Authors: Bryony Pearce
“Go back, go back.” Polly hopped desperately on the wire above Toby, making it shake.
“Stop it, Pol.” Toby ground his teeth. “I’ll fall.” He looked down and froze. He was already a body length away from the
and there was nothing between him and the paddle cage below. Toby had never worried about heights, he enjoyed his stints in the crow’s nest, but this was different.
, colliding junk crashed and smashed in the waves.
“Toby, your heart rate is up.” Polly sprung from the cable, making it jerk once more, and flew around him.
“It’s so far,” Toby muttered. The rain-slick wire began to slip through his hands and he could not tear his eyes from the drop. He clamped his legs more tightly closed, and the thick line bit into the soft underside of his knees.
Then the sea rose, tilting the
and sliding Toby
past her paddle and closer to the waves. Beneath him an ancient washing machine surfaced, door gaping. It dragged a train of plastic bags behind it and seemed to turn to follow him, waiting to swallow Toby when he fell.
Then the washer was smashed between a forklift truck and a transit van. Toby moaned as the sea hauled the two crushing weights apart to reveal the misshapen bulk of the machine, twisted and dented. The washer sank and Toby knew currents of acid waited to corrode it into nothing.
tilted once more, tightening the grapple, and Toby was almost flung off the suddenly taut rope. His hands ached with the fierceness of his grip.
All too easily Toby could picture himself slipping from the cable and being impaled on the forklift below. The distance between the two ships suddenly seemed insurmountable.
What had he been thinking?
“I can’t do this.” Toby moved a trembling arm to slide back towards the
“That’s right,” Polly crooned. “Go home.”
Toby hesitated. If he went back now, he was abandoning Hiko to who knew what fate? The men of the
had crawled over the rope. It was possible – Toby should be able to do it.
“I’ll get someone, they’ll pull you in.” Polly fluttered higher.
“No,” Toby groaned. “Don’t.” He set his jaw and turned to look at the
once more. “It isn’t that far.” The cable creaked, drawn tight between the ships.
that far, Toby. You’re not strong enough.”
.” Toby released one hand, closed it around the cable ahead of him, then heaved himself upwards. He panted with the effort but his body slid a little further.
“I can do this.” He pinned his gaze on the cable, then slid his hands higher still and pulled. “I’m going to rescue Hiko.”
“You’re going to get yourself captured.”
“Everybody on the
is fighting.” Toby moved again, closer to the
will be almost empty and I’m good at avoiding people who want to hurt me.”
“Peel’s different, Crocker, too. The captain would kill them if they really hurt you.”
“Ha!” Toby snorted and pulled once more.
“I’m serious, Toby. You must go back.” Polly wheeled in tighter and tighter circles, agitation making her flight erratic. Toby gasped as a gust of wind rocked the cable and he swung sideways. He shut his eyes until the swaying eased.
Polly landed on the cable by his foot, careful not to make it bounce. “Please listen to me, Toby. This is rash.
You haven’t got a plan.”
“Just let me get there and I’ll make one.” Toby moved a tiny bit further, pausing as the wind lashed his hair into his face. “I’m not leaving Hiko.” Toby blinked a splatter of rain from his eyes. “He’s the only other kid I’ve ever met, Polly. I want him on board.”
“Toby, I know that you’re lonely…”
“You wouldn’t understand.” Toby bunched his legs to try pushing this time. He moved further up, then the cable loosened again as the ships anchoring it rocked towards one another. Toby hung like a gull, unmoving, until they pitched sideways and tightened the rope again.
“Toby, I’m the only one of my kind.” Polly walked along the cable, keeping close to his feet. “The only one there will ever be.” She cocked her head at him.
“I’m not doing this because I’m the only kid on board, Pol – that would be dumb.” Toby pulled again. “I’m doing it because I can’t just hide while they do who knows what to the boy who saved my life. Can’t you see that?” He raised his head and looked towards the
. She filled his vision now. “Won’t you help me? I can’t do this alone.”
“What choice do I have?” she snapped, and flew from his feet on to the unfamiliar gunwale. “It’s clear.” She peered down at him. “You idiot.”
Toby grinned, opened his legs and released the cable. His
stomach muscles tightened as he prepared to somersault backwards over the rail and on to the
That was when the
started to wail.
Toby hung motionless, his ears ringing. The cable in his hands vibrated from the intensity of the ship’s howl and his fingers began to slip. He threw his legs back around the wire.
“Is it me? Do they know I’m here?”
The sound had forced Polly to take off and now she landed back on the rail above him. “It’s not you, Toby. Look.” She tilted her head to indicate a cable running from the
A distant fork of lightning lit the sky as a woman in a coat that flapped like the wings of a crow flew along a zip wire to the
’s pylon mast.
At the last second, she released the strap and flipped to touch down on the prow of the
, feet splayed a shoulder-width apart.
The moment she landed, the wail cut off.
Toby dangled in the sudden silence. “Is that…?” he whispered.
Polly fixed her eyes on the
. “Captain Nell of the
“What does she want?”
“I can fly over and find out,” Polly suggested.
Toby shook his head. “I need you here.” He completed his somersault on to the
’s deck and crouched. He pressed his face against the cold metal of the ship’s side, but his brief rest was disturbed by a hiss.
Toby lifted his face to see Polly standing in front of him, her wings spread to make herself as large as possible. In front of them… Toby blinked. In front of them a mangy cat crouched on a bollard. The black feline, fur patchy with scars, stared at them steadily. Then it opened its mouth and started to yowl.
Toby looked around for something to throw at the thing, but the deck was empty. “Shh, puss.” Toby made frantic calming gestures with his hands, but the cat’s tail shot up behind it and bushed out like a boiler brush.
“Make it stop, Polly.”
Its ears flattened.
Polly stamped towards the animal, hissing back at it. The cat retreated, showing pointed teeth.
Toby edged forward. “Shut up, cat. Go away.”
Polly made a sudden lunge towards the animal, flapping her wings and cawing. The cat jumped in the air, all four feet leaving the ground. Then it turned and vanished around a corner.
Polly flew on to the bollard the cat had vacated. “I’ll find you a hiding place.” Her tail bobbed and she flew in
the opposite direction to the cat.
Toby crouched, digging his nails into his leather gloves. The deck of the
under his bare toes was very different to the
. He could feel her massive pistons chugging beneath his feet, shuddering as she sucked at the last of her reserves.
was huge. She was a city compared to the
’s small town. Toby realized that he could, for the first time, look at his own ship from the outside.
Toby exhaled. He hadn’t even known that the rustproof paint his father had used on the
was orange. The corrosive sea had faded it so that she looked like a shard of sunset floating on the waves. A stylized phoenix decorated her hull and Toby realized that the image on his Nix was a copy. A shout drew his attention to the deck of the
To Toby’s relief, the arrival of Nell on board appeared to have stopped the fighting. Now both captains faced one another across the quarterdeck. His father waved his hands angrily and Toby saw the crew of the
abruptly raise their weapons and shout. The
’s pirates remained unmoving. They had clustered behind Nell, awaiting her orders.
Toby’s hand closed on Nix as a sound drew his attention back to his own predicament.
To his right a pyramid of compressed junk balls
was shifting in time with the rolling salt. Netting held them in place, but the top one had thudded to the bottom. Toby blinked: the pyramids dotted the deck, beside cannons that shone black on oiled rollers. The
could have destroyed the
at any time, so what were they after?
Now Toby’s eye fell on a giant trebuchet that rested on a turntable. The catapult was surrounded by its ammunition: car engines, truck beds, anything big and heavy enough to cause serious damage.
Six men were loading the weapon but there was no joking, singing or complaining as they worked. Their tattooed skulls glistened under the glow of lightning from the storm that was gaining once more on the immobilized ships.
“That’s aimed at the
,” Toby murmured.
Polly landed beside him in a flurry of feathers. Her processor whirred. “I calculate the payload will hit the main pylon and bring it down on top of the mess hall and pump hatch.”
“The injured are in the mess hall. Big Pad…” Toby shut his eyes against the image. “Are they going to fire?”
Polly squawked quietly. “It’s possible.”
“But not while Nell’s over there, right?” Toby spun back to look at the
. He didn’t know what Nell was saying, but his father sagged and was caught in Uma’s
strong arms. The wind carried an anguished wail carried across the sea. “Toby!”
Toby leaned over the side. “What’s happening?”
“Your father knows you’re missing.”
Toby hung his head. “What do I do?”
“Fetch Hiko and return as soon as possible.”
“You’re not telling me to go straight home?” He raised his eyebrows.
“I should.” Polly bit his thumb gently. “But I found him.”
“Other side of the bridge. He’s in a cage. You’re right, we can’t just leave the boy.”
Toby peered around the deck housing. The bridge was fully enclosed. It hunched towards the stern of the ship behind the trebuchet and its half-dozen guards. The windows of the bridge were narrow but Toby assumed that anyone inside would be able to see out in any direction. The question was – was there anyone inside or not?
He shuffled his feet. “How do I get there without being seen?”
Polly nudged his face, turning him. “I found some passages set into the deck. If you can get into one, you’ll be able to get close.”
“Right.” Toby was about to edge into the open when there was a shout from one of the guards by the trebuchet.
He was pointing towards the
. Slowly Toby turned.
Nell must have signalled because the man suddenly raced towards the prow. He pounded past Toby’s hiding place without seeing him. Toby pressed himself against the side of the deck housing, straining to see as the man gripped a winch on the end of the zip wire Nell had used, and started to wind.
, Nell reached one-handed for the strap and hurdled over the side. Toby heard her shout something but the sense of her words was lost as the storm broke overhead once more.
“They’re coming back,” Polly squawked in his ear. “Move it, Toby.”
The crew of the
were abandoning the
like rats. Ignoring the driving rain, each rappelled up the cables linking the two ships.
Toby was in deep trouble.
“This way.” Polly shuffled on his shoulder. “Quick.”
Now Nell was back on board, Toby didn’t dare move. He made himself as small as possible, pressed between the bollard and deck housing, and watched as Nell looked around with her hands on her hips.
Nell looked as old as his father, and her hair was cropped short, streaked with grey and stuck to her forehead by the rain. Her eyes were like shards of ice. Toby shrank back as though she could see him, but her gaze never reached his hiding place.
“Where’s Ayla?” Her voice was a low rasp as if, once upon a time, she had screamed so hard it had never recovered.
“She’s dealing with the prisoner, Captain. Do you want to see him?” The guard stopped coiling the winch rope and straightened.
“I’ve more important things to do than meet Toby Ford. Tell Ayla to get the crew below deck.” Nell turned
her sharp-eyed gaze to the sky. “I’ve told the
we’ll weather the storm and then I expect the coordinates. If they don’t give them to me, we’ll return the boy to them rather faster than they’d like.” She indicated the trebuchet then stretched, wincing a little.
“Some of the men are wondering…” The guard ducked his head as he spoke, but Nell nodded for him to go on. “Are you sure there really are coordinates? The old man was mad and when you’re tortured you’ll say anything to make it stop.” He rubbed a hand over his scarred head. “Isn’t it better to strip the
down and take everything they have?”
Nell sneered and looked around at her crew surrounding her. “We’ve got Ford’s son in the cage. He
bring me those coordinates. But we won’t be letting our enemy go afterwards. We’ll have those solar panels and everything else the
has got, too.” The crew cheered.
“Everyone get below.” Nell curled her lip and directed her attention back to the guard who had winched her home. “I don’t like questions. Deliver my message to Ayla, then you can guard the prisoner during the storm.”
The man nodded and edged away from his captain. Then he turned and ran towards the bridge.
Toby swallowed. “What does she mean they’ve got Ford’s son in the cage? I’m Ford’s son.”
Polly nestled into his neck. “The captain doesn’t allow kids on his ship – you’re the only one. When they found a kid on the
, they assumed it was you.”
“But he’s younger than me.”
“Nell would know that – she’s been at sea almost as long as the captain – but she hasn’t laid eyes on Hiko yet.”
“If the captain believes Nell has me prisoner, he’ll deliver our coordinates for the solar panels to the
.” Toby closed his eyes. “We can’t let that happen.”
Polly squawked quietly. “What do you want to do?”
A band of uniformed pirates ran past Toby, their shoulders hunched against the worsening weather. He held his breath, but none looked round. Swiftly they vanished into hatches. They were a disciplined crew that made the pirates on the
look like rabble.
Toby inhaled sharply as a gust of wind lashed him with a whip of rain. “We’ve got until the storm passes, while both crews are below deck. Let’s get Hiko, rappel back to the
and tell them to run before all hell breaks loose.”
He ducked behind the deck housing again as Nell splashed towards the bridge, her long legs eating up the deck.
Once she was past, Toby edged out. Not far from the winch housing, Toby spotted one of the sunken passages
Polly had mentioned. He lowered himself down with a splash.
Toby held Nix ahead of him and edged forwards. Standing water sloshed around his ankles as he walked. He still hadn’t met a crew member, but the longer he went without being seen, the harder his heart thumped in his chest.
“You, there. Stop. All hands below deck.”
It was with a kind of awful relief that Toby realized he had been spotted. Even as his heart sunk, he straightened, tightened his hand around Nix and turned.
A single member of the
’s crew stood silhouetted above him.
“You’re not crew. Who are you?” The voice was high, undoubtedly female. Toby’s hand tightened on Nix and he sidestepped as the figure cartwheeled from the deck to land in front of him.
As she flew, a long coat like Nell’s flapped behind her. Her booted feet landed with a bone-jarring thud. Next to her the scrawny cat landed on silent paws. Toby watched as it wound itself around his legs, claws ticking through the puddles on the walkway.
Then it went to sit beside its mistress, growling low in its throat, as if daring Toby to move.
As the figure straightened, Toby stared. He was facing a
girl who had to be about his age. His hand loosened on Nix.
All the crewmen of the
that Toby had seen so far were shaven and tattooed; men or women, it didn’t seem to matter. This girl wore her long hair loose. Tiny braids decorated with beads and feathers kept it from falling into her eyes. Beneath the decoration, her hair was the colour of oil – a shiny black with prisms of colour beneath.
Toby balanced against the rise and fall of the ship and stared. The girl’s eyes were shockingly green – algae on seawater. Her face was as tanned as Toby’s own, but her skin was not as salt-burned or work-rough. She hadn’t the perfect face of the girls Toby had seen in his dreams. Her cheeks were hollow, her nose had clearly been broken at least once and she had a thin scar bisecting her lower lip.
As he exhaled, his breath shivered in the air between them and the girl put her hands on her hips to reveal black leather trousers and a tight waxed jerkin beneath her coat.
“Polly want a cracker,” Polly muttered, her warning obvious.
The cat hissed and Polly squawked angrily.
“I told them that boy was too young to be Ford’s son.
Toby, aren’t you?” The girl frowned. “Then who do we have in the cage?”
Toby growled. “That’s Hiko. I’m taking him home.”
Finally he stepped backwards to run and the girl grinned.
“I don’t think so,
.” Before Toby could react, she had grabbed his shoulders, slammed her forehead between his eyes, released him and leaped back.
Toby reeled from the sudden viciousness of the headbutt. Flashes of light burst in his vision and pain stabbed through his head. Half blind, he staggered, secured his grip on Nix and swung blindly.
The girl had already drawn a long knife from her belt. Nix clanged into the knife and struck on the hilt with an impact that shuddered up Toby’s arm.
He pulled free. “Sorr—” Half an apology slipped out, but the girl was already taking back her knife and lashing out with steel toecaps. Instinctively Toby blocked with Nix, making barely a dent in her thick boot leather. At the same time he remembered Callum’s favourite move from their sparring sessions and stepped in closer to her, his elbow aimed for her face.
The girl blocked with her own elbow and swung her left fist. Toby spun backwards, trying for the leg sweep, but the girl was also spinning, her coat flying behind her with a snap. Both missed.
They paused, panting and glaring at one another. Toby held Nix up and the girl held her knife in one hand, weaving it back and forth in front of her face. The other
fist was closed in front of her sternum, protecting herself.
“Who are you?” Toby gasped, but the girl shook her head.
Then they were moving again. She slashed for Toby’s throat, but Nix flew, blocking her attack. Toby pressed against her knife and shoved her backwards. Then he lashed out with his feet, trying to plant his heel in her stomach. The girl shifted, but he caught her side. Air flew out of her, then she was already hacking towards his ankle. Toby moved, but not fast enough; pain burned and his blood dripped on to the deck. He hopped, sparing a quick glance downwards. A line of scarlet ran down his shin. He put his injured leg behind him, and raised Nix high, pinning his eyes on the delicate fingers that held the knife.
Polly flapped anxiously and the cat yowled, swiping upwards with wickedly sharp claws.
As Toby glanced towards his parrot, the girl feinted. Toby went to block, only to find a fist hammering into his kidney. It hurt, but he’d survived worse from Peel. He was lucky she had missed his injured rib. Somehow Toby managed to turn his lurch into a low block, caught her next slice on his leather glove, put his back to her and planted his elbow in her sternum.
The girl’s howl of rage was silenced by the outrushing of air. As she bent, Toby pressed his advantage by turning and hammering his fist into her side. Then he leaped
backwards, leaving her to totter into the hull and lean on the wall, retching.
Toby gave her space. “You know who I am. Tell me who you are.”
The girl curled her lip, panting heavily. “I’m the one who’ll be taking
“Then tell me your name.” Toby pointed Nix towards his feet.
Eventually the girl shrugged. “My name is Ayla and I am second in command on the
.” She raised her knife. “And seeing as you’re so fascinated by names, this is Boudicca.” She gestured with her blade to point to the cat. “I’ve been easy on you so far, but not any more. Will you come quietly?”
“Not likely.” Toby flicked Nix up and danced out of her reach once more. “How come you’re second in command? You’re no older than me.”
“We don’t have kids on the
,” Ayla sneered. “I’m as good as the old men here and I’m second in command because the captain trusts me.” She showed her teeth in a blistering smile. “I am her daughter, after all.”
“I’m no kid,” Toby spat. “Without me the
is dead in the water. I’m chief engineer.”
“Sure you are.” Ayla smirked. “That’s why you’re skulking around over here.”
Toby flushed and shoved Ayla so hard that Nix clanged into the wall. Ayla staggered and, as a flash of lightning lit the sky above them, she lost her footing and her head smacked into a protruding chock with a dull thud.
She slid to the ground.
The water in the passageway was flowing steadily. Toby gasped as icy rain filled his lungs.
Ayla rolled face down, the water came up to her ears and her coat began to float.
“Damn.” Toby put Nix back in his belt, rolled her over and dragged her into a sitting position, his fingers numb on her narrow shoulders.
The cat hissed, trying to drive Toby away.
Toby caught her coat and dragged it until it hung over the chock to hold Ayla up. Her chin sagged on to her chest and her hair dropped in front of her, the beads chiming.
“She’ll be fine.” Polly landed on his shoulder and poked him with her beak. “We have to get Hiko and hide until the storm eases enough to escape back to the
. This way.” Polly’s claws were sharp on his shoulder as she shifted her weight then launched herself into the air.
Toby raced along the passageway after her, splashing through the rising water.
The passageway ran into a hatch and terminated in a ladder. Almost blinded by the rain, Toby looked up. His sodden parrot drooped on the top rung.
“Go on,” he encouraged her.
Polly heaved a sigh and hopped on to the deck. There was no cry of warning from above.
“All clear.” She didn’t land on his shoulder, so much as tumble there in her own small gale. Toby helped her get a grip on his shirt then started up. “How far from the bridge am I? Will Nell see me through a window?” He had to shout now above the wind and rain.
“It’s a risk,” Polly agreed. “So move fast.”
As soon as Toby put his head above the passage his breath was stolen by the gale and replaced by rain. He rolled on to the deck and lay flat; if he stood, there was a good chance he’d be blown overboard.
The sky above rumbled with a deep boom of thunder that shook the deck beneath him and immediately the clouds lit with a bright fork that scalded his eyes.
Polly bit his ear. “You can’t stay there.”
Toby struggled on to all fours and began to crawl past the bridge.
Polly scrabbled beneath him, claws ticking on the deck. Her feathers were so wet that Toby could almost see her metal casing gleam beneath them.
Just then the
tilted as a great wave tipped her and Toby was rolled towards the rail. A coil of rope tangled his legs and he swung round, cracking his bruised shoulders on a cannon and coming to rest against a pyramid of ammunition. He tangled his fingers in the net that held it in place and scrambled to his knees again.
His roll had actually brought him closer to the other side of the bridge. This time he scuttled from cannon to cannon, taking advantage of the netting to provide handholds as the ship pitched. The grappling hooks holding the
in place creaked as the cables stretched to their limit.
As Toby rolled beneath another muzzle, his mind returned to the girl he had left in the passageway. When she woke she would be searching for him. Was she still unconscious? Then he rounded the bridge, saw the cage and forgot about her altogether.
The guard he had seen questioning Nell was crouched against the forecastle wall, gripping on to the bars.