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Authors: Lian Tanner

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BOOK: Icebreaker
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And he went back to digging at the wall, determined to find his own way out of the cell, and to have nothing more to do with the girl.

Nothing whatsoever.

*   *   *

“Well?” said Mister Smoke, as soon as they were out of the tunnel. “You gunna tell us them answers, or are you savin' 'em for midsummer?”

Petrel's spirits were rising and falling like a storm wave. She had talked to the boy! What's more, the boy had talked back to her, just as if she was a real person.
He
didn't think she was worthless.
He
didn't think she should've been thrown to the Maw years ago.

That was the white-flecked peak of the wave. But after it came the trough. The boy was in trouble. Petrel wanted to save him, but she'd never be able to get him out of the brig by herself, and she was quite sure that Mister Smoke and Missus Slink wouldn't help her.

Not unless she could come up with a very good reason.

Which was why, instead of answering Mister Smoke's question, she mumbled, “Hungry. Gotta find something to eat.” And took to her heels.

Cook territory, or Dufftown, occupied the
Oyster
's middle decks, with Braid above it and Grease Alley below. The Commons ladderways passed through Dufftown, so that Engineer folk could climb up to the outside decks for their fishing shift or to mend the wind turbines, or perhaps just to see the sun, there being no portholes in Grease Alley.

But if one of those Engineers—man, woman or bratling—should try to set foot in Dufftown, they would find themselves face-to-face with a dozen hostile border guards.

Petrel was not an Engineer. She was not a Cook either, or an Officer. She was nothing, and the guards knew it. So even though they were jittery, they did not try to stop her. Instead they scowled as she scuttled past, then went back to cursing Albie, who was endangering the whole ship with his stubbornness.

Because it was the middle of the night, there was none of the usual bustle in the
Oyster
's galley. In fact, Petrel could only see a single Cook, bent over a grinding machine with her back to the door. It was Squid, the daughter of Head Cook Krill.

Petrel sidled into the room, her eyes fixed on the tray of hard biscuits two benches away. She would rather have had fish, of course, or seaweed broth, which was thick and hot and satisfying. But the winter had been a hard one and biscuits were better than nothing, even though they were so tasteless that folk said they must be made from ground-up whale bones, with maybe a bit of salt added.

Squid was muttering to herself, too low for Petrel to catch the words. The grinding machine made a ratcheting noise, then fell silent again. Petrel ducked under the first bench, then under the second. The biscuits were just above her. Silently, she reached upwards …

She had stolen food from the galley countless times before and never been caught. But perhaps the excitement she felt at having talked to the boy—at having
named
him—had changed her. Perhaps she was no longer quite as small and unnoticeable as she had been. Whatever the reason, as her fingers touched the edge of the tray, a hand grabbed her wrist.

Petrel tried to jerk away, but Squid had a firm grip. “What's this?” said the young woman. “Someone out of bed when they shouldn't be? Someone I know, maybe? No, don't recognize this grubby hand. Who are you, bratling? Come out and show yourself.”

Squid had never been one of Petrel's tormentors, and even now she did not sound angry. Still, Petrel trusted no one but herself. She braced her feet against the leg of the bench so she could not be dragged out against her will.

“What's the matter?” asked Squid. “You think I'm going to eat you? Not likely. Imagine Da turning up first thing in the morning, while I'm still licking my chops. ‘What've you been eating?' he'd say.” She copied Krill's growl perfectly. “And then I'd have to confess,” she continued. “I'd open my mouth and point to the bits of gristle wedged between my teeth. ‘See that, Da?' I'd say. ‘That's an intruder I caught last night.' And wouldn't he belt me. ‘I've told you before,' he'd bellow. ‘You're not to eat the Officers!'”

It was such nonsense that Petrel wanted to laugh. But she did not move or speak.

Squid sighed loudly. “I've got work to do, you know. I can't wait here all night. Come out and let's have a look at you.”

There was no hint of violence or cruelty in her voice. She just sounded curious. And besides, tonight was … different. Slowly Petrel let herself be dragged out from underneath the bench.

Squid was big, with muscular arms like her father, and a broad face. When she saw Petrel, she snorted with surprised laughter, “Ha! It's Miss Nothing.” Then she walked around the smaller girl, inspecting her from every angle.

“Folk reckon you're simple,” she said. “You don't look simple to me.”

Quickly Petrel adopted the foolish expression that had kept her safe for so long. Squid laughed again. Then she said, “Your mam was an Engineer, wasn't she? You know anything about fixing grinders?”

Petrel didn't move, didn't even blink. But inside …

Hardly anyone except Dolph ever mentioned her mam. Or her da. Petrel knew little about them except that they had done something terrible; something that had rubbed off on Petrel so thoroughly that none of the tribes wanted her.

“No?” said Squid. “Ah well, it was worth a try. You look a lot like her. Not that I
knew
her exactly, what with her being Grease and me being Duff. But we exchanged a word or two on the afterdeck. Course, that was before—”

She broke off, embarrassed. “Aye. Well. Biscuits, is it? Take three. No, take four in case you get peckish. Glory be, it's getting late, Da'll have my guts for gravy if I don't get this grinder working by morning.”

And she thrust four large biscuits into Petrel's hand and hurried away.

It was an even-more-thoughtful-than-before Petrel who crept past the border guards and back down the ladderway to Grease Alley. She had already eaten one of the biscuits, though it was so hard that her jaw ached from chewing, and so lacking in flavor that she thought it was probably true about the whale bones. But it was filling, and that was enough.

“Squid met my mam,” she whispered to herself. “Spoke to her on the afterdeck. She met my mam!”

It was like pressing on a bruise to see if it hurt. Petrel pulled a face, wondering what the Head Cook's daughter wanted from her in exchange for the information and the biscuits. She must want
something,
but Petrel couldn't imagine what, so she tucked the whole thing away in a quiet corner of her mind, to think about later.

By the time she squatted beside the rats, Mister Smoke was almost dancing with impatience. “You gunna give us them answers?” was the first thing he said to her. “Or is it more excuses? You need a nap first, mebbe? Or a game of cards?”

“Steady, Smoke,” said Missus Slink. “She's gotta eat, you can't deny that. They don't last long if they—”

“This is what the boy said,” interrupted Petrel. “First he said he'd forgotten his name. So I gave him one. Fin, that's what he's called now.”

“That's a start,” said Mister Smoke, “though not much of one. What about the other questions? They're the big ones. Where did 'e come from? Who was with 'im?”

“Oh, he wouldn't tell me any of that,” said Petrel, not wanting to admit that she had skipped the rest of Mister Smoke's questions and gone straight to her own. “I asked and asked, and he clamped his mouth shut and wouldn't say a word. He's afraid of Albie, that's the thing. Wants to get away from him; wants to get out of the brig before it's too late. If we get him out, he said, he'll answer a
hundred
questions, all true and proper.”

“Get him
out
?” said Missus Slink in appalled tones. “I hope you told him you'd do no such thing.”

“Weeeell—”

Missus Slink gave a little
humph
of displeasure.

“If Albie chucks him overboard,” said Petrel, “you'll never get your answers.”

“If Albie chucks him overboard we won't
need
answers,” said Missus Slink.

“Unless,” said Petrel, with great cunning, “
another
boy falls out of the sky. Better get the answers from this one, just in case.”

A second
humph
from Missus Slink. But Mister Smoke cocked his head and said, “You got a point there, shipmate. She has, Slink, you gotta admit it.”

The rats looked at each other. The fur on their backs was as ragged as their whiskers, and for the first time in her life, Petrel found herself wondering how old they were, and what would happen to her when they died. She would be completely alone …

“Oh, please,” she said.
“Please!”

“I spose we could keep a watch on the boy,” said Mister Smoke.

“A constant watch,” said Missus Slink. “Day and night. Never let him out of sight.” She glowered at Petrel. “Never let him out of
ratty
sight.”

“Thank you,” whispered Petrel, and if she had thought for a minute they would let her, she would have lifted the rats up and kissed their noses.

Instead, all she did was bow her head and say, very formally, “Thank you, Missus Slink. Thank you, Mister Smoke. I'll get those answers for you, see if I don't.”

 

CHAPTER 7

ESCAPE!

It took the remainder of the night to set up a distraction for the brig guard. First Petrel stole two pairs of outdoor trousers and a couple of jackets and gloves, picking them off bone pegs while their owners slept. Then she crept around all her hidey-holes collecting certain treasures that she had hidden in case she might need them one day.

She brought back a broken saucepan, a bit of rope, the remains of a chain, and a feather that looked very much like the ones on Orca's jacket. She tied the saucepan to an overhead pipe halfway between the brig and Albie's cabin, right in the heart of Grease Alley.

“This'll make 'em jump,” she whispered to Mister Smoke, who was crouched on top of the pipe next to the rope.

“You sure you know what you're doin', shipmate?” asked the rat.

“Course I do. I told you, I'm gunna get Fin out. And maybe pay Albie back for all the times he's shouted at me.” Petrel grinned at the thought.

“That's a good thing, is it, shipmate? Payback? You don't think it'll make things worse?”

“Not for me, Mister Smoke. If it makes things worse for the rest of 'em, I don't care.”

She tucked the chain and the feather into the saucepan. Then she stood back and eyed them. “You gunna help me, Mister Smoke?”

“What if it don't work?”

“Then I'm sunk, and so's Fin.”

“You need a backup system. Gotta have backup. And if it's not there to start with, you gotta build it. Just in case.”

“Too late for that now,” said Petrel. “Are you gunna help me, or not?”

“Somethin' tells me I shouldn't, shipmate. But seein' as you is an honorary rat…”

A tiny knife appeared in Mister Smoke's paw, and he tested it against the rope, snipping through the first few fibers.

“Wait for the word,” said Petrel, “or I'll have wasted all that creeping around. This ain't the sort of trick I can pull twice.” And she hurried towards the brig, where Missus Slink was waiting for her.

Many of the lights in the
Oyster
's passageways had broken years ago, but the ones that still worked were always on, powered by the spinning of the wind turbines above the bridge, which fed into a bank of batteries. So there was no question of Petrel trying to get close to the brig guard without being seen. Instead, Missus Slink did a reconnoiter at deck level, and came back with the news that the guard was wide-awake, sitting upright in his chair with his fingers tapping out an uneasy rhythm on his knee.

“He's worried about Orca, I bet,” whispered Petrel.

Missus Slink nodded. “Border guards are edgy too. Expecting an attack day or night.”

“Good,” said Petrel. “That's what we want.”

There were hardly any hiding places in the passageway that led to the brig. But Petrel had learned to climb before she could walk, and she was as nimble as a cockroach. Using nothing but the bolts and hooks set into the bulkhead, she swarmed up to the overhead pipes and tucked both herself and the outdoor clothes on top of them.

“Pssst!” she hissed to Missus Slink, who was squinting at her from below. “Go!”

The rat hobbled away, her green ribbon wagging. Petrel clung to the pipes, wondering how long it would take Mister Smoke to slice through the rope, and if their trick would work, and what she would do if it didn't.

All that talk about backup. Maybe I should've thought of TWO plans, just in case!

The crash, when it came, was all she could have wished for. Chain and saucepan hit the deck with a clang that echoed through the passageways. To ears that were already on the alert, it must have sounded very much like an attack.

Somewhere not too far away, the fighting shift shouted as they leaped into action. Petrel held her breath. Then, to her delight, the brig guard dashed past beneath her, gripping his pipe wrench and swearing under his breath.

Petrel grabbed the jackets and trousers, swung down from the overhead pipes and ran towards the brig. There was the key, on the wall of the guard room. She snatched it off its hook and raced to the cell.

“Fin,” she whispered, scratching at the bars. “Fin!”

She heard a gasp. “You!” And there was the boy, right in front of her, his face pale and set.

Petrel slid the key into the lock and turned it. The door swung open.

BOOK: Icebreaker
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