Read an Excerpt
By Jonathan Friesen
BLINKCopyright © 2013 Jonathan Friesen
All rights reserved.
Two Years Later
Left, slight jog right, sharp right, left, left ..."
I stand in front of the Australyan Sea and whisper the mantra that is mine alone to remember. Twice a day, I repeat the order, as I have for the last ten years, as I will until the day I die.
"Veer left, lower your head, left again ..."
My mind holds a mystery: directions to a land I've never seen. A land five miles beneath my feet. I kick at the sand.
My journey there is inevitable, but I'm in no hurry to descend that far, to a world of blackness and shadow, where a race known as Water Rats scurry about. Father says that I cannot imagine what lies below, what manner of creatures extract the fresh water our parched planet needs, and pump it, with unseeing eyes, to the surface. This is good. My imagination provides many sleepless nights as it is, and if my nightmares are accurate, when it comes my turn to descend, I will die of fright.
"Nine hundred forty seven paces straight away ..."
The yearly transfer will one day fall to me, the Deliverer's son, as it falls to Father now and fell on his fathers before him. Every seventh day of the seventh month, Father gathers rods of light, descends toward the heart of the earth, and exchanges them with the Rats for a promise — one more year of free-flowing fresh water. For both Toppers and the creatures below, it's a life-giving trade. The Deliverer returns, and the Toppers rejoice.
Father does not.
A successful exchange should please him most of all because it means my father's work is done for the year. Instead, he slumps through the streets of New Pert, his gaze downcast. Citizens avert their eyes. A superstitious lot, they know he is Other and assume that the pained look on his face reveals the enlightened nature of his thoughts.
They don't know he wanders our shoreline in the moonlight searching, waiting — for whom, I do not know. They don't share his burden or hear the forbidden sobs that shake him.
That is mine alone to see. The slow death of a savior.
One day, the territory of New Pert will treat me with the same grim reverence, once my schooling is complete and my childhood no longer extracts from them a greeting. I will then become Other. All because of the directions floating around my mind.
I hope Father lives to one hundred and twenty.
Tonight, Father and I are left to our thoughts and ourselves. A quiet shanty on the sea is our payment for shouldering the weight we bear, the peacemaker's way of rewarding us with just enough privacy to make living bearable.
A gentle breeze crosses my face and heads toward Father's dock, where his boat gently sways. The dock stretches out into the Shallows, a natural gift created by the waves that crash over the reef. Without the sea's fury, water stills and pools in the rocks and coral. This evening it glistens pink beneath a reddening sky.
Father sits on the edge, still as stone, his feet dangling off the dock into the water and his hands stroking his prized possession: hundreds of papers bound in leather. We don't speak of things illegal, but I wonder why he carries it and risks the Amongus's wrath. There are many things I don't understand about Father.
His back is hunched and scarred; his memory is broken. But if I were to go to him, to drop down and place my head on his shoulder, I know what I would hear.
"Left, slight jog right ..."
Ten years ago, Father's debriefing stole his thoughts and muted his feelings, if the rumors be true. Father will not speak of his crime. "She was worth it." It's all he will say, and my questions float away unanswered. I do know the Amongus did not dare touch the order, the precious directions to the Water Rats' world.
I stare out past the thin white reef line. Afrika. Beyond the sea lies Afrika. And beyond it Sowt Amerika. We're taught that people still inhabit those lands, and that remnants of past nations gather around the pipes sent out from our diverters. But a life thousands of miles from the only consistent source of water? Rains are so scarce; that distance so great. How would they tell us if their pipes failed? It's all hard to believe, and I wonder if my best friend Lendi is right: Australya, perched upon the Aquifer, the buried rock bed source of all fresh water, is home to the only Toppers that remain.
I sigh and stare out toward the distant lands, wondering if there is another fifteen-year-old boy staring back at me. I doubt I will ever know. So much water between us.
So much salt water.
"Right ... right ..."
I lose my way in the sequence. Five hundred twelve random turns are difficult for a wandering mind to hold. Yet forgetting is not an option.
"Last march of the undone!"
The cry comes from outside our walls, from down the street. It is loud but emotionless, tearing me from my thoughts.
Father glances toward me, shakes his head, and crawls back inside himself.
Not today. They can't hold a march today, so close to the water exchange!
I run toward the gate and pull. And pull. The heavy wooden doors swing open at last.
People line the street before me. Silent people. Friends and family come to see the guilty one last time. It is one thing to be debriefed, to have one's memory robbed and the past reset. That is for small offenses.
It is quite another to be undone.
From this, there is no return.
Today, the crowd is larger than usual. Though bans on strong emotion are mandated by the PM, and enforced by his Amongus, we are allowed our curious fascination with death. Marches of the undone become little spectacles. Even the young show interest. And where they gather, so also do the carts. Merchants selling treats and drinks — though this near an exchange, the drinks set parents back quite a few credits.
In the distance, a particularly loathsome Watcher approaches. All refer to him as Reaper; all except Father, who has named him Barker. This Amongus is shrill and proud and I hate him. Every ten steps, his voice raises.
"Last march of the undone!"
He strides toward my open gate, face forward, his gaze fixed on me. I cannot bear to stare back. Barker halts, turns, and hollers the lie that haunts my dreams.
"I will now seek the Deliverer's judgment to affirm each sentence. The condemned will wait outside."
The Watchers' plan is brilliant and insidious. Citizens of New Pert dare not argue with the savior of the world, and from appearances, Father and the Amongus work together. After all, the Deliverer who risks his life for all would not condone a sentence imposed without just cause.
If only Barker would actually speak to my father.
I can't help thinking the peacemaker doesn't know. If he and his Council of Nine are as unerring as we're taught, the PM can't possibly know this deceit of his Amongus, his Watchers.
Barker pushes by me, and I stare at the faces standing single file outside the gate. Four men, two women, one child.
It is rare that a child is undone. Not an Eleven. Not one from my school.
I've spoken to him twice. There is nothing abrasive about his manner. I can't imagine him causing a wrinkle.
Barker vanishes within our walls, presumably to speak to my father. Only I can see both the Amongus and the accused. Barker stretches and strolls to our water cask. He lifts it and drinks long and deep before setting it down and wiping his brow.
Undoing people must be hard work.
"They're all innocent." Father speaks, his voice barely reaching my ears. "I pronounce them all innocent."
He is, as always, ignored. In this one act, this one compassionate act, the most important man in the world is ignored. Why doesn't he toss his papers into the sea and stand? Why doesn't he break from his darkness and show himself at the gate, where the accused and the onlookers could see his opposition? Barker would have nothing to say.
I don't understand my father.
I glance down the street. Walery's mother stares at me, her chin quavering. Her husband is stoic. I can't stomach their gaze. I back through my gate and duck behind our canoe, because some horrors should not be experienced from out in the open.
"Come in, each of you," Barker calls to the doomed. His voice is calming, hypnotic. Why does he soothe before the kill? Filing in, only Walery looks afraid, not yet resigned to his fate. The gate swings shut, and Barker points at Father. It is a good thing that from a distance the papers are indistinguishable. I don't know how many debriefings my father could stand.
"Your Deliverer, Massa, has sealed your sentences. Helia, you incorrectly coded ten children. Into the boat. You are undone. Jordane, you failed to surrender your child to the Developers. Into the boat. You are undone ..."
Liar! The sentences are a sham. I should have destroyed the Amongus boat anchored in the shallows.
"Walery, for speaking information that could incite rebellion against the PM. Into the boat. You are undone."
I peek over the canoe. All the adults are aboard. Barker turns and marches back toward the gate. Walery stands, frozen in the sand.
"It's time now, Walery." Barker speaks so gently. "Get in with the others. Helia will steer you out to sea."
Walery nods and shuffles toward the Shallows. Barker quickly slips out the gate — his job here is finished. I stand. Furious. Throughout New Pert, it will be believed that my father was responsible for this. He not only gives life, he also takes it away.
But today, I am filled with more; a sense that if I do nothing and watch them go, as I have hundreds of times before, something in me will be undone too. I leap forward and race to Walery.
"Don't get in."
He doesn't look up. "Where should I go?"
It's a fair question. Out of fear, his family will not receive him back.
I pause and stare at Father. He sits on the dock, yet he has never been farther away. The next moments are mine to direct.
"All of you. You don't need to go. My father did not condemn you. You can go right back out the gate."
Helia smiles. "It's all right, Luca. This is our fate. Come, Walery." She holds out her hand.
"Stop! Think. This is not how it has to be. There is nobody watching you."
Jordane's gaze shifts from me to the boat, and he bites his lip. "Maybe —"
"No," Helia says calmly. She grabs Walery's hand.
"Wait!" I say. "I'll take him." I point to Father's boat. "I'll take Walery myself. I want to speak to him before he is undone."
Helia pauses. "Very well." She hands me four shackles. "You are the next Deliverer."
Jordane pulls up anchor, and another boatload of people sail themselves to their end. They will swing around Rottnest Isle, help each other into irons and chains, and jump.
After all, we are a peaceful society.CHAPTER 2
I stand by Walery and watch the boat fade from sight.
"What do you want to talk about?" Walery asks.
I have not thought ahead that far, and I stare at the sandy-haired Eleven. He is thin, very thin. The shackles I hold would likely slip off his wrists. He looks me in the eye, and I am uncomfortable. Lowers avert their gazes around Uppers. Especially me. But Walery's eyes hold no fear now, though he stands minutes past a certain death.
"I guess we should discuss where you want to sleep." Outside the walls, voices murmur. The remnants of a crowd. "I can't let you leave, at least for a while."
"You aren't going to use those?" He nods toward the chains. "Massa really didn't ..."
I shrug and shake my head.
Walery looks to the sky. "How many others have you and the Deliverer saved like this?"
Inside, I ache. The knot that formed inside me while I hid behind the canoe twists and tightens.
Deliverer. Right. During marches, neither Father nor I are worthy of the name.
"Nobody. I've watched and watched and stopped no one."
Walery's face turns grim. "But you did stop me."
"I did. Now go into the shanty, turn left, and you'll see a small door leading into a storage room. Father never goes in there, and he will be preoccupied tonight. Grab some food and water from the kitchen on your way. I'll come get you when Father is gone."
He stares at me, unsure. "If I'm caught, I'll be undone for certain."
I guide him toward the house. "You already were."
"Go now!" I hiss, and shove him toward the door. I wait until he disappears inside and then turn. "Yes, Father Massa?"
He massages his forehead and continues his vacant stare out to sea. "Who am I?"
I approach him slowly and call from the beach, "You're my father."
"Why are so few memories with me? What did I do?"
I've heard the story from Lendi's father. Of the day the Amongus sealed off the entire wharf district of New Pert, so monumental was the occasion, so terrible the task. The day the Deliverer was debriefed. What Father had done, of course, Lendi's father did not know. Surely nothing so forbidden as hiding an undone.
"You've never shared your crime, but you're my hero, and a great man. And tomorrow, you'll be great again." It is the reply I've learned to give, the one that quiets him.
"Yes, but son, have I loved you well?"
My father stands and faces me. Nowhere else in the territory will I hear the word love. It was Father who taught it to me, taught me to guard it, taught me not to fear it.
This word is our word. Mine for you. Yours for me, should you choose it.
I was only five, and newly returned to him after being raised by the Developers for my first years of life. My memory doesn't reach those earliest years; I don't even remember the people who cared for me. But all that matters now is one recollection: Father said he loved me, and at five, I knew the word's meaning, I felt its warmth.
I pad toward the dock, and my father joins me on the shore. He is forty, but already his strength is spent, and the hand he places on my shoulder keeps him aright. Though his face is dark and weathered, his eyes are soft. Gentle eyes peering from beneath dreadlocks, thick and unruly, the distinctive hairstyle of all New Pertians. Yet his face holds no apprehension. There is still a wildness and a freedom his debriefing could not tame. It sets him apart from all others in the territory, including me.
Could the Developers have made an error? Their record keeping is impeccable; it has to be in order to return one hundred thousand babies to the proper parental set five years after those children are born. But there is little of Father in my face.
I am short and weak. The shortest of all my agemates. Father is tall and courageous, even now.
Yes. Short and weak and pale and thin, nothing like him. Perhaps my blond hair and gray eyes came from Mother Alaya, although I will never know. Her name is the only piece of her I will ever own, and she is the one topic Father does not allow me to broach.
I peek at the wall that separates us from our neighbors. Eight feet tall and topped with broken bottles and shards of glass. I strain into the breeze, listening for footsteps outside the gate. No Amongus sensed the emotion in Father's question. We were fortunate. Displays of feeling cause wrinkles, and wrinkles rarely go undetected.
"Yes, Father Massa, you have done very well." I lower my voice and gesture toward the shanty. "But now you need to eat. What would you like?"
He reaches his arm around my shoulder and draws me close, my body a whisper compared to his frame. His eyes are focused and clear. "What is your first memory?"
I pause to think. The question feels safe and neutral. "Darkness."
"I dream of darkness, Father Massa. But I'm never afraid. I ... I ..."
"It feels like safety. I wake peaceful. Is that normal?"
He draws a deep breath. "No, it is not normal. But it is good."
We walk toward the shanty and reach the back porch.
"Turtle soup." Father nods, his voice clear and strong. "I want turtle soup tonight."
I step back. "That will take some time to catch and boil. There are other options."
Father furrows his brow. "Yes, Luca, but is it the sixth of the seventh? It feels like the sixth. I will be reciting all night. Bring it to my cot."
I watch my father disappear through the door. Inside, no orbs are lit — a comfort with darkness is the one trait both Father and I share. Walery will be safe, but Father's request means I will not see Walery for hours. He will certainly be afraid when I do, though he likely will not know how to show it.
I slump toward the boat.
Why did he have to ask for turtles?
Excerpted from Aquifer by Jonathan Friesen. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Friesen. Excerpted by permission of BLINK.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.