Hes finishing his chat with the last shivering lookout, Able Seaman Shanks, when Private Wilkes, the youngest of the Marines aboard, comes rushing out from under the canvas. Wilkes has thrown on only two loose layers over his uniform, and his teeth begin chattering even before he delivers his message.
Mr. Thompsons compliments to the captain, sir, and the engineer says that the captain should come down to the hold as quick as you might.
Why? If the boiler has finally broken down, Crozier knows, they are all dead.
Begging the captains pardon, sir, but Mr. Thompson says that the captain is needed because Seaman Manson is near to mutiny, sir.
Crozier stands up straight. Mutiny?
Near to it were Mr. Thompsons words, sir.
Speak English, Private Wilkes.
Manson wont carry no more sacks of coal past the Dead Room, sir. Nor go down in the hold no more. He says he respectfully refuses, Captain. He wont come up, but hes sitting on his arse at the bottom of the man-ladder and wont carry no more coal back to the boiler room.
What is this nonsense? Crozier feels the first stirrings of a familiar dark Irish anger.
Its the ghosts, Captain, says Marine Private Wilkes through chattering teeth. We all hear em when were hauling coal or fetching something from deep stores. Its why the men wont go down there below orlop deck no more unless the officers order em to, sir. Somethings down there in the hold, in the dark. Somethings been scratching and banging from inside the ship, Captain. It aint just the ice. Mansons sure its his old mate Walker, him it and the other corpses stacked there in the Dead Room, clawing to get out.
Crozier checks his impulse to reassure the Marine private with facts. Young Wilkes might not find the facts so reassuring.
The first simple fact is that the scrabbling noise from the Dead Room is almost certainly the hundreds or thousands of large black rats feasting on Wilkess frozen comrades. The Norway rats as Crozier knows better than the young Marine are nocturnal, which means that theyre active day and night during the long arctic winter, and the creatures have teeth which constantly keep growing. This, in turn, means the God-damned vermin have to keep chewing. He has seen them chew through Royal Navy oak barrels, inch-thick tins, and even lead plating. The rats are having no more trouble down there with the frozen remains of Seaman Walker and his five unlucky comrades including three of Croziers finest officers than a man would have chewing on a strip of frigid salted beef.
But Crozier doesnt think its only the rats that Manson and the others are hearing.
Rats, as Crozier knows from the sad experience of thirteen winters in the ice, tend to eat ones friends quietly and efficiently, except for their frequent screeching as the blood-maddened and ravenous vermin turn on one another.
Its something else making the clawing and banging noises down on hold deck.
What Crozier decides not to remind Private Wilkes of is the second simple fact: while the lowest deck would normally be cold but safe there beneath the waterline or winter line of frozen sea ice, the pressure from the ice has forced Terrors stern more than a dozen feet higher than it should be. The hull there is still locked in, but only by several hundred heaped tons of jagged sea ice and the added tons of snow the men have piled alongside to within a few feet of the railings so as to provide more insulation during the winter.
Something, Francis Crozier suspects, has dug down through these tons of snow and tunneled through the iron-hard slabs of ice to get at the hull of the ship. Somehow the thing has sensed which parts of the interior along the hull, such as the water-storage tanks, are lined with iron, and has found one of the few hollow outside storage areas the Dead Room that leads directly into the ship. And now its banging and clawing to get in.
Copyright © 2007 by Dan Simmons. Reproduced with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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