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Authors: Lian Tanner

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BOOK: Icebreaker
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Petrel looked over her shoulder, her face shiny with tears. “Is it done? Are they—Are they dead?”

“I think so,” whispered Dolph.

Fin had never admired Petrel as much as he did then. For all her grief, she did not hesitate. “Then— Then we'd b-better get the captain awake, quick as we can,” she said.

With trembling fingers, she picked up one of the tiny boxes and slid it into the silver boy's shoulder. It fitted perfectly.

Petrel picked up the second box. She was steadier now, though the tears still rolled down her cheeks.

“We're going to wake him,” she said, and Fin couldn't tell whether she was talking to him and Dolph, or to the bodies of Mister Smoke and Missus Slink, or to Brother Thrawn, so far above their heads. “We're
all
going to do it.” And she handed the box to Fin.

He took it, feeling as if he were dreaming.
It is not too late,
he thought.
I could drop this device onto the deck and crush it beneath my foot. Then the sleeping captain would never wake. And the world would be a better place
 …

Or would it?

He had always accepted the notion without questioning. He had accepted everything Brother Thrawn had told him.

But now he must think for himself. He must choose.

What it came down to, he realized, was coldness versus warmth. Death versus life. The Devouts versus the crew of the
Oyster.

Fin thought of his mother. He thought of Krill and Squid and Albie, and a hand on his shoulder, and a shield at his back, and a girl who fought for her people, even when they treated her badly.

And in that moment, he knew that Brother Thrawn must not be allowed to crush the
Oyster,
the way he crushed everything else he touched. Fin could not bear it. All that noise silenced. All that chaos. All that life.

He gripped the little box tighter and looked down at the beautiful silver face of the sleeping captain. One final doubt crept into his mind. What if it
was
a demon? What if this was the biggest mistake he had ever made?

“Quick!” said Petrel. “What are you waiting for?”

Fin looked up and met her worried gaze. He must tell her the truth; he owed it to her.

Before he could lose his nerve, he blurted it out in one long breath. “I told you that the Devouts forced me to come with them, but I lied, I
wanted
to come, I was supposed to kill the sleeping captain.”

Petrel's eyes were enormous. “
What?

“But,” said Fin firmly, “I will not do it!” And he pushed the box into the hole.

Later, when there was time to think, he wondered what he had expected. A whirring? A thudding, like the
Oyster
's engines?

There was none of that. No sound. No ratcheting of joints or rattling of metal. The boy's eyes merely opened.

And he smiled.

At least, Fin thought he did. The silver face did not move, but there was a warmth in it, a sense of joy and wonder.

“Hello,” said the boy, and his voice was as full of strangeness as the
Oyster
itself.

Fin gulped. “H-hello.”

Petrel's face was still pale with shock from Fin's revelation. But once again she knew what must be done. “I'm Petrel,” she said to the boy. “This here's Dolph and that's Fin. We need you, Cap'n! There's cruel men come to destroy the ship.”

The boy sat up, as smooth as the silk of Brother Thrawn's robes.

“They're on the outside decks already,” said Dolph. “We have to hurry.”

“They are the Devouts,” added Fin. “Led by Brother Thrawn. They have come from the other side of the earth, hunting a demon. They have come to kill everyone on the ship.”

Petrel shot him one sharp glance, then looked back at the silver boy. “We need you to stop 'em, Cap'n.”

The boy climbed out of the box, his limbs moving with such elegance that Fin longed to take him apart and see how he was made. Except—Except the boy was so alive. So real. Far too real to take apart.

Far too real to smash.

“I know two thousand years of history,” said the silver boy. He hopped down from the table. “I know the rise and fall of civilizations, and how to rebuild myself if I am injured, and the position of every screw in this ship.”

He paused. “But I do not know how to stop the Devouts.”

“What?” said Dolph, as if she hadn't heard him properly.

But Petrel said fiercely, “You
must
know! Shipfolk are dying up there, and you're sposed to save 'em. That's what you're for!”

The boy shook his head. “I am for knowledge, not war.”

The small cabin seemed to grow colder. Fin swallowed. “Can you not kill the Devouts with a glance? Can you not boil the blood in their veins? Destroy whole cities?”

“No,” said the boy.

The children looked at each other in dismay. “Then what's the use of you, Cap'n?” cried Petrel. “We killed Mister Smoke and Missus Slink to wake you, and now you can't do anything. We killed 'em, and we shouldn't've—”

“Killed them?” said the silver boy. His long fingers touched Missus Slink, slid into the wound Fin had made, twisted something, adjusted something else. Then he did the same to Mister Smoke.

On the table, the two rats raised their heads.

Petrel gasped. But when she scooped the rats up and hugged them, they said nothing. And when she asked anxiously, “Are you all right, Mister Smoke? Missus Slink?” they still said nothing, but sat silent in her grasp, as if they could no longer speak or think for themselves.

A single tear rolled down Petrel's face.

“Forget 'em,” said Dolph. “We've wasted too much time already. Forget the captain too. If he can't fight, we can.” She took a step, and yelped with pain.

“Your ankle,” said Fin. “You can't walk—”

Dolph hissed at him. “Doesn't matter! I'll crawl all the way up to the afterdeck if I have to!”

“Wait,” said Petrel. With a visible effort she dragged her eyes away from the rats and stared at the silver boy. “We've gotta think.”

“There's no
time
to think,” said the older girl. “We're crew, ain't we? We should be up there!”

But Petrel's eyes were darting from side to side, as if she were trying to calculate something. “Knowledge,” she muttered. “Does that mean you know what time it is, Cap'n? I've lost track, 'cos of being inside the Maw.”

Without hesitation, the boy said, “It is just past three bells of the morning watch.”

Petrel closed her eyes, and for a moment she looked more uncertain than Fin had ever seen her. But then her eyes sprang open again and she said, “We have to go
now.

“That's what I said!” cried Dolph.

“No, we're not going to fight. We're going to the bridge deck.”

“What can we do there?”

“You'll see,” said Petrel. She pulled a face. “Least I hope you will. Come on. You too, Cap'n.” And she tucked the silent rats inside her jacket, and hurried towards the far end of the little cabin, where there was a door with a circular handle.

Dolph tried to hobble after her, and yelped again. The silver boy tapped her on the shoulder. “I am strong,” he said. “I could carry you, if that would help.”

They all stared at him. Dolph laughed uncertainly. “The sleeping captain, carry
me
…?”

“Good,” said Petrel, as if it were already settled. “Let's go.”

The boy
was
strong, despite his smallness. He lifted Dolph in his arms as if she weighed no more than a loaf of bread.

Petrel picked up the lantern, saying, “Stay close. Don't fall behind.”

Fin grasped the spanner, which was still in his pocket.

Then the four children—one of them silver-faced and carrying the lost knowledge of generations inside his slender body—began to climb upward through the ship, knowing that above their heads a battle was raging, and that all the advantage was with the Devouts, and none at all with the crew of the
Oyster.

 

CHAPTER 25

BROTHER THRAWN

Past the silent engines they ran. Past the digester and the batteries, up the first steep ladders with their iron rungs, up the next ladder until they were on the Commons, and up again. There was no time for caution, no time for ducking around corners to avoid folk. But neither, to Petrel's growing dismay, was there anyone to avoid. Apart from the babies and the youngest bratlings, who were presumably still huddled amidships with a few adults to care for them, everyone must be trying to fight their way out onto the open decks.

Trying and dying.

Petrel climbed faster, her mind spinning like a whirlpool. Fin's last-minute confession had shocked her, though it explained so much. The uncomplaining weight of the rats inside her jacket made her want to weep. The emptiness of the passages, the thought of what was happening above, the slim hope that she might be able to do something about it—

Fin's footsteps echoed hers. Dolph urged them on from the rear. “Quick, Petrel! Quick, Fin! Don't drop me, Cap'n!”

They passed Dufftown and kept climbing. Petrel thought she could hear shouts of fury and screams of pain from above, but it might have been the creaking of the ship or the grinding of the ice. The Commons ladderway seemed to go on forever, as if Brother Thrawn's malice had slithered down into the ship and changed its structure.

We've got to stop him.
And with that thought, Petrel led the way up the last short ladder to the bridge deck.

There was no one there. Everyone who could work had been busy setting the lectrics to rights and mending the fire damage. And now they were trying to force their way out onto the fore- and afterdecks, determined to defend their ship.

Crab should've been on the bridge,
thought Petrel, running along the last passage.
He should've seen the grappling hooks come over the rail. He should've stopped the cruel men before they got a foothold.

But it was too late for recriminations. Petrel darted onto the bridge. The sun was a fingertip below the horizon, and the air outside the windows was pearly gray. It should have been beautiful. But below them, on the open decks, terrible things were happening.

Petrel put the lantern down, threw open the hatch that led outside, and ran aft, with the others close behind her. Out into the freezing air. Out into the screams and howls and clash of weapons rising from below.

She could hardly bear to look down. Every hatch on the fore- and afterdecks was open, and the
Oyster
's crew were trying to fight their way out. But they were at a terrible disadvantage. Only two men could climb through the hatch at a time, and however well-armed those men were, however fierce, a dozen or more Devouts waited for them, and struck them down as they emerged.

Petrel saw Crab fall, and five Officers, one after the other, behind him. At another hatch, Krill was fighting for his life. The deck in front of him was red with blood, and the cries of the Devouts, floating upward, were so full of savagery and hatred that Petrel shrank back. Her idea for stopping the attackers seemed pitiful now. She wished desperately that the silver boy could throw down lightning, or summon up an ice storm.

But he could not. It was up to her. The Nothing girl.

“What do you wish me to do?” asked the captain, putting Dolph down.

Petrel glanced at the horizon. “Stand next to the rail. Closer!
Closer!
Quick, now! Stand right here, and look down at the afterdeck.”

Fin and Dolph stared at her, puzzled, but did not speak. The boy captain took a step forward and stood, looking down at the carnage …

And at that moment, as Petrel had calculated, the first rays of the sun rose above the horizon and struck his silver face. He shone as bright as a comet, and the light bent down to the deck and dazzled one of the attackers.

Just one.

The man looked up—and stopped in his tracks. His quivering hand rose to point at the boy captain. His mouth gaped and no sound came from it.

The man next to him looked up. And the man next to
him.
And the man—

It was like a sickness, thought Petrel. A winter sickness that started with a single person and spread through the crew so quickly that one moment everyone was healthy and the next they were all coughing and sneezing.

The men below her were dumbstruck. Horrified. Afraid.

Can you not kill the Devouts with a glance? Can you not boil the blood in their veins?

As the invaders stared up at the silver boy, waiting for his terrible weapons to strike them, the men and women of the
Oyster
poured out of the hatches to defend their ship.

But then
they
looked up too. And
they
were dumbstruck. Petrel could see Albie, his cunning face blank with shock. And Krill and all his folk, staring up at the captain, their weapons limp in their hands.

Within seconds, the afterdeck went from a scene of death and destruction to total silence. Even the wind fiddles were still. Even the useless straining turbines.

It won't last,
thought Petrel.
They'll be fighting again as soon as they get their wits back, which means more blood. And Albie and Krill still don't know what's going on. I've gotta tell 'em!

Her breath was a cloud in the morning air. She could feel the doubt gathering inside her. What if no one listened? What if they looked straight past her, ignored her, treated her as nothing?

“No!” she told herself firmly. “I'm
not
nothing! Never was! Never will be again!” And she stepped straight past the doubt, stepped forward until she was standing beside the silver boy.

BOOK: Icebreaker
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