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Call tells me he sees a star and that makes me laugh.
“I do.” His voice is serious, his mouth against my ear.
I tip my head up. He’s right. It hangs low on the horizon. “That makes six,” I say.
“Seven,” he says. “That was a star we saw the first night on the river.”
“It wasn’t.” We’ve been arguing about this for weeks, ever since we left the Outpost behind and boarded the dredge to go upriver.
He laughs softly before he starts kissing me again.
Up on the deck, it’s easier to hear past the sounds made by our hungry metal ship. But it’s still impossible to completely ignore the constant throb and grate of the dredge as it moves along the river in search of gold, taking in rocks and stones, grinding them out. It tears up the rivers and leaves refuse and silt behind, ruins valleys, adds a smear of smoke to the sky.
“All of this, because the Admiral has a taste for gold,” I say.
“I have a taste for you,” Call tells me. I laugh because it’s such a stupid thing to say, even though it’s true, and I feel him smile.
“It makes no sense,” I say. “What good is all this gold?” We all know that the Admiral wants to help the Outpost thrive. He thinks that getting more gold can help us do that, but I’m not entirely sure why. We’ve mined enough to last us for a while, and there’s not really anyone to trade with anymore. We need so many other things. Cleaner air, more water, better medicine, ways to rehabilitate the land. All gold does is gild the time until we die.
“Who cares?” Call says. “If the Admiral didn’t want it, we’d never get to be out here.”
Call says things like this, but I’ve seen the expression on his face as he looks back at the devastation we leave behind. Churned-up riverbed, life choked to death so we can raise the gold.
Even though it shivers me to think of the ruin we’re causing, I may as well count the stars while I can. Already, in two weeks out on the river, I’ve seen more than most people back at the Outpost will in a lifetime.
“It was a good idea to come here,” Call whispers. “Admit it.”
“A good idea,” I say, teasing. “A good idea for us to spend our days in the belly of a noisy old ship loud enough to make us deaf. A good idea to spend our nights up here standing guard and ruining our eyes looking for things in the dark.”
“A very good idea,” he says.
Call had overheard some of the machinists in the scrap yard where we work talking about the dredge voyages. “It’s not an ideal posting,” the machinists told Call. “It’s dangerous and you have to leave the Outpost.” To Call, those sounded like promises instead of drawbacks.
“It’s the only way you’re going to see the world, Poe,” he said to me. “The only way you’re going to shake the dust of the Outpost from your feet.”
And we both knew that signing on to the dredge was a way for us to be together, without settling down and having babies and working all day every day in the same places, doing the same things.
And then there’s the biggest secret, the best dream of all.
We’re going to escape.
At the turnaround point, we’re going to leave. Run. Be free.
I have imagined it all. Blue lakes. Forest smell. The sound of something else alive in the woods, that isn’t human and doesn’t care that we are. We might not last long in the wilderness, but who knows. There’s a chance we could survive.
I would rather be torn apart by something than wait for nothing. And it doesn’t do any good to worry about what might happen later.
Instead, I think about now. I like now. A kiss on the top of the dredge under a smeary star sky with Call’s hands touching me.
“Should we invite any of the crew to come with us when we go?” Call asks.
We’ve had this discussion before, too.
“No,” I say. “Just us.”
Call sighs in my ear, metal aches and scrapes against stone, the trammel inside the ship turns the rocks and sifts out the gold, water sluices against rock and metal.
And then the bell from the mining deck.
I swear because I know what it means. They need help with the dredge’s main motor, the one that powers all the systems on the ship.
“Go on,” Call says. “Then you can come back up here.”
It’s sliding past dusk and straight into night.
“Be careful while I’m gone,” I say. “Watch out for the raiders.”
“I do a better job watching when you’re not here,” he says, and even in the dim light I can see the twist of his smile.
“That’s true,” I say. “I won’t come up again.” I’m not joking. Perhaps we’ve been too giddy with freedom, with being outside.
“Poe,” Call says. “It’s all right. We haven’t seen a single raider on this river.”
Maybe they’re dying off. Everyone knew it would happen eventually.
The Outpost is the only place you can last. The only place with dependable medicine and food and the protection of the Admiral and his militia. You give up some of your freedom for it, but most feel it’s an easy trade.
Call touches my hand in the dark as I leave.
• • •
“There,” Naomi says, right as the mining equipment kicks back in, a constant low growl and grind that becomes part of you, like a heartbeat. Powered by solar conduits and battery storage, the main motor runs everything on the dredge through power take-off systems. The mining system is the loudest. It’s cobbled together from the dredge’s original system because we didn’t have the raw materials to replace it. The mining buckets move their belt, the trammel that sorts the gold from the rocks rolls, everything clanks and spins and grinds. Sweat trickles down Naomi’s tanned face. She wipes her hands on a rag and nods to Nik and me. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Nik says. We have to yell to be heard over the sound of the ship. Often we just read one another’s lips. “Sorry we got you down here, kid,” he says to me. In the lights below deck his face looks ghoulish but friendly.
“Any stars on the top deck?” Naomi asks.
“We saw one already tonight,” I say. “You should come up.”
Nik laughs. “You don’t mean that. You and Call want to have the deck all to yourselves.”
I roll my eyes at him even though he’s right. But Naomi and Nik both follow me up the stairs, the pull of fresh air strong after having been down on the mining deck. As we climb, the smell of night breezes and even, maybe, of pine forests somewhere nearby, floats down to us. I breathe in. It’s all worth it.
“Call,” I holler, as I come up on the deck, but he’s not where I left him. I see several shapes moving in the dim lights that rim the base of the deck. Who else is up here? Some of the crew? “Hey,” I say, stepping out onto the deck and then Naomi grabs my arm, hard, stopping me.
The shapes advance, evolve. As they come closer they turn from shadows into people whose faces I don’t recognize.
“We want the gold,” one of them says. “Tell us where it is. Now.”
My mind races. My eyes hunt.
Where is Call?
He didn’t have time to sound the alarm. Did he have time to hide?
“Tell us where it is,” another raider says, “or we’ll kill all of you and take it anyway.”
I look at Naomi and Nik. Their hands are up.
“You can’t kill all of us,” I say. “You need us alive. You don’t know how to run the ship.”
“You two, take us below,” the raider says to Naomi and Nik. “Show us where the gold is or we’ll shoot you.” He gestures in my direction. “Keep her up here.”
The raiders train their guns on me. My mind wants me to stay alive. My heart is sick with worry about Call. But he’s fast. He’s good. He’s probably hiding somewhere, waiting for his turn. Waiting for the instant he can pick them all off.
A moment passes.
And then I hear a terrible sound: the ship’s motor shutting down. They’re stopping us.
sidle toward the edge of the deck. Are more raiders waiting down there in the water? Did Call escape? Is he standing in the river, silent, hoping I’ll look over the edge? Waiting to catch me if I jump?
If he is, we could still get away. We could leave and not look back.
“Go ahead,” says the raider guarding me. “Take a look.”
I glance over the side. Spots of light on the water—raiders in boats, holding torches. There are at least three dozen of them down there in addition to the ones already on the ship.
How are there so many? They were supposed to be dying out.
Only twenty-three people live on the dredge. We can’t handle an armed group this size. And we’re too far up the river to call for reinforcements from the Outpost.
They’ve timed this perfectly.
Where is Call?
I’m frantic to find him.
The raiders herd the other members of the crew up the stairs and out onto the deck. I see Naomi, Nik. The cook, the first mate. The captain. The cartographer. The other machinists and the miners. None of our crew is armed. The raiders must have taken our weapons.
Call is not the only one missing. I don’t see the second mate, either.
And then, last up the stairs, two more raiders, each carrying someone. Good, I think, we injured some, but then they throw the people down on the deck of the dredge and I see one’s the second mate and the other is turned over, facedown, and neither of them moves.
I do. Across the deck I stumble, crashing to my knees next to the facedown man. I put my hand on a dark place on his back and it comes away bloody. Naomi makes a sound like a cry. They might shoot me in the back too but I have to know. I have to know what I already know.
I turn him over. And there he is, his face lit by the cool glow of the deck lights and the fire of the raiders’ torches. His eyes are open, alone.
I put my fingers to his lips. His skin already feels cold to me.
“Get up,” says a raider.
Call was shot in the back. He didn’t have a chance to sound the alarm. He was shot in the back and he was alone. What do his eyes say? Nothing. They say nothing. He’s nothing. He’s not here anymore.
Am I still here?
Can you be this hollow and not blow away on the wind?
I glance over my shoulder at the other crew members. My friends. Naomi and the captain and all the rest of them, and I think, I wish you were dead instead of him. You and you and you. Everyone else on this ship. All of you. I’d trade all of you for one of him and it wouldn’t pain me one bit.
Someone else steps into my line of vision. A raider. I hear the creak of his boots as he crouches down, but I don’t lift my gaze from Call’s face. His eyes.
“Do you know who we are?” The man’s voice is rough as rock, or gold. Not the polished shiny gold that’s been refined and purified. The heavier, dirt-burnished kind that we drag up from the river bottom.
“Raiders,” I say.
“Drifters,” he says.
I couldn’t care less what they call themselves. I take Call’s rough hand in mine.
My face is wet.
“We’re letting you go,” the man says. He doesn’t raise his voice, but it carries well, and the ship is so silent. “We left food for you on the shore. It’s enough to get you back to the Outpost if you walk fast and don’t eat much.” He leans close, so close I can feel his breath on my cheek and see the glitter of his eyes in the torchlight. “Tell your Admiral that we’re done with you taking from us. Tell him this is the last time we leave anyone alive.”
I reach into Call’s shirt pocket. I look at the buttons, the fabric, instead of at his dead eyes. One of the raider guards grabs my shoulder to haul me back, but not before I’ve taken out the folding ruler that Call always kept with him.
“What’s that?” the raider asks.
I don’t answer. “Help me,” I say to Nik. “Help me bring him with us.” Even though Call’s gone, I won’t leave his body with the raiders.
“Leave it,” says the rough-voiced raider. “Get on out of here.”
Fury, hot-white and loud as a motor, sounds through me. “Naomi,” I say. “Will you help me?”
She doesn’t move. Her face is sad and sorry. She’s afraid. They’re all afraid. I’m not. The worst has already happened.
As they drag me away, I twist around and see that the raiders are dragging Call, too. His head lolls back. He carries none of his own weight.
He’s heavy, and yet he’s not here at all.
Out on the shore, the dredge is an enormous deep shape against the night sky, and then it’s the sun, exploding.
“They’ve blown it up.” The captain’s voice shakes.
Heat washes over us. A few singed shards of metal come down into the water and glint-glance off the rocks we tore up earlier.
The wind shifts, and I see a whole spread of stars beyond the miry, polluted air. They vanish again behind the smoke from the burning ship.
Call is dead.
The raiders made Call nothing. Call who was everything.
I make them a promise, as their smoke and fire blot out the stars.
I will make you nothing too.
TWO YEARS LATER
“We talk about you.”
“I know,” I say to the Admiral. He tells me this as we sit up in a room in the scrap yard’s wooden office building, waiting for the rest of his advisers to arrive. The Admiral’s Quorum—a group of four, three men and one woman—advise and assist him with running the Outpost. I’ve heard snatches of what the Quorum says behind my back, the stories they tell. Some good, some bad. Some true, some false.
They say I live in the Admiral’s pocket.
That I’m actually afraid of the rivers.
They whisper about how I was a machinist when I first went on the dredge two years ago, and then came home with a weaponist’s mind and thirst for blood.
Two days after Call died, while our crew was making the long trek back to the Outpost, I had my first “revelation.” That’s what the Admiral calls it. He tells the Quorum, “God tells her something in her sleep, and then she draws the designs for it when she wakes up.”
My first one was about an armor for the dredge that kills any raiders who try to board. The other revelations have been about how to perfect it.
There are two problems with the Admiral’s revelation theory. First, I don’t believe in God, so he can’t talk to me. Second, I don’t think I actually sleep deep enough to dream anymore.
The Admiral and I watch the workers crawling over the dredge in the yard below. The ship came off the river yesterday, and it’s been hauled inland to the scrap yard for repairs.
It’s the hot-orange, simmering-sunset time of day, bearable only because of the knowledge that there are just a few hours left until the cool of night. The crew must be sweating as they repair the armor on the dredge. I know from working on the scrap yard with Call how it feels to have your clothes wet and dry and wet again over the hours of the day; your hands smudged black with dirt and oil; skin tight across your nose from the sun; eyes scalded and dry from looking closely at shining metal, fitted gears.
That’s as much as I’ll let myself remember.
There’s a flurry of movement in the yard as the workers change positions. The dredge bristles with variations on front-and side-facing gears. Armor. When the ship is moving, its exterior crawls like an animal covered in parasites. The gears are strong enough to snap a bone like a twig, a hunk of iron like a tree branch.
For decades, the two dredges the Outpost owned were nothing but great metal hulks from a long-past time. They sat out at the edge of the city, along with all the other remnants and machinery too large to bother moving. When this Admiral took power, he began to repair things, to try and figure out a way to make the Outpost thrive instead of just survive. He brought some of the old relics to the machinists’ scrap yard for cleaning and repair, including the dredges. The raiders burned one the night Call died. Now there’s a single ship left to run the rivers for gold.
“Ah,” says the Admiral. “Welcome.” The others have arrived. General Dale, Bishop Weaver, General Foster, Sister Haring. They shake hands with the Admiral and nod to me.
My position at these meetings is always strange. I’m not part of the Quorum. I only attend meetings concerning the dredge. And the citizens of the Outpost consider me a peculiarity. Not a person. When we pass in the street, they smile and keep their distance. Which makes sense. I’m aligned with the people in power, and it’s best not to disturb them. That’s common knowledge in the Outpost. Everyone’s got their work to keep them busy, everyone’s got to scrape to keep alive. We mind our own business. That’s what’s kept the Outpost viable all these years, on our own, without another major city or settlement within hundreds of miles.
And I also understand why the Quorum hasn’t taken me under their collective wing. I’m not officially a member of their group. I’m much younger than they are. And the Quorum may not have any qualms about the people I kill, but no one wants to be close to a murderer.
There’s something off about her. I’ve heard it whispered. Not just lately. All my life.
“Thank you for meeting us here,” says the Admiral.
“It’s our pleasure,” says Sister Haring. Her neat blond hair is pulled up in a bun. She’s very beautiful. I don’t like her at all. I don’t like any of them, but I like her the least because she smiles at me the most.
“Please,” says the Admiral. “Sit.” The wooden table and chairs in the room are scarred with use. Stray stubs of pencil and bits of paper have been left behind from other meetings. This is how the Admiral likes it. I don’t know where the Quorum usually meets, but whenever we gather here to discuss the dredge, the Admiral wants the room left as it is from when the people who actually work on the yard use it. He likes the workaday, part-of-it-all feeling it gives him.
Bishop Weaver takes his seat on the right hand of the Admiral. When I’m in meetings with the Admiral, he likes me to sit on his left.
The Devil’s hand, people used to call it.
I wonder who sits on his left when I’m not here.
General Dale’s eyes linger on me in his usual calculating way. Sister Haring smiles politely. I don’t care what they think of or about me. My job is to design the armor for the dredge and keep both working. Not to talk to the Quorum, not to bother about what it is they do.
“I have good news to report from the most recent voyage.” The Admiral leans forward, rests his elbows on the table. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, with a square-cut sandy beard and piercing blue eyes. His skin is always a little pink, like he’s been out in the sun working hard. His lips are chapped, the hair on his strong arms bleached by the sun. Years ago, when the time came to choose a new Admiral, the Outpost couldn’t resist him. He has big ideas, and he looks like a man of the people. As always, he wears a blue work shirt, brown trousers, scuffed black work boots, a silk tie loosely secured around his collar like an afterthought. A casual gesture to his status.
I’m dressed exactly like him, except for the tie. And I wear my hair long, in braids.
I wonder what Call would say if he could see me now. None of this is what he would have wanted. Except he’d want me alive, and this is the way I’ve found to do it.
“The Gilded Lily performed perfectly,” says the Admiral.
I hate the name they’ve given the ship. I don’t think of it as she, or he for that matter. It’s the dredge. It’s a piece of metal.
It’s not alive.
“We took in twice the gold we expected,” the Admiral says. His eyes light up the way they do whenever he talks about gold, and he cannot completely control the emotion in his voice.
It’s the same thing that happens when he needs to address the people, but this is raw. Unintended. Caught in glimpses instead of put on for a sermon.
“Ah,” says Sister Haring, satisfied. Bishop Weaver raises his eyebrows, and General Dale smiles.
General Foster actually presses his palms together in pleasure. “Wonderful,” he says.
“It was by far our most successful voyage yet.” The Admiral waits a beat before speaking again. “Even though no raiders were killed.”
The members of the Quorum each flicker with movement at this. An intake of breath, a folding of arms, a recrossing of legs. I feel eyes shift to me.
“No raiders died,” says the Admiral, “because our machine’s reputation is such that not a single one of them tried to board.”
General Dale folds his arms. “That’s interesting.” Our eyes meet. There is a challenge in his. As if he thinks my armor isn’t enough threat to keep the raiders away.
As if he’s forgotten all the rust-colored stains on the armor when the dredge has returned from other voyages. All the ways my prickling, moving gears have ground the raiders into pulp when they tried to board.
“We saw raiders along the banks, watching and following,” says the Admiral, “but none dared attempt an attack.”
We saw. That’s what he says. But the truth is that none of us in this room go on the voyages. The Admiral stays behind in his house on the bluff and I sit in my apartment down in the city. He thinks about gold and government and I think about killing and Call.
“It’s time,” the Admiral says. “We’re ready to cull the Serpentine.”
“Good,” says Sister Haring, at the same time that Bishop Weaver says, “At last,” his intonation like a prayer.
The Serpentine River. The biggest river in the area; the one with the most potential for gold. We’ve waited because it’s going to be the most difficult to dredge. It’s long and deep, and goes far into raider territory.
A small smile curls my lips, and I bow my head to hide my pleasure at the Admiral’s decision. I hope the raiders find the courage to try and board the ship. So we can cut them down.
“To ensure that everything goes smoothly, Lieutenant Blythe will be on this voyage.”
My head jerks up in surprise. He wants me to go?
That’s not what we agreed, I want to say to him. I designed the armor for the ship in exchange for my life and for the lives of the others on the dredge on my first voyage. My only voyage.
We lost the ship, we lost the gold. We knew the Admiral might order our deaths, but my revelation about the armor saved us. It gave me leverage. Something to bargain with.
I look at the Admiral, at his clear eyes and the very straight line of his mouth. I work for him. I live under his protection. And I never, ever underestimate the danger of my situation.
“This is the most important voyage yet,” the Admiral says. “I don’t want anything to go wrong. I want the killing mechanisms to work.”
“They’ll work,” I say.
“And you’ll be there in case they don’t,” he says, a cool finality in his tone.
If the Admiral tells you to do something, you do it.
Or you die.
You would think that after Call died, I wouldn’t care
anymore about dying. But I do. I saw him. I saw his eyes looking up and seeing nothing. I saw how gone he was. I knew he was nowhere else in the world or beyond. He was over.
The Quorum watches.
Why does the Admiral want me to go on this voyage, and not any of the others? Has he decided that he’s tiring of me? Is this a trap of some sort?
That might be the case. It might not. Either way, I may as well make the most of the situation. “That’s right,” I say to the advisers. I hold each of their gazes in turn. Sister Haring is not smiling now. And then I meet the Admiral’s eyes. “I’m going on the ship as Captain.”
I have to give the Admiral credit. He doesn’t even blink. All I see is a slight tightening of his lips that shows I’ve surprised him.
And that he’s angry.