A sound brought Col out of a deep sleep. Something was happening out in the corridor. Urgent footsteps, orders and questions, the clangs of many doors opening and closing. Cabin by cabin the disturbance came closer.
His own cabin remained in darkness—until suddenly the door was flung open. Two menacing shapes stood silhouetted against the dim blue light of the corridor.
“Room light on!” came the order.
The figures sprang forward into the room, flourishing their weapons. Col switched on his bedside lamp.
In the warm yellow-pink glow the figures diminished to a pair of ordinary warrant officers. The pounding of Col’s heart eased. Warrant officers were responsible for security, and their heavy wooden batons were for his protection. But what were they doing in this part of the ship?
“Ah, Master Porpentine, isn’t it?” The senior officer fingered his gray walrus mustache. “Sorry to disturb you, sir. We have to search your room.”
Ignoring the question the officer went on. “How long have you been awake, sir? Have you seen or heard anything unusual in the last few minutes?”
Col raised himself higher on his pillow. “Doors clanging. And you clumping along the corridor.”
“She must have run on,” the junior officer whispered to the senior. “We’re wasting our time on this deck.”
“Who’s ‘she’?” Col demanded.
“A Filthy,” the junior blurted—then clapped his hand over his mouth. “I mean …”
“Hold your tongue, Jull!” The senior officer swung his baton and gave Jull a cracking blow on the wrist. Col was shocked.
The senior officer turned to him again. “You didn’t hear what he said, did you, sir?”
“Yes, I did. What’s a Filthy doing on the Upper Decks?”
“You wouldn’t want to know. My colleague got carried away.”
“I’ll forget about it if you answer my question.”
“She …” The senior officer’s cheeks were red, and he was visibly sweating. “Well, she escaped. That’s all I can say.”
He prodded Jull with his baton and pushed him toward the doorway. “So, if you’ll just forget about it, thank you, sir …”
Out in the corridor he began an angry whispered conversation with his junior. Col caught the words “grandson of Sir Mormus Porpentine,” then the door closed behind them, and they moved off down the corridor. More clanging doors, more questioning.
He still couldn’t believe it. A female Filthy running around on the Upper Decks? Inconceivable!
He looked round at his own safe, civilized bedroom. Green carpet, brown velvet curtains, cream wallpaper … On the walls were framed pictures of the most dignified creatures: the wise owl, noble lion, and brave bear. A metal plate above the door was stamped with the name worldshaker and the date 1845, which was when Worldshaker had been constructed, one hundred and fifty years ago. The washstand, bookcase, and full-length mirror bore similar stamped plates. Only the massive wardrobe cupboard lacked a plate: It was an antique of carved oak from earlier times in the Old Country.
All proper, all normal—like the distant thrum of Worldshaker’s turbines, driving the great juggernaut forward. Time to go back to sleep.
He reached out to switch off the lamp—when a sudden thought set his heart pounding again. The sound that had woken him up wasn’t the clang of a door! Now that he thought back, there had been something else. Something much closer.
Don’t panic, he told himself. There was no one else in his room. Where could they hide? Unless in the cupboard … or under his bed …
He twisted over, lifted the fringed edge of the bedspread, and looked under his bed.
Two eyes looked back at him.
The female Filthy!
For ten long seconds he couldn’t move. So close, separated only by the thickness of his mattress! He was lying almost on top of her!
The eyes studied him, sizing him up.
Then she moved first. Quick as a whip she slid out and knelt at the side of his bed. Nostrils wide and flaring, hollow cheeks below sharp cheekbones. Her hair was a knotted tangle, black in some places and blond in others. Huge, burning eyes dominated her face.
He wriggled away and fell off the other side of the bed. Fighting free of sheets and blankets he stumbled to his feet.
She opened her mouth and spoke. “Don’t let ’em take me.”
It wasn’t a grunt, but actual proper words! Pronounced in a rough and uncouth accent, but definitely words!
Col goggled. “You can speak?”
“Course I can speak. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I thought … I didn’t know Filthies could speak. Menials can’t.”
“Yeah, I heard about Menials.”
“We train Filthies and make them into Menials. Then they can understand human language.”
“Untrain ’em, more like. They could understand and speak, before.”
Col had no answer. His head was spinning; he couldn’t adjust.
She jumped up suddenly. She was all muscle and sinew, lithe and slight, quite unlike a Menial. Col had a general impression of darkness and dirtiness. She wore rags around her hips and torso, leaving her limbs shockingly naked. Her skin was streaked with smudges of soot and grease.
“See, they brought me up from Below to make me into a Menial.” She faced him across the bed. “Fished me up on their hook and tried to march me to the Changing Room. But I give ’em the slip.”
Col shook his head. “What do you mean, Changing Room?”
“Where they change us. They torture our bodies and do horrible things to us.”
“Nonsense, there’s no such place. How would you know, anyway?”
Col was quite sure that Upper Decks people would never do “horrible things.” Mere Filthy ignorance! He had studied ethics with his tutor, so he knew torture was against proper moral principles.
He put on the kind of dignity he’d seen his elders assume. “You’re lucky to have the chance to become a Menial. You’re too young to know what’s good for you.”
“I’m not young. I’m fourteen.”
“Well, I’m sixteen.”
“You oughta know about the Changing Room, then.”
It was hopeless trying to reason with a Filthy. And I shouldn’t even be trying, he told himself.
He turned to the door and raised his voice. “Officers!”
She was across the room in a flash. He had always pictured Filthies as slow and brutish, but not this one. She opened the door a fraction, peeked out, then closed it again in a hurry.
“They’re still there,” she muttered.
He took a deep breath for a louder shout.
She flew back across the room and stood before him, hands clasped in appeal. “Please!” The bravado had fallen away, leaving only abject terror. “Don’t let ’em take me!”
Footsteps came tramping along the corridor.
“I’m scared,” she whispered, and stared at the door.
In that moment he remembered his own feeling of a few minutes ago. Seeing the two menacing figures in the doorway, flourishing their batons, ready to hit and beat …
She made a dart for the antique cupboard. While Col stood openmouthed, she jumped inside and pulled the door shut behind her.
The footsteps came up level with his room—then went past. If it was the warrant officers, they hadn’t heard his call.
He didn’t think of calling out again. He was still strangely churned up inside, as though her fear of the officers had transferred itself to him.
He went over and spoke through the cupboard door. “They’ve gone past.”
“Thank you,” said a muffled voice. “Thank you.”
He didn’t want her thanks; all he wanted was time to think. He turned the key in the cupboard door.
“I’m locking you in,” he told her.
“Hey! No! You don’t need to do that.”
Col didn’t reply. He was sure she couldn’t escape: The wood of the cupboard was solid, and the lock was strong. She was his prisoner. But what was he going to do with her?
She rattled the door. “C’mon, let me out. You won’t never see me again.”
He removed the key from the lock and retreated to his bed. She was still trying to talk through the door, so he climbed in between the sheets and pulled the pillow over his ear. The key stayed safe in his clenched fist.
© 2010 Richard Harland