Something bad had happened on First Deck. The news travelled the length and breadth of the iron juggernaut: from the storage decks to the old Imperial Staterooms, from the coal bunkers on Bottom Deck to the Bridge on Fifty-Fourth Deck. 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.
yy‘They never called a general meeting before,’ said Orris Porpentine.
yyCol nodded. ‘Must be worse than ordinary sabotage.’
yy‘I’m going to the meeting,’ said Gillabeth. ‘I’ll find out.’ She thrust out her jaw in characteristic Porpentine fashion—unstoppable as the mighty steam-powered juggernaut itself.
yyCol’s mother fluttered in ineffectual protest. ‘But it’s so … so dangerous, dear. Wouldn’t you rather stay safe in here?’
yy‘They need me,’ said Gillabeth.
yyCol’s sister 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 drive the juggernaut over land and sea. But she overestimated her own importance, Col thought. The Filthies were fast learners and could do almost everything for themselves by now.
yy‘I’ll go too,’ he murmured, and followed her out of the library.
yyThere was a great stir of Filthies in the corridors—countless hurrying footsteps, a murmur like an ocean and grim, set faces in the yellowish light. They were all heading one way, towards the Grand Assembly Hall.
yyGillabeth inserted herself into the flow and Col trailed in her wake. The Filthies ignored them and made no eye contact. A few times Col heard the scornful word ‘Swanks’ directed at their backs. It was the Filthies’ name for those Upper Decks people who had chosen to stay on after the Liberation. Col bristled at the word, though it was hardly worse than ‘Filthies’ as a name for those who had once been trapped Below.
yyEverything had gone downhill over the past three months. Col and Riff had dreamed of a golden age of harmony and co-operation between Filthies and Upper Decks people. 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 distrust; instead of freedom, the Swanks lived in restricted ghettoes. And all because of this saboteur …
yyIt had to be somebody who’d stayed on out of a desire for revenge. But who? And why should all Swanks be blamed?
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 forward through the crowd.
yyThe 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, bedecked 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 shimmering pyramid of light and glass.
yyThe press of Filthies grew thicker as they advanced. Halfway to the front, Col decided it was time to stop.
yy‘Far enough,’ he said, and halted beside a column.
yyWhether Gillabeth heard or not, she pushed on regardless. Hostile glares followed her as she elbowed her way to a position ten paces from the front, where four members of the Council stood facing the crowd. Riff, Dunga, Padder and Gansy were there, but not Shiv or Zeb. Gansy was the new member voted in to replace Fossie, who had been killed at the time of the Liberation.
yyCol tuned his attention to the voices talking in low tones all around. He caught a mention of Zeb and a mention of Shiv, but he couldn’t hear what was being said about them. Why weren’t they present in the hall?
yyHe recognised a face he knew in a group nearby. It was one of the young Filthies who’d fought beside him when he and Riff stopped Sir Mormus Porpentine from blowing up the juggernaut. He hoped the boy would remember.
yy‘What’s the sabotage this time?’ he asked.
yyThe boy turned and recognised him—Col saw the look of recognition in his eyes. Instead of answering, however, he glowered at Col in silent condemnation. Col’s past deeds on behalf of the revolution counted for nothing. The boy curled his lip and turned away again.
yyIt was like a sudden drop in temperature. The mood among the Filthies was ugly in a way that Col had never seen before. Something had changed, some boundary had been crossed. What could have happened that was so bad?
yyHe rose on his toes and scanned the crowd. At sixteen, he was already tall—taller than most adult male Swanks. Compared to the Swanks, the Filthies tended to be short and lean, a result of their previous living conditions Below. They no longer wore rags, but simple tops or singlets and baggy pants. They had never taken to the more formal fashions of the Upper Decks.
yyThere were only two other Swanks in the hall: Col’s old teacher, Mr Bartrim Gibber, and his old headmaster, Dr Blessamy. They were standing off to the side, and Col wondered why they had turned up at all. Mr Gibber had always taken a very low view of Filthies in his lessons.
yy‘Be patient, everyone. Shiv will be here soon. Please clear a way.’
yyRiff was addressing the meeting on behalf of the Revolutionary Council. Col spun to face the front and his heart leaped at the sight of her. Huge dark eyes, mobile mouth, hair that was black in some places and blonde in others—she was as amazing as that very first time when she’d begged to hide in his bedroom.
yyRight now, though, there was a curious catch in her throat. And when he looked, weren’t those patches of wet on her cheeks? Why? Tears over an act of sabotage?
yyHe learned the reason 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 to the front.
yyIt was 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.
yyThe crowd broke out in a hubbub of cries and moans and groans. Gripped by a dreadful foreboding, Col wished he could look away—but he couldn’t. The bloodstained cloth wasn’t large enough to cover the body properly, and the man’s feet stuck out at one end, his head at the other.
yyThe eyes were glassy and staring, the mouth wide and slack, the back of the skull had been smashed to a pulp. The face belonged to Zeb of the Revolutionary Council.