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Authors: Eliot Pattison

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Ashes of the Earth

BOOK: Ashes of the Earth
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ASHES
OF THE EARTH

A
MYSTERY OF POST-APOCALYPTIC AMERICA

By
Eliot Pattison

Copyright
© 2011 by Eliot Pattison. All rights reserved under
International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.

This
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are
the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely
coincidental.

The
author would like to acknowledge that the lyrics on page 240 are from
Bobby Darin's song Beyond the Sea, first recorded by US Atco in 1960.

Library
of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

ISBN:
978-1-58243-644-9

Cover
design by Domini Dragoone Interior design by Megan Jones Design

Printed
in the United States of America

COUNTERPOINT
1919 Fifth Street Berkeley, CA 94710
www.counterpointpress.com

Distributed
by Publishers Group West

10987654321

CHAPTER
O
ne

the
faces of
the
many child suicides Hadrian Boone had cut M from nooses or retrieved
below cliffs never left him, filled his restless sleep, and
encroached in so many waking nightmares that now, as the blond girl
with the hanging rope skipped along the ridge above, he hesitated,
uncertain whether she was another of the phantoms that haunted him.
Then she paused and reached out for the hand of a smaller red-haired
girl behind her. Hadrian threw down the shovel he was using to dig
out the colony's old latrine pit, gathered up the chain clamped to
his feet, and ran.

He
scrambled up the steep slope of the ravine, ignoring the surprised,
sleepy curse of his guard and the shrill, angry whistle that
followed. Grabbing at roots and saplings to pull himself forward, he
cleared the top and sprinted along the trail, his spine shuddering at
the expectation of a baton on his back, his gut wrenching at the
sound of a feeble shriek from the opposite side of the ridge. As he
reached the open shelf of rock, he sprang, grabbed for the swinging
rope that hung from a limb over the edge, heaving it up with a groan
of despair. He froze as he hauled the child at the end of it back
onto the ledge. What he found himself holding was an old coat
fastened over a frame of sticks, and he was looking into the blank
eyes of a pumpkin head with dried wheat for hair.

The
shriek sounded again, and Hadrian suddenly realized it was one of
laughter. The two girls behind him tittered with delight as he
cradled the effigy in his arms. More children joined in the laughter,
at least half a dozen in the shadows of the trees.

"No
more, Sarah," he scolded the older girl as he rose, dumping the
figure onto the ground. "Not this game. I taught you better."
He saw now the photograph pinned to the effigy's chest, an
advertisement torn from a long-forgotten magazine showing a woman
driving a red convertible filled with joyful children eating bags of
hamburgers. Such photos were considered by many children to be proof
of the paradise on the other side and were the reason so many sought
to reach the heaven they depicted. Carthage colony had long ago
banned the private possession of salvaged books and magazines from
the past century, which guaranteed their hoarding by the young. There
were no more cars, no more drive-through fast food, and the only
religion in most families was that invented by children as they tried
to decipher the forbidden annals of a lost world.

"Why
the stones?" he asked, bending to roll the pumpkin figure's head
toward him. The eyes carved into the flesh, the most prominent
feature of the effigy, had pupils of blue pebbles.

Sarah
glanced back at a thin boy in the shadows, taller than the others.
"Dax said his eyes would disappear. He's seen it, in the others
who cross over. He says that's what you take with you to the other
side, your eyes, because that's where your soul lives."

"To
be or not to be, amen!" interjected the younger girl.

"To
be or not to be, amen!" The children under the trees quickly
echoed the words.

Hadrian
shuddered at the strange, frantic homily, then braced himself on a
tree trunk. His despair was like a physical weakness. He'd opposed
the withholding of the truth from the younger generation, arguing,
begging, and shouting until he'd been removed as the head of the
colony's school. Left without the truth about their world, the young
would always find their own version of it. Hadrian had begun to think
of the children of Carthage as one more population of prisoners. He
glanced at Dax, filled with foreboding over the boy's familiarity
with suicides, then shook his head at the girls and began to
dismantle the figure.

Sarah
and her younger sister put on the wounded expressions so familiar to
him at the school. "We found something special for you,
professor," Sarah offered, handing him a little cylinder of
rolled maple leaves tied with vine. "I was going to bring them
to the jail window tonight after—"

The
baton slammed into Hadrian's shoulder like a hammer, the first blow
knocking him to his knees, the second causing him to collapse onto
his hands.

"No!"
the older girl cried. She lowered her head and charged the guard
who'd materialized behind Hadrian, ramming him in the belly.

"Get
back, you damned vermin!" Sergeant Kenton snarled, slapping the
girl as he was pushed against a tree. "I told you last night
your gangs are finished! I'll find your—" his fury melted
into confusion, then fear, as he recognized Sarah. "I didn't
mean ..." he muttered to her. "We can't have prisoners
escaping, Miss. You know the governor sentenced Mr. Boone to more
hard labor for destroying government property again."

Sarah
straightened, rubbing her cheek where he'd struck her. "And
what, Sergeant," she asked in a stern, grown-up voice, "shall
we tell our father when the prisoner he sentenced cannot work because
of the beating you gave him?"

Kenton
cast a baleful glance at Hadrian. They both knew he would be willing
to haul dried dung himself just for a chance to use his baton on
Boone. The burly sergeant swallowed hard, bobbing his head to the
girl with ill grace. Governor Lucas Buchanan was the most powerful
man in the colony of Carthage, on the entire planet for all anyone
knew, but in his own household his daughters reigned supreme.
"Lawbreakers owe a debt to all," Kenton murmured. It was
the safest of responses, a slogan carved over the entry to the
colony's courthouse.

Hadrian
clutched his throbbing shoulder a moment, then rose, brushing dried
leaves and dirt off his clothes.

"Did
you know, Dora," Sarah declared to her sister in an exaggerated
whisper, "that back in the days of the world Sergeant Kenton
sold shoes?"

The
younger girl laughed derisively and raised her necklace, shaking its
amulet at Kenton, who reflexively jerked backward. It was a rattle
from one of the local diamondback snakes, a favorite adornment of the
adolescent gangs.

The
policeman clenched his fists, then glared again at Hadrian, as though
he must be the one broadcasting the sergeant's secret past. Kenton
offered a servile nod to Sarah, then feigned a retreat for two steps
before springing into the brush where he seized the lanky boy by his
hair. Dax squirmed for a moment before Kenton brutally slapped him.
"I'll have you begging with the half dead in another week!"
he spat at the boy.

Blood
streaming from his nose, Dax pushed back his shaggy blond hair and
grinned as Kenton marched back down the trail. "Jackals run with
ghosts!" Dax shouted at his back. "Keep hold of your eyes,
Sergeant!"

Hadrian
stared at the boy, as disturbed by his bizarre words as by the
policeman's behavior, then turned to the girls with a disappointed
gaze. "No more pretending about the other side," he said,
the words strangely choking in his throat. The last time he'd found a
child suicide, he'd not been able to stop weeping for an hour. He
gestured toward the golden fields of grain and the sprawling town of
log, stone, and scrap-metal houses beyond. "This is the
paradise that belongs to you." He gathered up his chain and
followed his jailer.

Five
minutes later he was back in the pit of dried waste, shoveling the
fertilizer into a tattered basket, then carrying the load to the
wagon that would transport it to the fields. Glancing about to assure
Kenton was nowhere in sight, he extracted the secret bundle from
Sarah and with a surge of pleasure unwrapped it to find half a dozen
pages torn from books. Quickly he stepped to the flat rock in the
shadows where ten similar pages gleaned from the dried sludge lay
after being washed in the bucket he was supposed to use for drinking
water. He leaned against a boulder and studied the contraband Sarah
and Dora had passed to him. Three pages from a history text, three of
precious maps, colorful maps brimming with towns and provinces and
countries that existed only in a few memories now. With a pang he
gazed at other pages trapped in the dried sludge around him, ruined
beyond salvage, sent for use in the latrine before the new bleaching
mill began recycling old books into fresh paper. The last words of
dead poets were there, histories of entire civilizations whose names
would never be spoken aloud again, mixed with small useless objects
like electric clocks, music players, and hair dryers, stripped of
metal and discarded. The end of the world had no ending. Most of it
had been annihilated in a few nightmarish days twenty-five years
earlier. But the rest of it slipped away like this, one shard at a
time.

He
stared at one of the maps, of the eastern United States. He could
still name people he had known in a dozen of the cities, though their
faces had blurred in his memory. He put a finger on each city's name
and mouthed it, as if to keep it alive. "Baltimore," he
whispered. "Portland, Washington, Poughkeepsie, Philadelphia—"

The
two movements from the brush came almost as one. First, a furious
Sergeant Kenton emerged with a fresh hickory switch, pointing at
Hadrian's illegal hoard, quickly followed by Sarah running with her
sister on a course to block Kenton from reaching Hadrian. But the
policeman's rage had burnt away the intimidation he'd felt earlier
from the girls. He sidestepped them, reached Boone in two leaps, and
slashed the switch across his face so violently it drew blood.
Hadrian bent and took the beating, flinching with each blow, knowing
resistance would make it worse, watching the girls through spasms of
pain. Too late he realized they were prying up a weapon, a stout
stick embedded in the dried sludge.

Dora,
the eight-year-old, pulled so hard on the stick that she tumbled
backward when it came free, causing Kenton to pause, as if
considering whether to help the governor's daughter. Then the screams
began, as the horror that had been pinned under the stick slowly rose
from the surface. Dora shrieked and crawled, crablike, away. Sarah
cried out in terror and darted behind Hadrian. An arm, a blackened,
shriveled arm, reached from the sludge, extending its grisly fingers
as if for help.

Lucas
Buchanan, the
governor
of Carthage, always wore slate-grey suits gleaned from the warehouse
stores during the frenzied scavenging of the colony's early years.
Hadrian watched uneasily as the tall, lean man rose from his desk to
put on his jacket before speaking, always a bad sign.

"There
is only one reason we haven't permanently exiled you," Buchanan
declared as he paced along the window of his second floor office. He
seemed to be working hard to control his emotions. "If we voted
today, the Council would toss you aside like the worthless salvage
you are. Banish you to the camps or the forest to waste away with the
other discards out there." He paused to straighten one of the
many carefully selected photos on his wall. Abraham Lincoln sitting
with his generals flanked Theodore Roosevelt posing with a dead
buffalo. An image of a busy harbor with square-rigged clippers and
steamboats hung over one of Thomas Edison beside his early
phonograph. Buchanan was relentless in his efforts to wipe out the
past few decades.

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