The Mayans were right.
For decades, scholars had interpreted, misinterpreted, and reinterpreted the foreboding prophecies of the extinct Mayan civilization, that the world would end on the Winter Solstice of the Mayan year 5000, or, in the common reckoning, 2012. What might happen was anyone’s guess, though most merely interpreted it to be the arbitrary end of a man-made unit of measurement, or dismissed it entirely.
So unconcerned was humanity over the astronomical calculations of a society extinct for centuries, they threw a party at ground zero of the Mayans’ circadian prophecy. A horde of billionaire playboys and trust fund children descended on the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Guatemala, importing modern luxuries, expensive delicacies, and hordes of local servants and wait staff, some of whom bore the blood of those priests whom had commanded the prophetic date carved into stone all those centuries ago.
Just as the debauchery reached its midnight peak, a harsh blue glow filled the sky as a genuine flying saucer appeared hovering over the main pyramid, larger than anything flying made by man, covered in strange glyphs and shedding its light as a glittering dust that flared red and settled over every surface before disappearing, the ship along with it, the entire incident captured thousands of times by the cameras of the present paparazzi and the smart phones of the guests.
Panic ensued. U.S. military tried in vain to contain the incident as the super-wealthy guests fled on their private boats, planes, and helicopters. Most of those that the military captured ended up being their servants and forgotten entourage. The word went out over the internet, and the world speculated over the incident’s meaning, though they did not have to speculate for long. By Christmas of that year, many of the guests had fallen deathly ill, victim to a horrible wasting disease, hemorrhaging blood from every orifice. By the New Year, those that had come into contact with them became ill, even as the original patient zeroes died in agony.
Even worse, the alien plague which would come to be known as the Prophecy Strain did not kill its victims outright. Nearly every victim seemed to die for a time, anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, before awaking again overcome with mindless rage, and a single driving thought to infect others with their contagious rot. Moreover, roughly one in every hundred victims mutated into horrible mindless monsters, some larger than a building, spreading their infection everywhere they went, infecting those they did not eat outright. Different strains of the disease soon showed themselves to create different types of horrors, each more potent and dangerous than the last, all which the sciences of humanity failed to explain or contain.
Yet, not all fell victim to the disease. A small percentage of each human population seemed inexplicably immune to the infection at all, while others whom contracted the disease recovered after a few days, haunted but fortunate. Still, the disease often left its mark on those whom had survived it in the form of strange physical and psychic powers, gifts which left them tainted by association with the plague.
The year 2013 proved a year of great turmoil. The plague spread like wildfire by the travels of the world’s elite, sparing none. Even those immune to the plague could not ignore the teeth, claws, and tentacles of the worst of the infected. The world militaries, national guards, and police forces began an all-out war to contain the infection, committing atrocities of their own against their own populaces in hopes of containing it.
Some militaries actually recruited those Prophecy Strain survivors that had acquired abilities to help. Not only could they often lend their strange and fantastic talents to the fight, but many of them claimed a psychic link to the infected, rooting them out by listening for their “strains” of psychic resonance.
Six months of horror and urban warfare ensued, climaxing in the Summer of Fire. Super-powered horrors, drawn to populations of fresh victims, lay siege to the world’s remaining cities, even as the beleaguered armed forces and their barely trusted auxiliary forces of Prophecy-Strain survivors fought and lost defensive actions one after another as civilization crumbled around them. Finally, desperate governments began nuking their own cities in a futile attempt to stop the plague, heralding the end of civilization.
Governments and infrastructures began to collapse, and humanity had a new thing to fear: itself. Local militias sprung up imposing martial law in many places, while others fractured into gang warfare or fell victim to hordes of raiders. Infection rates reached critical mass and began to fall as populations learned how to deal with infected early on to prevent their mutation: execute them. Society had wholly splintered and began to worry about how it would survive the winter. Things were still bad when the next Winter Solstice arrived and the flying saucer returned, this time with dozens of others just like it, and this time to stay. They sent out a psychic call, described by carriers of the Prophecy Strain as a sort of psychic musical beacon, calling all the infected to them. Monsters began to migrate toward the great saucers, heeding their call. Auxiliary forces long thought stable assets of humanity could not ignore the call, and were forced to attend them as well.
Then the real war started.
Appearing from nowhere in the Spring of 2014, fleets of smaller alien craft of very different design descended upon the saucers, engaging them in aerial warfare and eventually shooting down all of them, though not without their own extensive casualties, as the survivors of humanity could only watch, wonder, and run. The collateral damage continued as the second race took their extermination to the ground. Most agree the latecomers won the fight, though such remains speculation. What they do know is the winners left a network of hundreds of satellites in orbit around earth. These satellites fire white hot lances of superlaser down from the skies on any flying object larger than a toy airplane. Those with enough knowledge to classify it at all called it the Icarus Array, and theorized its creators had placed it in orbit to quarantine Earth and prevent its inhabitants from ever leaving its surface. Unfortunately, their targeting parameters were accurate enough to shoot down anything of human size that could fly, and indiscriminate enough to obliterate any aircraft in the skies, whether harmless or not.
Thus, generations have passed in the shadows and ruins of war, surviving as best they can. Remnants of both alien fleets, now known respectively as the Grey and the Stalkers, inhabit their own pockets of territory where humans fear to tread, and for the most part, seem to leave non-infected humans alone. Whole nations have collapsed and given birth to new societies, nomadic tribes, and city-states, redrawing political maps and alliances in constant competition for dwindling resources. Raiders travel the remaining or rebuilt roads pillaging across the countryside, while in other places fortified societies ranging from tiny fiefdoms to the titanic rulers of the former American Midwest, the URA. Stranger societies include stable populations of Prophecy Strain survivors, some of which share enough traits with mythological monsters such as vampires and mermaids to inspire belief in the supernatural, whether that belief is newly acquired or founded in the speculation that, since the Mayans predicted their arrival, obviously the Grey have been here before.
Even more uncertain remains the fate of Prophecy Strain survivors. A symbol of every horror visited upon the Earth in the past two hundred years, most are feared and driven out of their societies if they are not killed outright upon initial infection. Even if they survive, their erratic psychic connection to the Grey makes them a liability to their society and a target for the Stalkers. Still, those that beat the odds and survive often find themselves in a unique position to make a big difference in the world, for better or for worse.
The Prophecy Strain
The illness first spread at Tikal was engineered not just to have the ideal infection vectors, but also to destroy humanity and rebuild it in a form more suitable to the Grey Men and whatever inscrutable purposes they intended. Its effects on the general populace are common knowledge, though outlying individual reactions vary wildly based on specific genetic markers in a person’s DNA. Whatever the markers are, they go back far enough to have little to no correlation with regard to race or ethnicity except in certain very isolated cultures, leading the few scientists still capable of making the intuitive leap that the Grey Men have been visiting humanity for much longer than the 5,000 years first suspected.
Vector: Airborne, more virulent via touch or fluids, respectively.
Incubation: 1 day
Inhaled or contact. d12d12, target’s defenses do not apply (DC 5). For random determination of infection, roll 2d10 percentile. On a 1-95, the person will become a shambling corpse. On a 96-97, they slowly become a colossal monster. On a 98-99, they are immune. On a roll of 100, they initially sicken, but recover within a few days, manifesting powers. Initial infection: -2 to all actions. Stage 2: -5 to all actions, shocked, and bleeding from every orifice. Stage 3: dead or recovered.
Of the approximate 7 billion people on Earth at the time of initial infection:
Approximately 98% of people became sick with flu-like symptoms, eventually hemorrhaging heavily infectious blood from every orifice, resulting in death usually within a week. The victim’s natural death allowed the disease to fully manifest, reanimating and often mutating the body as an entirely new life form with the appearance of a shambling, flesh-eating corpse. The longer it exists, the less human and more monstrous it becomes, though evidence suggests they do not die of old age, leaving pockets of zombie-like hordes strewn across the world.
Most of the remaining two percent of people exposed prove inexplicably immune to every form of the disease, though not the teeth, claws, and tentacles of the rest of the infected.
Less that one percent of those infected sicken initially in the same way as a majority of the population, but then recover a few days later. In addition, the disease alters them upon their recovery in wildly unpredictable ways. Some become giant, horrific monsters, others find themselves altered physically in minor ways or not at all, but find themselves imbued with strange abilities, the most common of which include natural aptitudes elevated to superhuman levels and psychic powers such as telekinesis, telepathy. Clinical observers often note that, while mostly unpredictable, minor correlations often exist amongst a subject’s genetic makeup, their environment, and their deepest subconscious with regard to how their powers manifest.
In addition, all survivors thereafter have a chance to hear the musical “Strains of the Strain,” a strange, hypnotic, psychic signal most often described as tuneless music, like soothing wind chimes made of light dancing behind one’s eyelids. Some survivors hear it not at all, while others, especially those with psychic manifestations of their own, show a deep attunement to it, to the point where they can use their perception of the Strains to detect other infected and technologies of the Grey Men. This is not often viewed as a beneficial trait, as the Grey Men’s ability to exercise control over mindless infected large and small is a well-documented fact, casting deep suspicion over those overly sensitive to the Strain.
Since the initial devastation of the Summer of Fire in 2013, these percentages have shifted dramatically. Once rare, the genetic trait granting immunity has by survival of the fittest become the norm in every society, with parents watching newborns closely to ensure their survival. Now, two centuries after the initial infection, entire communities exist that haven’t seen exposure to the disease in over a hundred years, and have whole generations of people never exposed to the strain that may or may not carry the trait.
Experts often have speculated the Grey Men have visited Earth before, and they would be right. The Prophecy Strain was not their first experiment, just their most prolific and virulent. As such, other highly specialized strains have been discovered in remote corners of the world.
Those that have recovered from the strain are as varied as they are powerful. Superhuman strength, telepathy, telekinesis, and flight are only the most common powers manifested. Some may hide their powers, some may flaunt them. Some take up service, some rule over petty kingdoms as monarchs or even gods.
Just as varied are the reactions from surviving wasteland societies. Some, such as the massive URA, set them up as servants of the people: state-sponsored superheroes, complete with cape, mask, catchy code name, and line of voucher-ready patriotic merchandise. Other communities vilify and reject them, running them out of town as monsters and horrors, if not stringing them up when possible, especially considering the connection many of them have to the strain.
Many competing philosophies exist regarding prophets, and the place they choose in the world.
-Champions: Prophets have a duty to become paragons of humanity, shining heroes and ideals to drag Humanity out of a post-apocalyptic dark age, at great personal risk to themselves.
-Harbingers: Prophets are the new gods of humanity, and should rule over them as such.
-Assimilators: If Prophets want to be treated as human, they should act like it. They need to do their best to hide their powers and assimilate within normal humans. If not, they shouldn’t be surprised when people turn against them.
-Darwinists: Prophets aren’t human. Not anymore. The laws, rules, and social mores of humans simply don’t apply. They should remove themselves entirely from human society. That said, should human society get in their path, it shouldn’t be surprised when a Prophet tears through them like the natural disaster they are.
Nearly all humans that become infected with the Prophecy Strain become ill within twenty-four hours with severe flu-like symptoms, dying after a few days. Upon death, the real disease manifests, reanimating the corpse in a mindless hunger for the living. Even those that die of other causes, if infected, rise as a monster. Only destruction of the brain can stop them. They do not age or die naturally, and seem to exist only to infect others.
A small percentage of the infected do not just rise, they mutate. Growing, feeding, and growing again, sometimes even assimilating other Infected, they become colossal monsters, building sized horrors capable of wiping out an entire city if left unopposed.
The Stoker Strain:
Vampires exist. Not the supernatural cursed undead as humanity knew them for centuries before the Prophecy Strain, but real flesh and blood. Their specialized version of the strain makes them pale but beautiful, dead yet living. They pass as darkly beautiful and incredibly powerful humans so long as they’ve fed recently upon the blood of uninfected humans. The flaw of their strain shows itself when they’ve failed to feed recently, or when exposed to sunlight or certain other substances, as they appear and act less and less human. On the other hand, all Stokers, despite often manifesting psychic powers, are deaf to the strains of the Grey. Established Stokers track and cultivate humans immune to the strain as a renewable food source, as those already infected with a different strain prove toxic, while those not immune tend to make one good meal, for if they survive the feeding, they quickly become infected with the Stoker strain themselves, becoming a competing predator. Many scholars have studied this strain extensively due to both its stability over long periods of time and its instability under certain seemingly innocuous conditions, sometimes even visiting whole nocturnal kingdoms ruled over by the Stokers, where humans live either in slavery or harmony with their dark masters, and many speculate that the Stokers’ resemblance to the legends is no mere coincidence, but rather proof that the Prophecy Strain was not the Grey’s first experiment on Earth.
At the time of the collapse, America had more guns than people. The Prophecy Strain only increased that ratio. Even with 200 years and people stockpiling weapons, anyone can find a gun without too much trouble; it’s the ammunition that’s tricky.
Thus, while many societies have huge barter markets, and some manage to back their own currency within and near their borders, ammunition has become the universal barter system, with the most common small currency in the form of 9mm and .22 caliber, with .556 and .223 rounds trading higher or lower depending on the demand for automatic weapon ammo. Larger denominations often come in the form of shotgun shells and .44 Magnum rounds, while truly wealthy spend .50 caliber rounds. Spent shell casings may be recycled, and thus serve as loose change in most settlements. Thus, the wealthiest people in the new world tend to be able to manufacture new ammunition or employ (or enslave) someone that does. Banks by default also serve as armories, making robbing one highly profitable if one can get past the most well-armed and supplied guards in civilization.
Most successful long-term societies practice a primarily agrarian lifestyle, with limited access to early industrial-age technology, including steam and internal combustion engines. People have limited access to electricity save in the case of some public buildings and for use in emergencies. Many communities operate CB radio antennae or short-range walkie-talkies for communication, though technologies once dependent on the internet, satellite communication, and GPS no longer work. One technology never in short supply would be firearms. Nearly every community not morally opposed to firearms keeps a full and ready supply. Only the limited availability of many types of ammunition deters their use.
Exceptions to this do exist. The University oligarchy of Champaign-Urbana maintains a local cellular network for its VIP’s, tenured professors, and lead law enforcement. The URA also maintains such networks in its major cities, though only government and law enforcement officials may access it. The URA also manufactures LED-style televisions and projectors in limited numbers, primarily for placement in public areas for dissemination of state propaganda.
Many exceptions to this exist. Primarily, the existence of hyper-smart Prophets allows them to make unique artisan pieces of tech, though such are never able to be mass produced. The technology of the Stalkers and Grey Men present their own difficulties, preventing their technologies from being fully assimilated by humanity.
The United Republic of America:
The largest remaining government in the Western Hemisphere, the URA is a fascist state based in Midwest with full control of the Mississippi and most of its major tributaries, as well as several of the Great Lakes, including Lakes Michigan and Erie. When the East and West coasts of the USA collapsed, largest fragment of American military power coalesced around the major rivers of the Great Plains as a nexus of trade and transportation. Its heavily armed and armored barges and speedboats patrol the waterways, protecting their commerce and exacting heavy tolls from anyone without the proper paperwork. They’ve also begun refurbishing old railways with high-speed military transport. They have major seats of power in Saint Louis and New Orleans, with a heavy garrison in Milwaukee as they continue their siege of the Old Chicago Ganglands.
The URA applies a policy of careful exploitation with regard to Prophets. Any newly infected are quickly sanitized by experienced biohazard teams. Any that survive their infection to develop abilities are quickly categorized, registered, tattooed, hard-wired with radio beacons and remote-controlled detonators, and indoctrinated for the good of the state.
The Kingdom of Belleville
A trading partner of the URA, King Matthew runs his state with an iron fist, though with just and fair judgment. He holds court out of the old Belleville city square, looking over a large open-air market. The kingdom controls large swaths of reclaimed farmland, and has a respectable military. While they could never hope to stand up to the URA in an extended conflict, the King has agreed to an otherwise unfavorable trade agreement which keeps his lands more productive to them under his rule rather than conquered.
The Order of St. Christopher
An order of Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, the Christopherites are dedicated to the patron saint of travelers. Many run waystations, charity inns, or serve as wilderness guides and pathfinders, though most know them best for their teams of road crews. Dedicated to reestablishing ease of travel between human communities, the Christopherites can be seen along major highways and back roads alike, repairing and rebuilding roads one mile at a time. Using a mixture of advanced construction technologies and old-fashioned heavy labor, these brothers and sisters are sworn to poverty, pacifism, and holiness, though the Church does not require celibacy of this new order in these times of underpopulation. Whole nomadic camps migrate along the roads, living off the wilds and accepting what alms they might from communities they pass. They take no part in the conflicts of city-states or towns, and in exchange are left alone. Not even the most brutal raiders dare attack them, as they depend upon the roads the Christopherites keep.
Their vows of pacifism do not extend to infected monsters; for such, they practice a potent form of martial arts using staves, picks, and shovels ideal for taking out the mindless infected so often encountered in the wilds near lost towns.
The order also includes a small elite force of Templars tasked exclusively with protecting them from more powerful non-human threats. These potent combatants train from an early age to master combat against all types of non-human foes, and occasionally even include closely watched Prophets themselves.
The order of St. Michael
Sworn defenders of humanity, the Michaelites represent a militant order of crusaders and zealots vowed to seek out and destroy Infected, the Grey, Stalkers, and nearly all Prophets alike. Whether by sword, assault rifle or flamethrower, the Michaelites seek out any hint of alien infestation and eradicate it at great personal risk to themselves. Of particular interest are those that would style themselves Prophets; the Michaelites view them as wolves in sheep’s clothing, hidden amongst their flock. Upon discovery, such are given one chance to become Penitents, to join the Michaelite inquisitors and hunt down other infected before they are put down.
Long known as the progenitors of the Prophecy Strain and the downfall of humanity, the Grey are as hated as they are inscrutable. While scholars only can speculate on their origins or motives, certain things are common knowledge. The aliens themselves are short, slim, featureless humanoids with pasty gray skin, large, bald heads, black, unblinking eyes, and three digits on each hand, right out of now-validated conspiracy theories of the late twentieth century. Humans generally cannot distinguish physically between different one Grey and another. Poor physical combatants, they avoid direct confrontation with groups of humans. They have no vocal capacity, and remain disturbingly silent whenever encountered, though most contact comes in the form of Prophecy-infected horrors that they control through a psychic link. Their territories inevitably grow to surround their downed flying saucers, guarded by strange traps and horrors enslaved to them by the psychic Strains they use for communication.
For all their technology, all assume they find themselves subject to the limitations of the Damocles Array as readily as any human, and have remained trapped on Earth for the past two hundred years. Prophets often speak of the powerful psychic music they hear inside their mind when within a few hundred miles of their ships, sometimes even succumbing to their call.
The Grey Men’s technology often seems simple, but perform incongruent and inscrutable functions. Most remain inert and harmless for most humans, though the few telepathy Prophets that have dared to study them have often said the interfaces and toggles are psychic in nature, inaccessible to those without a mental sixth sense. Something resembling a ray gun may deliver a painful psychic message or melt a target’s skeleton while leaving him otherwise alive, while a featureless chrome helmet might create an impervious force field around the wearer, or cause the wearer to fall a coma filled with psychedelic nightmares. Regardless, none of their tech seems to follow any sort of logic humans can discern.
While few might claim to understand the Grey, the Stalkers’ motivation shows itself clear to all whom encounter them: destruction of the Grey. When their armada of fast, heavily armed ships showed up in the Spring of 2014, humanity first feared the arrival of a new group of conquerors. The Stalkers quickly showed themselves instead to be a vengeful enemy of the Grey, shooting down their giant saucer ships without preamble, mercy, or regard for their own safety. Suffering heavy casualties, humanity as a whole assumes they were the victors, judging by their placement of the Damocles Array.
The Stalker survivors of the conflict remain on Earth in small camps of hunters near the fringes of Grey enclaves, hunting their Prophet servants and often risking everything for a shot at any Grey master.
To human eyes, Stalkers resemble a cross between large, alien gorillas and great cats, with manes of thick, spiny, semi-flexible growths too thick to be hair and two pairs of eyes, one large and one small. They have powerful hind legs and even more powerful upper bodies. They fight on two limbs or four, often topping ten feet tall when standing on their hind legs but running faster over rough terrain than most horses can in an open field. They possess large claws on their limbs and terrible maws full of fanged obsidian teeth, though as a rule they only bite prey intended for eating, not enemy combatants. This assumes one could encounter them when hunting their next meal, which they do without aid of any technology. When they expect battle or are hunting Grey Men, they gear themselves in heavy powered armor festooned with specialized weaponry, detection equipment, and stealth systems rivaling any human-made camouflage.
As a general rule, Stalkers ignore humans and their settlements, even forgoing preying upon their livestock save when no other game presents itself. If attacked, they do not hesitate to defend themselves, though they only use lethal force against truly threatening opponents, or if they detect a Prophecy infection.
The technology of the Stalkers seems to humans to be straightforward, utilitarian, and geared toward one goal: making them more lethal hunters of the Grey and their horrors. Their more common applications include hyper-resilient powered armor, multi-spectra tracking equipment, and famously lethal weapons, most commonly directed energy weapons and razor flechettes. Moreover, though sized for a large alien predator, most humans recognize the purpose of their individual pieces of tech. Many theorize that their tech would adapt well for humans; sadly, it seems to be universally rigged to explode upon tampering, especially by anyone touched by the Strains.