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SYNOPSIS OF ASHES AND DUST (NOVEL)
After serving in the Vietnam War, WILL WATSON attends an Ivy League grad school, gets married, and becomes adjunct professor of the humanities. But he struggles to find a full-time job in academe. When his marriage collapses in early 1999, he struggles more with wartime flashbacks. One, in particular, terrifies him: a nightmare of having a needle inserted behind his ear while lying half-conscious in an Army medic’s field tent. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he sees a UFO hovering outside, and he hears a voice say, “Project Sixty-Seven.”
He “accidentally” encounters fellow Vietnam War vet MARK MERCOTTI, now a computer salesman. Mercotti is haunted by the war as well. They become good friends, but Watson is suspicious of why and how Mercotti knows so much about him. Mercotti regales Watson with tales of UFOs, secret paranormal government projects, and cover-ups. Watson can’t get enough of it.
Watson’s hope is renewed when he is offered a tenure-track professorship at a college in Springvale, New Hampshire for the 1999 Fall Semester. There he meets his department’s attractive teaching assistant (TA): KIMIKO TANIMOTO, who is from Japan, and they become romantically involved, despite the rules against it. Everything seems to be falling into place, but Watson’s relationship with Kimiko doesn’t sit well with Mercotti, who keeps trying to come between them.
Meanwhile, Watson and Mercotti get sucked into the increasingly secret activities of the New Hampshire Liberty Militia. Militias are sprouting up everywhere as political and military tensions mount throughout the U.S. and the world. Watson’s illicit involvement with his TA arches eyebrows of college administrators and colleagues, as does his open involvement with the Liberty Militia. As the nation slides deeper into political turmoil and teeters on collapse, militias come under increasing State Police and FBI surveillance. Riots erupt in cities and emergency broadcasts populate the airwaves.
As the government tightens the noose around Second Amendment rights, the militia begins to cache weapons and ammo. One of Watson’s militia comrades, LEROY MORTON, joins the militia co-founder in this effort. Unfortunately, the co-founder has become a paid informant for the State Police and FBI and turns over Morton. He is interrogated at State Police headquarters, then secretly tortured and killed, though it is made to look like suicide by hanging. But Watson divines the truth and is hell-bent on revenge. In a calculated rage, Watson murders the deputy state trooper who killed Morton, garroting the officer with a unique knot he learned from American Army commandos in Vietnam.
Mercotti is called in by the police for his known experience in forensics and immediately recognizes the signature Prusik knots Watson used, but reveals nothing to the officers. He does, however, tell Watson he knows he’s the killer. Watson does not confess, though he knows he’s trapped; all he can do is trust Mercotti will not expose him. And thankfully, Mercotti doesn’t. Instead, he continues to equip the survivalist shelter he has built for Watson and Kimiko in Watson’s apartment complex basement as the international scene worsens.
Watson learns Kimiko is pregnant with his child and he feels guilty over his indifference. He is torn between adjusting to the idea of becoming a father and fleeing from wartime ghosts. He buries himself in teaching and militia duties to anesthetize himself. He teeters on the edge—as does the world.
Watson fears he will become a suspect in the deputy trooper’s killing, causing him to distance himself more from Mercotti. Kimiko senses something has come between the two men and realizes Watson is holding something back from her as well. Watson tries to deflect suspicion and gets even more enmeshed in the militia, which has now split into two factions over how to confront exploding lawlessness on Springvale’s streets. Watson witnesses an aborted gang rape, does nothing, and agonizes over his reluctance to intervene. The governor declares martial law and accuses Washington of downplaying the crisis. Kimiko laments not being able to help her family in Japan, while Watson feels near-helpless to provide for and protect the baby.
Police presence on the streets diminishes; they are overwhelmed. Watson witnesses an assault on the town mascot, a white swan; a man with a machete is about to decapitate it. This time Watson steps in, incapacitating the perpetrator and drags him inside a shed. There, Watson has a spiritual epiphany as he and the swan stare at each other. He dispatches the thug with a hidden martial arts device he always carries.
The State Police regional commander calls Watson to request he come in for questioning concerning his deputy trooper’s murder. Also, he has uncovered the fact that Mercotti was thrown out of the Army for homosexuality and has been involved in military black ops so secret he can’t find out anything about them.
Before Watson has to report in, Mercotti calls to finally confess the truth. During the war he had Watson placed in an ultra-secret CIA-initiated project to mold a new super soldier, Project Sixty-Seven. It comprised administering mind-altering drugs (psychotropics) with needles and enhanced electromagnetic frequencies to the brain via cranial implants, all while the subject lay unconscious. These special implants were designed after similar ones found in extraterrestrial abductees. Now Watson knew why the VA had suddenly stopped treating his unexplained headaches.
Mercotti is guilt-ridden and implores Watson’s forgiveness, admitting Watson had been recommended for the Medal of Honor while in combat, yet it had been quashed because of Project Sixty-Seven. Also, his contact with Mercotti was being monitored by the Pentagon and CIA until Mercotti had the implant deactivated. Watson also learns that his hazy memory of the UFO is real—and it is believed he had some kind of contact with it. The government has known extraterrestrials have been monitoring humans for a long time. The extraterrestrials have been attempting to hybridize a cross-fertilized alien species—half human—half other--with the intention of inheriting the Earth and creating a new civilization after Armageddon—which is now underway. Mercotti begs him to go to the sealed shelter he has built, saying, “That we’re human is an illusion.”
Watson inquires as to the ultimate essence of who and what humans are.
To which Mercotti replies that humans are but “OF ASHES AND DUST.”
Watson is devastated. His estranged ex-wife calls to tell him time is short. The East Coast is under imminent attack. She tells him he was her only love and begs forgiveness for throwing him away—and for him to remember her always. He hears an explosion over the phone, and the line goes dead.
Watson races downtown for last-minute provisions. Explosions resound over distant mountain ridgelines; sirens wail; church bells toll; Springvale’s emergency loudspeakers blare. Hysteria explodes. He frantically drives home where Kimiko is watching the news. The footage cuts away to the inside of a high-altitude military aircraft over the Eastern seaboard. Below a huge mushroom cloud appears. America is under nuclear attack. Watson and Kimiko rush down to the shelter, sealing themselves in.
Over the next two weeks, suspense and boredom nearly drive them crazy. Occasionally, they can hear the agonizing shrieks of residents in their final death throes echo overhead. They don’t realize it, but Springvale has not been engulfed by radiation nor chemical warfare but by a biohazardous attack. After two weeks, Watson determines it should be safe to venture outdoors—at least with the protective suit and equipment Mercotti left for them.
Outside, scores of rotting human corpses litter the landscape. Strangely, birds and animals have been unaffected. Watson notices the swan, the one that mesmerized him before the Armageddon. He discovers another couple in town had built a shelter and has survived. Together, the four of them scavenge the town for resources to survive. Shortwave radio communiques from Quebec report the collapse of the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. Watson spends most days rounding up bodies to be burnt at the municipal dump. He reflects back upon his life, contemplates his future. His dreamscape is inhabited by war demons still.
One day, Watson walks along the shore of the pond where he killed the street thug who sought to slaughter the mysterious swan. The swan is there and spins around, swimming toward him. Watson is transfixed by it. It seems to be communicating something to him, reflecting a revelation deep in his fractured soul. A creeping paralysis overwhelms him. He collapses on his knees and looks up into the sky. He sees himself from above walking naked in this world and asks God to forgive him for crimes committed during the war at the behest of the American government. Shame and guilt bottled up for decades rush out. He shakes violently, weeps uncontrollably. Remorse and penitence wash over him. His epiphany is complete.
And he is made whole.