Journey Into the Flame
JULY 21, 2030
Every mile Camden Ford drove east from Oklahoma City along old Route 40 provided a fresh reminder of how little remained in the wake of the Great Disruption. The long drive home to what was left of Washington, D.C., gave him more than enough time to contemplate his mortality and the dangers he faced for the next thousand miles. He wished he could let his mind wander to football, kayaking, girls—all those things nineteen-year-old boys used to be able to enjoy. But he had to stay alert. You never knew what you might encounter on these near-deserted highways, and he had to make sure he arrived at the safe house in Clarksville before sundown.
He removed his cap and rustled his dark brown hair, allowing the wind blowing through the open window to provide a bit of cool relief on this hot July day. Weary from a long day of driving, he took off his sunglasses and surveyed the landscape around him. The world he’d grown up in was gone; the Great Disruption of 2027 had seen to that. Very little had changed since those catastrophic days three years ago.
Vehicles of all sorts lay abandoned along the road. Once-thriving farms were deserted, their fields untended. Roadside restaurants now served only dust to a stray passing wind. Camden slowed the car and grabbed his camera from the backseat, which was cluttered with survival gear: a cobbled-together water purifier, a gas mask, and a few vials of Androstenediol, an experimental anti-radiation medication. He took a few pictures of the abandoned farm and the forsaken town he was driving through. Pictures for posterity, he told himself. If there even would be a posterity. He sped back up as he glanced one last time at the town in his rearview mirror.
Camden had been sixteen when the Great Disruption occurred. He remembered that it had started with social and political unrest. Bombings were commonplace, as were assassinations of corporate and political leaders. The chaos escalated when an unexplained Carrington-class solar storm struck the earth, knocking satellites out of their orbits and taking down communications systems and electrical power grids. The world went dark.
Like other leaders in the U.S. government, Camden’s father, a high-level administrator and engineer in the Department of Energy, rounded up his family and fled the devastation and mayhem in the nation’s capital. They took refuge at their cabin in rural Virginia. Then, on December 21, 2027, also without explanation, an even more devastating natural disaster occurred: the earth began to shift four degrees south on its axis. Over the next three months, weather patterns changed, bringing rain to the deserts and drought to the rain forests. Earthquakes shook all seven continents as oceans unleashed tsunamis. In one short year, humanity returned to the Dark Ages.
Camden slowed again as he approached exit 1-85. He saw a man sitting beneath a road sign, his head leaning back against the signpost. The gun in the man’s right hand and the bloody wound in what was left of the right side of his head told Camden all he needed to know. Another suicide.
“People are just giving up,” his father had said a few months ago,
sounding sad and frustrated. “The conveniences of everyday life are gone. There’s no electricity, no gas for their cars or fuel for their heaters, no food to buy. Most people don’t know how to fend for themselves; they never needed to. And now there’s no real government to speak of that can help them. These people choose death over life because life is hard. But we cannot judge these people. Only God can judge them, son.”
God, Camden wondered as he pressed on the accelerator and sped up once more. Where is God in all this?
Camden’s family had returned to Washington in the spring of 2028. A small group of dedicated government officials, business leaders, and social activists had congregated there in a “peace zone” surrounded by barbed-wire fences, U.S. Army tanks, and other heavy weapons. They’d come in an effort to restore order and rebuild the country, which, according to estimates, had lost half of its population. Camden’s parents had helped to establish the World Federation of Reconstruction, and for the past two years, Camden had worked alongside them. Last year, having become trained in water purification, he’d started traveling to reconstruction zones all over the United States, assisting local leaders in restoring water systems. He had just completed a ten-week reconstruction assignment in the secured area of what had once been the city of Dallas, and he couldn’t wait to get home. He would spend at most a week with his parents, and then he’d go off to help with the reconstruction effort in another city. Although the WFR had accomplished a great deal in two years, focusing its efforts on the nation’s cities and metropolitan areas, wide swaths of small-town and rural America still lay in ruins, and the people who lived there believed the government had forgotten them.
As Camden passed a weathered road sign informing him that he was entering the state of Arkansas, he saw some activity in the distance. A crew of workers was at the side of the road near a WFR transport truck, while a white pickup was idling nearby. When Camden saw a wing and parts of a crashed airliner scattered in the field behind the workers, he realized a cleanup crew was collecting human remains.
The sudden series of solar storms that had hit the earth in 2027 had brought down more than seven thousand aircraft. Some of the planes had crashed into the seas and high mountains, never to be recovered, while others had plunged into populated areas, killing thousands of people. As Camden slowed down, he grabbed his camera and took a few pictures of the piles of bags at the roadside awaiting pickup. There was a part of Camden that was numb to these grim sights, but he was still glad he hadn’t been assigned to a cleanup crew.
A worker a good distance away from the rest of the crew waved at Camden before he placed a skull in a bag. As Camden waved back at the man, a loud shot rang out. Then another, and another. Camden saw the workers up ahead falling to the ground. More shots followed. The road crew was under attack, and he was driving right into it.
Four bearded men in ragged clothes were crouched behind the hood of the idling white pickup truck, firing rifles at the workers. Two federation security officers lay prone in the field, returning fire. But the crossfire was short-lived; the exposed security officers went down, spraying their last shots into the sky. The entire WFR crew was being slaughtered.
Camden slowed the car and reached for the gun he kept in his backpack. Suddenly, the car shook, and glass was shattering. A bullet had hit the edge of his windshield. Camden slammed down on the accelerator. The engine roared, and the car screeched forward, bearing down on the gunmen as two of them reloaded their rifles. He ducked right and then left, struggling to control the car as bullets shattered the back window and ripped into the side of the car.
This is it, Camden thought, as he sped past the white pickup. His old car couldn’t outrun the truck. But just as he took in the deep breath he thought might be his last, the shooting stopped. In the rearview mirror, Camden saw the four gunmen pulling boxes out of the cleanup crew’s transport truck. Of course. They wanted the supplies more than they wanted him. Still, Camden kept his foot pressed hard on the accelerator for what seemed like a hundred miles.
I’m such a coward! Camden pounded his fist on the steering wheel, wishing he could have helped the workers. But it had all happened so fast. He was no hero.
After about twenty minutes, Camden stopped shaking. He leaned back in his seat and eased up on the accelerator. The car slowed to a safer speed. Camden wiped away the tears that were running down his cheeks. “No more,” he said aloud. “No more. When I get home, I am done. My parents can do this without me. I’m finished.”
Two hours later, as the sun was setting, Camden pulled out his Federation map. He was relieved to see that he was just a few miles away from the safe house in Clarksville, near the Ozark National Forest. The Federation manual warned workers not to drive after dark. More Forgotten Ones, as they were called, would soon be scavenging the countryside for anything that would sustain them. Some believed they were remnants of the Crowd Twelve movement, which had instigated the boycotts and protests against rapacious multi-national corporations and financial institutions before the Great Disruption. Others believed they were survivors of the nation’s rural areas whose desperation had transformed them into cold-blooded killers. Whoever they were, the Federation manual was very clear: they were to be avoided. Camden laughed grimly to himself and thought, If you can avoid them . . .
The Federation had built shelters around the country, safe houses for workers who traveled from one reconstruction site to another. In the distance, Camden saw the Federation flag flying on a tall pole, a welcome sight after his encounter with the Forgotten Ones. Camden pulled his car into a spot close to the entrance and grabbed his backpack as he stepped out. He ran his fingers over some of the bullet holes in the side of the car. There had to be more than twenty of them.
The shelter seemed a bit quiet. Camden could see lights on inside the building, but that was all. He wondered where the security was. The shelters always had a couple of guards on patrol.
Camden entered the safe house. “Hello,” he called. “I work for the
Federation. Is anyone here?” He rang the old-fashioned registration bell on the counter, but still no one appeared. “Hello?” he called again. He needed to gain access to the communications equipment to report the attack on the work crew.
He heard a sound from inside the small office behind the counter; he circled around and entered it. Camden gasped. The room had been ransacked. Tables and chairs were overturned, blood was everywhere, and the slaughtered bodies of four people and two uniformed guards lay in a pile in the corner.
Camden looked around the room. The radios must have been ripped out and stolen, because only frayed wires were still attached to the wall. Camden walked over to the broken supply cabinet and saw that almost all of the food and water rations had been plundered. Forgotten Ones again, he thought, as he rummaged through the remaining items, looking for anything that might be useful. Suddenly, Camden jerked back and almost fell over a chair; he’d felt something grab his right leg. Instinctively, he picked up the leg of the broken chair to defend himself. He spun around but saw no one, only the pile of bodies. Then he realized someone was moving underneath it.
Camden threw down the chair leg and his backpack and tried pulling the person from the pile. It was a young man not much older than he was. “What happened here?” Camden asked. “Who are you?”
The young man struggled for breath. “Robert,” was all he could say.
Camden took a small towel from his backpack and wiped some of the blood off Robert’s neck. Someone had stabbed him near the collarbone and left him for dead.
“Can you walk?” Camden asked, as he helped the young man to his feet. “We need to get out of here.” Just then, Camden heard a door slam and voices coming from the rear of the building. He knew they didn’t have much time. He grabbed his backpack and supported Robert as best he could as he hurried back to his car. He tossed some of his supplies into the passenger seat, laid Robert down in the back, and jumped behind the wheel. He left the parking lot so fast the car fishtailed, sending
up a spray of gravel. Shots rang out behind him, and once again, Camden was speeding down Route 40, racing for his life.
Camden looked in his rearview mirror and saw the silhouettes of a group of men holding rifles shrinking in the distance. His heart pounding, he struggled to keep one eye on the road and the other on the men in the mirror. A flare shot into the sky. His heart sank, and his hands started to shake. This was a trademark of the Forgotten Ones. They used flares to alert others in their clan that a target had been spotted. More flares rose into the twilight sky. Camden was being tracked. What the hell do I do? Where is the next shelter? And what about this guy in the backseat?
Two more red flares pierced the darkening sky, but this time, they illuminated the sky ahead of him. The Forgotten Ones were waiting for him up there. A voice inside Camden’s head screamed, Turn off your lights, turn left here, do it now! Camden spotted the turnoff, quickly shut off his headlights, and turned onto the dirt road.
The glow from the flares was dimming as Camden slowly drove down the tree-lined path, which narrowed as it wound back and forth. Camden’s adrenaline was still coursing through his veins; his only allies were the rising moon and an unconscious stranger lying in the backseat. Suddenly, he slammed on the brakes; the road was too narrow now for him to continue by car. He sat there for a moment, deciding on his next move. If he returned to the main road, he would have to face the Forgotten Ones. And if he continued down the dirt road on foot, who knew what he would find? Camden turned off the engine and leaned back in the seat. His father’s voice came to him: “The keys to survival are water and a dry place to hide.”
Quietly, Camden got out of the car. With the Forgotten Ones prowling around, it wasn’t safe to spend the night in the vehicle. He took his flashlight from his pack and moved toward the back of the car, where the young man with the bleeding neck lay unconscious. Camden leaned forward, taking him by the shoulder and whispering, “Robert, Robert . . .”
The young man moaned in pain, but with Camden’s help, he
managed to get to his feet. They set off down the trail. The only sounds were the cracking of twigs and the crushing of dried leaves under their feet. From time to time, Camden heard the howling of a distant coyote—at least, he hoped it was distant.
The moon was now in its full glory, and Camden could see a multitude of trails that led deeper into the forest. A well-cleared walking path to his right caught Camden’s attention; it seemed to lead to a campsite. Camden paused, Robert clinging to his shoulder. He knew a campsite was the last place he should hide. Whoever set up this campsite has to be coming back, he thought. But he had to stop somewhere for a moment or two. He couldn’t carry Robert, who was losing consciousness again, much farther. Slowly, without a choice, he led him down the twenty-foot path. Near the end, Camden saw a circle of carefully stacked stones forming a fire pit. It was filled with logs, twigs, and dry grass, ready to be set ablaze. On one of the stones was a book of matches, a valuable item these days. A few feet from the pit was a second stack of logs, large enough to keep the fire fueled for days.
Unable to support Robert’s weight any longer, Camden laid him gently on the ground and gave him a drink of water from his canteen.
“Hello,” he called softly. “Is anyone here?”
There was no answer. Camden felt dead tired and needed to get some rest. He wanted to strike a match and ignite the fire, but the risk was too great. The Forgotten Ones were surely nearby, even though he hadn’t seen a flare since he’d turned off the highway. Gripping his flashlight, he inspected the campsite, walking around the perimeter.
As he was about to dim his light, Camden spotted a small brown leather bag with a single brass buckle lying on a tree stump. Camden picked it up and sat by the fire pit next to Robert. Maybe it belongs to the person who built the campsite, he thought.
Carefully, Camden opened the bag and found three leather-bound books inside. Using his flashlight, he examined the books’ covers. Only a title, The Chronicles of Satraya, and a strange symbol embossed in gold leaf were printed on them.
Suddenly, there was a rustling in the trees. Camden dropped the books and removed the gun from his pack. Now on one knee, his finger on the trigger, Camden held perfectly still as he surveyed the dark woods beyond the campsite. He didn’t see anyone. He looked up at the sky for red flares or any sign that he’d been spotted again. After a few silent moments, he lowered his gun back down and set it beside him.
Still tense, he turned his attention back to the books. He took the first one and opened the leather cover. As soon as he did so, a brilliant blue orb the size of an apple emerged from the pages. It hovered silently in front of him, its blue light casting an eerie glow over the entire campsite. He could not believe what he was seeing. As much as he wanted to get up and run, he couldn’t move. His eyes were fixed on the radiant blue orb. As Camden stared at it, he began to hear a slight hum, like the sound of a soft flute. There was something soothing about the blue light and the humming sound. He blew gently on the orb, and it turned an even deeper shade of blue; then the hum grew louder. What is going on? he wondered. I need to get out of here . . .
But something kept Camden rooted to the spot. He raised his right hand and gently placed his palm under the orb, cradling it as he had done with falling snowflakes when he was little. The moment he did, he felt an electrical charge run through his body, a lightness of being overcame him, and then, miraculously, his body floated off the ground. A gentle wind blew, nudging him around the campsite, as if he were a feather floating on a stray current of air. Camden’s gaze remained focused on the blue orb, and his mind went blank except for a single phrase: In a time of great need, we are with you. The phrase was repeated again and again by an unfamiliar, distant-sounding voice: In a time of great need, we are with you. . . .
After a lost period of time, Camden and the orb floated back to the
fire pit, next to Robert, who was still unconscious. Somehow Camden knew it was time to release the blue orb. And when he did so, he was gracefully set back down on the ground. The flutelike hum faded, and the blue orb sank like the setting sun, back into the pages of the book. The bright blue light disappeared, and once again, only the moon illuminated the campsite. Camden looked down at the first page of the book and saw the words that had been running through his mind:
In a time of great need, we are with you.
As it has always been.
Suddenly, Camden heard the sound of rustling leaves again. Closer this time. His heart raced as he scrambled to reach for his gun. Standing now, he felt his right hand trembling as he pointed his small .38 at the edge of the woods, first to the left and then to the right. Red flares shot into the night sky.
The Forgotten Ones had arrived. And more were coming.
Like spirits from the forest, they started to emerge at the edges of the campsite, their clothes grubby, their faces haggard. Some held crossbows, others carried rifles, and most brandished clubs and sticks. More frightened than he’d ever been in his life, Camden continued to point his gun at the growing crowd. “Go away!” he shouted. “I don’t have anything you want!”
At that moment, a young woman broke from the crowd. She appeared to be only a few years older than Camden. A rifle was slung over her shoulder. “Nice campsite,” she said, as she struck a match and tossed it into the fire pit. “I’m surprised we didn’t come across it before.” The campfire roared to life, its flames filling the clearing with a warming orange light. The young woman had long blond hair, which was tied back with a piece of frayed rope. She had piercing blue eyes and a confident bearing.
“This isn’t my campsite,” Camden responded. “I thought it was yours. I don’t have anything you want.”
“I heard you the first time,” the young woman said. She circled around him, unconcerned about Camden’s nervously holding his gun. “Are you a magician?” she asked, as she took the book from Camden’s hand.
“Me? No,” Camden replied, realizing she must have seen the blue light and what had happened to him. “I don’t know what that blue orb was. I just opened this book, and all of a sudden, I was floating around.” By the light of the campfire, Camden could see her eyes moving down the page. “You can read?” he said, surprised.
The young woman gave him an annoyed look.
“Sorry. I’ve just heard some things about you people.”
“Us people?” the young woman replied, still skimming the page. “Not all of us are what you think we are. If we were, you and your friend wouldn’t be alive.” Her reading was interrupted by a commotion coming from the crowd of Forgotten Ones.
“Don’t move,” said a voice behind Camden. “Drop your gun.” Camden did as he was told. He could feel something cool pressed against the back of his neck. “Now, turn around.” As Camden did so, he found himself face-to-face with a six-foot-four, muscular, and fearsome-looking man wearing ragged blue jeans and a ripped T-shirt, with a red bandana on his head. He was pointing the barrel of a shotgun at Camden’s head. “Come on, Cassie,” he said, giving the young woman an irritated look. “We got better things to do than mess around with these cared-for folks. Let’s empty their pockets, grab their food, and go home.” The man turned to Camden and cocked his shotgun, his lips twisting into a nasty grin. “I hope your sins don’t keep you from heaven’s gates.”
This is it, Camden thought again. He took a deep, shuddering breath and closed his eyes. After surviving all the events of the Great Disruption, he was going to die at the hands of a shotgun-toting Forgotten One.
“Put the gun down,” the young woman said. “Put it down right now, or I’ll shoot you instead of him.”
Camden opened his eyes and saw that the young woman had walked
over and forcefully pushed the barrel of the man’s gun to the ground. The man ripped off his bandana in frustration and stepped back. Camden could hear a murmur of voices.
The young woman turned to the crowd that was encircling them, pressing closer as more people came out of the forest. Red flares continued to shoot into the night sky. “We have wanted a miracle for a long time. Some sign that we will be all right. Something, anything, to let us know that we have not been forgotten . . .” She paused a moment, looking into the faces of those gathered around her. “You all saw the blue orb and the light,” she continued. “You all saw him lifted off the ground. Maybe that is the miracle we have been waiting for. Not him”—she pointed to Camden—“but this.” She held up the book in her hand.
The rumbling from the crowd ceased, and Camden could hear only the crackling of the fire. Whoever this woman was, she had the Forgotten Ones’ attention. Camden watched as she opened the book again and began reading aloud.
In a time of great need, we are with you.
As it has always been.
Contained in the pages of these books are the answers to your deepest questions. They are questions that have been asked by many who have come before you. Now, in this time of great despair, these words will provide you with resolution. Within each of you is a secret. If it is uncovered, something will be triggered in you, something that has not been activated in a long while. You have been asleep. Now it is time for you to wake up and claim your freedom. The rising of mankind is upon the land.
In a time of great need, we are with you.
As it has always been.
The young woman stopped reading. Camden looked at her and then at the faces of the Forgotten Ones. He realized they were no different from him or any of the other survivors of the Great Disruption he
had met in Washington and on his trips around the country. Everyone wanted a better life and a better world; everyone wanted to know that there was a greater reason why they had survived and now had to deal with the ravages of the disruption.
“Read on!” someone shouted.
The young woman walked over and stood next to Camden.
“Yes, read on!” yelled another, and soon there was a chorus of voices urging her to continue.
“See?” the young woman said to Camden with a gentle, sweet smile. “You do have something we need. Hope.”