NAILER CLAMBERED THROUGH a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free. Ancient asbestos fibers and mouse grit puffed up around him as the wire tore loose. He scrambled deeper into the duct, jerking more wire from its aluminum staples. The staples pinged about the cramped metal passage like coins offered to the Scavenge God, and Nailer felt after them eagerly, hunting for their dull gleam and collecting them in a leather bag he kept at his waist. He yanked again at the wiring. A meter’s worth of precious copper tore loose in his hands and dust clouds enveloped him.
The LED glowpaint smeared on Nailer’s forehead gave a dim green phosphorescent view of the service ducts that made up his world. Grime and salt sweat stung his eyes and trickled around the edges of his filter mask. With one scarred hand, he swiped at the salty rivulets, careful to avoid rubbing off the LED paint. The paint itched and drove him crazy, but he didn’t relish finding his way back out of the mazelike ducts in blind blackness, so he let his forehead itch and again surveyed his position.
Rusty pipes ran ahead of him, disappearing into darkness. Some iron, some steel—heavy crew would be the ones to deal with that. Nailer only cared about the light stuff—the copper wiring, the aluminum, the nickel, the steel clips that could be sacked and dragged out through the ducts to his light crew waiting outside.
Nailer turned to continue down the service passage, but as he did he banged his head on the duct ceiling. The noise from his collision echoed loud, as if he were sitting inside a Christian church bell. Dust cascaded into his hair. Despite the filter mask, he started coughing as powder leaked in around the poorly sealed edges. He sneezed, then sneezed again, eyes watering. He pulled the mask away and wiped his face, then pressed it back over his mouth and nose, willing the stickum to seal but not holding out much hope.
The mask was a hand-me-down, given to him by his father. It itched and never sealed quite right because it was the wrong size, but it was all Nailer had. On its side, faded words said: DISCARD AFTER 40 HOURS USE. But Nailer didn’t have another, and no one else did either. He was lucky to have a mask at all, even if the microfibers were beginning to shred from repeated scrubbings in the ocean.
Sloth, his crewgirl, made fun of him whenever he washed the mask, asking why he even bothered. It just made the hellish duct work hotter and more uncomfortable. There was no point, she said. Sometimes he thought she was right. But Pima’s mother told him and Pima to use the masks no matter what, and for sure there was a lot of black grime in the filters when he immersed them in the ocean. That was the black that wasn’t in his lungs, Pima’s mother said, so he kept on with the mask, even though he felt like he was smothering every time he sucked humid tropic air through the clogged breath-wet fibers.
A voice echoed down into the duct. “You got the wire?”
Sloth. Calling in from where she waited outside.
“Almost done!” Nailer scrambled a little farther into the duct, ripping more staples, hurriedly yanking extra copper loose. The duct’s passage went on, but he had enough. He slashed the wire free with the serrated back of his work knife.
“We’re good!” he shouted.
Sloth’s acknowledging shout echoed back. “Clear!”
The wire whipped away from him, slithering through the crawlspaces, raising dust clouds as it moved. Far down the maze of ducts, Sloth was cranking away at a winding drum, sweat bright on her skin, blond hair pasted slick to her face as she sucked the wire out like a rice noodle from a bowl of Chen’s soup ration.
Nailer took his knife and hacked Bapi’s light crew code above the place where he had clipped the wire. The symbol matched the swirling tattoos on Nailer’s cheeks, the labor marks that gave him a right to work the wrecks under Bapi’s supervision. Nailer took out a bit of powdered paint and spit on it, mixing it in his palm, before smearing it over the mark. Now, even from a distance, his scratches gave off an iridescent glow. He used his finger and the remaining paint to write a string of memorized numerals below the symbol: LC57-1844. Bapi’s permit code. No one else was competing for this stretch right now, but it was good to mark the territory.
Nailer gathered the rest of the aluminum staples and scuttled back through the ducting on hands and knees, skirting weak points where the metal wasn’t well supported, listening to his own echoes and thumps and ringing taps against the steel as he hustled out, all his senses testing for signs that the ducts might break.
His little phosphor LED showed the dust snake slither where the copper cables had gone before him. He crawled over desiccated rat bodies and their nests. Even here, in the belly of an old oil tanker, there were rats, but these ones had died a long time ago. He crawled over more bones, small ones that came from cats and bits of birds. Feathers and fluff floated in the air. This close to the outside world, the access ducts were a graveyard for all sorts of lost creatures.
Ahead, sunlight showed, a glaring brightness. Nailer squinted as he clawed toward the light, thinking that this was what rebirth must be like for the Life Cult, this climbing toward blazing clean sunshine, and then he spilled out of the duct and onto hot steel decking.
He tore off his mask, gasping.
Bright tropic sunlight and ocean salt breezes bathed him. All around, sledgehammers rang against iron as swarms of men and women clambered over the ancient oil tanker, tearing it apart. Heavy crews peeled away iron panels with acetylene torches and sent them wafting off the sides like palm leaves, crashing to the beach sands below, where more crews dragged the scavenge above high tide. Light crews like Nailer’s tore at the ship’s small fittings, stripping copper, brass, nickel, aluminum, and stainless steel. Others hunted for hidden petrol and ship oil pockets, bucketing out the valuable fluid. An ant’s nest of activity, all dedicated to rendering this extinct ship’s bones into something usable for a new world.
“Took you long enough,” Sloth said.
She hammered at their spool’s securing clips, releasing it from the winding spindle. Her pale skin gleamed in the sunlight, her own swirling work tattoos almost black against the flush of her cheeks. Sweat ran down her neck. Her blond hair was chopped short, much like his own, to keep it from catching in the thousands of crevices and whirling bits of machinery that studded their work place.
“We’re in deep,” Nailer said. “Plenty of service wiring, but it takes a long time to get to it.”
“You always got an excuse.”
“Quit complaining. We’ll make quota.”
“We better,” Sloth said. “Bapi’s saying there’s another light crew buying scavenge rights.”
Nailer made a face. “Big surprise.”
“Yeah. This was too good to last for long. Gimme a hand.”
Nailer got on the other side of the spool. They lifted it from its spindle, grunting. Together, they tipped the spool sidewise and let it fall to the rusted deck with a clang. Shoulder to shoulder, they leaned into the weight, legs flexing, teeth gritted.
The spool slowly began to roll. Nailer’s bare feet burned against the sun-blasted decking. The cant of the ship made for hard pushing, but under their combined effort, the spool slowly rumbled forward, crunching over blistered preservative paint and loosened metal deck plates.
From the height of the tanker’s deck, Bright Sands Beach stretched into the distance, a tarred expanse of sand and puddled seawater, littered with the savaged bodies of other oil tankers and freighters. Some were completely whole, as if crazy sea captains had simply decided to steer the kilometer-long ships onto the sand and then walked away. Others were flayed and stripped, showing rusty iron girder bones. Hulls lay like chunks of cleavered fish: a conning tower here, a crew quarters there, the prow of an oil tanker pointing straight up to the sky.
It was as if the Scavenge God had come amongst the ships, slashing and chopping, dicing the huge iron vessels into pieces, and then left the corpses scattered carelessly behind. And wherever the huge ships lay, scavenge gangs like Nailer’s swarmed like flies. Chewing away at iron meat and bones. Dragging the old world’s flesh up the beach to the scrap weighing scales and the recycling smelters that burned 24-7 for the profit of Lawson & Carlson, the company that made all the cash from the blood and sweat of the ship breakers.
Nailer and Sloth paused for a moment, breathing hard, leaning against the heavy spool. Nailer wiped the sweat out of his eyes. Far out on the horizon, the oily black of the ocean turned blue, reflecting sky and sun. White caps foamed. The air around Nailer was hazed with the black work of shoreline smelters, but out there, beyond the smoke, he could see sails. The new clipper ships. Replacements for the massive coal- and oil-burning wrecks that he and his crew worked to destroy all day long: gull-white sails, carbon-fiber hulls, and faster than anything except a maglev train.
Nailer’s eyes followed a clipper ship as it sliced across the waters, sleek and fast and completely out of reach. It was possible that some of the copper on his spool would eventually sail away on a ship like that, first hauled by train to the Orleans, then transferred to a clipper’s cargo hold, where it would be carried across the ocean to whatever people or country could afford the scavenge.
Bapi had a poster of a clipper ship from Libeskind, Brown & Mohanraj. It connected to his reusable wall calendar and showed a clipper with high-altitude parasails extended far above it—sails that Bapi said could reach the jet streams and yank a clipper across smooth ocean at more than fifty-five knots, flying above the waves on hydrofoils, tearing through foam and salt water, slicing across the ocean to Africa and India, to the Europeans and the Nipponese.
Nailer stared at the distant sails hungrily, wondering at the places they went, and whether any of them were better than his own.
“Nailer! Sloth! Where the hell have you been?”
Nailer jerked from his reverie. Pima was waving up at them from the tanker’s lower deck, looking annoyed.
“We’re waiting for you, crewboy!”
“Boss girl on the prowl,” Sloth muttered.
Nailer grimaced. Pima was the oldest of them, and it made her bossy. Even his own long friendship with her didn’t shelter him when they were behind quota.
He and Sloth turned their attention back to the spool. With another series of grunts they heaved it over the ship’s warped decking and rolled it to where a rudimentary crane had been set up. They hitched the spool to rusted iron hooks, then grabbed the crane cable and jumped aboard the spool as it descended, swaying and spinning to the lower deck.
Pima and the rest of the light crew swarmed around them as they hit bottom. They unclipped the spool and rolled it over to where they’d set up their stripping operation near the oil tanker’s prow. Lengths of discarded insulation from the electrical wire lay everywhere, along with the gleaming rolls of copper that they’d collected, stacked in careful lines, and marked with Bapi’s light crew claim mark, the same swirled symbol that scarred all their cheeks.
Everyone started unreeling sections of Nailer’s new haul, parting the lengths out amongst themselves. They worked quickly, accustomed to one another and the labor: Pima, their boss girl, taller than the rest and filling out like a woman, black as oil and hard as iron. Sloth, skinny and pale, bones and knots of knees and dirty blond hair, the next candidate for duct-and-scuttle work when Nailer got too big, her pale skin almost permanently sunburned and peeling. Moon Girl, the shade of brown rice, whose nailshed mother had died with the last run of malaria and who worked light crew harder than anyone else because she’d seen the alternative, her ears and lips and nose decorated with scavenged steel wire that she’d driven through her flesh in the hope that no one would ever want her the way they’d wanted her mother. Tick-tock, nearsighted and always squinting at everything around him, almost as black as Pima but nowhere near as smart, fast with his hands as long as you told him what do with them, and he never got bored. Pearly, the Hindu who told them stories about Shiva and Kali and Krishna and who was lucky enough to have both a mother and a father who worked oil scavenge; black hair and dark tropic skin and a hand missing three fingers from an accident with the winding drum.
And then there was Nailer. Some people, like Pearly, knew who they were and where they came from. Pima knew her mother came up from the last of the islands across the Gulf. Pearly told everyone who would listen that he was 100 percent Indian—Hindu Marwari through and through. Even Sloth said that her people were Irish. Nailer was nothing like that. He had no idea what he was. Half of something, a quarter of something else, brown skin and black hair like his dead mother, but with weird pale blue eyes like his father.
Pearly had taken one look at Nailer’s pale eyes and claimed he was spawned by demons. But Pearly made things up all the time. He said Pima was Kali reincarnated—which was why her skin was so black, and why she was so damn mean when they were behind quota. Even so, the truth was that Nailer shared his father’s eyes and his father’s wiry build, and Richard Lopez was a demon for sure. No one could argue that. Sober, the man was scary. Drunk, he was a demon.
Nailer unwound a section of wire and squatted down on the blazing deck. He crimped the wire with his pliers and ripped off a sleeve of insulation, revealing the shining copper core.
Did it again. And again.
Pima squatted beside him with her own length of wire. “Took you long enough to bring out this load.”
Nailer shrugged. “Nothing’s close in anymore. I had to go a long way to find it.”
“That’s what you always say.”
“You want to go into the hole, you can.”
“I’ll go in,” Sloth volunteered.
Nailer gave her a dirty look. Pearly snorted. “You don’t have the sense of a half-man. You’d get lost like Jackson Boy and then we’d get no scavenge at all.”
Sloth made a sharp gesture. “Grind it, Pearly. I never get lost.”
“Even in the dark? When all the ducts look the same?” Pearly spat toward the edge of the ship. Missed and hit the rail instead. “Crews on Deep Blue III heard Jackson Boy calling out for days. Couldn’t find him, though. Little licebiter finally just dried up and died.”
“Bad way to go,” Tick-tock commented. “Thirsty. In the dark. Alone.”
“Shut up, you two,” Moon Girl said. “You want the dead to hear you calling?”
Pearly shrugged. “We’re just saying Nailer always makes quota.”
“Shit.” Sloth ran a hand through sweaty blond hair. “I’d get twenty times the scavenge Nailer gets.”
Nailer laughed. “Go on in, then. We’ll see if you come out alive.”
“You already filled the spool.”
“Tough grind for you, then.”
Pima tapped Nailer’s shoulder. “I’m serious about the scavenge. We had downtime waiting for you.”
Nailer met Pima’s eyes. “I make quota. You don’t like my work, then go in yourself.”
Pima pursed her lips, annoyed. It was an empty suggestion, and they both knew it. She’d gotten too big, and had the scabs and scars on her spine and elbows and knees to prove it. Light crew needed small bodies. Most kids got bounced off the crew by the time they hit their midteens, even if they starved themselves to keep their size down. If Pima weren’t such a good crew boss, she’d already be on the beach, hungry and begging for anything that came her way. Instead, she had another year, maybe, to bulk up enough to compete against hundreds of others for openings in heavy crew. But her time was running out, and everyone knew it.
Pima said, “You wouldn’t be so cocky if your dad wasn’t such a whip-wire. You’d be in the same position as me.”
“Well, that’s one thing I can thank him for, then.”
If his father was any indication, Nailer would never be huge. Fast, maybe, but never big. Tick-tock’s dad claimed that none of them would grow that big anyway, because of the calories they didn’t eat. Said that people up in Seascape Boston were still tall, though. Had plenty of money, and plenty of food. Never went hungry. Got fat and tall…
Nailer had felt his belly up against his spine enough times that he wondered what it would be like to have so much food. Wondered how it would feel to never wake in the middle of the night with his teeth chewing on his lips, fooling himself into thinking that he was about to eat meat. But it was a stupid fantasy. Seascape Boston sounded a little too much like Christian Heaven, or the way the Scavenge God promised a life of ease, if you could just find the right offering to burn with your body when you went to his scales.
Either way, you had to die to get there.
The work went on. Nailer stripped more wire, tossing the junk insulation over the ship’s side. The sun beat down on everyone. Their skins gleamed. Salt sweat jewels soaked their hair and dripped into their eyes. Their hands turned slick with work, and their crew tattoos shone like intricate knots on their flushed faces. For a little while they talked and joked but gradually fell silent, working the rhythm of scavenge, building piles of copper for whoever was rich enough to afford it.
“Boss man coming!”
The warning call came up from the waters below. Everyone hunkered down, looking busy, waiting to see who would appear at the rail. If it was someone else’s boss, they could relax—
Nailer grimaced as their crew boss clambered up over the rail, huffing. His black hair gleamed, and his potbelly made it hard for him to climb, but there was money involved, so the bastard managed.
Bapi leaned against the rail, regaining his breath. Sweat darkened the tank top that he wore for work. Yellow and brown stains of whatever curry or sandwich he’d eaten for lunch dotted the material. It made Nailer hungry just looking at all that food on Bapi’s chest, but there was no meal coming until evening, and there was no point looking at food Bapi would never share.
Bapi’s quick brown eyes studied them, alert for signs that they’d gone lazy and weren’t serious about scavenging for quota. Even though none of them had been idle before, with Bapi watching they all worked faster, trying to demonstrate they were worth keeping. Bapi had been light crew himself once; he knew their ways, knew the tricks of laziness. It made him dangerous.
“What you got?” he asked Pima.
Pima glanced up, squinting into the sun. “Copper. Lots. Nailer found new ducts that Gorgeous’s crew missed.”
Bapi’s teeth flashed white, showing the front gap where a fight had cost him his incisors. “How much?”
Pima jerked her head at Nailer, giving him permission.
“Maybe hundred, hundred and twenty kilos so far,” Nailer estimated. “There’s more down there.”
“Yeah?” Bapi nodded. “Well, hurry and get it out. Don’t worry about stripping it. Just make sure you get it all.” He looked out toward the horizon. “Lawson & Carlson says a storm’s coming. Big one. We’re going to be off the wrecks for a couple days. I want enough wire that you can work it on the sand.”
Nailer stifled his distaste at the thought of going back down into the blackness, but Bapi must have caught something of his expression.
“Got a problem, Nailer? You think a storm means you get to sit on your ass?” Bapi waved toward the work camps strung along the beach’s jungle edge. “You think I can’t get a hundred other licebiters to take your place? There’s kids down there who’d let me cut out an eye if it would get them up on a wreck.”
Pima interceded. “He’s got no problem. You want the wire, we’ll get it. No problem.” She glared at Nailer. “We’re your crew, boss. No problem at all.”
They all nodded emphatically. Nailer got to his feet and handed the rest of his wire over to Tick-tock. “No problem, boss,” he repeated.
Bapi scowled at Nailer. “You sure you vouch for him, Pima? I can put a knife through this one’s crew tats and dump him on the sand.”
“He’s good scavenge,” she said. “We’re ahead on quota ’cause of him.”
“Yeah?” Bapi relented slightly. “Well, you’re boss girl. I don’t interfere.” He eyed Nailer. “You watch it, boy. I know how your kind thinks. Always imagining you’re going to be a Lucky Strike. Pretending you’ll find some big old oil pocket and never work another day in your life. Your old man was a lazy bastard like that. Look how he turned out.”
Nailer felt a rising anger. “I don’t talk about your dad.”
Bapi laughed. “What? You gonna fight me, boy? Try and pigstick me from behind the way your old man would?” Bapi touched his knife. “Pima vouches for you, but I’m wondering if you got the sense to know how much of a favor she’s doing.”
“Let it go, Nailer,” Pima urged. “Your dad’s not worth it.”
Bapi watched, smiling slightly. His hand lingered close to his knife. Bapi had all the cards, and they both knew it. Nailer ducked his head and forced down his anger.
“I’ll get your scavenge, boss. No problem.”
Bapi gave Nailer a sharp nod. “Smarter than your old man, then.” He turned to the rest of the crew. “Listen up, everyone. We don’t have a lot of time. If you get the extra scavenge out before the storm, I’ll bonus you. There’s another light crew coming on soon. We don’t want to leave them any easy pickings, right?”
He grinned, feral, and they all nodded back. “No easy pickings,” they echoed.
Excerpted from Ship Breaker by Bacigalupi, Paolo Copyright © 2010 by Bacigalupi, Paolo. Excerpted by permission.
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