Nardica

Chapter 1

Iffy had a bad dream that night. It was the same bad dream she always had, because it wasn’t really a dream. She was on deck. The sky was a perfect blue bowl overhead, summer cold instead of winter freezing. Her mother and father were stuffing her into the salvaged ecosuit that had cost them half a catch. “Just in case, love,” her mother said, forcing a smile but unable to keep the fear out of her voice. “Just in case.”

The ship’s horn blared another warning. Iffy jumped and started crying. She was only half awake—her parents had pulled her out of her cost just a few minutes before. Her mother hugged her, but her father pulled her away. “There isn’t time,” he snapped as two of the crew ran past them toward the stern. At the time she thought he was angry at her for something. She realized years later that he was scared.

“She’s boiling!” a crewman shouted from the crow’s nest. “Two points to starboard!”

Iffy’s mother sealed the last flap on the ecosuit. This time her father didn’t try to stop her when she hugged her daughter. “I love you so much,” she said in Iffy’s ear.

“I love you too,” Iffy replied automatically. The bulky suit made it difficult for her to bend her arms, but she tried anyway. Her father knelt down and put his arms around them both. He smelled like engine oil and the soap he always used when he shaved. That was Iffy remembered most clearly later, when she had trouble remembering what his face had looked like.

The ship heeled hard as the captain tried to steer them away from the seething mass of bubbles ahead. “She’s going to blow!” the crewman shouted. The ship’s horn blared one last time, and then all Iffy could hear was a rushing sound that seemed to come from all around them. Sobbing, her mother closed the faceplate on the ecosuit.

Without warning, the ship staggered and dropped two meters. Iffy screamed as she fell back to the deck. Her parents landed beside her. A great frothing wash of sea water crashed down on top of them. She screamed again as it dragged her mother and father back against the metal railing. They grabbed for it, but then the ship plummeted again as the gas bubbles rising from the ocean floor below churned the water into foam. The last thing Iffy saw before she went under was the crewman who had been in the crow’s nest flying through the air, his arms and legs flapping like broken wings against the perfect blue sky.

Her dream stopped then, just like it always did. She didn’t remember being fished out of the water a day later by one of the jelly fleet’s luckier ships. Its crew said it was a miracle she had survived. The ecosuit was a hundred years old, maybe more, but every seal had held. It had kept her warm while the thumb-sized motors in the arms and legs kept her clear of the after-bubbles that would have swallowed a lifeboat.

Her Uncle Jack sold it almost as soon as she was back in Rothera. “You’re going to outgrow it anyway,” her Uncle Jack said impatiently over her tearful protests. “Gotta pay for your keep somehow ‘til you’re old enough to earn your way.” He sold the rest of her parents’ belongings too, everything except her favorite book. It had been her mother’s, and her grandmother’s before that, all the way to back when there were still whales and tigers and giraffes. She read a few pages every night, no matter how tired she was from chores. She drew the pictures from memory in the margins of her notes at school, and on those rare occasions when Uncle Jack was away and Aunt Naggie let her have a friend over, she would take the book out and tell them all about orcinus orca and panthera tigris and her favorite, giraffa camelopardalis.

“They were too real!” she said fiercely whenever someone expressed even a hint of doubt. “Real as gulls and jellies!” Real as being hungry and lonely, she sometimes added to herself as she grew older. Real as being smart with machines and tech like her mother and father had been before the frozen southern ocean took them away.

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Iffy woke to Aunt Naggie banging around in the galley. She lay in her narrow cot for one final precious warm moment before pushing aside the salvaged sleeping bag she used as a cover and pulling on a second layer of clothes. That banging was her aunt’s way of letting Iffy know that Uncle Jack was awake. If she knew what was good for her, she’d be in the galley doing something useful before he got there.

She tucked her nature book under the cot’s foam slab mattress, dragged her fingers through her unwashed hair, and undogged the door to the storage locker that had been her cabin for the past eight years. As she climbed out of the hold onto the Guinevere’s deck, the sights and sounds and smells of Rothera harbor crashed down on her like the waves in her nightmare. She stopped for a moment to let her eyes adjust.

To seaward lay the rusting hulk of the aircraft carrier that had driven itself aground a century before to become a seawall. Dozens of ships and boats bobbed gently up and down in its lee. Some were as old as the carrier, patched and re-patched over the years to stay seaworthy. Others were newly built, solid Aussie steel with motors like the Guinevere or Zillion bamboo with masts and sails. Gulls wheeled overhead in their endless search for scraps, complaining to one another about the cold.

The town watched the harbor like a grumpy old man watching children at play. Back when, Rothera had been a research station where scientists studied the first warning signs of the big melt. The scientists moved their buildings onto the land when the ice disappeared, adding more each year as first fishing boats and then jelly dredgers began to call in. Two thousand people now called Rothera home, dredging in the summer and rendering the catch down for fuel and food in the winter or tending to the town’s precious greenhouses.

Iffy shaded her eyes against the sharp sun. Further back from shore, where the land began to rise, stood a cluster of new buildings. Most were just bunkhouses, but one was a general store, and another—the big one that Iffy had watched grow in stages through the spring—was a machine shop. Shiploads of precious equpiment had arrived throughout the spring and been hauled into it: forges and presses and a lathe with a spindle thicker than Iffy’s leg and even a printer hauled south from Australia itself in the hold of a destroyer. The whole town had turned out when it came into harbor, marveling at its sleek, menacing profile and its stubby railguns. Iffy hadn’t given it a second glance once its cargo came ashore. A printer, an actual printer—it could make anything.

Almost anything, she corrected herself as she studied the distant building, hoping for some sign of activity. Given power and powdered metal and the right plans, the printer could cast almost any shape imaginable. She had seen some of those shapes in drawings laid out on tables in Halley’s one restaurant, three cafés, and six bars. She had studied them sidelong, afraid of being noticed and told to go away, while serious men and women had argued weights and tolerances and expansion coefficients. The railroad they were going to build wouldn’t be Antarctica’s first, but the locomotive would be the first designed and constructed on the southern continent. And more than anything in the world, Iffy wanted to be part of it.

“Girl! Girl! Slag it, woman, where’s that affing girl at now?” Iffy jumped at the sound of Uncle Jack’s bellow in the galley below her. He’d been out with his mates last night, which was Uncle Jack-speak for drinking more than he could handle and gambling more than he could afford to. Aunt Naggie somehow managed to pry enough out of his grasping hands (or, Iffy suspected, winkle enough out of his pockets while he was snoring) to keep the Guinevere afloat, but it had been months since they’d had fresh fruit, and she couldn’t remember the last time there’d even been mention of new clothes or replacing the tired little boat’s frayed dredging nets.

“Girl!” Uncle Jack shouted again. “Get your affing tail down here now or saints help me you won’t sit for a week!” She heard a meaty bang! as he slapped the galley table with his good hand.

With one last longing look at the machine shop, Iffy undogged the hatch beside her and yanked it open. “Here, captain,” she said over the scrape and squeal of rusty hinges. “I was just—”

“You were just lying about like some fairy tale princess, and don’t try to tell me otherways!” Her uncle glared up at her, squinting as the bright sky framing her head assaulted his hungover eyes. There was a bruise on his forehead that hadn’t been there the evening before, Iffy noticed. That might mean a visit from the police later. He’d rave on for an hour if they came about how the governor was just another rock-hogging idiot who would sell them all out to the Dutch or the Zillions as soon as she could get a decent price, but it would be worth it.

“Your eggs’ll be ready in a mo,” Aunt Naggie said hurriedly just as Uncle Jack was about to unleash another bellow. “Do you want a bit of curry on them? I think I have a some— No, wait, not there…” She rattled through the little glass jars that sat, each one in its proper place, on the shelf beside the galley’s double-burner stove.

“Affing right I want curry,” he grumbled, picking up one of the flat bowls they all used as plates and handing it to his wife. Iffy’s stomach grumbled as the smell of eggs, turmeric, and cumin teased her nostrils.

With a tilt of her frying pan and a single practiced flip of her spatula, Aunt Naggie slid two perfectly friend eggs into Uncle Jack’s bowl. Without even a grunt of thanks, he took the last flatbread from the table and disappeared back into the cabin. Iffy heard glass clink and something gurgle out of a bottle, and then the door closed.

Aunt Naggie let out the breath she’d been holding before looking up at her niece. “You hungry?” she asked.

“Not really,” Iffy lied.

“Mm. Here.” Her aunt pulled a hard-boiled egg out of the pocket of her apron and tossed it up through the hatch. Iffy snagged it one-handed. It was almost as big as her fist, and still warm. “Once you’re done with that, you’d best be on that winch cable he’s after having tightened.” She sighed, kneading the small of her back with one hand. “And he says the knock in the engine is back. Best be having a look at that too before it starts to bother him.”

“I know what that is,” Iffy said hurriedly. “The reciprocating rod’s bent again. Mister Mishra will straighten it out if I take it in before he gets busy. It won’t cost anything,” she added hastily as her aunt opened her mouth to object. “Not if I do a couple of odd jobs for him.”

The corner of her aunt’s mouth twitched with what might have turned into an actual smile once upon a time. “Well then, best get to it. And stop in at Sandhu’s and see what they want for eggs,” she added as Iffy straightened up. “Those were our last ones. I’ll let your uncle know once he’s…” She finished the sentence with a shrug.

“Thanks auntie,” Iffy said gratefully. She closed the hatch and hurried aft as quietly as she could, praying that the sound of her boots on the deck wouldn’t rouse her uncle.

The ship’s toolbox was tucked under a bench near the stern. She dragged it out onto the deck, then reached behind it to grab the bag that held her tools, the ones she had salvaged and mended or been given in return for doing odd jobs for people around the harbor who remembered her parents. She pushed the toolbox back into place and slung her toolbag over her shoulder, tucking the bent reciprocating rod into it and snugging the drawstring tight. Three quick steps and a practiced leap took her over the railing onto the dock. As she raced toward shore, she felt the weight of life on the Guinevere lift from her shoulders.

The Antarctic summer didn’t have days or nights, but ships and ports kept their rhythm under the endless mid-morning sun. A pair of old women were awake early to scrape barnacles off long strips of plastic they had hung off the docks months before. The tweaked barnacles’ shells glittered with tiny particles of metal they had filtered out of the water. Ground down and incinerated, the day’s haul would be a few specks of copper or manganese that could patch some piece of tech to keep it limping along for another season. One of the women raised a hand in greeting as Iffy went by, but neither stopped working.

The three teens arguing over how they were going to hang up a jelly dredging net so that they could mend it didn’t say hello either, but Iffy didn’t expect them to. At least they aren’t crossing their fingers and spitting, she thought. Sailors were superstitious, and she was a sole survivor. People didn’t look at her sidelong as often as they once had, but on those rare occasions when she could sit and drink a cup of tea in one of Halley’s cafés, she usually had empty chairs on either side of her.

Mishra & Co occupied one half of a long shed. The big sliding door along the side wasn’t open yet, so Iffy banged on the smaller door cut into it. It scraped open on her third knock.

“Hey Jeep,” she said brightly to the scowling boy who opened it. “Is your dad here?” She held up the bent reciprocating rod by way of explanation.

“He’s the back,” the boy yawned, jerking his thumb over his shoulder and making just enough room for Iffy to squeeze past him.

The inside of the shed smelled like fish, hot metal, and coal. Mis-matched squares of light hung from the ceiling. The shadows they cast made the compact machines and carefully sorted shelves of scrap on the shop floor look like battlebots from old movies. Iffy’s heart had been in her throat the first time she ventured between them. All she saw now was what they could be turned into.

Sanjay Mishra was sharpening his fingers on a grinding wheel in the center of the shop. He nodded at Iffy but didn’t try to speak until the last sparks had flown off his fingertips and the grinding wheel had come to a halt. Pulling his safety goggles up onto his forehead, he tugged his real fingers through the tangles in his beard reflectively. “Buy, sell, or trade?” he finally asked.

Iffy cleared her throat. “Trade.” She held up the bent reciprocating rod. “Tangled some flotsam coming in last night. The engine over-spun before I could get to it. There’s no cracks or nothing,” she added hastily, handing the piece to him. “Just needs re-bent and annealed.”

“Hm.” The burly machinist turned the rod over in his hands, sighted along its length, then held it up to his good ear and tapped it with his metal fingers. Iffy had seen him go through this ritual more times than she could count, and still didn’t know if the quiet metal tick was just a bluff, or if he really could hear flaws too fine for eyes to see.

He handed the rod back to her. “Bend her straight, she’ll just bend bent again,” he pronounced. “What she needs is replacing.”

The tension eased out of Iffy’s shoulders. Mr. Mishra didn’t bargain unless he’d already mostly decided to do something. Now it was just a matter of price.

In the end, the straightened rod cost her half an hour of sorting scraps for smelting. It wasn’t the machine work she’d hoped for, but she had learned that if she timed her questions right, he would take a few minutes to show her how to dog the belaying plate on the laser drill just so, or how to line up the gatling hammers to rat-a-tat-tat a piece of sheet metal into a graceful springy curve. She was careful not to stare at the burn scar where his left ear should have been or at the spidery piece of tech attached to his left arm. She was equally careful not to look up when his son Jeep came, scowling as always, to say that lunch was ready but amma said he had to clean up first.

“You hungry?” Mr. Mishra asked, spinning the handwheel on the side of the drill to lift the laser into its locking position.

“No thanks,” Iffy said. “I brought.” She held up the egg her aunt had given her.

“Hm.” Mr. Mishra ran his fingers through his beard again. “Not much of a meal to grow on.”

“It’ll do me fine.” Iffy nodded toward the laser drill as casually as she could. “You mind I try a couple of pieces while you’re out?”

Mr. Mishra was shaking his head before she even finished speaking. “Nuh uh, girl. Nobody touches my darling without I’m there to watch.” Metal fingers tapped the tabletop next to him. “You break that, nearest parts are long away ‘Mundsen, and nearest after that are all the way up to Taz.”

“Aright,” Iffy said, feigning disappointment. “How about I use the mechanical one instead? Just so I can learn a bit,” she added hastily. “It’s not paid work or nothing, I swear. I’ll just drill some scrap—you can count it all in and out to make sure.”

Mr. Mishra chuckled. “No worry about the scrap, girl. And no worry about paid word. If you’ve found some of that hereabouts that I han’t heard of, more power to you.” He rolled his head to loosen the kinks in his neck, then jerked his chin at the cabinet behind her. “Mind your eyes, aye?”

“Aye,” Iffy agreed eagerly. She had a pair of yellowing old plastic goggles on her face and the drill bit engaged before Mr. Mishra reached the door.

Drilling holes wasn’t hard—she’d learned how to do that long ago. The hard part was drilling them in the right place. After picking up and discarding half a dozen pieces of scrap, she found one that was just bent enough to be a challenge. The first hole only took a minute. It then took her another fifteen minutes to measure, mark, measure again, swear under her breath, find another pair of calipers in the chaos that was the top of Mr. Mishra’s toolbench, chock the piece, re-set it, and slowly, evenly, bring the spinning drillbit down until it just barely kissed the metal and—

“What are you still doing here?” She jumped and spun around. Jeep was leaning against a set of shelves, arms crossed and scowl firmly in place.

“I’m practicing,” she said defensively. “Aren’t you supposed to be having lunch or something?”

His scowl deepened. “Finished. Does my da know you’re here?”

“Of course he does.” Iffy scratched a sudden itch on her nose, then pulled her hand back down to her side. Mr. Mishra did know, and she had nothing to be nervous about.

“Uh huh. What about your uncle?” Jeep straightened up. “Bet he doesn’t know how you’re wasting your time.”

“None of your business what my uncle knows and doesn’t,” Iffy said hotly. She turned back to the drill, placing her foot firmly on the pedal that controlled the motor’s speed.

But Jeep wasn’t done, not yet. He didn’t quite bump into her shoulder as he crossed the crowded space to the toolbench. “Better all be here,” he said darkly. “Anything turns up missing—”

“Anything turns up missing, your da will know for sure it wasn’t you as took it, because you wouldn’t have the first clue what would be worth taking!” Iffy snapped. She cranked the drill bit up into its locked position and switched the machine off. “Here!” Three quick twists undid the chocks that held her test piece in place. She tossed it at him harder than the distance required, then took the calipers from the work tray on the side of the drill and slapped them back onto the bench. “Gimme a sec and I’ll sweep up the shavings too, just so you can be sure you got everything.” Without waiting for answer she pulled the goggles off her face and grabbed the old broom that stood next to a broken sonic press like a forgotten sentry.

Jeep watched her sweep, resentment and something that might have been embarrassment written on his face. “You missed a bit,” he finally said, pointing at a random patch of floor before turning and stalking away. The door made a bang as he slammed it shut behind him.

Iffy emptied the dustpan into the trash when she was done leaned the broom back against the sonic press, and tossed her goggles in their drawer angrily. It wasn’t fair: Jeep could use the equipment any time he wanted, but all he ever did was complain and look for ways not to. “What’s the point?” he’d shrugged the one time she had asked him why. “They got tech up along ‘Mundsen can do all this ten times faster than human.”

“Well, up along ‘Mundsen don’t help us here,” she’d retorted. “And anyway, how would you know what they got along there? You never ever been so far as Rothera.” He’d scowled at that like he scowled at everything, but hadn’t answered.

The sky was exactly as bright as it had been an hour earlier when Iffy stepped outside, the straightened reciprocating rod safely in an inside pocket of her coat. She peeled her egg as she hurried up the street toward the grocery store, trying not to get grease from her fingers onto it as she devoured the rubbery white flesh and the warm yellow-brown yolk. A few people smiled and nodded hello as she went past. She nodded back, ignoring the others who sighed or shook their heads at the sight of yet another half-wild dredger child roaming the town.

Sandhu’s grocery store was out of eggs. They had onions, though, and a whole case of dried green peppers that had come in from somewhere left vaguely unspecified. Little Mrs. Sandhu sliced a thumb-sized piece off one and wrapped it in waxed paper. “For your beautiful aunt,” she said over Iffy’s protests, just as she did every time she gave her something special for Aunt Naggie. “And here, take this too.” She handed Iffy a small plastic jar with a screw-on lid.

Big Mrs. Sandhu snorted just as she always did. “You should take your little presents yourself,” she scolded.

Her wife smiled. “La, but where would be the mystery in that?”

Big Mrs. Sandhu snorted again. “You just don’t don’t want any of your special friends in the harbor to realize how big others you have.”

Whatever Little Mrs. Sandhu might have said next was cut short by the jingling of the little bell on the store’s front door. Three heads turned at a cheerful, “Good morning!” as the squarest man Iffy had ever seen walked in.

“Square” really was the only word for him. He looked almost as wide as he was tall, and his broad forehead and square jaw made his face look like it belonged in a picture frame. His strong white teeth gleamed against his black skin as he smiled, add the small silvery rectangle of tech set into his temple made him look like he had stepped out of one of the action movies that the two Mrs. Sandhus and their friends rented to customers they particularly liked.

“Good morning, sri,” Big Mrs. Sandhu said, bowing her head slightly. “Is there something we could help you with?”

“Nothing in particular, thank you, just in need of some supplies. Oh, and perhaps some advice, if that’s for sale as well as soy sauce and onions?” His twanging accent sounded vaguely ‘Merican to Iffy, though the only ‘Merican she had ever actually met hadn’t done much more than shout and swear at Mr. Mishra before stomping off with his broken propellor unmended.

“The advice is free,” Little Mrs. Sandhu simpered,, wiping her hands on her apron. Big Mrs. Sandhu looked sidelong at Iffy and rolled her eyes. Iffy bit back a laugh—Little Mrs. Sandhu’s flirting was as famous in Halley as her curries and her bargaining skills.

“Excellent,” the square man said. “I’m just in from South Georgia on the Taroona, and I’m in need of a place to stay for a few days. I don’t suppose you could recommend somewhere that isn’t too expensive? Or even somewhere downright cheap?” He spread his hands apologetically. “It seems that my luggage went missing in transit.”

“Oh you poor cho,” Little Mrs. Sandhu clucked as Big Mrs. Sandhu shook her head.

“The Taroona’s crew are a pack of thieves,” she said flatly. “And worse, I’ve heard. You’re lucky if all they nicked was your bags.”

The square man sighed. “Perhaps, but I have to say, I don’t feel particularly lucky. I was hoping to set myself up down here, but without my tools…” He shrugged sadly.

“What kind of tools?” Iffy asked. She had been about to slip away—as entertaining as it would have been to listen to some hard-luck try to con the Mrs. Sandhus, her uncle would almost certainly be awake and bellowing for her, and she didn’t want to leave Aunt Naggie to deal with his ire on her own. But just the chance that he might be telling the truth was worth a few more seconds.

The square man grimaced. “A couple of half-mil waldoes, a sintering laser, a set of diffraction lenses, a fractal de-ionizer for cleaning up old chips, and a—”

“There’s no such thing as a fractal de-ionizer,” Iffy said scornfully.

The square man blinked. “Sure there is. You take the polarizer out of a medical SQUID stick it in a high-conductance fractal mesh, and boom—there’s your de-ionizer.”

Iffy frowned. “But wouldn’t the resonance feedback slag it?”

“If you’re careless, sure,” the square man admitted. “You have to recalibrate the impedance every once in a while so that it doesn’t overheat, but it’ll run for years if you take care of it.” He cocked his head, and for a moment Iffy felt he was looking at her as if she was some strange new machine that he had to repair.

“Well, if you two are done with your tech jabber, there’s a couple of places I can point you to,” Big Mrs. Sandhu said briskly. “Can’t promise they’ll be as cheap as you want, but they’re clean enough and you won’t wake up in the middle of the night with your kidneys gone.”

“Thank you,” the square man said absently, still studying Iffy. “And if you don’t mind me asking another question, where did your daughter learn her tech? A lot of people with a lot of years behind them wouldn’t have thought to worry about the resonance feedback.”

“Oh, she’s not our daughter,” Little Mrs. Sandhu said lightly. “She’s crew off one of the jelly dredgers.”

“Ah.” The square man nodded as if that explained everything. Suddenly he stuck out his hand. “Johnson Tales,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.”

Iffy hesitated, then put out her own hand and shook his. “Iffelia Kwan. Pleased to meet you too.”

Chapter 2

Iffy ran all the way back to the Guinevere, dodging around the people and machines going about their chores in Halley’s narrow streets. “Attention! Attention!” scolded the ancient street sweeping bot that everyone called Frenchy as she squeezed between it and a rack of silvery roof moss left out to dry in the sun.

The two old women she had seen earlier were still bent over their work when she reached the dock. “How’s yer haul?” she panted, stopping and putting her hands on her knees to catch her breath.

“Not bad,” one of the women said. She nudged a bucket full of ground-up barnacles with her boot. “Pro’ly get thirty grams outta this when it’s rendered down.” Her smile showed more gaps than teeth.

“Good luck,” Iffy said. She straightened up and walked quickly the rest of the way to the Guinevere, her lips moving as she practiced what she was going to say to her aunt and uncle.

Metal clanged on metal as she reached the ship. “Affing stupid—dammit!” Uncle Jack swore, a wrench in one hand and a screw cuff in the other. Iffy’s heart sank. He was trying to fix the backstay cable she had mended while they were last out. It was a fiddlesome job at the best of times, and if he’d been drinking the night before…

Uncle Jack’s face darkened as he spotted her. “Where’n hell you been, girl?” he demanded, waving the wrench at her. “There’s work as needs done! And don’t give me any of your excuses!” he continued as Iffy opened her mouth. “You get your backside up here and earn your keep or so help me!”

“But—”

“Now!” Heads turned on nearby ships as Uncle Jack’s bellow echoed across the water.

Ears burning, Iffy climbed the three-step ladder onto the deck. Her heart sank again at the mess waiting for her. Her uncle had sawed through the frayed ends of the backstay cable. There was no way it would be long enough now to weave back together. She would have to swap it for one of the forestay cables, which meant an hour at least of winding and unwinding.

Her uncle crossed his arms, tapping his wrench against his ribs. “Well? Where’ve you been?”

“Groceries,” Iffy said sullenly. She pulled the mended reciprocating rod out of her jacket and held it out to him. “Got this fixed too.”

Uncle Jack plucked it from her hand. “Don’t see no groceries,” he grumbled.

“I’ll mind those,” Aunt Naggie said from behind Iffy, sticking her head up through an open hatch like a turtle cautiously checking that the world outside its shell. “Did they have eggs?”

“Nope, but I got a piece of pepper.” Iffy fished it and the onions she had bought out of her jacket’s deep pockets and handed them to her aunt. “Oh, and she said to give you this too.” She handed over the little jar. “What’s in it?”

“Stuff and things,” Aunt Naggie said lightly, tucking the jar into her apron. “Now, did you get anything more to eat? I was going to make some noodles for Jack.”

“I’m fine,” Iffy lied, her stomach grumbling. “But auntie, there was this man at the Sandhu’s. He’s a mechanic, a real one, ‘cept he come in on the Taroona and they upped his gear. He was asking after a place to stay, and we got to talking, and he said that if he could get his tools back and find work and all, he might be looking for an apprentice.”

“An apprentice? Well, good for Jeep—and his dad, too. It’ll do them both the world to get some time away from each other.”

“Not Jeep!” Iffy exclaimed in annoyance. “Me! I could be his ‘prentice!” The two Mrs. Sandhus had listened with bemusement as her conversation with Mr. Tales—“call me Johnson, please”—leaped from de-ionizers to micro-welding the cracked cases of old chips to the mended reciprocating rod that Iffy had taken out of her coat to show him. It wasn’t until Big Mrs. Sandhu cleared her throat and suggested pointedly that the conversation might best be continued where they wouldn’t be blocking her aisles that Iffy realized how much time had gone by.

Uncle Jack’s hand came down heavily on her shoulder. He spun her around to face him. “You’re not going to be anyone’s anything,” he growled, shaking her for emphasis. “Not ‘til you’ve paid off every last rand you owe me.”

Something inside Iffy snapped. “Fair enough,” she said coldly, knocking his arm away. “You show me the accounts so I can see just how much that is and I’ll get to working on it. You tell me how much my food and bunk is, and I’ll tell you how much for my time keeping this twist of scrap afloat when you’re too wrung out to do it yourself, and we’ll see how long it is ‘til I’m quit and clear!”

“What we’ll see is how well you swim!” Uncle Jack roared, raising the heavy wrench he was holding like a club.

“No!” Aunt Naggie scrambled onto deck and pulled Iffy away from her furious uncle. “Jack, don’t! She’s just talking. She’s not going anywhere.”

Uncle Jack shook the wrench at them. “I best see more out of both of you than just talking,” he spat. “Now get me my affing lunch. And you!” He jabbed a finger at Iffy. “Fix that affing cable. I want us ready to sail tomorrow.”

“She’ll do it right away, I promise,” Aunt Naggie said. Her arm tightened around Iffy’s shoulders, a silent warning not to say anything.

Uncle Jack stalked off, muttering under his breath. “You best come below and help me with the noodles,” Aunt Naggie said, shooing Iffy toward the open hatch. “That’ll give him some time to calm down.”

“Yes auntie,” Iffy said, her voice only slightly shaky. Uncle Jack had never actually hit her—not really. But with each passing season, as the Guinevere slowly fell apart beneath them despite all of Iffy’s hard work, his one-sided discussions of big deals and “if only” had turned into angry rants and sullen silences. She didn’t know where she would go, and she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Aunt Naggie to face him alone, but Iffy knew that one day soon she was going to walk down the gangplank and never come back.