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Extract from LIBERATOR (1)

 

 

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Extract 2

   
 


The story starts here …

Something bad had happened on First Deck. The news travelled the length and breadth of the iron juggernaut: from the storage decks to the manufacturing decks, from the old administrative offices to the old Imperial Staterooms, from the coal bunkers on Bottom Deck to the Bridge on Fifty-Fourth Deck. By the time it reached the Norfolk Library, the news was no more than a vague report. The saboteur had struck again, and the Revolutionary Council had called a general meeting of Filthies in the Grand Assembly Hall.

In the Norfolk Library, Col Porpentine and his family looked at one another with dismay.

‘They never called a general meeting before,’ said Orris Porpentine.

Col nodded. ‘It must be worse than ordinary sabotage.’

‘I’m going to the meeting,’ said Gillabeth. ‘I’ll find out.’

Col’s sister thrust out her jaw in characteristic Porpentine fashion—unstoppable as the juggernaut itself.
Col’s mother fluttered in ineffectual protest. ‘But it’s so … so dangerous, dear. Wouldn’t you rather stay safe in here?’

‘They need me,’ said Gillabeth.

She took her role as advisor to the Revolutionary Council very seriously. In the three months since the Liberation, she more than anyone had taught the Filthies how to run the juggernaut. But she overestimated her own importance, Col suspected. The Filthies were fast learners and could do almost everything for themselves by now.

‘I’ll go too,’ he murmured, and followed his sister out of the library.

There was a great stir of Filthies in the corridors outside. Countless hurrying footsteps, a murmur like an ocean, grim set faces in the yellowish light. They were all heading one way, towards the Grand Assembly Hall.

Gillabeth inserted herself into the flow and Col trailed in her wake. The Filthies ignored them and made no eye contact. Only a few times Col heard the scornful word directed at their backs: Swanks!

It was the Filthies’ term for those people of the Upper Decks who had chosen to stay on after the Liberation. Col bristled at the word, though it was hardly worse than ‘Filthies’ as a term for those who had lived Below.
Everything had gone downhill over the past three months. They had dreamed of Filthies and Upper Decks people cooperating in a golden age of harmony. The change to the juggernaut’s name said it all: from Worldshaker to Liberator, from tyranny to freedom. But it hadn’t happened. Instead of harmony, there was now distrust; instead of freedom, the Swanks now lived in separate ghettoes.

And all because of this saboteur. It had to be somebody who’d stayed on not out of a desire to cooperate but a desire for revenge. But who? And why did they all have to take the blame?

The Grand Assembly Hall was on Forty-Fourth Deck, the same level as the Norfolk Library. When Col and his sister entered, it was already packed full. Gillabeth ploughed her way towards the front, where the Council members stood.

The hall was a vast oval with white marble columns and a high domed ceiling. In the days before the Liberation, it had served mostly for balls and receptions, tricked out with flowers, urns, sculptures and streamers. Col remembered his own wedding reception here, after his arranged marriage to Sephaltina Turbot. Now, though, it was a more utilitarian space that served for public and political meetings. Only the chandelier remained as a witness to past splendour: a great inverted pyramid of shimmering light and glass.

The crowd grew thicker as they advanced. Halfway to the front, Col decided it was time to stop.

‘Far enough,’ he said, and halted beside a column.

Whether Gillabeth heard him or not, she pushed on regardless. Hostile glares followed her as she elbowed her way to a position ten paces in front of the Council. Riff was there, along with Dunga, Padder and Gansy, the new member who’d been voted in to replace Fossie.

Col tuned his attention to the voices talking in low tones all around him. He caught a mention of Zeb, then a mention of Shiv—the other two members of Council who weren’t present in the hall. What was their connection to this latest act of sabotage?

Then he recognized a familiar face in the group right next to him. It was one of the young Filthies who’d been with them when he and Riff stopped Sir Mormus Porpentine from blowing up the juggernaut. He couldn’t remember the name, perhaps he’d never known it, but he hoped the boy would remember him.

‘What happened this time?’ he asked. ‘How bad is it?’

The boy turned and recognized him—Col saw the look of recognition in his eyes. Yet still he wouldn’t answer. Past deeds didn’t matter, Col’s role in the revolution counted for nothing. For one long minute, he glowered at Col in silent condemnation. Then his lip curled and he swung away again.

It was like a sudden drop in temperature. The mood among the Filthies was far more ugly than ever before, Col realized. Something had changed, some boundary had been crossed. What could have happened that was so bad?

He rose on his toes and scanned the crowd. At sixteen, he was already taller than most adult male Swanks. The Filthies tended to be short and lean, a consequence of their previous living conditions down Below.

There were almost no other Swanks in the hall. Wisely, perhaps, they’d stayed away. Col could see only one pair right at the back: his old headmaster, Dr Blessamy, and his old class master, Mr Bartrim Gibber. Col had no idea why they’d remained on board, especially Mr Gibber, who had always been so disgusted by the least mention of Filthies.

‘Please. Be patient everyone.’

Col spun to face the front. He would have known that voice anywhere. Riff was addressing the meeting on behalf of the Revolutionary Council.

‘Shiv will be here soon,’ she continued. ‘Make room for them, please. Clear a way.’

Col’s heart leaped just watching her. High cheekbones, huge dark eyes, hair that was black in some places and blonde in others—she was as amazing as the very first time when she’d tried to hide in his bedroom.
Right now, though, there was an odd catch in her throat. And surely those were patches of wetness on her cheeks.

Why? It didn’t make sense. Tears over an act of sabotage?

He learned the answer a minute later. There was a disturbance at the back of the hall as a new group entered. The crowd opened up a path for them to come forward.

Stretching up on the points of his toes, Col could see a procession of half a dozen Filthies with Shiv at their head. They supported a makeshift stretcher of netting and poles. A heavy, lumpish shape sagged down between the poles, under a bloodstained cloth.

The crowd broke into a hubbub of cries and moans and groans. Gripped by a dreadful foreboding, Col wished he could vanish through the floor.

By chance, the procession passed close to Col on its way to the front of the hall. He hardly needed to see, but he did. The bloodstained cloth wasn’t large enough to fully cover the body. At one end, the feet stuck out, and the head at the other. It was Zeb of the Revolutionary Council.

His eyes were glassy and staring, his mouth was wide and slack, and the back of his skull had been smashed to a pulp.

 

 

 

 

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Richard Harland.