Authors: Bryony Pearce
Toby hadn’t been off the
since he first boarded, when he was four years old. He had no idea what it would
be like to live on land, couldn’t imagine how it would be living without the sea beneath his feet and … he looked around. Who was he supposed to settle down
? When they got to the island, he would be the only person his age. His eyes flicked to Rita. Almost eight years older than he was, she was the nearest. But despite her infectious childish giggle, he knew she saw him as a kid.
A gust of wind hit them and Toby inhaled the scent of clean air. Then a shout shattered the crew’s celebratory mood. Old Arnav was waving urgently from the crow’s nest. Toby followed his pointing arm and his jaw dropped. A false twilight was behind them, and it was gaining fast. The dark sky was broken by lightning so bright that Toby’s eyeballs seared with each flash. The storm was almost upon them.
“There must be a bloody hurricane up there for it to be moving so fast,” the captain yelled. “Get the sails down, Carson, or we’ll lose them.” He turned to Toby. “We need the paddles, son. Fast as you can.”
“What about the old engines?” Toby was already running for the hatch, Polly gliding at his side. “I can start them up.”
“The fuel won’t be filtered in time. Focus on the paddles. We can still outrun this, but we have to get some speed on now.”
Toby tossed an armful of compressed fuel into the burner and flicked some switches on the control panel.
“Are you sure about this?” Polly swayed from side to side on her perch. “You haven’t found the problem yet.”
“Whatever it is, it didn’t stop us reversing.” Toby closed his hands around the lever that would open the main delivery lines to the paddles. “I’ll get us moving then give her a full work-up.” He yanked the lever, which moved smoothly into position, then stepped back to listen as steam sped from the drum into the lines.
Toby’s back straightened. His eyes widened.
“Toby, it’s the—”
He leaped to pull back on the lever, too late. Four-hundred-degree steam reached the forward delivery line,
but it didn’t continue along the snaking pipes. Instead, the pressure forced a tiny rupture and steam geysered into the boiler room.
Lungs screaming, Toby backed up and covered his face with his sleeve. For a moment, panic erased everything else. His mind was blank.
“Toby.” The speaker crackled. “We aren’t moving. Is everything all right?” The captain was obviously putting some effort into seeming calm.
“Polly want a cracker! Polly want a cracker!” Polly wheeled around the ceiling fans, trying to keep away from the insane heat.
Finally Toby moved. He grabbed the lever, which was now a bar of scalding metal. It burned even through the leather of his half gloves and he cried out, but held on. He had to cut the supply to the delivery lines.
The boiler room was swiftly filling with steam. Toby’s goggles fogged and sweat pricked every bit of his skin. He released the lever with one hand to lift his scarf over his face then went back to pulling, but the lever didn’t want to move – the steam was putting too much pressure on the valve.
“I can’t do it!” Toby ground his teeth.
“Call the captain,” Polly shrieked. “Get help.”
“There’s no time! The boiler will be drained.” Toby threw his head back, pulling frantically. The lever still
did not move. He could feel the muscles in his shoulders tearing, but didn’t stop.
“You’ve got to call him, this isn’t working.”
Toby saw a blur as Polly flew down. He felt her claws on his fingers. She was trying to help him push. His feet slipped as steam dampened the floor and he jammed his toes beneath the lever base, trying to regain purchase. “If it empties, even a trickle of feed water will cause an explosion that’ll take out the hull.”
“What about your father’s buffering system?” Polly flapped her wings, clearing steam briefly from Toby’s face. “He can shut off the passageways.”
“It’s not enough. We’ve got to move this lever ourselves.”
Toby strained until his muscles popped, but he knew he couldn’t move the lever alone.
“Can I help?”
Toby’s head whipped round at the unfamiliar voice. He released the lever long enough to wipe his goggles; then he gaped.
A kid was standing there. Smaller than him, a few years younger, dressed in thin clothes completely inappropriate for seafaring. The boy’s head was badly shaved and tufts of black hair stuck up in every direction. He was grey with soot, from his eyelashes to his fingernails, and he was cringing from the heat of the steam.
“A stowaway.” Toby grabbed the lever again. “You’ve been hiding out in my boiler room. How…?” He gave his head a quick shake. “I don’t care. Wrap your shirt around your hands, grab this lever and
The strange boy covered his hands with his tattered cuffs, closed his fists below Toby’s and hauled.
“It’s moving, don’t let go.” Polly flapped, helping as much as she could. Suddenly the lever dropped back into position, cutting off the steam’s flow.
As the whistling quietened, Toby pulled his goggles off his face and stared at the rupture.
“Ashes,” he muttered.
“Toby, the paddles!” The captain’s voice was urgent now. Toby grabbed the comms tube, not taking his eye from the stranger who had saved them.
“Captain,” he swallowed, “a delivery line ruptured. It must’ve happened when the
was hit during the salvage.”
There was silence from the speaker. Toby fidgeted. “Captain?”
“I’m thinking,” the captain snapped. “Did you cut it off in time, has the boiler run dry?”
check.” The new boy ran to the water gauge. “It’s reading a third full. That isn’t enough, is it?”
“How did you know to do that?” Toby covered the
comms tube as he spoke.
The boy shrugged awkwardly. “Been watching you. Sorry.”
“Watching me from
?” Toby shuddered. He thought of the boiler room as an extension of himself. Shouldn’t he have known that he wasn’t alone? Shouldn’t Polly have detected the stowaway?
The boy indicated what at first appeared to be a haphazard pile of junk: car bonnets, motherboards, sheet metal, tubing. Toby’s hoard of ‘things that might be useful one day’. He realized that it had been moved since he had last sorted through, creating a hidden nest. Above the nest the air vent was ajar. Toby blinked, remembering. Years ago he used to slip inside the gratings and travel through the vents, spying on the pirates with no one any the wiser. The captain had put a stop to his travels when, at eight years old, Toby got stuck and had to be cut out of the mess-hall wall. Now those passages were the sole province of the rats and, apparently, a half-starved stowaway.
He exhaled. “OK. I can’t deal with this now.”
Toby uncovered the tube to address the captain. “It hasn’t run dry, but there’s not enough feed water. I-I’ll have to switch the boiler off to let it build back up. And the line has to be repaired.”
can’t just sit here,” the captain said.
Toby imagined his father’s fist almost collapsing the table. From the dents in the metal tabletop Toby could map every setback the
had ever experienced. “If she can’t outrun the storm, we have to get to shelter to weather it out. There’s a hidden cove near Tarifa that’ll take a ship our size.”
“What about the plane fuel?” Toby slid a finger under his goggles to rub his eyes. “Is it ready yet?”
“Not even close. It’s still being filtered into our tanks. Dobbs is working his team as fast as he can, but I need all hands on deck right now, so he has a skeleton crew. We can’t use the sails in this weather – they’d be ripped to shreds. Get that boiler fixed and I’ll put more men to pumping the fuel. I’ll leave the sails up till it gets dangerous. If that boiler isn’t running by then, we’re sitting ducks.”
Toby hung up the tube then stood stock-still. The boiler was never switched off. Ever. Even in port, a small fire was maintained to keep her low-power systems going. There was only one way to turn the boiler off. He was going to have to put out the
Toby unhooked the blackened fire extinguisher from the wall by the door. With his thumb he rubbed rust from the corroded pin as he strode towards the combustion chamber.
“Stand back,” he said to the boy. Then Toby aimed the
extinguisher, yanked the pin and squeezed. Noxious white foam spread over the flames and slowly but surely the
’s heart went cold.
Together the boys stood and watched the embers go out. Combustion fuel broke into small pieces as it cooled and the boiler ticked solemnly.
“OK,” Toby said. “Right.” He felt off balance. The whole sound of the
had been thrown out. “OK,” he repeated.
Polly climbed on to his shoulder and nuzzled his cheek.
The strange boy put his hand on Toby’s arm, making him jump. “What do you need to do to fix this?” Big brown eyes stared up at him and Toby exhaled.
“I haven’t got anything I can use to repair the delivery line that won’t just break or melt as soon as the steam hits it. I need a new line.”
“Have you got one?” the boy asked.
Toby’s mouth twisted. “Sort of,” he murmured.
The boy’s eyes widened. “Sort of?”
“The captain’s been looking to trade for spares for a couple of months. There is only one other line on board that’s long enough.”
“And you can’t get it?”
“Technically I can.” Toby rubbed his eyes again.
“Technically? What does that mean?”
Toby sighed. “It means nothing is ever simple.”
The boy lost his footing and grabbed at the feed-water tubes as he fell.
“The sea’s getting rough.” Toby braced his legs and offered a hand to pull the boy to his feet. Then he began undoing the screws on one end of a delivery line that disappeared into the wall. “What do I call you?” He tilted his head as he worked, examining the small stowaway.
“My name is Sorahiko,” he mumbled. “They call me Hiko.”
Toby nodded. “You’re Japanese.”
Hiko shrugged. “My father, yes – not my mother.”
“Well, there’re not many questions on the
– just what you’re wanted for and where. The captain puts back murderers and rapists, but most others get to stay if there’s a space.”
Hiko looked away. “Do you really think he’ll let me stay? I’m not going to be much use. I’m just a kid.”
“You’ve been useful already and I need you right now.” Toby dropped the loosened line and gestured to a shovel by the door. “You’ll have to empty the combustion chamber for me. Open the porthole, get all that foamed-up fuel out and dump it. Then refill the burner with the dry compressed chunks, over there.” He pointed. “Keep an eye on that feed-water gauge so you can tell me how high the
levels are. As soon as I get back we can relight the boiler. It’s going to take a while to get a head of steam built up. I just hope we’ve got enough time.”
“So, I’m going to be your assistant?”
“I guess.” Toby looked up as if he could see through the ceiling and clamped his screwdriver into his belt. “Now I’m going for the line.”
“Polly want a cracker,” Polly squawked.
Toby stood in the passageway above the boiler room.
“Did you unhook the line I thought you did?” Polly swayed from foot to foot.
Toby nodded. “It’s the only one that’ll fit.”
“You’d better hope the galley’s deserted, then.” She whistled a short high note. “Peel won’t let you just take it.”
Toby clenched his fists. “He’ll have to. I don’t have time to talk him round.”
“Talk him round? He’ll go ape.”
“I’m trying not to think about it.” Toby stopped to listen. “I can’t hear anything.”
“All quiet.” Polly shuffled closer to his ear. “All hands on deck, remember? That includes Crocker
Toby edged to the door and closed his fingers around the latch. His breath quivered on the glass panel, steaming
it up, but not before he had peered in. Polly was right – the galley was empty, nothing but shadows in his way. Toby opened the door and slipped inside.
His hand tightened around the moulded plastic head of the screwdriver. He had a job to do; in and out. If he was lucky, Peel wouldn’t even know Toby had been there; at least not until he tried to turn on the oven.
tilted once more, reminding Toby that he was running out of time. Nevertheless, before he started to work, he gripped the big wooden table and dragged it until it formed a shelter in front of the blackened range.
“What are you doing?” Polly flew on to the table while he moved it.
“Peel may be on deck, but he could come back at any time. I’ll feel a lot less exposed with something covering my back.”
Polly bobbed a nod and turned to face the door. “I’ll keep watch.”
“Should I leave it open, or close it?”
“Leave it ajar so I can see.” Polly tilted her head. “You don’t want him to surprise you.”
Surprise was Peel’s most effective weapon. Despite his great weight, Crocker’s brother moved in a bubble of silence, padding around the ship on the rubber soles of his trainers. So many times Toby had thought he was alone, only to
find fingers pinching him brutally tight while he squirmed for freedom.
But he trusted Polly, so Toby turned his back on the passageway and crawled under the table.
The oven ticked in front of him, warm to the touch. Peel was cooking herring. Callum had netted them after a tornado had cleaned the junk from the deeps off Portugal and revealed an actual shoal swimming far beneath the poisoned currents. The crew had salted and barrelled enough to keep them going for several months.
It would be a shame to eat uncooked herring, but with the boiler shut down, the oven would soon be losing heat anyway.
The delivery line that linked the oven with the boiler room was on the back, so Toby would have to slide it out at least far enough for him to wriggle into the gap. He grabbed the metal edges and pulled.
“What’s the matter?” Polly didn’t take her eyes from the door.
“It’s even heavier than it looks.”
Toby put his shoulder to one side of the oven and yanked with all his might.
He rocked it back and forth, the tendons in his neck tightening painfully. Finally the oven lurched towards him.
With a cry, Toby forced it to twist before it dropped. He looked at the result of his efforts. The oven had come out a few centimetres, on one side.