Banner art is the work of digital artist Alena Aenami.
This is the first scene (the "hook") of a novel I have written about 40,000 words into, and will prioritize after the "Sundiver" project finishes in the next week. Obviously it is subject to change, as the ending of any work tends to influence how it should start in the final version.
"Rockford's War" starts out with all the trappings of a dystopian sci-fi young adult novel, and all of these descriptors are true except one. We meet the protagonist William Rockford at age sixteen, but a shock upsets his young-adult-novel hero's journey - the dystopian aspects of his world prove too much for a teenager to avoid or defeat.
Of course, because this text's core concept is built around an upset, it has me worried that I'll annoy readers as completely as Brandon Sanderson annoyed me with the first Mistborn book. How much of an upset in expectations is acceptable to you as a reader? Do you appreciate getting a third of the way into a novel with a certain set of expectations and then finding everything upset in an instant? How much foreshadowing is necessary to ease this transition?
-- -- -- -- -- -- --
William Rockford sat backwards on the couch in the front room to watch the sun set over the city below. His parents’ modest house stood halfway up the hill on the east side of town, and the view was something nearly every visitor complimented them on. Rows of houses and clusters of trees descended in echelons to the flat expanse of downtown, with its old-style storefronts and newer shopping centers. The town in turn gave way to the calm waters of the lake, crisscrossed with the V-shaped wakes of small boats even late in the day.
Though the grander houses farther up the slope had even better views, William never tired of what he could see out the window. It helped the time he spent waiting for the Call pass more swiftly.
There was no explaining to his mother how he knew the Call was coming, nor what it meant. It was something that the television had once extolled as the reward for the smartest and wisest of children. The Friendlies, according to that line, would not educate any others, and it was an honor to have one’s child selected for Call activities.
In recent years, the national Narrative had changed, and the Call took on a new meaning. Even as William sat by the window, the television blared in the next room about how the Call should not be disobeyed, because it only drew in those children with psychopathic tendencies who would, outside the work of the Friendlies, go on to become killers and rapists. An endless series of experts vouched adamantly for this change of Narrative, but William didn’t think he was a psychopath, despite what the other youths jeered when they caught him going out.
William might have taken the change with less grace a few years before. He had once cared far more about the opinions of his peers, but something had changed. It had to be related to what he was doing on Call nights between sunset and sunrise, but the memory always skittered away from him when he tried to remember exactly what he did on Friendly-sponsored outings. His mother thought he was just maturing into a responsible adult, but William knew this wasn't true - in chasing the opinions of their fellows, adults and children had always seemed alike to him.
The Call came as the sun touched the western horizon beyond the lake. William recognized it immediately. It was like the sound of an antique phone’s ringing, though the noise did not exist outside his own head. William wondered not for the first time how some children, forbidden to answer by fearful parents, ever managed to ignore that persistent, gentle feeling. It was a gentle invitation to remember that which in the light of day avoided remembrance, an invitation to be part of something infinite, if only in its endless mystery. It held the sort of tantalizing promise that, unrealized, would quickly drive one mad.
William’s mother preferred to make a show of not keeping track of which nights he was Called, so William merely rose from his seat at the window and headed for the front door. He carried nothing except the clothes on his back and the metallic-blue Friendly badge pinned to his shoulder, as the Friendlies insisted that their Called youths bring nothing else. He had earlier, through sheer muscle memory, put on tennis shoes and a dark blue hooded sweater - just as last time there had been a Call he’d left wearing hiking boots and a thin, snug tee shirt.
It wasn’t that William knew precisely what he would be doing - it was that his instincts knew, if he let them. He had long ago learned to accept this strange reality - it was just another part of being Called, like the memories that avoided being thought about, and being out all night a few nights every month without suffering any ill effects from the lost sleep.
William’s younger brother Peter jerked his bike to a stop in the lawn just as William stepped outside. “Call night, Will?” Peter had never been Called, but was fascinated with the whole concept, and always asked William the next day if he remembered anything.
“Just got it.” William knelt on the front step to re-tie one of his sneakers. There had been a time when Peter had tried to follow William on Call nights, but no longer. Peter might still resent not being Called himself, but he was usually contented with seeing William off, and making a game out of gathering clues as to his older brother’s adventures. As siblings went, William knew he had a good one, and he didn't mind cooperating with his brother’s curiosity - the secrets of the Call would not be unearthed by accident.
“Awesome.” Peter pointed down the sloping street. “Mind if I walk with you to the corner?”
William’s reflexes answered before his brain could ponder this question. “That’s fine. But no further.” He heard himself say, and it seemed reasonable. Somewhere in his brain, something knew where the Call was taking him, but even so close to realization with the Call ringing in his mind, they refused to recall themselves for examination.
“Thanks, Will. By the way, I heard today that Gina Aston gets the call.” Peter pointed up the hill, toward the half-dozen palatial mansions at the top. The Astons were the second-wealthiest family in Kensington, and Yves Aston owned half of the buildings downtown. Though prosperous by local standards, the Rockford family lived like peasants by comparison to their hilltop neighbors. “Think you’d remember if you saw her one of these nights?” Peter asked.
Something below the level of thought tugged at William, but as usual it never rose to the forefront to be scrutinized. “I might have seen her once or twice.” He translated roughly. “But you know how it is, Pete.”
“Yep, I know.” Peter shrugged. “Just thought I’d ask.” As William stepped off the porch and started at a brisk pace downhill, the younger boy jumped to catch up. “If you see her tonight, ask her if I can get a ride in her dad’s Ferrari, okay?”
William smiled. Sportscars and mysteries - those were some of his brother’s favorite things. He pictured Peter at his mother’s age, driving a fast car of his own, but still collecting stories and rumors about the Friendlies, the Call, and the other mysteries of the world. “I’ll try to remember.” He agreed. “But I’m not sure I’ll be able to remember for you what her answer is.”
They reached the corner, and Peter stopped. “See you at dawn.” The younger boy grinned, and dashed back up the hill. William watched him go, then turned around, and jogged down the road, letting his feet take him where they already knew he had to be.
* * * * *
As always, the sudden departure of the firewall from William’s mind took him by surprise. When he stopped under a lone street-lamp along the park footpath, the Friendlies' protective forgetting vanished, and he remembered why the chosen place had been so ordinary. The muster had to be a forgettable place, and it could never be the same spot twice. Security was the eternal watch-word of the Call.
Recovering his breath and leaning on the arm of a park bench, William knew only too well that the Friendlies were by no means paranoid - he knew how much unfriendly attention fell on the Call. Forgetting saved the Called from the icy jaws of Syred. When he returned home at dawn, he would not be able to relate any of what he was about to do to his brother, in turn saving Peter. The Call itself could never be a secret - but its purpose could not become known, even to its participants.
“I hope I don’t look half that silly when I remember.” Carlo, standing in the shade of a tree just off the path, spoke up. He too was dressed in sneakers and a thin jacket of dark color. The hood of his coat, pulled low over his face in an attempt to break up his profile, gave him a sinister air.
“You usually do.” William replied. “When any of us beat you here to see it. Anyone else here yet?”
“Yes.” A soft voice replied from the other side of the trail.
“Lin.” Carlo greeted the girl. “We’re only missing Gina.”
Something nagged at William, something from the life lived around the Call, when the Friendlies’ firewall still segregated his mind. “She has farther to come than I do.” He shook his head, chalking the inane observation up to the lingering effects of having his memories divided.
“Shh. Might be her.” Lin vanished once more into the underbrush beside the path. Sure enough, William began hearing the sounds of sneakers crunching on gravel, and he instinctively melted into the shadows himself. It would not do to contaminate Gina’s daytime memories with any hints of the night’s events, or with whom she spent her time. There was even the chance it wasn't her, and the Called knew all too well that not all adults obeyed the strict laws against interfering with anyone bearing a Friendly badge. By age fourteen, any Called was more than capable of confounding adult antagonists, but it was drilled into every one of their heads that avoiding a senseless conflict is at least as much a victory as winning it.
The footsteps resolved themselves into the shadow of a teenaged girl, and William recognized Gina when she approached the pool of light under which she would remember. The sandy-haired girl looked expectant and eager, and William could almost read her thoughts from the look on her face - this time, she was thinking, this time I won’t forget. William sometimes thought that himself, of course, only to abandon such foolishness when the full weight of his repressed memories came back to life in his mind. Forgetting was a compromise, but a life-saving one.
The moment Gina stepped into the light, she lurched as if struck in the head, then staggered for a seat on the bench. William smiled, put up his hood, and crept forward. The Friendlies had trained him to be quiet, so quiet that even a skittish alley cat would never hear his footfalls on the damp grass.
“Will, don’t bother.” Gina held up a slightly trembling hand. “Everyone else here?”
“How is it you always hear me?” William stood up from his creeping crouch and walked around the bench.
“You’re just never as quiet as you think.” Gina turned around and fixed him with a smirk. “Lin, Carlo?”
“Here and here.” Lin replied, stepping into the light herself. Though small to the point of seeming frail, William remembered many a sparring session where she’d proved this impression quite false. Perhaps in the sunlight Lin was frail, but they’d never met in that life. None of them had.
Gina stood, and looked around in time to see Carlo step out behind William. He was the tallest of them all, already nearly six feet and still growing. William suspected he was on the basketball team of one of the local schools, but had never asked, and never been to any basketball games.
“The gang's all here." Gina clapped William on the shoulder as he re-entered the ring of light. "Anyone see a Guide?”