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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.
I 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 yourAdmiral 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.
Who do you become when you have nothing left to lose?
There is something Poe Blythe, the seventeen-year-old captain of the Outpost’s last mining ship, wants far more than the gold they tear from the Serpentine River.
Poe has vowed to annihilate the river raiders who robbed her of everything two years ago. But as she navigates the treacherous waters of the Serpentine and realizes there might be a traitor among her crew, she must also reckon with who she has become, who she wants to be, and the ways love can change and shape you. Even—and especially—when you think all is lost.