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 her. 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 on her tablet at school, and on those rare occasions when Uncle Jack was away and Aunt Naggie let her have another child come on board to play, 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.
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 Halley 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 broken hulk of the carrier that had driven itself aground a century before to create 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, Halley 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 Halley 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 equipment 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, marvelling 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 ‘Nardica’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 mayor was just another rock-hogging idiot who would sell them all out to the Euros 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 pier. 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 piers 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 wasn’t much taller than Iffy, but three of her could have stood side by side in the span of his shoulders. Strong white teeth gleamed against his black skin as he smiled, and 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 ‘Mericans she had ever met in person hadn’t done much more than swear at Mr. Mishra when he wouldn’t take a sermon and a blessing in trade for fixing their broken propeller.
“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 Wales,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.”
Iffy hesitated, then put out her own hand to shake his. “Iffelia Kwan. Pleased to meet you too.”
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 barnacle farmers she had seen earlier were still bent over their work when she reached the pier. “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!”
“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. Wales—“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.
One day, but not today.
The Guinevere’s galley wasn’t big enough for two people to work side by side, so Iffy sat at the little fold-down table and watched Aunt Naggie move with the efficiency of long practice. Within minutes, two thinly-sliced onions sizzled in a battered ceramic frying pan while a pot of water came to the boil. A handful of ground mushrooms and a splash of soy sauce joined the onions, filling the air with a rich aroma that made Iffy’s stomach growl again.
“You going to add a bit of the pepper?” Iffy asked, turning a chopstick over and over in her hands.
“Best save that for some other day,” Aunt Naggie replied. She hefted a handful of noodles, added a few more, and dropped them into the pot.
Iffy put the chopstick back on the table and stretched. “What about the other stuff? That jar Mrs. Sandhu gave me?”
Aunt Naggie froze for a moment, then resumed her stirring. “That’s not for cooking, cho. It’s for my headaches.” She knocked bits of onion off her spatula into the frying pan and glanced over her shoulder at Iffy with a brittle smile on her face. “Best we don’t mention it to your uncle, all right?”
“Sure,” Iffy said. Suddenly worried, she stood up and hugged her aunt from behind. “Everything aright?”
Her aunt’s shoulders slumped. She patted Iffy’s arm with her free hand while stirring with the other. “Everything’s fine, cho. It’s just an old woman kind of thing. Nothing we girls need bother your uncle about. Now, give me a hand with the pot.”
A few minutes later, Iffy sat down with her back against the wheelhouse door and a steaming bowl of noodles in her lap. She bowed her head and said a brief prayer for her parents, then began scooping noodles into her mouth. Not even the sound of her uncle grumbling belowdecks that there ought to be some affing tofu in the noodles could spoil the warmth spreading from her knotted belly.
After the noodles were gone, she wiped the last drops of sauce out of the bowl with her thumb and licked it. The faint tang of machinery and oil from her unwashed hand barely registered. She sighed. She would like nothing better than to close her eyes for a moment, or maybe a couple of hours, but the backstay cable did need mending, and she would bet her slightly-too-small boots that her uncle had left the engine in pieces for her to put back together. She patted her coat to check that the mended reciprocating rod was still in her pocket and hauled herself to her feet.
Back where the pier met the shore, one of the barnacle farmers raised her hand. Iffy waved back. One of the old women had a pole across her shoulders with a large bucket dangling from each end. The other had stacked the smaller buckets on a two-wheeled cart and was carefully lowering their precious sheets of plastic back into the sea. They would haul in on the next pier tomorrow, Iffy knew, then the next and the next until their circuit brought them back to where they had started. They had been doing it since before she was born. It kept them fed, but little more, and she would be damned and drowned before she would let anything like that become her life.
BOOM! The explosion sounded like someone slamming the world’s biggest box down on the world’s biggest table. Iffy jumped and spun around. There! An angry column of smoke billowed up into the sky. Three—no, four piers over, and from one of the warehouses, not a ship.
A siren wailed. Another joined it. She heard Uncle Jack’s, “What’n the hell?” but she had already vaulted over the railing.
A small crowd was milling around on the street in front of the warehouse by the time she got there. The smoke had dissipated, and there was no sign of fire. A scruffy-looking man stood in front of the main door of the warehouse arguing loudly with two other men in the dark blue Marine coats. “And I said I’ll open it when my captain tells me to!” the man in front of the door said.
Two more Marines pushed through the crowd. The larger of them pointed at the sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve. “See these?” he demanded. “These say this ain’t your boat, so hang your captain, it’s on us to see if you’re going to blow this place up.”
The scruffy man’s lip curled. “Means nothin’ to me, mate. This here’s the Taroona’s ‘house, and you can come in when—hey!” He grabbed at the Marine’s arm as he pushed him aside.
“Clear away! Clear away, all you!” The crowded parted as half a dozen more sailors arrived, all of them looking as rough as the man who’d been guarding the door.
The sailor in front put his hands on his hips. “Y’aright, Bags?” he asked, his eyes on the Marine sergeant.
"”m fine, cap’n” the scruffy sailor replied, straightening up and glaring at the sergeant. “Just ‘splainin’ to this lot that there’s nothin’ here needs their ‘tention.”
“Anything as might be a danger to Halley gets our attention,” the sergeant growled. “Particularly anything as might turn this place into another Bharati.”
The crowd murmured in agreement. Twenty years before, someone’s home-brew tech had gone up in flames in Bharati. Dozens had died as fire swept through the small town, and a hundred more from exposure in the days that followed. Iffy had never asked Mr. Mishra about that night, but every year, on the anniversary, he and Little Mrs. Sandhu and a handful of others who had survived gathered on the dock to toss a handful of precious flowers into the sea.
The Taroona’s crew ignored the crowd. One of them hefted a gaff hook. Another wrapped a length of chain around his hand, unwrapped it, and wrapped it again. “You heard him,” the Taroona’s captain said. “There’s nothin’ here as needs your ‘tention.”
“And you heard me,” the sergeant said, drawing his shock stick from the holster on his hip. Beside him, the other Marines did the same.
“Uh oh,” someone said beside her. “Dock fight.”
Iffy gulped. She had never seen a dock fight—nothing worse than teenagers shoving each other and throwing a few punches—but Uncle Jack had been in one the last time they were in Rothera. He had come back to the Guinevere bruised and bloodied and uncharacteristically quiet about what had happened. When the Marine sergeant pressed the button on his belt to make his uniform jacket harden into armor, she turned to find somewhere safer to be.
And immediately bumped into Johnson Wales. “‘Scuse me,” she muttered before she realized who it was.
“Of course,” he said pleasantly. “I was actually just leaving myself. Here—would you mind carrying this for me a ways?” Without waiting for an answer, he handed her a rectangular black toolbox with a flip-up handle on its lid, stooped to pick up two identical toolboxes from the ground, and turned to leave.
“But—wait!” Iffy hurried after him, the toolbox bumping against her leg.
Wales paused a moment for her to catch up. His jacket was unzipped to his waist, and a few dew-drops of sweat glistened on his shaved scalp. Tiny lights danced briefly across the silvery rectangle in his left template and then were still again. “Thank you,” he said. “It’s awkward trying to manage all three at the same time.”
“No worries,” Iffy puffed. “These the gear the Taroona bikkies upped from you?”
Wales grinned. “Everything that matters.” His smile disappeared as shouting erupted behind her, followed by the unmistakable sizzling crack of a shock stick. “Come on.”
Iffy did her best to keep up with him as he strode along the waterfront. He prob’ly kept the light ones for himself, she grumbled to herself, but the complaint was half-hearted. Most of the sailors and townsfolk she knew ranged from lean to stringy—the cold weather and the sparse Antarctic diet didn’t give bodies much chance to put on weight. Wales’ broad shoulders made him look blocky by comparison, and the toolboxes seemed much smaller in his hands than in hers.
“Wait up a jif,” Iffy finally said. Wales stopped as she set her load down on the ground and looked back the way they had come. A bend in the shoreline hid the warehouse. All she could hear were the usual sounds of Halley’s docks: distant machinery, the crush of waves against the pier, and an occasional distant voice that might actually have been the cry of a hungry gull.
Iffy nudged the toolbox with her boot. “So was that you back there? The ‘splosion in the warehouse?”
Wales blinked. “Why on earth would you think that was me?”
Iffy rolled her eyes. “‘Cuz they upped your gear and now you got it back? And ‘cuz they’re all prolly goin’ to be in lockup once the mayor’s crew finish pawin’ through that warehouse, now that they got cause to? I ain’t stupid, you know.”
“No you’re not,” Wales agreed thoughtfully. He nodded at the toolbox next to her feet. “You OK to carry that a bit further?”
Iffy crossed her arms. “Do I get to see what’s in it?”
“Sure,” Wales chuckled. He set down one of the pair he was carrying and stuck out his hand. Iffy shook it once again. Picking up their respective loads, they walked side by side up the narrow street that led past the Sandhu’s grocery store to the café where Wales had rented a room.
They sat in the back of the café and drank sweet, strong tea as Wales carefully unpacked one of his toolboxes and checked each piece of tech it contained. Some of the tools looked as good as new, though Iffy guessed that they had to be at least a hundred years old—only a handful of well-defended labs scattered around the world still had the cleanrooms and nano fabs needed to create marvels like the fractal diamond-and-copper mesh Wales briefly let her hold. Other tools were clearly cobbled together from spare parts and held together with whatever Wales had been able to find. Iffy felt more comfortable with these, since pretty much everything in Halley was built the same way.
“What about them two?” she asked eagerly as Wales carefully repacked the open toolbox.
The square man chuckled. “Let’s save those for another time.” He looked past her for a moment, the lights in the tech on his temple flickering with activity. “The town net says the mayor’s agents have resolved the disturbance by the dock. We should probably get you home.”
“Oh crivens,” Iffy swore. She twisted in her seat to look at the clock over the door and swore again. “I shoulda been back an hour ago!” She scrambled to her feet.
“Hold on a minute,” Wales said, patting the air. “Just a minute, I promise.” He sat back in his seat and beckoned for another cup of tea. “Tell me more about this ship of yours…”
He locked his toolboxes in his room before they left and put a small plastic bear with bright blue eyes on the shelf above them. “To keep an eye on things,” he said, tapping the tech in his temple. Iffy nodded as if remote vision cameras in old children’s toys were an everyday thing for her. She didn’t ask what the red-speckled globe next to the bear was for, but she suspected it would do more than just watch if someone broke in.
A pair of gray military drones were hovering over the harbor as Iffy and Wales walked down to the pier where the Guinevere was docked. “Keeping an eye on the Taroona,” Wales guessed, shielding his eyes with his hand to study them. He sighed. “It’s about all the mayor can do.”
“What about the warehouse?” Iffy asked. “Musta been other stuff in there wasn’t theirs.”
“I’m sure there was,” Wales said dryly. “But the Taroona sails out of Hobart, and the last thing the mayor or the governor in Rothera want to do right now is give their lords and masters back home in Tasmania a reason to poke around in their affairs. No, they’ll be out by morning,” he concluded, speaking to himself as much as to the frowning tween beside him. “Which is yet another reason I need to talk to your uncle.”
“You oughta know he don’t keep his word ‘less it suits him,” Iffy blurted. “Or ‘less he figures you got more haul back of you than he does.”
Wales grinned. “Thanks for the warning. I’ll keep it in mind.”
Ten minutes later Uncle Jack shouted, “No! No affing way! We’re a jelly boat, not the damn ferry! You want to skin up along Rothera, you can wait on it.”
Aunt Naggie gestured frantically at Iffy and Wales from behind her husband’s back, mouthing, “Go! Go!” Wales ignored her, his broad smile seeming genuine as he waited out the decktop tempest.
“I understand it’s not your usual line of work,” he said smoothly when Uncle Jack paused for breath. “And if no is your final answer, well, I’ll respect that and take my business elsewhere. But!” He held up a hand to forestall another explosion. “What if I told you I could more than just pay for my passage?”
Uncle Jack snorted. He had been dozing when Iffy and Wales had reached the Guinevere, and from his bloodshot eyes and the smell of his breath Iffy guessed that she’d find at least one empty bottle in the hold if she went looking for it. “Lemme guess—you can sing. Or no—you can do magic tricks and turn jellyfish into gold.”
“You’re not far wrong,” Wales agreed. “Except it isn’t magic, and you’ll be the one turning jellyfish into gold.” He tapped the silver tech in his temple. “This is a satellite uplink. A fully functional satellite uplink,” he continued before Uncle Jack could interrupt. “Which means I can spot patches of boil with half an hour to spare. Maybe a full hour, if the sky’s clear. And that means—”
Uncle Jack said a word that sent Aunt Naggie’s hands flying to her mouth. “Ain’t no such thing no more,” the Guinevere’s captain sneered. “‘S all ‘crypted—everyone knows that.”
“Indeed it is.” Wales nodded. “Heavily encrypted. There’s probably only a couple of dozen downlinks left with the right codes in them. Lucky for you, this is one of them. And I can prove it,” he went on, sounding for all the world like Big Mrs. Sandhu when someone hesitated over a twist of lemon candy. “Here.”
He closed his eyes. “Your beacon is GUIN 40782, is that right?” He nodded to himself without waiting for an answer. “Your last trip, you were at sea nine days. You spent most of it dredging over the Berkner Rise.”
“You’re trashin’,” Uncle Jack contemptuously. “Everyone ‘round here dredges the Berk. An’ she coulda told you how long we was out,” he added, glaring at Iffy.
“She could have,” Wales agreed, opening his eyes. “But she couldn’t have known what brought up the jellies the Whitstable found. It was a boil twenty kay northeast of you on your last day out. It would have been just over the horizon—if you’d known it was happening, you could have been the one to haul them in.”
Uncle Jack scowled. The Whitstable was tied up on the next pier, its captain overseeing a refit paid for by the full holds she had brought back to Halley a couple of days after the Guinevere had returned. Her crew had been celebrating their good fortune in Halley’s shops and bars around the clock. A load like that would do a lot to get the Guinevere back on an even keel.
“Could still just be coalin’ me,” he grumbled, scratching his cheek through his uncombed beard.
Wales didn’t answer. Instead, he closed his eyes again. A moment later he pointed wordlessly across the harbor. Iffy, Uncle Jack, and Aunt Naggie all turned to look.
“You just stretchin’ your arm?” Uncle Jack asked after a few seconds had passed without anything happening. “‘Cause I got better things to do than watch you make an affin’ fool of yourself. And so do you,” he added darkly, glaring at Iff once again.
Aunt Naggie put her hand on his arm. “Jack—look. Up there.” One of the drones Iffy had seen earlier was headed toward them, the thin high buzz of its rotors growing louder by the second.
“What?” he demanded, shaking her off. “They been goin’ in circles up there all afternoon.” He rounded on Wales. “An’ it feels like you been wastin’ my time almost as long, so how ‘bout you truck yourself back down that gangplank and be about your business?”
Wales didn’t answer. Uncle Jack stepped toward him, and for one wild moment Iffy thought he was going to grab Wales and throw him overboard, but then Aunt Naggie grabbed his arm. “Jack!” The drone was diving straight at them.
Everything seemed to happen at once. The drone plummeted toward them. Aunt Naggie shrieked. Uncle Jack swore and shoved her out of his way as he reached for the gaff hook that hung on the cabin wall next to them. Iffy was about to bolt for the pier when Wales opened his eyes and said, “Stop!”
The drone pulled up short, its rotors whining with effort. “Down,” the square man commanded. Obediently, the drone dropped a meter to hover just above eye level.
“What’re you doin’, you affin’ idiot?” Uncle Jack bellowed, waving his gaff hook at Wales. “They got cameras on that thing! Soon as they see us, they’ll—”
“They can’t see anything,” Wales told him flatly, his eyes fixed on the drone as if he was staring down a surly dog. “As far as they know it’s just a glitch.”
“How are you doing that?” Iffy breathed, unable to help herself. A faint breeze from the drone’s rotors brushed her cheeks. It was barely moving—if she hadn’t known better, she would have thought it was strung up with microwire. “That’s military tech. Ain’t nobody can hack that.”
“This can,” Wales said, tapping the silver square in his temple. He waved his hand as if to brush away a fly. With no more instruction than that, the drone shot away to resume its patrol.
Wales locked eyes with Uncle Jack. “I can get all of it,” he said in a voice that left no room for doubt or disagreement. “Every image, every signal, all of it, encrypted or not. And I need to get to Rothera. The only question is, will that be your good fortune or someone else’s? I’d rather it was yours, but it’s up to you.”
Uncle Jack hefted his gaff hook. “Jack,” Aunt Naggie began.
“Quiet,” he snapped, still scowling. Greed and the ever-present mistrust he felt for everything the world put in front of him warred briefly on his face. “We keep whatever we haul,” he finally said. “And you keep to your cabin ‘less I say otherwise.”
“Fair enough,” Wales agreed. He stuck out his hand.
Iffy held her breath. Uncle Jack chewed the inside of his cheek a moment longer, then grabbed it and gave it a single shake. “I’m guessin’ you’ll want to be off right away,” he said sourly.
Wales smiled. “Just as soon as I collect my belongings.”
His face suddenly fell. “What?” Uncle Jack demanded. Wales raised a hand for silence, his eyes half-closed.
“Don’t you shush me on my ship,” Uncle Jack blustered. “Not ‘less you want to—”
“Someone’s trying to break into my room.” Wales’ good humor had vanished. “Warm up your engine and get ready to cast off. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“We’ll cast off when I say!” Uncle Jack said angrily. “An’ when we do, it’ll be the three of us! You can go hang!”
Iffy’s heart sank. She desperately wanted some time with Wales. She could learn so much, even if he didn’t take her as an apprentice. She glanced at Aunt Naggie and saw the same disappointment mirrored on her lined face. If only the square ‘Merican hadn’t told Uncle Jack what to do—that never went well.
But her uncle’s bluster had no more effect on Wales than a windstorm would on a mountain. “It’s certainly a possibility,” he said crisply. “Here.” He pulled a money out of his jacket and thrust it at Uncle Jack. “I’ll give you that now, and the same again when we reach Rothera.”
Uncle Jack turned the flat black plastic rectangle over in his hands suspiciously. “What’s it worth?”
“Six thousand rand,” Wales said.
“Six—thousand?” Uncle Jack pressed his thumb on the corner of the money. His eyes widened at the blinking figures it displayed. He looked up at Wales. “You must wanna get out of here pretty badly,” he said shrewdly.
Wales shrugged. “It’s no use to me if I can’t spend it.”
Uncle Jack hesitated a moment, then pocketed the money and grunted something unintelligible. “Thank you,” Wales said. “I’ll be quick.” He turned to go, then stopped himself. “Just so you know, this is still switched on.” He tapped the tech in his temple. “So if anyone were to call the police, I’d know.”
Uncle Jack spat over the railing. “Ain’t nobody here would call the police,” he growled, the look on his face putting the lie to his words.
Wales nodded and hurried down the gangplank. The trio left on the Guinevere watched him jog away on the pier. “That one’s trouble,” Uncle Jack said flatly, glancing at the money one more time before tucking it inside his coat. He leaned over the railing, cleared his throat, and spat once more into the water below. “Get movin’, both of you. I want us out o’ here an’ away from whatever trouble’s chasin’ his stern five minutes ago.”
It normally took a full day to get the Guinevere ready to sail, but even so, Uncle Jack roared at Iffy and Aunt Naggie almost constantly to hurry up and move their sorry tails and no, don’t worry about tyin’ it down, they could do that once they were at sea, just put it somewhere for now and get the affin’ engine goin’!
Ten minutes of careful work that couldn’t be rushed and the reciprocating rod was back in its place. Five more minutes and the engine was chugging away, biofuel gurgling in the overhead feed pipe that Iffy hadn’t quite knocked back into line. Normally she would have checked the winch motor next to make sure they could haul in whatever they caught, but there wasn’t time, she had to put some straps around the fine mesh nets they used to dredge for jellyfish because if they shifted in high seas the ship would turn over for sure. And the fuel hose—it was still connected to the pump on the pier! If they had tried to sail away without undoing it, it would have snapped like an overstretched piece of string. She had seen that happen once. It had sounded like a gunshot, and one end had slapped an unlucky sailor across the face, tearing open his cheek.
She scrambled up the ladder that led from the engine room to the deck. “Ready here,” she called, panting.
Aunt Naggie coiled the last of the staylines and shoved it into a canvas bag, then shoved the bag into a bench that doubled as a storage locker and dogged it closed. “That’s all for me too.” She thumped the cabin wall with her fist. “Good when you are, Jack,” she shouted, businesslike the way she always was when something needed to be done.
The cabin door flew open. Uncle Jack stepped out onto deck, his phone in his ear. “That’s what I said,” he told the empty air, glaring at his wife and niece on principle. “Twelve thousand rand. I’ll have it in…two weeks. No, never you mind how, but that’ll more than put us square. Right. Aright. Vi da.” He tapped his phone with his finger and smiled, or at least bared his teeth.
“Who was that?” Aunt Naggie asked cautiously.
Uncle Jack’s smile vanished. “Never you mind,” he said brusquely. “Everythin’ stowed in the kitchen?”
“Everything that’s goin’ to be,” Aunt Naggie said. “But Jack—”
“I said, never mind!” He slapped the railing with both hands. “Now where’s that friend of yours, girl?”
Five minutes crawled by, each one tenser than the last, before Wales appeared at the end of the pier. He had one toolbox in each hand, and had the third slung over his shoulder awkwardly on a strap. Without waiting for an order, Iffy scurried down the gangplank and ran to him.
“Thank you,” he said gratefully as she took one of the boxes from him. “I keep telling myself I should rig something up to carry them, but I never seem to get around to it.”
“No worries,” Iffy said. Then she gasped. “You’re bleeding!”
“Am I?” Wales set down his boxes, pulled a scrap of rag out of his pocket, and wiped at his nose. “So I am. Huh.” He put the rag back in his pocket and picked up his toolboxes.
“But what happened?” Iffy asked as she hurried to keep up with him. “Was someone really tryin’ to break into your room? Did you get punched or somethin’?”
“Oh, that was already taken care of by the time I got there,” Wales said vaguely. “Is the ship ready to go? And how long will it be until dinner? I’m starving.”
Uncle Jack didn’t wait for their passenger to stow his belongings before hauling in the gangplank and casting off. The engine rumbled and sputtered a bit, then settled into the steady thumping that was as familiar to Iffy as her own breathing. As they rounded the broken-backed carrier that formed Halley’s seawall, the swell beneath them grew stronger.
Uncle Jack took the first watch—he wouldn’t entrust the Guinevere to anyone else this close to shore. Aunt Naggie said she would take the second, then shooed Iffy off to get some sleep. “You can talk to him in the mornin’,” she said firmly. “Let him have his rest now, an’ you get yours.” Then she smiled the warm, sad smile that only came out when she and her lost sister’s child were alone. “You’ll wanna have plenty o’ rest behind you when we get there so you can go chasin’ after that boy o’ yours.”
“I ain’t got no boy!” Iffy protested automatically. Her aunt tousled her hair and left.
Iffy stretched out on her narrow bunk and paged through her nature book. The orca, the tiger, the giraffe… She ran her fingers over the flat, still pictures, stubbornly trying to keep her eyelids from drooping until she couldn’t remember why they shouldn’t.
She was on deck. The sky was a perfect blue, and her mother and father were stuffing her into her ecosuit. “Just in case, love,” her mother said, forcing a smile.
But when the ship’s horn blared it wasn’t a horn at all but the sound of a drill press. She was in Mister Mishra’s, fumbling clumsily to reassemble a mound of chips and gears and actuators that she had never seen before. Her heart raced as she tried frantically to piece them together. This rod into that socket—no, that couldn’t be right, it turned the wrong way and didn’t leave enough space for the lens, because the lens had to go there, it had to, she didn’t know how she knew but she did and time was running out.
The whole room heeled hard, throwing her off balance. “She’s going to blow!” Mister Mishra shouted, and then all Iffy could hear was a rushing sound that seemed to come from all around her.
She woke drenched in sweat and rolled over, hugging her pillow to her chest and burying her face in it to muffle her sobs. It took her a long time to fall asleep again.
It was six days to Rothera. Waves a meter high made the Guinevere rock from side to side in a gentle, surging rhythm that she knew as well as she knew her own heartbeat. After motoring for a couple of hours, Uncle Jack had ordered the sails run up. By the time Iffy woke up Halley was just a smudge on the horizon. The wind across the Weddell Sea was strong and steady, and if it hadn’t been for their passenger, Iffy and her aunt and uncle might actually have enjoyed a rare moment of peace together—or if not peace, then at least truce.
But we do have a passenger, Iffy thought angrily, And if Uncle Jack didn’t want one, he should have said no. Wales had stowed his toolboxes and his single small satchel of clothes in a hastily-cleared storage room, then taken a seat on a thwart near the stern. As Iffy crammed the odds and ends that had been in the locker into whatever other space she could find, Aunt Naggie brewed tea and Uncle Jack grew slowly more agitated. Every time she walked past the main cabin she could hear him muttering, already regretting the bargain he had made.
“Just stay out of his way for a bit,” Aunt Naggie advised worriedly when Iffy clambered down into the galley to get the tea. “He ain’t used to havin’ other folk on board. He’ll settle in.” The way she said it made it sound more like a prayer than a prediction, but Iffy nodded and climbed back on deck with two chipped ceramic mugs of tea tucked into her coat.
“‘Bout affin’ time,” her uncle said sharply when she knocked on the cabin door and handed his to him. He slurped a mouthful and set it in the ring holder next to the ship’s wheel.
Iffy glanced at the control panel. Small cameras dotted about the ship showed the engine, the hold, and the sails. Small graphs scattered among the images told her at a glance how much fuel they had, how much tension their was in the forestays and mainstays, and what the wind and the currents around them were doing. The most important display, though, was the sonar. Every captain kept a close eye on that—at least, every captain who wanted to make it home. At the first faint sign of gas bubbling up from the ocean floor, they would re-start the engine and run.
Uncle Jack tapped one of the squares on the panel. “I want that backstay cable mended today,” he ordered.
“Yessir,” Iffy said obediently. He’d been drinking, she realized. She could smell it on his breath, and from the way he clutched the wheel to hold himself steady, she guessed he’d been at it for a while.
“An’ see if that baggage o’ yours wants to help,” the Guinevere’s captain called after her as she turned to go. “Or better yet, just tell ‘im I said he was goin’ to. An’ that’s an order!”
Wales seemed lost in thought as Iffy approached him. He was still sitting on the thwart at the stern looking back toward Halley. “Of course,” he said in reply to Iffy’s tentative request for help. He stood and smiled. “Being useful would be good for me right now.”
“You thinkin’ ‘bout them off the Taroona?” Iffy asked, hastily adding, “Not that it’s any o’ my look-in.”
Wales smiled again, but his expression was tinged with sadness. “No. I was thinking about the Landrieu. The big ship back at Halley,” he continued as Iffy gave him a blank look. “She was a marvel in her time. Fractal carbon ribs, a foamed polycomp hull, and her core was no bigger than this.” He held his hands a meter apart. “She was the first super-ship to cross the Pacific under sail, but things were already falling apart by then.” He sighed. “They only made three more like her. Must have broken her captain’s heart to run her aground.”
“I guess,” Iffy said to fill the silence that followed. “Can’t imagine how I’d feel if somethin’ like that happened to the Guinevere.”
Wales shook his head as if to clear it. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” he said, suddenly brisk. “Now, where’s this cable we’re supposed to splice?”
Iffy had hoped that Wales would bring out his toolboxes—she was itching to examine their contents in detail—but he made no move toward the storage room where they were stowed. Instead, he studied the hacked-off ends of the backstay cable. Iffy wanted to tell him that the damage wasn’t her fault, but she bit back her words. There was no way she could tell him that without saying that it had been Uncle Jack, and as much as she wanted to impress him, no self-respecting sailor would point a finger at a crewmate, not in front of an outsider.
“All right,” Wales said after a moment. “What’s the plan: splice, clamp, strap, or weld?”
“I was thinkin’ I could splice it?” Iffy ventured hesitantly. At Wales’ nod, she fished a roll of twisted eight-gauge cable from her bag of odds and ends and dug around to find her wire cutter.
The next half hour flew by as Iffy lost herself in the task at hand. She had expected Wales to take charge, but instead, he took her questions and suggestions and turned them into action. Once they had the first dozen lengths of splice woven into the cable, he sat cross-legged on the deck, hunched over, and pulled the cable’s ends together. Iffy worked as quickly as she could, glancing every few moments at the cords standing out in Wales’ neck. Uncle Jack wouldn’t have been able to hold the cable like that for more than a minute. Even Mr. Mishra would have struggled, but other than his slightly strained breathing, Wales seemed unbothered.
Over, through, under, through… “There,” she said, sitting back on her haunches. “Let off the strain a bit, see if it holds?”
Wales nodded and slowly let his arms relax. The splice stretched slightly, but then caught and held. He looked at her for permission, then dropped the cable on the deck with a whoosh. “Do you think that will hold?” he asked, crossing his arms so that he could massage his own aching shoulders.
Iffy shrugged. “Only one way to find out.” She hit the switch on the winch beside her. The cable zinged as it was wound in, then made a sharp crack! as it came taut.
“Whoa!” Wales exclaimed. “Easy there. What if the splice hadn’t held?”
Iffy shrugged again. “Better t’ find out now than in a storm.” She picked up a wrench and whacked the splice a couple of times as hard as she could.
Wales blinked. “Are you always this, um, direct, when you do repairs?”
Iffy grinned. “Pretty much.”
There were other chores after that. There always were on the Guinevere: a spidery network of shallow cracks on the mast where it had flexed in a high wind, a loose coupling on a bilge pipe, the handle on the main hatch that had to be kicked in and out of its locked position. Like most of the vessels that called Halley home, the ship was more than a hundred years old, built before things fell apart out of materials that could no longer be made, only repaired.
Wales worked beside Iffy the whole time, handing her tools, holding things steady while she screwed them in or used her cherished little laser to put a weld on the weld that held the weld together. He somehow managed to keep up a steady stream of questions without ever making her feel like he was pestering her. She enjoyed every minute of it, just like she enjoyed those precious moments when Mr. Mishra turned something she’d made over and over in his hands and pronounced it well done, or when Uncle Jack was sound asleep and Aunt Naggie told her stories about when she and Iffy’s mother had been little girls in Tasmania before the war.
Wales seemed to enjoy the work as well, right up until the moment he helped Iffy lift the cover off the backup generator near the Guinevere’s stern. His face fell at the smell coming off its compact, oily bulk. “Y’aright?” Iffy asked, fanning away the fumes.
“I’m fine,” Wales said. “I just thought you ran on jelly oil.”
“Sure, for the main engine.” Iffy jerked her chin at the backup. “This is just for when it’s bust, or for haulin’ the winches when there’s ice ‘n’ all.”
The square-faced man studied her face, a forlorn look in his eyes. “But Iffelia—I smell gas. You’re burning petroleum, aren’t you?”
“‘Course we are,” Iffy said defensively. “Jelly’s aright for day to day, but it don’t give the same kick as gas.” Her eyes widened. “You ain’t some kind o’ green, are ya? Not that I’d mind,” she added hastily, “But Uncle Jack—he’d put you over the side and no mistake. He hates Zillions worse’n anything.”
Wales sighed heavily. “No, I’m not Brazilian. And I’m not what you’d call green, either,” he added as Iffy opened her mouth to ask. “That tide went out a long time ago.” He squatted on his haunches and looked at the little diesel engine as if it were a poisonous snake and he wasn’t sure if it was dead or alive. “Come on. Let’s get this done.”
Aunt Naggie made curry for dinner. Wales thanked her, then took his up onto deck to eat. “It’s probably safest for everyone,” he explained gently when she protested. “My stomach isn’t used to the waves yet, and being closed in…” He smiled, thanked her for the dozenth time, and left the Kwans to their meal.
“I don’t like ‘im,” Uncle Jack growled. He had glared at Wales from the moment he entered the galley until the moment he left. Iffy eased herself onto the stool opposite him as he stabbed a piece of tofu with his fork. “Bet there’s more’n just the Taroona’s crew lookin’ for ‘im,” he mused as he chewed. “Hell, I bet there’s someone would double what he’s payin’ us for a chance to put their hands to ‘im.” He stabbed another piece of tofu.
Iffy ate in silence, head down. The safest thing to do when Uncle Jack got a not-quite-honest money-making idea was to wait for it to pass—pointing out the holes in his plan was practically guaranteed to make him follow through, just to prove that no one could tell him. And while she still knew next to nothing about their passenger, she had the feeling that selling him out wouldn’t end well for her uncle, or, more ipmortantly, for the Guinevere.
She and Aunt Naggie cleaned up after they were done eating. “He seems nice,” Aunt Naggie observed as she scraped the last traces of sauce off a plate into the sink. “Handy, too.”
“Mm hm,” Iffy agreed around a last mouthful of noodles. “Knows all about tools ‘n’ tech ‘n’ stuff. Might even be able to do somethin’ with the autopilot if Uncle Jack’ll let ‘im.”
“Oh now, wouldn’t that be nice?” Aunt Naggie sighed wistfully. “No more sittin’ up in the middle of the night.”
“But then when would you knit?” Iffy asked, nudging her aunt with her elbow. Aunt Naggie blushed. Her “knitting” consisted of two balls of yarn, a pair of needles, and an endless series of romance novels featuring wealthy men with smoldering eyes who didn’t realize how empty their rich, idle lives were until they met the right woman, who was inevitably a poor but honest woman and almost always a sailor. The books were churned out by a core in Rothera, and their implausibility, steamy dialogue, and frequent anachronisms only added to the thrill Iffy felt whenever she managed to sneak a look at her aunt’s tablet.
“Never you mind about my knitting,” Aunt Naggie said. “Your uncle wants you on night watch tonight, so you best get a nap an’ I’ll wake you in a few.” She tousled her niece’s hair as Iffy groaned, then kissed the top of her head. “Off with you now.”
Wales was back on the thwart at the stern when Iffy got topside, his empty bowl of curry set on the deck beside him. She hesitated, wanting to talk to him some more but not knowing what to say, then slipped into the converted storage locker that was the only place in the world she could truly call her own. Taken by a sudden restlessness, she spent five furious minutes rearranging her meager possessions before flopping down on her bed and pulling out her mother’s nature book. The giraffe, the tiger, the wolf with her sad, intelligent eyes… She slammed the book closed, tucked it under her pillow, and squeezed her eyes shut. Sleep was a long time coming.
A soft chime from her tablet woke her a couple of hours later. Bleary-eyed, she sat up, stretched, and scraped the sleep from the corners of her eyes. Her windowless cabin was completely dark, but her hands didn’t need light to find her clothes on the floor beside her foam slab. She pulled them on over the onesie she had slept in, slipped her feet into her boots, and went out to face another day on the southern ocean.
Aunt Naggie nodded at her when she reached the main cabin. “Sleep aright?” she asked.
Iffy yawned and plopped herself onto the stool beside her aunt. “Fine. How’s it lookin’?” She studied the control panel for a moment. There was a bit too much tension in the mainsail, and wind drag over the hull was still half again what the manual she had practically memorized said it ought to be, but her practiced eyes didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. She wondered wistfully what it would be like to have tech in her head like Wales did so that she could feel the ship the way she felt the sun on her face or the sting of the spray on her skin in a high sea. She knew it would never happen—tech like that had to be implanted at birth so that the brain could make pathways to use it—but she had once paid two carefully-hoarded rand to use a VR rig at Halley’s midsummer carnival, and she had dreamed of being the Guinevere ever since.
Aunt Naggie nudged her. “Wake up, sleepy head,” she chided gently. Iffy started and straightened. Her aunt jerked her chin at the thermos in the ring holder next to the ship’s wheel. “Fresh made. Well, fresh-ish,” she amended. “But it oughta keep you through your watch.”
“Thanks auntie.” Iffy glanced at the panel again as she stood up and did a double take as one of the cameras switched views to show Wales sitting on the thwart at the stern. “He been there this whole time?”
“Hasn’t budged ‘cept to visit the necess’ry,” Aunt Naggie confirmed. “Turned on the sound a while back to ask if he wanted to come in and sit, but he was talkin’ to himself, an’ I figured…” She shrugged. The only other person on board who talked to themself was her husband, and it was best not to interrupt him when he did.
Iffy patted her aunt’s shoulder. “I’ll take over,” she said, reaching past her to press her thumb against the dark glass square beside the control panel. After a moment’s hesitation it bleeped and blinked green to confirm that the transfer of control had been entered into the ship’s log. Iffy had scrolled through the log once A hundred and twenty years since it had last been wiped clean (probably, she suspected, because the holds had been full of contraband instead of jellyfish). Six watches on an average day at sea, and only a few weeks a year tied up or idle: it meant more than two hundred thousand handovers, each recorded by a thumb press and a little bleep.
As her aunt left, Iffy gave the control panel a protective pat. “I got you,” she whispered.
She watched through the cameras as Aunt Naggie trudged back to the cabin she shared with her husband of twenty years and then set a timer. The endless light of the Antarctic summer cut sharp reflections into the waves around her while she waited. She toyed with the idea of playing a sim on the ship’s core—a storm, maybe, or an old-time drill that would send her dodging and weaving through a flock of enemy drones—but instead she sighed and pulled up some homework. Her formal schooling had ended when she was ten and money for boarding at the school in Halley ran out. Since then her teachers had been tutoring programs that she and Aunt Naggie had scrounged, bought, or traded for with occasional input from Mr. Mishra and the sympathetic but nearly-broke head of Halley’s school. She raced through the math, science, and engineering, tolerated the language lessons, and avoided everything to do with business until Aunt Naggie put her foot down.
Bing! She tapped the control panel to cancel the timer and took a deep breath before pressing a softly-glowing square next to it. “Hey,” she said, suddenly awkward. “Don’t mean to innerupt, but I got some questions ‘bout some tech stuff. If you got time,” she added hastily, wishing as she spoke that she had run a sim instead.
The tiny image of Wales turned its head. “You’re not interrupting at all,” he said, speaking directly to the pin-sized camera and microphone set into the railing beside him. “And I’m always happy to talk about tech stuff.”
A few moments later he knocked on the doorframe. “Permission to come aboard?” he asked, waiting for Iffy to gesture at the stool next to the ship’s wheel before seating himself. He looked around the pilot house appreciatively. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“She’s aright,” Iffy allowed proudly. “Hull still mends itself if we give it time, an’ the ‘lectronics are pretty much all good. ‘Cept a couple o’ cameras,” she added quickly. “An’ one o’ the winch motors ain’t from back when. We let it get too cold, it just stops talkin’ to us.”
Wales nodded. “Probably using silicon for its core instead of diamond. Have you ever tried putting a twist coil inside the housing to keep the temperature up?” And as easily as that, they slid into a conversation that leaped from laser guides and the relative merits of fractal carbon and foamed aluminum for ships’ hulls to tricks for keeping a drill press lined up and steady when the building it was in was shaking. Iffy was just about to ask what would have made a whole building do that and why someone would worry about drilling when it was happening when he raised a hand to stop her.
“Hang on.” He closed his eyes to commune with the satellite passing above them. They snapped open a moment later.
“We need to change course,” he said urgently, surging to his feet. “We need to change course now.”
“What’s wrong?” Iffy asked, but Wales was already through the door. His boots thumped on the deck as he ran sternward and pounded on the door of Uncle Jack and Aunt Naggie’s cabin.
“Captain! Captain, please, I need to speak with you!” He waited a second, then pounded on the door again.
“Uh oh,” Iffy muttered, watching on the control panel as the door flew open and an angry Uncle Jack bellowed, “You better tell me we’re sinkin’, or I’m puttin’ you over the side! I was asleep!”
“We’ll be worse than sinking if we don’t change course,” Wales said. He tapped the tech in his temple. “The satellites just told me that a ship has dropped out of stealth about sixty kay northwest of us. She’s still throwing up a lot of dazzle, but she’s moving fast, and she’s definitely not here for the jellyfish.”
Uncle Jack goggled at him. “Pirates?” he spluttered.
“I hope so,” Wales said grimly. “Because if she’s not, then she’s a warship, and that means…” He shook his head as if to clear it. “We need to change course, captain. If we head straight into the peninsula, I can try to keep us out from under any drones she sends up.”
Uncle Jack scowled, and for a moment Iffy thought he was going to say no on principle. Instead, he bellowed, “Naggie! Up and movin’, woman! We got trouble!”
Iffy had simmed dozens of chases at sea. Sometimes she was the captain of a customs cutter trying to catch a smuggler. Other times she was in command of a Zillion catamaran flying across the water under core-trimmed sails with a hold full of tweaked food and subversive software. Some of the sims had run for hours as she played cat and mouse among the jagged islands and reefs of the peninsula. She had won more than she had lost, but that was little comfort now that the game was real.
Wales winced but said nothing as Uncle Jack fired up the gas engine. The Guinevere picked up speed as her propellors churned the sea behind them into a white froth. His hands danced across the control panel, tilting the sails to balance the increased thrust at the stern and driving the bilge pumps into high gear. The ship swayed more wildly with each passing minute as she traded stability for speed.
“Eighteen degrees west, bearing one sixty five, at fifty-six kay and change,” Wales reported.
“How fast?” Uncle Jack growled. “Tell me how affin’ fast, man.”
“Twenty kay an hour.” Wales hesitated. “Make that twenty-two. She’s military for sure.”
Uncle Jack horked and spat into the garbage pail by his feet. “Don’t mean she ain’t a pirate. Naggie! Where’s my affin’ tea?”
Iffy stepped out of the doorway long enough to let her aunt squeeze past her to hand one thermos to her husband and a second to Wales. She put her arm around Iffy, but the frightened expression on her face cancelled out whatever reassurance she meant to give. Jelly fishers didn’t have much worth stealing besides their ships. Those ships were worth a lot, though—enough for their captains to make a habit of sailing close by each other whenever strangers were nearby. And while Iffy hadn’t paid much attention to the politics of it all, she knew that the three-way tension between the Euros, the Zillions, and the government in Tasmania had been getting worse.
“Iffelia.” Wales fished a thumb-sized piece of plastic out of his pocket and handed it to her. “In my cabin, the toolbox with the purple square on the end. Can you get it for me, please? Swipe this over the handle before you open the door.”
The cold spray thrown up by their speed stung her face as she ran toward the stern. She paused for a breath outside Wales’ cabin and then brushed the piece of plastic across the door. She hesitated a moment, waiting for a click or some other indication that something had happened, but nothing came.
The three toolboxes lay side by side beneath Wales’ cot. She pulled out the one she needed, turned around, and almost screamed at the sight of a black spider the size of her hand in the doorway.
No, not a spider: a bot. She heaved a shaky breath as it scuttled across the floor, a tiny red light blinking in its midsection with every step. Mrs. and Mrs. Sandhu had a sentry bot too, though theirs was bigger and slower and missing one leg. Iffy tucked the piece of plastic Wales had given her into her pocket. She’d ask him for a close-up look later—if they had a “later”.
“Thank you,” Wales said a few moments later when she handed him the toolbox.
“How’re we doin’?” she asked breathlessly.
Wales shrugged. “She hasn’t changed course since we spotted her. Either she doesn’t know we’re here or she doesn’t care.”
“Or she’s jus’ waitin’ ‘til we’re in closer to land,” Uncle Jack growled. “That dazzle she’s got up’ll cover the both of us if she gets us close in by th’ rocks.” He swiped two fingers across the control panel in a futile, angry attempt to coax a little more speed out of the Guinevere’s rumbling engines.
Wales hefted his toolbox. “I might be able to do something about that. Excuse me.” He squeezed past Iffy and Aunt Naggie.
“You best lend him a hand,” Aunt Naggie told Iffy in a low voice, glancing meaningfully at her husband. “I’m going to make some more tea,” she continued at a normal volume. “And put some food together. No sense bein’ boarded on an empty stomach.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna board us,” Uncle Jack snapped automatically without taking his eyes off the control panel. Aunt Naggie shooed Iffy out of the pilot house without replying.
Wales was on one knee on the deck just outside the door. His open toolbox revealed a collection of carefully-packed odds and ends that would have made Iffy’s mouth water under normal circumstances. He didn’t look up as she squatted next to him.
The half-assembled drone in his hands was the same size as the sentry bot in his room but skinned with some kind of camo that changed color to match his hands and coat and the deck every time he turned it over. With a practiced twist, Wales removed an arm no thicker than a straw and placed it carefully back in the toolbox. “To cut the weight,” he explained to Iffy as though resuming an earlier conversation. “That’ll give it more range.”
He removed the other tiny arm and stowed it beside its twin, then set the drone down beside him. “Probably best if you don’t tell your uncle about this part,” he said quietly as he used the nail of his left thumb to peel the false skin back from the pad of his right forefinger, revealing a small patch of silver to match the larger one set in his temple.
Iffy gasped. “Are you a trans?”
Wales looked at her with a sad half-smile on his face, and for a moment Iffy wondered just how old he really was. “You know, that used to mean something very different than it does now,” he said ruefully. “But no, I’m not transhuman. I just don’t like advertising how much technology I have in me. It’s hard enough having people try to take my head off—if I had to worry about whether I was going to wake up with as many fingers as I had when I went to sleep, I’d never close my eyes.”
He turned his gaze back to his toolbox, sighed, and pressed his silver fingertip against the side of the toolbox. “Sixteen… orange… kneecap,” he said quietly.
Iffy held her breath, half-expecting the toolbox to transform itself into—well, she didn’t know what, but something. Instead, a tiny blue light blinked twice in the handle.
Wales let out a breath that Iffy didn’t realize he’d been holding and lifted the inside out of the toolbox to reveal a hidden compartment in the bottom. Four pieces of tech that Iffy didn’t recognize nestled there in stiff foam with half a dozen small cylinders scattered among them. Each cylinder was the size and shape of the last join on Iffy’s little finger. Four empty holes showed where others had once been. Using a pair of tweezers spun out of microfine glass fiber, Wales carefully plucked one of the cylinders from its resting place and inserted it into a hole in the base of the drone.
“‘Zat th’ batt’ry?” Iff guessed.
Wales shook his head, a sadness on his face that Iffy didn’t understand. “No, it’s battery is built in. This is—this is just in case.” He set the inside of the toolbox back in place to hide the secret compartment and tossed the drone into the air.
It rose, started to fall, and then—Iffy blinked. She couldn’t see any rotors or hear any buzzing or whining. The drone just floated, shimmering slightly as if it was a hologram instead of a physical object.
“It’s covered in ionizing impellers,” Wales explained without waiting for Iffy to ask. “They work better in thin atmospheres than rotors.” A wry grin tugged at one corner of his mouth. “I expect it’s the last of its kind, too.”
A hundred questions crowded together in Iffy’s head. Before she could ask any of them, he jerked his chin toward the horizon and said, “Go.” With no more command than that, the drone shot away, vanishing almost instantly as its camo matched the blue, gray, and white of the sky, sea, and waves.
Wales locked his toolbox and shoved it against the wall of the pilot house. “Shall we watch from inside?” he asked, gesturing for Iffy to go ahead of him as if he were a character in one of Aunt Naggie’s novels inviting her onto the dance floor.
Uncle Jack was chewing on the end of his beard as they entered. “Well?” he demanded.
Instead of answering, Wales pressed his palm against the nearest corner of the control panel. The images from the ship’s cameras wavered and blinked out, to be replaced by a single large picture. It took Iffy a moment to recognize the ocean seen from on high through a fisheye lens. The irregular lines running diagonally across it were wave crests, and the spec near the bottom was the Guinevere. There was a whole lot of nothing around them, she realized with a chill.
“Have you sent a distress call?” Wales asked quietly.
Uncle Jack nodded, his face grim. “Nearest shout I got back is a hunnerd kay east, but they’re smaller’n we are. Halley wasn’t much innerested ‘til I tol’ ‘em our friends looked milit’ry. Now they’re sayin’ they’ll get a spotter up soon as they can, which prob’ly means just in time t’ watch us bein’ towed away.”
“Send the drone’s feed directly to Halley,” Wales ordered crisply. “Tell them it’s to go straight to Captain Stirling, blue clearance. That should wake them up.”
Uncle Jack spat out the mouthful of beard he had been chewing on. “You’re an affing knacker!?” he said, asking and accusing in the same breath.
“No.” Wales shook his head without taking his eyes off the display. “But I’ve done business with them in the past.” His tone changed. “Here we go.”
The view on the control panel shifted as the drone tilted its camera forward and narrowed its focus to zoom in on a dark blur that squatted on the horizon like a cockroach on a dirty floor. Its outline remained blurry even as it grew larger. That was the dazzle, Iffy guessed—thousands of micro-thin strips of camo absorbing and re-emitting light, infrared, radar, and everything else that might give reveal the ship’s actual position and profile. Even blurred, she was a frightening sight. Where the Guinevere stood up in the water, proud of being a working ship, the intruder was built low and lean, the narrow V of her wake betraying the power of her engines.
“How fast is that thing o’ yours movin’?” Uncle Jack asked as the ship grew larger on the screen.
“Mach three and change,” Wales replied. “Which will be worth exactly nothing if they spot it. Hang on.”
The image tilted and swooped. Iffy’s stomach lurched in sympathy as the drone dove toward the sea below, straightening out at the last moment to skim the tops of the waves. A trio of graphs suddenly appeared at the top of the feed. Wales muttered a curse under his breath. “They’ve got some kind multipath radar rig.”
“Is that bad?” Iffy asked anxiously.
“It means they know something’s out there, but they don’t have a lock on it. I hope,” Wales amended fervently. “But look—there she is.”
“Oh, she’s tech,” Aunt Naggie breathed reverently from behind them, a tray of tea and sandwiches in her hands. Iffy could only nod. The outline of the ship had suddenly sharpened as the drone finally came close enough for its image reconstruction software to see through its quarry’s dazzle.
“She’s murder is what she is,” Uncle Jack growled. The stubby tubes of railguns bristled from domes at her bow and stern. The larger tube amidships had to be some sort of cryo cannon, Iffy guessed—at least, that’s what it would be if this was a sim or a movie. But the most frightening thing was what wasn’t there: no flag, no call numbers, nothing to give her any sort of identity except for the slogan “Este mundo é de deus” on her side.
“Zillions…” Iffy whispered. Everyone knew those four words—knew them and feared them. The Green Zillions had fought beside Australia and the Euros and the rest of humanity in the machine wars, but once the bots were defeated, they had turned on their allies. “Este mundo é de deus!” they screamed in books and movies and sims. “This world is God’s!” The earth’s self-appointed defenders would sacrifice everything to undo the damage humanity had done to the planet, even their own species. When a shaft in a coal mine collapsed or a ship with a gas engine went down, people blamed Zillion fanatics intent on driving humanity back into the stone age.
Without warning the display went blank. “What the—” Uncle Jack swore, even as the shimmering white broke into snow and the image re-formed.
“Laser burst,” Wales said curtly. “The drone’s core is shielded, but another hit like that will fry the ionizers. I’m pulling it back.” Even as he spoke, the ship dwindled into the distance.
“Idjit!” Uncle Jack slapped the controls in frustration. “You’ll lead ‘em right to us!”
Wales shook his head. A second image blossomed on the control panel aswirl with false-colored oranges and pinks. In the moment it took Iffy to recognize the outline of the coastline in front of them, a pair of circled dots blinked into life.
“What th’ hell’s that?” Uncle Jack demanded.
Wales pointed at a splotch of pink that lay between the two dots. “There’s a ridge running along there about two hundred meters down. Seismology detected a mudslide this morning, and there’s been bubbling since.” He glanced at the Guinevere’s captain. “It’s a sea boil waiting to happen,” he translated. “It’s not big enough to sink her, but it should be enough to slow her down.”
Iffy’s heart skipped a beat. For a moment she was back in the ecosuit, back in the water, back in her nightmare. Then she swallowed drily and shrugged off the hand that Aunt Naggie had put on her shoulder. “I’m a’right,” she lied.
“Waitin’ to happen don’t help us,” Uncle Jack spat. “‘Less you got some magic to speed that along.”
“Leave that to me,” Wales said, quiet and sad. Thin white lines appeared and disappeared on the display as he and the Guinevere’s core ran sims to explore a thousand possible futures. After a couple of seconds, their criss-cross confusion locked into place. “There,” Wales declared. “That’s our best chance. I’ll update it as we get more data from the drone.”
“Never thought I’d be steerin’ into a boil,” he grumbled even as he bent the Guinevere’s path to port. He grabbed a sandwich from the tray and gobbled half in a single hasty bite, chasing it down with a gulp of tea and a belch. Wales took a second ceramic mug and sipped its contents.
Aunt Naggie reached over Iffy to take the third and handed it to her niece. “I’ll be down in the galley,” she announced, turning to go.
“We got plenty o’ food, woman.” Uncle Jack gulped another mouthful of tea.
“Yes, well, um,” Aunt Naggie stammered. “Don’t want to be in th’ way.” She scooped up the tray she had brought and hurried out.
Uncle Jack eyed Iffy, clearly expecting her to follow her aunt, but said nothing when she straightened up and stood her ground.
Beside her, Wales grunted. “She’s turning faster than I expected. I’ll update the model.” The white lines on the screen danced and twisted again, settling quickly back into a pattern indistinguishable to Iffy’s eyes from the original.
Wales grunted again. “Nine minutes to optimal position. Assuming they’re not skewing the satellite signal just to lure us in.”
“Coulda mentioned that earlier,” Uncle Jack muttered, more out of reflex than conviction.
Soft green digits in the corner of the control panel counted down the seconds and minutes. The tension in the pilot house stretched until Iffy thought it would snap like a rubber band. Uncle Jack’s knuckles were white on the wheel, and try as she might, she couldn’t quite seem to catch her breath. Even Wales seemed to feel it. He flew the drone in a back-and-forth sweep as if searching for something, never too far in front of the Zillion warship but never letting it close in enough to try another shot with its laser.
Eight minutes. Seven. Six. Wales suddenly twisted to look over his shoulder through the open door behind him.
“What?” Uncle Jacked snapped.
The ‘Merican hesitated, then shook his head. “Nothing. Just felt like someone had stepped on my grave.”
Five minutes. Four. Three. Two. One. “Show time,” Wales said quietly. He bowed his head as if in prayer. The image on the screen steadied as the drone slowed to a halt. The Zillion ship drew closer, gray and single-purposed like the shark in Iffy’s nature book.
The map of the sea around the Guinevere tilted to show depth. The ridge on the sea floor lay directly beneath the drone, orange splashed with warning pink. “Thirty seconds,” Wales said. Before Iffy could ask, “Until what?” the drone dove straight down into the water.
The image from its cameras dimmed and went black as the drone left the light behind. Two white sparks appeared on the map next to the Zillion ship and sped toward the blue dot that marked the drone’s position. “Ta ma dé,” Wales swore.
His drone plummeted toward the sea floor as the Zillion hunter-killers closed in. “C’mon c’mon c’mon,” Iffy pleaded without realizing she was saying it out loud.
The drone’s dot blinked out. A balloon of red light expanded where it had been. The Zillion sparks tried to curve away, but there wasn’t time. First one then the other disappeared as their trajectories intersected the expanding red blob.
And then the blob touched the sea floor. The pink blotch beneath it writhed like a speared fish, darkening and spreading as if it was being dragged along. Graphs flashed onto the screen, probability surfaces dancing in three dimensions as the Guinevere’s core tried to predict what would happen next.
“Uh oh,” Wales said softly. On the screen, a section of the sea ridge had come loose and was slipping slowly into the depths. Blue lightning flashed along the edges of the mudslide, bright lines connecting and spreading in a sudden spiderweb fracture.
“Come about,” Wales snapped at Uncle Jack. “Now!”
Iffy’s uncle didn’t wait to be told twice. “I knew this was affin’ stupid,” he snarled as he spun the wheel. The Guinevere heeled hard to port. Iffy grabbed the door frame to keep her feet. “What happened?” she asked.
“Fault line in the ridge,” Wales said angrily. “The satellite couldn’t see it, and the last bot to go through must have—”
“You takin’ data from bots?” Uncle Jacked demanded. “Affin’ hell, man, soon as we’re out o’ this, you’re straight over the affin’ side!”
Wales didn’t answer. Instead, he closed his eyes and pressed a hand onto the control panel. The map and graphs vanished, replaced by a grainy image that quickly zoomed in to show the now-familiar outline of the Zillion ship. “I’m sorry,” he whispered as the sea around her started to bubble. “I’m so sorry.” He buried his face in his hands.
Iffy couldn’t look away. She thought she was going to throw up, but she couldn’t tear her eyes off the image. The mudslide started by the bomb the drone had been carrying had broken up a field of barely-frozen clathrates, releasing enormous bubbles of methane. As they rose to the surface they churned the sea into a froth too fine to bear the weight of a ship.
Too late, her captain realized the danger that had appeared beneath her. The ship turned sharply, trying to steer for safety, and then she wallowed, her engines churning as the water beneath her turned to froth. That quickly, she was gone.
“Saints and their mercies.” Uncle Jack leaned to the side and spat through the window beside him.
Iffy realized she was crying. “Why?” She dragged her sleeve across her face. “Why’d you have to drown ‘em?”
“I didn’t mean to,” Wales said, the weary self-hatred in his voice saying as clearly as words that he knew how little that mattered. “The sim said it would just bubble enough to make them turn around.”
“Taff your sims!” Iffy shouted. “Taff your affin’ sims! They’re dead!” She turned and stumbled out of the pilot house.
Her feet took her to the galley on auto-pilot. She yanked back the hatch and almost fell through. “Iffy, sweetie, what’s wrong?” Aunt Naggie hastily snapped the lid back on the spice jar she was holding and wrapped her meaty arms around her niece.
“They’re dead,” Iffy cried. “They’re all drowned dead!”
“Oh, sweetie.” Her aunt hugged her tight, rocking her from side to side. “Oh, sweetie…” For a moment Iffy thought she heard another voice, but then there were just her tears.
The spotter reached them half an hour later. Iffy heard the low buzz of its propellor long before she could see its gossamer wings. She had left Aunt Naggie in the galley and taken a seat on the thwart at the Guinevere’s stern, gray thoughts chasing each other aimlessly in her head. She had half-hoped that Wales would join her, that he’d tell her he’d had no choice, that it had been them or the Zillion ship. Instead, he had disappeared into his cabin instead, ignoring Uncle Jack’s angry questions about what the hell a civilian was doing with a milligram bomb in his affin’ luggage.
Iffy stood and stretched, then shaded her eyes. Why was the spotter approaching from the west? Halley lay east of them. Unless— “Uncle Jack!” she shouted, turning and running toward the pilot house. “Uncle Jack, it’s the Zillions! They found us again!”
“Hang on a sec,” her uncle said a face on to the control panel as she charged into the pilot house. “What?”
“Uncle Jack,” she panted. “There’s a Zillion spotter comin’ in on us fast!”
“That ain’t the Zillions,” her uncle said scornfully. “That’s one of ours come up outta Rothera.” He jerked his thumb at the face on the screen. “Lady here says they been lookin’ for us. Or more to say, they been lookin’ for our passenger. Seems he’s quite a popular fellow.”
Iffy goggled at her uncle, then looked at the screen. An old woman smiled back. Her brown face lined with a century of wrinkles, and what was left of her hair was pulled back tight on her scalp. “Hello,” she said. “You must be Miz Kwan. I’m Doctor Johel, and I’m looking forward to meeting you.”
They sailed into Rothera two days later with the gossamer-winged spotter still tracing lazy circles overhead. A pair of low-slung launches had intercepted them a few hours after the Zillion ship went down, but neither had come closer than a hundred meters, and Iffy didn’t know if they had human crews or were being steered by bots.
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” Wales said as they rounded the rocky headland that sheltered ‘Nardica’s second-biggest city from the worst of the winter storms.
Iffy bridled. “It ain’t that bad.”
Wales chuckled. “It’s a quote from an old movie. A really old one. And no, it isn’t that bad. Or at least, it didn’t used to be.” His wry smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared. He hadn’t spoken much since the sinking except to give Uncle Jack updates on the state of the sea floor and apologize quietly to Iffy. “I’m so, so sorry,” he told her quietly the evening after it happened.
“No worries,” Iffy mumbled awkwardly. “Uncle Jack says it woulda been us for drowned if you han’t.”
He had busied himself doing repairs after that, and Iffy had been drawn in despite herself. They traced and welded micro-fractures in the main hold’s bulkheads, cleaned decades-old glitches out of the software that regulated the Guinevere’s propellors, and recalibrated the tension monitors in the mainsail cables. Under other circumstances, Iffy would have enjoyed herself more than she had in years.
The free repairs should have made Uncle Jack happy, or at least less unhappy. Instead, every fix seemed to make him resent their passenger more. “Never shoulda let ‘im set foot on board!” he raged at Iffy and Aunt Naggie as though the decision had been theirs. “You mark me, there’ll be nothin’ but trouble for us in Rothera.”
Thin trails of smoke drew diagonal charcoal lines across the sky above the city as the Guinevere approached. Iffy glanced sidelong at Wales, but he showed no emotion at the evidence of carbon being thrown into the atmosphere. The coal mines were the original source of Rothera’s wealth, and the reason for both the governor and the navy being headquartered there and the Zillions’ prowling and raids. It was a crime to burn fossil fuel in most parts of the world, but when pressed, Rothera’s citizens would shrug and say, “Damage done,” or point out that the whole of ‘Nardica would still be covered in ice if it weren’t for the warming. And if cities elsewhere had drowned and billions had starved or been driven from their homes in the run-up to the machine wars, well, that was done too.
The wind shifted suddenly, and the city’s smell hit them like a wet hammer. Along with its mines, Rothera had a fishing fleet ten times the size of Halley’s. The reek of tonnes of jellyfish being boiled into goo and rendered down for fuel and fertilizer was like a blow to the head. Wales wrinkled his nose in disgust, but Iffy took a deep breath, held it until she thought her lungs might burst, and let it out in a whoosh. Rothera had been her parents’ home port, and its reek always reminded her of them.
The twin launches shadowing them peeled away as they entered the harbor. The spotter banked and turned back out to sea a few moments later, the sun sparkling off the solar cells on its wings. Iffy watched it go, wistfully imagining what it would be like to spend her days in silent solitude, watching everything below with the detachment of an angel or a satellite. She was pretty sure there wouldn’t be much silence or solitude once they docked.
A squad of Marines was waiting for them when they reached their assigned pier. Four of them stood in a half-circle around a tiny figure dressed all in black with an armored bot the size of Halley’s broken-down street sweeper behind them. The other Marines had taken up positions next to creates and pieces of machinery or on the decks of nearby ships. The pier was otherwise deserted. So were the piers on either side, Iffy realized.
“Sharks in the water,” Wales murmured beside her as a dark mechanical shape swam beneath them. “And that G-80 isn’t just for show.” He glanced past Iffy as Aunt Naggie came on deck, her expression saying everyting that she wasn’t, and forced a smile. Aunt Naggie put her arm around Iffy’s shoulders without replying.
The Guinevere slowed, turning parallel to the pier at the last moment. Iffy shrugged off her aunt’s arm and hurried forward to throw a line to a waiting Marine. As he caught it, another Marine leaped across the gap to the Guinevere’s stern. He made no more sound hitting the deck than a seagull, and when he turned to toss the coiled line waiting there to one of his companions, Iffy saw the angular bulge of an exoskeleton beneath his parka.
Uncle Jack strode onto the deck and put his hands on his hips. “Well,” he said after a moment to no one in particular. “Let’s get this over with.” With one final glare at Wales, he lowered the gangplank and marched across to meet their welcoming committee.
Wales stepped aside to let Aunt Naggie follow her husband and then picked up the toolbox with the purple square on the end. “Bring those,” he said to Iffy, nodding at the two remaining toolboxes. “And stay close—as long as we don’t startle anyone, everything will be fine.”
Iffy hesitated. “It’s normal for an apprentice to carry their teacher’s gear,” Wales explained gently. Iffy nodded jerkily, her heart racing, and followed him down the gangplank with one box handing from each arm.
Doctor Johel stepped forward to greet them. “Mister Wales,” she said warmly, extending her hand. “Such a pleasure to see you again.” Her accent was straight out of an old movie, and her eyes sparkled as she and Wales shook hands.
“And you, doctor.” Wales bowed his head slightly before releasing her hand. “My apologies again for the commotion I caused.”
Doctor Johel made a rude noise in her throat. “Long overdue in some people’s opinions,” she said briskly. “The Brazilians have been getting quite daring of late. This will certainly give them pause.”
Wales inclined his head again. “As you say.” He hesitated. “Do you know yet whether the ship had any crew?”
The tiny woman’s expression softened slightly. “I’m afraid not. And even if we did, Intelligence might not share that knowledge.”
“And Miz Kwan,” she continued, turning to Iffy and holding out her hand again. “A pleasure to meet you in person. I’m grateful to you for helping Mister Wales get here in one piece.”
“No worries,” Iffy mumbled, setting down the toolboxes and shaking Doctor Johel’s hand gingerly. She was half a head shorter than Iffy, and her wrinkled brown skin felt like warm plastic. Up close, the sparkle in her eyes was more than just a trick of the light, but Iffy couldn’t tell if she was tweaked or if the tiny gleaming motes were some kind of tech.
“And I’m Jack Ng, thank you for asking,” Uncle Jack broke in, stepping forward and thrusting his hand out. “I’m the captain of the Guinevere, and what I want to know is, who’s payin’ me?”
“I’m sure the governor will take care of that when you see him,” Doctor Johel said, pointedly ignoring his hand.
“When I what? I’m not—will you stop pestering me, woman?” He shrugged Aunt Naggie’s cautioning hand off his shoulder angrily. “I’m not talkin’ to the governor about this! I was hired for a job, plain an’ simple. I just want paid an’ then I’m done with it.”
“That will be for the governor to decide,” Doctor Johel said with sudden steel in her voice. “Luckily, he was able to make time in his schedule for you.” She turned and began to hobble toward shore. As she did so, the armored bot pivoted smoothly on its heavy treads and lowered one of its arms. Someone had turned the “0” of the “G-80” stencilled on its side into a scowling face. The elderly doctor sat on it as if being carried along a pier by a war machine designed for inflicting mayhem was the most natural thing in the world.
Aunt Naggie patted the machine as it went by. “What are you doin’, woman?” Uncle Jack grumbled. “It ain’t an affin’ dog.”
“It might as well be for the way Doctor Johel looks after it,” Wales observed drily. He picked up his toolbox and nudged Iffy with his elbow. “Come along, apprentice. Our day’s not over yet.”
Half a dozen people stood together at the base of the pier under the watchful eyes of another pair of Marines. Iffy recognized a couple of them as crew from the ships tied up on either side of the Guinevere. One nodded to Uncle Jack, who returned the nod with a grunt, but no one said hello.
They followed the G-80 to the harbor gate, where a bus painted the same navy blue as the Marines’ uniforms waited for them. The bot waited patiently as Doctor Johel got to her feet. “After you,” she said, gesturing at the bus’s open door. Wales dipped his head once again and climbed aboard with Iffy, Uncle Jack, and Aunt Naggie behind him.
“Haven’t been in one of these in years,” Wales said, seating himself near the front with his toolbox at his feet.
“Ain’t never been in one,” Iffy confessed as she sait on the other side of the aisle from him. “They must think pretty highly of you to lay on such a fuss.”
Wales laughed humorlessly. “I suspect that what they think highly of is this,” he said, nudging his toolbox with his boot. “And if they thought they could take it away from me without, um, consequences, I’m pretty sure our welcome would have been much less friendly.” He raised an eyebrow at Doctor Johel. The old woman smiled sweetly, but said nothing.
Rothera bustled around them as the bus hummed quietly through its streets and up the long, gentle slope that led to the governor’s mansion. The G-80 stayed a steady five meters in front of them, its twin turrets swivelling from side to side each time they went through an intersection. The Marines jogged along beside them, their exoskeletons turning each stride into a long, low leap. Traffic pulled aside to let them pass, and people turned to watch them go by, but Iffy didn’t see any of the mad scramble that a convoy like theirs would cause in Halley. Her heart skipped a beat once when she thought she saw a face that she was hoping and not hoping to see, but then the boy turned his head and she realized it was someone else. If it hadn’t been that, and for Uncle Jack muttering under his breath and snapping at Aunt Naggie when she tried to shush him, she would have thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
As they drew closer to the governor’s mansion, the three-story cinderblock buildings of the old town gave way to newer, brighter construction. Foamed glass reflected the blue sky back at itself and repeated the anti-aircraft laser turrets that surrounded the mansion to create a forest of gangly triple-strutted forms. Iffy pressed her face against the bus window and stared hungrily at the greenhouses nestled among the turrets’ feet. Apple and oranges and bananas and flowers—flowers!—made a green riot beneath the carefully-insulated panels.
Without warning her stomach rumbled, making her blush. Doctor Johel smiled from the seat behind Wales. “I’m sure lunch will be served,” she promised.
“Thanks,” Iffy mumbled, feeling her uncle’s glare on her back. Suddenly resentful of his disapproval, she asked, “So what kind o’ doctor are you?”
“The medical kind, originally,” the old woman replied, turning in her seat to face Iffy. “But lately I’ve been focusing physics and engineering. There’s still a lot of technology left over from the robot wars that we don’t quite understand, and it’s my department’s job to secure it.” She glanced at Wales. “Or destroy it if that’s not possible.” Wales smiled as if Doctor Johel had paid him a compliment. They rode the rest of the way in silence.
A fractal-patterned fence surrounded the governor’s mansion. Its single gate swung open as they approached. The G-80 pulled to the side to let the bus go through, but the Marines stayed beside them right up to the circular turnaround in front of the mansion’s main entrance. A triangular diamond wedge glistened in the center of the turnaround, familiar to Iffy from dozens of pictures. “In memory” was engraved on each of its faces. In memory of those lost when the ice melted and the sea rose and the great cities of the world that was were drowned. In memory of those who fell fighting the machines in the war that followed. In memory of all the species now extinct, the giraffes and tigers and all the others that now existed only in books and movies. Iffy paused a moment as she came out of the bus to look at it, an unexpected pang in her chest.
“Get along with you,” Uncle Jack growled, nudging her none too gently. With Marines on either side of them, they followed Doctor Johel through the mansion’s doors.
And then waited. Iffy wasn’t sure what she had been expecting, but sitting on a bench—even a very comfortable one, with live plants on either side and soft music playing in the background—wasn’t it. Uncle Jack kept his arms crossed and muttered incessantly, glaring at Aunt Naggie whenever she ventured that the governor must be very busy, really, it wasn’t surprising that he couldn’t see them right away, and she was sure he wouldn’t be much longer.
Wales seemed to take it all in stride. At one point Iffy thought he had actually fallen asleep, but then he grimaced and opened his eyes. “They’re locked down tight,” he sighed quietly, tapping the tech in his temple with a finger.
Iffy nodded toward the toolboxes on the floor between them. “Least they let you keep your gear.”
Wales smiled. “There is that,” he agreed. “And—ah, here we go.” He stood and brushed his hands on his trousers as the door across from them swung open with soft pneumatic whoosh, revealing that it was as thick as Iffy’s slab mattress. Armor? Soundproofing? She didn’t have time to wonder before Doctor Johel came in. “The governor will see you now,” she said. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to leave those here.”
“Of course,” Wales said smoothly, nudging his toolbox under the bench with his boot. “Shall we say…half an hour?”
“I should think that would be adequate,” Doctor Johel replied. She stepped to the side and beckoned them through.
“Half an hour ‘til what?” Iffy whispered to Wales.
“Until the toolbox decides I’m not coming back and does something about it,” he answered in a low voice, but then he grinned at her widened eyes and she didn’t know if he was kidding or not.
Ten steps brought them to a windowless office not much larger than the room they had been waiting in. Framed photographs on the walls traced the history of Rothera from its early days as a research station through the opening of the mines and its years as a work camp for people that the government in far-off London didn’t want at home but didn’t want to get rid of—at least, not yet. The largest picture was of the flag being raised in Hobart after that government was driven out by civil war and the Euros. The smaller one beneath it showed what was left of London, drowned and abandoned to gangs and machines.
A plain wooden desk stood near one wall with half a dozen simple wooden chairs in front of it. A single Marine who looked all the more dangerous for her lack of obvious tech or tweaks gestured for them to sit. Iffy expected Doctor Johel to take the seat behind the desk, but she sat with them instead.
The Marine studied them for a heartbeat before saying, “All clear, sir.”
“Thank you, sergeant.” The words seemed to come out of thin air. Iffy’s jaw dropped as the air behind the desk shimmered and—opened up, was the only way Iffy could describe it—to reveal a tall man in a formal dark turtleneck, slightly stooped with age but still strong, his face exactly like the photo that hung in the Sandhu’s grocery store.
“Please, as you were,” Governor Stern said pleasantly, waving Uncle Jack and Aunt Naggie back into their seats as they started to rise. He nodded at Doctor Johel sat somewhat stiffly behind his desk, and steepled his fingers. “I trust the rest of your trip was less eventful than the… incident with our Brazilian neighbors?”
The room was silent as everyone waited for Wales to reply. As the moment stretched uncomfortably, Uncle Jack cleared his throat. “Er, yes, your honor, clear skies ‘n’ smooth sailin’.” He bobbed his head. If Iffy hadn’t known better, she would have thought he was actually blushing. “Glad t’ help. Happy to help, any time you need.”
The governor nodded his head gravely. “Thank you, Captain Ng. The government appreciates your service. And you, Mister Wales,” he continued, looking directly at Wales for the first time. “How was the rest of your trip?”
Wales never got to answer. Something screamed outside, a shrill mechanical sound that ended in the flat crack of an explosion. A dozen pop-up displays instantly materialized above the desk, aerial views and schematics splashed with red danger markers. The Marine took two steps and pressed the gun that was suddenly in her hand against Wales’ head. He raised his hands, saying, “It’s not mine! It’s not mine!” over and over as more Marines poured through the door behind them.
“Sir, it’s the G-80,” the one in the lead said, urgent but calm. “It—” A second shriek and crack! cut off the rest of his sentence. “We have to evacuate you, sir,” the Marine continued as a section of the wall behind the governor’s desk slid sideways to reveal a ramp leading down into the bedrock below the mansion.
The governor stayed where he was. A single swipe of his hand enlarged one of the displays to show a top-down view of the front of the mansion just in time for them to see Doctor Johel’s G-80 fire another micro-missile at the swarm of four-legged robotic sentries swarming around it. Shriek—crack! The explosion threw the sentry twenty meters. The larger bot pivoted on its treads and swung one of its arms like a club to knock another sentry into the air.
“Doctor?” the governor asked calmly. “You told me its core was secure.”
“It was,” she replied, calm but angry. “Mister Wales?”
“Nothing to do with me,” Wales replied, his hands still in the air and his head tilted slightly to one side under the pressure of the Marine’s gun pressed against the tech in his temple.
“Sir—” the Marine began again.
“In a moment,” the governor said sharply, his eyes fixed on the display as a pair of sentries charged their larger opponent simultaneously. The big G-80 knocked one of them away and grabbed the second in one of its square claws.
The image flashed blue for a moment. “EMP?” Doctor Johel gasped disbelievingly. “It doesn’t have a pulse generator!”
The image reformed. The G-80 set the sentry it had caught down on the ground as the one it had knocked aside struggled back to its feet. The others stood frozen for a moment in a circle around it. Then, as one, they turned toward the mansion.
The G-80 surged forward, its treads grinding the stairs that led up to the mansion’s front door. Another shriek, another explosion, and the last thing Iffy saw before her aunt dragged her away was the sentries throwing themselves through the hole where the door had been just a moment before.
“Breach!” one of the Marines shouted.
“Really?” Wales muttered sarcastically, his arms still over his head.
Everything happened very quickly after that. One of the Marines opened the door to look down the corridor and fell back almost immediately, cursing at the sizzling laser burn on her arm. Iffy barely had time to snatch up the pair of toolboxes by her chair before the other Marines hurried everyone down the stairs behind the governor’s desk into a narrow zig-zag corridor that smelled of sweat and machinery. Pipes as thick as Iffy’s forearm ran along the ceiling, a color-coded mix of water, waste, secure optical cabling, and highways for the rat-sized security robots that were scurrying madly to the mansion’s defense.
“Doctor?” the governor asked from up ahead of Iffy.
“No idea,” she puffed. “Nobody ever… managed… to breach the firewalls… on the G-80s… during the war. And if someone… has a way… to infect… the sentries…”
“It was optical,” Wales cut in. “That flash. It wasn’t an EMP. It was some kind of machine hypnosis.” He looked ridiculous with one hand up and the other clutching the third toolbox, but no one was laughing.
“Shall we discuss this later, sirs?” the Marine sergeant said, her tone making it clear that she wasn’t actually asking a question.
Something chattered behind them. Sharp dots stitched across the concrete wall a few centimeters from Iffy’s head. Aunt Naggie threw herself on her niece. “Affin’ hell!” Uncle Jack roared. “Keep movin’!”
Needle fire crackled behind them as two of the Marines turned and began firing, their tech and tweaks stuttering the shots to break up any pattern or rhythm. “Go!” the sergeant ordered, half-waving and half-shoving them one by one through the door at the end of the corridor.
Wales stumbled and went down on one knee. “Sorry,” he gasped. Dark red blood spurted from twin punctures where the sentry’s shot had punched through his leg.
The sergeant took his arm and began to drag him forward. “No!” Wales shook her off. “The failsafe… It thinks I’m wounded…” To Iffy’s horror, the purple square on the end of the toolbox had started blinking.
“Cover me!” he ordered the sergeant. Without waiting to see if she did, he opened the toolbox and began pulling parts out.
“What the hell are you doing? Sir?” the Marine demanded incredulously even as she raised her gun and began firing back the way they had come. The smart bullets zinged and whined around the corners, hungry for targets.
“My job,” Wales muttered. Two skeletal legs, a wheel of nested gears only slightly smaller than Iffy’s hand, a complicated not-quite-a-box to hold it all together—all of a sudden Iffy could see the parts in her head, see how they all had to fit together.
“Not like that,” she said without thinking as Wales clipped a thumb-sized cylinder on top of the box. “Put it underneath. It’ll be more stable.”
Click—click. Wales made the change without hesitation or question, turned the little bot over for one last check, then flung it past Iffy. Its gearwheel spinning madly, it scampered up the wall and along the ceiling.
“If that’s a bomb—” the sergeant began.
“Multi-spectrum microwave laser,” Wales said crisply. I know that, Iffy realized incredulously. How could I know that?
Wales struggled to his feet with a muttered curse, swaying slightly before putting a hand on the wall to steady himself. Blood was no longer pumping out of his leg, but when he tried to take a step he almost collapsed. “Here,” the sergeant said. She switched her gun to her other hand and slipped under his shoulder.
That was when the lights went out. Iffy’s heart skipped a beat even as they flickered back to life. “That’s one,” Wales grunted. He hopped forward on his good leg, gasping as his toolbox bumped against the wounded one. The purple light on its end was still blinking.
Something scraped against concrete behind them. Iffy spun around as a lone sentry came around the corner. The now-empty micro-missile launcher on its back gave it a hunched appearance, and the fresh scratches on its side where the mansion’s mechanical rats had clawed at it made its camouflage flicker and jump. Twin needle guns on the sides of its head chattered, their ammunition spent.
The Marine sergeant pushed Wales away and fired in one smooth motion. The sentry jerked as her shot pinged off one of its mechanical knees. With a sound that could almost have been a growl it launched itself at them.
A small gangly shape dropped from the ceiling and landed on its back. Iffy had just a moment to recognize the little bot that Wales had made just moments ago before the lights went out again. One second, two, three… When they came back to life the sentry lay motionless on its side. Wales’ creation stood over it, the tube that hung from its chassis still aimed at the sentry.
“Could you… could you please get that?” Wales asked Iffy weakly as he slumped down against the wall. “I have a feeling we might need it again.”
A medic with two tech fingers on her right hand patched Wales up while the governor and Doctor Johel interrogated him. No, he repeated wearily, he had no idea how the G-80 had been compromised, or how it had infected the sentries. He had just been guessing when he said it was some sort of machine hypnosis. No, he wouldn’t show them what else he had in his toolbox. And yes, he did realize that made him look like he was hiding something, but—he shrugged. “That’s because I am,” he said, eyeing his cut-off trouser leg sadly. He hadn’t flinched when the medic probed his wound with a whisker-slim instrument extruded from one of her tech fingers, or when she started to fill the hole with pink goo from a squeeze tube. He hadn’t let go of his toolbox, either.
“The question is, what?” The governor paced restlessly as he spoke, ignoring Uncle Jack, Aunt Naggie, and Iffy and only glancing at Doctor Johel when she spoke. “What kind of man has a fully functional military-issue satellite link in his head?”
Wales pushed the medic’s hands away. “The sort who change the world for you,” he said.
Governor Stern stopped and glared at him. “Oh really?”
“Really.” Wales sat up, wincing. “Or at least, give you the tools you need to do it yourself.” When the governor raised an eyebrow, he plowed on. “There’s a research base at the foot of Mount Tyree, a couple of hundred klicks inland from Ellsworth. Half of it’s still under the ice, but there’s been enough melt to expose the entrance and some of the upper works.”
The governor closed his eyes. His fingers drummed instructions on his thighs for a moment. “All right, there’s a base.” He opened his eyes. “There are lots of old buildings lying around. What makes this one special?”
“It was never really a research base.” Wales glanced at Doctor Johel. “It was a backup ground station for the Niobium network. And it’s still functional.”
“You’re lying,” Doctor Johel said, as calmly as if she ordering a cup of tea. “Governor, he—”
The governor shushed her with a wave. “Convince me,” he said curtly.
Wales closed his eyes and reeled off a list of coordinates. The numbers meant nothing to Iffy, but from the looks on Governor Stern’s and Doctor Johel’s faces, they recognized at least some of them. “I can bring up your drones, too,” Wales said when he was done. “If we can get to the base, you can see everything the Brazilians have, every moment of the day.”
“And you’re just going to give that to us out of the goodness of your heart,” the governor said flatly.
Wales smiled wanly. “Of course not.” He pointed to the medic. “Tell him what you found.”
The medic looked at the governor for permission. When the old man nodded, she said, “He’s been tweaked, sir. Oxygen uptake, metabolic efficiency, chromatin—it’ll take a while to sort it all out.”
Governor Stern shrugged. “And?”
“And every once in a while I need a reboot,” Wales said. He tapped the tech in his temple. “All sorts of digital garbage collects in here. If I don’t re-set every few years, it starts to mess up my nervous system. As far as I can tell, the base is the last place on Earth with the gear I need.”
The governor nodded slowly. “Interesting. All right. Sergeant?”
“Yes sir,” the Marine said, speaking for the first time since she, Wales, and Iffy had survived the sentry’s attack.
“Take these three back to their ship. No comms. Just until I decide what to do next,” he continued as Uncle Jack opened his mouth to object. “We’ll have your supplies restocked while you wait. Mister Wales, you’ll be my guest here.”
Wales smiled. “I appreciate your hospitality.” And with that, he lay back, closed his eyes, and almost immediately began to snore.