Read Phoenix Rising Online

Authors: Bryony Pearce

Phoenix Rising (6 page)

He sighed, moved to the other side and put his shoulder to it.

Bit by rocking bit, Toby pulled out the oven. Every so often the
Phoenix
would pitch at just the right moment, shifting it in the right direction. By the time there was enough space behind for Toby to fit, his breath was coming in exhausted rasps. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, freed his screwdriver from his belt and set to work.

The delivery line snaked from the rear of the oven, an oil-black tentacle. It was firmly fixed into the back with screws that had long ago rusted in place. Toby frowned. He squirted some fish oil from the small bottle in his pouch and began to chip away.

When he had removed as much rust as he could, he nestled the screwdriver back into the head and turned hard. “I
will
get you out,” Toby muttered.

With a sudden lurch, the last screw turned. Toby wobbled but managed to secure a grip on the delivery line. Carefully he eased it from the back of the oven. Tendrils of steam emerged. He secured the line on his belt and started to wrap it around his waist, tugging gently as he freed it from the inner wall of the hull.

“Alert! Alert!”

“What the…?” Toby whipped round so fast he cracked his head on the table. Polly was hopping up and down. Behind her, through the crack in the door, Toby could see Peel and Crocker striding down the passageway.

“Why aren’t they on deck?” Toby didn’t dare pull the line harder in case it ruptured. He held his breath and kept on gently tugging, wrapping the giant tube around his waist as he went.

“Come on.”

With a pop, the end of the line came out. Toby had it all. He tucked the free end into his belt, held his breath and turned. Peel filled the doorway. Greasy hair dyed black with squid ink slicked over his balding crown and his nose flared as if he could smell an intruder.

“What’s going on in my galley?” Peel stalked forward on his rubber soles. “Why is that filthy bird on my table? Get out, you flying rat!” Toby peeped out to see Polly narrowly avoid Peel’s swiping fist. “Catch that bird, Crocker,” he growled. “I’m going to make a sodding stew out of it, captain’s pet or no.”

“Ain’t touching that thing. Prob’ly got fleas.” Crocker spat on the floor.

“Use the fire axe. Right there. Knock it out of the air.”

Silently Toby pocketed his screwdriver so that he could
draw Nix. He had to get past Peel, out of the galley and back to the boiler room.

As Toby’s hand closed around the pommel of his sword, Peel halted by the table. Now Toby could see only the stained apron that flapped over his enormous thighs.

“Boo!”

Peel’s face appeared right in front of Toby’s and he bared yellow teeth.

“Well, well, well. Little Toby, come to the galley at last.”

He stepped to the right as Toby moved. “Oh no, you don’t. Stay right there.”

Toby was caged in. The smell of grease and body odour was overpowering. Toby covered his mouth with one hand. Nix shook in the other.

“Well, little Toby, I see you got yourself a sword. What are you planning to do with it?” Peel squinted. “You going to sink that into old Peel?”

Crocker snorted as he jumped, trying to reach the crimson blur that was Polly flying around the ceiling.

“It’s harder than you imagine, little Toby, sticking a blade in something. Tougher than you think. Pointy as it is, you’ll need all your weight to get the tip through my leather apron. But it’ll go, oh yes, with a pop and a squirt of hot blood all over your hands. You’ll have to push in close to get it into my ribs, angle it just right. You’ll feel the
scrape of blade on bone, you’ll have to wiggle and shove to keep it moving. And I’m a big man, little Toby. Yes, I am. I’m not even sure that shaft would reach all the way to my heart. But it might. And you’d feel it – wet, warm blood all over you, like oil. What do you think, Toby? You want to stab me?” Peel cocked his head. “The captain wouldn’t like it much, would he? How would you explain it, eh? That you stabbed his old friend in the heart, done for the man who saved his life in Porto Santo? If you killed the cook, Toby lad, how would you explain it?”

“Don’t come any closer.” Toby gagged. His hand was shaking so hard he could barely hold Nix up. “I have to get back to the boiler room.”

“I just bet you do.” Peel crouched now, holding on to the table. Rolls of fat rested on his thighs, blubber pushing against his apron. Yet he was strongest on the ship beside Big Pad. He could lift Toby with one hand.

“Is it you that’s been stealing my food, little Toby? If you was hungry you only had to ask. I’d be happy to fatten you up.”

Another pair of legs added to Toby’s cage as Crocker joined his brother.

“The oven’s out of place, Peel.” Crocker leaned over the table his voice a tobacco-stained rasp above Toby’s head.

“Get the door.” Peel didn’t take his eyes from Toby.

Toby watched, panic stricken as Crocker pushed the door shut. Where was Polly?

“Now…” Peel gripped the table with one hand and dragged it to one side, leaving Toby completely exposed. Peel blinked at the oven, still sat at an angle and ticking quietly as it cooled. “What’s wrong with my oven?”

He shot out a hand, but Toby was already racing towards the door. Crocker blocked his way. Crimson feathers brushed the edge of Toby’s vision as he reached the butcher’s block in the centre of the galley. There he stopped, Crocker on one side, Peel on the other, Polly overhead.

“Don’t be mad, Peel,” he pleaded and he gestured to the line wrapped at his waist. “I need this to fix the boiler.”

“If you’ve done something to my oven, devil, then the crew’ll be eating
you
for dinner.”

Toby held out a hand as Crocker slid behind him. “What have you done, boy?” Crocker smiled.

Peel growled as he moved and snatched up a cleaver.

“Wait, you don’t understand.”

“All I understand is you’ve broken my oven. The herring’ll be ruined. You want the crew to eat raw seagull for dinner? There’s no fishing in these parts and raw seagull ain’t any kind of edible, especially the way Callum catches ’em.” He chopped with the blade and Toby jumped backwards, automatically blocking with Nix as the cleaver
whistled past. The blades clanged together. Toby gasped as Peel’s blade came within a hair of slicing the precious delivery line.

“It won’t be for long,” Toby pleaded, trying to appease Peel’s rage. “I’ll rig something up as soon as I can. There might be something in the plane that I can use for the oven.”

Peel slammed his fist on the table with a bang that shook the galley. “Grab him, Crocker.”

Thin fingers dug into Toby’s shoulder and he leaped to one side with a cry. Polly screeched and Toby ducked as she flew into Crocker’s face, claws outstretched.

Crocker screamed and released Toby as he tried to knock the parrot away.

As Peel circled towards him, Toby placed one hand on the edge of the butcher’s block. He slid underneath and out the other side just as Crocker dropped to his knees. Blood poured from his torn cheeks and Polly flew upwards with a triumphant squawk.

Toby bounded to his feet in one smooth movement. Peel’s fingers tangled in his hair, but failed to get a purchase. With a half-crazed whoop Toby yanked the door open and sprinted along the gangway.

“Get him!” At his back Crocker and Peel fought in the doorway then burst through.

Toby wrapped his arms around the line to hold it in place and fled towards the boiler room.

His toes knew the passageways inside out. Ten years of scampering around the
Phoenix
meant that he knew every single nook and cranny. He didn’t even need to look where he was going. The comforting lullaby crooned by the creaking rigging when the weather was calm and the shrieking death metal of the ship’s rage when she fought a storm were the constant soundtrack to his life.

Polly’s feathers brushed his cheek as she bobbed up and down on his shoulder, flapping her wings for balance.

He skidded to a stop at the top of the ladder by the laundry, grabbed the top rung and kicked off. Peel’s arms waved above him before Crocker elbowed his brother aside and started to follow, dripping blood on to Toby’s upturned face.

Toby jumped the last metre and ran. As Crocker
shouted behind him, Toby threw himself around the corner towards the boiler room.

Crocker remained close on his tail. At any other time, Toby would have found a cluster of crew members and hidden in their midst, but today he and Polly were alone.

Behind him Peel yelled. He had almost caught up with his brother.

Polly screeched in Toby’s ear and fluttered from his shoulder. Momentarily blinded, Toby slammed into a solid torso, and bounced backwards.

“Captain.” Crocker skidded to a halt at his back and Toby turned. Crocker hunched, trying to cover his blood-splashed cheeks with his shoulders. “That boy has been in the galley, stealing food and
vandalizing
.”

“Stealing food, Toby? Is this the time?” The captain frowned at Crocker’s face but said nothing. He reached down and pulled Toby to his feet.

“I never.” Toby shook his head.

“Is that the oven delivery line around your waist?”

“It’s the only one long enough to replace the ruptured line.”

The captain raked his hand through his curly beard. “I came down to see how you were getting on and found a strange boy shovelling ash from the combustion chamber. I assume he can account for the missing food, and
that
covers the vandalizing.” He pointed at the delivery line. The
Phoenix
lurched and the captain grunted. “We’re almost out of time. The storm’s overhead. I’ve told the crew to haul in the sails.”

Peel pulled to a halt behind Crocker and opened his mouth.

The captain held up a hand. “Sorry, Peel, but we don’t have time for the tea you were going to brew us all. And we’ll be eating raw for a couple of days. Head back up top and help with the sails.” He put a hand on Toby’s shoulder. “Let’s get that boiler fixed.”

Behind the captain’s back, Peel’s civilized face melted away to reveal the monster beneath. He showed his teeth and growled.

Down in the boiler room, Captain Ford rolled up his sleeves. “It’s hot in here,” he commented. He scrubbed his forehead and put on his glasses, which instantly steamed up. “I’ll take out the ruptured line and you start attaching the new one.” He removed his glasses and tucked them back in his pocket. “New boy, what is the water gauge reading?”

“I-it’s almost half full,” Hiko stammered.

“All right. You can refill the combustion chamber with compressed fuel, but don’t light the fire yet.”

“His name is Hiko.” Toby handed his father a screwdriver. “You’ll need this.”

The captain shook his head. “Got my own.” He opened his windcheater to reveal a tool belt much like Toby’s. “I’m never without my tools.” He grinned. The
Phoenix
rolled until the sea splashed in through the open porthole and his grin widened. “By heaven, I’ve missed this.” He rapped his screwdriver against the attemperator with a ringing clang. “But as the
Phoenix
reminds us, we’re on a deadline. Move it.”

Even Toby’s sea-hardened stomach was beginning to roll as the boiler room tipped up and down. Salt water sloshed around his feet, stinging his toes as it splashed in the porthole with every other pitch of the ship.

“We’ve got to keep the fuel dry,” Barnaby yelled. “Hiko, close that porthole.”

“Who’s a pretty birdie?” Polly fluttered anxiously, as if it were her claws that were getting a seawater bath and not Toby’s feet. She landed on top of the boiler, which was now shuddering hard enough to shake her plumage.

She went silent for a moment then, “Polly want a cracker,” she muttered.

“That isn’t helping, Polly.” Barnaby tossed the ruptured
delivery line into Toby’s ‘things that might be useful one day’ pile. “Toby, pass me one end of the line. I’ll attach it to the boiler.”

“Hiko –” Toby shoved the line at the shaking stowaway – “take it to the captain.”

“I—”

“I don’t bite, Hiko.” Barnaby grabbed the line from him. “Hold this up here, while I screw her in.”

Hiko stood next to the captain, knees trembling.

“Tell me, Hiko, how long have you been on board?”

“Since the last port,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Not to worry.” Barnaby tightened the last screw. “I’m not going to feed you to the fishes. You’ve been a great help today. Just keep on being helpful and you can find a berth in the sleeping quarters near Toby’s. Eat in the main hall with us and stay out of the vents. I don’t want a repeat of six years ago.”

“Hey –” Toby looked up from the line – “when are you going to let that go?”

“Six years ago?” Hiko asked.

“Never mind, just stay out of the vents.” Barnaby stepped back. “I’m in this end… Toby?”

Toby gave his end of the line a gentle pull. “Secure.”

“Then let’s check it.”

Slowly the two engineers started to walk towards one
another, checking every millimetre of the line for tears. As he walked, Toby kept the gentlest of holds, terrified that he might lose his footing and pull it loose by accident. Hiko crouched on his hands and knees in the wet, no longer able to keep upright on the rolling floor.

When they met in the middle, Barnaby nodded and clapped his son’s shoulder. “Good job, there.”

Toby grinned.

Barnaby laid his hands on the boiler drum. “It’s cool enough so there shouldn’t be an explosion when the feed water hits it. Start the fire.”

Toby nodded, grabbed his flint and kneeled by the combustion chamber. “Come on,” he muttered. Water splashed his hands and he couldn’t get a spark. He glanced at his father out of the corner of his eye. “Burn, damn you,” he snapped. Finally a spark grew into a tiny flame. Toby leaned in close and curled his hand around it. The fuel started to smoulder as it caught. Then everything went silent as the sea dropped away from the
Phoenix
. Toby opened his mouth to yell as the ship tipped, hit the junk and crashed back. Toby slammed into the boiler. Hiko rolled into his nest and even the captain fell to his knees.

“Are you all right, son?”

Toby opened his mouth to answer, but then rain began to batter the ship like gunfire. Amplified by the
Phoenix
’s
metal hull, the sound filled the boiler room.

“We’re out of time! The storm’s caught us.” Barnaby glared upwards as if he could see through the hull. “Carson had better have those sails furled.” He whirled to check the water gauge. “She’s full enough. Draw that flame through and I’ll open the feed-water control valve.”

Frantically pressing on the bellows, Toby forced the fire until it roared. He wasn’t sure if the pressure inside his chest was from the need to get the paddles running as fast as he could, or desperately trying to impress his father,.

Barnaby opened the valve and the feed water started to run through the tubes. Toby held his breath. Was the drum really cool enough to prevent an explosion, or was the captain just desperate enough to risk it?

On her perch Polly swayed silently then edged behind a pipe. Half hidden by an old car bonnet, Hiko watched with glittering eyes. Toby wished he could hide as well, but knew it would be futile. If it blew, nowhere in the boiler room would be safe from the explosion.

The fire burned hotter and hotter as the feed water filled the boiler. Toby held his breath and closed his eyes. A large hand squeezed his shoulder and he jumped. “It’ll be all right, son.” Barnaby smiled. “This was kind of fun, eh?”

“Not so much.” Toby exhaled shakily. “We’re still here though, so I guess the drum was cool enough.”

“Told you.” His father’s smile widened. “I built her, after all.”

Toby nodded and glanced at Polly who was edging sheepishly out from behind the pipe, trying to appear as if she’d never hidden.

They strained to hear the sound of the steam drum starting to fill over the rain.

Toby counted under his breath as he waited for the whistle of the steam racing along the delivery lines.

The ship lurched and a crack of thunder reverberated through the metal, sending Hiko completely into hiding. “Listen!” His father’s fingers tightened on Toby’s shoulder. “Can you hear the steam?”

“I can hear it.”

Automatically the pair looked to the new delivery line as it moved and Toby caught his breath. But the steam howled along and it held.

“You did it.” Polly hopped on her perch.

“Get those paddles moving, Toby. I have to get back on deck.” The captain pulled his windcheater together and tucked his screwdriver away. “See you up there.” He slammed through the door and bounded along the rocking passageway.

Toby stood still for a couple of beats. Despite the situation, working so closely with his father was a rare
pleasure and Toby wanted to savour it. But there wasn’t much time. As he threw switches, he glanced at Hiko. “We’ll be moving in a minute. All hands on deck, so you’ll have to come with me. You too, Polly.” When there was no answer he looked at his parrot. “Polly?” She didn’t move. “Damn it.” Toby patted his pockets. “I have some pellets here, just wait a second.” He pulled a handful from his jacket’s inner lining. “Why did you let yourself run so low?” He held the morsels up to Polly. Slowly she lowered her beak to his hand and started to hoover up the granules. Seconds later she fluffed her feathers and flew.

“Who’s a pretty birdie?” she asked, as she landed on his shoulder.

“You are.” Toby rubbed his cheek against her soft feathers. She was warm from the biomass generator that powered her. It was the tiniest and most efficient his father had ever built. In fact, Polly was the last remnant of Ford’s previous life. She was supposed to belong to the Greymen of St George, but on the day Ford refused to make weapons for them, he took his son, the AI and the
Phoenix
together.

And that was why the captain was the most-wanted man on the sea, why the
Phoenix
rarely docked, why Toby wasn’t allowed off the ship and why he had a bird as a babysitter.

Polly had originally been a real parrot. Creative
taxidermy had preserved her original body, which was now stretched over a metal skeleton. Polly was more intelligent than half the pirates put together and she wore a faint smell of dusty feathers, metal and preservative. But most of the crew were unaware that Polly was not a natural bird.

“Let’s go.” Toby gave Polly a gentle stroke. “Follow me, Hiko, it’s time to join the rest of the crew.”

Hiko looked nervously towards the rain-lashed porthole.

“Don’t worry.” Toby forced a smile. “It’s only a bit of bad weather.”

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