A clan of mutants rebel against their masters in a world emaciated by nuclear war.
Chapter One of a novel-in-progress
The noose gripped tightly around Ash’s neck, just loose enough to allow breath. He had been here before—not up on the gallows for all to see, but he had felt the same tautness against that soft spot just below the Adam’s apple when Harold Tuft had lassoed his neck. The thing was, Harold had been much smaller than Ash—Ash could have grabbed the cable and hurled him halfway across the road. That would’ve drawn the wrong kind of attention, though, and there was no trial-by-jury for a mutant, especially one who brought harm to an Elect.
Who knew what sort of punishment he’d be in store for.
Couldn’t be as bad as an ol’ fashioned hanging in the gallows, now could it, Ash ol’ boy? And this thought was followed by another that both amused and horrified him all at once: This isn’t even close to the worst place a Mutie could end up.
“TWELVE MINUTES…TWELVE MINUTES UNTIL EXECUTION COMMENCES,” the voice inside his head bellowed like a street preacher in a kind of sing-song fashion, and Ash’s anxiety took a sudden downturn to outright nausea.
“And while escape is impossible, dear prisoner, if it should cross your mind, remember that passing the quarter-mile radial boundary of the complex will result in the release of a very painful, slow-acting poison that will inevitably lead to death.”
“Go to hell,” Ash tried to mumble, but as he shifted his weight upon the plank the noose tightened a bit more around his neck, cutting off his words. This voice had been haunting him for the last three days; it was a result of the chip the prison guards had implanted in his brain. The chip served two purposes, so far as Ash could tell: tracking prisoners in case they managed to escape, and demoralizing them from wanting to escape in the first place. He had to admit, it was more effective than he would have first imagined. It was hard to build hope with the constant reminder of the many bad things that could happen if you somehow managed to get free.
Before him sat an empty lot of hard-packed, red dirt where a few onlookers had already begun to trickle in through the steel gates. Behind them stood a brick wall with gashes where the mortar had putrefied, separating them from the streets of downtown Soteria. Stone towers emblazoned with dark ash held chimneys that emitted faint puffs of black smoke. Beyond this, a massive wall enclosing the city and then a red and orange sky that belied the truth of its own beauty. The sky was always this color, a spectacle created by the blend of the artificial atmosphere and what settled beyond in the Unlivable Space.
Something sharp whacked the back of his head, sending needling pain down his neck. He tried to grunt, but his neck pushed harder against the fibers of the rope so that only a wheeze came out. The Stone Throwers are here, he thought. The taunting and spitting would come next. At public hangings he’d attended in the past, the crowd was always slow to stir, but they usually got there eventually. Given the significance of the crime he was being accused of committing and given that he was a mutant, he didn’t think it would take long either.
Another stone pelted the side of his misshaped face—another his right thigh.
A fourth rock struck his left shoulder; and then another his sternum. He gritted his teeth, as the feel of warm, syrupy fluid oozed just below the throbbing areas where he’d been struck.
The pain is only going to get worse, Ash. If you can’t bear this, how will you manage if your neck doesn’t snap when the floorboard’s removed?
He had seen others dangle to their deaths in breathless struggle—had seen the panic in their eyes as they clawed at the rope. Again, he tried to swallow but the noose caught the ball of saliva and pushed it back up his throat.
“ELEVEN MINUTES UNTIL THE EXECUTION CEREMONY BEGINS,” the voice sang. “YOUR BEST OPTION IS TO SIMPLY WAIT FOR IT—STRUGGLING CAN ONLY LEAD TO MORE PAIN AND SUFFERING.”
As bad as things were, he could handle the heckling and pain. He could even tolerate the irritating voice of the computer chip that prattled on in his mind, but when he noticed a familiar figure pushing his way to the front of the mob, Ash shrieked.
What the hell is Milt doing here?
The oversized head concealed by the black hood of the cloak and hunched left shoulder were dead giveaways.
Ash had insisted his twin brother to stay home. If the mob saw their resemblance, they would surely turn on him. Ash tried to call out, but the noose gripped tighter against his neck with each attempt.
“Kill the Mutie!”
Another stone caught Ash in the privates, and for the first time Ash thanked the heavens that Muties were bred to be sterile.
Milt turned his head to the far wall, searching for something beyond the crowd. Ash squinted against the brilliance of the fiery sky, following Milt’s gaze until he saw another figure hunkered down at the threshold of the grated cavern leading to the sewers. The figure held something metallic in his hand.
“HANG him! Kill the mutant!”
The crowd’s jeering was now an all-out chant, with foot stomps following rhythmically like a drumbeat sending vibrations through the gallows. He tried to ignore it, to center his focus on the cloaked man at the sewer entrance. The object he held looked like a machine of some kind…a metal box with blue, white and yellow chords poking out from its sides. Two green, flickering lights blinked at the top like menacing eyes.
“Murder the murderer!”
When the lights flashed from green to red, a dim laser shot towards him. Not at him, but just above. He smelled burning rope moments later.
“Put it out, you fool!” the voice of the High Priest boomed from the loudspeakers —the grand leader himself stood in the balcony of the building behind him. Ash had never met the High Priest—few had—but he knew the voice…everyone did. He had recited the prayers of the Grand Nova through the city’s loudspeakers each morning, mid-afternoon and evening. Those prayers always ended with: “…for the salvation of the Elect, forever and always. Amen.”
“NINE MINUTES UNTIL THE EXECUTION CEREMONY BEHINDS…”
The executioner had been standing just beyond Ash’s peripheries. In fact, Ash hadn’t seen him at all since being led out to the gallows. Now, the large man lumbered to the front of the plank, his tight-fitting black tunic, boots, gloves and a cloth mask only half-concealed the hang of flab at his underarms and belly. The executioner leaned in close to Ash, reaching up to the enflamed rope, slapping at it in a way that must have been comical to those near the front of the crowd, for several of them laughed at pointed. Others scowled, as if the sight was something blasphemous. Ash gagged at the stink of the man, but couldn’t help but smile at the widening of his panicked eyes through the narrow slits of his mask.
The large man went out of view again, allowing for three more stones to hit Ash on the leg, cheek and stomach.
“Kill him! Kill him! HANG THE MUTIE!”
The executioner returned with a bucket of water, heaving it high above Ash’s head, leaving him thoroughly drenched. He only had to see the fret in his eyes to know that the executioner had missed his target.
“Idiot! Put that out—put it OUT!” The voice of the High Priest thundered again from the loudspeakers, causing the executioner to flinch like a struck pup.
The top of Ash’s head was beginning to sweat and sting from the heat. He could smell the burning of rope—could see the shocked faces of the crowd.
Very soon that’s going to be the stench of my burning skin!
But somehow he doubted that would happen. He didn’t think the figure from the sewers meant to harm him—not with Milton somehow involved.
The executioner returned with a rusted machete, and Ash felt panic rush him like a swarm of bees.
The moron intends to run me through!
And to Ash, that would have made sense. Sure, the executioner would have still been punished—a botched hanging doesn’t go without consequence—but in the end the results would have been as intended: one dead Mutie. But instead, the man in black swung the machete, not at Ash, but above him, slicing the rope. Ash fell with a thud on the wooden plank, flopping and gasping like a caught fish in a bucket.
“What are you DOING?” asked the High Priest through the loudspeakers. “You FOOL! You IDIOT!”
Frantic, Ash gasped, struggling to find breath. The hangman kept his focus on extinguishing the fire when someone lifted Ash by the shoulders and began dragging him down the steel ramp.
“STOP THEM! STOP THEM!”
The voice in Ash’s head went ballistic, mimicking the crazed tone of the High Priest.
“THIS IS A MISTAKE, PRISONER,” it said. “A MISTAKE! A MISTAKE! HORRIBLE PAIN AWAITS YOU IF YOU SURPASS THE QUARTER-MILE BARRER! RETURN NOW, OR FACE DAMNATION! DO NOT PASS THE QUARTER-MILE BARRIER!”
At the bottom of the ramp, another pair of hands aided in the dragging effort. Ash’s face was turned upwards to the red and orange sky, his nostrils taking in warm dust clouds with each breath. The jagged rocks of the hard dirt scraped at his back and bare hands as he was dragged through the mob. An occasional stone struck him, but most of these throws missed. The voice in the loudspeaker had turned to a near scream, but even that was becoming more and more muffled as they neared the sewers.
The tunnels were black as pitch, even after his eyes should have had enough time to adjust to the dark. He was already deep into the blackness when he heard the deafening screech of sewer grates grind to a close behind them.
“RETURN TO THE CEREMONY, PRISONER, AND BEG FORGIVENESS! DO THIS AND YOU WILL RECEIVE A MERCIFUL DEATH. DO NOT SURPASS THE QUARTER-MILE BOUNDARY, PRISONER! RETURN TO THE…”
The voice cut off.
“Feel better?” said one of the men donning a cloak.
“That shut it up, eh?” said another.
“Quiet, Brill. Now is not the time.”
“The Good Man Jesus, no names! I’m just trying to calm the poor guy down. I mean, look at him!”
“I see him. He’s not yet breathing—not well, anyway, and we’ve still a ways to go.”
A series of soft pats on Ash’s cheek…a gentle shake of his shoulder…
“Buddy, you okay?”
Ash tried to nod, tried to thank them, but passed out instead.