James Jaros' new novel Burn Down the Sky offers a disturbing take on the post-global-warming dystopian setting. Our civilization is no more, thanks to skyrocketing temperatures and a catstrophic water shortage — and then there's the deadly "Wicca" virus.
Check out the first chapter of Jaros' horrifying post-apocalyptic novel below.
Texas School Board Demands Equal Time for Climate Change Challenge
"Warming is only theory," board says — Associated Press
"Nonessential" Plane Travel Banned
Desperate measure to cut greenhouse gases
Critics call it "too little, too late" — Washington Post
Sweat dripped from the tip of Ananda's nose, darkening the dust. The girl raised a shovelful of dirt from the cracked bed of an empty reservoir and topped off a sandbag. Her mom tied a quick knot, heaved it aside, and snapped open another hand-sewn sack. Two men raised the wall behind them.
"Don't stop, hon. We're almost there."
Her mother had caught her staring at the steep sides of the basin-rising like cliffs, crumbling like chalk-before nudging the shovel with her foot. Ananda sank it back into the hard ground, the sun brutal on her back. Every story she'd ever heard about disasters called for gray skies, stormy skies, but there had never been a disaster like this one-that's what her dad said-and the sun rarely strayed. The evidence surrounded them in ring upon ring of shimmery, deadly heat. There was the reservoir on which she stood, a moat of parched earth and insects extending miles from the camp in every direction. Then high above her at the top of those clumpy cliffs lay the shoreline where huge summer homes had once peered down at unthinkably cool blue water before the flames claimed them, too. And beyond the circle of charred houses rested the silent forests, burned to oblivion by the same relentless force that had gutted those lavish homes-the savage orb that would not waver.
Ananda had never known the world beyond the fallen forests, but she imagined the fiery rings radiating all the way to the sun itself, sparking those death rays in the sky.
The wall now rose to her mother's eyes; only a few feet remained before the camp was enclosed. They'd been building it for seven days, but what could it keep out. What?
Her mother had been vague, her father less so. Before leaving to scout the perimeter this morning, he'd said it would keep out coyotes, wolves, panthers, bears, marauders.
He'd mentioned the marauders almost as an afterthought, but Ananda knew better: Another scout had spotted them moving south from Knoxville ten days ago. They'd always thought the camp was isolated, far from the plundering. Plans for the wall had begun immediately.
As she shoveled, she glanced through the narrow opening to the camp garden, shaded by a patchwork of old clothes, torn blankets, tattered tarps-anything that could defy the sun, even weakly. Sunlight in only the smallest doses, and each plant watered by hand, by drips. The greens-chard and kale and spinach-hung withered as the faces of the old men and women who looked after every leaf, picking off the constant bugs and crushing them with fingers turned the dun color of earth.
Ananda and her mother formed half of a work crew that included the men who raised the actual wall and plastered it with a mud mix more precious than the jewels of old. Her father's brother, Uncle Rye, tall and lean like him, thrust the final sandbag into place as the sun slipped behind the distant cliffs, briefly backlighting the ruins.
Always the tang of wood smoke in the air, sulfurous and sweet, even when the fires couldn't be seen, as if the flames had stalked the last breath of the land deep underground, burning the roots and rocks and worms until the world above collapsed into the world below. Making a hidden hell to match the one they'd left to the eye.
Even the cracks in the lake bed appeared to smolder, though they'd built the camp as far as possible from the combustibles that formed the reservoir's towering, blackened border. Nothing lived down here but what they tended-the garden, themselves. Grains of hope.
"Is Dad going to make it back tonight?" Ananda always worried when he was gone, saying good-bye to him at dawn with pleading in her eyes.
"Yes, he'll be back." Her mother's hand fell to her back, rubbing it briefly as they walked past the picked-over berry patch by the camp's lone spigot, its lip dry as crust at the end of the day. It was drawing the last of the groundwater, and even the littlest children knew this. It might last another year. It might dry up tomorrow. No one wanted to contemplate the next step because it would be a step, maybe a million of them, each more dangerous than the last as a new search began.
Ananda looked around. At least here, she thought, we have the wall, now. Water, now. Food, now. Out there-beyond the cliffs and rubble and burned trees, beyond the empty cities-were only rumors of the worst the world can offer.
"Reduced to rumors." Her father had once said that while staring at the sky, as if bewildered by the breathless weight of his own words, no more believing them than the absence of clouds or rain. He'd put his hand on her shoulder and said, "I'm sorry."
She and her mom sat outside their tent on a sheet of pink plastic salvaged from the long journey here, a story she first heard as a toddler. Everything they owned held a story, for nothing had come easily, so a piece of plastic, bleached by the blazing sky to the palest hint of color, had a history and an imagined past in a better time.
A centipede crawled toward her foot. Her mother crushed it so quickly that Ananda only glimpsed it moving.
Her mom didn't need to tell her about centipedes or snakes, or the prickly toxic plants that could sprout in the cracks of the lake bed. Her parents had been graduate students in wildlife biology before the final fall forced them south. They taught survival classes in the camp, though only days ago Ananda had heard the other adults argue for a gentler name. But her mother had said the children needed to know "the stakes."
Her mother's eyes were never easy, always searching, like they'd seen too much, and having seen too much were forced to look for even more.
Looking now for Bliss. On the same day Ananda had been assigned to wall building, her older sister was given cistern duty. Critical work. Her mother's eyes looked through the long dusk for Bliss to return.
The camp had four large cisterns buried in the lake bed, and a network of gutters to harvest the rare rain. Not a drop could be wasted. Everyone grabbed cups and bowls and sheets of plastic and ran around catching it, mad with relief and laughter, and drinking their fill while they could. Festive, like a holiday. Rain! Without its sparse offerings, they would have dried up the groundwater long ago and been driven to the Gulf, dead and heating still, dark with velvety oil slicks and derricks long abandoned.
They'd come to Alabama ten years ago, though the names of states meant nothing now. Droughts knew no borders. Neither did the gritty wind or the thunderheads that devoured the sky before battering the land with vicious bursts, flooding it, washing away the rich soil until every remaining ounce became a treasure greater than gold. Hating the waste of so much water, and hating the passing of those clouds, too, the remote promise of their angry anvil shapes vanishing like a moment's rage.
Bliss and her work crew had been hiding the openings to the cisterns, drawn down to a nine-day supply. Rationing had begun with the building of the wall, a struggle for Ananda, who perspired heavily. Her mother had shared her rations.
"If marauders come, we'll claim the drought like a friend," her father had said last night, "because having nothing might drive them on without a battle."
"They want more than water," her mother had replied. "They want-"
Before her father could speak, her mother silenced herself. But Ananda knew what she would have said: "They want girls." And she knew why her mother had stopped speaking: the fear of Wicca.
Her parents had told her about the virus a little more than a year ago. They'd sat her down in their tent after the evening communal meal and closed the flaps. Bliss had stood outside to make sure the littlest children didn't overhear what was about to be said. Her mother had told her to listen carefully, that they didn't want to dwell on what they had to tell her, "but you're older now, and you need to know." Her mom began by saying that Wicca had a scientific name: Immune Disintegration Disorder, or IDD, but that "Wicca" had come into far greater usage after enraged fundamentalists of all faiths started calling it the "devil's disease."
Ananda had sat still as the air in the tent as her mother said that the Wicca virus confined safe sex between men and women to the twelve months after menarche. "After that, sex will almost always kill you. So sex can't happen, Ananda," her mother had said in her gentlest voice. "Ever."
"But you have sex. You had me and Bliss."
"No, not anymore. Sex is too deadly now. And it's a horrible death, Ananda. It's so bad it makes people kill themselves. It's madness." Then her mom stared at her so intensely that it frightened her.
"Meaning?" Ananda whispered.
Her parents had glanced at each other. Ananda watched her father shake his head.
"Can you just accept that for now?" he asked her. "That it's the most horrible disease ever?"
Her parents never talked to her about Wicca again, but every day since then the disease had felt as real as the ravaged earth. Even Bliss wouldn't talk about it. "The more you know," her sister told her, "the less you'll wish you knew."
Now, Ananda watched everyone in the camp return to their tents, sitting as she and her mother were, by the front flaps. Fatigue quelling boredom, as it did every day. They numbered almost 140 people, about half of them children, and were joined not by a common religion, other than a shared understanding that religion had failed them as surely as other earthly institutions; or by a common hope beyond survival, because hope in its most magisterial realms-home and land alive with the abundant fruits of labor-had failed them, too.
But survival itself was a powerful unguent, soothing their everyday differences and holding them together like the mud they made from sand and clay and compost, which turned fifty-pound sandbags into a wall. Joined also by the weaponry they shared. Ananda, along with the other children ten or older, knew how to use their eclectic collection of revolvers, knives, swords, chains, semiautomatic pistols, shotguns, and three fully automatic rifles. Firepower looted from an armory, back when armories still stood brazen against the world.
Well-armed for a camp, but not like the marauders who had the richest redoubts showering them with food, fuel, weapons, and armor-plated vehicles-all they needed to hunt girls. That was the scariest rumor Ananda had ever heard: that gangs roamed the land "harvesting" girls like her for sex.
Her parents wouldn't say, and neither had Bliss. But Ananda sensed that everything the girls whispered about sex harvesting was true. She'd glimpsed it in the eyes of her sister, turning cold when one of the older boys in their own camp let his gaze linger on her chest, which had grown in the past year. Ananda had also noticed Bliss's small breasts, and above them, always alert, her icy blue eyes.
Her mother was still looking for her.
"What if Dad doesn't get back tonight?" The sky was darkening.
"I told you, he'll be back."
Empty words. One way or another they said empty words every day, until they could have filled the reservoir with their meaninglessness.
Ananda stood, jumping up to look over the wall to try to catch sight of her father first. Nothing but the vast plain of lake bed. Her father had stayed away at night only twice before, both times after he'd spied marauders and couldn't risk capture. The marauders had little interest in men, she'd overheard her mother telling Bliss, but rendered their bodies for their dogs.
Dusk, thankfully, was slow this time of year, one of the few clues to the season. "You study the angle of the sun to know winter from summer," her dad had told her. But it seemed a crime to have to measure angles to know the season.
"It is a crime," her father agreed.
"Then someone's got to pay," she said.
"In the best of worlds, someone would."
Still, she welcomed the angle because when she jumped again, the late light revealed dust rising above a distant hummock in the lake bed. A wisp, that's all, and it might be no more than a dust devil dancing teasingly. But it was her father.
"Dad!" she screamed. "He's running!" She raced to the wall, hurling herself up to the top. He was running with Hansel, their mastiff mix, by his side. Hansel looked behind them.
Ananda heard her mother yelling, "Open the gate. Open it," before ripping off the chains herself.
Her father was a half mile away. At least. She'd never seen him run so hard. His rifle was strapped across his back and his bandolier flapped against his bare chest. His hair, long and banded, bounced behind him.
He screamed at Hansel. Ananda couldn't hear him, saw only the hand gesture that came with the command "Home." The huge dog slowed, as if torn between his master and the order, then raced ahead.
Ananda sickened when she saw her father's command, even more when her mother screamed "No" as an armor-clad truck roared around the hummock, churning up a hurricane of dust.
Her mom pulled her down from the wall. "You are not to watch."
Ananda broke free and hoisted herself back up. She saw Hansel nearing the gate, her father still so far away.
Her mother pulled her back down again, shouting, "Go to the hiding place now."
"But Mom," she pleaded, "Dad's-"
Her mother pushed her into the arms of a woman who rushed her to the root cellar on the other side of the camp.
Ananda hurried down the steps and slipped into the darkness carved out of the earth behind a false wall, hiding with other girls-nine-, ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-olds. Even a fifteen-year-old. But not Bliss. One year after menarche, Bliss had been freed from having to hide. She would be at the wall with a pistol. Everyone had trained for this.
Ananda heard the root cellar door close. Not locked. Too obvious. But the entrance to the false wall would yield only to force.
"Nanda," whispered Imagi.
Ananda drew the girl close. A nine-year-old, but younger than the three years that separated them. "Down syndrome," Ananda's father had told her. Imagi had a big round face, wide-open eyes.
"We have to be quiet," Ananda said.
Imagi giggled and shouted, "Quiet."
The other girls hushed her at once. Bella, another twelve-year-old, said "You've got to keep her under control, Ananda."
They waited. So few sounds reached the root cellar, then the crack of bullets.
Imagi stiffened. So did Ananda, but she put her hand over the girl's mouth.
"Remember the game?" she said to her.
Imagi nodded in the blackness.
"It's starting now."