The Enigma Strain
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An explosion rocks Yellowstone. A strange disease begins to spread. A supervolcano threatens to erupt.
And none of it was an accident.
A reclusive Yellowstone park ranger is forced into action, teaming up with a beautiful woman from the CDC.
Harvey Bennett isn't a trained killer, but he'll fight for what's right.
And he'll do anything to take down the terrorists behind the attack.
From Yellowstone across the American landscape, Harvey and Juliette must do what it takes to survive, before it's too late.
Grab the first book in the fast-paced action-adventure thriller series today that's been described as "National Treasure meets Indiana Jones" and "the next James Rollins."
"Looking for action adventure books for men? You've come to the right place..."
From USA Today Bestselling Author Nick Thacker, The Enigma Strain is a fast-paced action-adventure thriller with elements of conspiracy, medical, and virus-based post-apocalyptic themes. If you like James Rollins, Clive Cussler, and Preston & Child, you will love the Harvey Bennett Thrillers series.
Release date: November 27, 2014
Publisher: Turtleshell Press
Print pages: 359
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The Enigma Strain
1704, Northwest Territory, Canada
The sound of another exploding tree caused Nikolai Alexei to jump. He could hear the men behind him snickering, but he didn’t turn to address it. It wasn’t worth his time, and it was poor leadership to acknowledge pettiness. He grumbled under his breath and marched forward through the knee-deep snow.
Nikolai enjoyed the nostalgic characteristics of winter. This land reminded him of home; of the countless kilometers of deep black forest, filled with the same animals he used to hunt, the same trees he used to climb, and the same bitter cold he used to long for. He remembered the smells, too – the ripe evergreen scent, the fresh blankets of snow thick enough to halt a horse, and the sheer emptiness of the air.
He knew the sounds as well. The frozen tree sap inside the trunks of the pines would expand, causing the bark and wood to explode. His father had explained it to him on a wolf-hunting trip when he was a boy, and he had often lain awake at night, counting the rippling explosions as they worked their way through the wooded area around their cabin. He was more comfortable in the woods than any of his men, with the possible exception of Lev.
Still, the laughter of the men frustrated him. It wasn’t a sign of insubordination as much as it was a sign of their laziness. For three months they’d made their trek over mountains and across valleys so high and so deep he’d thought they wouldn’t make it to the other side with their entire crew intact. They’d crossed tundras, plateaus, and wetlands, all without losing a man. Their hunting excursions were always successful, and most nights ended around a large bonfire with a deer roasting on a spit. Breakfast was hot soup, and they snacked on smoked meats throughout the day.
Nikolai had to admit that it was, so far, one of the more successful trips he’d been on, and he knew God was smiling on them in this new land. But he knew it made them weak; it made them soft. They had grown fat and sluggish, traveling fewer kilometers every day than the day before. Their energy and excitement had been replaced by restlessness, and their stories and poems told around the fire had devolved into passionless songs.
Without turning around, he called back to the twenty-seven men behind him. “Where is the doctor?”
A short, thin man rushed to his side. Nikolai did not slow his pace. “What is our status, doctor?”
“We are well, commander. We are full, and morale is high.”
"But we move slower each day,” Nikolai said. “We have caught more game than we can eat, and we build fires larger than we can burn in one night. The men are fat, and they are growing complacent.”
“But they are happy, sir,” the doctor said.
“Happiness is as much a curse as a virtue,” Nikolai said, turning to the shorter man. “We will stop and make camp when we next find a clearing. The river is to the north, and we can fish there for as long as we like.”
Nikolai was a man of his word; a man of integrity. He had promised his superiors back in Russia a map of the deep terrain of North America, and he intended to deliver it. His expedition had grown mundane, and it was time to bring it back to life.
“Split the men into crews of two and three,” Nikolai said, “and I will send them out in the morning to chart the area. The comrades will find pleasure in a change of scenery, and I myself will enjoy an excursion of a more solitary nature.”
“So you will wander alone through these parts?” The doctor asked.
Nikolai laughed. “I will take care to not lose myself in the fog, if that is what you are asking. Sometimes a man must wander, my friend,” he said. “But rest assured, we will gather together after three days.”
The doctor nodded and fell in line behind Nikolai. Nikolai was uncertain if this plan of his would do more good than endanger them all, but it was a risk he was willing to take. They had found nothing useful thus far; nothing the motherland would be inclined to return for. Cartography was their stated manifest, but he was under no false pretenses. By moving outward in smaller groups, the expedition could cover more territory and more ground than by moving in a single line.
So far, they had charted the great river to their north all the way from the sea, but they knew that every river began somewhere. Whether it was a lake at the top of a mountain peak or from tributaries caused by glacial melt, he did not know.
And he didn’t care.
Nikolai Alexei was here for one reason, and one reason alone. His homeland sought riches, as did his men. All men sought more than what God had initially blessed them with. It was man’s duty to find what he was owed in this life, with all the more blessings to be bestowed upon him in the afterlife.
This new land was not known for its riches, as it had been settled merely years before, but it was the great unknown that continued to attract new inhabitants, and it was this same force that attracted Nikolai to this opportunity.
1704, Northwest Territory, Canada
The first star appeared in the heavens above him, and Nikolai turned to the line behind him. “Make camp,” he ordered his men. “There is a clearing to our left; we will stay there.”
Immediately, the men filed out from their positions in the line and began to extract poles and tarps from their packs. A few broke away to hunt while others milled about and checked canteen levels.
They were slow, Nikolai noticed. After the last few days’ effort it did not surprise him, but it did not please him much either. It took over an hour to set up the ten tents and build a fire, but no more than ten minutes for the men to begin huddling around it.
Soon the sky darkened, and the moon arose above them, nearly full. Food was prepared, a roasted deer and herb soup, and the men began singing.
Nikolai had had enough. He broke away from the camp and lifted the moose skin parka hood up and over his head. The bitter cold bit into his flesh, and the gentle wind threatened to chill his core, but he didn’t notice. He made for a smaller clearing to the south that he had seen earlier, one with a rock outcropping against a higher mountain cliff. The river they were following had likely cut down into this valley they were currently in, and if he was lucky, it had left some interesting formations for him.
He reached the clearing and scared away a small mammal that disappeared into a hole in front of a tree. He stepped into the open grassy area and looked toward the outcropping. It appeared that the boulders were precariously situated around a hole near the ground, beckoning him closer. As he approached, he could see in the failing light that the rocks were, in fact, surrounding an opening to a small cave.
As a boy, nothing had excited him more than exploring unmarked caves and caverns. His father had joined him in a spelunking expedition once, and together they discovered an underground spring that provided water to the well near their cabin.
He had no light with him, but he ducked inside anyway. Feeling around with his hands and arms, he felt the excitement within him growing.
Tomorrow, he would head here first thing, bringing a torch with him and a few extra men. This was the type of cave that would have made a perfect shelter for one of the native tribes that might call this place home. So far, they had not encountered any such people, but they had no way of knowing if indigenous tribes lived along these rivers or not.
A light appeared behind him, flickering and orange. He could almost feel the heat of the torch as it grew brighter.
“Nikolai?” A voice said, softly. “Is that you?”
It was the doctor’s voice, a little unsure.
“Yes, doctor,” Nikolai said. “Bring the light. I would like to have a look at this place.”
The doctor responded by stepping forward to Nikolai’s side, and he lifted the torch up in front of them.
Scrawled on the wall in front of them were dozens of paintings articulating dancing men and women around fires, hunting trips, and deaths.
So many deaths.
One particularly macabre painting showed a man and woman lying sideways next to one another, their arms crossed as a representation of death. Six children were drawn below them haphazardly as if added at different times in the past.
Nikolai and the doctor gazed at the drawings for a minute, trying to decipher the storyline that had been presented to them. Sections of paintings had been scratched out and painted over as if the original author had changed the story halfway through.
“What does it mean, sir?”
Nikolai didn’t respond. He took the torch from the other man’s hand and continued walking deeper into the cave. A few feet past this first wall, the ceiling expanded, and he rose to his full height. More paintings continued on the walls to his left and right, and arrows were drawn near the floor. Continuing on, the small cavern twisted to the left and ended in a rounded chamber.
He swung the torch around this room, at first looking for a continuation of the path he was on. Finding none, he moved the torch near the floor. Stacks of bones and skulls lay atop one another, of all shapes and sizes. Men, women, and children all lay together, separated into what he assumed must have been families.
In front of these he found baskets made from the sinewy skins of animals, with lids fashioned from skin and bones. The leatherwork was remarkable, and he reached down to grab one. He examined it closer, handing the light to the doctor. Stamped into the sides and top of the basket were designs and symbols that he couldn’t interpret. They swirled around the edges, leaving no section of leather untouched.
“Beautiful,” he whispered. He twisted the top of the basket, finding the lid secured tightly, either by design or from years of rest. He gave the lid a harder twist and felt a pop.
The top of the basket came off, sending dust shooting through the air. He waved it away and dropped the lid to the ground.
He saw what was inside, and only then realized how heavy the basket was. He turned the basket upside down, emptying its contents onto the cave floor. Hundreds of silver coins sprinkled out, bouncing off the rock and rolling around.
“For the glory of...” The doctor said, his voice hoarse.
“I imagine this is the sort of thing we have come here for,” Nikolai said. He scooped up a handful of the silver coins and held them up to the light. “Do you recognize these?”
“No. I have never seen such a design.”
Upon the surface of each coin was a remarkably intricate design; either hand carved or stamped. It featured the bust of a native man, and Nikolai could even see the outline of a frown on his face. He was surrounded by what looked like fire, each wisp carefully measured and drawn.
He flipped it over in his hand. The back was a reflection of the front, with the same native man frowning up at them. The fire, however, was markedly absent from this side. In its place were swirls and lines, which looked to be framing the man in the center.
“Fire on one side, wind on the other,” Nikolai whispered. “A dichotomy. What could it represent?”
“What is in the other baskets?” the doctor asked. He reached for another, trying at first to lift it from the ground. The basket slid a few inches toward him but stayed on the floor. “I believe this one is considerably heavier, sir,” he said.
Nikolai reached down and twisted the lid free. He pushed the basket over with his right foot and watched as silver coins fell out. Reaching down, he could see that the same design as the other coins appeared on these as well.
“Doctor,” he said, “return and wake the men. Bring them here, and bring the satchels as well. There are at least twenty of these baskets spread throughout this room, and if each contains even a portion of what is in these first two, it should be more than enough to justify a return home.”
Nikolai wasn’t greedy, but he felt the stirrings of excitement growing in his chest. He would share this treasure with his men without question, but he needed to be sure of what he had found. He moved to the back of the cavern, now standing directly in front of the pile of skeletons. Reaching down, he lifted the lid on one of the baskets that had been placed close to the back.
More dust spread outward from the freshly opened container, and he blinked and waved it away with his free hand. He moved the torch down closer to the top of the basket and peered inside.
It was empty.
He frowned and reached for the basket nearest it. He lifted the lid on this one as well.
Empty, save for a few small tools.
He considered calling the doctor back, but stopped himself. Why would they bury them here, he wondered. Why would they place a nearly empty basket next to a tribute to their deceased loved ones?
Had someone come before him? Someone who had found the baskets and emptied some of them? Again, it didn’t make sense. Anyone who had explored this came before them would certainly have emptied it of its treasures. They would not have left anything behind of value, and they wouldn’t have put the lids back on each basket.
But these two baskets were empty, right? He looked again, this time lifting one of the baskets to eye level and turning it. He could see the fine sinewy lines of the bottom, woven together and sewn shut. A few tools shifted at the bottom; what looked like a few small pipes, a bowl made of clay, and some other small sticks and rocks.
He coughed and realized for the first time how thick the dust in the air had become. Waving his hands, he backed away from the burial site. He coughed again, and this time, felt his lungs strain with the effort.
He turned away from the room and walked back upward until the cave ceiling closed in on him. He stepped out of it and into the small clearing. Night had fallen completely, and millions of stars peered down on him. He fell to his knees, trying to catch his breath. He sucked in air, forcing his lungs back open again. He struggled forward, then rolled onto his back in the snow. Nikolai calmed his thinking and shut his eyes.
Breathe. He willed himself to breathe, in and out, until he felt the dust clearing from his system. His breaths became normal and controlled.
Just then, he heard the footsteps of his men running toward the clearing. He stood and brushed the snow from his back. He lifted his head and walked towards the edge of the woods. “Have you retrieved the satchels?”
“We have, sir. Where is the cave?” The voice was Lev’s, the huge bear of a man tumbling out of the woods first. His eyes were wide, and his breath was heavy, pouring out of his mouth and nose in great bursts. Nikolai enjoyed the man’s company, as Lev was the only one among them who was as dedicated a naturalist and as knowledgeable as he. He bore scars on his face and body from a lifetime serving his homeland as a soldier and a woodsman.
Nikolai pointed behind him, and Lev nodded. The group, fifteen men in all, trotted by Nikolai and entered the small cave. Soon, three of them emerged with their satchels heavy, filled with the burden of the jingling coins. The ordeal took only thirty minutes, and they joined Nikolai in the clearing when they were finished. Only four of the baskets had been empty, including the two Nikolai had found.
If the men were jovial before, they were near ecstatic now. They knew their leader was a fair and honest man, and they would each get a good portion of the discovery. The primary cartographer among them, Roruk, began scratching some notes into a small notebook he had produced from his pocket. He measured the edges of the clearing, counting each step as he went and drawing them into this book.
When he finished, he nodded to Nikolai, and they returned to the main camp.
“We leave tomorrow,” Nikolai said as the other men gathered around. “We have added too much weight to continue the expedition for now, and it will be a burden already with the water and food we must carry with us.”
Cheers erupted around the fire, and the men broke into song. Nikolai wondered how men could be so merry without the aid of spirits and drink, but he did not stifle the mood.
He silently stepped away from the doctor and Lev and entered his tent. As the leader of this expedition, he shared it with no other man, and he enjoyed the privilege. He slipped off his parka and nestled onto his cot.
The noise around the campfire grew, but Nikolai could hardly hear it. He felt as if his mind was on fire, as if his head was being held above a pot of boiling water. He started to sweat, and his hands and arms began to itch. Nikolai struggled to stifle the burning sensation, and he considered calling out for the doctor’s aid. Before he could, however, he drifted into a welcome and deep sleep.
1704, Northwest Territory, Canada
Nikolai awoke the next morning to an odd sound.
Pure, pristine winter silence. He recognized it immediately, as it brought him back to his youth. He had not heard the sound since they had left Russia, as moving with a group of almost thirty men guaranteed that every moment would be filled with some sound or another. It was as if the heavy layer of white powder surrounding the camp had sucked from the air every last sound wave. They were in a noiseless vacuum. Most men resisted this kind of silence, for it was more intense than any other. Nikolai would normally have welcomed it with a sharp sniff and a deep, satisfying sigh, but this morning should not have been so quiet.
He threw the blankets off and stood next to his cot. His head brushed the top pole of his tent as he walked forward and opened the flaps. The fire had long since diminished to cold ash, but wisps of charred dust rose through the gentle breeze, giving the appearance of smoke. The cluster of tents was situated in a circle around the fire, like spokes on a wagon wheel. His tent was the northernmost one, and separated from the others on each side by a few rows of trees. The tents were traditional, two vertical poles and a horizontal one resting atop them, with canvas stretched over it and staked into the ground at the corners. Each of the tents was immaculately placed, perfectly spaced, and set up to look exactly the same. His men were good men, Nikolai knew, and they cared deeply for these small details. He moved to his left, to the doctor’s tent.
“Doctor? Lev?” He called into the tent. He entered, finding the two men on each side of the tent still sleeping beneath mounds of blankets and furs. He kicked at the doctor’s cot with an unlaced boot and asked again.
Hearing nothing in return, Nikolai pulled the blankets from the man’s head. The outermost blanket, a thick woven fabric, caught on something, and he struggled to pull it down. After a more forceful tug, the blanket snapped back from the man’s head. Nikolai stumbled backward as he saw what lay in front of him. The flesh of the doctor’s face had been eaten away by a rash, red boils covering the surface of his skin. A portion of the skin on the poor man’s forehead had been stuck to the blanket, glued there by dried tissue and blood. The doctor’s eyes were open, but they were glazed over in death.
Nikolai instinctively lifted a hand to his mouth, struggling to hold back the vomit he felt rising in his throat. He pulled the blanket away completely, and found every inch of exposed skin on the doctor’s body covered in similar boils. He moved towards Lev’s cot and lifted his blanket as well.
More rash. More boils.
Lev had also passed sometime during the night. Both men lay peacefully in their blankets, looking upward at the ceiling of the tent with blank eyes. Nikolai moved away, closing the flap behind him. He looked down at his own hands and arms and noticed a rash had spread and thickened over most of his skin.
It was no longer itchy, but he felt the heat radiating from his skin on the places around his body that had been infected. Last night it was just his hands and arms, but now he felt it over his shoulders, neck, and upper back.
He checked two more tents, finding the same horrifying faces staring up at him in each one. All of his men — all twenty-seven of them — were dead.
He was the sole survivor in an expedition that was now thousands of miles away from home, in one of the remotest places known to man.
Another tree cracked in the distance, and he knew that winter was about to set in for good.
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