For a view of the book trailer and to learn about the special introductory price, please visit the home page! Below is the first chapter to the new novel Darkness upon the Land:
The news stories were chilling, but Alexia had to suppress her natural response to them because of the unnatural result it could produce. While she watched the images on the screen that hung on a wall in her quarters, she considered how normal everything had seemed earlier this morning when she showered and got dressed. Then she sat at the desk beside her bed to switch on the monitor with her PIT phone, and everything changed.
All the channels were reporting it, at least every channel that was still on the air. Those that were coming in would often become distorted into clusters of colors and the sound would fade and stutter. Apparently several satellites had been knocked out and only brilliant, desperate rerouting by technical engineers kept a few stations broadcasting.
Reporters, mostly in their newsrooms instead of out in the field, anxiously relayed stories how in the last couple of hours large portions of Europe, Africa and western Asia had lost all electric power. Many modes of transportation came to a standstill – vehicles littered highways; trains stalled on tracks; planes fell from the sky. Lights, communications, appliances and toys – anything plugged in or dependent upon the satellite signals that synchronized control and function – ceased working. Fires ignited. And the only thing anybody could agree upon was that nobody knew what was causing it.
There were no shortages of theories. The reporters talked a lot about both nuclear and EMP bombs. They just couldn’t agree if the weapons had been set off by an enemy nation or a terrorist group. Usually the stations offered more detailed information that could be retrieved by downloading files to one’s Personal Identification and Transaction phone, but those systems were failing as well.
“This just in.” The picture on the view screen continued to collapse intermittently into colorful pixels while the reporter garbled. “Reports have … contact … lost with ocean liners … sea craft out … Atlantic. We … if both civilian and military … affected, but the … appear … universal in the region.”
Alexia felt her heart begin hammering and she immediately inhaled a deep, calming breath to keep her apprehension at bay. She rose to her still bare feet and stepped over to the window that glowed dimly with the gray light of predawn. After pulling aside the inner drapes, she gazed upon the small courtyard of green lawn and some flowers that separated the guest residence hall from other campus structures. The Lapius Biomedical Research University in Baton Rouge had been her other home for the past three and a half years, but this morning the view outside her window seemed almost alien to her.
The electronic piping of her PIT phone on the desk gave her a mild start, but she immediately regained her composure and strode over to the device. She picked up the phone and first aimed it at the monitor to silence it, and then saw on the phone’s view screen display that her mother was calling.
She answered with a tone she hoped didn’t betray her anxiety. “Hi Mѐre.”
“Good morning, dear.” Her mother’s voice was calm but her words competed with static and broke up slightly as this signal also struggled. “I suppose you’ve … the news?”
“Yeah.” Alexia turned toward the silent screen that cascaded into blocks of color again. “Creepy, isn’t it?”
“I’d … more than creepy. Listen, I just … the phone with Reuben’s mother. We’ve all agreed that he’s … bring you down to our place before he heads on home.”
Her mom wasn’t making sense. “Bring me down how? When?”
“As soon … done talking to you I’m going to reserve a car for Reuben … you down in. It’ll get you home quicker … come up there to pick you up.”
She frowned. “I can drive now, remember?”
“Reuben’s the … almost eighteen. Let him handle it. Besides, I’m going to let him … back to his folks’ place. If it turns out nothing happens … two … four-day weekend. But if something does … don’t want you to be left alone.”
The colors on the monitor fizzled to black. Alexia glanced around for the remote control that also operated the screen, but like most people she always just used her phone, so it wasn’t conveniently accessible.
“The Board doesn’t like short notices,” she muttered distractedly.
“The … doesn’t need to know.” Mѐre’s voice became firm. “We’ve all agreed you’re … just leave. His parents and I … with the directors if nothing … noses out of alignment.”
She figured their parents bargained that the higher echelons of the research university wouldn’t so readily dismiss their star freak, and Reuben wasn’t going to be here much longer, anyway.
“Sounds like I’d better start packing,” she muttered as she opened a desk drawer to see if the remote was in there.
“He’ll … there soon, so I’d better … agency. Stay with him … what he says.” Mѐre’s tone softened again. “You take care of yourself. I love you.”
Alexia hesitated before she responded. Once upon a time her reply would have been more naturally reciprocal. “Yeah. You too.”
She disconnected the call and used the phone to scan through a few more channels before finding another one that succeeded with its struggle to stay on air. It figured that Reuben and her mother, who were initially unlikely accomplices, had conspired to whisk her to safety. But his parents were in on it as well? Everybody knew that one of the terms the university administrators insisted upon in order for minors to reside here was that the youths couldn’t leave the campus without official release. Odds were Dr. Vaughn would forgive the transgression, but everybody’s sudden willingness to flaunt the rules only added to the surrealism of the morning.
Alexia realized she was still staring at the crumbling images on the screen when she heard a soft tapping at the entry door. It was probably Reuben, but she checked the image transferred to her phone from the security camera before she let him in.
“Your mom call you yet?” he asked as he carried a black banjo case in his left hand and a camouflaged gear bag in his right hand.
He was a little taller than average, trim yet muscular, and his brown eyes, black, thick hair and the mahogany cast to his skin alluded to the Native American heritage he claimed from his mother. He was wearing brown leather hiking boots, dark gray lightweight slacks that could be converted into shorts with a tug of the zippers, and a button-down, collared shirt with the sleeves already rolled up to his elbows. A brown, western-style hat hung down his back from a leather cord around his neck. He always wore purple in some kind of form, and today it was one of the colors besides green and yellow in the vertical stripes of his shirt.
Around three years ago she had asked him why he always wore something with purple, and Reuben simply answered that it was a combination of red and blue, which encompass both extremes of the color spectrum. Since then she had learned that his simple answers were usually steeped with deeper meaning.
“Yeah, I just got off the phone with her,” Alexia replied.
He set his banjo case down against the frame so that it kept the door propped open. She generally thought his sense of propriety was overdeveloped, but it was one of the reasons her mom had grown so fond of him. He then stepped over to the desk and set his gear bag on the upholstered chair.
She was very familiar with that gear bag. He spent more weekends here in Louisiana than his home state of Missouri, and over the last couple of years became a regular guest at her home. Depending on the time of year, he would always hunt or fish during his visit, and the bag contained several items that would normally set off the alarms posted at the entryways of all public buildings. So he’d had to obtain special clearance on his PIT phone, which was also scanned by the electronic readers installed at all the accesses. That way he didn’t get dogpiled by security guards.
Apparently it had taken some effort for him to acquire those clearances. For one thing the phone he carried was considered to be a child’s – or old fogey’s – model. Some people had been rude enough to laugh at it. Phone was just the leftover term from the original purpose of the devices which had become necessary for all identification and transactions. He possessed the most basic and therefore cheapest version of this technology.
“You feeling all right?” Reuben asked. “You’re not getting too upset about the news?”
His question was almost enough to trigger an episode from her, but she was getting better at nipping those emotions before they set her off. He had given her many opportunities to practice, and sometimes she wondered if he purposefully tried to be something of an irritant.
“Everything’s under control,” she responded coolly.
“We need to pack all your food.” He turned toward the kitchenette. “That duffel bag of yours should work for that. And as far as clothes, pack all the changes of unmentionables and socks you’ve got, but only bring one change of an outfit because you can just dress in layers. Wear your hiking shoes, but if you want to bring along a pair of sandals that’ll probably be a good idea. And bring some kind of easy-to-pack blanket and only necessary toiletries.”
Alexia stared at him. Reuben was in charge as usual, and his use of the word unmentionables was standard procedure for his usually whimsical attitude. But in spite of the verbiage, his demeanor was more serious than usual.
“It’s an hour and a half trip.” She frowned.
“By car. We have to be prepared in case we wind up on foot. You get your clothes and get changed, and I’ll get the food. Where do you keep that duffel bag?”
“In the closet.” She opened a couple of the dresser drawers to retrieve the clothes she would need. Luckily he knew that she understood what “dress in layers” meant, so she was grateful to be spared the lesson. “Have you talked to Jodi this morning?”
Last fall Jodi had turned their duo into something of a trio. Actually a college sophomore instead of a “specimen” like them, red-haired Jodi shared Reuben’s enthusiasm for the outdoors. Alexia was convinced that if he had chosen to disobey his parents’ orders not to have any girlfriends while residing away from home, Jodi would have become just that.
“She’s heading out, too. Probably already on the road.”
It was likely he already been up for at least a couple of hours. He was one who adhered to the old adage “early to bed and early to rise.” She wondered how quickly after awakening he had discovered this morning’s event.
She stepped into the bathroom and closed the door.
Off came the lightweight ivory slacks and red ruffled blouse as well as the red lacy camisole. The latest styles were a loose imitation of ancient Egyptian garb, but stylish or not, most of women’s fashions were designed to show undergarments and more. Those who desired to show less had to wear extra accoutrements such as camisoles. While she didn’t have any strong opinion on the fashions, she still preferred a bit of modesty because she really didn’t have as much to show as a lot of women. Meanwhile both her mother and Reuben shared the strong opinion that this oversexed culture had beguiled women into providing walking peep shows under the pretense it was a form of self-determination.
On went a blue tank top that was form fitting only because it was sized for a boy around twelve years old rather than a sixteen-year-old girl. Alexia then pulled on a multi-colored tee shirt that was slightly larger, and topped that off with a lemon yellow, collared “camp” shirt that was also manufactured for a young male. The olive slacks she tugged on were a little baggy partly because of the same reason, but her lankiness had much to do with it as well. The pants, like Reuben’s, could be converted into shorts.
She knew that with her thin build and her dark brown hair clipped in a short-style haircut, she could readily pass for a boy. That wasn’t her intention, but there wasn’t much she could do to change her body shape, which was probably influenced by her “issue.” And although her hair was once long, she started getting it cut short last year just to disappoint her mother.
A brown leather belt took care of her biggest concern about the baggy pants factor, and she walked back into the main room.
Reuben was in the kitchenette where he was packing the last of her food into the burgundy, leather duffel bag. Since this was Thursday she really didn’t have much left. He glanced at her as she entered the room.
“You have anything to eat yet besides granola?” he asked.
For anybody else that wouldn’t have been a loaded question, but Alexia had to curb her annoyance at his inquiry. “No, not yet. I thought you were in a hurry.”
“We are.” He carried the duffel bag to her bed and set it on the mattress. “You can grab more to eat after we get settled down a bit. We need to vamoose before Dr. Vaughn or one of his colleagues comes down here to escort us to what they think would be a safe place. There should be enough room in there for you to pack what’s left.”
The sound from the monitor recovered long enough for a reporter to question how and what bombs could be involved, and then it returned to a muffled stutter.
“Rube….” She drew a deep breath as she turned back toward the dresser to open another drawer. “What if it is bombs? Shouldn’t we plan to go under shelter?”
“We don’t need to worry about radiation. Fallout is produced by the rubble that’s blown up into the atmosphere, so nukes popping off above our heads won’t create that.”
Sometimes she had to admit that the human calculator-calendar-encyclopedia she kept company with could prove to be advantageous. “But what if this is just a preemptive strike? They said on the news that if we get hit that could mean ground forces are on the way.”
“No ground forces have shown up in the other places. They wouldn’t be needed anyway to bring a country to its knees.”
Then again, his knowledge could prove to be quite disconcerting.
“Do you have to sound so convinced about that?” Alexia pulled out several pairs of socks to stuff into the duffel bag, and she spied a blue velvet pouch in the corner of the drawer.
“What else would you expect when you rip away the technology of a technologically-dependent culture?”
She inhaled another deep breath and picked up the pouch. It contained her rosary. That article hadn’t been on the list of necessities to bring, but in her uncertainty it had suddenly grown in importance. She stuck the pouch into one of the cargo pockets on her pants as she briefly returned her attention to Reuben.
“The news also said there could be riots.”
“That’s why we’re heading to the swamp,” he replied. “Luckily for you, most folks don’t put the words safety and swamp in the same sentence.”
Her gaze leveled at him as she stuffed the garments into the bag. “But what about you? You’re not planning to stay with us.”
“My home is tucked away deep in the back woods. By the time the barbarian hordes get that far, they’ll have been thinned out considerably.”
She wished he hadn’t used that terminology. And despite his ability to irritate her at times, she found her concern shifting specifically to him. “But what if something does happen before you get home?” She shoved the clothes around in the bag to confirm how much room was left.
“I can still make it.”
Alexia straightened and stared at him. His response had been matter-of-fact, and she wondered if that confidence was rooted in his skills, in something larger, or both.
She stepped over to the closet and opened it. “You know, if something should happen before you get too far, I’m sure Mѐre would invite you to stay with us.”
“Invitation already extended.”
But Reuben didn’t confirm he had accepted it. She grabbed an olive, outback-style hat from the top shelf of the closet, which she hung from her neck by its cord. Next she picked up an oversized, striped green stadium blanket and was barely able to cram it into the duffel bag, especially without crushing some of the food. “I don’t think I can fit any flip-flops in here.”
“We’ll put them in my bag.”
She snatched the blue, rubbery footwear and handed them to him. As he stepped toward the gear bag, he added, “And a jacket. It can still get into the fifties at night, you know.”
Alexia pulled a tan suede jacket off its hanger in the closet, and as she closed the door she noticed how he had to work the flip-flops into his gear bag. Where the devil did he think they were going to keep her jacket if they wound up walking?
That prospect caused her heart to begin pounding, and she had to draw in another calming breath.
Reuben did seem to scrutinize the coat for a few seconds as he zipped the bag shut again. “We can probably fold that on top of the duffel bag.”
She tried his suggestion without much success. The jacket seemed to clump and hang over wrong and try to fall off. But he stepped over to her and refolded the coat and got it to nestle neatly within the handles of the duffel bag. That was supposed to be helpful, but it was just another reason she could find him irritating.
“That should be it, then.” He strode back to the gear bag and picked it up. “We’ll swing by an ATM on our way out and withdraw as much cash as you can, assuming there’s not already been a run on them. It might be useful for a while in case something should happen.”
Alexia noticed how they kept referring to something. It was though they were trying to avoid the event by not daring to identify it directly. She slipped the straps of the duffel bag over her right shoulder and started to step toward the desk to grab the PIT phone and turn off the monitor and lights.
Before she could, however, everything – the light in the kitchenette, the monitor on the wall, the digital clock beside her bed that had just displayed 7:18 –shut off. And immediately an eerie silence filled the room.