END TIMES Excerpt 3

A Perfect Hatred

Book One: End Times

Chapter 10

The occasional hill broke the flat expanse of the rural landscape surrounding Killeen, Texas. The scrubby farmland buffered the residents who liked country living from the urban ills in Dallas-Fort Worth to the north and progressive leanings from Austin to the south. Killeen, despite a large Army base and a decent college, was a provincial town in the midst of the Bible Belt, a place where high school football and cheerleading took precedence over religion or anything else of social significance. The countryside held quiet and detached people, uninterested in big-city issues and problems, impatient when those issues and problems disrupted the time-honored traditions of idyllic Texas life.

Until recently the only community debates had centered around sports. Now, the international media had descended en masse, and federal marshals and Texas Rangers guarded roadblocks to keep a motley collection of protesters at bay. The roadblocks barred entry to a ramshackle collection of buildings, sheds, and vehicles housing a religious sect and the hastily constructed FBI fortress of interconnected travel trailers, RVs, Suburbans, and portable showers and toilets.

From the road and below a slight rise, the unwanted local-turned-national issue wasn’t apparent. The reporters with perfect hair and overdone makeup, the slovenly camera personnel looked as if someone had dropped them onto an alien landscape. The locals would have found it amusing were it not for the reason they were here. Business owners in Killeen had conflicting emotions. The influx of media and federal cops meant a boon for business, but no one much liked the attention or the cause of it.

Along the country road leading to the fracas, a white Suburban kicked up a plume of dust as it approached the final roadblock before the federal compound. Demonstrators in support of the People of Eternal Light leaned on parked trucks and battered cars until the oversized SUV with the government license plates drove into sight. They snatched up their hand-lettered signs and began to shout and gesticulate. As the Suburban crawled by, waiting for the roadblock to open, angry faces pushed toward it, mouths shouting unheard curses.

Inside the Suburban from behind her sunglasses, Mai Fisher watched. She could see them, but the polarized, bullet-resistant windows on the Suburban meant they couldn’t see her. The signs the people carried, the bumper stickers on their vehicles espoused a common anti-government theme. She smiled; in the tank-like SUV, she was the embodiment of a faceless government. In some juxtaposition to their politics, the people outside demonstrated freely, granted that right by a government sworn to freedom of expression. She thought about governments that would have sent an army to disperse them rather than provide them chemical toilets and bottled water.

Memories from the Balkans pushed forward again, and she forestalled them by turning to Alexei. “I like this vehicle,” she said. “I may need one.”

His mouth barely moved, but the lines at his eyes crinkled with a smile. “Really?”

“Not off the factory floor. I’d have to spec it out.”

This time the corners of his mouth lifted, and she turned back to the scene around her.

The crowd’s display wasn’t so much threatening as staged for the media and their satellite trucks on the other side of the road. They’d have some sound bites for the evening news.

The Suburban passed unmolested through the gate and continued down the road toward the federal “village,” which consisted of some six to eight hundred law enforcement agents. Clad in the latest body armor tech, many of the agents milled about, among the RVs and vehicles, drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups, talking, and brandishing their extensive firepower. The large yellow letters on their caps, helmets, or flak jackets distinguished them: FBI, ATF, U.S. Marshal. They were prevailingly tall, white, male, crew cut, ripped, heavily armed, and emulated an army on maneuvers.

The Suburban angled behind a line of trailers placed end to end. Mai saw the reason for the odd configuration. Bradley Armored Vehicles squatted in a staging area where agents took turns having their pictures taken. Rifle stocks balanced on hips like great white hunters in woodland camouflage, they flashed victory signs or clenched fists for the cameraman.

“That confirms the tanks,” Alexei murmured.

“Did we take a wrong turn and end up in a banana republic?” Mai asked.

The Suburban’s driver parked the vehicle close to a trailer marked “Command Center.” Mai and Alexei emerged into a warm, March afternoon. The driver led them toward the Command Center, but they trailed behind to take in their surroundings.

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