Keepers of the Flame: Excerpt 2

Here’s a second excerpt from my upcoming novel, Keepers of the Flame. Here, an emperor sets the events of the novel into motion.

—-

First Citizen Richard Gabriel Charles had seen much evil in his sixty-odd years on Earth. But there was still a special kind of horror in seeing a child butchered like so much meat, her flesh harvested, her bones scraped clean.

And humans did this.

Humans.

Shaking his head, Charles stood up and forced himself to look away. The air smelled of greasy smoke and sweet roasted flesh. A nearby photographer was turning a sickly shade of green, though to his credit he continued to document the scene. The Secret Security detail remained as impassive as ever, more concerned with his personal security than bearing witness to barbarism they had, no doubt, seen before.

Charles surveyed the blackened earth. This used to be a farming community. Bandits had swept through the area, robbing, raping and pillaging everything in their path. They herded animals into barns and butchered them and set the remains alight. They locked families in buildings and brutalized them and set them alight. They emptied granaries and trampled growing crops and set them alight.

The village was widely scattered. Most of the farmers had kept to themselves, keeping miles and miles of empty land between them. The bandits had taken the farmers one by one, overwhelming each through sheer weight of numbers.

But as the bandits neared the village, someone—a citizen, armed with a service rifle—had gotten off a warning and engaged the bandits. Other citizens stirred, grabbing their weapons and mounting an impromptu defense. They’d held the bandits in place long enough for the Army to arrive in force.

The outlaws tried to flee. Some hid, most died, but none had escaped.

A uniformed Army colonel approached, staying at a respectful distance. Charles nodded at him, and Charles’ Secret Service detail let him pass. The officer moved to salute, then snapped his hand down before Charles could berate him about field procedures.

“Sir, I think we’ve rounded up the last of the bandits.”

Charles nodded. “Good. How many did you find?”

“We killed thirty and wounded eighteen. Five prisoners.”

Charles sneered. “Prisoners. Really.”

“Sir, they surrendered to us.”

“You can prove the survivors committed this atrocity?”

“They were with the main body of bandits, right before they broke off. If they didn’t participate, they sure as hell didn’t try to stop it.”

“Interrogate them. Find out what they know. Then hang them.”

“I thought there’d be a court-martial. Sir.”

“Naturally. And, naturally, the court-martial will find them guilty of murder, arson and banditry. The sentence will be death by hanging.”

The soldier opened his mouth, as though to say something, then nodded. “Yes sir.”

“Very good. Now, what can you tell me about the bandits?”

“Disorganized bunch of riff-raff, sir. They had spears, clubs and muskets. Typical wasteland shi—er, wasteland equipment. Not much training. When I sent planes overhead they got frightened and bunched up. Made them easy targets for the air strikes.”

“Typical bandits, then.”

“Yes sir.” He frowned thoughtfully. “They aren’t local.”

“Oh?”

“My men and I, we’ve been tracking this bunch of bandits for a while now. They used to hit isolated caravans and homesteads out in the country. They were first reported near Kenkakee and were moving steadily eastwards. The Kenkakee survivors said they came from the west.”

Charles stroked his chin. “From Illinois.”

“Yes sir.”

“Interesting. Thank you, colonel. That will be all.”

The Secret Service team escorted Charles to his car. He’d seen enough. It was time to return to Washington and prepare a policy response. As the vehicle bounced and jiggled down the broken trail to the designated airfield, Charles leaned into his hard seat and accessed his ebrain.

By Cascadian—modern—standards, it was practically an antique. But it was the finest American technology could yet manufacture, and more importantly linked in via satellite to New America’s National Information Network and nowhere else.

The first thing he did was to check his secure email, projected directly into his retina. Much of it was routine stuff. A request for increased stationery budget in the Executive Building (this was the third such request of the year, and if they couldn’t get it right the first time why would the third make a difference?). The latest report on trade with Africa (Cape Town was clamoring for more American military technologies to keep out the North African hordes; their asking price was a bit more than what the tech was worth, so American diplomats should keep squeezing for every last cent). A memo from Department of Science and Technology explaining their latest failure to reproduce Old World nanotechnology-based implants (the Cascadians had already cracked that puzzle; DS&T ought to be talking to the Central Intelligence Agency)…

And speaking of the CIA, they sent him another report too. Concerning special activities to the west. Two minutes into it he sighed heavily. That one needed his undivided attention, when he returned to Washington. He filed that mail away and turned his attention to other things.

A blank window opened. Thought by thought, word by word, he composed an email for his inner cabinet.

Have discovered casus belli for Operation Western Dawn. Make all administrative preparations and organize a meeting at the Executive Office Building by the end of the week.

Browsing half-mindedly through the other emails, he smiled slightly to himself. It was time for civilization to reclaim an abandoned America.

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