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Authors: Jonathan Friesen

Aquifer

BOOK: Aquifer
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AQUIFER

A NOVEL

JONATHAN FRIESEN

 

To Isaac

PROLOGUE

S
top the winch!”

Mape pounded the hull of the boat and dropped his hook-end pole with a clank. He squinted through the netting. Thousands of flopping shrimp dripped and glistened, reflecting the last rays of sunlight.

But the grotesque creature, the white beast bound in weed — it didn’t move at all.

“I think you oughta come up here, Jasper.”

“I’m in no mood for whinin’ tonight.” Jasper sloshed across the deck toward his ship mate. “I hired you to haul, not to feel sorry for the poor little fishes, or to complain about the bycatch. You wanted to shrimp off Scott Reef, and that means scoopin’ a dolphin or two.” He pointed at the net. “Now swing that haul over the floor and dump …”

Jasper’s eyes widened then narrowed as the catch flowed onto the boards. He had seen everything the sea owned.

Almost everything.

“That’s no dolphin.” Jasper angled himself closer. “That beastie has a claw.”

“What d’ya think it is? Sea turtle? Mermaid?” Mape let out a short, sharp laugh and then fell silent.

Swells from the Indian Ocean slapped the side of the boat, and a salty breeze blew cool and stiff across their leathery faces. Jasper shivered. An inside-out shiver. But he wouldn’t let Mape see it.

Mape was an impressive specimen — muscles rippled across his worked body. He didn’t possess the average hauler’s portly, barrel-chested physique. But a captain like Jasper, who worked the prohibited northern waters, couldn’t be choosy, and Mape had approached him in a Derby tavern. How Mape knew Jasper needed a new mate was still a mystery.

“We ain’t bottom trawling ever again,” Mape whispered, scanning the horizon in all directions. “You know what they do to bottom trawlers. You know what our net does to the coral —”

“Shut up. When I want your warnings, I’ll ask for ‘m. Net’s drained. Pull’er in.” Jasper turned. “Beastie was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s all.”

Mape grabbed his pole and stretched it out, clamped the hook into the metal arm, and grunted the hanging net in and over the deck.

“That’s bone stickin’ out!” Again, Mape dropped his pole. “Human bone inside a shackle. I ain’t cutting it free.”

Jasper cursed and removed his machete from behind the water barrel. The blade was standard equipment for a shrimper. Water rationing codes were difficult to enforce this far from the mainland, and on extended trips Jasper routinely hauled more than his allotment. Extra fresh water in a slug of a boat made him an appealing target for all who lived on the fringe, and the sea alone remained wild, worked by wild men and water pirates.

It’s why Jasper loved it. The sea wasn’t safe, but it was still free — free of the codes and of the accursed Amongus, the peacemaker’s
Watchers and secret informants. For all Jasper knew, his own wife had been one of them. On land, the Amongus were everywhere.

He struck the metal arm, sparks flew, and the net fell. Jasper mumbled as he stepped forward and cleared the wriggling shrimp with his boot.

“I’ll be. ‘Twas a woman. Four weighted shackles, hands and feet. Not much left to her.” He poked at the strips of flesh with his machete. “Been down there a long time.”

“How long?” Mape blurted, then cleared his throat. “How long, do you think?”

“It don’t matter. Five years, maybe ten judging by the decay.”

“So, what do we do? We bring her in, right?”

Jasper was silent. He slipped the tip of his machete beneath one of the iron rings and carefully raised it to eye level. “It’s heavy. Lass didn’t have a chance. Bring a light.”

“Right away.” Mape tripped over the hook box and disappeared below. He returned with a small sphere in his hand. He handed it to Jasper, who rubbed it, setting off a reddish glow. “What do you see, boss?”

Jasper held the light up to the shackle and turned the ring over in his hand.

The light sphere thudded to the deck.

“The peacemaker’s mark is etched on here,” Jasper hissed. “Out! Everything out!” He flung the shackle over the edge. “The net. The catch. The body —”

“But she was — she is — human, right? Shouldn’t we tell someone?”

Jasper grasped Mape by the neckline and yanked him near. “We never pulled this lady out of the sea. We weren’t here. This day never happened.” He shoved Mape backward and grabbed the net. “Help me, fool!”

Mape stumbled to his feet, fisted the netting, and together the two men slid the catch to the rail.

“Up and over,” Jasper said.

“I told you, I ain’t touching that thing.”

Jasper paused. “I can’t do this alone.” He forced his hands through his dreads. “We’ll make a deal. You help me get her out and there’ll be … there’ll be no more bottom trawling.”

Mape swallowed hard. “Okay, then.” He winced and slid his palms beneath the bones. “One. Two. Thr — Hold on! Look on her leg, below the iron.”

“I don’t care what’s on her leg. Even if it’s solid —”

Mape released the net and reached his fingers through the mesh, snapping the ankle bracelet free. He slipped it through the netting and squinted. “Look at it. Gold’s what it is, I say. There’s some marks on it. Letters. Maybe a word.”

Jasper snatched it from Mape. “A word? Must be old. Back from the Scratchin’ Time.”

“Gonna throw it over with the rest?” Mape licked his lips.

Jasper thought. “No. It’s worth four months labor. When we reach the dock late tonight, it’ll be dark. We’ll melt it and sell it. We split the credits seventy-thirty.”

“But I saw it —”

“Sixty-forty, and that’s all on that.” He tossed the anklet so it landed next to the light. “Now grab on, and let’s take care of her.”

Mape grinned. “Right.”

They grunted and rolled the net over the edge. Jasper listened as one thousand credits worth of gear splashed into the dark waters below. He slid down into the bottom of the boat, panting. Mape slipped down beside him.

“We could have turned her in, Jasper. They may have
bumped up our water rations for finding an undone. She had to be an undone.”

“Reward us? Bah. The PM wanted her down there where she’d never be found. I don’t suspect he’d hand out gifts if I brought her back up.”

“You’re right.” Mape stood, and slipped out of his jacket. “When I dumped her below, that was the peacemaker’s directive: she was not to be found.”

Jasper looked up, mouth agape.
Could he be …?

“But this one causes wrinkles from the grave,” Mape continued, “and I needed confirmation her punishment was done correctly.” He took a deep breath, walked over to Jasper’s auxiliary fresh water tank, and pitched it into the sea.

“All these months with an Amongus,” Jasper whispered.

“It only took you twelve weeks to see to it. Did you really believe you were beyond our reach, that staying out at sea would protect you?” Mape sighed. “It’s been no pleasure fishing with you, so gladly I’ll take my leave. Maybe now I’ll get some rest.” Mape grabbed his bag and strapped it to his back. “I’ll be waiting for you on the dock in Derby. You’ll need to be” — he paused — “debriefed on the situation you’ve experienced. We wouldn’t want you spreading inaccurate information.”

Jasper inched back toward the machete. Once debriefed by an Amongus, the mind was never the same. Jasper had seen it too many times.

Mape watched him for a moment and shook his head. “Such a brutal instrument, and not one a citizen should possess. I’ll be waiting, Jasper. Please hurry. The quicker we’re done …” He looked around the shrimp boat. “The quicker we can return you to the sea.”

Mape turned and dived over the edge.

“No!” Jasper lunged at the blade and jumped to his feet. He watched his once-trusted crewman swim toward the coast with alarming speed.

“Jasper, you fool,” he muttered to the wind, then limped to the wheel and turned the boat mainland. “You’ll return me to the sea, all right. In irons!” He kicked the empty water barrel. “Of course Mape was one of them. For months, he wants to shrimp the same stretch of reef?”

Think, old man
.

Without fresh water, south to Derby was his only option. He could try to reach Broome, but that would take two more days, and if he didn’t report in to Mape tonight, they would certainly assume he had headed that direction.

But he had to head south, toward shore, if he wanted to live …

“I won’t be debriefed,” Jasper whispered, and spun the wheel sharply. The boat creaked and groaned, its nose swinging to the north.

Jasper sank back on the bench as the boat chugged toward the deep sea. He sighed, his head thudding against the hull.

It’s been a good run. Forty years, the sea dog. A man couldn’t ask for more
.

He glanced to the left, at the red light and the anklet that glinted on the boat’s deck. He stretched and gently picked it up. “What good does gold do me now?” He stared at the scratches.

Jasper glanced at the tip of his machete, then out over the ocean. “Lady of the Sea, since I soon will share your fate, I christen this boat in honor of you …” He lowered his blade and carefully etched the letters from the band into the damp wood of the deck.

LUCA

Jasper doused the light and closed his eyes.

Lady, I hope what you did was worth it
.

CHAPTER
1

Two Years Later

L
eft, 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.

One child?

It is rare that a child is undone. Not an Eleven. Not one from my school.

Not Walery.

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.”

Incite rebellion?

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.

BOOK: Aquifer
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