julia sensed it and hurried on.
“This gene has suddenly self-actuated in most of the samples we’ve collected. This is crazy behavior — DNA is highly individual — but this gene is acting identically in almost all of the samples, at nearly the same time…like a collective consciousness thing.”
“I’m with you so far I think, but where’s the bad news in this? What’s it doing that has you guys at Stanford so nervous?”
Silence on the other end while she formulated a response. Seconds ticked by. Steven was beginning to wonder if the connection had been dropped when she finally spoke.
“In layman’s terms, it seems to be telling all the cells in the body to self-destruct, which should be impossible, yet it’s happening before our eyes. If we’re right about this…”
“What? What does it mean?”
“Steven, if we’re right about this, it would mean the end of humanity as we know it.”
He suddenly found himself sitting on the overgrown lawn.
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Press conference given by the Centers for Disease Control
“It’s not airborne. We know that for sure. But it’s not clear how the disease is spreading.” The man behind the makeshift podium spoke into more than a dozen microphones representing a huge variety of national and world news affiliates. His face was pale and haggard, suggesting days of sleep deprivation; but his carefully prepared speech and quiet, self-assured demeanor conveyed confidence. The scientific community would prevail over this dire threat — that was the message he intended to project.
“It’s neither bacterial nor viral. Its characteristics are similar to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus in that certain cells of the body attack other cells. Specifically, it works in the vascular system and is analogous to SNV — systemic necrotizing vasculitis — but the onset occurs over hours rather than months or years.
“We are working around the clock to get a handle on this. We understand that people are afraid, but panic only makes the situation worse.”
He pointed to a female reporter from Reuters.
“Will the PSI be raised?” she asked.
“That’s up to Health and Human Services. Since this isn’t influenza, the protocol is different. However, I expect the Pandemic Severity Index to be upgraded to level 4 within the day so that additional federal and state resources may be utilized.”
He nodded to a dark-skinned man from Al Jazeera News.
“Is it spreading as rapidly in other countries as it is in the United States? Is there a demographic it favors?”
“We believe the event is happening worldwide at the same frequency and diffusion as it is here. There is no evidence to indicate that any segment of the populace is at higher risk than any other. It appears to be an equal opportunity illness and is presenting in all ages, all ethnicities, and both sexes without bias.”
“Director Frieden!” A young man from CNN didn’t wait to be called upon. “What is the mortality rate?”
He’d been dreading this question. Facts and candor would adversely affect a society already exhibiting hysteria, and the White House had issued a mandate two hours ago that panic must be contained even at the price of the truth. He’d withheld most of what they knew about the disease to everyone except his fellow scientists at the CDC, and of course the group from Stanford who had initially tipped them off about the gene mutation.
“It’s still relatively low,” he lied. “But we haven’t been able to determine accurate numbers at this point.”
If people knew the mortality rate, it would spark the immediate breakdown of social order and more people would die as a result of the pandemonium. This was the balm with which he soothed his conscience: withholding the truth now would be saving lives.
At least for a while longer.
Even though every person on the planet possessed the DNA molecule responsible for the widespread deaths, not everyone’s were self-actuating…yet. Those in whom it had, were dead within a day or two.
When it happened, it was quick and catastrophic. The vascular system became inflamed and blood flow to vital organs grew restricted. Death from suffocation or kidney failure occurred mere hours after the first sign of chills and fatigue. The speed with which the body responded to the directive given by the gene was unprecedented, and any therapies they might develop to battle it would take months or years. Director Frieden knew from his research that at the rate the illness was occurring in the population, they would never beat it in time. Fate had placed him at the helm of the Centers for Disease Control during the most significant event in human history.
A Troop of Shadows is available on Amazon.com. Here’s the direct link A Troop of Shadows