Keepers of the Flame: Excerpt 3

In Keepers of the Flame, counterterrorism missions in the Yellow Zone fall to the men and women of the Combat Studies Unit. Here’s a taste of how they operate…and of the war to come.

Men would die tonight. Master Sergeant Christopher Miller felt it in his blood. With a little over a decade and a half in the military, half that in the Combat Studies Unit, Miller developed a sense for times like this.

The only question was who was going to do the dying, and it sure as hell wouldn’t be his brothers.

He and his partner, Staff Sergeant Frank Goh, slouched their way to the end of the street, wrapped in ragged gray coats older than themselves, older than the Apocalypse. They plodded with the gait of broken men, marking off time until their battered, abused bodies died with the rest of their souls. Their faces were streaked with dirt and stage makeup, and before the mission they had applied liberal doses of eau de drunk that smelled like a cross of toxic mushroom booze and human waste.

All of which would soon go down the drain.

A flash shower broke the overcast sky. The weather was becoming increasingly unpredictable these days; the Met Service had called clear skies for the whole week. Miller clutched his scavenged coat more tightly around himself. Cold rain splashed through holes in the coat, soaking him through. More importantly, the rain was washing off his makeup and tamping down his smell. And no drunkards would willingly wander through the rain, not in this part of town, not when shelter was plentiful here in the Yellow Zone, in the empty husks once called homes and shops. Not many people willingly lived in this part of Kelowna, not any more.

Nevertheless, the two men meandered their way down the street. At a T-junction, warm yellow light spilled from the windows of a squat two-story building. Electric light, by the Lord, backed by the faint, alien hum of a generator. Atop the front door, a sign read ‘MA RE DY BR W R’, the missing letters long gone. Two hard young men stood at the door, carrying slung rifles and wearing tactical vests. Miller guessed they were sixteen, maybe eighteen, but their deep-lined faces and empty eyes made it hard to tell.

The official census said this part of the Yellow Zone was abandoned. All that meant was that while the area was officially claimed by the Federal government, they hadn’t gotten down to restoring power and essential supplies yet.

Nature abhorred a vacuum. It was the way of things. With the government having all but left the Yellow Zone alone, someone else moved in instead.

They called themselves the Sons of America. The Unit learned of them over a year ago. Almost smashed them, too. But they didn’t get all of them, and intelligence kept pointing to SOA offshoots sprouting in the forgotten nooks of the Yellow Zone.

And wherever the SOA appeared, Miller and his men followed.

The guards keyed in on the approaching operators. The one on the left, the shorter one, nudged his partner and whispered in his ear.

To Miller’s right, Goh slurred something incomprehensible and put a bottle to his lips. Miller laughed too loudly. Wiping off with a shredded sleeve, Goh passed his bottle to Miller. Both men weaved their way onto the road. The commotion caught the guards’ attention.

“Hey you!” Shorter shouted. “You two! Stop!”

They ignored him, crossing the street.

The guards weren’t completely stupid. The shorter one approached them while the taller one stayed put. Miller noticed both men were wearing earpieces with wires that trailed down their necks and the backs of their vests. They had radios.

The Unit had expected radios. Didn’t make things less tricky.

Shorter held up a hand. “That’s far enough.”

Goh staggered forward, spewing liquid all over Shorter’s vest. “What the fuck?” Shorter said, taking a step back.

Goh’s callsign was ‘Sportsman’. Before joining the Unit, he was an official Army athlete. His last post was the karate team.

Sportsman slipped right up and slammed his right palm into the guard’s chin and his knee into his groin, while simultaneously grabbing his shoulder with his left. Latching on to the target’s head, Goh swept out his right leg and spun him counterclockwise, smashing his skull against the road.

Which cleared Miller to act. Tossing the bottle aside, his left hand dove under his coat and to his right shoulder, touching a hard plastic grip. Shuffling to the left, he snapped out his weapon. It was an M92 Personal Defense Weapon, not much bigger than an oversized pistol, fitted with a suppressor. He snicked the safety down a notch and raised the gun one-handed. Through its reflex sight, he saw Taller’s mouth dropping, his arms scrambling to raise his weapon, the red crosshair framed against his chest.

Miller fired twice, so quickly they almost sounded like a single shot, like a prolonged cough. The M92 was loaded with 7.92mm subsonic ammo. Coupled with the suppressor screwed on the muzzle, the rain dampening sound even further, and all Miller heard was the M92’s bolt clacking back and forth.

As Taller slumped against the wall, Miller brought his right hand up, hooking his thumb and index fingers around the foregrip just forward of the trigger guard, and put a third bullet into the target’s brain.

Miller glanced at the other guard. Goh had slapped on two pairs of snap-cuffs on him, one for the wrists and one for the ankles. Maybe he’ll live, maybe he won’t, but no sense leaving things to chance.

“Front entrance clear,” Goh said, activating his in-head communications implant. The report wasn’t just for Miller. It was for the rest of the Unit operators on the scene.

Timing was everything now. Miller extended the PDW’s stock, bringing it to the shoulder, and shucked off his coat. Under it was a low-profile chest rig. Goh did the same, drawing his own M92. Keeping low, both men stacked on the front door. From a pouch on his rig, Goh extracted a door knocker, a small explosive charge designed to blow out locks and doorknobs. He hooked it on the door knob and both men stepped clear.

Two black vans quietly drove up on either end of the street. Behind Goh, Miller saw the doors open, revealing three operators. The rest of Miller’s team, Sergeant First Class Charles Jackson, SFC Bill O’Neil and Staff Sergeant Nick Ng, dressed head to toe in black assault gear and carrying suppressed M146A4 assault rifles. Miller felt distinctly underarmed and underprotected, but only for a moment. The operators stacked up at the window, preparing sledgehammers and nine-bangers. Another four-man team formed up on another window behind Miller.

An operator grabbed Miller’s thigh, deliberately squeezing twice. Miller nodded. O’Neil squeezed Goh’s leg, and Goh nodded too.

“Stand by, stand by,” Goh said, holding up the charge’s clacker in his left hand. Miller and Goh looked away from the door.

“Three, two, one—MARK!

Goh squeezed the clacker. The door blew inwards with a puff of smoke. At the same time, the other operators smashed the windows and tossed in nine-bangers. As one, they poured in through a riot of noise and light.

In another life, the building was a microbrewery. Tonight’s targets had repurposed it to their uses. They had knocked down most of the interior walls on the first floor, leaving a large empty space. A giant omniprinter churned away at the far end of the room, powered by a nearby biofuel generator and controlled by a tablet on a nearby table.

There were six targets. One guy watched the tablet, one kept an eye on the printer, and the other four were packing crates and stacking them along the walls. As the stun grenades erupted, they flinched away.

“CDF! CDF!” Miller yelled. “GET DOWN! GET DOWN! DO IT NOW!”

Two targets were manhandling a large crate before the operators came in. One of them dropped his end, and it smashed into his feet. He yelped, falling on his ass. Two operators raced in, securing the duo.

The rest of the team took up the slack, racing to dominate the room. One guy caught the message and got on his knees. Another, a little slow on the uptake, stood around gaping. An operator spun him around, shoved him against a wall and cuffed him. A third man tried to resist. Jackson punched the muzzle of his weapon into his sternum and butt-stroked him to the ground, leaving him for Ng to search and cuff.

Miller tracked the last one through his sights. The right hand dove for the tablet. The other was hidden by the rest of his body, but reaching for the waistband. Miller raised his sights, took the pressure off the trigger, and with a sharp metallic BHIM the man’s head vanished in a red cloud.

Miller indexed his finger on the frame of the PDW.

“Clear!” Jackson called.

“Clear!” Miller replied.

Moments later, the prisoners were trussed up and consolidated in the middle of the room. While an operator watched them, the others circulated around the building, tearing everything apart and gathering anything that seemed remotely of intelligence value. The term of art was Sensitive Site Exploitation.

Miller examined the corpse. No signs of life, but no sign of a weapon either. Miller patted him down. Nope, no weapon. He was reaching for a plain flash stick.

“Shit,” Miller muttered. After a final, fruitless check, he looked up and yelled, “Hey, who shot this one?”

An operator ambled up to him. It was one of the newbies, a Sergeant Gary Powell. “I did, Pagan. What’s up?”

“He wasn’t armed.”

Powell paled. “No shit?”

Miller held up the stick. “He was going for this.”

“Damn. God damn.”

Miller handed the stick to him. “Write it up. Take photos. You thought he was reaching for a weapon, correct?”

The young operator nodded, speechless.

“Make it clear. You have a shit ton of paperwork to do now.”

“He was an enemy combatant—”

“You and I both know he’s SOA, but his buddies will say we killed unarmed civilians. We have to be able to call bullshit on their propaganda.”

“I, I—”

“You pull the trigger, you carry the weight. Shit, if I’d shot him I’d be doing it right now.” Miller lightly patted his shoulder. “Look, this is not a fuck-up, okay? Shit happens, and we can talk about it later. Right now, I’m saying, we’ve got to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”

“Yeah, okay. Thanks, Top.”

Miller nodded. “Good man.”

Powell pulled out a small digital camera and started taking photos. Miller got out of his way. At that point, the omniprinter beeped. Miller walked over and popped the lid. Inside was an odd collection of polymer and metal parts. Miller recognized them immediately.

“What’s baking?” Jackson asked.

“Everything you need to assemble an M38A1 assault rifle,” Miller replied. “Just like what the guards outside were carrying.”

“I saw M38s in the crates too. Seems our friends are looking to standardize their weapons.”

“You’d think guerillas like that would be trying to print M146s. They’re the most common rifle in Cascadia.”

“M38s are pretty common too.”

Miller frowned, putting his hands on his hips. “Yeah, but that’s the baseline model. This is the A1 version. See that? Folding trigger guard, redesigned folding telescoping stock, modified bayonet mount, improved trigger and pistol grip design. And the M38A1 was developed by and for the New American Armed Forces, especially their Enhanced Mobility Infantry.”

Jackson gestured at the rifle parts. “Cyberpunks broke into the NAAF databases and open-sourced the M38A1 design specs three years ago. This isn’t proof of American support.”

“Not yet.”