In a society built upon lies, the truth is a dangerous secret.
Born into Capernica’s lowest social tier and not permitted to leave Settlement 56, Jaclyn (Jack) Holloway refuses to pour out her years in the local fish cannery. She gambles on the one chance available to her to advance–the high school Exit Exam. In a country that still keenly remembers its own violent birth, the smartest and strongest are richly rewarded in exchange for military service. Jack is adamant that her best friend, Will Ransom, strives for induction with her, but Will is tied to the sea. Would he give it up for her? He’s never so much as kissed her.
Meanwhile, a string of abductions breaks out across the nation, targeting girls eerily similar to Jack. Her Exam score places her in a position to aid Axis, the underground organization investigating the disappearances. Working in tandem with the handsome Captain Ethan Alston, Jack finds she has an unusual proclivity for the case. The evidence leads them back forty-seven years, to a series of high-profile cover-ups linked to the creation of the new nation, but nothing prepares them for the faces that emerge from the past.
Jack and Ethan must make a crucial decision. Blowing the whistle could have grave consequences for loved ones they’ve left behind, but holding their silence means history will likely repeat. And Capernica could never survive a second upheaval.
A startling tale where past and present intertwine, fusing at the point of revolution. Have time to binge read? You’ve found your next dystopian indulgence.
Targeted Age Group:: Young Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I've always loved folk tales, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes. As I grew older, I was fascinated by the history and sometimes even politics behind them. My Recompense series began with my own musings about Jack and the Beanstalk, and I began imagining a fictitious history behind it. Recompense evolved into its own tale (this is NOT a retelling, not even close). But my heroine's name (Jack–short for Jaclyn) came directly from the folk tale, and the story itself is mentioned by name as one of the banned books in this dystopian world.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I was actually on a Netflix binge when I was brainstorming this series–X Files. It took me a year, but I watched all 9 seasons. I really liked the tension and interaction between Scully and Mulder. You may see traces of them within Jack and Captain Alston.
I should have twisted my hair into a braid.
The thought flits through my head as I step into the darkness of the covered porch and pull the door closed behind me. It’s a frivolous thought. Useless, really, when you consider that breaking curfew could land me in some backwoods lockup facility where they’d shave off every long brown strand. And it wouldn’t matter that I haven’t received a single demerit since coming to live with Opal. Leniency is seldom applied to someone with a record like mine.
The porch smells of damp and rot. I pad down the wooden steps in my stocking feet, avoiding the broken one, and lace up my trainers in the dirt of the front yard. Out here, the breeze is cool, pushing off the ocean and raising goosebumps on my bare arms. I decide nighttime offers far more suitable temperatures for running than the heat of a June afternoon.
I inhale deeply. The air is laced with the spicy odors of brine and bayberries, the sturdy, gnarled shrubs that grow everywhere along the shore. Sometimes when I wake early enough, I weave through their branches down to the tidal pools and watch the lights of the fishing trawlers heading out to sea. They’re crewed by men as hardy and weather-beaten as those bayberries. Rugged, resilient, tenacious, battered—that’s the nature of life in Settlement 56, where survival means a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck. Those of us who outgrow infancy develop a certain staying power.
Settlement 56 is nearly as far north as you can travel and still remain in Capernica. The country is separated into sectors defined roughly by geography—Coastal, Mountain, Basin, and Plains—each with a set number of settlements. Only the largest cities have names. The rest just get a number. Officially, I live in Coastal Zone 56. You can’t really call 56 a town. More of a village with a few blocks of houses, a school, and the fish cannery. Anyone who doesn’t catch fish works in the cannery.
Cities hold a few more opportunities for someone like me, a Lower with keen intelligence. If I could, I’d migrate to one, but no one’s allowed to leave their area of residence without governmental permission. And usually permission is only granted in the form of a reward or punishment. Fall into favor? You move to the city. Fall out of favor? It’s a settlement for you. And for your kids. And their kids.
There’s a permanency to the way things work in Capernica. Without the freedom to move, we lack the freedom to advance. Geography locks us into the same lives our parents lived. And in the settlements, we’re bottom tier.
One of the kids cries out in his sleep as I finish double knotting my laces, and I freeze. I’ve chosen my patch of ground well, behind a clump of scrub brush and out of view of the house, but the reaction is instinctive. I can’t afford to take chances with three little sets of eyes on the premises. There’s never a guarantee they’ll all be closed. And if Opal learns I sneaked out…
Actually, Opal Wildon is the kindest, most trustworthy adult I’ve ever lived with. Her punishments are fair and dealt out only when I deserve them. That’s why I’ve stayed with her so long—a whole eight years—ever since I was a skinny-legged kid of ten. I don’t want to worry or disappoint her, but she isn’t really the one setting my senses on alert.
The house has grown still again and I rise soundlessly to my feet. A shiver of apprehension grips me, but I chalk it up to the night breeze. I have to do this. Friday’s Examination is too important. Besides, I won’t be jogging alone if I can convince Will to go with me. And Will Ransom convinces pretty easily, at least when I’m the one doing the asking.
I brush the grit from the seat of my shorts and make my way across the brick-hard lawn, ducking through the scraggly undergrowth that separates our cabin from the one next door. I rap softly on the south-facing window. Will’s room.
The smudge of his face appears behind the warped glass before the sill works its way upward and he leans outside. “Jack, what are you doing out there?”
I smile sweetly up at his familiar face. His hair can be called brown too, but there our physical similarities end. His is as dark as walnut hulls, while mine tends to lighten to honey in the summertime. My eyes are dark; his are the crisp blue of a winter sky. His skin is olive; mine is fair. He’s strong as a bear; I have the slender lines of a doe. But we are an equal match in honesty, loyalty, and all the other traits that seal a friendship.
“I’m going for a run,” I say. “Want to join me?”
“Jaclyn Holloway, are you insane?”
I grin. “It’ll be fun. Besides, you know I have to knock another twenty seconds off my five-mile time, and I thought dodging Greencoats might be the best way to drop it.”
“You’re serious.” His tone is as flat as the face of the stopwatch I backlight.
“You have two minutes. I’m going with or without you.”
He pulls inside and I hear his sleepy grumble. “I’m coming.”
I knew he would. We face life best together, Will and I. He’s the peas to my carrots; I’m the smoke to his flame. We’re the perfect team. It’s always been this way between us, ever since he found me crying in his father’s cowshed all those years ago. Will is the reason I didn’t run that first night as I had so many times before.
He’s also the reason I’m so determined to run tonight.
One at a time, I pull my feet up behind me, stretching out my quads. Then I bend at the waist until I feel the tug on my hamstrings. Before I even get to my calves, Will is pushing through the window above me. His drop to the ground is surprisingly light for someone his size. He’s already got his shoes on, and as he performs a couple deep knee bends, I admire the play of moonlight across the spandex snugging his glutes.
Will yawns mightily as he stands upright and stretches his arms over his head. “Where are we going?”
“Up the coast road to the lighthouse and back.”
“That’s eight miles, not five.”
“The first three don’t count.” I won’t start timing till my muscles are good and limber.
He pauses to give me one of those looks that see all the way through me. “Jack, you don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t. And neither do I. We have everything we need right here.”
I chuff with impatience. We’ve hashed through this same argument at least a dozen times the last few months.
“There’s nothing in 56 except a slow grind toward death. I can’t stay here, Will. I refuse to remain a Lower forever.”
But if I can’t get my time down by Friday, this is exactly where I’ll stay, canning fish for the rest of my life.
His look softens. It’s almost sad. “You really want to do this?”
Desperately. “Please, Will? You and I, we can change everything. For both our families.”
He sighs in resignation, and I squeeze his arm.
We start along the road to the village, side by side. Opal and the Ransoms live on the farthest fringe of the settlement, around the curve of the harbor where the road diminishes into a two-track dirt trail and the wilderness encroaches right up to our yards. We pass half a dozen houses, all fringe families like us. Usually, fringe families have the most children, because they are needed to work. They’re often the most willing to take in orphans, too, just not always for the right reasons. Some families in town have it slightly better—shopkeepers and those who own a trawler or work a trade. They might even be considered Middles, in the poorest sense of the caste. But there isn’t much difference between those of us in the settlements. Not really. Long hours. Hard lives. We are all Outliers together.
“Lucky lambed this afternoon,” Will volunteers. His feet crunch steadily on the gravel.
“Male or female?”
“A ram. You should bring the kids by tomorrow to see him. He’s adorable.”
“How about I send them instead?” Will’s father usually slaughters the males when they reach full weight, and Opal trades with him for some of the meat. I know we need it, but I prefer not to know my food personally.
“Pa said we’re keeping this one as breeding stock.”
“In that case, I’ll come too. And I’ll bring some of the jam we made over the weekend.”
“You and Opal take the kids berry picking?”
“I took them alone this time.” Each June, we raid the wild strawberry patches before the black bears and raccoons get them all, but it’s becoming harder for Opal to walk over uneven surfaces. She wasn’t young when she adopted us, and now it’s falling to me to pass her knowledge of the woods on to the little ones.
Ollie and Tillman are the oldest at age eight. Twins, a girl and a boy, they were the first foundlings Opal applied for. Unlike most adoptive parents, she took them in not because she needed help but because the little ones so seldom get placed until they’re big enough to work. That’s just how Opal is. Of course, she chose a ten-year-old next—me—because she did need help with two babies, but she never made me feel like a child laborer. Then four years ago, she took in one more. Baby Hoke. Blond-haired and brown-eyed, with the roundest dimpled cheeks you’ve ever seen. He’s the light of my life.
I smile with the memory of his strawberry-smeared face. “I think Hoke ate more berries than he put into the pails. But we picked enough for a large batch.”
Surprisingly, Ollie and Tillman proved very helpful. They already know which greens are safe for food and in what season to look, where to dig groundnuts, how to smoke bees from a honey tree, how to soak tannin out of acorns. They’ll be able to take over foraging this fall when I’m gone…or working.
“I’ll let Ma know,” Will offers. “She says nobody’s jam tastes as good on a biscuit as Opal’s.”
Our trading arrangement with the Ransoms works out well for both families. The bounty of the woods in exchange for meat.
It’s a mile and a half to town, but I intend to avoid the settlement altogether. Before we get to the first cross street, we veer inland and follow the old highway that runs the entire length of the cove, all the way to the lighthouse ruins on the far promontory. The highway was paved once, long ago, and connected the settlement to the cities up and down the coast. A few generations past, in an effort to save the earth, people began regulating themselves into a population decline. Now nature has the run of the place. We barely left ourselves strength to survive the war that lost us our western lands, to say nothing of maintaining our infrastructure.
The asphalt beneath our feet is crumbled into chunks, like dry bread that sat too long at the bottom of a schoolbag. Since the surface is more hazardous than the well-trodden village road, no one uses it anymore. No one but me and Will.
The ground is slightly elevated here, and the breeze still smells sweet, filtering through the cover of hardwood trees and wildflowers. A few more steps and it carries the fishy stench of the cannery. To our right, I catch glimpses of moonlight reflecting off the harbor. To the left rises the black bulk of the heights, a bony ridge of rock thrusting upward half a mile from the coastal plain. Tonight it lies like a black paper cutout against the night sky.
“Did you get through all the reading Mr. Douglass assigned this week?” Will asks.
“I finished it up this evening. You?”
“You need help?”
“I’ll be wide awake when I get home,” he says wryly. “I might as well finish then. Think it will be on the Exam?”
“You know it will.”
His silence lasts several strides. “Maybe we should go over it tomorrow.”
Schoolwork holds a high priority among settlement families, and as much time is devoted to it as possible. A high score on the Examination is the one chance we’re given to become a Bluecoat and launch into the upper castes. Will’s as smart as me, but his family needs his wage. He’s been working the docks since he turned thirteen, helping the fishing crews bring in their catch. And he spends most of his Saturdays out in the trawlers. On Sundays we always hit the books for a few hours. Except this time we don’t have till Sunday.
“Can you get tomorrow off work?” I ask. We’re passing the two-mile mark. Our stride is still easy and words come without effort.
“I think I better. I’ll have Pa talk to Mr. Mansley.”
“Come for dinner. I’ll let Opal know, and she’ll keep the kids occupied.”
“We should probably just meet at my house.”
He’s right, of course. Will has two younger brothers, Jonas and Hobart, ages fourteen and sixteen. Our chances of getting in some solid studying increase exponentially at his house. His parents are especially keen on granting us time; because Will is so much bigger than either of his brothers, they know he’s their best chance to have a Bluecoat in the family.
Bluecoat is simply the common name for a member of the military. Upon graduation, every student in the country is issued the Exit Examination, which determines if you will follow in your father’s footsteps or if you will advance to Military. It is the highest caste, offering money, opportunities, and a comfortable standard of living to those who outlive its term of duty, which seems to me a reasonable gamble. But it can only be attained by those who pass the most stringent of qualifications. Because for the past forty-seven years, ever since the Provocation, Capernica has placed such an important emphasis on national security.
Every parent hopes one of their children might pass the Exam. Entire families have been pulled into the upper echelons by one outstanding child. At the very least, it means money to purchase adequate food and refit the cabin with running water and propane—luxuries Opal hasn’t known for decades. I am determined that Will and I both achieve Military status on Friday. There are only two complications.
First, very few women qualify. Physically, the odds are stacked against us. Entry requires speed, strength, and endurance as well as the highest mental acuity. But there aren’t separate physical standards for men and women. There is one standard, difficult for men to achieve and impossible for all but the strongest of women.
Will’s a shoo-in. He’s tops in our class, right behind me, and six-foot-three of pure Adonis. The physical standards will pose no problem. My success is in far greater doubt, but no one’s more determined. Because if I don’t pass and Will does, there’s that second problem.
I won’t see him again for twenty years.
We’re approaching a spit of sand that signals the end of my three-mile warm-up. I feel strong. My breathing is regular and my muscles loose. I can no longer smell the cannery. As I pass the stack of rocks that serves as my mile marker, I press the button on my stopwatch and kick into high gear.
Will lets me lead, and I set a brutal pace. Our feet fall in tandem, and as we follow the curve of the cove, the moonlit lighthouse slides rapidly into view. It’s in ruins now, a reminder of a civilization long past. Still, a supply of dry wood is kept high in the tower where it can be lit quickly in the event of a sudden storm. More than once, I’ve seen it guide the trawlers safely home. It’s been a decade since the last casualties, since the storm that claimed Opal’s husband and three other of the town’s fishermen. That was before I came to live in the settlement. Will remembers. He’s the one who told me about it. He said nothing could have saved them. Still, knowing the lighthouse is there sets me at ease when Will goes out on blustery days.
We sprint along the promontory on which the lighthouse stands and circle its base. After turning around, Settlement 56 sprawls out in the crook of the cove’s elbow. It’s tiny and too far away to make out details, but I know what we’ll see as we draw closer: a few blocks of battered houses and a row of sleepy boats tucked into their slips for the night. The whole town is in shadow; not a single light burns except the one in the government building. The tidal reservoir that powers the cannery also generates our electricity. It’s turned off at night, the energy conserved to fully run the town during the day. Of course, the power lines don’t reach most of the fringe houses.
Will and I pass another rock marker. Three miles left. Our breath is coming too hard for conversation. That’s why I know it isn’t Will when I hear the cadence of a man’s voice. And if I can hear the speaker, he will soon hear the scrape of our footfalls.
“Greencoats,” Will pants. “On the cutover road.”
It has to be. None of the villagers would risk demerits for breaking curfew. Few of them would even have the energy for it.
The shout of warning comes a few seconds before an engine roars to life, confirming Will’s suspicions. In Settlement 56, only the government owns vehicles.
“Split up,” Will orders.
He veers off toward the settlement. He’s faster than I am. He’ll draw off the truck and then scoot into some alley too narrow for it to follow. I choose the opposite direction—straight into the wilderness.
I hear footsteps behind me. The beam of a flashlight bobs through the trees. One lucky swipe and they’ll know exactly who I am, and I can’t afford to be identified. By now, most of my demerits from my pre-Opal days should have dropped off my record in the courthouse, but anyone with a holoband could scan my full history from the tattoo on the inside of my wrist. And it includes more than misdemeanors. I’m not taking any chances. The punishments for eighteen-year-olds are harsher than those dealt out to kids. And now I have far more to lose.
Branches swipe my hair and snatch at my clothing. I ratchet my stride up another notch. Greencoats take some flack for not making Military, but they’re no slouches. They either just missed or they washed out and had to settle for civil patrol. Either way, they’re fast. But nobody knows these woods better than I do, except maybe Opal.
I dodge into an area thick with blackberry brambles. There’s a thin game trail that threads between them. I navigate it in the dark and soon hear the faint sound of cursing. I smile smugly. That slowed my pursuer down and gave him a few thorns for his efforts, but I can still hear him following doggedly behind me. I lead him into a muddy bog, hitting the stump, the tussock, the fallen log, and launch into the rocky rivulet beyond. So far my tail has been able to follow my footprints with that flashlight, but the streambed will erase them.
The water cuts a channel through the heights and empties onto the flat shoreline of the cove. I turn upstream and follow the rocky bank for half a mile before dodging up a narrow trail that brings me to the top of the gorge. From there, I can see the flashlight beam swinging in wide arcs about a quarter mile back. The Greencoat has lost my trail. With a smile of satisfaction, I dodge into a dense pine forest where a carpet of needles ensures that he will never find it again. I slow my stride back to a steady jog, letting my heart rate drop and my breathing grow even.
Will is waiting for me at our meeting tree. It’s just an old sycamore that’s grown to enormous circumference, dwarfing the surrounding foliage, but it has always offered a destination away from the eyes of our younger siblings. We staked a claim to it years ago by carving our initials into its trunk. I knew he’d be waiting here.
“They see you?” he asks.
“The headlights raked me just as I rounded a corner, but I was moving pretty fast. I don’t think they got a good look.”
I grab his hand and squeeze it hard. The gesture says everything for me: Thank you for watching my back. We’re unconquerable together. I’m so glad you’re on my team. But my heart holds far deeper thoughts that I don’t quite know how to communicate. Hopes that reach past friendship into a future I can’t quite see. Dreams that include Will long years down the road. A home. Perhaps a family. These feelings have snuck up on me, and I don’t know if Will shares them. He’s never so much as kissed me.
My anxiety subsides as we traverse the familiar path home, soothed by the scent of pine, the springy give of woodland soil, and the distinct sounds the wind makes as it pushes through different kinds of leaves. I know every tree, every path. The sap of the forest flows through my veins. Here, I am most alive.
It takes only minutes to arrive in Opal’s yard. I wait on the dark porch—skipping over the rotten step—until Will fades into the underbrush between our houses before I duck inside. I dip a cup in the bucket of water that always sits by the back door and drink my fill. Then I wipe down with a scrap of wet flannel, change into an old T-shirt, and lie across the bed beside my little sister. The night air dries my skin.
I check my stopwatch. It’s now ticked seven minutes over the time I hoped to beat. I’d been joking about running from the Greencoats. They certainly gave me a good workout, but I have no idea how far or how fast I ran.
Despite my gamble, I’ll be going into Friday’s test without the surety that I can beat the standard.
Links to Purchase Print Books
Buy Recompense Print Edition at Amazon
Have you read this book? Tell us what you thought! All information was provided by the author and not edited by us. This is so you get to know the author better.