Read Watershed Online

Authors: Jane Abbott

Watershed

About the Book

Savage and apocalyptic, this is the new world.

Devoid of rain, the earth has shrunk to dust and salt, hemmed by a swollen sea. Survivors gather to re-establish order but it's nothing like before.

It is Jeremiah's world.

Commanded by the cruel Garrick, Jem is a Watchman and hunter of Disses: rebels who dare to challenge the Tower and its ruling Council. Loner by design and killer by nature, he's unapologetically part of a cruel regime until a new assignment exposes a web of deceit, and past sins demand their reckoning. When a young boy elicits his sympathy, and an enigmatic woman his interest, Jem is made to question everything he believes before undertaking one last terrifying mission. Now he must do unto others if he's to take care of his own.

In this dark and compelling first novel from a stunning new voice in fiction, it is impossible to know who is friend or foe, hero or villain.

 

For Jack and Robbie, with love.

And for my mother, who is the strongest woman I know.

We never know the worth of water 'til the well is dry.

Thomas Fuller (1608–1661)

 

Jeremiah!

It's always the same. He turns from his game, almost startled to hear his name, before smiling quickly. There's no argument, no pleading for more time. There's never any questioning. Sarah calls, he comes, and together they leave the square, his small brown hand nestled in hers as she leads him home. Or perhaps he leads her. And while they walk, they sing his song.

It's always the same.

He has his mother's hair and eyes, and the same smile. But she is gone and now there's only Jeremiah, the last and the best of them. Named for a bullfrog and with the heart of a lion, yet he hasn't known either. And he never will.

1

By the time I'd killed a hundred, I was already in my twenty-fourth year. Or maybe it was my twenty-third, or my twenty-fifth. I don't know. We never kept track of our ages, just our scores.

‘Your first century!' Garrick crowed, as though I'd done something worthwhile. Something heroic. Made one for the team like my grandfather had done as a boy – padded and wearing white, swinging his bat and smashing balls to a boundary, scooting them over the grass. Bats and balls, the stuff of kids; neat emerald fields now just the stuff of dreams. His eyes would glaze over, all misty with memory, and I'd sit on his knee and listen to his tales, and I reckon even then, when I was still real small, I'd understood better than him that memories won't bring back the past. And killing a man doesn't make anyone a hero.

Garrick tossed me a small bottle, its contents almost clear. Yesterday it might've been piss; today it was life. Out one end, back in the other, that's how we survived. Thumbing off the stopper, I drank deeply. Who said you couldn't get high on water?

Opening another for himself, he raised it to me. ‘You done good.' Unexpected praise, made real by a sudden grin. So I grinned too.

In the Guard you were counted a man after your first kill. They reckoned that was the hardest, that first time, and they'd congratulate their pissy recruit, praising his courage. But it didn't take courage to kill a single Diss, no matter who they were. It took courage to keep on killing them, and in the Watch it was the hundredth that mattered: fifty might earn you your freedom; a hundred made you a man.

I shrugged off my vest and my shirt; Garrick opened a drawer and pulled out the box. This time, when he dragged his stool across and squatted in front of me, still smiling, it was hard to feel any kind of pleasure. Of all the ways to ink a body, Garrick's had to be the worst.

You got to choose where, but that was it: a mark for every kill, whether you wanted it or not. Most did, thinking it made them more than they were, gave them claim to something greater, but really it was just another way of keeping us in line. Coz once you were marked, it was for life.

‘Looking good, Jem,' he said, turning the knife in his fingers while he admired his previous efforts – ninety-one scars, black with sin; forty-five and a half crosses, lined in rows, from shoulder to shoulder. I never wondered why he made crosses; lines, squares or squiggles, it made no difference to me. These were the marks of a Watchman and all we cared about was their number.

The light was low but his eyes were sharp. And so was the knife, small and razor-thin, though he never used the edge. That would've been too quick, and way too merciful. Instead he dug in with the hooked tip, catching the skin and tearing it up like he was unpicking stitches. Then, when he'd made enough holes, he'd slowly rip between them, opening the flesh. It hurt like buggery and kept the scars raised, but it didn't pay to let him know coz then he'd gouge deeper, just to make it worse. After ninety-one, you'd think I'd be used to it, but it'd been a while since my last marking and I'd forgotten the pain. Finishing the first, he mopped the blood
roughly with a dry rag, and started on the next. Just the nine, but he'd take his time. It'd been a successful mission and my biggest haul yet, but it hadn't been the hardest. Not by a long shot.

He never talked while he worked, not wanting to distract you. Because how could you hope to inflict pain if you couldn't take a little yourself? That was our creed, the religion of the Watch:
Do Unto Others
.

Trying not to rock on my feet when the knife pulled at me, trying not to flinch each time it stroked my skin before it pricked, I stood straight, kept my breathing even, and watched his face. It's usually easy to spot cruelty, especially when you live with it. Evil can't be contained. It's bigger than any man and it squeezes out through the pores in their skin; it's in the eyes, the expression, the voice. Not Garrick. He had the face of a fucking angel, the eyes of some sorrowful saint; like he really didn't want to be doing what he was doing; that it was for your own good, not his. But that wasn't true and I knew it better than most.

He'd been running the Watch longer than anyone could remember, except maybe old Taggart. The few who survived cleared out early, sick of the work, their minimum fifty behind them, thinking a life on the Catchers or scrounging in the dust was a better, more honourable way. A couple even joined the Guard, though there was nothing honourable about that. I stayed on because I had nowhere else to go; Garrick stayed because there was no place he'd rather be. But legend or no, I'd seen him do plenty of things I'd sooner forget. His own back was more ink than flesh – every one of his marks earned, if not all deserved – and maybe that was his weakness: that he'd decided like all the others to mark his back so he didn't have to face his sins every day. Not me. I might not have chosen this life, but there was no point denying what I'd become. And my back already bore marks of a different kind. I never asked who marked him. I tried not to think about Garrick unless I had to.

Finally done cutting, he mopped some more before rubbing the black powder into every gouge. That hurt worse than the knife, stinging the raw flesh and staining it. Infection was common but in a few days I'd make the trip down to the shore and risk a swim, and the salt would do its job. And if it didn't, then it was back to Garrick so he could reopen the mess and start again.

Pulling on my shirt and retying it, I pressed it to the wounds like a bandage. It'd stick, but I was in no hurry to take it off again.

‘Any problems I should know about?' he asked, back behind his desk, the box stowed in the drawer ready for the next Watchman who came in looking to notch up his score.

‘No,' I said. It didn't pay to lie. He'd not been there but somehow he always knew if a job was botched, if a Diss managed to get free, to remember your face and warn any others. He had eyes everywhere, did Garrick. The last Watchman who'd lied to him hadn't lived to boast about it. Garrick had strung him up by his feet and cut him, leaving him in the sun where he'd not even lasted a day. We'd all been made to stand in the shade and watch as he went, and if any of us had felt anything it was relief that it wasn't us out there, shrivelling to nothing.

A quick nod, and Garrick turned to the mess of maps stuck to the wall – old, creased papery legends studded with pins, they bore little resemblance to the land they'd once traced; the criss-cross of roads and rivers, names of bygone towns and junctions, the tan of dry land merging with the once-wet green of forests, the oddly shaped circling of any low-lying hills; all of it had pretty much disappeared. And though it might've been possible to record their remains with some kind of accuracy, it was no longer necessary. The Tower had more accurate maps, plenty of them, newly drawn and intricate, which were always given to us to study and memorise before every job, but Garrick's sufficed for his needs. He'd simply scrawled over the old to mark out the new we needed to know: the high plain with its Citadel, the locations of the three
settlements and the Port, the four roads; across the top, the Hills rose to meet the barrier of the mountains; left, right, and bottom, the perimeters had been blacked out to better illustrate the reach of the Sea. Not an island, but still purposefully disconnected, this had become our shrunken world; the rest no longer concerned us.

Garrick located a yellow pin stuck out west, where I'd spent the last few months, pulled it free and replaced it with a black one. Another uprising culled. But there were more yellow pins than black on those maps. Every day another one found its place, with a whisper, a rumour of more Dissidents unhappy with their lot; miserable dreamers, not realising that this was the best they could ever hope for. The best it was going to get. For all of us.

Pointing to a clump of yellows off to the right, in the Hills northeast of the Citadel, he said, ‘Here's where you'll go next. We're hearing bad news and the Tower's gettin' real pissy about it.'

‘What sort of news?'

‘Attacks on stations. Breaking wind pumps, smashing pipes. Two Guards killed, another two captured.'

‘You're sure it's just Disses?' I asked. ‘Cutting the supply hurts everyone. Not their usual thing.'

‘Who knows why these fuckers do what they do? Makes no difference to us. But the Tower reckons the count's rising, and they've asked for you.' He shot me a quick glare, but I knew better than to challenge him.

‘Okay. When?'

‘You've got a week. If Reed gets back in time, he'll go with you. Otherwise, it'll be me.' My shock must've shown, because he smiled; the sort of smile that didn't go anywhere, just hung dead on his face. ‘Right. But I reckon this one's gunna need two of us.'

We always operated alone; it made it easier to gain a Diss's trust and less chance of a giveaway. I wasn't certain how I felt about having to work with Reed; there was no yardstick, though rumour had it he was good, maybe as good as me. But I sure as shit knew
how I'd feel working alongside Garrick. I didn't ask why the Tower had requested me for the job; I wasn't that stupid. So I gave a nod, because I also wasn't so stupid as to question Garrick's decision.

He rummaged in a pocket and held out a small metal plate: my new wage for having done good, payment for reaching my century. One side had been etched with my own number; turning it over, I read the single digit on the other.

‘Three? It's s'posed to be two.' Not that I was complaining. Compared to the one I'd been getting, three vats was a fortune.

‘Seems someone upstairs likes you,' he sneered. Then, a sudden shrug and his disgruntlement passed. ‘The water's already in your quarters. Don't go wastin' it, though. Out there, you're the same as everyone else.'

I nodded again. As welcome as it was, on assignment my new salary was useless because no vagrant looking for work or shelter would have access to three vats a week. It was all part of our pretence, a way to fit in with the rest, and not being able to use what I'd earned didn't worry me overmuch. I'd make up for it when I returned.

A lot might've changed in twenty years, but one thing the Council hadn't dared rescind was everyone's right to a weekly half-vat of water. And all you had to do to get it was show your tag number. We were tagged twice over for good measure: a brand on the wrist and a disc pushed deep into the back of our necks – the second impossible to get at without causing real damage. They said it was done to ensure everyone got their fair share and not a drop more, as well as to safeguard against intruders, though neither reason was really believed. But it didn't much matter, coz the rules were real simple: behave and keep your tag, or don't and lose it, along with your life. Not that half a vat was anything to celebrate; just enough to stay alive, not so much that people could afford to lie back and do nothing to supplement it. Once a week the heavily guarded carts would be pulled around each district, grumbling
Guards doling out the water, checking wrists, and ticking off the numbers. People who worked, who contributed in some way and had a plate to show for it, got extra. The usual amount was another half vat; some of the riskier jobs earned more. Except ours, of course. Covert and with no chance of appeal, we were given no more than we deserved. The system was fair enough, but every now and then some idiot would object and try raiding the carts. It was always a mistake; if the Guards didn't beat them to a pulp, the good citizens would. Because stealing another man's water was just about the worst thing you could do.

My grandparents had once explained that it hadn't always been this way. Years before the Last Rains, people were paid for their labour in coin, or paper – different types of currency depending on where they lived. Later, that payment had become nothing more than a number, deposited into some account in some bank, never really handled; never touched unless withdrawn from a machine stuck into a wall. It was confusing, the way they told it. Cashless, my grandfather had said. Virtual. Like it wasn't even real. Just numbers piled on more numbers, hoarded, taxed, and then spent using some kind of plastic card; everything linked and wired to everything else. A web, they called it, netting everyone in, but somehow invisible. The way I understood it, the numbers in the accounts would go up and then they'd go down again, just like water in a vat but way more complicated. When I'd pointed this out, my grandfather smiled, kind of sad, and agreed. Maybe that'd been part of the problem, he said.

I pocketed the new plate, and Garrick returned my muttered thanks the only way he knew how: ‘Not my doing. Just don't fuck it up.' It was the only warning I'd get.

He handed me the folder containing the report. It was thicker than usual, but that figured if the Disses were doing more than just mewling about their rights. Being able to read was one of the reasons I'd been granted a stay of execution and handed over to
the Watch. It was either there, or to the Tower to become another bean-counter. But they didn't need killers to count beans. And I was as good at killing as I was at reading. Better, maybe.

‘So, you bring anything back for me?' Garrick asked at last, already knowing but making like he didn't, as though he didn't really care either way. But he did. He was always eager for his spoils, and fuck help anyone who didn't deliver.

I glanced at the nine bloodied tags, the little coded discs I'd had to cut out and present to prove my score; later he'd send them upstairs to the Tower along with my report, so the Keepers could cross-check the names and fiddle the registers. But while the Tower relished counting the dead, Garrick preferred his prizes alive.

I jerked my head. ‘Sure.'

‘Show me.'

Opening the door, I unhooked the girl from the tether and dragged her in, feeling a short stab of pity because I knew what was in store, knew she'd have been better off with a hole in the back of her neck and her tag on the desk with the rest. And I guess she knew it too, because she whimpered and started to struggle. Garrick reached for her, and I grabbed my vest, ready to clear out.

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