Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella

Children of Ash

Children of Ash

Jaye Wells

C
opyright
© 2016 by Jaye Wells

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

ISBN: 978-0-9892684-7-9

Acknowledgments

M
any thanks
to Timons Esaias for offering his critical eye to a large portion of this novella. In addition, early chapters of this story were workshopped with the help of Will Horner and several of my Seton Hill MFA cohorts, including Kourtnea Hogan, Lynn Hortel, TJ Lantz, Chase Moore, Alex Savage, and Tanya Twombly. Any technical errors or lapses in logic that made it into the final product are solely mine.

One

M
atri

T
he old-timers
speak of the before days, when the earth had color. They speak of fresh green grasses, calming blue skies, happy pink petals yearning toward a yellow sun. They talk of a time when humans had the luxury of creating art and daydreaming. But I know better than to listen to their fairy tales; to the fictions conjured by withered old men.

There’s no green in the world I know. No blue. No sunny yellow. In fact, there’s no sun at all in the Krovgorod labor camp.

The past, the present, the future—everything is gray.

Ashes cling to the air, the sky, the skeletal landscape. They coat my tongue and clog my lungs. Eventually you get used to the acrid taste, gritty texture, and suffocating scent. You become numb to the knowledge that you’re consuming death.

I tell the children that the constant rain of ash is a result of the war. I don’t mention the war ended a decade ago. The lies fall so easily from my tongue. They have to. The truth would frighten them too much. And if there’s one thing the Troika loves more than blood, it’s the flavor of terror in the vein.

I’m lying to you even now. Because gray isn’t the only color here. In the Troika’s world, only one hue is equally revered and feared—the deep red of venous blood.

I used to be a person, but now I am a slave. All humans are. The undead are our masters, and those of us who managed to survive the war are as good as dead.

Two

Z
ed

I
stood
before the hunting party, issuing last-minute instructions. Usually no one under the age of twelve was allowed to hunt, but I decided to bring along six-year-old Blue, and eight-year-old Mica, so I could begin training them.

“When the hairs on your neck stand up, you run like hell. Dig?”

Blue nodded enthusiastically. To her, this was a game, like hide and seek. I’d have to keep an eye on her. Mica tipped his chin to acknowledge my words. The solemnity of his expression told me he wouldn’t be a problem. Bravo didn’t look up from sharpening her knife on a sliver of whetstone. I didn’t call her out, because I knew she heard every word. As my second-in-command—and, at sixteen, the second oldest in our camp—she knew how to handle herself in the Badlands.

“Remember, only kill as much as you can carry. Don’t waste a big kill unless you know how to get it back to camp. Fill your pockets and whatever else you have with berries, but don’t eat any of them until we get back and one of the elders can inspect them.”

“Yes, Pa,” they mumbled.

I looked out over my wards and tried to feel optimistic. It had been weeks since we’d had a good hunt. Winter was coming and our stores were low. If we didn’t have a lucky hunt soon, I was sure I’d lose a good portion of the young ones before full frost.

“Let’s head out.”

I slipped my tire iron into the rubber belt I’d made out of an old bicycle tire tube. A knife made from a honed toothbrush handle and a length of chain hung from my other hip. As the lead hunter, Bravo carried a quiver of arrows, a bow, and a knife she’d fashioned out of spring steel salvaged from an abandoned car.

The afternoon sky was clear, and the moon was a white ghost low on the horizon. In the distance, small, dark shapes rose against the aching blue sky. A naïve eye might choose to believe they were just birds, but I knew better. Those black wings belonged to the Troika’s bat drones. Normally, sight of the robotic spies would cause a cry of alarm to rise up in camp, but they were flying in the other direction.

I tucked a snare into my pack. It reminded me of a night years earlier, back before the war, when my father took me camping. We’d stood together on a bridge over a river whose name I no longer remember. He’d told me that a ring around a full moon meant snow, and how to snare a rabbit using a shoestring. We’d roasted the one we caught on a spit over an open flame. It was the best meal I’d ever eaten. It was also the last one we’d shared. Four days after that trip, the war began. One month later, Dad was dead and I had nothing but the knowledge he’d passed on and a handbook on wilderness survival to keep me alive.

“Zed,” Bravo said in a low tone, coming up on my right.

Between the two of us, we protected a band of sixteen youngs, ranging in ages from four to fourteen. They called us Pa and Ma because they didn’t know any better; we tried our best to fulfill those roles, even though
we
knew better.

“I think we should split up,” she said in a low tone.

I slowed my pace and looked at her. Shadows fell across her face and mixed with the bruises and dirt. “No.”

“We’ll cover more ground that way—”

I slashed a hand through the air. “It’s too risky with the young.”

“Shouldn’t be taking them anyway,” she said under her breath.

I clenched my teeth. Bravo’s protest wasn’t unexpected or unappreciated, but I was holding firm. Blue was Type AB+; if the Troika took her, she’d be toast. Mica was A+ but he was big for his age and sturdy. He’d be put in a labor camp, which some said was a fate worse than becoming a meal for some high-ranking Troika officer.

“Keep them between us. I’ll take the back—you at the front. They can scavenge for berries and grubs while we stalk. If we’re fast, we can finish before full dark.”

Camp rules—the ones I’d written myself—dictated that every last girl and boy must be inside the cave at full dark or they’d be locked out. No exceptions. At night the Troika’s patrols scoured the countryside for rebel camps. According to my intel, they’d been circling closer and closer to our location over the last few days.

Knowing that, I wouldn’t normally have allowed a hunting party that close to night, but we were desperate for food. Nighttime was a hunter’s kingdom. Vampires weren’t the only beings who came out at night. When the sun went down, the world became a buffet—rabbits, raccoons, opossums. Now that most humans were kept behind razor wire and brick, animal populations had exploded, which should have meant easy pickings for us. But the Troika had recently stepped up its campaign against the holdout rebel groups and had begun poisoning rodent dens. We’d lost three from tainted meat before we’d figured out the cause.

R
ecent rains made
the air sweet and thick. Wet leaves muffled our footsteps, a blessing considering the untrained feet of the youngs. Blue and Mica scurried like mice between us. Their wide, bright eyes were alert for mushrooms and berries to store in the slings strapped across their chests. Bravo led the way, her bow at the ready. I brought up the rear. We had told the youngs my job was to watch for game, but I was really watching for Troika patrols.

The sun was still above the horizon, but I knew better than to relax. The vamps didn’t need full dark to climb from their bunkers. Their allergy to the sun weakened them, but a weak vampire was still twice as strong as a man. The promise of fresh blood would make them ignore any ultraviolet discomfort.

Bravo’s fist shot up into the air. Everyone froze. My ears strained against the oppressive silence. Was that my heartbeat or the patter of tiny feet on the forest floor? Hunting had never been my strong suit. My ears weren’t strong enough after a bomb took out the hearing in my left ear during the war. But Bravo’s ears were as good as any of the night scavengers we hunted. And whatever she’d just heard must have been good, because her stiff form practically vibrated with excitement. Slowly, so as not to make any noise, she lifted both hands to her head and spread her fingers out to mimic antlers.

My chest tightened with hope. A single deer—even a fawn—could feed us for a long time. If we planned it right we could even dry out some of the meat, which would come in handy once the snows arrived and our prey took to ground. The cautious part of me wondered if I should warn her that we’d have trouble carrying the deer back with just the two of us and the youngs. But saliva was already pooling in my mouth at the thought of roasted venison for supper.

I touched Mica’s shoulder and motioned for him to kneel. He tugged on Blue’s arm and she followed suit. Taking my own knee, I put a finger to my lips to remind them to be absolutely still. Bravo slowly removed an arrow from her quiver and took several fast, light steps to get into position.

I scanned the tree line for movement. Raindrops from the earlier storm danced off leaves. A soft breeze tickled sapling branches. My pulse throbbed behind my eyeballs. But then…there. Was it?
Yes
. The faintest blur of fawn against a green branch. The edge of an antler scraping a trunk. I smelled the musk of wet fur below the green perfume of the forest.

I’d lost visual of Bravo. She blended into the green-and-brown mosaic as if she’d shape-shifted into a tree herself. I held my breath. Any moment she’d—

The arrow flew like a missile through the trees with barely a sound. The deer cried and took off through the forest, but not before I saw the blood bloom on its coat—a bright red spot of hope for my little tribe. We all took off running with Bravo in the lead. Fortunately, the deer didn’t make it too far before Bravo’s well-aimed arrow did its work. The sound of breaking limbs gave way to a thud as its body dropped to the ground. Bravo’s whooping victory cry filled the air as she burst through the foliage to the clearing where the deer fell.

Over my shoulder, I called to the youngs. “Find some large branches—as tall as me.”

They scampered off to do my bidding and I went to join Bravo. She stood over the twitching body like the general of a victorious army. “Well done,” I said. “Tonight we eat like kings.”

She thrust her chin in the air. “And queens.”

The deer kicked high one final time and cried out, this time in total surrender. Its body went still in the damp leaves but steam still rose from its gaping mouth. Bravo ripped the arrow from its flesh and wiped the gore on a patch of moss—arrows were too valuable to waste.

The youngs returned, dragging two long branches behind them. I grabbed a length of rope from my backpack and something more valuable than gold—Duct tape. As Bravo and the boy got busy lashing the deer’s legs to the branches, I took the girl farther into the forest to scavenge for side dishes for our feast.

I took a deep breath of the clean air. This was the first excuse I’d had to be optimistic in weeks, maybe months. We were well on our way to having supplies to make it through the winter. Once we got the deer dressed and the supplies wrapped up for travel, we’d move on to one of the old ghost towns and find adequate shelter for the snow season. I knew of two towns within a ten-mile radius that had plenty of shelters we could use. The trick was finding one that allowed us to hide during the nightly Troika raids. Shouldn’t be more difficult than finding the cave we currently used.

I’d heard stories about some rebels who’d taken refuge in the old subway tunnels of the larger cities. I always shook my head when I heard of those fools. Why would anyone trap themselves in a tunnel without access to the plentiful supplies nature could provide—food, water, shelter, medicine? But I already knew the answer.

Before the war, humans in the first world had lost almost all connection with the natural world, preferring instead to live virtual lives in exchange for convenience and—they believed—relative safety. Little had they known, abdicating hands-on knowledge would eventually be the thing that allowed them to be enslaved.

“Pa!” Blue called. I looked over and her excited eyes shone in the waning light. Her little pale hand pointed toward something on the ground. A clump of red mushrooms grew on a patch of moss at the base of an old tree. She looked up at me with bright blue doll’s eyes. “Can we eat it?”

I pulled out my dog-eared wilderness guide and flipped through to the chapter on mushrooms. “Says here its nickname is
emetic russula
.” I pointed to the words on the page that explained the mushroom caused extreme vomiting. Blue’s eyes squinted without comprehension. Like most of the youngs, the war had put an end to any hope of literacy or basic schooling. “It says it’s poisonous.”

Her hopeful expression faded. “Oh.”

I patted her on the shoulder. “You were smart to ask first, though.”

A little of her smile returned. “Papa—”

“Zed!” I spun around at the panic in Bravo’s voice. “Bats!”

The darkening quiet of the woods shattered in an explosion of high-pitched electronic pulses. The sound stabbed at my eardrums, but I scooped Blue up into my arms. “Run!”

Bravo jumped into motion, too, grabbing Mica and pushing him ahead of her. My skull felt as if it might fracture from the noise and my ribs were bruised from my knocking heart. But I didn’t stop running. We couldn’t return to the cave where we slept or the bats would find the others. Veering the opposite direction, I stumbled through an icy stream toward the decoy camp.

I looked over my shoulder to check on Bravo’s progress, but she wasn’t there. Blue whimpered in my arms. I turned fully and squinted into the dusky shadows. Had she found a hiding spot?

A scream answered my unspoken question. My heart stuttered. Without thinking, I set Blue on the ground and knelt before her. “Hide. Don’t come out no matter what you hear.”

Her small hands grasped my shirt. “Don’t leave me, Papa.”

I gripped her chin between my forefinger and thumb. Not hard, but firm enough to demand attention. “I have to go help the others. If I don’t come back, wait until dawn before you return to camp.”

She cried, but I ignored it. “Go.” I shoved her away. “Hide in the bushes.”

After she’d wiggled under a low thatch of hobblebush, I took off back over the creek. It was darker now. No birds sang, no insects chirped, not even the wind dared rattle the leaves. The heavy silence pressed in on me like a weight.

Cold sweat coated my chest in an oily film. Fear threatened to freeze my feet to the dirt. But some part of my mind was blessedly immune to the paralytic effects of panic. Bravo was still out there. The other youngs too.

I forced my feet to move and drew hard on the reservoir of adrenaline pooling in my diaphragm. Low-hanging branches and undergrowth disguised my advance toward the spot I’d last seen Bravo. With each step the silence gained weight and darkened like a shadow. I was almost to my goal when a mechanical whine cut through the black and green like a yellow laser.

I dove behind an ancient tree trunk and peeked around its rough bark. The bats were gone now, and in their place a Troika rover sat like a great parasitic iron insect on the forest floor. The whine I’d heard had been its engine coming to life—preparing to rise into the night like a mosquito with a belly full of fresh blood.

I closed my eyes and cursed. Acid churned in my gut along with the knowledge I wasn’t ready to accept—Bravo and the young were on that craft.

A synthetic wind rose as the craft lifted from the earth and into the inky dusk. I opened my eyes to watch it go. My muscles yearned to run, to punch, to fight. But I was alone and armed only with a chain and a small knife. Launching myself at the hovercraft would be like a mouse attacking a hawk.

At least they were alive, I thought. But the idea brought me no comfort.

Were any of us truly alive?

I’d been around long enough to know that the Troika would take Bravo and the youngs directly to a labor camp. Neither had high blood so they would not be taken to a blood camp for exsanguination.

A dark shape in the clearing caught my eye. It took me a moment to realize it was the deer we’d killed earlier. Its eyes were open but vacant. That, I thought, was an honorable death.