Nuclear war, dystopian unrest, a genetic mutation that divides twins in life and unites them in death—Oh my! If you’re looking for something “refreshingly nuanced” (Booklist, starred review), check out The Fire Sermon, the first novel in award-winning poet Francesca Haig’s richly imagined and action-packed post-apocalyptic trilogy, available now in paperback. Excerpt below!
Four hundred years after a nuclear apocalypse, all humans are born in pairs: the deformed Omegas, who are exploited and oppressed, and their Alpha twins, who have inherited the earth—or what’s left of it. But despite their claims of superiority, the Alphas cannot escape one harsh fact: whenever one twin dies, so does the other.
Cass is a rare Omega whose mutation is psychic foresight—not that she needs it to know that as her powerful twin, Zach, ascends the ranks of the ruling Alpha Council, she’s in grave danger. Zach has a devastating plan for Omega annihilation. Cass has visions of an island where a bloody Omega resistance promises a life of freedom. But her real dream is to discover a middle way, one that would bring together the sundered halves of humanity. And that means both the Council and the resistance have her in their sights.
The next morning, as usual, I woke from dreams of fire.
As the months passed, the moments after such dreams were the only times I was grateful to wake to the confines of the cell. The room’s grayness, the familiarity of its implacable walls, were the opposite of the vast and savage excess of the blast I dreamed of nightly.
There were no written tales or pictures of the blast. What was the point of writing it, or drawing it, when it was etched on every surface? Even now, more than four hundred years after it had destroyed everything, it was still visible in every tumbled cliff, scorched plain, and ash-clogged river. Every face. It had become the only story the earth could tell, so who else would record it? A history written in ashes, in bones. Before the blast, they say there’d been sermons about fire, about the end of the world. The fire itself gave the last sermon; after that there were no more.
Most who survived were deafened and blinded. Many others found themselves alone—if they told their stories, it was only to the wind. And even if they had companions, no survivor could ever properly describe the moment it happened: the new color of the sky, the roar of sound that ended everything. Struggling to describe it, the survivors would have found themselves, like me, stranded in that space where words ran out and sound began.
The blast shattered time. In an instant, it cleaved time irrevocably into Before and After. Now, hundreds of years later, in the After, no survivors remained, no testimonies. Only seers like me could glimpse it, momentarily, in the instant before waking, or when it ambushed us in the half second of a blink: the flash, the horizon burning up like paper.
The only tales of the blast were sung by the bards. When I was a child, the bard who passed through the village each autumn sang of other nations, across the sea, sending the flame down from the sky, and of the radiation and the Long Winter that had followed. I must have been eight or nine when, at Haven market, Zach and I heard an older bard with frost-gray hair singing the same tune but with different words. The chorus about the Long Winter was the same, but she made no mention of other nations.
Each verse she sang just described the fire, and how it had consumed everything. When I’d pulled our father’s hand and asked him, he’d shrugged. There were lots of versions of the song, he said. What difference did it make? If there’d once been other lands, across the sea, there were no longer, as far as any sailor had lived to tell. The occasional rumors of Elsewhere, countries across the sea, were only rumors—no more to be believed than the rumors about an island where Omegas lived free of Alpha oppression. To be overheard speculating about such things was to invite public flogging, or to end up in the stocks, like the Omega we’d once seen outside Haven, pinned under the scathing sun until his tongue was a scaled blue lizard protruding from his mouth, while two bored Council soldiers kept watch, kicking him from time to time to ensure he was still alive.
Don’t ask questions, our father said; not about the Before, not about Elsewhere, not about the island. People in the Before asked too many questions, probed too far, and look what that got them. This is the world now, or all we’ll ever know of it: bounded by the sea to the north, west, and south; the deadlands to the east. And it made no difference where the blast came from. All that mattered was that it came. It was all so long ago, as unknowable as the Before that it had destroyed, and from which only rumors and ruins remained.
In my first months in the cell, I was granted the occasional gift of sky. Every few weeks, in the company of other imprisoned Omegas, I was escorted onto the ramparts for some exercise and a few moments of fresh air. We were taken in groups of three, with at least as many guards. They watched us carefully, keeping us not only apart but also well away from the crenellations that overlooked the city below. The first outing, I’d learned not to try to approach the other prisoners, let alone to speak. As the guards escorted us up from the cells, one of them had grumbled about the slow pace of the pale-haired prisoner, hopping on one leg. “I’d be quicker if you hadn’t taken away my cane,” she’d pointed out. They didn’t respond, and she’d rolled her eyes at me. It wasn’t even a smile, but it was the first hint of warmth I’d seen since entering the Keeping Rooms. When we reached the ramparts, I’d tried to sidle close enough to her to attempt a whisper. I was still ten feet from her when the guards tackled me against the wall so hard that my shoulder blades were bruised against the stone. As they hustled me back down to the cell, one of them spat at me. “Don’t talk to the others,” he said. “Don’t even look at them, do you hear?” With my arms held behind my back, I couldn’t wipe his spittle from my cheek. Its warmth was a foul intimacy. I never saw the woman again.
A month or more later was my third outing to the ramparts, and the last for any of us. I was standing by the door, letting my eyes get accustomed to the glint of sun on polished stone. Two guards stood to my right, chatting quietly. Twenty feet to my left, another guard leaned against the wall, watching a male Omega. He’d been in the Keeping Rooms longer than me, I guessed. His skin, which must once have been dark, was now a dirty gray. More telling were the twitchy motions of his hands and the way he kept moving his lips, as if they didn’t fit over his gums. The whole time we’d been up there, he had walked back and forth on the same small patch of stones, dragging his twisted right leg. Despite the interdiction on speaking to one another, I could periodically hear his muttered counting: Two hundred and forty-seven. Two hundred and forty-eight.
Everyone knew that many seers went mad—that over years the visions burned our minds away. The visions were flame, and we were the wick. This man wasn’t a seer, but it didn’t surprise me that anyone held for long enough in the Keeping Rooms would go mad. What chance, then, for me, contending with the visions at the same time as the unrelenting walls of my cell? In a year or two, I thought, that might be me, counting out my footsteps as if the neatness of numbers could impose some order on a broken mind.
Between me and the pacing man was another prisoner, perhaps a few years older than me, a one-armed woman with dark hair and a cheerful face. It was the second time we’d been taken to the ramparts together. I walked as close to the edge of the ramparts as the guards would allow and stared beyond the sandstone crenellations as I tried to contrive some way that I might speak or signal to her. I couldn’t get close enough to the edge to get a proper look at the city that unfolded beneath the mountainside fort. The horizon was curtailed by the ramparts, beyond which I could see only the hills, painted gray with distance.
I realized the counting had stopped. By the time I’d turned around to see what had changed, the older Omega had already rushed at the woman and gripped her neck between his hands. With only one arm she couldn’t fight hard enough or cry out quickly enough. The guards reached them while I was still yards away, and in seconds they’d pulled him off her, but it was too late.
I’d closed my eyes to block the sight of her body, facedown on the flagstones, head turned sideways at an impossible angle. But for a seer there’s no refuge behind closed eyelids. In my shuddering mind I saw what else happened at precisely the moment that she died: a hundred feet above us, inside the fort, a glass of wine dropped, sharding red over a marble floor. A man in a velvet jacket fell backward, scrambled for a second to his knees, and died, his hands to his neck.
After that, there were no more trips to the ramparts. Sometimes I thought I could hear the mad Omega shouting and thrashing the walls, but it was only a dull thud, a throb in the night. I never knew whether I was really hearing it, or just sensing it.
Inside my cell, it was almost never dark. A glass ball suspended in the ceiling gave off a pale light. It was lit constantly and emitted a slight buzz, so low that I sometimes wondered whether it was just a ringing in my own ears. For the first few days I watched it nervously, waiting for it to burn out and leave me in total darkness. But this was no candle, not even an oil lamp. The light it gave off was different: cooler, and unwavering. Its sterile light only faltered every few weeks, when it would flicker for several seconds and disappear, leaving me in a formless black world. But it never lasted more than one or two minutes. Each time the light would return, blinking a couple of times, like somebody waking from sleep, before resuming its vigil. I came to welcome these intermittent breakdowns. They were the only interruptions from the light’s ceaseless glare.
This must be the Electric, I supposed. I’d heard the stories: it was like a kind of magic, the key to most of the technology from the Before. Whatever it had been, though, it was supposed to be gone now. Any machines not already destroyed in the blast had been done away with in the purges that followed, when the survivors had destroyed all traces of the technology that had brought the world to ash. All remnants of the Before were taboo, but none more than the machines. And while the penalties for breaking the taboo were brutal, the law was mainly policed by fear alone. The danger was inscribed on the surface of our scorched world, and on the twisted bodies of the Omegas. We needed no reminders.
But here was a machine, a piece of the Electric, hanging from the ceiling of my cell. Not anything terrifying or powerful, like the things people whispered about. Not a weapon, or a bomb, or even a carriage that could move without a horse. Just this glass bulb, the size of my fist, blaring light at the top of my cell. I couldn’t stop staring at it, the knot of extreme brightness at its core, sharply white, as though a spark from the blast itself were captured there. I stared at it for so long that when I closed my eyes the bright shape of it was etched on my eyelids’ darkness. I was fascinated, and appalled, wincing beneath the light in those first days as though it might explode.
When I watched the light, it wasn’t only the taboo that scared me— it was what this act of witness meant for me. If word got out that the Council was breaking the taboo, there’d be another purge. The terror of the blast, and the machines that had wrought it, was still too real, too visceral, for people to tolerate. I knew the light was a life sentence: now that I’d seen it, I’d never be allowed out.
More than anything else, I missed the sky. A narrow vent, just below the ceiling, let in fresh air from somewhere, but never even a glimpse of sunlight. I calculated time’s passage by the arrival of food trays twice a day through the slot in the base of the door. As the months since that last visit to the ramparts receded, I found I could recall the sky in the abstract, but couldn’t properly picture it. I thought of the stories of the Long Winter, after the blast, when the air had been so thick with ash that nobody saw the sky for years and years. They say there were children born in that time who never saw the sky at all. I wondered whether they’d believed in it; whether imagining the sky had become an act of faith for them, as it now was for me.
Counting days was the only way I could cling to any sense of time, but as the tally grew it became its own torture. I wasn’t counting down toward any prospect of release: the numbers only climbed, and with them the sense of suspension, of floating in an indefinite world of darkness and isolation. After the visits to the ramparts were stopped, the only regular milestone was the Confessor coming each fortnight to interrogate me about my visions. She told me that the other Omegas saw no one. Thinking of the Confessor, I didn’t know if I should envy or pity them.
They say the twins started to appear in the second and third generations of the After. In the Long Winter there were no twins—barely any births at all, and fewer who survived. They were the years of melted bodies and failed, unrecognizable infants. So few lived, and fewer still could breed, so that it seemed unlikely humans would carry on at all. At first, in the struggle to repopulate, the onslaught of twins must have been greeted with joy. So many babies, and so many of them normal. There was always one boy and one girl, with one from each pair perfect. Not just well formed, but strong, robust. But soon the fatal symmetry became evident; the price to be paid for each perfect baby was its twin. They came in many different forms: limbs missing, or atrophied, or occasionally multiplied. Absent eyes, extra eyes, or eyes sealed shut. These were the Omegas, the shadow counterparts to the Alphas. The Alphas called them mutants, said they were the poison that Alphas cast out, even in the womb. The stain of the blast that, while it couldn’t be removed, had at least been displaced onto the lesser twin. The Omegas carried the burden of the mutations, leaving the Alphas unencumbered.
Not entirely unencumbered, though. While the difference between twins was visible, the link between them was not. But it nonetheless asserted itself, every time, in the most unanswerable way. It made no difference that nobody could understand how it worked. At first, they might have dismissed it as coincidence. But gradually, disbelief was overruled by fact, by the evidence of bodies. The twins came in pairs, and they died in pairs. Wherever they were, and no matter how far apart, whenever someone died, their twin died, too.
Extreme pain, too, or serious illness, would affect both twins. A high fever in one twin would soon peak in the other; if one twin was knocked out, the other would lose consciousness as well, wherever he or she was. Minor injuries or sickness didn’t seem to bridge the divide, but severe pain would see one twin wake, screaming, from the other twin’s wound.
When it became clear that Omegas were infertile, it was assumed for a while that they would die out. That they were only a temporary blight, a readjustment after the blast. But each generation since then was the same: all twins, always one Alpha and one Omega. Only Alphas could produce children, but each child they produced came with its Omega twin.
When Zach and I were born, a perfect match, our parents must have counted and recounted: limbs, fingers, toes. The complete set. They would have been disbelieving, though; nobody dodged the split between Alpha and Omega. Nobody. It wasn’t unheard of for an Omega to have a deformation that only became apparent later: one leg that refused to grow in tandem with the other; deafness that passed unnoticed in infancy; an arm that turned out to be stunted or weak. But there were also rumors, all over, about those few whose difference never showed itself physically: the boy who seemed normal until he screamed and ran from the cottage minutes before the roof beam’s sudden collapse; the girl who wept over the shepherd’s dog a week before the cart from the next village ran it down. These were the Omegas whose mutation was invisible: the seers. They were rare—only one in every few thousand, if that. Everybody knew of the seer who came to the market each month at Haven, the big town downstream. Although Omegas weren’t permitted at the Alpha market, he’d been tolerated for years, lurking at the back of the stalls, behind the stacked crates and the mounds of spoiled vegetables. By the time I first went to the market he was old but still plying his trade, charging a bronze coin in exchange for predicting next season’s weather to farmers, or telling a merchant’s daughter whom she’d end up marrying. But he was always odd: he muttered to himself steadily, an unending incantation. Once, when Zach and I walked past with Dad, the seer shouted, “Fire. Forever fire.” The stallholders nearby didn’t even flinch—evidently such outbursts were common. That was the fate of most seers: the blast burned its way through minds as they were forced to relive it.
I don’t know when I first realized my own difference, but I was old enough to know that it had to be hidden. In the early years, I was as oblivious as my parents. What child doesn’t wake, screaming, from a bad dream? It took a long time for me to understand that there was something different about my dreams. The consistency of my dreams of the blast. The way that I’d dream of a storm that wouldn’t arrive until the following night. How the details and scenes in my dreams extended far beyond my own experience of the village, its forty or so stone houses clustered around the central green with its stone-rimmed well. All I had ever known was this shallow valley, the houses and the wooden barns grouped a hundred feet from the river, high enough up to avoid the floods that drenched the fields with rich silt each winter. But my dreams thronged with unfamiliar landscapes and strange faces. Forts that loomed ten times the height of our own small house with its rough-sanded floors and low, beamed ceilings. Cities with streets wider than the river itself and swollen with crowds.
By the time I was old enough to wonder at this, I was old enough to know that Zach was sleeping through each night, undisturbed. In the cot that we shared, I taught myself to lie in silence, to calm my frenzied breathing. When the visions came in the daytime, especially the roaring flash of the blast, I learned not to cry out. The first time Dad took us downstream to Haven, I recognized the jostling market square from my dreams, but when I saw Zach hang back and grip Dad’s hand, I imitated my brother’s dumbfounded stare.
So our parents waited. Like all parents, they’d made only a single cot for us, expecting to send one child away as soon as we’d been split and weaned. When, at three, we remained stubbornly unsplit, our father built a pair of larger beds. Although our neighbor Mick was known throughout the valley for his skill at carpentry, this time Dad didn’t ask for his help. He built the beds himself, almost furtively, in the small walled yard outside the kitchen window. In the years that followed, whenever my lopsided, ill-made bed creaked I remembered the expression on Dad’s face when he’d dragged the beds into the room, setting them as far apart as the narrow walls would allow.
Mom and Dad hardly spoke to us anymore. Those were the drought years, when everything was rationed, and it seemed to me that even words had become scarce. In our valley, where the low-lying fields were usually flooded every winter, the river thinned to an apathetic trickle, the exposed riverbed on each side cracked like old pottery. Even in our well-off village there was nothing to spare. Our harvests were poor the first two years, and in the third year without rain the crops failed altogether, and we lived off hoarded coins. The dried-up fields were scoured by dust. Some of the livestock died—there was no animal feed to buy, even for those with coins. There were stories of people starving, farther east. The Council sent patrols through all the villages, to protect against
Omega raids. That was the summer they erected the wall around Haven, and most of the larger Alpha towns. But the only Omegas I glimpsed in those years, passing our village on the way to the refuges, looked too thin and weary to threaten anyone.
Even when the drought had broken, the Council patrols continued. Mom and Dad’s vigilance didn’t change, either. The slightest difference between me and Zach was anticipated, seized on, and dissected. When we both came down with the winter fever, I overheard my parents’ long discussion about who had sickened first. I must have been six or seven. Through the floor of our bedroom I could hear, from the kitchen below, my father’s loud insistence that I’d looked flushed the night before, a good ten hours before both Zach and I had woken with our fevers peaking in perfect unison.
That was when I realized that Dad’s wariness around us was distrust, not habitual gruffness; that Mom’s constant watchfulness was something other than maternal devotion. Zach used to follow Dad around all day, from the well to the field to the barn. As we grew older, and Dad became prickly and wary with us, he began to shoo Zach away, shouting at him to get back to the house. Still Zach would find excuses to tail him when he could. If Dad was gathering fallen wood from the copse upstream, Zach would drag me there, too, to search for mushrooms. If Dad was harvesting in the maize field, Zach would find a sudden enthusiasm for fixing the broken gate to the next paddock. He kept a safe distance, but trailed our father like an oddly misplaced shadow.
At night I clenched my eyes shut when Mom and Dad would talk about us, as if that would block out the voices that seeped through the floorboards. In the bed against the opposite wall I could hear Zach shift slightly, and the unhurried rhythm of his breathing. I didn’t know if he was asleep or just pretending.