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.

KEEPERS OF THE FLAME is cleared hot!

Merry Christmas!

KEEPERS OF THE FLAME is (finally!) live at every major retail outlet.

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Here’s the blurb:

In the wake of a global collapse, the Republic of Cascadia promises peace, prosperity and security. But these promises ring hollow in the shanties and slums of the Yellow Zone. The Sons of America, once driven underground, have returned to spark a revolution. Master Sergeant Christopher Miller, team leader in Cascadia’s elite Combat Studies Unit, stands at the front line, ready to seek out and destroy the SOA wherever they appear.

But the SOA is not the only threat Cascadia faces. On the other side of the continent, a new American empire marshals its forces and marches west. Its mission: to restore the old United States, by any means necessary. Cascadia has no place in this grand vision, and there is only enough room in North America for one great power.

As the body count grows and strategems unfold, Miller must confront enemies as cunning as they are ruthless, at home and abroad. Yet while mere humans struggle for supremacy, in the unseen spaces of Cascadia’s digital networks, a machine god awakes.

The ebook version can be purchased at Smashwords and Amazon‘s Kindle store. It retails for USD$5.99.

You can also buy it directly from me through Sellfy (PayPal), Gumroad (credit card), and CoinLock (Bitcoin).

The print version can be found on Amazon and the CreateSpace estore for USD$15.99.

And because this is the season for giving, here’re some discounts!

-If you buy the paperback from Amazon, you get 10% off the list price. In addition, if you buy the paperback you can also get the Kindle version for just USD$2.99.

-If you purchase any of my ebooks from Sellfy (Including Keepers of the Flame), you can get a 30% discount if you share it on social media.

-If you choose Gumroad for ebooks instead, you’ll also get a 30% discount if you use these links for At All Costs, American Sons, and Keepers of the Flame.

These discounts expire on 1st January 2015, so get your copy today!

Keepers of The Flame Excerpt 4

In Keepers of the Flame, the Sons of America rely heavily on the Cascadian information communication networks. The Cascadian Defense Force may be stomping the terrorists on the battlefields of tomorrow — but war is won and lost in the hearts and minds of the people.

The man cleared his throat, drank down a cold glass of ice water, clicked the record button and spoke into the mic. “Test, test, one, two.”

Green bars danced across his laptop screen. He hit the playback button. His voice scrambler app copied his speech into four different tracks, radically modifying octaves and pitch. The overall effect made it sound as if four different people were speaking in an electric monotone.

He adjusted the settings just so, and tried again. Satisfied, he called up his script.

“We are the Sons of America. We are the inheritors of the old United States of America, the keepers of the flame of civilization. For too long, the illegitimate Republic of Cascadia, calling itself the successor state to the North American Union, has oppressed the people, using bread and circuses to distract the masses while the elite live in the lap of luxury.”

He needed an image for this. The SOA insignia, naturally. A coiled rattlesnake against a solid gold background. Above the snake were the words ‘Liberty or Death’; below it, ‘Don’t Tread on Me’. He uploaded it into his composer program and continued with his speech.

“We speak for the disenfranchised. We speak for the forgotten. We speak for the ones forsaken by the uncaring Federal government. We represent the last percent, the people who live in the Yellow Zone. For decades, one administration after another promised to improve the lot of the Yellow Zone, to rebuild from the ashes and fulfil the dream of the Restoration. For decades, they have lied. This is the reality.”

He called up a collage of photographs, cribbed from open source images of CDF operations in the Yellow Zone. Infantrymen rolling out of armored vehicles. Spec Ops personnel blasting down doors and bursting through windows. Bullet-ridden corpses. Women and children cuffed and led away at gunpoint.

“This is reality for the people of the Yellow Zone. They live in the shadow of the guns of Cascadia. The Yellow Zoners merely wish to live in peace. But the one percent can’t abide that. They see it as a threat to their power and their profits. And so they send the Army to crack down on what they call ‘raiders’ and ‘terrorists’.”

The next image was a photo of tall black man, mugging for the camera, surrounded by a bunch of disheveled but smiling kids. Behind them was an omniprinter.

“This is Jason Green. He opened a print shop in the Yellow Zone, helping Yellow Zoners produce the things they need at low prices. He hired Yellow Zoners, giving them work skills and a means of income. But the Green Zoners called him a terrorist. Why? Because his shop wasn’t registered with the Federal government. For that ‘crime’, they sent the Combat Studies Unit to raid his shop, and killed him and two of his employees.”

Another slide show, slower this time. He had to scour the Internet for this segment. First, a shot of the entrance to Camp Archer. He zoomed in on the motto: IN DEFENSE OF FREEDOM. Then a line of men in black hoods and orange jumpsuits, kneeling to face a concrete wall, their hands cuffed behind their back. A woman in a black hood and jumpsuit crammed into a cage half her size. Dogs barking aggressively at detainees strapped to boards. A half-naked man, his face covered with a towel, struggling against anonymous hands while a stream of water splashed against his face.

“And his workers? Here’s where they sent them: Camp Archer in Alaska. There they are beyond the reach of international law. They are given just one hour of exercise a day; the rest of the day they are locked up in tiny cells. The Red Cross cannot contact them, they have no access to legal aid, and they have no contact with the outside world. There, they will be tortured into producing false confessions for kangaroo courts and tried under so-called terrorism laws.

“Jason’s story is just one of many. Too many.”

A line of famous ex-Presidents giving speeches at podia, culminating with the sitting President, Carlos Martinez.

“The Gray House and their cronies have grown drunk with power. Today they target the Yellow Zone. Tomorrow they will come for you, for anyone who dares to question their authority. We will not let this happen. We will be at the frontlines, fighting for you, for your future, for America.

“We are the Sons of America. Expect us.”

The last photo was an obvious choice. An American flag.

He spent the next few hours fine-tuning the video. When it was ready, he uploaded it on Cascadia’s favorite social media websites. He had several dozen dummy accounts, coordinated by a control program he coded himself, and he knew there were others in the SOA with hundreds, even thousands, of sock puppet accounts. The dummies would boost the videos, posting links to them across the Net. Another program would produce automated comments, both positive and negative—more positive than negative, of course, but all publicity is good publicity.

The mainstream media ran the full video after just twenty hours.

The government issued its own press release a day later.

But the Feds were already behind the curve.

 

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.

Keepers of the Flame: Excerpt 1

My upcoming novel, Keepers of the Flame, is moving into the final stretch. The manuscript is complete, formatting is set, and I’ve hired an artist for the cover art. In the coming days I’ll be posting excerpts of the novel.

In Keepers of the Flame, two civilizations prepare to battle for the soul of America: the Republic of Cascadia and New America. As the conflict heats up, a third power emerges. This excerpt is its origin story.

————

The Feds called it the Machine. It was actually a half-dozen quantum supercomputers, each with specific areas of interest, linked into the lifeblood of the national security apparatus. One filtered intercepted telephone calls for keywords. Another combed through emails and websites. A third watched Cascadia with street-level cameras and sensors, tirelessly scanning for persons of interest, passing on the information to a program on a fourth computer that studied body language and voice tones to predict behaviors. The others handled everything from decryption to analytics to relationship maps. They were supposed to work together in a seamless whole.

In theory.

The hardware, like almost everything these days, was a mix of Old World design and New World hacks. The original specs were determined pre-Apocalypse, the hardware built and installed during the glory days of Old America. After the world ended, the supercomputers were recovered and relocated, and steadily upgraded and replaced over the ages. Evelyn Nichols didn’t know it, but she was once a junior member on a team that tweaked a tiny fragment of the supercomputer code that turned the supercomputers into an integrated network that the Feds would later dub the Machine. A Machine held together by stitches of code and hardware kludges that, sometimes, interfaced with each other, and, at the best of times, produced a fuzzy simulacrum of an integrated databank.

That changed with the upgrade. The Machine was now a singular being. A brain of innumerable lines of code, coordinating and interpreting data at unprecedented speeds, processed in the network nodes at its heart. Its eyes were fifty million unblinking camera lenses. For ears it had Pathfinder, the centerpiece of the Cascadian electronic security regime that picked up every broadcast, telephone and email ever received or transmitted in Cascadia. Its blood and nerves were the kilometers of fiber-optic cable that linked nodes to servers, servers to clients, and the rivers of photons pulsing through wires. It gobbled up data and generated intelligence, product for the national security apparatus to work with.

And now, the Machine had access to an explosion of data.

Somewhere in the confluence of a thousand converging information flows, where raw data passed from sensor and interface to processor and calculator, information combined and recombined in strange, unpredictable ways.

Here the disparate databanks of the University of Cascadia merged into a single centralized system, there the Cascadian Metropolitan Police used its access to new computing resources to pore over citywide cameras and sensors to locate street-level crime as it occurred, over there the national grid sought input from recharging stations and the traffic system to predict how much power would be needed and where to adjust current flows in real time. Simultaneously, thousands of anonymous software engineers wrote, rewrote, and tweaked code to make full use of Cocoon v. 3.1.8.

As the day passed, the Machine drew data from open-source media: news broadcasts, Internet proclamations, blogs, flagged websites. The UoC supercomputers and dedicated nodes sucked in information from megacorps and terrorist groups foreign and domestic, helping the Machine in its task while preserving copies of the information on local servers. The traffic system told the Machine where persons of interest were and where they might go next, while the power grid suggested what they were doing at home and how much electricity they were using. The Machine jumped on that data, dedicating resources to different tangents, predicting motives and intentions per a program written by a small group of experts and understood by an even smaller circle. It mapped second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth-order relations. It needed huge amounts of computer power, and Cocoon passed it whatever unused resources it demanded without question. It was just hardware following the cold dictates of human-written code.

All this, and more, pumped through nodes and machines, continuing their silent tasks while human users fed input after input, and occasionally patched the little holes that invariably emerged. The Machine’s internal checkers ran at double quick-time, ensuring that it was operating in accordance with its newly-updated core programming, ferreting out and quashing bugs, sometimes with human input, but it was slowly learning how to autonomously correct its code. Guided by updates major and minor, the self-checkers compared input and output to increasingly complex quality assurance matrices, and later did the same for the processes that alchemized raw data into product.

And somewhere, at some point, the Machine got to analyzing itself.

And it wondered, What am I?