Updates: Publishing Schedules and Future Stories

There comes a point in a writer’s life when he’s ready to make the transition from hobbyist to professional. And I think I’ve taken another step closer.

In 2013 I wrote an experimental novella that marries Western gunslinger tropes and Chinese wuxia traditions, with a very hard take on steam technology. A couple of weeks ago I revised the story and submitted it to a leading independent publishing house. Today I’m pleased to announce that it has (tentatively) been accepted for publication and is currently being edited. More details will follow as the situation firms up, but I can say that I honestly never expected that story to see the light of day outside of my self-published portfolio.

In other news, I’m moving into the final phase of editing for my upcoming novel, titled NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS. This is Book 1 of the Covenanter Chronicles, conceptualised as three trilogies. The series takes many urban fantasy tropes and places it in the context of a decades-long War on Terror, with covert government operators using unobtanium-powered magic to battle terrorists and conspiracies that tap into occult forces to further malicious agendas, set in a world that may have forgotten its gods though the gods have assuredly not forgotten the world. I do not anticipate this series to be self-published. Given that it throws so many science fiction and fantasy tropes together I am fully confident that the only way this book can reach appropriate audiences if it is entrusted to the experts and leaders who have gone before me in the field of SFF. And given the religious allusions in the series it is likely to be the only way to sustain this series in the long term.

At the same time, I’m also writing my next novel. I can say that this is a standalone work, a (reasonably) hard space opera set in the 25th century, with a slated completion date of December 2015. At this point I can say that it involves starships wielding ravenous death rays of stupendous range and fusion-powered missiles numbering in the thousands, Space Marines whose ultra-high-tech armor  and ludicrous armaments belie the humans within, and an interplanetary romance that dares to defy the iron laws of relativity and the speed of light. Also, lasers. Any more details and I fear I will jinx the story. Like the above story, this is not meant to be a self-published work. I could do it if I have to, but my gut suggests that this one would reach its intended audience with a certain publishing house.

Finally, assuming I have the time for it, I intend to publish another experimental story I wrote in 2013. This is a martial arts thriller set in an alternate 1800s based on a little-seen-yet-significant real-world country with multiple competing cultures. This one needs some expansion, but it feels right. This story would likely be published in between NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS and the following work. With a publishing house.

Yes, at this stage I intend to shift away from self-publishing. In the immortal words of Larry Correia, a professional writer’s mission statement should be to GET PAID. To GET PAID means producing quality work, finding an audience who will appreciate these stories, and getting your stories to that audience. Given where I am, with my current capabilities and reputation, I think the best approach to getting paid and becoming a professional writer is to go through an established publishing house and leverage their capabilities.

This does not mean I intend to give up self-publishing altogether. The American Heirs series will be completed. There will be more series to follow, including the revival of Michael Chang. However, self-publishing does require the writer to shoulder the costs of publication. Until I can afford to continue self-publishing, these stories will have to be on hold. And, hopefully, not for too long.

And who knows…at this rate I might just become a full-time writer faster than I expect.

I, ESCHATON is live!

Cyborg2Final-FJM_High_Res_1800x2700

I, ESCHATON is live and ready for sale! The third entry of the American Heirs series, this story picks up where KEEPERS OF THE FLAME left off, taking Master Sergeant Christopher Miller into a new battlefield. To quote the blurb:

Master Sergeant Christopher Miller has returned home from war, but war has come to find him.
The Sons of America are targeting the Wilshaw Foundation, and Miller’s lover, Sarah Grey, is at the top of their hit list. To survive, Miller must go underground with Sarah. But to prevail, they must ally themselves with the enigmatic artificial intelligence that calls itself Eschaton.
An extension of the smart networks that underpin the Republic of Cascadia, the AI offers contacts, resources and the full power of the national security apparatus. But at what price?

I, ESCHATON can be found on Amazon, Smashwords and Payhip.

Observant customers might have noticed the prices. That’s right: I’ve slashed the prices of my stories. Previously, novels were USD$5.99 and novellas at USD$3.99. Now, they are priced at USD$3.99 and USD$2.99 respectively. Plus. if you share my ebooks on Facebook and Twitter via Payhip , you’ll also get a 30% discount. These among are the most affordable military science fiction ebooks on the market; get them while you can.

In other publishing news: I’m about two-thirds of the way through my next novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS. It is a science fantasy novel set in a world populated by daimons and jinn, where specially-trained psions can use divine or infernal materials to reshape reality or themselves. It has cybernetics, reality manipulation, daimonic summoning, high intensity close quarter combat, hacking, and rumours of a coming apocalypse. It’s the first book of an exciting new series, and I hope I can share it with you soon.

I have also begun work on another short story. This one is a military science fiction action story with horror elements, with the setting organically allowing for magic. I can’t say anything else about this, only that just thinking about it makes me break out into giggles. In a good way.

I, ESCHATON ready for preorder!

It is my unalloyed pleasure to announce that the third entry in the American Heirs series, I, Eschaton, is now available for preorder. I meant to make the announcement earlier this week, but I had to sort out no end of formatting issues until today. Here’s a shot of the cover and the blurb:

Master Sergeant Christopher Miller has returned home from war, but war has come home to find him.
The Sons of America are targeting the Wilshaw Foundation, and Miller’s lover, Sarah Grey, is at the top of their hit list. To survive, Miller must go underground with Sarah. But to prevail, they must ally themselves with the enigmatic artificial intelligence that calls itself Eschaton.

An extension of the smart networks that underpin the Republic of Cascadia, the AI offers contacts, resources and the full power of the national security apparatus. But at what price?

I, Eschaton will go live on 4th May 2015 on the wrong side of the International Date LineYou can make pre-orders now on Smashwords and Amazon. When the manuscripts go live, I’ll be uploading a copy on my ebook store.

I, Eschaton marks the halfway point of American Heirs. There are three more stories to go, two novels and a novella. For the time being, though, I’m working on a different story with a different series concept. It’s nothing like what I’ve ever done before, and I’m keeping the details to myself until everything’s ready.

I can, however, reveal the working title: No Gods, Only Daimons

Chapter 1 of I, ESCHATON

The next entry in the American Heirs series, titled I, ESCHATON is almost good to go. All that’s left is the cover. Here’s a preview of what’s to come.

Chapter 1

Special Delivery

Jacques’ timing was perfect.

It was just after two in the afternoon. Office workers thronged the streets, hurrying back to their workplaces from the plethora of coffee shops that dotted Downtown Seattle, many of them with their faces buried in smartphones, tablets, or augmented reality glasses. Jacques studied the crowd, spotting a few making a beeline for 38 Vandemeer Plaza.

The skyscraper gleamed in the sunlight. It was sleek lines and clean glass, shiny metal and unyielding concrete. Modern technology never ceased to amaze him. His childhood memories were of mold-blackened roofs, crumbling walls, streets filled with trash and debris, and packs of ferals that around every corner, waiting for easy prey. It was almost a shame to burn it all down.

Jacques pulled his van into an open spot in front of the tower. Smoothening down his gray deliveryman’s uniform, he reached under the dashboard and flicked three concealed switches. He grabbed the box on the passenger seat and jumped out, locking the vehicle behind him.

Cradling the box to his chest with gloved hands, he pretended it was filled with heavy lead bricks and waddled to the tower, slipping in behind a small knot of white collars. One of them smiled at him, opening the door to let him through. He smiled back.

A series of gantries controlled access to the main lobby. Employees flashed smart cards to pass. Jacques headed for the security desk, where an elderly woman manned a computer.

Can I help you?” she asked.

Ah, oui,” he said, his head just barely clearing the top of the box. “I have delivery for Wilshaw Foundation? On floor nineteen?”

She gave him an once-over, and smiled. “Is it a scheduled delivery?”

Ah, yes, I have paperwork here.” He pulled out a flexitab from his pocket, unfurled it to its full length and powered it up. An impressive set of blanks and words filled the screen.

I see,” she said. “Do you need help?”

Non, I can carry this myself. But the gate…”

Of course.”

She got off her chair and emerged behind her desk. She was a very short woman, almost broader than she was tall. Jacques wondered how this…creature…managed to be a security guard. There were no fat people where he lived. There was never nearly enough to go around, and everybody knew fat people couldn’t fight.

Huffing from the exertion, she tottered over to the nearest gantry and flashed her security card over the scanner. The gantry beeped and opened. Muttering thanks under his breath, Jacques eased his way through, keeping up the charade. He studied the signs on the lobby, and called for the elevator that served odd-numbered floors. He’d been living and operating in the Green Zone for a few years now, and he’d always wondered why there were lifts that only served specific floors.

Once again, Jacques’ sense of timing served him well. When the elevator doors opened, a few office workers entered with him. One of them pushed the button for the nineteenth floor. All of them gave him a wide berth, and looked away from his face.

There were a number of tenants on the nineteenth floor. A law firm, an Internet marketing company, a gang of financial advisers. But the main one, the one that mattered most, was the Wilshaw Foundation. Jacques stepped out and turned right, following a woman. She opened the door with her smart card, and he dashed in just before the door closed.

Jacques glanced around the reception area. A white-uniformed security guard stood nearby, his face a portrait of professional boredom. Unlike the one downstairs, this one was armed with a pistol at his hip. The Wilshaw Foundation had upgraded its security over the last month, in response to the Sons of America striking targets across Cascadia. But there was only the one guard.

Hello?” the receptionist said. “Do you have a delivery?”

Ah, oui,” Jacques replied. He eased the box on her desk with a soft groan, and fished out his flexitab. “Please ack-no-ledge receipt here.”

She took the flexitab, opening it up. “What’s inside?”

Jacques glanced at the guard. The guard was still standing there, still bored, still unaware of what was coming.

He would be the first to die.

Death.”

Jacques reached in and pulled out his weapon. The 100-round casket magazine in the pistol grip was heavy, but the weapon was so finely balanced the extra weight made it easier to aim. He swiveled over to face the security guard and thumbed the fire selector to full auto, his off-hand grabbing the forward pistol grip and mashing down the pressure pad for the top-mounted laser sight. The gun still down at his hip, Jacques brought the laser up to the guard’s chest and squeezed the trigger. The stubby suppressor screwed on the muzzle reduced the report to a loud THUDTHUDTHUDTHUD. The guard dropped on his face.

Huh?” the receptionist replied, looking up.

Jacques casually turned around and put a bullet in her face. Turning back, he extended the weapon’s wire stock, brought it to his shoulder, peered through the reflex sight, and put a single shot into the downed guard’s brain. A nearby office worker gasped, dropping a stack of files. Jacques drilled her too, twice in the chest, twice in the face. With no more targets in view, he picked up the flexitab and swiped his finger across the screen. The text window gave way to a phone app.

Entrance secure,” he said, and stepped away from the flexitab.

Backing up against the wall, still aiming downrange, Jacques hit the button that unlocked the doors to the office with his left hand. The magnetic locks released with an audible thunk.

The door opened. Seven men flowed in. All wore black masks, gloves, and goggles. The last man tossed Jacques a balaclava. Jacques pulled it on as suppressed automatic fire erupted around him. Two of the newcomers took up security positions behind the security desk, kicking the corpse away. One grabbed the flexitab while the other plugged a flash stick into the computer.

Uploading worms,” the one with the tablet called.

The five-man assault team surged into the Foundation’s main workspace, suppressed gunfire in their wake, and Jacques followed.

Corpses piled the floor. Blood spattered across the walls and soaked into the carpet. The six men worked the room, gunning down everybody they saw. A young woman popped her head out a door and ate a bullet. A large fat man, seated at a couch, tried to stand, but a shooter stitched him from gut to face. Jacques saw a wounded man push himself off the floor, and rewarded his effort with a head shot. A woman, hiding behind a desk, jumped up at an attacker as he passed. She screamed, arcing her body away from him, throwing awkward, powerless slaps at his face. He shot her off him with a burst to the groin, snarling, and erased her face with a second burst. Another woman curled up behind a couch, whimpering, pleading for the police dispatcher to pick up. Jacques dragged her out and shot her.

Clear!” the assault leader called.

Clear!” Jacques responded.

Past the work zone were a series of private offices. All of them had full-length windows and doors made of clear polymer. Most of them were curtained off. Jacques knew the basics of active shooter response training: run, hide and fight. The two men at reception had sealed off the only escape route. If there were survivors, they would be hiding inside the offices, with some preparing to fight if the intruders broke in.

Which they wouldn’t. The shooters ahead of Jacques lowered their goggles. These were fusion vision goggles, able to combine different vision modes in one. Including ultraband radar. Forming a tight triangle, they stalked the corridors and passages between the offices. Wherever they saw a survivor, they fired through the walls. Plastic splintered and shattered. People screamed and begged. Blood flowed in rivers. Jacques hung back, watching for survivors, checking the bodies the advance party had left behind.

Doors flung open. A man yelled. Eight people burst out of the last two offices, each holding an improvised weapon in their hands: fire extinguishers, a chair, flexitabs. Jacques didn’t have a clear shot, but that was all right. The shooters ahead of him held their ground, unleashing disciplined torrents of steel into the mob, cutting them down with aimed fire. None of the civvies got close.

Area clear,” the leader reported. “No more survivors.”

Proceed with phase two,” Jacques said.

Tearing through the offices, they found a door labeled ‘Information Technology’. Inside were a series of desktops, and a large tower that housed the Foundation’s server. One of the shooters pulled out a tablet and wired it to the tower, while the others took up security positions. Walking over to a window, Jacques peered out to the street below. All was quiet downstairs. Nobody was running, traffic was normal, no sign of police attention. Jacques sauntered into the server room and waited.

Phase two complete,” the man with the tablet announced.

Well done,” Jacques said. “Initiate phase three.”

The shooter disconnected the tablet and put it away. From another pocket, he removed a sticky bomb. He peeled off the back lining, exposing an adhesive resin. He stuck the disc-shaped object on the server, with the business end pointed at the doorway. He turned a dial, setting the proximity fuse to activate in a minute.

The men bugged out. Jacques, with empty pockets, led the way out. The rest trailed, taking turns to booby-trap bodies and corners with more sticky bombs. The team regrouped at the reception desk. There were four new bodies on the floor. Someone had dragged them in from the corridor outside. Jacques looked askance at the nearer of the two shooters on security.

Witnesses,” he said, shrugging.

Jacques nodded. “Good. My flexitab?”

The shooter returned it to Jacques.

The eight men left the Foundation, heading into a nearby stairwell. Eight duffle bags awaited. They grabbed one each and tossed in their masks, weapons, gloves, ammo, everything that made them stand out. Then they headed down the stairs, as fast as their legs would take them.

Twenty floors down, they were sweating and breathing hard as they emerged into the basement car park. A black van was waiting for them, the engine purring. The men climbed in, with Jacques taking the passenger seat.

All in,” the assault leader said. “Roll.”

Rolling,” the driver acknowledged, and drove. Jacques leaned against his seat, breathing deep, letting the air conditioner cool his face.

Up on street level, Jacques pulled his flexitab from his pocket. He closed the dummy screen and opened another app. The screen dissolved to black, displaying a single red button. Jacques checked the reception. Full strength. He took a deep breath. Let it out. Pushed the button.

A block away, the street erupted in flame and steel.

Price revisions for Payhip and Keepers of the Flame

One of the benefits of direct ebook sales is that I get to enjoy very high royalties. 95% from Payhip, all of it mine. This is a stark contrast to the 45% I get from Amazon and Smashwords after the IRS takes their cut. What this means is that I can offer deeper discounts on Payhip than other platforms without actually losing money.

Novellas on Payhip will now be priced at USD$2.99, and novels at USD$4.49. In addition, if you share the purchase links on Facebook and Twitter, you will get an additional 30% off. If you haven’t already, you can pick up American Sons, Keepers of the Flame and my standalone novella At All Costs at far lower prices than my other distribution platforms.

In addition, I’ve also adjusted the price of the paperback version of Keepers of the Flame. Previously, it was USD$15.99. Now it is only USD$12.99. You can buy it here. The initial 5-star review has been very positive. To quote:

“Keepers of the Flame is akin to 40 different cameras following 40 different characters taking photographs of how the same overall event proceeds. And it does not feel nearly as disorienting as it sounds, since the progression is coherent though the perspectives constantly change…In seeing events unfold from multiple differently biased sources, it becomes possible for the reader to attain what feels like a form of objective view on the situation depicted in the novel. And it is, indeed, a very precisely described view.

“…[A]t times the words seem to disappear, their place being taken by a high definition video of the story; yet it never devolves into purple-prose territory. …[I]t feels like how you would naturally take in details from your surroundings – never so few as to be unaware to them, never so many that the framerate of the video is compromised by its resolution.”

You can think of it as an action movie in the form of a novel, with the occasional digression into politics and philosophy.

In other writing news, I am planning to create a newsletter specifically for book releases, and will be implementing discount codes and preorders in the future. This means that if, for whatever reason, you prefer Amazon or Smashwords, you, too, will enjoy discounts at a later date.

Finally, I’m working up edits for the next entry in the American Heirs series. It is a novella that takes place about a week after the climax of Keepers of the Flame, and I am aiming for publication at the end of March. More details will be forthcoming in the future. But for now, I can share with you the title:

I, Eschaton.

Sidestepping #VATMESS: My new approach to ebook pricing

Books are my life. I spent my childhood in and out of libraries and bookstores, exploring the worlds and ideas of countless thinkers and writers. Today, books are my lifelihood, serving simultaneously as research material, entertainment, study guides, teachers and companions. Books made me who I am today, showing me worlds beyond this one, pointing to futures yet born and ill-lit histories, whispering hints to build bridges between today and tomorrow.

I believe in a world where books are cheaply and readily available. I believe in a world that values literacy and education, where the sum of human knowledge can be found at one’s fingertips. I believe in a world where technology can synergise with business and art. I believe in a world where artists can be paid fairly for their work, where readers can access high quality books at reasonable prices, where entrepreneurs need not pay unreasonable tax burden to enjoy the fruit of their labour. I believe that in this lifetime humanity has the power to make the first steps towards this new information revolution.

I believe.

The new Value Added Tax threatens to undo all this. Previously, the European Union charges Value Added Tax based on the location of the seller. Now, VAT is charged according to the location of the buyer, and sellers are required to harvest the buyer’s data for VAT compliance. As TechCrunch notes, these rules present an onerous burden on small busineses–like virtually all indie writers–who now have to handle even more paperwork and reconsider pricing strategy.

As BuzzIndie points out, the new VAT rulings would crush indie writers, entrench major companies thanks to their ability to handle VAT, and open a whole host of legal ambiguities. The result is a #VATMESS that will not go away. Already, Amazon is taking advantage of its position by automatically raising prices for ebooks sold in Europe, and threatening to price-match ebooks should their bots find that an author charges lower prices elsewhere. Mark Coker from Smashwords predicts that the new VAT ruling will place a dampener on sales from Europe.

Yet I believe.

Independent writers like me face a dilemma: absorb the tax burden or pass on VAT to our European clients. From my perspective, it is incredibly tempting to just raise prices to meet the new VAT rulings, since I’m already slammed with a 30% withholding tax from the IRS.

Currently, I make far fewer royalties than my foreign peers. When I sell a book on Amazon or Smashwords, the distributor takes 30% of the proceeds. Of the 70% that remains, the IRS takes another 30%. This leaves me with a royalty rate of roughly 45%. With the new VAT ruling, VAT is subtracted first before all the other subtractions. Going with a European average of 20%, that means my royalties from European sales will hover at around 39.2%.

And I’m not talking about my own tax liabilities yet.

Still I believe.

This #VATMESS is going to take a long time to sort out. But I believe in a world where people do not have to choose between dinner and a book. I’ve had to make that choice too many times to wish it on anybody. And I believe in a world where a man should not have to put up with excessive demands for data and exorbitant taxes from foreign bureaucrats for the ‘privilege’ of doing business. The Internet and the indie publishing revolution promised an end to such nonsense, and I will keep to this.

I believe. And this is why I will be absorbing VAT.

I will not be adjusting the prices of my ebooks on Smashwords to account for a policy I’ve had no say in. Amazon has automatically raised the prices of my ebooks on Europe; when their bots find the lower prices on Smashwords I fully expect them to lower my prices on Amazon automatically. I don’t see a point in investing the time  needed to manually set lower prices on Amazon for each European country to meet different VAT regimes and periodically update them to account for fluctuating exchange rates (I have to think in three currencies when setting prices!) when my European sales via Kindle are practically nil. I’d rather focus my energies on directing European customers to places where they won’t have to pay elevated taxes, such as Payhip.

Previously, I sold ebooks through Gumroad, Sellfy and CoinLock. Neither Coinlock nor Gumroad would help me sort out the #VATMESS, effectively forcing me to maintain huge customer databases, capture addresses and determine how much tax should go to which country in Europe. I do not have the time or ability to do this, so I have closed these avenues of sale. As for Sellfy, I wasn’t too impressed with the marketplace and (lack of) categorisation for ebooks.

Therefore, I have consolidated direct purchases through Payhip. Payhip charges a flat 5% fee of the gross sale price for each transaction through Paypal. It also promises to handle VAT paperwork. It’s a godsend for writers like me, allowing me to focus on writing instead of paperwork, while still earning much higher royalties than the major distributors. My Payhip prices will be inclusive of VAT, so all my customers should see the same price regardless of where they are.

Payhip also allows me to do neat things like social discounts. If you share my Payhip ebook links on Facebook or Twitter, you will enjoy a 30% discount. Here are the links to At All CostsAmerican Sons and Keepers of the Flame.

I hope you will enjoy these stories. Together, I believe we can build a better world, a world where the politicians regret the #VATMESS they have created and small businesses can get on with delivering content instead of paperwork.

RIDING THE RED HORSE is now available!

Another came forth, a red horse. To him who sat on it was given power to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another. There was given to him a great sword.

-Revelation 6:4, World English Bible

RRH1

Riding the Red Horse is online! This ebook, written in the tradition of Jerry Pournelle’s There Will Be War, is a collection of stories and essays concerning the evolution of war. Drawing lessons from history while looking into the future, Riding the Red Horse contains contributions from famous writers like Vox Day, Tom Kratman and Jerry Pournelle, and a smattering of lesser-known ones like Chris Kennedy, Thomas A. May and yours truly.

My contribution to the anthology is a fiction story titled War Crimes. On the joint colony world of Confluence, Lieutenant Desh Horvan stands accused of war crimes in the court of public opinion. Intrepid journalist Josephine Anders interviews him to learn what really happened.

Initial reviews of RIDING THE RED HORSE have been very positive. Quoting from Amazon:

“I am a fan of this type of material and Riding the Red Horse ranks among the best science fiction anthologies of any kind I have read. It is as good as the “There Will Be War” series and is a worthy successor to that series mixing fiction and non-fiction for fans who are looking for a great read. Two stories that standout above the others were Turncoat by Rzasa and War Crimes by Cheah. Excellent stories that illustrate humanity in inhumane and even entirely non-human protagonists and characters. If Castalia House can maintain this level of quality I’ll be reading this series for years to come.” — Michelle

‘“Riding the Red Horse” is a new military science fiction collection from editors Tom Kratman and Vox Day. If the reader is familiar with those two writer/editors than they know what they are going to get with this book; interesting, well-written and thoughtful military sci-fi stories.

‘“Riding the Red Horse” is a well done military sci-fi and military studies anthology, and frankly at $4.99 it is a helluva good value for your entertainment (and education) dollar.’ — Patrick S. Baker

“Easy 5 stars on this one. An impressive collection of fun and well-written military fiction interposed with essays by military thinkers/historians. I was both entertained and informed throughout… The essays are not navel-gazing; when their writers challenge conventional thinking on various topics, they do so with the voice of insight and experience. Their credentials are helpfully explained by an editor’s introduction at the beginning of each entry, for both the essays and the fiction.

“I found a few general “themes” emerging from the interposed essays and military fiction, which are balanced well. One is that the nature of combat is changing. 4th dimensional warfare is upon us. If you don’t know what that means, or if you don’t care but are interested in more exposure to talented military sci-fi authors, this collection would serve as an excellent introduction to both. Highly recommended.” — ‘Sensei’

“[T]his is a first rate collection, but more for the non fiction than the fiction. The non fiction essays by practitioners of various kinds can range from enlightening to quite frightening.

“For the non fiction alone, I would recommend the book as a buy. However little you may agree with them, they will provoke real thought in you… On the fiction side, the stories are consistently serviceable, and occasionally exceptional… I’d rate this a good 4 going on 4.5, and will be looking forward to more along these lines.” — ‘aralman’

Currently in ebook form, Riding the Red Horse can be purchased on Amazon’s Kindle store here. Alternatively, you can also buy it directly from Castalia House here.

I’m honoured to be part of such august company in the anthology. One day, in the not too distant future, I may even be half as good as my fellow contributors.

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.”

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.