Read Phoenix Rising Online

Authors: Bryony Pearce

Phoenix Rising (2 page)

One year later

 

Waves crested and shattered over the broken plane.

The
Phoenix
was carving her way towards it, but her current course would churn the drowning aircraft into her wake along with the rusting engines, plyboard cupboards and thousands of cans that festooned the waves of the poisonous sea.

Toby clung to the crow’s nest and leaned out as far as he could, watching Polly as she swooped towards the plane. The surf covered it before she could get there, and Toby held his breath. Would the current suck their prize out of reach? Then the plane’s wing peeked through the masses of junk once more and Polly wheeled back towards Toby.

Too excited to wait for her return, he was shouting before the parrot could land. “She’s worth salvaging, right? She is, isn’t she?”

Polly thumped on to his shoulder and knocked Toby off balance. He scrabbled with his feet for a firmer grip on the bolted jigsaw of car bonnets that made up the crow’s nest and grabbed the railing, unwilling to take his eyes from the plane for more than a second. It was still in sight, surrounded now by a flotilla of shopping carts. “I was right, wasn’t I?”

“It looks good.” Polly ruffled her feathers. “But I wouldn’t bet your life on it.”

“If I call it wrong, the crew will eat me alive – remember how angry they were with Arnav last time.” Toby wrapped his fingers around his binoculars. “But there could be fuel in there, and cargo – there might even be building materials, clothes, D-tabs … tinned food.”

“Or she might have been flying on fumes and carrying suitcases.” The parrot’s wings jerked up and down in her approximation of a shrug.

Toby stared hard at the wreckage as if he could force an answer. In the cockpit the pilot still gripped the throttle, trying to accelerate from beyond the grave. “What brought her down?”

Polly shuffled. “Hard to tell.”

“She might’ve run out of fuel, then.” Toby drummed his fingers on the rail.

“Might’ve,” Polly echoed. Then she squawked, suddenly
agreeable. “More likely she’s a casualty of the wars.” She cocked her head, her plumage tickling Toby’s chin. “There’s damage consistent with small tactical munitions.”

“She’s been in the water a long time – anything could’ve done that.”

“No guarantees at sea, Toby. But the pattern of damage suggests a drone strike. It’ll be good salvage – if the hookmen can secure it.”

“They’ve salvaged bigger. Dee’s a pro.” Toby leaned over to spot the ship’s second in command. She was just coming out of the fibreglass bridge, dark curls flying beneath her red scarf as she walked next to Marcus. All the crew wore the red scarf – the closest thing they had to a uniform. Marcus usually wore his around his throat to cover the evidence of his brush with death; Toby also wrapped his around his neck, as added protection from Polly’s claws. Others covered their mouths, forearms or even their shins, depending on what jobs they had to do. Rita tied hers around her chest and Big Pad used his as a belt. The splashes of scarlet made Toby think of the sailors as the
Phoenix’s
very own flames.

Despite the additions to her deck – lean-tos made from lorries, sheds made from old fibreglass hulls and walkways under swinging canopies – the
Phoenix
herself was not
colourful. She had first sailed way back at the start of the millennium – a cargo ship. She would have seen the leaping dolphins, shoals of fish and basking sharks that were now long gone. She had sailed before the oil crisis, the economic collapse, the riots, the wars and finally the eruption of the supervolcano that had changed the earth forever. But once the seas were clogged with rubbish and turned into floating junkyards, she had been forgotten.

Barnaby Ford, whose talent lay in repurposing cast-offs from the old world, had discovered the
Phoenix
rusting in a dry dock. St George, the militocracy, had paid for the years he spent turning the ship from an oil guzzler into a sail-subsidized paddle steamer. Jobs that would once have taken a couple of hours with a blowtorch required weeks of work. Everything on the ship had been salvaged, including the crew.

Beyond the electrical pylon that housed the crow’s nest, four further masts had once been telegraph poles. Ford’s supervisor had somehow procured them during the Darkness, when almost all wood had become fuel. This made the masts, for a while, the most valuable items on the ship.

The silver sails had been stolen from a satellite and on each side a great paddle, ripped from a power station’s cooling system, turned inside a razor-wire cage.
The
Phoenix
chugged through the water with the force of Niagara Falls.

The
Phoenix
’s hull was taken from an ice-breaker ship, designed so she could carve through the junk in her way. Toby imagined that long ago sailors had cruised to the music of rolling waves, but now the typical sound of the sea was the smash and crunch of debris being shoved aside by vessels with the strength to move it: pirates, desperate traders and Navies. The rest of the world left the salt well alone.

The ship’s original engine still existed, but hardly ever ran. The fuel to turn it was as rare as phoenix eggs, yet it was just possible that right here, in this sea-battered plane, Toby had found some. Above him, as if to remind him why he was there, the skull and crossbones snapped, gunshot loud. Toby jumped.

“All right, Bones, we won’t let her get away.” He had been clutching his elbows, but now he dropped his arms to his side and straightened up.

Polly bobbed on his shoulder. “You’re calling it?”

Toby nodded. “I’m making the call. Even if it means we’ll be back in the boiler room before the end of the watch.”

“Yuck.” Polly began cleaning her feathers as if she could feel the soot on them already.

“Knock it off, Pol. It’s not so bad. I’m the best engineer
on the ship, who else would you have in there?”

“Anyone!” Polly looked up from under her wing. “Why couldn’t you have trained as a cook? I wouldn’t mind sitting in the galley all day.”

“What, and work with Peel?” Toby shuddered. “Come on, Pol, engineering’s in my blood. Besides, you’d be bored in the kitchen.” He jigged as he caught the speaking tube from the hook. “Captain, course adjustment. Two degrees port.”

The query he received in return was garbled and grainy, but Toby understood the jumble of sounds perfectly.

“It’s a plane,” he replied. “We can see at least one wing, the cockpit and –” he hesitated to increase the drama – “what looks like intact fuel tanks.” He lowered his voice. “Polly thinks it’s good.”

Toby pictured the activity now overtaking the control room and gripped the mast with one hand as the
Phoenix
began to turn. He swayed as she smashed through the junk in their way. Then he released his hold, snagged a dangling rope and wrapped it around his thighs. When it was secure, Toby ducked beneath the Jolly Roger and perched like a diver ready to springboard backwards. Then he stopped.

“What’s the matter?” Polly nudged him with her beak.

“Nothing. I just want to enjoy the air for a second.”
Toby inhaled a deep breath and turned his face to the sun.

Although it had been years since the sky cleared, the sensation of warmth on his cheeks still gave Toby tremors – a mixture of excitement and fear that it could all be taken away again. When he was small the sky had been a dusty parasol between the earth and the sun – the result of the eruption that had wiped out half of America. The older pirates suffered the effects of the sunless decades: osteoporosis, curvature of the bones and endless aches and pains. Raised in a twilight world, they still had to cover their eyes on bright days or risk being blinded. Toby was younger and had been far less affected, but even he struggled when the sun was at its brightest. Much of the
Phoenix
’s deck was shaded to shelter the pirates from the glare.

As if she heard his thoughts, Polly stretched a wing over Toby’s face. “Watch your eyes.”

“I’m fine, there’re sight savers.” Toby pointed to the sprawling clouds that slid lazily towards distant shores that were finally turning green with new vegetation.

“Look! Bad weather to come,” Polly squawked, drawing his attention to a line of grey on the horizon.

Toby inhaled a deep breath of clean air and jumped out of the crow’s nest.

“Maybe,” he called. “But not yet.”

As he abseiled towards the scrubbed deck, he got a face
full of stinging spray and quickly wiped it off. A body length above the crew’s heads, he brought himself to a stop and kicked off from the pylon, swinging outwards with a cry. “Salvage mission!”

Polly launched from his shoulder and flew beside him, his crimson and indigo shadow.

As Toby spun over the crew, legs cycling, yelling his alert, the captain appeared from the control room. The crew immediately turned and looked to their leader, who pumped a fist.

“Move it, we have salvage!”

Bringing the
Phoenix
to a stop was no simple task. Barnaby Ford had built her to forge through the junk-filled sea. If she lost momentum there was a chance she’d be trapped in near-solid waste, unable to move.

After half a dozen missions had left her wallowing as easy prey for the various Navies who sought control of Captain Ford and the
Phoenix
, he had dry-docked her once more and devised a system for salvaging junk that did not involve weighing anchor at all.

Each crew member now had specific duties during a salvage mission – back-breaking tasks, which meant that if a mission was called unnecessarily they could get pretty
resentful. The last mistake had old Arnav eating alone for a week.

Swinging to a stop Toby muttered under his breath, “It’s good.”

Polly fluttered back on to his shoulder and nuzzled his ear. “I’d have called it myself if I wasn’t a parrot.”

Toby smiled. “I’d like to see their faces if you did. Even after all this time, they still think you’re an ordinary bird.”

Toby dropped to the deck with a thud that vibrated through his ankle bones. He tossed the rope away and made for the sternward hatch that would lead him down past the galley towards the boiler room.

“Divert power to the pumps, Toby,” the captain yelled, as though Toby hadn’t done the job dozens of times. “Slow this old girl down.”

Toby waved acknowledgement of the order and ducked beneath a swinging canopy made of plastic chair backs. He spared a look upwards. Arnav was already shinnying towards the crow’s nest, his crooked toes confident on the rigging despite his age, his bow legs and the twisting of his weakened wrists.

Coming towards him down the passageway, Big Pad was leading twelve of the strongest pirates. “All right, lad. Reckon you’ve spotted real treasure this time?” He jogged past Toby, already wrapping his hands with hessian in
preparation for turning the winding gear that would open the hull. Each of the four windlasses required three men to operate them.

Most of the other crewmen were heading in the same direction, towards the bow, and now Toby had to fight against the tide.

“I reckon you called salvage ’cause yer bored.” Crocker barged Toby with his shoulder. “No thought for those of us gotta do the actual work.”

“Be silent, Crocker.” Amit slid in front of Toby. “Ignore him, Toby, he has a gaand main keera.”

“A bug up his—” Amit’s teeth glinted as Ajay, his twin, translated. “Get to the wreck room, Crocker, we have a pump to prime.”

“Let Toby through, you fools. You can’t do your jobs till he does his.” Dee was perching on top of the deck housing, sunlight shining on the dozen rings dangling from her right ear. Dee waved, then jumped down and started to herd her team of seven towards the hooks that would be used to grab and steer the salvage.

The crew parted in the passageway, forming a human tunnel towards the boiler-room hatch. Toby ran, ignoring the gob of phlegm that Crocker hocked after him.

When he arrived at the hatch, Toby took a last breath of fresh air, spun the wheel, pulled the door open and jumped
inside. He shot one hand out to catch the top of the ladder, his feet curved for the rungs and with barely a jolt he was climbing downwards.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Polly muttered.

Toby grinned. He was one floor nearer to the boiler room and on the same level as the captain’s ward room and the galley. He hopped from the ladder and looked along the passageway, checking it was empty before he ran full tilt.

The passage was empty – the whole crew, fifty in total, were on salvage duty. Feet echoing in the hollow silence, Toby raced towards the second ladder, slipped the arches of his feet around the outside and slid down.

On his shoulder Polly spread her wings and slowed him enough that his toes touched down almost gently. She nipped his ear and flew down the passageway ahead of him. Toby sprinted after her.

The heat inside the boiler room hit Toby the moment he entered. Air from the huge forced-draught fans hammered at his face and he groped for the goggles that hung by the door.

Back on his shoulder, Polly hunched and muttered crossly as superheated steam whistled through the supply pipes and soot billowed out, settling on everything in sight. The boiler room was filled with the remains of old kitchens, desks, chairs – anything remotely flammable that Simeon, Theo and the others dragged from the salt to feed the combustion chamber – and it was all black.

It still amazed Toby that valuable combustibles had once been considered worthless. They had been tossed into the vast, floating rubbish dumps that broke apart when the supervolcano eruption triggered a chain of tsunamis and polluted the whole sea. Not that anyone cared about the sea, when the sun had vanished.

“It’s not that bad, Polly, stop whining.” Toby tightened his goggles and focused on the boiler that had been repurposed by Captain Ford to run on burning junk.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Polly squawked, outraged.

Toby responded to Polly’s scandalized sputter with a smile but, as he checked the feed water level, it vanished. “Look at the water level, Pol. The gauge glass is only half full.” Toby cocked his head as he listened to the chug of the boiler drum. “What do you think Harry was doing down here while it was my turn up in the crow’s nest? Having a kip, probably.”

“He’s got a lazy streak. I’ll mention it to the captain next time I’m uploading his log.” Polly hopped from Toby’s shoulder to her perch above the attemperator.

The main job of the boiler was to make high-pressure steam that could then be used to power the paddles, heat the oven, operate the pumps and cutters in the wreck room and warm the ship. The steam from the boiler travelled through the coils of a superheater, which dried it out. The attemperator was used to make sure the dry steam remained at the right temperature and Polly preferred to roost above it, where she was sheltered from the fans.

Below Polly the attemperator was quietly ticking.

“You hear that, Pol?”

“Can’t hear anything above the banging and clanking – infernal racket.” Still she tilted her head.

The attemperator’s sound was a sour note in the boiler’s usual melody. Toby ran his eye over the gauges. Everything seemed all right. Pulling his spanner from his tool belt, Toby tightened two bolts and listened again. The ticking had quietened.

“That’s better.” Polly nodded. “Good ears.”

Toby tucked his screwdriver under his arm as Polly pointed a claw towards the control panel.

“You’d better divert the power from the turbines—”

“To the pumps, I know.” Like a pianist Toby ran his fingers over the control board.

He could feel the
Phoenix
ploughing forward, getting closer to the plane. If he didn’t stop her turbines, the paddles would keep turning at full speed and they would batter through the salvage like a wrecking ball. Toby shuddered at the thought and began to flick switches.

Once the wings that formed the ribs of the hull were winched open and the sea was churning into the
Phoenix
, the pumps would need power to get the water out of the wreck room again and stop the ship from sinking.

Toby’s shoulders strained as he pulled the lever.

“Done.”

He leaned his forehead against the soot-blackened wall
and felt the paddles grow sluggish, only moving now with their own slowing momentum. As the
Phoenix
started to rise and fall in time with the flotsam on the sea, Toby allowed the relative quiet to seep into his bones. For a moment, even Polly was still. Then he pressed his fingers against the hull as if he could see through it.

“Were we in time?”

Polly’s claws clicked on the pipework. “We’d hear if not. The captain would call down.” She indicated the comms tube.

Toby nodded. Each silenced paddle told the crew that the pumps would be operational when the hull opened; it was their signal to start working. Sure enough, above the whistle of the steam racing to the turbines, the sounds of the salvage mission drifted through the vents. Toby could hear the banging of Uma’s drum as she kept time, making Big Pad’s team turn the windlasses beyond screaming muscles, bleeding palms and torn calluses. He felt the tortured grinding as the hull spread open. Then the shouts of the hookmen rang out as they fought to catch the plane.

Toby turned, eyes right, as burnt-orange seawater rose above the level of his small porthole: the
Phoenix
was getting heavier as the wreck room filled. He pressed his hands against the hull, feeling for the irregular hum as
Amit and Ajay pumped madly to fight the incoming tidal wave.

Polly glided from her roost. “We’d better move it, if you want to see the salvage come in.”

Toby burst from the hatch and on to the gangway.

Amidships was empty and the
Phoenix
felt full of ghosts, so Toby sped towards the action at the bow. The
Phoenix
bucked beneath him, fighting incoming water, but Toby’s feet remained fixed to the gangway, his toes secure.

He vaulted on to the rail surrounding the bridge for the best possible view. The captain waved him off as he strained to see past the steerage, so Toby swung from the rail and ducked below the mast.

“Dee, can I help the hookmen?”

“Not now, Tobes.” Dee’s long curls had escaped from her scarf. She ground her teeth as she used her hook to manoeuvre the plane towards the
Phoenix
’s open hull.

“You can help here, my boy.” In front of the hookmen, Uma’s team slumped over the windlasses. Job done for the moment, they had to regain their strength for when the hull needed closing again. Uma handed Toby a packet of two-year-old beef jerky. “Hand this out and don’t let that parrot get hold of any.”

“She doesn’t eat meat.”

Polly ruffled her feathers and glared at Uma as she walked between the men, distributing cups of filtered water and patting shoulders with a motherly air. The ship’s doctor looked like a cuddly matron, but a club dangled at her waist and beneath her soft exterior she was all muscle and old scars, as hardened as any of the pirates on board.

Toby followed her, pressing jerky into work-scarred hands. All the time he strained to see the plane, but it was out of his line of sight.

“All right, lad? Come to see your salvage?” Big Pad smiled tiredly around a mouthful of beef. “Can’t hardly see you, though.” He gestured to his face and Toby rubbed his cheeks, thinking Paddy was talking about the soot that covered him. Only then did he realize that he was still wearing his goggles. He pushed them on to his head, pulling his hair back from his face as he did so.

“Better.” Big Pad stretched his shoulders with a crack. “It’s going to be good salvage today, lad, I can feel it. Don’t much like the look of that weather though.”

“What weather?” Toby hopped to grab some rigging and leaned out. In front of him the hookmen were guiding the plane smoothly towards the open hull. The sky ahead was as blue as Polly’s wing feathers. He turned to ask what Big Pad meant and blinked. The grey line Polly had pointed
out earlier was now a thick band across the heavens. The Irishman was right; there was going to be a storm.

Toby’s mind raced as he measured the distance. “It’s a while off yet. I’ll have the paddles running ages before the front reaches us.”

Big Pad nodded. “You’ll see us right, lad.”

Toby was about to vault back on to the deck when he spotted waves breaking over something vast; a shadow that was moving with the current towards his plane.

“There’s something under the water. Something big.” Toby pointed. “There.”

Polly stretched her wings for balance as she leaned to look. Then her eyes widened. “Big rig! Big rig!” she cried.

“Ashes,” Toby breathed. She was right – the submerged cab had been knocked aside by the opening hull. Now it was being pulled towards the trapped plane, on course to hit Toby’s salvage. If the hookmen didn’t let the plane go, they might be dragged overboard when it hit.

His eyes flicked to the straining team. “Dee, there’s a rig down there – it’s going to take out the plane. Let it go or we’ll lose it altogether! We can pick it up again once the lorry’s gone past.”

“Are you sure?” Paddy bounded to his feet.

Toby pointed as a breaker surged and the submerged lorry rose to the surface. Rust and a few remaining streaks
of green paint made it look as if the sea bed was rising up to defy them. Now the rig was free of the pull of the open hull, it was speeding towards the plane.

Paddy gasped, then spun towards the hookmen. “Dee! Listen to Toby, release the plane.”

“Hooks off,” Dee shouted.

Her men groaned, but released the salvage without demanding an explanation.

Toby held his breath as the plane bobbed free and began to move away from the
Phoenix
. It was no longer trapped, but it was still in the path of the oncoming lorry.

Dee leaned over the side, tracking the rig, and she and Toby yelled in unison as it drove into the plane like a sledgehammer. The plane screamed with a sound of metallic distress and Toby’s grip tightened on the rigging as one wing sheared off altogether. Surf covered the wing and the current took it swiftly out of sight along with the big rig, which had done its damage and was now sinking back to the seabed.

“Damn it.” Dee’s hair flew across her face and her red scarf blew from her head.

It fluttered out across the junk that clogged the sea and as Toby traced its path, his eyes widened. In defiance of the current, the plane was now heading back towards the
Phoenix
.

“Dee, get away from there!” He swung down from his perch, grabbed Dee around her waist and dragged her from the railing just as the plane slammed straight into the hull in the gap between the paddle cage and the bilges. The noise was like a bomb going off.

The pirates were knocked from their feet.

“Ashes, Dee, you nearly went overboard.” Still shuddering from the impact, Toby tried to jump to his feet, but Dee pulled him into a tight embrace.

“Thank you,” she gasped.

Toby felt her trembling and the fact that she had almost died hit him in a wave. Without Dee, the
Phoenix
would be a totally different ship. She’d been there right from the beginning and was at the centre of all he knew. Dee was the one who had persuaded the captain to let him work in the boiler room. He tightened his arms around her.

“It’s OK – I’m fine.”

Toby nodded. He could feel the crew’s eyes on them. He jumped to his feet and offered Dee his hand, but she shook her head and pushed herself to her knees.

Marcus ran to her side. “That was close.”

Dee waved him away. “I’m fine, thanks to Toby. Where’s the plane? Is it still worth bringing in?”

“Worth bringing in? Of course it’s worth bringing in.”

Around Toby, other crew members who had been knocked down were getting back on their feet. Captain Ford stood above them. His fists were planted on his hips. His cheeks, as far as they could be seen above his grey-speckled beard, were flushed scarlet and his eyes, the same blue as Toby’s, flashed. A brass compass swung from a leather strap around his neck.

The deck shuddered as he jumped to land beside them, boots crashing into the gangway.

“We’re not losing this salvage now. Bloody well done for spotting that rig, son.” Barnaby slapped Toby on the back.

He caught his father’s scent of sun-baked leather and the fish oil that he used to clean his tools.

“Hookmen, back to your places.” He leaned over the gunwale to judge the placement of the plane. “Toby, we need to reverse if we want to catch that plane. Get some power back to those paddles.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Toby ran for the hatch. If there was a chance the plane could be salvaged, he wasn’t going to miss it. He raced ahead, skidding dangerously on the spray-slickened metal. Polly flew after him, gulls called overhead, and the storm drew closer.

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