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Authors: Lian Tanner

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BOOK: Icebreaker
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But this man was worse than ignorant. He shouted and swore and smiled and frowned all in one sentence. “Maybe you're not sure of us; is that it?” he cried. “Well, the feeling's mutual; we're not sure of you either, and we won't be, until you give us a bit more information. You see, I can smell intrigue five decks away”—he tapped the side of his nose, his eyes hard—“and you reek of it. Intrigue and plots—”

“Wait!” said the boy, judging that the moment had come to reveal a little more of his story. He put his hand to his forehead. “It—it is coming back to me! There was a … a shipwreck—”

He broke off as the door flew open and a hulking young man with red hair and a few hopeful scrapings of beard entered.

“Everyone's talking about the stranger, Da,” said the redhead. “Everyone wants to see him.” He grinned, and jiggled from foot to foot. “I even caught the Nothing girl sneaking round. Taught her a lesson, I did.”

Albie grunted. “What about Braid and Duff? What are they up to?”

“Not a peep out of Krill. But word is, Orca's waiting for us to lower our guard, then she's gunna hit border three, and try and snatch the stranger.”

The Chief Engineer stood up. “We'd better move him then, just in case.”

And the next thing the boy knew, he was being hustled out of the cabin and towards the clanking machines.

He had thought he was prepared for anything, but still the machines took his breath away. In a daze he stumbled between huge metal hot-smelling
things
that towered above him and seemed to be made entirely of noise. When he shrank from them, Albie's son roared with laughter and dragged him closer, until the noise beat around his head like Brother Thrawn's fists. The boy whispered the First Discipline and tried not to let his horror show.

No wonder these people are such savages,
he thought.
They are surrounded by vileness. And these machines are not even the worst of it!

A pipe hissed at him, as if it could read his mind. The metal grating beneath his feet rattled. Albie's fingers dug into the boy's arm, and it was all he could do to keep walking.

“He didn't like that, Da,” said Albie's son, grinning. “Didn't like our babies. Didn't appreciate their little song.”

Albie did not answer. He was muttering to himself, “Put him in the brig, I reckon. Orca won't get him out of there.”

The boy jogged between the Chief Engineer and his son, trying to clear his mind of the dreadful machines so that he could take note of his surroundings. They were passing through some sort of living quarters now, with cots and nets and rope ladders hanging down in every direction, and the stink of fish oil and unwashed bodies.

People were chattering in groups. Between them, skinny half-naked children scrambled up and down the rope ladders, squealing at the tops of their voices. Babies chortled and cried. It was a different sort of racket from the machines, but the boy's lip curled in disgust.

Look at them,
he thought.
What do they know of discipline and virtue? They have machines on their ship! They have a demon! And do they care? Are they trying to rid themselves of these impurities? No, of course not. Brother Thrawn was right; they are savages and cowards, and they deserve to die.

Albie pushed through the crowd, lifting rope cots out of the way with a brawny arm and greeting any questions with a grunt.

His son, however, smirked and sang out at the top of his voice, “Here's the stranger, shipmates, see? Ain't he a feeble-looking thing? Hardly worth fighting Orca for. And no use talking to him, neither, 'cos he's a dummy.”

“You shut your gob, Skua,” said Albie mildly, “or I'll shut it for you.”

Skua fell silent. But his words had done their damage. Before the boy had taken another three paces he was surrounded by gaping mouths and wide, astonished eyes. There were too many people and they pressed him too close, picking at his clothes with fingers that stank of fish. Some of the smaller children began to cry, as if the
boy
were the strange one. As if
he
were the demon-lover.

After the horror of the machines, it was almost too much for him. He wanted to push them back, to shout at them,
Do not stare! Get away from me!

His training saved him. He reminded himself that Initiates of the Circle did not shout. Initiates of the Circle were like the Citadel spire, rising clean and superior into the sky, even while the storms of the ignorant raged below. The boy gritted his teeth and bent his mind to the Spire Contemplation, which had never failed him yet. Before long his thoughts began to trace the familiar shape, and the people around him faded a little, as if he had set them behind glass.

Savages,
he thought.
Savages and cowards. Barely human.

By the time the small procession came to the brig, the boy had himself entirely under control.

That is, until Albie pushed him into a small cell with a bucket in one corner, saying, “I've got things to deal with, bratling, but when I return I'll want to hear more about this shipwreck. I'll want your name too. Names are important. A name tells me where you stand in the world, and whether I can trust you or not. You've got until the second dog watch tomorrow to remember yours. If you won't give it to me by then, it's back onto the ice with you.”

The carefully constructed pattern of the Spire Contemplation fell to the deck like broken glass. The boy's stomach tightened.

He was willing to lie about any number of things, knowing that he was doing the will of the Circle. But there was one thing he was determined
not
to lie about, and that was his name.

Initiates like the boy and his fellows did not
have
a name, not until they had carried out some noble deed. Winning a name and taking their place in the Circle of Devouts was all they talked about. It filled their days, and their nights too, sliding into their dreams like a bright flame, and every single one of them yearning towards it.

Brother Thrawn was no fool, however. He had known that the boy's lack of a name might arouse suspicion among the savages.

“Hold them off for as long as you can,” he had said. “Leave holes in your story so that your name is not the only thing missing, and fill those holes in gradually. If you are clever, you will be able to kill the demon before they press you too hard on the matter. But—”

Here he had fixed the boy with a granite stare. “But if it comes to the point where it threatens the success of the mission, then you must give yourself a name.”

The boy had nodded, of course; no one ever said no to Brother Thrawn. But secretly he had promised himself that things would
not
come to that point. That he would not
have
to invent a name; that he was clever enough to win through without it.

As he listened to the footsteps walking away from his prison, he gritted his teeth and renewed his secret promise.

“I am the best Initiate for years,” he whispered fiercely. “I will
never
accept a name I have not earned!” And he set out to inspect the cell, knowing that he could not afford to wait for Albie's trust.

Instead he would escape. He would find the demon and kill it. And then—
then
he would summon the bright cleansing axes of the Circle to destroy the ship and everyone on it.

 

CHAPTER 5

SECRETS …

“I couldn't get near him,” said Petrel, later that night. “Albie's got him locked up tight as tight.”

“And a good thing too,” said Mister Smoke.

“What's the matter with your head?” asked Missus Slink, craning her neck. “Is that blood?”

Petrel touched her scalp gingerly. “Skua chucked a wrench at me. His aim's getting better.”

“Hmph,” said Missus Slink. “Let's have a look.”

Grumbling quietly, Petrel lay facedown on the hard deck of the workshop. Small paws patted her scalp, and she winced.

“Hurts, does it?” asked Missus Slink. With every movement her old joints creaked, and the tattered green ribbon she wore around her neck brushed Petrel's ear. “He's sliced you right open. Needs stitches.”

In Petrel's other ear, Mister Smoke said, “So what's Albie gunna do with the stranger, shipmate?”

“You tell me, Mister Smoke, and we'll both know.”

“Hold still, girl,” said Missus Slink. “Don't jump around so much.”

“Ow,” said Petrel, as something stung her scalp. “What's that?”

“Grog,” said the rat. “Make sure the wound's clean before I stitch it.” She dabbed at Petrel with tiny paws, muttering under her breath. “There's always something. Stitch the scalp, scrape the turbines, patch the for'ard sea valves— No, I forgot, the valves are your job, Smoke.”

A tiny needle appeared in her paw. “Hold still,” she warned again, and Petrel felt a pricking sensation that made her squawk.

“Scalps is easier than valves,” said Mister Smoke.

“Rubbish,” said Missus Slink, as the needle dived in and out. “Valves don't talk back. Three stitches should do the trick. Seal gut, who'd've thought I'd end up using seal gut? Mind, it's better than seaweed, which I tried a while back. Was it seaweed? I can't recall.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Petrel.

“Never you mind,” said Missus Slink. “There now, that's done.”

Petrel probed the tiny, neat stitches with her finger. There was no sign of the needle now, which didn't surprise her. She had known the two rats for as long as she could remember, but there were mysteries about them that she had never got to the bottom of. Sometimes they answered her questions, sometimes they didn't, and there was nothing she could do about it.

There was nothing she could do about the strange boy, either, no matter how much she wanted to see him. She rubbed her eyes and stood up. “I'm hungry. Ain't eaten since yesterday.”

“Hang on, hang on,” said Mister Smoke, squinting up at her. “What about the stranger?”

“I told you, I can't get near him. And Albie'll do more than slice my scalp open if he catches me hanging round the brig.”

“But you're the one 'oo found the boy,” said Mister Smoke. “That means you got a responsibility to look out for 'im.”

Petrel stared down at the rat. “Why are you so worried about him all of a sudden, Mister Smoke? You said strangers are bad.”

“And so they are. But don't you want to know where 'e came from?”

“He fell from the sky.”

Mister Smoke made a rude snorting noise.

“Hungry,” said Petrel, and she marched out of the workshop.

Mister Smoke limped after her, with Missus Slink hobbling in the rear. “You should go back and talk to the boy, shipmate,” said Mister Smoke, his nose twitching.

“Course I should,” said Petrel, not meaning it. “Your leg getting worse, Mister Smoke?”

“You should ask 'im questions. What's 'is name? Where'd 'e come from? How'd 'e end up on that berg? Was 'e alone, or were there folk with 'im? If there were, where are they now? Get some answers.”

“You trying to get me into trouble with Albie?” said Petrel.

The rat's eyes gleamed. “Answers.”

“No.”

“Answers!”

“Why can't you be nice?” hissed Petrel, her irritation growing. “If I had to be friends with a rat, why couldn't it be a
nice
rat?”

“He's a law unto himself,” said Missus Slink gloomily. “I'm not saying he's wrong, mind.”

Mister Smoke began to sing in a sandpapery voice, “Answers answers answers. Answers answers answers—”

Petrel bent down and scooped him off the deck.

“Oy,” he said, wriggling. “Lemme go!”

“No, you listen, Mister Smoke,” said Petrel, slipping into the shadows and squatting down with Missus Slink beside her. “You know what Albie said, last time he caught me poking my nose into his business? He said I was as useless as feathers on a fish, and he might just do the whole ship a favor and chuck me overboard. So I'm not going near that brig, not for anything.”

The rat stopped wriggling. “Thought the boy was your friend. 'Cos you saved 'im from the ice.”

Petrel scowled. “When did I ever have friends, 'cept for you and Missus Slink?”

“All the same—”

“And besides,” continued Petrel, “I tried to see him once. Not gunna risk my life trying again.”

Mister Smoke blinked thoughtfully. “Maybe there's an easier way,” he said. “A safer way.”

“What do you mean?”

The old rat cocked his head to one side and peered at Petrel. “You think you know this ship? You think you know every bit of 'er?”

“Careful, Smoke,” said Missus Slink. “You're getting perilously close to things that shouldn't be talked about.”

Petrel looked from one rat to the other. “What sort of things?”

“Never you mind,” said Missus Slink firmly.

But Mister Smoke winked, and whispered, “Put me down, shipmate. This needs a bit of negotiatin'.”

The two rats retired to the corner. Petrel did her best to overhear their muttered conversation, but the clatter of the engines drowned out all but a few words.

“… got to find out…,” said Mister Smoke.

“… a sacred trust.”

“… have to bend…”

“No!” said Missus Slink.

Mister Smoke persisted, “… need answers … just in case…”

Whatever argument Mister Smoke was making, it eventually brought Missus Slink up short. She wrinkled her nose. “I can't see how…”

“… honorary…”

“… mmm. Possible…”

They turned and inspected Petrel with sharp eyes.

BOOK: Icebreaker
9.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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